The non-government of the United States

Govern: to exercise continuous sovereign authority over; especially: to control and direct the making and administration of policy in

Egypt is now a democracy, sort of, if democracy means letting the military govern a country for six months or so until elections can be held and if the military then actually cedes power to a real republic. Hoping for a democracy in Bahrain, oppressed Shi’ites attempted to create their Tahrir Square by occupying a traffic circle. The government there decided it had learned a lesson from Egypt’s protests: crack down fast and rule by violence, resulting in numerous deaths. Meanwhile, in Iran rabid Islamists want to try and execute protestors who recently demonstrated for more freedom there. The trend is the same: whether it is Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan or even the West Bank, the Muslim world wants freedom, democracy and government that executes the will of its people.

Freedom is good, but about that democracy thing: it is at best a mixed blessing. Just because you have a democracy doesn’t mean that those running it will choose to actually govern. So be careful what you wish for. Egyptians, you may find yourselves longing for a little honest oppression after you try governing yourselves as a republic, because it is often a very messy process. As we here in the United States can attest, republics sure aren’t all they are cracked up to be. In fact, they tend toward dysfunction, with parties jockeying endlessly for power using all means, fair, unfair and often illegal.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got— a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Two hundred and twenty four years later, you have to look at the mess we call our republic and wonder if maybe a monarchy would have been an improvement. If we had a king, perhaps he could at least shame our Congress into doing its job. For if a government is to work, it has to actually govern.

Here in the United States, governing is so 20th century. Today, there is no guarantee that an agency will have an appropriated spending bill, even by the end of their fiscal year. Instead, you will get one continuing resolution after another, usually based on last year’s funding. CRs are Congress’ way of telling the nation it cannot do its job. This happens because we have elected a Congress of polarized people who put ideology ahead of governing. Congress is currently debating another continuing resolution to fund the government. If they cannot agree on one by March 4th, federal employees like me will be indefinitely furloughed. I had best stock up on paint, because apparently I will have plenty of time to paint in March. For if you can count on anything in Congress, it’s on Congress skirting its job.

In case you have forgotten, here is how it is supposed to work: all appropriation laws would be signed into law before October 1 so agencies can work from an approved spending plan. The plan is supposed to execute the desires of the American people, as expressed through compromise involving two houses of government. What often happens these days is the actual bill to fund the agency gets signed into law late in the year, then a twelve month plan hobbled by continuing resolutions all has to get executed in a couple of months. It’s crazy, but that’s American democracy at work for you.

So let’s do a status check for Fiscal Year 2011 to see how well gears of our old republic are turning. Today is February 18, 2011, nearly five months into the fiscal year that started October 1, 2010. How many FY 2011 appropriation bills have actually been signed into law? Zero. Okay, well, how many have passed the House? Two (military construction/veterans affairs and transportation, both in the last Congress.) How many have passed the Senate? Zero. I don’t know what they are doing in Congress, but governing is obviously not very high on their agenda. It’s like they forgot how to mark up bills in committee, vote for or against them on the floor and send them to a conference committee. Ironically, the new House started off the year with a reading of the constitution.

The only spending “bills” that have passed are four “continuing resolutions” funding the government at Fiscal Year 2010 levels until Congress decides to get around to this messy thing called legislating. Here’s the thing about continuing resolutions. They really aren’t authority to spend any money at all. Congress and the president just pretend they are. They are a resolution, which amounts to a wish or a promise. If they were an appropriation, they would have arrived as bills, and when enacted would become a public law. A CR is not a public law. A CR is basically Congress saying “We need some more time to work on the bills, so is it okay if agencies meanwhile spend money at this rate until it runs out on this date with no guidance from Congress?” By signing it, the president is saying, “Okay by me.” What is missing is any intent from Congress on how the money should be used. That’s the part that Congress is supposed to do but is not. It’s called legislating, also known as representatives and senators doing this thing called “work”.

It is looking increasingly probable that Fiscal Year 2011 will end with no appropriations bills signed into law at all because the House and Senate are controlled by different parties and neither are principled enough to meet in the middle. Instead, eighty-seven new Republicans in the House want to cut $60 billion from non-defense agencies, which somehow must be done by September 30. The Senate does not want to do it. CRs have become the fictional instrument to keep a dysfunctional government running. The House and Senate seem likely to continue at loggerheads indefinitely, potentially until the 2012 election. Maybe in 2013 Congress will get around to actually directing agencies on how to spend their money.

To all appearances, Congress seems suspended in gridlock with not even a hint that either house will move toward political compromise. If you ask me, we now have a republic in name only.

