Keeping Score: October 29, 2018

Last week was my first week back to a regular writing schedule, after traveling in Ireland for almost two weeks.

I worried I wouldn’t be able to jump right in to writing at my previous pace, but I hit a writing streak on Friday, and blew past my writing goal: 2,400 words written!

And thank goodness, because next month I’ll have been working on the book for a year. I’m ready to finish it off, and move on to the next project. (Well, until I come back and edit this one).

Very much hoping to be done with it before the end of the year. Would be nice to head into the holidays with the work complete, and have earned a little break from the daily word mines.

Choosing the President: A Modest Proposal

The Problem

The way we choose Presidents in the United States is flawed.

It’s too easy for someone with little or no experience to be elected. Requiring just an age and citizenship worked fine when the job was just the implementer of Congress’ will, but the role has expanded, and the requirements should expand with it.

It’s also too easy for a President to win office with a minority of the vote. For a position that is supposed to represent the direct choice of the voters, this is unbearable.

Proposed Solution

I think a few small tweaks to the process of choosing the President would fix these two issues:

  1. Abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election
  2. Require experience in Congress before being eligible to run for President

The Electoral College

The first is something that’s been called for before, and needs to happen soon. The role of the President has evolved over time to one that claims to speak for the country as a whole. That claim cannot be made (though it has been) if the President is not in fact elected by a majority of the population.

To go one step further, I think we should require a President to win more than 50% of the vote in order to take office. If, after the initial ballot, no one has more than 50% of the vote, the top-two vote-getters should participate in a run-off election.

Congressional Experience

Getting to the Presidency should be a multi-stage process. In order to serve as President, you have to have first served at least one full term as a Senator. In order to serve as a Senator, you have to have served at least one full term in the House of Representatives.

Notice that experience on the state level doesn’t count. And it shouldn’t: working at the federal level of government is a completely different thing. The responsibilities are greater. The choices are tougher. And the impact of the decisions made is wider.

In a parliamentary system, the kind of experience I’m advocating happens automatically. No one gets to be Prime Minister without first getting elected to the legislature, and then spending time writing national laws and seeing their impacts.

A presidential candidate with two terms of experience has a record, one that voters can use to evaluate how well they’d do the job. Did they compromise when they could in order to make progress? Did they object to everything and do nothing? Did they fulfill their promises? Did they promise too much?

And a President that’s worked in Congress knows its rules and methods. They’ll have allies (and enemies) in the legislature, people to work with in running the government. They’ll have seen laws they wrote interpreted by the courts. They’ll be more successful, in other words, because they’ll know how to get along with the other major branches.

Objections

“If we remove the Electoral College, it’ll deprive the smaller states of some of their power in presidential elections.”

True. But when we elect governors of states, we don’t worry about disenfranchising the smaller counties. It’s because the governor has to be in charge of the executive branch for the whole state, not just a portion of it.

Similarly, the President has to serve the country as a whole, not be tied to any one state or region. Thus giving any weight to the votes of one state versus another doesn’t make sense.

“Voters should decide if someone is qualified. Anything else is undemocratic.”

This one I struggle with. Certainly I don’t want to go back to the days of deals made in smoke-filled rooms, with the will of the populace a small consideration, if any. And I don’t want to give the individual political parties more control over who runs and who doesn’t.

But I think in terms of goals. What is the goal of representative democracy? Is it to reduce our reps to mere pass-through entities, automatically doing whatever the majority says to do?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no point in having representatives, if those representatives aren’t supposed to use their judgement. Think of the rep that constantly updates their opinions based on the latest poll, and how we view them with contempt. Rightly so, in my view; if they don’t stand for anything except the exercise of power, they don’t deserve to wield it.

And I think republics aren’t born in a vaccum; we didn’t all come together (all 350 million of us) and decide to create a federal system with elected representatives. Instead, a republic is a compromise between the powerful and the people. We give our consent to their use of power, so long as that power is constrained by both law and elections.

In that sense, the most democratic thing is for us to set constraints on who among the powerful can run for office. We, the people, want the best candidates, not just the best speakers or the richest or the ones with the most fervent supporters. Leaving the field wide open puts us at the mercy of demogogues. Narrowing the scope of possible candidates puts constraints on their power, not on ours. We still have the final say, on Election Day.

Conclusion

Will these changes fix our democracy? No. There’s too much that needs fixing, from gerrymandered districts to the Imperial Presidency to the outsize influence of money in elections.

But they will give us better candidates for the Presidency. And they will ensure no one holds that office that doesn’t command the consent of a majority of voters.

Those two changes will make other changes easier. Better candidates will mean better Presidents, and better Presidents will mean better government.

And that’s something we can all, right and left alike, agree we need.

Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Keeping Score: October 1, 2018

Scraped by this week’s word goal: 2,258 words.

The next week or two are going to be spotty, writing-wise. I’ll be in Ireland starting Thursday, partly for work and partly for fun, so between prepping for the trip and going on the trip and then recovering from the trip, there might not be much time for writing.

I will have a rather long plane-ride there (and one on the return), so I’ll try to get what I can done then. Other than that, my schedule will probably be so screwy I won’t be able to carve out any regular writing time.

I’m going to give myself a pass on this time, though. I’ve been working on the book almost a year now; hobbling along for a week or two while I’m traveling seems like a small delay, in the scheme of things.