Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 October 2013

What Broke our Democracy

[For brief comment on Boehner’s “unconditional surrender,” click here.]

Introduction: Our Media’s Culpability
Analytical versus Emotional Perspective
Why Boring Procedure Really Matters
A Ray of Hope

Introduction: Our Media’s Culpability

A lot of people bear responsibility for our national dysfunction. Our members of Congress are prominent among them, but we all know that. What we may not know is how much our media have contributed.

They have been handmaidens to paralysis. One way they have failed us is in how they view their jobs. Today’s media—even the best of them—see their roles as gathering and spewing out current facts like a vast Twitter machine. They no longer provide the historical perspective, let alone the analysis and critical comment, that Walter Cronkite used to give us. (For more on this topic and a list of the few exceptional good media, click here).

Let’s look at specific examples.

Analytical versus Emotional Perspective

The so-called “Tea Party” was the initiator and is the primary motivating force for our current stalemate. It commands less than ten percent of votes in our House of Representatives. It’s votes in the Senate are negligible. (However much noise Ted Cruz makes, and however much he smirks, he’s only one senator.) Some reporters think the Teas have no more than thirty members of the House, or less than seven percent of the House’s membership of 435. (There are three vacancies right now.)

So the Tea Party is not just a minority. It’s a tiny minority. In Europe’s parliamentary democracies, it would be a fringe party. It would be unable even to think about influencing legislation, let alone governing, without larger alliances.

In contrast, our Democrats account for 46% of House members. The so-called “business” or “establishment” wing of the Republicans commands a roughly equal share. Those are our two major parties, analogous to the center-left and center-right parties that dominate throughout Europe. The Tea Party hasn’t changed that, except insofar as it has succeeded (temporarily, one hopes) in subverting real Republicans.

Yet our media—even the best ones—spend most their time reporting the most vivid and extreme acts and statements of the Teas. Why is understandable. Extremism and conflict titillate, excite and sell news.

Ted Cruz knows this. An unknown, inexperienced and utterly undistinguished pol, he catapulted himself into our national consciousness by becoming the most extreme and disputatious member of our Senate overnight. That little-boy smirk on his face told us he knew exactly what he was doing. In a few months, with the aid of negligent media, the people will forget his farcical antics. Unless we default, they will also forget the (mostly) temporary consequences. But they’ll remember his name.

This is what passes for pols’ career development these days. What used to be a slow gathering of experience under the mentorship of senior leaders has become a self-guided exercise in demagoguery and media grandstanding.

Through avid coverage of Cruz and his like, our media have given our own people, let alone the world, the impression that our nation has three contending political parties. The most important and prominent (because it gets the most news coverage) is the Tea Party. After it come the Democrats, who manage to break into the news because they claim our President. Somewhere, as a distant third, we have a vestigial and probably minuscule third party of more traditional Republicans.

That is the impression that our media give of our nation’s current parties. But if you will permit me a bit of Obamanian understatement, it is inaccurate.

Part of the problem is that most journalists were liberal-arts majors. They just don’t have an instinct to quantify things. Actual election results and public-opinion polls occasionally force them to consider numbers. But what drives their reporting, and the sale of news, is emotional impact, not any quantitative or analytical assessment.

If you feed a people a constant diet of emotion and conflict, you will get emotion and conflict back. That, to use another Obamanian understatement, is unfortunate.

Why Boring Procedure Really Matters

But our media’s failure to put things in analytical perspective is mere peccadillo compared to its primary sin. As our society has spent the last two decades spinning itself apart, our media have failed to put their journalistic fingers anywhere near the real cause, except occasionally and at random.

Only now, when the government has shut down for a second time, and when a realistic threat of a national default looms, are our media getting closer to home.

Our present stalemate would be impossible without John Boehner’s observance of something called the “Hastert Rule.” This so-called “rule” is unwritten, except in press reports. So it is not, and cannot be, a formal procedural rule of our House of Representatives. But it operates nevertheless, as a custom or practice of the GOP, apparently (now) whenever it has a majority in the House.

Under this “rule,” the GOP Speaker does not bring any bill to a vote unless it has the support of a majority of the GOP, i.e., a majority of the majority. So if roughly three-quarters of all House members think a bill is a good idea—49% of Republicans and 100% of the Democrats, it never comes up for a vote.

That’s why our government is shut down. As several of the press have reported, there are enough votes from the GOP’s business wing and the Democrats combined to put a bill to fund the government and pay our debts on the President’s desk, completely clean of Tea-Party extortion. But those votes can’t and won’t (so far) be counted because of Boehner’s religious observance of the so-called “Hastert Rule.”

Whatever that may be, it’s not democracy. Democracy means majority rule.

