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AdLib On November - 15 - 2010

Kesmarn’s brilliant article, Please, tear that price tag off!, impresses the powerful image of our democracy and citizenry as a 500 pound patient, too bloated to help itself or accomplish even the most minor tasks required for its subsistence and survival.

Citizens United may have been the last straw in our Democracy becoming too overloaded to effectively be able to function on its own. In light of the abuse of filibusters, the propaganda machines now established in our society, the laziness, ignorance and easy manipulation of voters, one wonders if Democracy is just lying helplessly like a beached whale in a hospital bed waiting for a sponge bath and a bowl of ice cream.

This reminded me of a little known movie from The Depression era, a fantasy that is quite a bit twisted. It is an oddity. When I first saw it years ago, I was fascinated that anyone would truly think of this as a fantasy instead of a nightmare. Today, I see it in a different light, I still reject it as a desirable fantasy but I better understand why many people back then would have been receptive to it.

The name of the film is, “Gabriel Over The White House”. It was made and takes place in the midst of The Depression and fantasizes about a weak president who radically changes and becomes dictatorial…to the benefit of Americans! Here’s a synopsis:

Newly elected president Judson Hammond is shown to be a lackey of his party, willing to follow the party line even if it’s not in the best interest of the people. Showing off by driving his own car to a political meeting, he crashes at high speed. Comatose, he is not expected to recover. But on regaining consciousness, he is a changed man. Dismissing his cabinet and defying Congress, he assumes near-dictatorial powers in order to cut through red tape and institute sweeping measures to reduce unemployment. He even goes so far as to gently threaten nations owing the United States money from World War I to find a way to repay their debts by reducing their arms races. Having brokered this important safeguard for the world’s peace, Hammond is stricken down, his work done.

During The Depression, as now, people were so desperate and frustrated with the need for big things to get done and changes to be made quickly. The process of our Democracy simply isn’t structured to work that quickly so the concept of a President assuming dictatorial powers to get everything done swiftly, no doubt appealed to some then.

Of course, such naive Americans needed only to look to Germany to see the nightmare that their fantasy would become when brought to fruition in real life.

As Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And we know far too well that Swing Voters can’t even remember history from two years ago (“Hey, maybe Republicans will make our economy better if they’re in control!”), so the ones who decide elections in this country surely won’t know what happened 80 years ago and are fully available to repeating it.

Of course, only as a fantasy, how cool would it be for Obama to be able to institute all the policies we support without having Repubs in Congress thwarting him? The flip side is, then a President Palin would have the same power. So, dictatorships are far too dangerous to allow, for any reason. Yet, as we saw after 9/11, the American public can be driven to support a dictatorial and oppressive U.S. government.

All of this opens a Pandora’s Box of ideas and propositions in today’s America.

1. “Would Americans willingly elect another dictatorial president to go even farther in trampling democracy and civil rights if it meant he could get a lot done?”

2. “Has our democracy become too corrupt to function properly and do what’s necessary?”

3. “How can the damage to our democracy be reversed if Congress and the election process is dominated by those who corrupt them?”

Starting with the first question, sadly, I think the answer is “yes”, Americans would be willing to elect a dictator-type president. I remember a poll of high school students in Bush’s last years that asked if the press should be allowed to publicly criticize the president…the majority said “no”.

Americans want what they want more than they want principles adhered to. If someone like Mike Huckabee became President and declared that God had told him to ignore Congress and the Constitution and do what God told him would be best for Americans…certainly the Tea Party crowd would applaud his diss of government and some of these mindless Swing Voters would cheer his being a man of action.

“Who needs democracy, we want jobs and Social Security and Medicare and we don’t want to pay taxes! Pres. Huckabee says that we can have it all if he doesn’t have his hands tied by Congress! We’re with ya!”

