4 Prescriptions for an Ailing Body Politic
In the daily shotgun blasts of talking heads, who frame most issues into win-or-lose dichotomies, it seems clear that as a nation we have failed to publicly analyze some core problems with our version of democracy. The central problem is that less than 50% of our citizens exercise their franchise to vote. This silent protest about the futility of participating in politics as they are currently organized and funded has a poisonous corollary, allowing a dedicated minority to co-opt the political process with slightly over 20% of the total possible vote.
There appears to be near unanimous agreement about the ills, divisions and lack of involvement of our political system, yet in reviewing complaints on the subject I am repeatedly struck by how four critical factors are consistently framed out of all conversations and considerations, never discussed in any manner.
What follows is a brief review of those four factors, and suggestions as to how, by revising them, we might reinvigorate our democracy and restore voter faith in our system.
1. TV news should be non-profit subdivisions of their networks in return for access to public airways.
Readers who did not mature in the era of clear, useful, unadorned news reporting, delivered by composed personalities like Huntley and Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite might be surprised to learn that there was once a period in American television when the news hour was nearly universally watched and trusted. When Walter Cronkite soured on the Vietnam War, so did the nation. Each network news division was equivalent to the elegant hood-ornament of a stately automobile, symbolizing the quality and probity of the corporate parent, a value-added component to the corporate logo. In the 1960s, William Paley, chairman of CBS, once addressed his news division and told them not to worry about money saying, “I have Jack Benny to make money.” In that day and age, the church of the news was safely separated from the state of entertainment.
Of course, a perfect America without conflict and compromise never existed, but generally the news was regarded as a sacred trust, which most people understood to be the critical lynchpin holding together a functioning democracy. Indeed, how could an uneducated or misinformed public possibly understand nuances of public policy, discriminate sincere from insincere candidates and good ideas from bad, if they did not understand the issues?
In the 1970s and ‘80s those once sacred barriers eroded and collapsed. The unexpected success of “60 Minutes” changed everything, most pertinently the nature of American news broadcasts, which were transformed into entertainment disguised as news. The public’s need to know was no longer relevant to magazine-style reporting on dramatic events, scandals and closed-case murders, that might be years old by broadcast time.
In those increasingly competitive decades, networks began insisting that news shows contribute to corporate coffers, and as a consequence, Donald Trump is president. This last assertion may appear to be a leap, but the connections are clear: news outlets—not all corporate, but all with an incentive to reap harvests of eyeballs in pursuit of enhanced revenues—inevitably (and unerringly) lowered the bar of relevance to concentrate on drama, fear and suspense (if it bleeds, it leads), stories with sure-fire hooks to grab distracted and overstimulated eyeballs.
The elevated audience numbers justified the wresting of increased billings from advertisers and generated the vast (and free) plethora of Donald Trump airtime that vanquished his competitors and assured his electoral victory. The culpability of the news media in his victory accounts for the current obsessive, non-stop post-election criticism of Trump from all those attractive talking heads, ensuring that the Great Dissembler remains the dominant news story all day, every day.
Furthermore, in today’s media landscape the networks are no longer the single source for news. Cable TV, the internet, blogs, and assorted cranks churn out reams of data, assertion and falsehoods to the degree that it is nearly impossible to fight the tide of false information corrupting our public dialogues. The "news" has simply become an issue of personal taste and tribal membership.
It’s in the deepest, long-term interest of the American people to have news they need to know presented in the most objective, least feverish manner. It takes no more than 15 seconds of comparing nearly any American anchor to their Canadian or British counterpart to see how hyperbolic our newsreaders have become, executing the dual responsibility of fanning the flames of drama to sell the news while reading it. Part of this emotional inflated speech is also due to an unquestioned belief in the hyper-importance of everything American, leading ultimately to our domestic issues being virtually the only item covered exhaustively on the news.