Transfer of Power

I could not help but marvel today watching Barack Obama’s historic inauguration on television. It is true I marveled at seeing a black man take the presidential oath of office. If you had asked me in 2004, I would have guessed we would have to wait another two decades before we were collectively mature enough to elect a black man as president. It is also true that I marveled at the million plus Americans standing shoulder to shoulder on the Mall in freezing weather. They stretched from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, with most cheering and waiving American flags. What I found the most marvelous of all was the peaceful transition of power itself. In many, if not most places in the world, a transfer of power of this magnitude is a cause for civil war or rioting. In the United States, it is a time for celebration and partying. Every four or eight years the world has a chance to witness and marvel at America’s peaceful transfer of power.

I felt the spirit of George Washington alive today in the city named to honor him. In his life, George Washington was so popular that could have been president for life. Instead, Washington performed perhaps his most patriotic act by declining a third term in office. In doing so, he showed us fledgling democrats that regular changes in leadership were healthy for a democracy and that our constitution transcended the personalities in power at any given moment.

Thanks in part to George Washington’s precedent another peaceful transfer of power went off today like clockwork and with great celebration. At precisely noon, President Obama became our 44th president, even though he had not yet taken the oath of office. At that exact time, the President’s military aide carrying our nuclear launch codes moved from President Bush’s side to President Obama’s side. Following protocol the new president saw the retiring president out of the Capitol and waved goodbye to him as a helicopter carried him out of Washington. Doubtless inside the president’s desk in the Oval Office was a letter from Former President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama with a customarily letter of congratulations and some personal thoughts on the transition of power.

As a civil servant myself, I watched this transfer of power at a somewhat lower level. Last Thursday, I was invited to a high level meeting. I sat across the conference table from our Associate Director. Also in the room were representatives from another department that we meet with quarterly. With one working day left on the George W. Bush Administration, the transition of power was on everyone’s mind and was freely discussed. Everyone was completely matter of fact about it and deeply respectful of the process which by then was well underway. Our Director was a political appointee and wanted to hang on in his job. Hearing nothing from the incoming administration though he knew what was expected and tendered his resignation. He did so not because he wanted to but because that is the way our system of government works. By losing his job, he demonstrated his respect our constitutional process and for the judgment of the American people.

Arguably, the outgoing administration was one of the most egregious in ignoring the law and the constitution. Yet, even this administration could not ignore our democratic electoral process. Had the outgoing administration, like so many banana republics, tried a coup d’état, I have no doubt where the loyalty of our armed forces, our secret service and our civil servants would have lied. Any such attempt is doomed to fail in America. Americans would not allow it. If push came to shove, the military, as is true of civil servants like me, are required to put the constitution above the orders of the president.

It says so much about the character of our country that these values are hardwired into us, in both good times and bad. Back in 2003, I penned a post where I lamented that America had lost its soul. Perhaps it was lost for a while. Perhaps our constitution was a more than a bit tattered by the latest Bush Administration. Yet, we survived and we did so in part because of George Washington’s example and the orders given by the people who once every four years weigh in on who their leader shall be.

Each inauguration is like a heartbeat in the life of our country. The mere fact that it happens like clockwork, in good years and bad, is proof that our country shall endure. Through regular repetition, these events ensure, however imperfectly, that our democracy will continue and we will keep moving forward toward a more perfect union.

Caucuses are still undemocratic

It has been four years since the last Iowa caucuses. I am hoping that like four years ago C-SPAN will show the caucus process live on national TV. It was quite an eye opener for me in 2004. It did not leave me with a nice, comfortable feeling that our democracy was in good hands.

In summary, here is what will happen tonight. A likely tiny share of Iowa’s voters, probably less than ten percent and likely about five percent (those who do not mind skipping the Orange Bowl or traveling in subfreezing weather) will show up at their neighborhood caucus. They had better show up promptly at 7 PM because that is when the caucuses start. There is no mailing in of absentee ballots. Moreover, if you are handicapped or are required to work that evening that is just too bad. In addition, if your favorite candidate does not garner at least 15% of the vote in your Democratic caucus, they will receive zero delegates. So among those who attend, a fair number will actually vote for their second choice.

The Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa does not allow for a secret vote. You declare your support openly and in front of your neighbors. If you are an easily intimidated type, you may end up supporting a candidate you do not prefer. Since many of those in the room are likely your neighbors, you have to weigh your vote against your need to get along with them after the caucus. In short, peer pressure may have an effect on your vote. Moreover, if you need to leave early because Jimmy is suddenly running a fever, well, your vote will not count. If you are susceptible to changing your mind, expect to be lobbied in ways that may make you feel like a Congressman. Your neighbor may agree to buy you lunch every day for the next week for your vote. These tactics are legal.

While the Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa disenfranchises lesser-known candidates, if you attend a Republican Party caucus then whoever gets the most votes at your caucus gets all of its allocated delegates. In other words, it is a “winner takes all” system, reminiscent of our Electoral College. On the positive side Republicans at least get to have a secret vote. They scrawl their favorite on a piece of paper. The caucus chair sorts through them and determines the winner. If you cannot spell Mitt Romney’s last name correctly, just write “Mitt” and hope the caucus chair will decide you meant Mitt Romney.

