Along the Tracks

Wednesday, August 20, 2003


And I thought somebody had peed in my corn flakes:

“The chaos in California is just a microcosm of our late, great form of government. It could portend where the country at large, bitterly divided, disillusioned, and broke may be headed. Believe, if you will, that we still enjoy a democracy in America, but the fact is that somewhere between Washington and Sacramento we lost it. With apologies to Honest Abe, we stopped having a government for, by, and of the people a long time ago. It was replaced with all-for-one political agendas, special interests with exclusive access and influence, and money-is-no-object egomaniacs.”

Marilou Johanek, former newsreader for Toledo 11, now respected columnist for the Toledo Blade, has apparently taken the plunge into Lake Wackyleft. Set aside for a moment the literal nonsense in the first sentence - does she really mean “our late, great form of government” was “chaos”? - and consider what (I believe at least) is her intended meaning: California’s recall is in opposition to popularly-elected government. Now, I’ve heard the recall blasted as “too much democracy,” but this is the first time I’ve seen it labeled a move away from democracy.

[Just a note: Columnists toss around the word “democracy” like they know what it means, but in fact, few seem to understand it. We live in a representative democracy, called a “republic,” and political power is placed in the hands of individuals chosen through elections. Johanek and others only add to the confusion when they claim “democracy” is somehow short-circuited by voter initiative. It may or may not be good government, but it most certainly is very “democratic.”]

While the Blade editorial room may be “bitterly divided, disillusioned, and broke,” a good reporter might make some effort to check the facts before assigning this description to the United States as a whole. Her inauspicious beginning, “Honest Abe” maligned quote (although she does apologize!) and all, culminates in the tired, old left-wing conspiracy theory that the real power brokers in America are rich, power-hungry “egomaniacs.”

“Truth is, the average American citizen is so far out of the loop of majority rule as to make self-government an oxymoron. The rich and powerful govern with practical impunity. The poor taxpaying bloke struggling to keep his head above water is almost irrelevant to policy-making on his behalf. Try contacting your elected official with comment or question. Chances are you’ll have as much luck as getting an audience with the Pope.”

The “truth” Johanek so bravely speaks is actually quite an insult to you, me and any other interested American. We are “so far out of the loop of majority rule” - by which she either means we are uninformed by those in “the majority” (note that word!) who are ruling, which would seem to be the fault of the media; or we “average American citizen(s)” are well outside “the majority” in our opinions. Either way, the criticism is of a ruling majority (very democratic) that is not taking into account the opinions of “average American citizen(s).” This is an interesting definitional move: The “average” is apparently a minority in America today, being bullied by a “majority” which, according to Johanek’s opening thesis, is dominated by “special interests” with “access and influence,” and for whom “money is no object.” Indeed, she says the “rich and powerful govern with practical impunity.” Setting aside the accusation itself, do the “rich and powerful” really make up a majority in America? If so, (again, set aside the criticism of the governance) doesn’t that speak well of America, at least in terms of economic opportunity? You too can be a rich and powerful member of the majority! For a populist, she’s taking a strange path.

The criticism moves to constituent relations next, and perhaps here we see where Johanek is going. Elected officials cloister themselves off from the masses and do not respond to “comment(s) or question(s).” Ah, so it’s the elected officials who are the problem. Well, if so, why don’t we just recall them - oh wait, she’s against the recall and what it might “portend.”

“It’s just as futile trying to conduct something akin to civil discourse with a political ideologue, let alone a wealthy one whose money has always talked for him before. Look at the bitter gridlock in Congress. Lawmakers can’t even hold bipartisan debates like adults.”

Why do I get the feeling she’s talking about me (the “ideologue” part, not the “wealthy” part)? Is it really “futile”? Is it equally futile if the “ideologue” happens to be liberal? And what’s this “bitter gridlock in Congress” stuff about? If anything, Congress has been doing too much lately - in fact, didn’t she just say there’s been too much “policy-making” without consideration of me, the “poor taxpaying bloke.” (Although I do like the Tigger terminology. I wonder if she’ll call somebody “Buddy-Boy” before the column ends.)

