Friday, October 13, 2006

The Arrogance of the Political Caste

(This essay - without the parenthetical paragraphs - was submitted to editorial columns and journals and newspapers all across the land. Not one even nibbled. Now you know why I seldom bother anymore, and generally go straight to blog. Alas.


Caste Warfare: Politicans Vs Citizens
The Other Struggle


Amid the scandal and fury provoked by Rep. Mark Foley's perverted emails - and purported cover-ups - there is something else afoot, a conspiracy of distraction that goes much deeper than shenanigens by GOP House leaders, or even the betrayal of their long-forgotten “Contract With America.”

Oh, it is fitting that partisan blame be cast -- and for electoral repercussions to ensue. I join millions in hoping for change. Let the era of hearings and subpoenas begin.

And yet, from another perspective, all of the arrogance displayed by the tainted House leadership is symptomatic of a far more dangerous disease, one that crosses party lines. A crime committed by the entire political caste.

Yes, I said “caste” -- a term we tend to associate with distant cultures and retro eras, long before America aimed for a (relatively) classless society. The word seems quaint, even exotic. And yet, I find it apropos. For most of history, guilds, oligarchies, castes and other advantaged groups often closed ranks - rivals joining forces - in order to protect their group privileges.

In this case, a “caste” of professional politicians, aiming to insulate themselves from the see-saw mood swings of mercurial voters, gradually cranked up the process called gerrymandering, until nearly all members of the House of Representatives can take their seats for granted. Is it any surprise, then, that the resulting sense of invulnerability can lead some of them down spirals of self-indulgence, knowing that only the most extreme and unlucky cases will be caught or punished?

You may call this old news. Few argue that state or national legislative seats are competitive anymore. Yet, why is public outrage muted to a mere simmer?

The most clever thing about gerrymandering is that it operates under a sly trick of apparent, superficial fairness -- a crude form of majoritarianism. Despite all of the deceit and ridiculously contorted boundaries, more than half of us do happen to live in districts represented by the party of our choice.

Therein lies the clever illusion that gerrymandering depends upon. We all claim to despise the practice -- but far more so when it's practiced by the other side. We tend to shrug in acceptance when “our” party controls our state, the mapping process, and the crime.

(I confess, I do this too. I sure don't want my state to end the practice till a solution is found nationally! Say, a tradeoff, in which both Texas and California stop at the same time. Or, better yet, banishing the practice altogether, which the Supreme Court should have done ages ago, as a grotesque violation of at least half a dozen Constitutional precepts. Alas, the odds of that happening are about as good as the Arctic staying icebound.)

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_c(For a much more detailed analysis on gerrymandering, see: American Democracy: More Fragile than We Think)

So much for accepted wisdom about gerrymandering. If only that were the limit of the sickness. Unfortunately, it runs far deeper, driving a growing radicalization of the US House of Representatives, which is now packed with dogmatic extremists of both right and left, turning the word “deliberation” into a mockery.

(I still wait for some enterprising reporter to get famous with an expose of the patterns of appointments to US military academies that have been made by radical/extremist members of Congress – a process of pre-stocking the bottom layers of the United States Officer Corps that may have dire long range consequences for our nation and the world.)

Moreover, it goes much farther.

The chamber of our bicameral national legislature that was supposed to be most responsive to sudden shifts in public opinion has become the very opposite, insulated from any accountability to the fickle electorate, while it is the Senate that can still occasionally reflect the rough-and-tumble of shifting voter sentiment. This effect, so blatantly at-odds with the Founders’ intent, should have been more than enough to compel action from the Supreme Cort. And yet, I cannot see any sign that it has even been raised.

Yes, most Congresspersons have become used to a sense of invulnerability, even entitlement… which of course leads to graft, corruption… and possibly even more malignant cycles of blackmail, as lobbyists tape incriminating encounters to use as leverage that is more powerful than mere cash.

(No greater proof of false patriotism can be found than in the failure of men who find themselves in such a situation to step forward in roused conscience, turning on their masters and serving their country in the end. They are not men, and do not deserve the name.)