Moreover, as this article points out, the caucus system in Iowa is biased in favor of urban voters. Twenty seven percent of voters select 50 percent of the delegates, and those 27 percent live in the more densely populated areas. It can also be helpful to your candidate to make sure the “temporary chair” of your caucus supports your candidate. As “temporary chair”, he will have a disproportionate ability to influence undecided or wavering voters.

In short, it is a bad system. Yet, the Iowa caucuses do matter. Recent history (since 1972 or so) suggests that if you win the Iowa caucuses, you have a 2/3 chance of winning the party’s nomination. If you are a Democratic candidate, you have a 2/9 chance of winning the general election and a 1/3 chance if you are a Republican. With a better than 50% odds that you will win the party’s nomination by winning in Iowa, it is no wonder that more than a year ago potential candidates were trolling for votes there. Winning in Iowa is not a sure thing to winning either the nomination or the presidency, but it provides real momentum.

Do Iowans represent America? I guess it depends on the demographics you are looking at but clearly, America is no longer primarily an agrarian economy. Iowa comes close to Utah in being the nation’s premier Wonder Bread state. Iowa’s primary role in the presidential race is to clear the field, so it may give Caucasians disproportionate early influence. If you do not come in at least third, you are likely out of the game. Expect tomorrow to see a number of candidates drop out. I bet Dodd and Biden will drop out tomorrow. Richardson and Kucinich will likely say adios also. They will have spent their wad and will have little in the way of resources to compete in the remaining states. Richardson might well command ten percent of the vote in Iowa, but he will likely not pick up a single delegate there. Of course, it is the number of delegates pledging a candidate that ultimately choose the party’s nominee.

The nomination process also favors the party establishment. A few weeks ago out of curiosity, I decided to learn how I could become a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention in my state of Virginia. Our February 12th primary is used to select delegates to a Virginia Democratic Party convention held in June. Fortunately, delegates at that convention are proportioned by candidate based on their primary results. 85 delegates go to the Democratic National Convention but only 54 of those delegates are chosen based on the February 12th primary. The remaining 31 delegates are chosen at the state convention. There is no assurance that those chosen at a state party convention will proportioned based on the state’s primary vote. However, Virginia Democratic Party rules allow 18 others to become “automatic” delegates, meaning Virginia will actually have 103 voting delegates. These include top party leaders, including our governor Tim Kaine. So in the best case 82% of my state’s delegates will be chosen based on primary results. In the worst case, only 53% of my state’s delegates will be chosen this way. Consequently, in the event of a brokered convention, you can expect that the current political establishment, rather than the voters will wield the real power.

I hope voters in Iowa and elsewhere are smart enough to realize that the caucus system works against them and demand a primary-based system. In addition, I hope both parties will eventually reform the delegate selection process so that delegates are truly proportioned based on primary results.

The measure of a democracy

Here in America we are trained to look down on our lawyers. We assume that lawyers are just petty ambulance chasers. We think they are eager to bend justice for their clients but only if it also obscenely increases their fortunes. We do not understand how anyone can justify billing rates of $200 or $300 an hour by doing something as dry as reading dusty old law books. Sometimes we grudgingly express appreciation for those lawyers who attempt to provide equal justice to the poor. We do so while sometimes also expressing unhappiness if their justice was purchased with our tax dollars.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican Party seems to have an animosity toward trial lawyers. This is curious since the ranks of Congress are rife with lawyers. Nonetheless, when trial lawyers are successful suing corporations for what are perceived to be excessive punitive damages, Republicans tend to get their dander up. Tort reform is usually near the top of their agenda, right after tax cuts. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but not when their actions affect stock values.

We want to believe that lawyers are simply unnecessary. We want to think that we should be able to reach agreements without having to legalize it with these complex paper instruments we call contracts. The reality is that we need lawyers. Laws and contracts may be time consuming and expensive but they also remove legal ambiguity. Imagine the potential mess of a business merger without an enforceable contact hammered out by lawyers. Imagine if you willed your estate to your family but they ended up inheriting nothing because a judge decided arbitrarily to ignore your will. It is not obvious but, yes, we really do need lawyers. They are part of the epoxy that allows society to function in a predictable way.

In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Dick suggests to the rebel Jack Cade that an excellent way to start an insurrection is to kill all the lawyers first. Dick may have been on to something. Lawyers are the gears that make the law work. Without lawyers, anarchy or dictatorships become possible. Most of us do not choose careers that we hate. The same is true with lawyers. It is likely that most lawyers are drawn to the law because they respect it. That so many lawyers populate Congress is likely due to their fascination with the law. (It also does not hurt that lawyers frequently have enough disposable income and the connections to be able to run for Congress in the first place.)