Kind of scary but not so far-fetched. Bush essentially did this with his record number of signing statements in which he declared whether he would or wouldn’t follow laws passed by Congress and how he would change the way they were applied and enforced. And then he just did things under the cover of “wartime” that he had no Constitutional right to do.

As to the last two questions, though it is politically correct to exclaim that our democracy is the greatest in the world…how many Americans actually sit down and study other countries to come to that conclusion?

What other industrialized nations have democracies where corporations can pour in unlimited amounts of money to influence elections? Or require candidates to publicly attest that they are religious and their faith is Christian-based? Or have campaigns that last years and require hundreds of millions of dollars, squeezing out from participation most of those who aren’t wealthy or already in office?

And what about how our Congress works? Where states with less than one million people have the same power in the Senate as states that have 40 million people? Where the tyranny of the minority continues to reign and simple majority votes are insufficient to pass legislation?

Then there are all the special interests and corporations that are free to lobby with mountains of cash to stop what they don’t like and ram through what they do want.

Moving to a slightly different allegory, our democracy now seems like a car that is in disrepair. The hydraulics of the steering are messed up and it is hard to steer, the blinker only signals right, the tires are all low and the engine is clogged with muck so the car moves slow and sluggish, covered with mud that is constantly slung at it from all directions.

The real question is, is it throwing good money after bad to try and fix it? Do we need to buy a new car?

As unlikely as it is to ever happen, for America to return to a democracy from the plutocracy it has become, perhaps what’s really required is a new Constitutional Convention that incorporates all of the developments in our society and democracy that The Founders simply couldn’t and didn’t foresee.

Some proposals that I would like to see contained in a New Constitution:

  • The Senate would be more representational of the nation, still 100 Senators but one Senator from each state and then additional Senators based upon population.
  • Elections would be publicly financed and on an alternating basis, broadcast and cable networks would be required to provide free airtime to candidates.
  • Any Congressperson could be recalled and replaced by their state’s voters.
  • The Senate and House would conduct votes on bills, decided by simple majorities.
  • Lobbyists would be allowed but prevented from providing any financing to politicians (since elections would be publicly financed).
  • Corporations are not people and may not participate in any way in elections.
  • Truth In Advertising laws for political advertising that allow ads to be pulled and advertisers/politicians to be fined for false claims. In egregious cases, election results could be nullified and after falsehoods had been publicly exposed, a new election would occur.
  • Justices on The Supreme Court would not receive a lifetime appointment. Instead, they would receive a term of ten years which would need to be renewed by the current President and Congress or else a replacement would be made.
  • An explicit and concrete separation between church and state. Any church would be permitted to promote political agendas, candidates or participate in the electoral process but would not have tax-free status once they do so.
  • A Fairness Doctrine that requires news networks to provide legitimate and accurate counterpoints to whatever they present.
  • Voting would be one week long, encompassing weekends to provide for the most participation.
  • Retirement pay and health insurance are rights of all Americans and may never be privatized. The U.S. will provide single-payer health insurance to all Americans.
  • Military spending capped to a maximum percentage of GDP except in case of an emergency. In such cases, authorization for such an emergency will expire in no more than 2 years and may not be renewed or refinanced in any way in a new request.
  • Torture and the death penalty would be outlawed in all cases as cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Taxes on those making $10 million or more may not be reduced below 50% of income. Only deductions that were applicable and useful to most Americans could be made available to wealthy tax payers (all businesses would still be able to write off expenses, of course).
  • Fines and jail time for white collar crime would be as punitive as street crime. Top executives are personally liable for all crimes committed by their corporations.

That’s a number that come to mind. If we could have a new constitution, what would you want added into it?

Written by AdLib

My motto is, "It is better to have blogged and lost hours of your day, than never to have blogged at all."

69 Responses so far.

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  1. kesmarn says:

    I love the mental exercise, AdLib, of tearing down (in the imagination) the whole structure — right to the foundations — and then envisioning what it could look like, rebuilt.