But what about exceptions like Mark Foley? Or my own erstwhile Congressman, Randy “Duke” Cunningham? Weren't they forced out of office, when their hands were caught, either in the cookie jar or… where they shouldn't have gone? Please. These examples prove the case with tragic effectiveness. Look at what it took for these men to become unsupportable. Things might have been very different if they ever felt that voters and media back home were scrutinizing them closely, in districts where citizen franchise actually made a difference.

Even now, will voters in their districts punish the party that fostered and promoted and protected Cunningham and Foley? Guaranteed safe super-majorities, the GOP can take those gerrymandered districts for granted, even in the wake of wretched scandals. Moreover, the same can be said of districts gerried to be safely Democratic, now and forever.

Don't misconstrue. I am not calling all politicians venial monsters. Many -- perhaps most -- are sincere public servants, who feel they must use the tools at hand, including gerrymandering, in order to limit ideological foes who (they feel) are much worse than they are.

And yet, all of these rationalizations have inexorably led to a terrible betrayal. One that can only be accurately described in terms that sound archaic -- caste warfare. A crime committed against the sovereign voters of America by a self-protecting guild.

We need to rebel. Carefully, calmly and evenly. Not against a foreign power or the hated “other party” across the aisle of a dismally artificial left-right culture war... but against a professional political class that contains many well-meaning public servants. Servants who have nevertheless done what no enemy could previously achieve.

Using subtle tricks, they have robbed us of the electoral choice that is our sovereign right and duty, driving us into an era of radicalism that we, the voters, would never have chosen on our own accord.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

To be honest, Mr. Brin, newspapers are dictated by an incessent need for short supremely concise arguments. The shorter the better. It is the primary reason I did not pursue a career in journalism - I am entirely too long-winded (as my review site inevitably shows, as do my comments on your own site) to effectively write for a newspaper.

If your editorial was shorter, then it would probably be looked at by the newspapers. At this length... it would drown out the other half dozen editorials they inevitably run on the editorial page.

Anonymous said...

Er, that was me posting the above comment. ;)

Rob Howard, Tangents Reviews

Patricia Mathews said...

Do I have your permission to forward your blog to our local "alternative" (i.e. GenX music and liberal politics) weekly, the Alibi, here in Albuquerque? They're the ones who broke the story about the VA nurse accused of sedition by her idiot supervisor for writing an anti=war letter to the Alibi on her own time.

Scott Carpenter said...

That's borderline if not downright seditious. We can't be having that printed.

David Brin said...

Go ahead and reprint with attribution and link to original.

Ben Tilly said...

Q: Why don't Republican congressmen use bookmarks?

A: Because they just bend the page over.

OK, all joking aside, a few minor comments. The first is that I wouldn't be surprised if this did not get accepted in part because it did not fit the length or form that they are looking for for an editorial. I also wouldn't be surprised if most newspaper editors are illiterate baboons who have never heard of you. In short, it may not have just been the content that lead to it being ignored.

And the other minor comment? I think you're giving too much credit to politicians when you say that many - perhaps most - politicians are sincere public servants. There is no group that I'd be slower to accuse of sincerity than politicians.

monkyboy said...

One simple way to fight gerrymandering:

Move...at least temporarily.

In California, you can register to vote in a district just 15 days before an election.

All you really need is a mailing address in the district you want to vote in...a friendly Democratic voter in the district of your choice, maybe?

Looks like it would only take about 100,000 "new" Democratic voters to unseat a "safe" Republican Congressman:

http://tinyurl.com/y9qd5a

A little coordination is all it would take...you can even change your voting address online now.

The Republicans could squeal...but what could they do about it?

Idaho_Spud said...

Dr. Brin

I'm not too surprised that no editorial section published your article.

You might next consider writing and sharing an article on how the news media failed us and no longer serves the public good ;)

I'm weary of being angry at those things I cannot change, so I choose instead to acknowledge and laugh at them.

Rob Perkins said...

@Ben

Bad Form. Not even a groaner.

@monkyboy

Legal, I guess, but not moral. For one thing it makes destructive hash of local elections.

I wonder if moving to party lists for the House would be an improvement over gerrymandered constituent districts, or if that introduces instabilities of its own...