It seems critical to national health to demand that people profiting from the dissemination of information (supposedly in the public interest) be regulated to the degree that failure to adequately source and prove assertions should be the grounds for costing them their soap-box. Such monitoring might require further responsibilities for the FCC or we could return the pre-Clinton administration ownership of the airwaves over to citizens and enable them to attend licensing hearings and register complaints that could close down websites, blogs and transmissions that are patently and consistently false.
I once heard a guest on a PBS talk show say, “You either regulate or you subsidize.” He was discussing rebuilding in flood zones, asserting that once flood-damaged houses are repaired, the damage will reoccur in the next storm. By failing to regulate where people can and cannot build, government is forced into an endless cycles of subsidizing rescue and rebuilding efforts.
One could make the same argument about any number of issues from health care to industrial waste. If we allow our airwaves and computers to be flooded with propaganda and false information, we will be forced into subsidizing the consequences of, say, our current president and the possibility that his intemperate speech and distorted facts could produce a nuclear war.
In the province of the internet, the wild west of unregulated information, opinion and fake news, the public will continue to be vulnerable to propaganda assaults, divisive fake news, rudeness and bullying, without criteria to determine what is a reliable or an unreliable source. We regulate or we subsidize by all paying the costs of a neurotically divided and bitter republic.
It follows that given the critical nature of reliable information, the people, through tax policies, should bear the cost of objective news by allowing networks (online or off) to make their news divisions non-profit, offering them a tax break to offset the losses of revenue which would follow. This could be one way for citizens to reclaim some control over their own airwaves.
As in the above-ground media, some system of fact-checking needs to attend every news-oriented website. In the same way that restaurants, in the interests of public health, are forced to display their grades from the health department, media sources should be publicly graded for reliability and must be impelled to keep that grade prominent in their expression. They must be able to source information, and if they cannot or will not, they should no longer have access to public airwaves and communication.
Such regulations would not apply to opinion pieces, which are constitutionally guaranteed. However, assertions of fact on which the opinions are based should be provable, or the promulgators should suffer censure.
Anonymous internet communications are the death of civility. It is so easy to hide behind a fake name. When one remains unaccountable, and masked by invisibility, civility dies. Why should people be allowed to bully, cite unsourced information and offer opinions without a name? Our courts have found that even the Fifth Amendment has necessary limits. Our country prides itself on protection of minorities. Unless one is a whistle blower or a leaker facing retribution, there seems to be no good reason why people are routinely offered the cover of anonymity on the internet.
Huge corporations like Facebook, Yahoo, Instagram, and Google should be held responsible for the ads they take and the information they forward on their websites. It is counter-productive to plead that one is simply an unregulated valve for conversations, when their massive platforms are being used as trampolines to inject the propaganda of foreign adversaries into the midst of our election machinery. Their scale alone should make them subject to some regulation. If we don’t regulate, we will have to subsidize, as we are currently subsidizing the costs of the Russian intrusion into our last presidential election.
2. Public funding of elections.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If objective news reporting contributes to the health and well being of the body politic and should therefore be supported by taxpayers, it follows that political elections ought to be paid for by taxpayers as well. What could be more critical to public policy than weaning candidates from the 1/10th of 1% of the nation’s wealthiest people currently paying for the majority of both Democratic and Republican electoral campaigns?
Given the logic that depends on the need to raise millions (or billions) of dollars to wage successful campaigns, the responsibility of political candidates has been reduced to simply securing the keys to the public treasury. Then they can begin their real work of repaying their donors with invisible (to the public) tax-law adjustments and perks and sending aides to corporate offices to instruct them how to thread their way through onerous legislation.
To this end, candidates run focus groups to discover the buzzwords and issues to convey them to Washington. The endless political minutia reported by our national news media offer voters precious little besides personality, the drama of the horse race, and hyperbolic analysis of candidates’ strategies for winning, as opposed to their policies for governing.
In most European countries candidates are offered equal amounts of money from public coffers. Candidates appear on every television network in unstructured debates (no minders or handlers, and they are allowed to ask one another questions). The public reviews them for a manageable six weeks. Three weeks before elections, all polling is prohibited. Nearly 70% of Europeans vote, as opposed to the paltry 55.5% of our own citizens who voted in 2016.
