How to Get Politicians to Admit in Public That the Drug War Has Been a Complete Failure
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By utilizing a non-binding, anonymous straw poll, elected officials can express their true leanings without feeling the political backlash from myriad sources. While such a measure would have to be used as a “non-binding procedural aid” (the Constitution requires a recorded vote if one-fifth of the quorum requests it), an anonymous straw poll can produce surprising results and offer political cover during the debate over the real vote. Oscar Wilde once said that if you give a man a mask, he will tell you the truth. This temporary “veil of conscience” would allow members of Congress to express their true sentiments without crossing their party leadership, political donors, lobbyists and even their own electorate. For one brief moment, politicians can vote for the nonpartisan common good as they truly perceive it.
If the straw poll results show there is considerable dissension regarding a third-rail issue, then members who wish to vote against it can argue they represent the true majority of Congress. To be blunt, many of our elected leaders are essentially herd animals. When they detect significant movement, they often follow because there is political safety in numbers. In this way, anonymous straw polls potentially can become the catalyst for a stampede. It is a way to manufacture a tipping point that may already exist, but in nascent form.
In theory, this could be used for nefarious purposes. But if one party wanted to conspire to sway the vote, how could the party leadership enforce voting discipline with a secret ballot? Moreover, how can a loyal party partisan game the system to take credit when they can’t prove which way he voted? The concept is not unlike a traditional firing squad where one shooter is randomly given a rifle with a blank cartridge so the group can sleep with an easier conscience – at least in theory. In anonymity, honesty can emerge long enough for elected officials to realize they are in fact in a “closeted” majority.
This exercise in distributed responsibility could provide the solution for Congress to address other polarizing issues such as economic restructuring due to climate change, national health care or authorizations for war. It can also be used to quickly dispense with election-year gimmicks (silly season, as candidate Obama called it) such as anti-flag burning amendments.
Every politician understands what is in his or her short-term interest. They know what the party leadership wants, what their campaign contributors want, and what lobbyists want. At what point does the long-term interest of the nation as a whole come into play? Who represents the interests of future generations? Today, our future is determined by cowardly politicians who can only think as far as the next election. Our economy is guided by short-sighted corporations that only care about hitting their quarterly numbers, lest their stock nosedives and they get taken over by a rival corporation.
An anonymous straw poll can create a temporary firewall separating politics from policies—or what Scott McClellan, George W. Bush’s former White House press secretary, called “the permanent campaign.” Indeed, this may be the only viable way to undo the polarizing legacy of Karl Rove. With so many crises to address and such powerful interests opposing reforms, Washington cannot afford to play partisan games and conduct business as usual. Those who were elected based on a pledge of a “different kind of politics” in a year of “change” should consider this method of cutting the Gordian knot and breaking the logjam in Washington.
Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. and directs its Drug Policy Project.