    I’ll enjoy mulling this over throughout the day, but off the top of my head — a couple thoughts:

    Would it be practical to increase the number of senators to, say, 120? Still leaving two for each state (since people seem to be so in love — rightly or not — with the concept of “balance,” and the possibility of one senator’s being elected from each party would still exist) and then assigning the additional 20 to the most populous area?

    In the extremely important area of education: would there be some way to even out the way that primary/secondary education is financially supported? And to limit the ability of states to dictate the content of text books — especially science and history texts? I realize this is a sticky area, since so many diverse sects ardently believe they own the capital T Truth. But could there be review boards of reputable scientists and historians to weigh in on these areas?

    Finally…many thanks again for your kind words. But I have to say — it would be futile to write any sort of article at all if you and the other founders hadn’t created an open, safe environment in which to post them. For that, we’re all more than grateful.

    • AdLib says:

      I think 100 Senators with a one per state minimum would afford more versatility without increasing the size and expense of the Senate. That would leave 50 senators to be distributed around the U.S. whereas 120 would only provide for 20. I just don’t see why smaller states like Wyoming really need 2 Senators to represent 544,000 people when CA has only 2 Senators representing 37 million people.

      Why shouldn’t education in states have a minimum structure established by the federal government? As you say, doesn’t it damage the nation as a whole when one or more states damage the education and prospects of its students, as TX is doing?

      Thanks back to you for your kind props! Kalima, KQuark and I may have started the ball rolling but everything The Planet is comes from the community here of remarkable, thoughtful and witty members.

      • kesmarn says:

        I think in the matter of how many senators per state is best, I was putting myself in the shoes of the Wyoming resident who would be reduced to having only one senator. The all-or-nothing quality of my representation would be the thing that might freak me out.

        I’m not sure that the situation that we have in Ohio at the moment is ideal: with one Dem (the fabulous Sherrod Brown) and one Repub (the icky Rob Portman). But at least I feel represented by 50% of the team!

      • bitohistory says:

        I don’t think the situation of having 2 senators per state is the problem at all. To re-argue the case decided on the tyranny of the majority on the few seems futile. Living in Wyoming should not be seen as the lesser than those that choose to live in California.
        The sense of the purpose of the senate has been lost not the purpose of the senate. The senate was established to debate what was best for the country as a whole not a parochial body to debate what is best for one’s respective state.

        If I would add anything thing in respect to a change in the senate, it would be to add a pledge that all senators vow to that that their purpose is serve the country and NOT their respective states.

        The senate is not the place for populism, that is the job for the house.

        (can we bring back the stocks and tar and feathers for “pompous pundits” )

        • Mightywoof says:

          I’m going to have to backpeddle like crazy here -- it seems the Canadian Senate is so impressed with our American cousins’ example that they’ve just voted down (without debate) a lower house bill -- this has not happened (according to the CBC) since 1922. I was under the erroneous impression that the Senate up here couldn’t kill a bill -- how wrong could I get :roll:

          • bitohistory says:

            That is very curious, MW, that sounds just like our senate. Since 1922!? Wow. Has the whole world become so highly polarized that debate and discussion is no longer tolerated? I hope this is a one and out and not a trend for the sake of the Canadian people.

            • Mightywoof says:

              The Globe and Mail isn’t bad although I’ve always considered it to be a Conservative business paper.


              I’ve just run across The Hill Times which I haven’t read yet but it might be worth a looksee


              I’ll keep an eye open for other papers that may be interesting and not just devoted to local news

            • bitohistory says:

              Woof, Thank You, I will check them out.

            • Mightywoof says:

              So do I Bito!! This was a Climate bill which the Conservatives didn’t want but the opposition parties all outvoted them -- so the Conservatives just had it killed with their (unelected)Senate majority without even a debate in the Senate!!

              Our Conservatives under Harper are just as divisive as your own unfortunately and it’s becoming more apparent with every day that passes,

            • bitohistory says:

              Woof, do you have a good link ( one you like)to a site that has Canadian news? I keep getting dibs and dabs on news from up there. Thanks.

