Monday, December 11, 2006

Election Reform, Part 2

Americans have an amazingly and overwhelmingly low opinion of their elected officials. The vast majority of Americans distrust the politicians who represent them, and it appears that that distrust is warranted. Yet, we keep electing the same people, and if not the same people, seemingly the same type of people. Our trust in our politicians is declining, and the democratic process is not working as it theoretically should to reverse that trend.

Why is this? In theory, a democratically-elected representative should be at least palatable to at least a majority of the population that is willing to express an opinion. Ideally, our democratic process would cause the natural leaders who hold broadly-accepted viewpoints and have strong leadership qualities to be chosen for leadershop roles. But this does not seem to be the norm. Why?

There are a few reasons for this that I can hypothesize:

* Our single-vote system forces people into making an economic decision to vote for a least-bad candidate that has a "chance of winning", rather than "wasting" their vote on a more desirable candidate. This forces a "rich get richer, poor get poorer" system where new viewpoints cannot get a fair hearing.

* Reliable and useful information about candidates is too hard to come by. Media spin and advertisements dominate the information landscape. It is not possible to communicate complicated concepts in those environments, so the best marketers get elected, not the best legislators.

* Growing out of the first two, the entire political landscape has turned into a two-sided war of attacks that flow out of protectionism, power-grabbing, and arrogance. "Bipartisanship" requires mutual respect and understanding, qualities which are lacking not only from our politicians but from the majority of the electorate.

Given that, I'd like to offer a few suggestions for steps that I think are plausible (though not likely), which I think would move us toward a more healthy democracy.

It's a bit peculiar to have a "Part 2" to this series when there was no "Part 1". But, you'll have to bear with me, because Part 1 developed itself in comments to previous posts, and I don't feel like rewriting it. :)

In short, Part 1 was my suggestion of switching to an alternate voting process that allows for multiple tiered votes, so that a voter can actually express their support for their preferred candidate, while also hedging their bets with a vote for a "least-bad" candidate. There are a number of suggested systems, and one that is actually beginning to be used in various cities and counties. For more, read the comments from the posts here and here.

For Part 2, I want to suggest a method of improving our knowledge about the legislative abilities of our candidates. I got the idea for this from a post on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, which refers to an article on titled Democrats' New Intelligence Chairman Needs a Crash Course on al Qaeda. Don't misunderstand that article because of it's title... it rightly criticizes Republicans as much as Democrats.

Jeff Stein, who wrote the article, interviewed a number of politicians, asking them relatively basic questions about the political landscape in the Middle East. Their answers, as reported by him, were frighteningly wrong.

So here's my suggestion. Some organization should put together an annual exam for politicians. For national leaders, it could include basic pertinent facts about world leaders that we have interactions with, international dynamics, that sort of thing. There could be a couple of more difficult questions, and an essay question. For domestic issues, there could be questions about the state of Social Security, pertinent details of various significant trade and immigration issues... a test, in short, to show whether our elected officials actually know anything of what they're dealing with, or whether they're just salespeople and marketers making guesses at public opinion (or, even worse, making uninformed decisions because of their love of power).

The multiple choice parts of the test could be easily graded. The rest (essay questions and the like) would simply be published as written. Politicians would have to take the test themselves (no pawning it off on a research assistant), in a monitored and timed environment.

I suggest that the President and every member of Congress should be required to take the exam every year. Imagine how much useful information that would give us! In election years, the test could also be given to candidates.

It would be wonderful, in my opinion, to be able to evaluate candidates not based on policy stances (I will vote for this, but not for that... probably... unless I change my mind once I'm elected), but based on their grasp of the facts that will be critical in making decisions.

Maybe, instead of the written essay part of the exam, it could be a recorded 10-minute speech on a given topic. Then, we would have not only a good read on their knowledge of the situation, but a feel for their ability to communicate and persuade as well.