Eric said...

I agree with almost everything you are saying. I've long thought that gerrymandering (practiced by both sides) is one of the great ignored threats to real democracy.

That said, the length, style, and format of the essay make it unsurprising that it was rejected as a newspaper editorial.

monky said...

rob,

Having a few thousand Democrats registering to vote in, say, Richard Pombo's district to get rid of him may raise a few moral issues, but...

As far as revolutions go, not much of a price to pay, really.

Doug S. said...

I'm not surprised that it was rejected; to be frank, it's not exactly some of your best work, if you know what I mean. I'm sorry I can't offer more constructive criticism, though.

Woozle said...

Ok, am I imagining this? We seem to have more than one "old" system collapsing or at least failing to function in the ways we're used to:

- the government
- the news media
- SF fandom

Not sure what's up with the government; maybe it's just a temporary aberration... or maybe the people in power are being seduced by their new shiny toy, meme warfare? It doesn't actually hurt anyone, see... at least, not directly...

News media are arguably being replaced by blogging and such, although the replacement is imperfect because the vast majority of voters continue to receive their information solely from the defective classic media. This is a problem, but it doesn't seem insoluble.

SF fandom may be simply morphing; many others have made good suggestions, to which I'll add this: have you noticed the quality of filmic SF lately? Obviously CGI has a lot to do with the improvement in production quality, but the writing is so much better too; the writers seem to at least get the point of the genre, and much of the material makes it clear that many of the writers must be "fans" too (further indicating the prevalence of SFnality within the creative element in our culture). We're also seeing a certain amount of "SF thinking" creeping into other genres, e.g. Lost and House (which has been described as "neuroscience fiction"). Many of the key memes that once set SF apart from other fiction have worked their way into mainstream thinking. Not all of them, unfortunately, but enough to blur the lines a great deal. If you happen to like Battlestar Galactica (I loathed the 1970s version; this one is quite acceptable as SF, although it still has issues), does that make you a Science Fiction fan? Or just someone who likes a good politico-philosophically-tinged futuristic adventure story? Once upon a time, you would have had to choose sides. (Ok, too long spent on that tangent; back to my point.)

It seems to me that we may be seeing a phase transition in society comparable to the moment when the universe became transparent (that's "on the first day" for creationists, and "probably about 13 billion years ago" for the rest of us). I don't know what all the implications are, but my gut reaction is that many of the old structures are going to be failing due to the change in conditions, and we need to get to work building new ones so we'll have something ready just in case.

So... am I being wacky here? (I also couldn't find any specific references to the onset of cosmic transparency, which I think I got from Asimov and may reflect outdated cosmological theory.) I'm largely responding to idaho_spud's "I'm weary of being angry at those things I cannot change" – I put it to you that the change is happening, and the apparent decay is just one side of it.

On the newspaper essay... yeah, in order to gnaw your way into that decaying mainstream media, a much shorter and more concise argument would probably work better. I had a hard time reading through it myself, and I don't usually experience this with Our Esteemed Host's writing ;-).

Jonathan said...

Intending no offense, Idaho_Spud, but the attitude you display is one of the factors that led to our current situation.

When too many people "accept" that they can't change things, why, sure enough, things don't get changed. Then our cynical friends can sit back and point to the lack of change as evidence that they were right all along...

The only way things are going to get any better is if we refuse to "accept" them as they are - if we stop waiting for rescue from some outside source, get up on our hind legs, and change them.

Idaho_Spud said...

No offense taken jonathon ;-)

Last time I checked we are still entitled to our own personal philosophy of life - although that too may have gone the way of habeus corpus...

As a wiser man than I once stated, "Two things a man should not be angry at: those things he cannot change, and those things he can."

In any event, I have to disagree with you on one point: Recognizing and laughing at the emperor with no clothes is a potent form of rebellion. It's just done without the anger and frustration.

Peace!

David Brin said...

I did say that the version posted here was longer than what I sent to the newspapers. In any event, if they want shorter they can ask for shorter. The criterion should be "is this interesting and the thoughts relatively new." Harrumph.

