Monday, December 10, 2007

A better democracy?

I've read two items so far this morning that demand comment and reflection. Good items, really, thought provoking and intelligent -- but are they right?

Item number one comes to us via the Washington Post: written by an ABC newsman (No, not that ABC -- this is the Australian Broadcasting Company), John Barron gets the hed: "Campaign Kangaroo: Elections? Here's How You Do It, Mate". Barron suggests that we northerners adopt an more Aussie way of electing our leaders. He notes, wryly, however, that he'll be here to cover American elections until then, because they're as much fun as American Idol. (I killed my TV.)

Item number two comes to us via the New York Times: Stanley Fish writes a regular column there, "Think Again," working on the conventional wisdom. (By working on the c/w, I generally mean to say he tweaks the hell out of it.) This week, he writes about what we're looking for in candidates, and seems to take a rather Machiavellian view (his own description). And you know what? To a point -- a significant point, but nonetheless -- I agree with him.

Full stop. Reactions? On the Australian side of things, I can not help but get excited at the thought of "required" voting. I'd almost support a constitutional amendment in favor of mandated balloting (it seems a near certainty that such an amendment would be necessarily in light of first amendment (i.e., political speech is the most protected form of free speech) concerns) if for no other reason that such a process would force the government more towards the center. If you think that the majority -- or the center -- is right, anyhoo. One must wonder, nevertheless, if the body politic in this country hasn't become too fragmented to be put back together. Sen. Obama seems to have the best claim to that mantle on the Democratic side, and I think that the only candidate on the Republican side of the ticket who could unite the country would be Rep. Ron Paul, although I imagine he'd unite 90% of people against him, save the Libertarians. But I don't know if a forced ballot would solve any of that.

On the Fish end of the ledger sheet, well I think he goes too far, but I haven't had enough time to greatly reflect on it here. But I'll give it a shot, anyway. Fish opens with a discussion about how Katie Couric (CBS News Anchorwoman) will be asking softball questions of the candidates, stuff designed to "
“go beyond politics and show what really makes them tick”" (me quoting Fish's quote of, I imagine a CBS News announcement or press release). Fish then closes with:

In short, craft before integrity, but have sufficient craft to produce integrity’s image. Machiavelli’s hero in this regard is the notoriously corrupt Pope Alexander VI, who “did nothing else but deceive men. … [N]evertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind.”

I am not suggesting that Katie Couric take her questions from Hobbes and Machiavelli rather than from the polls that survey the opinions of ordinary citizens. I don’t see her asking Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney, “When did you last successfully deceive someone and still manage to keep his or her friendship and loyalty?” At any rate, that is a question the truly Machiavellian leader would decline to answer and publicly condemn.

Yet I harbor the hope that the man or woman we finally elect this time would have that particular skill in spades and would be, at least in this respect, the match of Alexander VI. The decorums of political contest demand the rhetoric of integrity and sincerity. The performance of political duties, especially at the highest level, requires something quite different.

Gad zooks, as I'm known to say. The craft to lie, and sufficient craft to lie while seeming to be telling the truth!? This hardly seems like a democratic ideal. Never mind I'm still struggling with democracy, 'natch. Some of my excitement is exaggerated; as I noted, the only thing Fish seems to prefer to throwing gasoline on the c/w is getting also to throw the match.

I happen to agree more with Barron, though, than Fish. Fish seems to think that effective governing, even at the expense of transparency and a basic commitment to honesty, is the higher principle. If this is the case, I am sure that Fish cast a ballot for President Bush in 2004. Barron, however, is more interested in an honest, but circumspect, leader -- if I'm reading it right:
But there isn't the same polarizing effect [in Australian elections] as candidates try to "appeal to the base" and turn out the vote. Interest groups and "voting blocs" have much less influence in Australia than they do in the United States. So much so that in two weeks in Iowa I learned more about the views of each of your presidential candidates on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage than I did from John Howard in nearly 12 years.

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