Blue Louisa: A blog Covering Central Virginia & national politics from a progressive perspective
I don’t know what they teach in the school system anymore, but I do remember that they used to teach things like history, civics, and government. Good things to know. It’s not something we’re aware of on a daily basis anymore – in spite of the news accounts being broadcast daily – but these are things that affect our lives more than we realize or even want to admit. For those who remember, as well as those who only have a vague memory, of the branches of government and how they work, we should be paying closer attention to how dysfunctional they are in circa 2018.
For the past two years, the Executive Branch has been in the state of chaos that it created, and which has never been equaled in this country, with all signs pointing to a pursuit for the kind of power only available in Third World countries subjugated by petty dictators. The Legislative Branch is paralyzed by the dictates of ideology from a party corrupted by the influence of funds from Super PACs that have worked for decades to get the largest Return On Investment for the contributions from the wealthy and corporations. The Judicial Branch, relatively benign, has been infiltrated by Justices who, slowly but increasingly, view the rights of individuals as an impediment to the maneuverings of Big Business and the wealthy.
For those who remember their civics classes, or are somehow aware, these three branches of government are supposed to provide checks and balances to ensure that the powers of no single branch becomes excessive.
Circa 2018, how well is that working?
The answer speaks for itself every day that we read or listen to the news: local, state, national, and international.
We get mocked by the Executive Branch for being, somehow, different.
We get ignored by the Legislative Branch, especially those who have “other” commitments. We get slowly battered by an anachronistic thinking Judicial Branch.
The three branches of government haven’t been able to cooperate and work together for the best interest of the general public. Why should that be so difficult? Maybe it’s because no one told us we should be counting to four branches of government instead of just three. The fourth branch of government has been idle and secretly tucked away to make sure it doesn’t take away, or interferes, with the powers of the other three – because it can.
That fourth branch of government is WE, US, THE GOVERNED, THE PUBLIC.
WE FORGOT ABOUT US!!!
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” With all the means of communication available to us in the times of modern technology – that includes radio, television, cellphones, internet, and personal computers – what are we really informed about? In general, the public seems to pay more attention to the “fantastic” and leaves behind the boring details of reality. And, the reality is that we have successfully allowed the other branches of government to do as they please, at least, whatever they think they can get away with.
Our civics lessons, if we had any, have been forgotten or ignored. Those lessons talked about engaging in “dangerous” activities – participating in government. Specifically, the greatest power the people have comes from the 1st Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This very important quote, about redress of grievances, has technically been complied with by politicians and government administrators. We should take a close look to see how this right has been subverted, especially how it relates to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Our public officials and the well-paid lobbyists have formed a unique partnership that, de facto, restricts the access and visibility of the electorate. Regardless of the level of government, there are some remaining “opportunities” provided – by the government and administrators – for the public to make comments about legislation, regulations, public projects, or private projects subsidized by the government. Before any topics are presented for final approval, there have been monetary expenditures by large business interests – for their lobbyists and in performing studies – to evangelize the appropriate politicians and present only their interests to the public as being beneficial. The lobbying puts the priorities of the business entity over those of the public interest. Presentations are compiled after months or years of effort into voluminous documents containing the jargon of the industry, creating tomes that confound even the most intelligent of English speaking people and the “validity” of those presentations cannot be questioned because of the price tag. We, the public, aren’t funded in the same way as business and have little influence to the decision process. These seeming “opportunities” are, in fact, limitations to the discourse of the public with our elected officials.
We, the public, don’t get to lobby.
Yet, when it comes time for public comments, the playing field isn’t level. It never is. The public – the one that pays for an expensive project and suffers the consequences of its failure – is relegated to a position of minimal impact in trying to “redress grievances” if it can. Any individual member of the public is prevented from interfering with the goals of a government or a bureaucracy intent on pursuing its own objectives. The contribution of a single individual – whether simply concerned, informed, or a subject matter expert – is ignored only because of the dollar value of the project and the trivialization of the individual. How does a single citizen measure up against the combined forces of government, bureaucracy, and business? Or, how do the forces of government, bureaucracy, and business resist against the combined of efforts of a well-informed electorate?
