This is the first of, hopefully many, posts by a guest writer. Appropriately, my main man Stein Time gets the honors.
The criticism that politicians lack the testicular fortitude to back unpopular or broadly-impacting reforms because they must maintain relations with a local constituency is misdirected. Representative democracy is ill-equipped to deal with long-term issues- like climate change, healthcare, and social security- or acute problems that require a fundamental overhaul, like our financial regulatory system. But the reality of creating a majority coalition among 435 congressmen and 100 senators in a two-party system crippled by partisanship (see stimulus package) is that issues prone to negative-spin, like prison and drug reform, are consciously ignored.
Take prison reform. It is a system that, by design or not, is fraught with flaws: overcrowding, racial disparities, draconian penalties for non-violent drug crimes, etc. To suggest that reducing penalties for certain drug crimes, or that treatment, rather than incarceration, might be a part of the solution, is to risk being labeled “soft on crime,” an undesirable epithet for a politician in a close race. Even if a politician were able to successfully provide treatment, rather than prison time, with great success to non-violent drug offenders, he or she can rest assured that, like Michael Dukakis, everyone will know the name of the first one to commit a violent crime. So what to do? Nothing, don’t bother. It’s not worth it. The risks of failure far outweigh the benefits of success. The affected population is already marginalized, largely isolated, and of no value to anyone but the individuals, their families, and their communities. Hell, even if you help them they probably aren’t allowed to vote in your state. Standing up for logical reforms could jeopardize the success of (slightly) more palatable changes to other issues, like education. Your opponents will tear you apart, you risk alienating your core constituencies, and your political career will be short and undistinguished. Best to stick to more popular reforms, like the old John McCain pork-barrel special, that will endear yourself to your constituency, keep your job for a few more years, and allow you to gain influence through tenure, like Teddy the Lion or Smokin’ Joe Biden.
For the reasons described above, the legislative bodies of representative democracies are a quagmire by design. One way to break the gridlock is to drive reforms through from above through a strong unitary executive and a general “fuck you” attitude. But, as history tells us, this approach has its limitations (see George W. Bush). Another alternative is to look at other forms of government. Say what you will about human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government, they know how to get that double-digit GDP growth, and have managed to implement, by most accounts, a fairly successful stimulus package. I am not advocating either of these alternatives – Winston Churchill says the democracy is the best form of government except for all the rest – but these two approaches know how to take care of a stalemate in the legislative body.
That said, Obama managed to send an $800 billion stimulus package and a $3 trillion budget through congress, and is in the process of moving climate change and healthcare reforms through the house and senate before the summer is done. Maybe there is a third way to break the legislative stalemate: wait for the other guys to massively fuck up, and then ram it through like a freight train. Kudos to Karl Rove.