Saturday, March 31, 2007

Another Category of Harm

We live in a complicated world. Each public policy issue has many facets, many competing constitutional rights and powers, and many possible solutions. Political parties have narrow points of view. In order to win elections and therefore control public policy, parties attempt to simplify our complex world -- by limiting debate.

Democracy, by definition, cannot allow the limitation of debate. The term "marketplace of ideas" (often used as a synonym for democracy) clearly projects a capacity for the complex and a resistance to limitation.

Two things happen during elections. Yes, people are elected to office, but beforehand, campaigns occur in which the voting public is supposed to be enlightened. The latter is the subject of this post. [NOTE: The following arguments can be applied to legislative debate under party control, but the problem manifests itself better during election seasons.]

Throughout the 20th Century, the trend in U.S. electoral politics was toward greater inclusion. Voting rights for blacks, women and younger citizens; party primaries, to a degree, replacing backroom nominations. In both cases, the general electorate benefited.

But one critical role has remained largely out of the reach of the average citizen: shaping the direction and scope of campaign issues. Why? Because the door to candidacy is barely open to challengers from outside the parties, and more importantly, the door is firmly shut for non-party candidates to have a reasonable chance of being heard.

The preceding five paragraphs cover a lot of ground, so I'll break them into separate topics in coming posts. The question might be asked though: What has been the tangible harm brought by narrowing and limiting the electoral conversation?

I'll cover this in coming posts in greater detail, but for now, one stunning example will suffice:

15 years before Hurricane Katrina, an Independent candidate for U.S. Representative spent 10 months wearing out shoe leather trying to get the attention of the southeast Louisiana electorate. His main issue? A focus on rebuilding the wetlands south and east of New Orleans as a buffer from hurricane storm surge.

The supporting science had been around for decades, but no "viable" candidates (read: Democrat or Republican) had ever championed the issue in previous campaigns. You see, in south Louisiana, both parties are owned by the oil and gas industry and the short-sighted special interest group du jour (oyster fisherman, etc.); so no genuine solution, like freshwater diversion, was ever offered.

How many people died during Katrina or its immediate aftermath? How many people were (still are) displaced from their homes? How many billions of dollars in damage?

Harm? Yes, it can all be brought to the doorstep of the two-party system.

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