Woozle, I like the present Battlestar series very much... grudgingly since I think it a shame to spend some of the best writing on TV upon such a silly premise. But yoiu takes what you can get.

In fact, TV is where the great hope for SF lies. Movies are generally copey rehashes of cliches, (Though Leslie Dixon's script for KILN PEOPLE is very good!) TV works much better for several reasons.

1- TV is a writers' medium. Many of the moist powerful people started out as writers. Whereas the writer is lowly in film.

2- The series format lets you explore ideas, plot developments... and then repercussions. Stargate did this very well...

... only to cling relentlessly to the silliest concept I ever saw. We are "at war" with mega galactic empires... but Earth's civilian population is never told and we never mobilize! They did try to address this and offered some intelligence... but ultimately, it remains silly. I believe it's based on some kind of cost thing.

In any event, the collapse of SF fandom, of journalism and the political caste are all signs of a growing rift between future and past. It is the ultimate crisis of modernism and the irony is that the People themselves may not be at fault. This may be a failing of nerve on the part of the specialists involved... not people at large.

wkwillis said...

The trivial answer to gerrymandering is to vote against the incumbent in the primary. Gerrymandering by party no longer protects incumbents and incumbents lose interest in gerrymandering.

Mark said...

In any event, if they want shorter they can ask for shorter. The criterion should be "is this interesting and the thoughts relatively new." Harrumph.

The editors a job to do. As a writer, it is your responsibility to help them do their job; it just doesn't work the other way around. Give them an interesting commentary that fits perfectly in the little blank rectangle they already have on the page waiting for someone to fill it, and you'll get printed.

Woozle, I like the present Battlestar series very much... grudgingly since I think it a shame to spend some of the best writing on TV upon such a silly premise.

The only silly part is the search for Earth, and the "Earth" part is largely irrelevant to the main story. The fact they are searching for some planet mentioned in their romanticized myths and the leaders are willing to use this as a means of motivation, while only half believing it themselves, is a wonderful concept, both realistic and interesting. The part about being Earth just makes it more fun for the viewers.

Recently, I realized I prefer TV over the movies. I've been renting with NetFlix for a while now and I almost always use it for TV series for all the reasons you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I actually have enjoyed the new Battlestar Galactica tremendously. It's done well to mix both reasonable science fiction concepts and the fantasy that much of SciFi is derived from into a mixture that makes you think. One of the more interesting concepts for me is that the "bad guys" are a monotheistic religious fanatical group striking out against a polytheistic religious origin: if you think of it, in some ways this is an reflection of what very likely happened as older matriarchial religions were overwhelmed by newer patriarchial religions (and then Christianity and other such monotheistic faiths).

The Cylon's war on humanity is faith-driven. Humanity worships false Gods and must be punished for their sins. They must be brought into line with views of the Chosen of God (the Cylons, naturally enough).

As for the "ridiculous premise" I look at it slightly differently. We had (when the RTF found Kobol and the "map" to Earth) a definite clue that humanity originated on Earth and came to Kobol: why else are they using stellar patterns only seen on Earth in the last thousand or so years for their own colonial flags?

I look at the Colonials of BSG being colonists from Earth... and that the Colonials that returned to Earth were refugees fleeing back home rather than continuing on to make a new colony elsewhere.

I also see an interesting echo in the premise of BSG and Firefly/Serenity... in Serenity we have refugees from an uninhabitable Earth going to one star system and terraforming dozens of planets and moons to live. In BSG, we have a planetary system with 12 habitable worlds (some of which may very well have been gas-giant moons) which were terraformed by the Colonials. Might Firefly and BSG thus exist in the same fictional universe?

(For that matter, a Firefly-class spacecraft was seen in the miniseries for BSG, but that was more in homage to Firefly than anything else.)

Glancing closer to earth (well, at Earth at least) I recall several arguments people have had over statements that we should utilize our military to patrol our borders and intercept illegal immigration and drug smugglers. The outcry against that is that this is not the duty of the military.

I disagree. Is it not the military's expressed duty to safeguard our borders? Thus would not patrolling our borders and keeping out illegal immigrants and illegal drugs be in fact part of the duty of our military forces?