“Millionaires and multimillionaires call each other names in the heat of not getting their way and even summon Capitol police to intimidate dissent.”

I just knew that whole Bill Thomas-Charlie Rangel thing was going to cause a stir.

“The take-no-prisoners mindset was melded by nasty Newt Gingrich and honored ever since by every fundamental, non-compromising, make-it-personal, public servant.”

“(M)indset was melded” ... hey, is Newt Gingrich a Vulcan? If so, apparently an evil Vulcan - “nasty” at least. I can only assume a “fundamental” public servant is a conservative Christian - you know, “fundamental(ist).” Cut her some slack - this is the Blade. How come the “mindset” was not considered “melded” back in the ‘80s, when Reagan proposed budget cuts and Democrats said he’d be starving children? Or when Robert Bork was called a racist for opposing affirmative action on constitutional grounds? Or when Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment (baselessly) only after it was clear his nomination could not be opposed on any legitimate grounds? Talk about “make-it-personal”!

“In the good old days, politicians representing diametrically opposed ideologies could disagree vehemently and still shake hands or play golf at the end of the day. Today, it’s all or nothing. Centrists are cop-outs. Differences only dilute the one, true way. A nation divided in the hanging chad aftermath of the 2000 presidential election is today nowhere near one nation under God.”

Weren’t some of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s best friends in Congress Republicans? Isn’t that why so many were at his memorial service? Which “take-no-prisoners” ideologues hijacked that funeral to yuck it up and attack members of the political opposition who had set aside their political arguments to honor a friend? Anyway, the accusation that ideology rules the day could hardly be further from the truth. Bush is nothing if not “Mr. Compromise” and a centrist, just like (I hate to say it, but have to) Bill Clinton was. He aims right, while Clinton aimed left; both end up somewhere in the middle. Then, of course, no left-wing conspiracy rant is complete without the obligatory reference to the “hanging chad aftermath of the 2000 presidential election,” but her claim that we are “nowhere near one nation under God” is hard to swallow, considering liberals are trying to remove the “under God” part themselves.

“Briefly unified in the wake of unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil, we soon splintered, turning against the world community and ourselves. We did what Osama bin Laden couldn’t do to the United States - made it even more despised on the international landscape - and even more polarized, confrontative, dogmatic, and heavy-handed at home. Civil liberties taken for granted were suspended. The sequel to the Patriot Act - a misnomer if there ever was one - aims to suspend more.”

I actually share her concerns about some facets of the Patriot Act and its “sequel,” but it will be hard to convince anyone we are serious when that legitimate criticism is couched inside a hyperventilation about Americans “turning against the world community and ourselves.” The unity following 9/11 was always, inevitably, a momentary event caused by trauma. And the fact it no longer exists (although about 65% of people still fall inside the camp favoring the war on terror) is a testament to our freedoms and our democracy. People can make up their own minds, and then vote for those who represent their points of view.

By the way, who exactly despises America? French and German accommodationists? The anti-globalization crowd? Islamists? Palestinian terrorists? Sub-Saharan strongmen? North Korea’s megalomaniac? The key to international leadership isn’t coddling false friends, it’s choosing the right people to oppose. I tend to like the above list.

“War to prevent war became a unilateral right and, afterward, corporate cleanup of the vanquished oil-rich prize a given. But the seeds of distrust began to take root at home as disarray sprouted in occupied territory abroad. Death comes to Americans mired in a faraway desert war almost daily.”

The “daily” deaths will have to drone on for eight years to match 9/11’s single-day toll. Besides, didn’t she just call Iraq an “oil-rich prize.” Some prize. Oh, and one small correction: Not “war to prevent war”; rather, war over there to prevent war over here.

“In the midst of our escalating unease with official policy on war and peace, profit and power, came California, groaning from the weight of its own excesses and excuses.”