Perhaps like me you were stirred by the recent events in Pakistan. I was not surprised that with his grip on power loosening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would find it convenient to suspend the constitution and lock up most of his political opponents. Like most of us democrats, I was upset. Yet I was also very moved to see opposition arise almost immediately. Who led the opposition? They were the Pakistan’s lawyers, who marched in the streets by the thousands. By standing up for their democracy, they literally put their lives on the line. In fact, it is likely that at least hundreds of them are now in prison for doing so. So far, it appears that most of Pakistan’s masses have yet to become engaged in the struggle for democracy. The lawyers are proving to be the phalanx for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. It is also clear from footage of their marches that they are passionate believers in the law and in democracy. As they proved some months ago when they stood up to Musharraf in support of their chief justice, they have the courage of their convictions.

I wish our many lawyers in our Congress had similar courage. In their case, much less courage is required. Yet most of them appear spineless. Today, for example, with the shameful support of a handful of Democratic senators, the Senate approved the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as our new Attorney General. Senators approved the nomination even though Mukasey could not assure them that waterboarding was a form of torture. As egregious as this was, Mukasey also stated his belief that the President might have inherent powers that puts him beyond the reach of the law. Somewhere up there, Richard Nixon has an evil smile on his face.

Fifty-six men were signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-four of them were either lawyers or jurists. In the declaration, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new democracy called the United States of America. These were not just idle words. The British Army hunted down these signatories as treasonous rebels. If captured they would have paid with their lives. Some of them paid that price. Others spent the Revolutionary War constantly on the run leaving behind ruined families and businesses. Only one of those patriots, Thomas Jefferson, would survive and rise to become President of the United States.

I wish we had patriots in our Congress like this. We have many patriots in uniform overseas and I certainly do not mean to discount their patriotism. Thousands have died for their country, tens of thousands have been wounded, most on a mission in Iraq that will probably prove in vain. Their patriotism is beyond dispute. The least we could do to honor their sacrifices is to demonstrate patriotism by respecting the rule of the law in this country.

Congress can start by not allowing the telephone companies who broke wiretapping laws at the behest of the Bush Administration to get retroactive immunity for their illegal actions. It can do much better than this. Rather than just refer Representative Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney to committee, where it will linger until this administration leaves office, it can press forward with real impeachment hearings. It can send a signal both to this administration and to future administrations that the egregious and unlawful unilateral expansion of executive powers by the Bush Administration will never be tolerated again.

Those courageous lawyers in Pakistan know that respect and adherence to the rule the law is the difference between civilization and anarchy. This is a lesson we should relearn now more than two hundred years into our own democratic experiment. If freedom is not free, neither is the equal application of the law. Our pragmatic founding fathers at least gave the branches of government power to check excessive power grabs by the other branches. It is long past time for the Congress, on behalf of the people who it serves, to restore the rule of law in clear and unambiguous terms.

How the Midwest was won

Bay City, Michigan is known today primarily as the birthplace of the singer and artist Madonna. For me this fading industrial city between Michigan’s thumb and forefinger has a more important meaning. In 1920, it was the city where my mother was born.

For my mother, Bay City was not just a place; it was her home. While she lived most of her life far away from Bay City, she was a Bay City girl through and through. Being away from it for so long was doubtless one of the reasons she and my father retired nearby. Alas, my mother died two years ago. However, five years ago when she was still in reasonably good health I visited her and my father in nearby Midland, Michigan. We spent one day in Bay City and an hour or so at the Bay County Historical Society on Washington Avenue. There for about $15 or so I purchased a new but nearly fifty-year-old copy of the obscure book Bay County Past and Present, Centennial Edition. It had not been updated since the year I was born (1957) but there were still plenty of copies for sale.

The book is slow reading, which explains why I spent five years making my way through the 242-page book. It frequently lost the competition to more interesting books, in particular the many Aubrey – Maturin sea novels by the late writer Patrick O’Brian. I did finally finish the book this week. I am glad I made the effort. Its pages may make for occasionally dry reading but it provides the kind of history that you cannot get in standard history books. Lavishly illustrated with many historical photographs it gives a real sense of time and place to a small area of the country that I know only from occasional visits.

We know about the expansion of our country. However, unless you are a history professor you are unlikely to understand the mechanics of transforming a frontier into a modern city. Books like this one that are meticulously assembled by local historians nicely fill in the gaps we glossed over in our American history lessons. It provides a comprehensive study of Bay County, Michigan, from many perspectives. It includes a geographical understanding of that rather flat part of Michigan. Of course, it also provides a comprehensive history of its settlement, from its earliest years when Europeans showed up (the land swapped between the French, the English and the Americans) through the development of its business and industry.

