America: What went wrong, and how do we fix it?
Six local essayists re-imagine an America (and Nevada) that works for democracy
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We have endured as a free people because of our lasting embrace of the principles established by our Founding Fathers and enshrined in our country’s founding documents.
What we sometimes lose track of is that our Founding Fathers, because of their own individual backgrounds, had vastly different views on what our principles and rights should be and how to organize a new government. It took 12 years of negotiating from 1776 to 1789 before great compromises finally led to the creation of the United States of America. Put simply, we owe our existence to those who were willing to set aside their personal views and compromise for the greater good.
Our system of government has always relied on political compromise to work. Compromise keeps us from swinging to such extremes that we accidentally extinguish the country. Unfortunately, we now have groups of both liberal and conservative people in the country who, for their own private purposes and financial benefit, espouse and extol intolerance for points of view that differ from their own. They have persuaded naïve politicians to sign pledges promising to support special interests rather than the best interests of all of their constituents. It’s outrageous. And, it has led to an unworkable polarization of our political system, affecting governments at all levels.
We need to a send a strong message to all of our candidates for public office that we will no longer tolerate their making prior pledges to special interest groups. We do not want them compromised at the bargaining table. We want them to bargain on our behalf to bring the best solutions for all. One very effective way to send that message is by refusing to give financial support to any candidate who has signed a pledge to represent a special interest.
We also need to keep an eye on the new “open primary” system in California. The political parties and special interest groups hate it because it reduces their influence and limits their ability to line their own pockets by engaging in hate mongering. In California’s open primary, the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, face off in the general election. This was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idea to marginalize extreme candidates from both spectrums so that we end up with two reasonable candidates for voters to choose between. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
I am a Republican and a conservative. You can guess my views, and I can guess yours. What matters is electing people who can take all of our views, find intelligent compromises, based on our enduring principles, and advance the interests of us all.
Retired businessman Bruce R. James, a former candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, served in President George W. Bush’s administration as the 24th Public Printer of the United States, and chaired the bi-partisan Nevada Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission which made 44 recommendations to the Governor and Legislature for streamlining and reducing the cost of state government.
America’s deadly sins
The seven failings of American Democracy: Apathy. Spin. Financial Profligacy. Obscenity. Dearth. Vilification. Negligence.
Apathetic citizens not participating in the political party process at the central committee affects the caliber of the candidates we have to vote for or against. There is no viable party for moderates. Only full participation will change our options. Or we have to blow up the primary, hold a winnowing election with all voters narrowing all candidates, or hold a giant general election for all comers, however they define themselves.
The profligate amounts of money spent on television ad buys could be better spent solving the issues rather than airing the issuance of spinmeisters. Social media and the speed of the internet may be the saving grace. Politicians can no longer tell a group of donors one thing and say something different to voters. Twitter has dominated this election cycle with real time facts, commentary and thoughtful insight. Because we certainly aren’t going to see the FEC or the television stations forfeit those dollars and make equal airtime for all candidates regardless of level of office. It would be utopian to see that.
The money that can be channeled into political action committees by corporations obscenely affects the message. Corporations are not people. Our system is built on “one person, one vote” not stockholders and gazillionaires lobbying to make loopholes to circumvent campaign contribution limits. Only repealing Citizens United will address this.
With apologies to those citizens who’ve stepped up to run for local offices this year—because there are quite a few good ones—usually there is a dearth of qualified candidates, especially women, who run for office. We have a sufficient supply of old and middle-aged white guys in Congress and state legislatures. With equal representation in office, women bring a different approach to policy making. Not less than, not softer, not ineffective—different. But we are still vilifying female candidates from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton. The media were more worried about what these women wore or perpetuating misogynistic language in their questions and reporting than in either That 70’s Show or Mad Men. There are vastly different skill sets between Palin and Clinton, but they were equally atrociously treated as women candidates. When more women run more often, it will be less a novelty, especially for gubernatorial and federal races.
Negligence is the worst of the sins. According to the 2012 US Census of the 206-210 millions of eligible voters (2008 to 2010), only 65 percent registered in the 2008 presidential election and 60 percent in the 2010 congressional election. And of those registered, only 63.4 percent voted for presidential candidates, and it dropped to an abysmal 45.5 percent who actually made it to the polls in the last election. Not to mention the drop-off down the ballot. People died for our right to vote. We have no excuses to not cast our votes. None. Every citizen must vote.
Alison Gaulden works as a reproductive freedom fighter for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. She is a women’s advocate, political activist, journalism professor, student mentor, business owner and killer ballroom dancer.
Nevada: Canada’s biggest colony
In Aristotle’s view, involvement in the “polis” or political community was the highest aspiration. More than two millennia later, the mere mention of politics and public life gets an eye roll and a sneer.