Oh right, this was supposed to be about California. I’d nearly forgotten. Is she really saying California’s problems are California’s fault? That would be a very conservative claim to make. Hmmm, let’s see where she goes with this ....

“As the state of the state rapidly deteriorated from bad to worse, so did thoughtful discourse over who to blame for the state’s fiscal, energy, employment, environmental - you name it - woes. At long last the out-of-the-loop silent majority stirred. Everyone was mad as hell. Frustration fueled a crazy idea to run the state’s CEO out of town.”

“Thoughtful discourse over who to blame” sounds like “make-it-personal” politics to me. Perhaps the discourse should have focused on solutions rather than blame. Then, in Johanek’s narrative, who should stir but the “out-of-the-loop silent majority.” Hold on - weren’t “average citizens” the ones “out of the loop of majority rule.” This would seem to be a flip-flop. Again, let’s cut her and her (Ha! Ha! Ha!) newspaper some slack. Okay, so the “silent majority” has now stepped in to fix a failed state government establishment. Wait again - Johanek’s against the recall - it’s a “crazy idea.” This is getting confusing.

“The notion went nowhere until money was added to the mix. A millionaire with an ego and an agenda paid for the recall in full. Egos and oddities responded en masse. It was all-for-one jostling for me-too prime-time attention. The millionaire with the money and ambition to be California’s next dauntless dude in Sacramento wept not with elation at the results but depression when Arnie moved in for his close-up.

“You’d cry, too, if your hard-earned millions suddenly went hasta la vista, baby.”

So, despite a “silent majority” being “mad as hell,” the “crazy idea” went nowhere until a “millionaire ... paid for the recall in full.” Were the petition signers tricked? If Darrell Issa (the evil millionaire) was answering the demands of the “silent majority” - with his own cash, no less - wasn’t he doing the right thing? Was this not democracy in action? Did his “ambition to be California’s next dauntless dude” (whatever that is supposed to mean) somehow disqualify him from participating in the process? And again, Johanek can only offer us a “make-it-personal” dismissal of both Issa and “Arnie” as egomaniacs - in Issa’s case, a crybaby egomaniac. Nice.

“Plenty has been said about Gray Davis - and it’s probably all true - but the man was duly re-elected governor by Californians. One year into his second term his crime may be a lousy job performance but when did that negate a vote of the people?”

Gray Davis’ job performance did not “negate a vote of the people.” It initiated a recall movement according to California state law. If Californians wish to keep him, they can reject the recall. If Californians wish to change their recall statute, they can do that too. Again, this is not a “negation” of democracy; it is direct democracy trumping representational democracy.

“Democracy shouldn’t be undone by those unhappy that the other guy got more votes. Will impatience with the imperfect system pervert it to fit the paralysis of the moment?

“Only if true patriots fail to restore what has been lost in the country, its solidarity of purpose, its principled bedrock of one man, one vote, its voice.”

Again, this demonstrates a fundamental (no, really, not “fundamentalist”) lack of understanding on the part of Johanek and so many other cluckers. The recall may be many things, but it is not an “undoing” of democracy. It seems quite likely that more people will vote in the recall and replacement October 7 than voted in last year’s regular election. Will that not make this election the more “legitimate” in Johanek’s eyes? Democracy is an impatient form of government - precisely why the Founding Fathers made republicanism the constitutional template, which was followed by all the states, including California. It was the 1900-era progressives who wanted to inject more democracy with initiatives and recalls. Using such legitimate measures to force a new vote on a failed, lying governor would seem to be precisely what the progressives sought.

Now look who’s questioning the patriotism of her political opponents. Ultimately, America’s problems are the fault of the moneyed interests, in Johanek’s world. Yet she finds an active electorate in the rough-and-tumble democracy now exhibited in California troubling to her vision of an America with “solidarity of purpose.” “One man, one vote” apparently only counts when the vote goes her way. And the “voice” she wishes to hear sings the siren song of social planning, government control and a political intelligentsia not dominated by “majority rule.”

Doesn’t sound much like democracy of any stripe to me.

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