For example, I learned that before civilization arrived, Michigan was a miserable place to live. There were Native American tribes of course, but life was not wonderful for them. It was difficult to sustain any human life due to the lack of one simple substance: salt. As Lewis and Clark found out, it is hard to survive without salt. Moreover, the fat that fills our modern foods was very hard to come by in primordial Michigan. Unless you were fortunate to kill and consume a bear, you would probably not get any fat in your diet. Today we think of fat as bad, but when you have no source of fat in your diet at all, you can become quite sick. It was the lack of fat and salt, not to mention the omnipresent mosquitoes, which deterred all but the heartiest Europeans from settling in this area. Bay County itself was largely landlocked from the rest of Michigan. Massive swamps covered the middle of the state. Goods had to be ferried by boat from places like Detroit, which, early in the 19th century was more of an outpost on the edge of Lake Erie than a city.

The fur traders that visited the region reported one huge natural asset: wood. Moreover, the wood was reasonably accessible for transport, because the Saginaw River flowed north into Saginaw Bay. Our growing nation had an almost insatiable desire for the high quality wood that Bay County provided. Treaties of a dubious nature were made with the local natives that pushed them further into the woods. They allowed this part of Michigan, which was then just a territory of the United States, to attract a few farmers and, increasingly, lumbermen. The wood literally floated through Bay City, then was carried by ship or barge out into Lake Huron and down the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bay City served as a convenient place to load and unload goods and for lumberman to have holidays. Mostly though they worked long days in lumber camps deep inside Bay County.

Its seemingly boundless lumber attracted sawmills and shipbuilders. In time, Bay City became one of the premier ship manufacturing centers in the country. It specialized in production of large wooden ships, many of which were supplied to our navy during the first two world wars. In time, of course its seemingly inexhaustible supply of lumber gave out. However, its growing wealth made other things possible. Swamps were drained. Once enough swamps were drained, the railroad was able to connect Bay County with the rest of Michigan. Michigan became a state and for a time Bay City was Michigan’s second largest city.

Where does government come from? We tend to take government for granted, and give little thought to how it is organized and institutionalized. This book provides plenty of insight into how a wild territory run by a federal administrator turned into a state. It shows how connections formed between state and local governments. It provides insight into the personalities that governed these communities. There was a time when cities like Bay City truly were communities. The people who lived in Bay City felt more loyalty to their city than to their state or even their country. I found their commitment to democracy truly inspiring. While they had their quarrels, there was no quarrel about using the democratic process. Governments on all levels, from major cities like Bay City to local townships, flourished. Each brought a unique sense of place and character. Moreover, even though they lived very busy lives, citizens stepped forward and grappled effectively with the mundane but vital business of governing.

The impact of inventions like electricity and the telephone are discussed for their local impact. Before electricity, house fires were very common. Fireplaces, wood stoves and kerosene lamps (a later invention) made it very easy to lose a house to fire. There was likely a firehouse within a couple blocks of your house. In the late 19th century, ending up homeless due to a house fire was a common experience.

Things we take for granted like sidewalks, cement and paved roads did not just happen. Instead, they evolved over many decades. With its abundance of wood, Bay City thought it was being very progressing putting in wooden sidewalks over the mud. Many of its streets were covered with wooden planks. It took time to discover that wooden planks required a lot of maintenance. All sorts of variants to make roads impermeable to the filth and mud were tried. Mud was ubiquitous with commerce in the 19th century. Paved roads were the eventual result of many experiments and provided the best tradeoff between durability and cost.

This book, like I imagine many books found at local historical societies, are full of little insights like this. Life was certainly harsher one hundred years ago, yet it was no less full of the things that made life meaningful. What emerges is a portrait of a growing city, filled with people living lives both complex and simple, often near the edge of poverty. They lived very engaged lives. In some ways, I envy them for their lives seem so much fuller than mine is likely to be. While I am fortunate to live well and have many opportunities for travel, I have never really experienced a sense of community that my mother found in Bay City. I wonder how much of this remains in our country, now that we are plugged into our virtual communities.

Of course, we all rest on the laurels of those who came before us. They were not always heroes. There were rapscallions among them just as they are among us today. Yet they did the best they could with their talents. Reading a book like this one though gives you perspective to understand just how Herculean a task it is to build a civilized community, and how valuable a true community is in our lives.

Today Bay City seems tired. Its industry is largely gone. It still has lovely neighborhoods, but many neighborhoods look tired, neglected and used up. You can go down streets and find every fourth or fifth house vacant or boarded up. I do hope this is a temporary phenomenon. Midwestern cities like Bay City deserve a rebirth.