And still, the need to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” remains without an adequate response because there is no real answer forthcoming. There isn’t time allowed in the system for such frivolities. That “petition” is intentionally stagnated as if Franz Kafka retrieved it from “The Castle” and updated it to the present.
Another arbitrary restriction foisted onto the public is the definition of “peaceably” as it relates to assembly of “the people.” With the backdrop of British subjugation centuries ago and the American Revolution, avoiding violence was a significant motive for advocating discussion over armed resistance. As time went by, and technology – radio, television, and internet – began to increasingly interfere with the normal communication between the public and government, it became easier to mistake listening to a medium as a substitute for participation in the government process. It also became easier for the government to manipulate the process for administration without the bother of objections from a public unaware that those restrictions are imposed as an arbitrary default mechanism. After all, we did see it on the news from our couch, which seems to be the only place most of us “peaceably” assemble and avoid offending the officials who are supposed to be working for us and our best interest.
Where is the Fourth Branch of Government now? Slowly, over time, it’s been fractured and factioned. We have become invisible – sometimes annoying to our elected officials. Many traditional special interest groups have wrongly and greedily concluded that their own survival is threatened when someone else wants the same liberties and benefits. What is misconstrued and manipulated is the fact that those liberties and benefits are available to all and have been denied or taken from others. The Fourth Branch of Government has been lulled into a state of being comatose shortly after atrophy replaced critical thinking, dialogue, and active participation. Why do we think that someone else knows what we want better than we do? If a complete stranger approached us on the street to offer advice, we wouldn’t listen. How significantly different is the public official from the stranger? There are too many people and their interactions for the intimacy of trust to be granted without a watchful eye.
We can easily point the blame to anyone else – the current operational model from the Executive Branch – but that does nothing if we ignore the whole picture. By ignoring, we fail to see how all the pieces fit and work together – or not fit and work together in too many cases. And if we’re real clever and are able to discern all the dysfunctions we see before our eyes, then we’ll be able to understand the words of Pogo, the Great Swamp Philosopher:
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The weapons used against us are: propaganda, deceit, influence, diversion, and fear. And those weapons are effective, each in its own way. A simple sleight of hand. Keep the spotlight on a different subject. And while the spotlight draws attention, we’re left in the dark. We’re presented with false choices that have nothing to do with an issue. An example of that tactic was recently demonstrated by an outgoing Republican Congressional Representative when asked about environmental pollution. His arrogance was in full display when he responded, “Do you want to be rich, or do you want to be poor?” This is not a choice – this is about living healthy lives. We’re offered limited choices by our elected officials when they’re supposed to act on our behalf. Whether intentional, or not, all the facts and options aren’t always made available for public scrutiny. The result is a decision guided for us that’s not always directed to our wants and needs.
It shouldn’t be too late to use the information we have – while we still have any – and combat the attempts to keep us ignorant.
“We have the vote!” you say.
But we only use that vote during the election cycle. In addition to the vote, we need a voice. The vote isn’t always loud enough or in time.
There are two other excellent tools we should have for our use to make politicians accountable, and they’ve been hidden from us.
Recall and Referendum: On Demand!!
On Demand, so we don’t have to wait an election cycle while unnecessary abuses and corruption accumulate.
On Demand, so we control our own destiny instead of abdicating that power to a few who can have different motives.
On Demand Recall, to rid ourselves of corrupt, inept, unresponsive officials.
On Demand Referendum, to pass the laws we, the public, want or to repeal those that serve no useful purpose other than taking up space in the legislative archives.
This is no great epiphany for me. It’s not a revelation of any kind. It’s simply a matter or realizing that our freedoms have been under constant attack without any rational response in any practical way for past decades. There is a precedent for thinking about these things and if all of us don’t recognize the source of the following words, then we’re truly dysfunctional as the most important branch of the government and can simply return to our miserable non-existence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Editor’s Note: This op-ed originally appeared in Richmond2Day, and has been reposted here with the author’s permission.
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