That, in turn, means a vote of all eligible to vote, or at least all eligible to vote who also bother to show up. It does not mean jiggering the procedure to require a three-quarters vote when the majority party happens to be split, or when mainstream party members, for some inexplicable reason, want to convince the public that their party is at one with extremists.

Our Constitution and our history are pretty clear. The idea of majority voting was so firmly embedded in our Founders’ histories and psyches that they never even made it explicit. The word “majority” appears only once in Article I (which governs Congress)—in a provision that defines a quorum for doing business.

Our Founders took it for granted that actual voting on issues would be by a majority, so much so that they didn’t even bother to say so. Whenever they wanted a different proportion, they wrote so explicitly, as for veto overrides and impeachment.

The Constitution does give each House of Congress the power to make its own rules. But our Founders didn’t mean those rules to overturn the majority principle as the basis of democracy. That principle had been a foundation of Anglo-American democracy since Magna Carta, and it has governed the operation of the British Parliament before, during and after our separation. That’s why Britain, like other parliamentary democracies, does not share our peculiar disease.

Our media’s failure to mention the “Hastert Rule” and explain it, every time the stalemate comes up, is a gargantuan failure of journalistic judgment and practice. If our media were lawyers, they would have to increase their malpractice insurance. Unfortunately, there’s no insurer or re-insurer big enough to cover the slow self-destruction of the world’s richest and most powerful nation.

The “Hastert Rule” gets its name from former GOP Speaker Denny Hastert, who presided from 1999 to 2007, under Dubya. At less than fourteen years old, it is only the most recent of our procedural flaws.

The others are even more serious but affect the Senate. We now use filibusters at 142 times the historical rate, even during the last-century’s two world wars. Worse yet, we let individual Senators block legislation and executive appointments through so-called “holds,” often in complete anonymity, and therefore without any accountability whatsoever, even to their own constituents.

And now, with the so-called “Hastert Rule,” we have let our House of Representatives, which is supposed to be our most democratic body, become the House majority party’s house organ, rather than the people’s legislature.


In principle, representative democracy is simplicity itself. When an issue comes to their attention, elected representatives investigate the matter through their staff. They hold hearings to get the facts directly. Then they ponder, discuss and debate. Finally, they vote. A majority decides.

If there is no majority, a plurality decides. Life and government go on. If mistakes are made—as they are in any human system!—they get corrected, eventually, by dawning popular understanding and the expression of popular will. The process can be painful and prolonged, but it works. That’s what happened in Vietnam and in the the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

What could be simpler? Democracy has worked that way since ancient Greece and Rome.

The problem is individual egos, nearly always males’. They are not content to let the collective mind govern. They think they know better.

And so, throughout history, democracy has been unstable. It waxes and wanes and, at times, disappears. Sometimes it turns into Empire, as in ancient Rome. Sometimes it hardens into vile tyranny, as in the last century in Germany and Russia, with the hijacking of the Weimar Republic by Hitler and the Bolshevik Revolution by Lenin and Stalin.

Sometimes democracy dies so rapidly that tyranny comes before people know it, as in those sad cases. Sometimes it dies so slowly that, like frogs in heated water, people don’t even perceive the change. They keep the forms and labels of democracy, but they hardly notice that they live under a different system.

Our peculiarly American pathology is like that. We Yanks think we are democratic. We insist we are the world’s model of democracy. But our system lacks the simplicity and power of the parliamentary democracies that now populate the world.

Underneath the forms and labels of democracy, our system bows deeply to individualism. It gives every single one of our hundred senators an extra-constitutional veto power like the president’s, but with no public exposure and no possibility of override. Our Senate rules let any 41% minority govern by veto. Now our House non-rule “rules” are letting a seven to ten percent minority stop our government from functioning and maybe even from paying our bills.

This is not democracy. Next to the simplicity of ancient Greece and Rome, it’s practically anarchy.

Collegiality in Congress has fallen to historic lows. Name calling has replaced serious debate. Left and right no longer eat together, drink together, or get together in smoke filled rooms. They don’t even talk together, not seriously. Instead, they grandstand for the media, like Ted Cruz with his pathetic “filibuster.” The young Mr. Cruz, with his annoying self-satisfied smirk, is just a harbinger of things to come, unless we change.

But none of these things, in my view, is a cause. They are all effects. Patience is a chief job requirement for any politician. God knows our pols have lots of it. But their patience is becoming exhausted, and they’ve become frustrated and angry, because our system is broken. Flaws imposed on the original design have broken it. Two of them (routine filibusters and the “Hastert Rule”) are of quite recent origin.