An exam such as this would not bring immediate improvement. Most people would get their information about the exam through the media, and would only hear soundbites from the speeches and brief overviews of the test results. But, those of us who were willing to take the time to learn more would have all that information available to us... and, having the format restricted would allow us to compare and contrast candidates effectively in substantive areas, in ways that are not possible in the current spin-driven political landscape. Over time, the availability of that information would hopefully build an audience for it.

What do you think? Is this at all plausible? Would it be useful, if it were plausible? Do you have other suggestions for ways that we could get more substantive information about our elected politicians and candidates for office?


Monday, December 04, 2006

Invade Darfur?

The genocide in Darfur has been going on for a long time now, and the situation is only getting worse. The question that perplexes me is this: what can we, as Westerners, do?

Most of the advocacy that I've heard here in America has been political (whether overt or suggestive). In fact, the majority of the talk about this issue in America seems to be primarily focused on President Bush. See, for example, this appeal on the Evangelicals for Darfur website, which says that without Bush, "Darfur doesn't have a prayer"; this, of course, assumes that it has a prayer if Bush would only do something. That something, as far as I can tell, is only specified as "leading the world" in "supporting the deployment of a strong U.N. peacekeeping force and multilateral economic sanctions".

The site takes a similar line on its splash page. It also has a "Take Action" section which lists a few steps individuals can take: Lobby Congress... and get other people to lobby Congress. That's about it.

The site proclaims boldly on its headline, "Darfur: A Genocide We Can Stop". It also has a "Take Action" page. It advocates emailing President Bush "urging him to end the genocide" (how, exactly?), signing a petition, or... getting other people to do the same things.

A quick Google search of the Common Dreams progressive news site for the word Darfur makes quite clear that here in America, the Darfur situation is attached to President Bush, not to the militants themselves or to the Sudanese government which is inexcusably supporting the genocide... or even to the leaders of the Arab world community, who have remained largely silent (and who could have more potential diplomatic impact, certainly, than Westerners).

A blogger that I respect, Mark Daniels, posted a plea on his site recently for us to "stir ourselves to take the substantive steps to bring [the genocide] to an end." I asked him, in the comments, what steps he would recommend. He couldn't suggest any beyond a UN peacekeeping force... presumably more powerful than the one that currently exists, and more determined than the one that gave up when it met resistance from the Sudanese government.

Here's what primarily perplexes me, though. It appears to me that there is only one solution that the Western world can provide to the Darfur genocide... overwhelming force. That force will be fought against a ruthless indigenous force that is expert at blending into its civilian surroundings. And, the official Sudanese government has made it clear that we'll also have to fight the Sudanese military, so a regime change will also be necessary. Are we picking up some familiar themes here?

Oddly, it is primarily liberal/progressive groups that are calling for overwhelming UN forces and regime change (though they certainly don't use those words). Can we expect that the results in Sudan would be any better than the results in Iraq?

And, if the onus is on President Bush to "lead the world" to bring this about... then shouldn't we expect that the bulk of the troops that make up this UN force would come from the United States? It's not like the UN has its own army. Leadership would require commitment of troops.

Are progressives/liberals actually suggesting that we invade Sudan, impose regime change, and occupy the Darfur region indefinitely to prevent genocide? I see no other possible result of their advocacy, were it followed.

America has, to this point in our history, generally avoided any sort of military action that was not (at least purportedly) related to our own security. Vietnam was a bulkhead war against the Communists, as I understand it. The World Wars were to prevent a fascist regime from taking over Europe, eradicating our allies, and getting strong enough to take over America as well. The first Iraq war was to protect the oil supply that we (and our military) rely on, and again to protect critical allies. The second Iraq war was at least sold as a protective measure against future invasive terrorist attacks. In all of these cases, there was an enemy, whether the direct enemy we were fighting or some other enemy behind the scenes, that was threatening us in some way.