A positive byproduct of public funding would be the ease of creating third and alternative political parties. The current deadlock of the Republican/Democratic parties’ hold on ideas, dialogue and the definition of issues and options, run the gamut from A to C. Compare and contrast this to parliamentary systems where every shade of the political spectrum is represented and the public can pick, choose and meld to create adequate representation for their needs.
With public funding, regulation and law should ensure that once in office, senators and members of Congress be prohibited from accepting gifts, tickets to events, extravagant speaking fees, junkets and every other form of scantily clad bribery. Serving the nation is public service, not a headstart for one’s retirement. Let us also prohibit them from working for any corporation or agency they ever supervised during their tenure, for five to eight years after leaving office, to ensure that their first post-government employment is not simply a corporate reward for generous congressional largesse. If elected representatives are supposed to work for the people, the people should pay them.
3. The end of gerrymandering.
Both Democrats and Republicans have colluded to rig election districts to favor their own party members from the same political spectrum. This protects reelection for over 90% of incumbents— a reelection rate rivaled by the Soviet Union and tin-pot African countries. We need to ensure that voting districts resemble as closely as possible the makeup and diversity of the American public so that candidates are forced to craft compromises, rather than preach division to the choir which results in making ALL voices more radical and obdurate and has produced the vitriolic atmosphere presently corroding our political process.
How to combat this is difficult, but if we would move toward more plurality in our election system, committees to review gerrymandering should at least ensure representatives of the entire political spectrum be present to supervise and/or participate in reviewing voter rolls to determine legislative parity. As of this moment, only Republicans and Democrats appear to have a voice. What about Independents? The Green Party? Socialist Labor Party? Libertarians, minorities? One might argue that they are too small to matter, but in aggregate they may also be a large part of the 50% of the population currently boycotting the vote.
All voters have a stake in ensuring equitable distribution of population within districts. Unless this process becomes transparent and publicly witnessed, the results will continue to be deals between the two major parties to deep-six independent candidates. Ask Bernie Sanders.
Furthermore, as a nation, it is urgent to make elections simpler and cheaper so that less-wealthy and diverse candidates might qualify for public office—perhaps a $2,500 filing fee and 500 supporters on a petition could qualify a person for the first round of primaries. That would probably flood the parched political landscape with new ideas, fresh faces and more economically diverse souls. Of course many would shake out, and there would be the usual assortment of wingnuts and dim bulbs that might receive first-level funding, but we have them now; they’re just better dressed. Besides, that’s what primaries are for sorting out.
Alternative voting systems exist which minimize unfair advantages. The news could be discussing and analyzing single transferable vote, the Borda count, cumulative voting and several others that offer voters either a number of votes to cast for different candidates, or to rank their preferences so if a first choice fails, their second choice might win. These systems are inherently more democratic than our current winner-take-all system, which prevents minority populations from ever electing representatives to reflect their interests.
Some would suggest that the people are not sophisticated enough to understand such issues, but I remind them that in the early days of the 20th century, Farmer’s Grange meetings were debating the gold-standard and monetary policy in public meetings. No idea clearly expressed is beyond the reach of our citizens’ understanding. If you doubt that, look at the success the military has training many young men and women with little education to run sophisticated and complicated systems.
Alterations like these would also simplify run-offs and primaries. Each has flaws (as does our own system), but since our last two Republican presidential candidates triumphed in spite of claiming only a minority of votes, some discussion of how we vote and how we protect the integrity of the vote are overdue.
4. Prohibiting corporations from spending their treasure to influence public policy for the benefit of their shareholders.
Any American employee of a corporation is free to vote and contribute politically as they will. Why, however, do we allow corporations (fictional humans) to dedicate their vast resources to alter public policy to serve their shareholders, often at the expense of sound public policy? It may be consistent with their fiduciary responsibilities, but such policies distort and pose very real dangers to public life.