        • AdLib says:

          The real issue I think is that the concept of the states being stronger than the Federal government, as originally designed, is just not the way things are anymore.

          Senators are making decisions on national issues that can affect their states but typically affect the entire U.S..

          Is it really a representational government to have so many states with small populations dominating the Senate and the majority of the population?

          Is the tyranny of the minority preferable to a government that reflects the best interests of the majority?

          I would suggest that if one was to err, it would be on the side of what was best for the majority of Americans.

          So, if the prospect of having less power in the senate with an undesirable Senator is of concern, consider that if they had less power in The Senate, they would represent less of a threat. And if they were on the side of progress, they’d probably be in the majority.

          Bottom line, I think we need to be about progress and that would mean shifting power to those who are most progress-ive. Those trying to keep our feet nailed in place should be weakened politically, they are holding us back from solutions and transcending the issues we find ourselves consumed by right now.

          Consider how the Repubs typically dominate the low population states and the states with the highest populations are typically the most liberal and Progressive.

          Between tyranny of the minority or majority, I think majority would be more appropriate and constructive for this democracy.

        • Mightywoof says:

          Aha!! Thanks Bito -- it has been puzzling me for quite a while as to why there are two legislating bodies in your country! Both houses seem to write bills and then have to get together to iron out the differences. I had always assumed that the upper chamber (the Senate in both our countries and the House of Lords in the UK) was a place of ‘sober second thought’ that read and debated the bills passed by the lower house, made any changes they thought were necessary (sending the bill back to the lower house for debate and amendment) and finally passing the bill before sending it to the head of state (President, Governor General, the Queen) for signature. I would seem, from your post, that your Senate has overstepped it’s bounds in trying to both write legislation and win points off the party in power!!

          I agree that the make-up of the Senate (in Canada as well) is different from the lower house in that it is supposed to provide some relief from the tyranny of the majority but, for that reason, it should not become tyrannous (sp?) itself in forcing a minority view on the rest of the population. A balancing act that the current crop of Senators seem unable to accomplish!

          From the outside looking in -- I would say that the number one item in your Constitution re-write should be that corporations are not people, corporations do not have the rights of a natural-born, living, breathing human being and are only entitled to those rights as proscribed by the law of the land from time to time and that corporations are forbidden from being involved either openly or surreptitiously in politics and elections. That might solve all other problems!!

          This is a fascinating topic AdLib -- I can’t wait to see what the Planet’s Constitution will be like!

          • AdLib says:

            Thanks MightyWoof! I am right with you and Bito on making corporations businesses and not people…as outrageous as that sounds.

            Bito provided a fantastic quote from Jefferson on this. The author of The Declaration of Independence should be heeded I think, surely it was his and the other Founders’ intention that the people kept political power and influence away from corporations to protect its sanctity.

            The one way that this egregious Citizens United ruling could be reversed cleanly is to get a liberal majority in the SCOTUS that could reverse this unprincipled decision.

            We can only hope that aliens want to take Scalia, Alito and Thomas away to their home world for decades long “probes” to understand how they think with that part of their body.

          • bitohistory says:

            Woof, always good to hear your roar from up above the line. My feelings on the senate is that they do not need more latitude (members) but more attitude (what is the best for all the country). My humble eduction of the founders intentions lead me to believe that is what they attempted to do. Excellent comment explaining my thoughts.

            I would say that the number one item in your Constitution re-write should be that corporations are not people, corporations do not have the rights of a natural-born, living, breathing human being and are only entitled to those rights as proscribed by the law of the land from time to time and that corporations are forbidden from being involved either openly or surreptitiously in politics and elections. That might solve all other problems!!

            You stole my thoughts on that thought, woof. I’m not sure if it would solve all our problems, but it would be a mighty step towards righting many wrongs.

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