How did it come to this? How did America go so horribly, unrecognizably wrong?
I've been pondering and reflecting on this for a while, and I've commented on it or alluded to it in various places, but I don't think I've ever crystallized it into its own post. Please bear with me, it's kind of long.
My basic, fundamental premise is that accountability is the hallmark of democracy, while impunity is the hallmark of dictatorship. A democratic government must look out for the interests of its citizens, or be voted out (or worse), while a dictatorship has no such worries, other than staving off the occasional coup attempt. Almost every policy disaster, fiasco, and scandal of the past 4+ years can be attributed to the ascendancy of impunity over accountability, as the U.S. under Bush has increasingly come to resemble a banana republic.
So how could accountability have given way to impunity, especially in a country with a robust, well-written Constitution? I believe that the two most important pillars of accountability are elections (obviously) and the news media, which is where most of the electorate finds out about what their elected officials are up to and what it means to them and the country and world in general, and I believe that both have become severely, if not fatally, compromised.
To begin with, the electoral process is no longer a simple, transparent reflection of the will of the people. Republican state officials have abused their power over voter rolls, access to voting machines, and recounts. Companies owned by staunch Republicans supply an overwhelming share of electronic voting machines, and are suspiciously reluctant to give these machines the capacity to generate a paper trail. I don't believe there's any smoking gun evidence of vote-tampering, but the reluctance to provide a paper trail suggests that there is something to hide, and there are numerous instances of suspicious outcomes at both the micro level (touch-screen votes for Kerry registering as votes for Bush; skewed totals for third- party candidates) and macro level (surprising upsets by Republican candidates; consistently unidirectional discrepancies between exit polls and vote tallies). The bottom line is that not everyone who wants to vote gets the opportunity, and many of those who do may very well have had their votes tallied opposite to their intent.
Less overtly alarming but no less harmful are the effects of the massive amounts of money in the campaign process, leading to politicians who increasingly favor the interests of the wealthy individuals and industry lobbies, which are able to give them far more campaign cash than ordinary citizens can ever hope to. Add to that the increasing precision of gerrymandering, leading to safer and safer seats for politicians at the local level, making ideological purity far more valuable than brains, competence, or the ability to play well with others. Much as I would like to claim otherwise, politicians of both parties have been corrupted by campaign finance money and radicalized by gerrymandering.
The media situation is not much better. Just as Republican companies have inserted themselves squarely into the electronic voting sphere, so have loose media ownership rules allowed monolithic and Republican-controlled conglomerates to dominate the media sphere. The end result is a news media with no motivation to investigate or question any possible wrongdoing or incompetence by Republicans, and ample motivation to create a circus around any Democratic indiscretion or misstep. Witness the differences in coverage of "Monicagate," Whitewater, and "Hillarycare," as compared to coverage of "Gannongate," Bush's shady business dealings and TANG history, and the campaign to privatize Social Security.
Yes, the media does occasionally report negatively on the Republican agenda or results, but I believe this is largely the result of a synergy between the need to maintain a minimum level of credibility, and the surfacing of stories that have generated too much international or blogosphere attention to credibly ignore. The media grudgingly reports the story, weathers a storm of right-wing outrage from blogs, talk radio, and Republican officials, and then quietly lets it drop; or if any portion of the story is inadequately sourced, retracts it completely and grovels for forgiveness. In either case, it is quickly back to the business of reporting on Republican manliness, Democratic cravenness, and distracting fluff like finger chili and runaway brides.
Actually, I suspect that the right-wing accusations of media liberal bias may simply be part of the dance, as they provide cover for the media to continue underreporting the liberal perspective, in the guise of attempting to be more "balanced." But even if they aren't, they certainly do provide a powerful inducement for journalists to keep their heads down and avoid reporting on anything that might displease the right-wing noise machine, especially if they can't source it impeccably.
There are some other contributory factors, such as an enormous talent gap between Republican and Democratic political consultants (exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks, which Republicans turned into a golden PR goose); a reality-TV-driven culture which increasingly prizes selfish nastiness and preening ego; and an educational system which is being attacked and diminished - by No Child Left Behind, which pressures educators to "teach to the test" instead of teaching critical thinking and reading comprehension skills; and by religious fanatics such as those in Kansas, seeking to water down or discredit the teaching of science itself.
Indeed, the religious right has become a huge factor in its own right, as it gives unjust and uncompassionate Republican policies a thin veneer of moral decency, and an army of eager culture warriors who will back Republicans to the hilt, and who turn out in droves on Election Day in hopes of turning back the satanic tide of gay marriage, abortion, secular government and, *gasp* Moral Relativism. And both fanatical religion and substandard education increase the pool of voters credulous enough to unquestioningly accept and disseminate GOP talking points.
So what can be done? That is the $64 trillion question. Some of this could theoretically be fixed legislatively. Election reform should be a no-brainer, and should include:
o Reducing the power of statewide officials and prohibit them from serving in any campaign role.
o Banning all voting machines that do not generate a paper trail (I would prefer optical scan to both touchscreen and mechanical).
o Eliminate all voting prohibitions on felons who have paid their debt to society, and the opportunity they provide for selectively purging voter rolls of heavily Democratic minorities.
o Mandate adequate voting machines for every district, so voters cannot be discouraged by long lines.
o Tighten guidelines for election monitors, with provisions for swift removal if they are intimidating voters.
o Significant jail time for any form of election tampering.
Publicly funded campaigns and nonpartisan redistricting would also be a big help, but few congresscritters want to live in a world without big campaign contributions and safe districts, so the judiciary would be the only potential source for these reforms, and that seems a very narrow hope indeed.
Tightening media ownership rules and/or restoring the Fairness Doctrine might improve the media situation slightly, but the former may only have a small impact, while the latter could easily be gamed with carefully chosen representatives of the "liberal" viewpoint (Joementum? Al From? Raving fringe loons who make Democrats look crazy?). I think we've reached a point where meaningful media reform can only be achieved at a grass-roots level, through consumer boycotts of parent corporations, and bloggers digging at and exposing the media's willful blindness. The ideal outcome of the latter would be if some enterprising blogger somehow managed to uncover a massive media coverup or whitewash of Republican malfeasance and/or corruption, outing the media's complicity once and for all, and permanently exploding the myth of Liberal Media Bias.
The problems of education and religion may also require a combination of government intervention and individual conscience; legislation mandating the teaching of critical thinking skills and real science would be great, but if that does not materialize, it will fall to individual teachers to buck the system and teach their students to be rational, modern thinkers. Likewise, legislation or judicial rulings that reaffirm the separation of church and state would be welcome, but we also need more Christian moderates to confront, expose, and discredit Christian extremists as betrayers and hijackers of their faith, just as the US wants to see moderate Muslims take on their own religious extremists.
Admittedly, none of this is especially original or comprehensive. My goal was to identify an overarching theme of how American democracy has gotten so far off track, and what hopes and possible options there are to get it back. What worries me is just how many of the fixes seem incredibly unlikely to me. The only one I would ever even consider betting money on is election reform, and I'd still want at least 5:1 odds.
I guess I could have just said, "We're screwed," and we'd all be home by now...