Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Democracy Is In Danger, a response to Al Gore

Former Vice President Al Gore spoke on October 5th, 2005 to a media conference in New York. (1) The speech, while full of the usual partisan attacks one would expect from a diehard Republocrat, is exceptional nonetheless. Gore's main point is that American "democracy" is in grave danger. He offers many explanations of that danger, from apathy of the citizenry, to the one way nature of television, to the corporatization of news, to the corruption of the political system by the rich and so-called "special interests". Gore concludes with a call to arms, to protect the freedom of the internet, and a plug for his television channel, Current.

Below are excerpts from the speech, please try to ignore his partisan bias, and instead see the message for what it would be without that bias, as we all know, nothing new and radical has happened since the Bush presidency, and all of these arguments and statements could easily be made about the Clinton administration, of which Gore was a part.

" But whether you agree with his assessment or not, Senator Byrd's question is like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about questions as important as the choice between war and peace?

Those of us who have served in the Senate and watched it change over time, could volunteer an answer to Senator Byrd's two questions: the Senate was silent on the eve of war because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much any more. And the chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else: they were in fundraisers collecting money from special interests in order to buy 30-second TVcommercials for their next re-election campaign."

Where was debate??? The appropriate question is why has congress given up its war powers? Only congress has the power to "declare war". This has been going on for decades, and the result has been the same during almost every "conflict". A president, Democrat or Republican, sends our military overseas to kill and be killed, without a declaration of war. Because the congress has no vested interest in the success of the war, as they have not approved of it with a declaration of war, the opposition party waits, and hungers for American failure and/or tragedy. As soon as anything goes wrong, the opposition party politicizes the situation and begins hurling partisan attacks. Mistakes are part of human nature, and therefore everything humans do. But when America engages in "conflict", mistakes become fodder for one side of the political class to attack the other. Its great theater, but that is all it is. Neither side is willing to take responsibility, either by declaring war at the congressional level, or by stopping the non-war conflicts from happening in the first place. If Mr. Gore would admit this situation has existed regardless of which side of the political class was in office, it would be a big first step toward a real, sincere, discussion of issues, rather than the political bickering that his speech resembles.

"But some extremely important elements of American Democracy have been pushed to the sidelines . And the most prominent casualty has been the "marketplace of ideas" that was so beloved and so carefully protected by our Founders. It effectively no longer exists.

It is not that we no longer share ideas with one another about public matters; of course we do. But the "Public Forum" in which our Founders searched for general agreement and applied the Rule of Reason has been grossly distorted and "restructured" beyond all recognition."

"Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens."

These are great points. Indeed, the power of television and the way it is used by the political class to exclude citizens from participation in the political system is scandalous. One great example of this exclusion is the presidential debate system. I would like to see Mr. Gore support inclusion of third party candidates in the presidential debates. The exclusion in the debates helps to create a system in which no other candidate can get enough news coverage to generate a real following. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy that the Republocrats have been too happy to create, for no other purpose than maintaining their partnership of power. A candidate cannot get into the debate, unless he polls at 15% (or some other magical number), which also seems to be the point at which the media begins to cover him. How can he get to 15% with no coverage and no exposure in the debates? What happens to his issues? What happens to all of those who are completely disillusioned with our political process when no candidate willing to discuss the issues they care about is able to get anywhere in our political system? Those voters are marginalized, and then the media and political class wonder why there is such an amazingly low voter turnout... Perhaps it is because the two parties in power offer no real differences, anyone that might upset the status quo is effectively excluded from the political system. If one must limit the number of participants, limit it to the number of candidates who managed to get on the ballot in enough states to win the electoral college. That demonstrates substantial grass roots and popular support, rather than limiting participants based on some magic polling number given to us by a media that we all agree is broken.

"Soon after television established its dominance over print, young people who realized they were being shut out of the dialogue of democracy came up with a new form of expression in an effort to join the national conversation: the "demonstration." This new form of expression, which began in the 1960s, was essentially a poor quality theatrical production designed to capture the attention of the television cameras long enough to hold up a sign with a few printed words to convey, however plaintively, a message to the American people. Even this outlet is now rarely an avenue for expression on national television."

Demonstrations were certainly not new in the 1960's. Perhaps another perspective would help Mr. Gore understand the hopelessness with which citizens are faced when dealing with political disagreement. With the federalization of so much of life (prior to FDR, and certainly prior to the "live for the collective" attitude renewed by JFK, many issues could be resolved at the state level, where they belong), bringing about change on an issue one cares about is viewed as impossible. Many don't even bother trying, as they are not rich enough, or connected enough to be heard. I have been told by people familiar with my blog "its nice that you think you can make a difference", as they suggest that even trying to bring about civilized, issue oriented discussion, with a hope of returning the country to constitutional rule is hopeless. Before bastardization of the commerce clause, and before the Federal Government decided it could do anything it pleased, regardless of constitutional limits, one only had to deal with state and local governments, which by their very nature are far more accountable than a massive sprawling, ever-growing federal bureaucracy.

"As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. -- including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine - though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves."

Here Mr. Gore displays his knack for digressing into partisan bickering. First, to believe that federal regulations on "equal time" and "fairness" were successful is a great leap of faith. It more realistically means that the behavior of the media conformed to the ideals of Mr. Gore. Calling Rush Limbaugh a "hate-monger" is certainly not a step toward civil, issue oriented discourse. I could just as easily call Mr. Gore a tree-hugging communist. But I won't, because I am interested in discussing those legitimate issues he brings up, and hoping he will read this, wish to have my points viewed as constructive.

