Rethinking Democracy

Democracy is messy, especially in a country as diverse and as large as the United States of America. Yet 2016 feels exceptional on all fronts.

President Obama, now into his eighth year in office, will not not sign any meaningful legislation into law.  A Republican-controlled congress will see to that; for example, Congress will not even have the decency to hear out President Obama’s 2016 budget. Senate Budget Chairman Mike earlier this year declared that the he will forgo the “decades-long” tradition of hearing the Office of Management and Budget Director’s testimony. Given the President’s budget contains policy objectives for 2016 and beyond, Congress will (again) turn a deaf ear to the President’s agenda. President Obama will undoubtedly return the favor should Congress try to pass any of its own legislation. In short, Congress will be a place where progressive and conservative policies alike go to die.

The U.S. Supreme Court now finds itself with eight U.S. Supreme Court Justices; Antonin Scalia passed earlier this year. Mourn his passing or not, Scalia’s death injected yet more politics into the U.S. Government’s most apolitical institution. Not that Scalia was apolitical himself – friends and foes alike would describe him as the polar opposite – but appointing U.S. Supreme Court justices for life lends credibility to the institution and isolates the Court from popular opinion.  The 5-4 decisions, including the one that saved the American Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), solved problems when Congress and the President could not.

No longer. The 4-4 decisions that we will see this year will simply reinforce the notion that not Congress, not the President, and now, not even the Courts, can capably chart this nation’s course. The one institution deliberately designed to stay above the political fray and resolve disputes can no longer do so. There is at least one silver lining: watching Congress and President Obama fight against and for a nomination, respectively, will provide some of the best political drama this year.

And now we find ourselves eight months away from a decisive presidential election. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee and current frontrunner, has trouble outrunning endorsements by the KKK. In response, House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Mach 1, 2016 that the Republican Party does not “prey on people’s prejudices.” Yet the Speaker never called out Trump by name, and in the same speech said he plans to support the nominee.

My issue is this: 8.5% of the voting population (18+) has voted thus far in the Democratic and Republican primaries. That comes to 20,842,439 people, according to the good folks at Politco and AP. How in the world does it make sense that some twenty million people decide the only two candidates that can possibly stand a legitimate chance at running for the world’s most powerful office, when the U.S. Census Bureau pegged the U.S. voting age population at 245,201,076 (July 2014).

Taken together, the system fails. The primary system fails because it does not consistently produce candidates with mainstream appeal. Congress fails not because voters choose the lawmakers, but because lawmakers use gerrymandering to predetermine the outcome. The Presidency fails because progressives are numerous enough to win the general election, conservatives pull enough weight to control Congress, and the result is gridlock. Throw in a now-dysfunctional U.S. Supreme Court, and the check and balance system is left will all of the checks and none of the balance.

The country needs change. The country must expand beyond a two party system. The country must end gerrymandering. The legislative and executive branches need to do their job and restore the judiciary by electing a ninth justice. The government must find a way to not only expand the vote, but find ways to encourage everybody to do so; by widening the voting base, mainstream candidates will regain their appeal.

While it is not too late to institute fundamental changes such as these, 2016 is a year where petty politics trumps the grander ideals our country stands for.

Please note that the 20,842,439 number does not include the March 15, 2016 primaries or any held thereafter.
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