Hell, it could even be a means of helping train our military forces before sending them overseas (though I personally feel we should tell the nations of the world "we're withdrawing all of our troops back to the U.S. in one year, whether you want us to or not. Please prepare suitable replacements because we're bringing our people home" and then do so - let the world police itself; it might lessen the ire the world has against the U.S. if we mind affairs in our own borders instead of being everywhere else).

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Oh you takes what you gets, alright.

wrt BSG: It certainly strikes a lot of chords in what we see in today's culture wars etc.
In Oz, we're halfway throught the second series - the Pegasus has just turned up and, talk about soldiers vs warriors!

Meanwhile, look out for some new tales from the B5 universe next year.

Ben Tilly said...

@Rob Perkins

Funny, you're the first person that I've seen dislike that joke. You wouldn't be a Republican, would you? (For the record I'd tell a joke like that about anyone who deserves it, which the Republicans definitely do right now.)

jomama said...

Using subtle tricks, they have robbed us of the electoral choice that is our sovereign right and duty, driving us into an era of radicalism that we, the voters, would never have chosen on our own accord.

Guilty as charged.

Now it's your turn, David.

Rob Perkins said...

@Ben

No. I'm not a Republican. And for the record, I think it's a crude and cruel thing to say, not worthy of anyone over the intellectual age of 13, whether or not it's packaged as a joke.

STS said...

wkwillis:

The trouble with the "just vote against the incumbent" solution to gerrymandering is farily obvious. Members of the local majority wind up voting not only for the "wrong" party, but typically also for a weak candidate. Safe incumbency often means that the out party has severe difficulty recruiting a serious candidate.

Even supposing it were possible to organize a large enough movement of "contrary voting", it would take a long time to "teach" incumbents that gerrymandering isn't effective. During that time, we'd have a lot of (even more) incompetent members of congress.

Some more serious suggestions are available at: .

STS said...

... interesting ... my anchor tag worked okay on preview, but got erased on post. Here's the URL for Californians for Electoral Reform:

http://www.cfer.org/

David Brin said...

Guys please read my ORIGINAL (length) gerrymandering article :

http://www.davidbrin.com/gerrymandering1.html

For better suggestions about what to do about this fould practice. The top thing is to accept that your district will always be the party that was chosen for it. Make the primary in that district the real locus of battle! FIghting for moderates instaed of radicals.

During this election season, I also urge folks to re-look at:

http://www.davidbrin.com/contract.html

and

http://www.davidbrin.com/readiness2.html

Gotta run.

db

Francis said...

David,

One of the reasons I suspect it was rejected is that it isn't written in a newspaper editorial style. When writing to or for a newspaper, always start with the lead point and continue in such a way that any number of bottom paragraphs can be cut to fit the article to the space available. Your lead point is clear enough although not a summary - but you need to take all or nothing of that article meaning that it's only possible to print it if there is exactly the space for the article. And you bring in necessary (rather than supporting) evidence all the way through.

Finally, you come off as pretty shrill when writing that - and to people who aren't used to the issues you'd appear to be a consipiracy theorist (and you are theorising about a conspiracy). You need to work up to those issues over weeks or months. And newspapers seldom print conspiracy theories as the majority of them are extremely wrong.

In short, good article but utterly useless to mainstream newspapers.

Beach Bum said...

Sorry about jumping in here but I have taken that in the new Battlestar Earth is the home of humanity in which the "gods" took a small population to Kobol to civilize them. At some point they rebelled and 12 tribes left to find some place of their own but the 13th decided to return to Earth. With the 13th tribe bringing the legends about Zeus and his crowd back to the uncivilized cousins. One curious thing is that in the new story line aren't there 12 gods along with 12 models of human-like Cylons?
Dear Lord, I'm blogging about Battlestar, as soon as my kids are grown I'm getting a life.

Paul said...

Nobody beats the French for sheer arrogance and sense of entitlement amongst the political class.

Please note that members are born to this class, and not voted in. In other words, only members of the political caste run for office.

France is the country with most civil unrest in Europe. See great article on the widening divide between between citizens and political caste The Economist: France's Dilemma