No such justification for military action can even tangentially be considered for the Sudan situation. Darfur, in that way, is much more similar to the Bosnian War. The UN did send a peacekeeping force, and the US was involved... but I have a feeling that if we were to replicate that level of involvement in Darfur, it would be inconsequential. The landscape is different, the nature of the conflict is different.

Are we willing to lead the way on a Bosnia-style intervention, except on a much larger scale? And are progressives/liberals actually pushing for such intervention?

Apart from a massive military invasion by a UN peacekeeping force largely peopled with US troops, fighting not only insurgents on their home turf but the Sudanese army as well, and maintaining a military presence in Sudan for an indefinite period of time to maintain the peace... apart from that, are there any practical suggestions on the table for what Western nations can do about Darfur?

I did come across one possibility in my researches. General economic sanctions aren't working, because Sudan is having no trouble finding non-Western customers for its goods. But, this article from the Genocide Intervention Network suggests indirect economic sanctions. That is, find any ways that any organizations we might have influence over do business with any other organizations that do business with Sudan... and cut off those business ties. That would take a huge degree of collective effort and will from the American people. I wonder if it would be feasible, and if it would be effective were it carried out. And, I wonder what I can do to start the process.

Unfortunately, as long as the bulk of our energy is aimed at President Bush, or even the UN, I doubt we'll see any progress at all.


Who's the head white guy?

That quote came from Jay Leno (at least, according to Joseph H. Brown in the Tampa Tribune) in his comic monologue in the aftermath of Michael Richards' recent racist outburst. Richards, it seems, sought out Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his effort to apologize to blacks in this country that were offended by his comments (and, presumably, to salvage some chance at a future career).

Why are Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson the de facto "spokespeople" for the entire black community in America? As the Tampa Tribune points out, this presumed lack of diversity is "more racist" even than Richards' epithets.

And, Mark Byron adds an additional perspective on his blog (which got me thinking this direction in the first place)... evangelical Christians have such purported spokespeople, too, spokespeople that most of the evangelical Christians in my community could care less about. Why are Pat Robertson and (to a lesser degree) Jerry Falwell still quoted so consistently? I can understand James Dobson... he certainly is a massively influential leader. I can understand Rick Warren, too. But Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?

I'm sure other groups of every political stripe have the same not-necessarily-representative spokespeople appointed for them in the media. It's an issue of convenience, I'm sure, and the need for quick turnaround and attention-grabbing soundbites, that drives the trend. But it's not benign by any means.

I would love to see news reporting that, even (or especially) in the early stages of a story, is focused on fact-gathering and confirmation of details, and minimizes the "opinions and reactions" angle. For example, consider the recent story of the six imams getting kicked off a US Airways flight. I still don't have a clear picture in my head of what happened, because the news reports rushed out without sufficient detail, or without confirming what they were told, and focused on opinions and reactions from various involved individuals or national advocacy groups. How can we evaluate those opinions without knowing what happened?

Were the six imams led off in handcuffs, or not? For quite a while I heard that they were, then more recently I heard that they were not. Did they cooperate with airline personnel with regard to their seating arrangements or not? Were they praying in the terminal or on the airplane, or both? Why exactly did the pilot determine that they were a risk to the safety of the flight? What is their explanation for getting seatbelt extenders that they didn't use?

And why were none of those questions answered (and most of them not even asked) in the news reports I read and heard? With so many witnesses on the plane and in the terminal, why did news organizations have such a hard time getting reliable eyewitness reports, correlated with other eyewitness reports, to determine what really happened, even within the first day after the event occurred? As far as I know, that didn't happen, and misinformation was propagated for days before much-belated corrections became available.

For a much worse, costly, even disastrous example of how such sensational, uncorroborated reporting can go awry, one need only look at the situation in the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I wish we as a society could learn to care more about questions of fact, more about the "what really happened", than about the sensationalism of the offended parties, the politically-motivated spin of the advocacy groups, or the staged debates on "news" programs between uninformed "experts" spouting opinions that are as controversial as possible in an effort to be sensational and get more viewers. They'll keep doing it as long as we're watching.