Governments That Work … ?

In Starship Troopers [the book, not the movie], one of Heinlein’s characters makes the point that the society which governs Earth at that time isn’t necessarily the best, but that it has one redeeming feature – it works and operates reasonably well.  There are many aspects to that society with which critics have taken issue over the years, especially in recent years.  Some of that criticism reflects changes in society from the time at which Heinlein wrote the book, such as the fact that there is no longer the underlying feeling among a majority of the U.S. population that patriotic male citizens owed a certain unqualified duty to support their country with military service in times of war. The criticism about the details of Heinlein’s future society tends to overlook the basic point he was making about governments – they have to work well over time if they are to survive and their people are to prosper.

In turn, for popularly-supported governments to work reasonably well, the citizens have to have a common set of core values and socially and legally enforced basic rules that apply to all. Today, I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. government may still work, but there’s a real question as to whether it works reasonably well, and an even greater question as to how long it will work under the current deadlock between the two political parties, whose espoused core values are becoming increasingly divergent, and who keep coming up with more and more exceptions to those core values with which one group or another disagrees.

In the worst of cases when the core beliefs of citizens differ widely, each side perceives the other as an extremist, if not an out-and-out enemy, which is the case in all too many Middle East countries today. In the United States, the situation is structurally different.  Those who are politically active tend to be more extreme in their beliefs.  Whether politics attracts extremists or extremists flock to politics to attempt to impose their beliefs on others, the result is exactly the same. Those active in political parties are more extreme in their views than the vast majority of Americans, and the most extreme views tend to dominate party politics.

This growing extremism among political activists has several impacts.  First, the percentage of Americans who identify with either major political party has declined steadily, to the point where independent voters outnumber either Republicans or Democrats. In 1940, for example, less than 20% of voters identified as independents, while today the number of independents is approaching 50% of those eligible to vote. Second, the ideological gulf between Republicans and Democrats is at the widest point ever measured, and widening, and greater percentages of each party are inclined to portray the “other party” as the enemy.

Current and past history demonstrate clearly that great and unbending ideological differences make workable governing difficult, if not impossible, and yet the extremists in both Democrat and Republican parties, particularly the Republican party at present, are advocating even greater extremism as solution to governmental deadlock.  Neither seems willing to recognize that extremism in pursuit of ideological purity has never resulted in a workable government and has, if unchecked, always led to disaster, and that in the end, the only beneficiaries are the arms merchants and the undertakers.  But then, the extremists always insist that it’s the other party that’s extreme.


7 thoughts on “Governments That Work … ?”

  1. Nick says:

    It’s an interesting contrast, when you compare the situation in the US to the political situation in NZ. Here, since the introduction of proportional representation, both of the major parties have moved towards the centre, to the point where many commentators are saying that they are essentially the same party in different colours. This certianly annoys the extreme wings on both sides, who are dismayed that “core values” (i.e. thier particular values) are being left behind in the stampede to win the centre vote.

  2. Alison Hamway says:

    I also think our election system, with the constant endless campaigning, tends to exaggerate differences between the parties. The more extreme viewpoints dominate the primaries; the center/independent voters are turned off; and more and more voters feel neither party represents the more moderate viewpoint.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    I am interested in seeing how the CA experiment works for the state-wide primaries, with only the top vote receivers moving on to ‘the real’ election.

    Personally, I think taking only the top 2 is too restrictive, but it would also ‘split the vote’ if there are 2 Dems/1 Rep or vice-versa, so I can see both arguments… but I still think that a well-qualified person could manage to overcome such an obstacle as a split-vote.

  4. D Archerd says:

    The single most effective step the U.S. could take to blunt the political power of the extremists would be to universally remove the power to set voting district boundaries from the hands of the politicians and give it instead to a non-political bureau of technocrats. The current situation is the classic “fox guarding the henhouse” where politicians are incented to gerrymander district boundaries to make them “safe” in a general election by concentrating their natural supporters and excluding their natural opponents. But this has the unintended consequence of making the primaries (where the party hard-core tend to dominate) the only election that really matters. Only when we have electoral districts that encompass a broad, diverse electorate will politicians be forced back to the center in order to gain and retain office.

  5. Josh Camden says:

    I love Heinlein’s, Starship Trooper8s book, which I hear might be getting a movie reboot more “true” to the source material. I don’t agree with every idea he proposes, but at least he uses logic and reason to express his ideas. If you haven’t yet, you should pick up a copy; it’s a political/philosophical book more than an action novel.

    Our political two-party experiment is just about at an end; I only hope our economy survives the transformation into our next phase.

    Drastically reducing election costs, to reduce the number of interests that own our politicians would also go a long way to correcting our issues. Our elected officials should be working for their majority constituents, not the few large businesses and rich folk who donate millions.

    Providing you only get one vote, you should be able to vote for ANYONE, FOR ANY REASON. I am for fewer voting restrictions and actual accountability for our politicians.

    To address LEM’s “Certainty” blog, (relevant here)… Forcing politicians to outline their Election Platform in a straightforward manner would give them conviction to follow through with their Platform Promises and prevent them from waiting for absolute certainty. Example: if the Mayor had promised to strengthen the levies and dams surrounding a city then he got elected; he would be able to act on his promise because he would know that those were the actions the voters had wanted.

    Their platform outlines what they believe and how they will act on major issues; they should not be able to make promises prior to election only to avoid them once elected. And by “accountability,” I am referring to criminal punishment. Clearly they would not vote that into law however, so I’m still trying to figure out a method that would “out” those politicians in a widely accepted (by all parties) manner. LEM’s book, Haze introduced me to the “criminal punishment” idea. Of course, in the USA we have a law that actively protects politicians from themselves and what they say (Parliamentary Immunity).

    In Dubiety, if a public figure uses accurate facts or figures to misrepresent, it can be a criminal offense, depending on the relevant information withheld or omitted. Lawyers are eager to play watchdog. (see article referencing LEM’s book)

  6. Sam says:

    One thing I’ve thought in recent years about the US electoral system as opposed to the Australian system – mine – is that the fact that voting is optional and a lot of Americans don’t vote means that those who actually do are often very polarised and steadfast in their views.

    Australia has a compulsory voting system because voting is seen as a responsibility and not just a right.

    However even though it’s compulsory it’s barely enforced. If you don’t vote you get a $20 fine which you can get out of if you provide an adequate excuse.

    Even if you go to the voting booth you can just do a donkey vote(invalidly filled out ballot) and your vote is discarded and not counted.

    The positive is that if people don’t want to vote for any of the politicians on offer they don’t have to, they just have to make and effort to get out of it rather than not voting because they couldn’t be bothered.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Just forcing the ‘law-makers’ to put down their proposed laws, rules/regs in plain language would be a major step forward.

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