And for good reason. Especially in Nevada, a place that, notwithstanding our love for its unique natural beauty or the tireless efforts of some dedicated elected and other fighters for justice, barely deserves to be called a state. Thanks to politicians beholden to special interests, we’re more akin to a British East India Company colony. Policies serve the best interests of the overlords; resources are extracted and sent to shareholders afar.
Nevada has nearly non-existent mining taxes compared to the rest of the world, the lowest gambling taxes in the world, and is one of three states with no corporate profits tax to help pay for the services that benefit those corporations. Trillions of dollars of wealth has been created here; the vast majority has been exported. It’s been like that since statehood, when riches from the Comstock mines built San Francisco and the Pacific Stock Exchange.
A lobbying cabal of gaming/mining/developers (we’ll call them “NV Inc.”) treats Nevada as its private casino, heaping campaign cash on candidates, then lobbying them to ensure the house rules give them a win every time.
Mining is the only industry that enjoys sweetheart tax loopholes enshrined in the state constitution, and as a result pays about a 1 percent mining tax to the state general fund. In Wyoming, the total mineral tax load can be as high as 25-30 percent. In 1989, Steve Wynn broke from NV Inc. and became the only gaming leader to publicly oppose mining’s tax loopholes. Unfortunately, he’s been silent ever since.
A decade later, Wynn hired lobbying powerhouse Harvey Whittemore to ensure special legislation was passed exempting Wynn from paying sales taxes on the purchase of his $200 million art collection, saving him millions.
In 2009, NV Inc. helped coax Brian Sandoval from a lifetime federal bench appointment to challenge Gov. Jim Gibbons, their tarnished star who began to stray too far off the leash. The anointed governor-in-waiting landed a job at Jones-Vargas law firm, which represents gaming and mining, and was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for what appeared to be little more than running for governor.
Not surprisingly, the governor now tows the line that if we raise mining taxes, mining will lay off workers and move to other countries. Gov. Sandoval should know that Barrick and Newmont, who account for 90 percent of all the state’s gold production, produce more gold from Nevada than from any single country. Their 1 percent mining tax bill is so small that neither corporation would pull up stakes if it were multiplied by several times.
NV Inc. is not uniformly nefarious. To its credit, the gambling sector has been instrumental in killing anti-immigrant policies, and in passing historic civil rights laws. It also provides, combined with the sales tax, two-thirds of all state revenues.
They say campaign finance reform is the reform that makes all other reforms possible. If we took the profit out of politics by providing public funds for elections, as 14 other states have, the system would reform itself.
Bob Fulkerson is executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
The United States of America is broke and broken.
The USA actually became the un-united states of angst years ago. But the nation transitioned into the un-united states of anger with the Great Recession of late.
How did we get here? Where to now?
Five things got us here: party faction; binary decision-making; automobiles; television, and the Federal Reserve banking system.
George Washington warned against factionalism, but it reared Medusa-like heads as soon as his first presidency packed it in, and he headed back to Mount Vernon.
But if two Medusa-like heads aren’t better than one, why not have three arrogant snake-infested noggins instead of two? Henceforth we need a Democrat, a Republican and an independent nominee for every office in each election.
Given that the Medusa-like media can’t keep candidates honest, make certain there is a third disorganized party made up of independents to change the dynamics of office seeking. If it improves nothing else, at least it will chase boredom.
That nearly takes care of factionalism and binary decision-making.
But offshoot enhancements could send the Electoral College into history’s dustbin, make service in the House of Representatives unpaid punishment for the losers who win, and select U.S. Senators by voting for nominees but holding a general election bidding war amongst the industries that will own them anyway. Money raised could reduce the national debt.
Now to automobiles and television.
These are proxies for mobility and vacuity. Movement from rural to urban life reached a tipping point 100 years ago, hastened by vehicles. Since then life coarsened, democratic institutions floundered and party machine bosses ruled … until TV and technology took over.
Television made the great unwashed wash, thanks to soap commercials, and sold good-looking and/or glib politicians like so many scrubbing bubbas to the squeaky clean masses. Given that Citizens United means money is speech, little can be done to curb TV ads and robo-calls hawking politicians. But I propose a national mute button veto.
We have the technology. It can be done. Once, say, 50 percent of the populace indicates via this mute button that they have seen the TV commercial or heard the robo-call enough, campaigns would have to take down the ad, robo-call or internet pop-up and use a new one.
It’s questionable whether officeholders would improve, but sanity might.
What can I say about the Federal Reserve? Scrap it before it turns federal reserve notes into confetti. As catcher and non-economist Yogi Berra said, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
Now enjoy some thoughts, in order, from S. L. Clemens, H. L. Mencken and P. J. O’Rourke.
“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
“All government, of course, is against liberty.”
“Giving government money and power is like giving car keys and whisky to a teenage boy.”