Since the last great war, our pols have made street-illegal modifications to our vehicle of state. The mods don’t appear in the blueprint or operators’ manual. In the case of the so-called “Hastert Rule,” they don’t even appear in the actual rules. But they make different parts of our engine work at cross purposes, killing its efficiency and power. And they elevate the power and egos of individual pols above the collective needs of democracy.

It’s those street-illegal mods, not some vast change in human nature or the good sense of our people, that have slowed our vehicle of state to a crawl and threaten to kill its engine altogether.

Don’t look to lawyers or the Supreme Court for relief. The Court doesn’t mess with issues like these. It considers them “political questions” not subject to adjudication, and it ducks them assiduously. It does so for a good practical reason: if it made Congress angry, Congress could restrict its jurisdiction and geld it.

The only thing that can fix our broken machine of government is enlightened political leaders elected by an enlightened public. And the only thing that can enlighten the public and motivate our leaders is our media. We academics have a soft voice. We cannot begin to compete with mass media, let alone a propaganda juggernaut like Fox.

The task is not an easy one. By increasing individual pols’ power, our illegal mods give them a selfish incentive to continue the pathology. Giving every individual senator a veto over legislation and executive appointments makes each a closet president. Routine filibusters (which now don’t even require talking) increase the power of any minority in the Senate. And the so-called “Hastert Rule” allows a tiny House minority, in the name of party discipline, to thwart majority rule.

Journalists, above all, know how hard it is to pry power from pols’ grasping hands. But it must be done if our democracy is to survive, let alone recapture its former glory. What we have now is not democracy, but something else, a uniquely pathological creation of our own Yankee making.

The President is powerless to reform Congress. The Supreme Court won’t intervene. And Congress for over two decades has shown little inclination to reform itself. The best it could do to address our current massive dysfunction was to suspend outrageously abused filibusters and holds long enough to confirm a handful of presidential appointments. Yet far too many executive offices are still vacant, over a year and a half into the President’s second term.

Our only real hope for a cure is our Fourth Estate. Can it get voters and pols to see the light, strip the illegal mods away, and restore our governmental engine’s former simplicity and power?

The press is the only institution in our society with the independence and influence to do the job. Journalists can begin by reporting assiduously, on page one, every filibuster, Senate hold, and application of the “Hastert Rule,” and their respective consequences. Wisdom comes slowly; but it begins with awareness.

A Ray of Hope

Not all of our media are equally clueless. Last night’s edition of Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week offered a ray of hope.

Commentator John Harwood of the New York Times and CNBC took the prize for journalistic courage when he called out the GOP’s shape-shifting position as “indefensible.” He proved his point by reviewing the last two years’ of scatterbrained shifts, from grand bargain, to no grand bargain, to Sequester, to refusing to fix the Sequester, and (most recently) to attacking the Affordable Care Act. His quick analysis of the unalterable facts of recent history was worthy of Cronkite.

Apparently Harwood’s courage broke the floodgates. What followed was almost surreal: a televised college bull session among elite and supremely knowledgeable commentators.

Gone was the usual program structure, in which commentators speak and question each other in turn, on different issues. Gone was the “lake Woebegone” approach to reporting, in which all pols and their positions are above average. These newspeople let their hair down, discussing the so-called “Hastert Rule” and the other procedural dysfunctions of Congress.

As they spoke and interacted, more and more informally, you could almost see two truths dawning in their consciousnesses. First, deeply entrenched procedural flaws lie at the core of our national discontent. Second, the media do us the people no service by pretending that every pol and every position, no matter how inconsistent or absurd, and no matter how awful the consequences, has equal sense and validity.

That’s not objectivity. It's journalistic abdication. If the people who make a career of knowing what’s happening currently and recalling recent history can’t put things into perspective for us, who can?

Last night’s free-form discussion on Washington Week may be a harbinger of journalistic things to come. If so, there may be hope for us yet.

“Unconditional Surrender”

Today John Boehner’s rhetoric passed the stratosphere, on its way to outer space. He accused the President of demanding the “unconditional surrender” of Boehner’s extremists. How? By refusing to bargain with hostage takers.

Well, John, let me explain it to you simply. First of all, this is not war, at least not yet. This is Congress. And, according to the best news reports, the Tea Party has, at most, ten percent of one House of Congress.

If you let the whole House vote, the weakness of this tiny minority would become apparent to everyone, even to you with your limited intelligence. So, yes, John, we expect such a tiny minority to “surrender” unconditionally to the will of the majority. That’s called “democracy,” aka “majority rule.”

If you insist on talking war, I must remind you that your Tea Party’s chief constituency did indeed surrender unconditionally. They did so at Appomattox, over 148 years ago.