In Denial on Iraqi Elections

I got to give Bush an A for stubbornness. No matter what he seems to be determined that Iraqis will vote on January 30th. Almost all the Sunnis will stay home. There is little incentive for them to vote because they would almost certainly lose power they have traditionally held under Saddam. It is likely be that most of the Kurds will stay home too. Only the Shi’ites are likely to go to the polls in significant numbers. This is because they know their time has come. They are the majority in Iraq and have long been discriminated against and oppressed. But even many Shi’ites will stay away. Repeated targeting of election workers as well as broader threats that anyone who votes in Iraq risk their lives will be hard to ignore. The insurgents have frequently demonstrated that they mean what they say.

We have 150,000 troops in the country. Extra troops were sent to Iraq to help stabilize the country so elections could be held. Clearly the extra troops haven’t stabilized the country. The insurgency appears to be worse than ever. Even our victories come at a terrible price. Fallujah, for example, was largely destroyed in an effort to make its safe. Most of its residents are still refugees. And there are still insurgents sniping at our forces within Fallujah itself.

Across Iraq U.S. soldiers, election workers, police officers, mayors, low lying political officials and many innocent Iraqi citizens have paid the price for our inability to secure the country after our invasion. But this won’t stop Bush from holding elections anyhow. What we will see on January 30th is likely to be farcical. We are likely to see violence on a scale hitherto unseen in Iraq since we started this unnecessary war.

Safety and security are prerequisites not just for elections but to the emergence of any civil society. But even if these elements were in place as Bush has promised repeatedly there is still no guarantee that elections would have their desired effect. One problem is the way power is to be distributed in the new Iraqi assembly. It won’t work. A realistic plan would address the reality of Iraq. In a workable solution Iraq would become a federation of independent states. While there are many mixed areas of Iraq, the reality is that Iraq is divided between predominantly Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish areas. A federation with a weak central government and strong, largely autonomous states where the primary religious and ethnic authorities would dominate might actually bring peace and stability. But it is equally likely that Iran would like to annex Shi’ite portions of Iraq, in effect finally winning the Iran-Iraq war. It is likely that balkanization along ethnic lines that cross country boundaries would bring the highest likelihood of long term stability.

Here’s what will likely happen on January 30th. Large areas of Iraq will have no polling stations. Polling officials will not show up out of the logical fear that they will be killed. Most Iraqis who are eligible to vote won’t show up either, also largely out of fear. Shi’ites will likely show up but I would still be surprised if their overall turnout rate was more than 50%. There will be a lot of voters and election workers (probably a hundred or more) killed or wounded. Across Iraq I would be very surprised if turnout exceeded 25%.

It remains to be seen whether if after this farce we will acknowledge the obvious: elections were premature. The difference between lofty promises and reality will be hard to ignore. Despite the best efforts of our brave soldiers to help this troubled land we cannot through force change in Iraq. With 300,000 soldiers in Iraq we could perhaps have a true measure of security across the country. But we do not have those numbers of troops to commit to Iraq. So the anarchy will continue. You can expect over 2005 as the carnage continues that calls for us to leave Iraq will increase. The sad reality of Iraq is that order cannot be imposed on it from the outside.

Democracy is not always the solution

The United States is in the proselytizing business. No I don’t mean Bush’s odious Faith-Based Initiative which contrary to our constitution seems to say it’s okay to shower religious institutions with tax dollars. I’m not talking about proselytizing religion at all. No, the United States is in the democracy-proselytizing business. No matter what the problem is overseas with some non-democratic government, democracy (with rabid capitalism) is our solution. One size fits all countries.

Given our heritage it is understandable that that we would want all other countries to also be democracies. Our country was founded on equal representation, liberty and freedom. It generally works for us. Democratic governments are unlikely to wage unilateral wars against other governments (present administration notwithstanding, of course.) Democracy certainly seems better than the usual alternatives such as theocracies, communism, socialism, despots, strongmen, anarchies and monarchies. And I’d have to generally agree. My problem is I don’t always agree that democracy is the best approach for any country.

As we are learning in Iraq, I don’t think democracy can be imposed from the outside. For it to work it must come from the citizens of a country. To work really well the citizens must crave democracy. It helps for them to be completely fed up with their non-democratic government. But it also requires a strong belief in the people in their ability to solve their own problems collectively. Democracy is like a garden. A garden requires good soil, lots of effort, persistence and tender loving care. Lacking these you end up with a lot of weeds, and the result may not be what you intended.

The same is true with democracy. In much of the Muslim world at the moment we have nations embracing theocratic versions of Islam. Clearly this is not a form of government that seeks much guidance from non-clerics. I anticipate that for the next 20-50 years Muslim countries that have not yet embraced democracy (the vast majority) will need to work through their issues of separating religion from government. Until that happens democracy is unlikely to take hold.