The people are not served when a corporation can legally evade fiscal and social responsibilities by off-loading toxic discharges in public waters, destroying public watersheds and aquifers by fracking, adding potentially dangerous substances to food, and filling valleys with mountaintops that once blocked corporate access to coal seams. One might also add the blocking of investment in public water systems so that people have no option but to buy plastic-wrapped corporate water while the corporations remain insulated from responsibility for the consequential byproducts of landfill and ocean-clotting waste.
These ills have come to pass sheltered beneath the umbrella of privatized elections. It is not an exaggeration to assert that virtually the entire Congress has been conscripted as a concierge to corporate interests. Ending this disenfranchisement of the majority by federal funding of elections should address many such myriad problems.
Obviously, there is no system so clever that humans cannot foil it. Nothing will ever assure us perfection, but that does not mean we cannot analyze the weak joints and design flaws of our current system and struggle to correct and make them more responsive to current conditions. I doubt that framers of the U.S. Constitution could have envisioned a future that included fully automatic machine guns in the hands of the hoi polloi they struggled so hard to segregate from power. Why not make some serious attempts to refine and clarify our system for today’s needs? Only those currently benefiting from its flaws and loopholes will be opposed. That’s the easy way to recognize them. Regulate or subsidize.
Taking stock of the benefits
Everything has a shadow, and there will be unintended consequences of these proposed changes. They are inevitable. However, in assessing them, let’s take some stock of the benefits they might afford us.
Non-profit news supported by the general public should broaden the scope and depth of critical information and policies that may not be easily marketable. The general public may not be too interested in the extent of Chinese investment in Africa and India, but if they were fully informed of the consequences, they might better understand foreign aid and support American efforts to balance Chinese spending with our own.
Investigating the nuances behind the word “immigrants” (technically anyone not a Native American) and balancing such investigations with facts about the contributions and crime rates of immigrants could have a positive, fact-based effect on public dialogue. The same would be true for global warming and nuclear weapons. These are easily the most ominous threats to future human well-being, currently masked by millions of dollars of anti-science propaganda by the coal and petroleum institutes and their concierges in Congress. With more information about the rest of the world relayed to our citizens, we might begin to understand why we are so often misunderstood and hated or understood and hated. How can America possibly be a world leader if our citizens know so little about the world?
Public funding of elections could shift the focus of elected officials from their richest donors to actual service of their constituents. It would free them of the onerous burden of fundraising and enforced obsequiousness to the demands of donors. Lowering the legibility limits for elections would broaden the field from which minds and voices might be drafted, offering voters a larger spectrum than the stultifying Democratic-Republican split.
The end of gerrymandering might begin the process of consolidation and healing of extreme vitriol in political dialogue. When candidates are forced to compromise to attract the widest spectrum of voters in open districts, the results will be less partisan and ideological. It is only within a field with very narrow differences, that candidates must be excessively dramatic and judgmental to distinguish themselves from the field.
Finally, prohibiting corporations from spending their tax-advantaged treasure to alter public policy for the benefit of their shareholders would level the playing field between massed corporate power and the voters. If the corporations are not securing congressmembers and senators as their personal vassals, candidates will remain freer to determine and support policies that actually help the majority of their constituents.
Failing core changes like these, I perceive little chance of any consequential change for the better in our public life. Such changes will have to be fueled by public demand, since I cannot imagine a scenario where the political class will voluntarily remove their snouts from the feeding troughs. It would not be difficult to print petitions online and make them available to citizens to distribute at supermarkets, high-school sports events, rotary clubs, etc., vowing support to candidates who would agree to such changes and pledging opposition (and higher campaign costs) to those who refuse. It is difficult to ignore a petition with 100,000 names on it when you are considering your next run for office. Such a campaign could be organized locally by local people addressing their elected officials.
I offer the above as a starter kit for dialogue. Greater minds than my own will have to handle the nuances and the unforeseen consequences, but even an ordinary mind like mine can see the core, overlooked and unmentionable problems currently assailing us. If you don’t like my ideas and solutions, what are some of your own?