And one from me:
Always vote; never miss your chance to challenge nonsense and throw any discernible third-rate rapscallion off the public payroll.
J.B. Barrette is a former RN&R conservative columnist, a current part-time reporter for the Nevada Appeal and a blogger at jbbondsplus.com, which offers facts and opinion on markets, economics, politics, government and the human condition.
We can always find a way
Let’s start with what’s right. Our political system is still pretty amazing. Despite dire warnings from all sides, America isn’t some delicate flower that can be torn apart by the outcome of one election. The Pew Research Center, in an article titled, “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years,” http://tinyurl.com/6p7b8rq, notes that most people still believe “as Americans, we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.”
At the same time, there is plenty of room for improvement in our political system. I think there are a few structural reasons for the growing partisanship and gridlock:
Redistricting stacks the deck. Every 10 years, the state legislature gets to redraw the lines for state and federal offices. There are legal parameters the mapmakers have to follow, but within those limits, the party in power (naturally) does everything it can to solidify its own power base and weaken its opponent’s. Safe districts are created by collecting friendly voters in a few districts and concentrating the unfriendly voters in as few districts as possible. Candidates on both sides of the aisle end up with friendly districts.
There are a few downsides: Safe districts are less likely to elect moderates. Over time, the moderate elected officials have a harder and harder time competing against more liberal or more conservative candidates who have an easier time rallying their base voters.
Candidates in safe seats don’t have to spend as much money in their own races, so they can save up and help candidates in the few competitive races that are left. This makes for expensive and negative campaigns.
Closed primaries leave independent voters without a voice in the process. By the time independents and nonpartisans get to vote in the general election, they can only choose between candidates who embody the more extreme philosophies of their parties.
While Americans aren’t growing apart on other values measures, we are increasingly polarized over partisan politics.
Give redistricting to an independent council. Our latest round of redistricting, carried out by three special masters, seemed less contentious and created a handful of competitive districts.
Encourage the creation of more truly competitive districts to encourage a better exchange of ideas in the legislature.
Support transparency in campaign funding and contribution levels.
Open up the primaries, so moderates can influence not only the election but also the policies that are taken up by the legislature.
To really tackle the problems we face as a country, we are going to need meaningful participation and input from everyone: conservative, liberal, moderate or independent. That’s one of the things that makes this country so amazing: We can always find a way.
Elisa Cafferata is fourth-generation Nevadan who has worked for the GOP at the local, state and national levels.
A four-point plan to recovery
Our system of government is broken, on the verge of being dysfunctional. We not only have to fix the broken governance system, we have to politically neuter the neo-cons, political right-wingers, the anti-government, anti-tax, no-compromise troglodytes. These miscreants are destroying our way of life, and if we don’t do something they will destroy us.
There are serious problems causing the cracks in governance. First, most Americans are always concerned about size, cost and effectiveness of government programs. We rely on our elected officials to help us keep government in balance—what’s needed, what’s wanted, and what’s affordable. We debate, negotiate and make decisions. But today, there is a powerful anti-government narrative —funded by super PACS after Citizens United—that spews out hate and fear about government and its employees, although government is smaller, generally, than it has been in decades. It’s becoming increasing difficult to recruit highly skilled state and federal employees. If this narrative continues, government programs, including public schools, will unravel.
The second problem is anti-tax sentiment. No one likes taxes. But most reasonable people realize you must have a source of revenue to operate effective government. Anti-tax rhetoric has reached a crescendo. Virtually all congressional Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. If they don’t sign it, he runs a well— funded Tea Party candidate against them in a primary. Ugly. Un-American. Perhaps bordering on treasonous.
The third problem is the lack of bipartisan collaboration and civil discourse. If you can’t work together nothing will get done. We saw this take place when President Obama was elected and both the Senate and House Republican leadership directed their caucuses not to act on any important administration bill. It may have been a racist reaction to our first black president, and the political desire to make Barack Obama a one-term President. The hatred among the Republican leadership is palpable. That disdain has apparently seeped into our states’ governance systems, especially among the new Republican leaders, as they lash out against public employee unions and in some cases against teachers. Reprehensible.
There are several things we need to do to regain control of our government:
• Mount a major campaign to help citizens and business leaders understand that good government is necessary for effective business. If we don’t support government, it won’t work—nor will we.
• Don’t elect any officials, at any level, who expresses disdain for government, seeking to make it small and ineffective.
• Don’t elect any official who has signed (or will sign) the Norquist anti-tax pledge. They have no interest in us.
• Get big money out of elections. Institute 90-day national elections—publicly funded.
As citizens we need to take control and make a difference in our governance.
—Eugene T. Paslov
Dr. Paslov is the retired State Superintendent of Public Instruction of Nevada and Michigan and former president of Harcourt Education Assessment, Inc. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey 1963-1965.