Still I suspect a lot of Muslims are quite pragmatic. Most would like to give their mullahs the heave ho. There is a lot of cultural baggage to deal with in Muslim countries. This is a problem shared by countries with a predominant faith. Islam’s predisposition toward theocracy makes it very difficult if not dangerous to speak out against any religious authorities that want to run a state.

Iraq’s experiment with democracy might actually succeed. The odds are at best 50/50 that it can be pulled off over the next decade. (My guess is it is actually about 1 in 5). But Iraq is more fertile a place than most in the Mideast for democracy. Why is this? It is clear that Iraqis have tried the strongman approach with Saddam and at best it was a mixed experience. It certainly gave order and security, but tyranny caused a lot of murders, death, hardship and repression. On the other hand in some ways Saddam Hussein was ahead of his time. One was in the area of education. Overall Iraqis have much more access to education (including higher education) than most people in the Middle East. There is a thriving middle class. The conditions in Iraq are not all that different from those of our country in 1776. So let’s keep our fingers crossed. Against the odds Iraq may actually live up to Bush’s vision as a democratic state at peace in the middle of the Middle East.

But then there is much of the rest of the Muslim world. There is also much of the third world. There is hope that even in third world countries democracy can take root. Bangladesh for example is a country mired in poverty and low educational standards and yet it has a reasonably successful democracy. Part of its success has to do with being in fertile democratic soil. India is next door and has been democratic for fifty years or so. It is poor enough so that it is not a likely target for invasion. It is also predominantly Muslim. And although it has seen its share of wars and ethnic conflicts more often than not their conflicts can be worked out through a political process instead of civil strife.

Unlike Bangladesh there a lot more places like Afghanistan. Here is a country where I can almost guarantee democracy will not work in the short term. First of all we would like all citizens of Afghanistan to have the right to vote. It seems reasonable enough from our perspective. Unfortunately a very conservative form of Islam embraces most of the country. It is hard enough for women to leave their house without wearing a burka. Most women have to be escorted by a male relative if they want to go anywhere. In many places they cannot even get medical care. The sad facts are that this is a culture that does not appear ready to give women much in the way of civil rights.

Then there is their education problem. While education improved somewhat in places like Kabul in the 1970s and 1980s, Afghanistan is an overall educational disaster. Women are rarely educated. The average educational level of an Afghani is 1.7 years! Think about this: the average person doesn’t even have a second grade education. It’s a good bet that most citizens have not studied democratic models nor developed critical thinking skills. I know I would be concerned about placing trust in the people if I knew they were operating at a second grade level.

So what works for these countries? It depends on the country’s culture and history. Progress should unfold in the context of that unique story. Historically monarchy has been a fairly successful way to get between feudalism and democracy. A succession of kings and queens gives a country a certain stability.

The Afghani loya jirga process is not quite democratic, but it may be the most realistic short-term solution for Afghanistan if it can be pulled off. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan can bind together as a nation at all. No such nation existed until the British created it in the 20th century. Like Yugoslavia it may make more sense for the country to balkanize into ethnic areas. There has to be shared interests on many levels in order to have a real country. It’s not clear these yet exist in Afghanistan.

The United States needs to stop pushing democracy as the solution to non-democratic states. Rather we require an enlightened approach to encourage democracy where the climate is favorable and encourage benign forms of government in places where it isn’t.

Caucuses are Undemocratic

I realize not many people watch C-SPAN. Perhaps they should. It can be an eye opener. Not only do you get to see politicians live and unfiltered, but occasionally I see something very disturbing. This happened Monday night when C-SPAN broadcast live from one of the Iowa Democratic caucus precincts. It was enough to convince me that the caucus system has to go.

The way the caucus system works is that on caucus night you visit your local caucus and find others like yourself who support your candidate. You essentially declare your support for a candidate openly. You then have to listen briefly to statements from groups supporting each candidate. You then might choose to move from your candidate’s group to another candidate’s group. This might be the one virtue of the caucus system. This differs from, say, the Chicago political machine where your local alderman’s friend gets you down to the polling place and gives you a suggested list of people to vote for. At a caucus you are required to hear a differing point of view. I assume this dates back to an agrarian time when newspapers were hard to come by and many voters might go to a caucus having little or no knowledge about the candidates. Clearly this is not an issue in the 21st century.

But here is where the caucus system breaks down. In Iowa (and I assume many other caucus states) only “viable” candidates count. You know your candidate counts if your candidate is actually awarded delegates from your precinct. In Iowa if your candidate (say Dennis Kucinich) doesn’t make a 15 percent threshold, sorry, he gets zero delegates. You are effectively disenfranchised. Across Iowa it is possible that a candidate could get 14 percent of the vote but won’t get a single delegate. This is not democracy. It’s a variation of Animal Farm where “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Oh, but it’s not over. Since the 15 percent don’t count, they have the opportunity to throw their allegiance to some other candidate who is viable. Heck, anyone can change their mind up until the final count and move from candidate group to candidate group. Eventually though a final count is called. Those who were marginalized out of the process may have picked an alternate candidate. Or they may have given up in disgust and gone home.