I wouldn't advise you to restart that war. Your extremists’ side lost the first time, despite having one of the best generals in U.S. history—Robert E. Lee—who fought on the wrong side.

Since that time, the disparity in population, industry, wealth, technology and general strength between the North (and West) and the South (which is now solidly Republican and mostly extreme) has increased dramatically. Please don’t confuse the irrevocable two Senate votes of states that (except for Texas) would be third-world countries on their own with real power.

In the last century and a half, the North, Upper Midwest and West invented the telephone, phonograph, movies, controlled flight, television, nuclear weapons, nuclear power, high-altitude flight, polio vaccine, space travel, transistors, computers, integrated circuits, modern medicine, AIDs cures, cells phones, tablets, and the Internet. Besides heart transplants and the cotton ’gin, the Tea Party’s power base has given us only coca-cola, bossism, racism, millions of ordinary citizens with no health insurance, routine filibusters, and outrageously overused Senate holds.

Your extremists’ ignorant ideology is destroying this country. That’s why two thirds or more of this country’s productivity voted for Obama in the last two presidential elections. And by the way, the Tea Party’s primary constituency (again except for Texas) is the “takers,” who suck more from the federal tit than they pay in taxes.

With that record, anyone with an ounce of understanding or common sense would not be using war metaphors. He would be sitting down and shutting up.



  • At Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 11:53:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Maqx said…

    I can't be certain, but I feel the journalistic "abdication" started in earnest after the break out "success" of Fox news and the need of other news organizations to "emulate" their success.

  • At Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 12:13:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Maqx,

    As one who lived through the whole period (yes, I do recall news without Fox), I can’t help but agree with you.

    Rupert Murdoch used classic bullying tactics to destroy TV news in America. He did so in three ways.

    First, without any evidence whatsoever, he accused other media of being biased leftward. He then sought to “differentiate” his propaganda machine by calling it “fair and balanced.”

    Think about that. What genuine purveyor of Truth finds it necessary to pat himself on the back like that? It was like Nixon saying “I am not a crook” during the Watergate scandal.

    Second, Murdoch hired bullies to recite the news—including former pugilists like Buchanan. They shout. They hector. They deride, using sarcasm like teenagers.

    It’s all very entertaining. Even some progressive friends of mine watch these oafs for their entertainment value. But a certain type of adult—mostly male and psychologically stuck in adolescence—gets hooked not only on the tone, but on the substance, too. You can see the type in online comments to any electronic newspaper. They know all the answers, loudly, aggressively, insultingly and without facts.

    Third, by badmouthing the neutrality of rivals and using bullies to do it, Murdoch set them back and made them timid. Even the New York Times has gone effete. Just read its headlines; they are so indirect and mincing you have to read them twice (or read the story) to know what they are talking about.

    The only truly independent national newspaper left is the Washington Post. The NYT has become a handmaiden to Wall Street, and the Wall Street Journal went over the top after Murdoch bought it.

    Thank God for Jeff Bezos, whose personal purchase of the Post saved it from bankruptcy or worse. If he does with the Post what he has done with Amazon (including allowing negative reviews) we may still have one national print news icon that fears not to tell the truth.

    Together with PBS, that might be enough. But it's still a long, long, long way from where we are today back to Walter Cronkite and his rivals, in both balance and quality.



  • At Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 12:39:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…


    Just so no reader thinks I’m prejudiced against Wall Street (or money), I hasten to add that I had a subscription to the WSJ for over thirty years. I dumped it only a couple of years after Rupert bought and destroyed it.

    The cause wasn’t the editorial board, which did (and does) for capitalism what Pravda did for Soviet Communism. It was the constant bias in actual stories—in the headlines, wording and organization, plus the abysmal quality of writing and journalism. You can read the details here.

    Journalism is hard in practice, but not in principle. You must keep your wits about you, not trust any source (or trust but verify), expect to be misled, know a little history, and, when all else fails, rely on numbers, which (if accurate and relevant) don’t lie.

    Very few reporters today do most of these things, let alone all of them. As far as you can tell from reading their output, they ply the phones, or the bars, rely on cronies, and meet their deadlines half asleep. No one, it seems, proofreads their copy any more.

    The Post was not only free. It also gave me some useful numerical data, from which I could prepare my spreadsheet showing that GDP favors Obama two-to-one, and my analysis showing that the (mostly Southern) states that most despise so-called “Obamacare” have the most uninsured.



  • At Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 2:01:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Maqx said…

    That's a funny commentary on the WSJ, I did the very same thing in 2008 - after being a subscriber for years.

    Hopefully Bezos maintains the integrity of the Wash Post. His staff and personnel history at Amazon is checkered. We'll have to wait and see how this plays out.


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