"The present executive branch has made it a practice to try and control and intimidate news organizations: from PBS to CBS to Newsweek. They placed a former male escort in the White House press pool to pose as a reporter - and then called upon him to give the president a hand at crucial moments. They paid actors to make make phony video press releases and paid cash to some reporters who were willing to take it in return for positive stories. And every day they unleash squadrons of digital brownshirts to harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the President."

To gain any credibility, with those of us that agree problems exist with our political system and the state of the media, Mr. Gore ought to go and site some abuses of power and misuse of the media by the previous administration, the administration of which he was a part. I could do it for him, as could pretty much anyone else not blinded by partisan hatred, but that would defeat the purpose. The first step to fixing the problem, for an insider, someone who has participated in getting our country into the mess we find ourselves, is to admit his own participation, and the participation of his friends and colleagues in the breakdown of our system.

"Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather - who was, of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House - television news has been "dumbed down and tarted up.""

Sentence one is almost spot on. Mr. Gore forgot to add that the unrestrained political leanings of the "journalists" is another factor in the scandals, fabricated sources, etc. The failure of whatever executives are overseeing, or not overseeing modern "news" operations, to reign in blatant opinion masquerading as news is maddening. Unfortunately, Mr. Gore chose to misrepresent the situation surrounding Dan Rather, who ran a purely political hatchet job on the President. Rather's response was essentially, it didn't matter if he had proof of his accusations, because everybody knew his accusations to be true. Regardless of what side you are on, if you cannot admit that Rather crossed a line, you are part of the problem. No matter how much you hate the president, you cannot excuse sloppy, libelous, and fictionally-based attacks on him. Indeed, there is so much else to attack the president for, there are real, important issues affecting us today with which one could take issue with Bush's positions, actions, and inaction. To excuse what Dan Rather did, and then suggest that the current administration was wrong in being angry is to not grasp the real problem, and to declare oneself in favor of that sort of behavior, as long as it is done by his people and not the other side.

"That is why the House and Senate campaign committees now search for candidates who are multi-millionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources. As one consequence, the halls of Congress are now filling up with the wealthy.

Campaign finance reform, however well it is drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the only means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue by one means or another to dominate American politic s. And ideas will no longer mediate between wealth and power."

The halls of Congress have been filled with the wealthy and well connected for a very long time. Campaign finance reform is a red-herring. When a law is passed stating that no individual can give over $1000 to a campaign for example, it is the small, less organized third parties who suffer. The size and organization of the Republocrat parties is such that they can, and do funnel money around to ensure their candidates get all the money they need, as is quite clear by the skyrocketing amount of money spent on their campaigns. Third party candidates must now find 10 people each with $1000, rather than one person with $10,000 to help them raise money, which makes it much more difficult to be heard. The only way to put an end to "special interests" ruling the political system, whether they be corporations, or unions, is to remove the prize. Those groups will not spend all of that money for nothing. Unfortunately, the political class has shown it enjoys its status and is unable to restrain itself from the orgy of spending and trampling of the constitution it does day in and day out in Washington. The only way to stop this, is to take back from the federal government the rights it has usurped. We need true tax reform(2) to take away the money special interests jockey for, and we need to roll back the extra-constitutional powers the special interests beg the government to use in their favor. Only then, when there is no prize, no chance of corruption because there is no power to be corrupted, will our nation recover.

"The final point I want to make is this: We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Worldwide Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it because some of the same forces of corporate consolidation and control that have distorted the television marketplace have an interest in controlling the Internet marketplace as well. Far too much is at stake to ever allow that to happen.

We must ensure by all means possible that this medium of democracy's future develops in the mold of the open and free marketplace of ideas that our Founders knew was essential to the health and survival of freedom."

On this we can also mostly agree. The internet and technology industry must remain open and free to progress, or those industries will meet the same fate as every other industry the federal government has chosen to extort through regulation. It is through federal regulation that "forces of corporate consolidation" hope to conquer the freedom of the internet and all technology. In a free and open market, where consumers are free to choose, the internet will succeed. It will grow and evolve as it already has. It is due to the lack of regulation and federal involvement that the barrier to entry in the technology marketplace is negligible. As federal regulation moves in, only the large companies will be able to satisfy those regulations, they and their lobbyists will see to it, as they have in so many other industries. We must also be wary of special interests promoting federal regulation, as they are knowingly or unknowingly contributing to the power the federal government has, which it will, as it always has, by its very nature, abuse.

That last point I want to make is that Al Gore made a huge step in this speech. He acknowledged that there are serious problems with our political system. He argues that the internet has the potential to serve as a medium through which normal citizens, like me, can be heard. He is absolutely right. He is also right that we must protect the freedom of the internet. He probably wants to go about it the wrong way, and has shown throughout his speech that he is certainly not over being a partisan hack. I do however, still appreciate the speech and believe it is worth reading and considering. I would be ecstatic to see Mr. Gore begin to take a less partisan, and more issue based approach to the problems he believes exist. I believe he is intelligent and has a lot to contribute to debates and arguments. But, until he renounces and walks away from the partisan way in which he has conducted himself, he will continue to stain his message and ensure that he is not going to be heard by the only people that care, those of us who clearly see that the system is broken, and that the Republocrats as they exist today are the problem, and have no interest in a solution that does not have them in a position of power.

(1) Al Gore's speech
(2) Tax reform