Delegates are broken down proportionately based on the final count of viable candidates. The candidate coming in second for a particular caucus though may get awarded an extra delegate. In Iowa the rules say that if the delegate count doesn’t break down proportionately, the highest candidate drawing less than 50% gets the extra delegate. So strike another blow against democracy.

The caucus system is really a delegate selection process that disenfranchises marginal candidates, inflates delegate counts for the “viable” candidates and may award a special silver medal for the second place candidate for a particular precinct. You have no secret vote, and your can change your candidate affiliation as many times as you want before the final vote, perhaps wending some personal favors for your vote.

It’s a stinky process. It needs to go. Thank goodness next Tuesday the voters in New Hampshire have the opportunity to vote in a real primary. Those who choose to vote for Dennis Kucinich will know that their votes actually mattered. Voters won’t effectively be tapped on their shoulders and offered advice in the voting booth. They can make their choices secretly and anonymously.

The caucus system may have made a certain amount of sense at one time in very rural states where people are few and far between. But those days are long gone. We have cars. We have modern telecommunications. We know how to do a secret ballot. Abolish these absurd and undemocratic caucuses!

Shameless Republicans

If you know you are right then the ends justify the means. Every week it seems we get a more egregious example out of Washington, but this latest example I learned about takes the cake.

Last Friday another Texas Democrat went Republican. That in itself is not terribly unusual in a state that has been trending GOP for some time, but what makes this especially repugnant is that very conservative Democratic representative Ralph Hall was effectively told the only way he could bring any earmarked money back to his district would be to switch to the GOP. So Hall, who apparently his linguini for a spine, switched.

“I’ve always said that if being a Democrat hurt my district I would switch or I would resign,” Hall said in an interview with The Associated Press. He said GOP leaders had recently refused to place money for his district in a spending bill and “the only reason I was given was I was a Democrat.”

The sad truth is that in the U.S. House of Representatives most Democrats might as well stay in their offices and never even bother to vote. As far as the Republican majority is concerned, the Democrats do not exist. In some committees they aren’t even allowed time to offer an opinion or have a chance to read a proposed bill before a vote is taken. In conference committees they are routinely excluded from deliberation. The Democrats are under no illusions that they will win votes or influence minds. But thanks to the Dennis Hastert House, they often aren’t even given the opportunity to bring up their concerns where it really matters: in committee. The message is clear and unmistakable. You are in the wrong party. Shut up. Don’t even bother opening your mouth. And if you do we’ll throw you out. You may be grudgingly allowed to sit at the committee table, but you’re often not permitted the opportunity to say anything.

This is an amazing perversion of American democracy. In a democracy everyone has the right to free speech. In a legislature, you are elected to speak on behalf of your constituents. You are supposed to speak! You are supposed to press your cases and your causes! But more and more the Republicans in Congress, but particularly in the House, won’t even allow that from the minority. If you feel a need to speak, then complain to the press, or speak to an empty House chamber on C-SPAN, or write your constituents. Just don’t expect them to be heard if you are a Democrat. The new standard seems to be “We won’t cut you any slack and we sure as hell won’t allow you to earmark one dollar of federal funds to your district.”

These Republicans are not just partisan; they are shameless, vile and unspeakably nasty people for whom the end clearly justifies the means. See it happen in Texas and Colorado where the state legislatures decide to redistrict their congressional seats again, instead of on the results of the last census, just to add to their majority. Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, is the knight leading the charge on the Texas redistricting issue, which is now in the courts. Meanwhile, in California, if you don’t like the elected governor, find a rich Republican millionaire to hire enough flunkies to hang around shopping malls so you can get enough Republican signatures to initiate a recall of the governor.

I tend to focus my anger on President Bush but it is clear that he is typical of the modern day Republican. The end clearly justifies the means with these folks, and if they can affect their end with the equivalent of sticking a knife into someone and twisting while laughing cruelly, all the better.

I don’t know why anyone would choose someone like this as a friend and I can’t imagine why any thinking Republican would vote to put someone like this into office. Until recently this country has always respected the right of the minority to speak its mind and to be heard. It’s clear that if your opinion in not in the majority these folks will find every means available to not even allow it to be expressed. In that sense they model their new hero George W. Bush. Bush doesn’t want to hear criticism either. He goes out of his way to make sure he can’t hear it. He has John Ashcroft set up “free speech zones” far away from wherever he is speaking, so protestors cannot be heard and effectively ignored.

I wouldn’t blame a Democratic congressman or woman for spending most of their day in their offices answering constituent mail. It certainly would be a more effective use of their time than actually hanging around the House chambers and committee rooms.