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Mike Johnson '11: The death of democracy

Senator Evan Bayh's recent decision to retire instead of seek re-election is an indicator of a larger trend in American government today — democracy is slowly dying. It's not a pretty death; rather, it's more like the long, protracted, gruesome death of a Western movie character. Shane isn't turning around; he's dead on his horse.

The U.S. Senate is supposed to be the prestigious, deliberative body that rightly slows the legislative process. Instead, it has become the playground for partisan zealots on a constant campaign, so devoted to party politics that if their group controls fewer than 50 seats, it's time to walk out of the chamber. Those with over 50 seats constantly call for cooperation without offering any of their own, and the precious few who dare walk the fine line between liberal and conservative are bullied and coerced until they choose a side.

Majority rule has already gone the way of the dodo in the Senate, an assassination that was remarkably undocumented until the public realized that they might need to actually pass a law every now and then. The only things that aren't filibustered nowadays are massive spending bills that run up trillion-dollar deficits. When a bill shockingly looks to trim the deficit, the minority party shouts it down and the majority party balks in view of the latest CNN poll.

For 12 years, all I heard on the news were conservative voices calling liberals "the party of no," without any meaningful alternatives. For the past two, all I've heard are the same voices shouting "no" even louder. From the far right comes the "Tea Party," a group founded on anti-establishment emotions and anti-government rhetoric, advocating a complete lack of government control, including taxes.

If that isn't a group of people founded on the word "no," I don't know what is. But it isn't just conservatives. The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate Majority Leader are two of the most liberal members of their respective bodies.

As a result, the middle is evaporating— the most deliberative body on the planet is losing its deliberators. The Bayhs, the McCains, the Snowes and the Dodds of the Senate either won't run or face steep odds for re-election. Some may cite them as being "out of touch" with their constituents, and they may be right — but is that really such a bad thing?
The Compromise of 1850 saved the nation. It was effectively a punt, footing the bill of an inevitable war to later Americans who bled for it. Yet can anyone really say for certain if Presidents Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan or Franklin Pierce would have kept the Union together, as Lincoln did ten years later?

That deal was brokered in the Senate by a bipartisan effort from two moderates: a Whig, the precursors to Lincoln's Republicans, and a Democrat. Senator Henry Clay ignored the clamoring of the South to expand slavery, while Senator Stephen Douglas ignored the abolitionists' demands to eliminate the practice forever. They were decidedly "out of touch," but they saved the United States.

But in the era of instant media and constant polling, senators and congressmen have to campaign for their jobs every time they raise their voices to vote. The freedom of information in today's society allows anyone with access to Google to pull up voting records and immediately start slinging mud. 

The only reason "parties of no" exist is because we allow them to. We like rock star politicians who wink at us and with whom we think we'd like to have a beer. We like politicians with spunk. We like people who take a stand and stick to it no matter what. We like men and women of determined action.

As a result, we'll have a 54–46 split of the votes, and nothing will pass, save ever-ballooning defense spending and Medicare bills, overtaxed by the costs of building bigger weapons and the ever-aging population of the nation. Rather than debating legislation, senators will sit in their offices six days a week, walking the minimum to the chamber to vote on a heavily earmarked bill.

The perpetual campaign will kill American democracy. Rather than deliberating over problems, the men and women we elect will be content to scream at each other, spouting names like "baby-killer," "hawk," "tree-hugger" and "fear-monger." They will do this because that's what we'll elect them to do. For as long as we as voters respond to 24-hour political coverage by networks, and as long as we vote for whom Rush, Glenn, Keith and Rachel tell us to, the Senate will become more and more impotent.

We all stand to lose with the loss of the middle. American prosperity and progress have been built on the backs and in the minds of that middle, the unsung moderate who is willing to sacrifice nights and holidays to ensure the safety of this nation. But as long as we vote for the partisan who screams the loudest, democracy dies to the sound of our thunderous applause.

Mike Johnson '11 is waiting for Order 66.


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