The Democratic charade


Yesterday, I was trapped in a hotel room, unable to escape, while my wife listened to this joke of a “news” program on CNN in which they semi-randomly assembled the Democratic debate roster. I was ready to scream. They drew it out to a ridiculous degree, selecting candidates one by one live on air, while reading little blurbs about them. With commercial breaks. They, of course, saved the most significant candidates for last — Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Biden — and what killed me was that before they did the final draws they sat there and yammered speculatively about what match-ups they might get in the next few minutes. Shut the fuck up and just do it.

They don’t seem aware that the process of randomizing candidates into two nights is trivial, uninteresting, and not news. It is, however, representative of how our benighted, self-involved news media deals with an election. They have made themselves the center of the process as a group of people who have to babble about the horserace. I hate it.

This was the final outcome of their blithering idiocy, and it’s ridiculous.

I don’t care. Most of the faces up there shouldn’t be there — they are wasting our time. Go run for congress, or governor, or school board and get something done. CNN was aware of that, too, because they arranged the debate specifically to split up the top four equally. If, by chance, Biden, Harris, Sanders, and Warren all ended up together on one night, no one would bother to watch the other debate, and there goes the advertising revenue.

You also cannot have a debate with 20 sides to it. There will be no substantive discussion. This will be a mob of people vying for the 10-second sound bite that will be picked up by the news the next day.

I have to say as well that using money in the form of donations as a criterion for who gets to be in the debate is offensive and puts the whole silly affair on an absurdly capitalist foundation, and clearly fails as a useful criterion for winnowing the field anyway. Bring back the cursus honorum — you don’t get to run for consul until you’ve run a gamut of lower offices in government.

I won’t be watching any part of the second “debate”, by the way.

Comments

  1. weylguy says

    But under cursus honorum we wouldn’t have had Schwarzenegger, Reagan, Trump, that guy from The Love Boat and any number of other bozos who’ve held office. It’s all about celebrity, looks and wealth, isn’t it? Pitiful.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Bring back the cursus honorum — you don’t get to run for consul until you’ve run a gamut of lower offices in government.

    One of the great deceits nurtured by the Right over the last century is the notion that Joe Average is just a qualified to take the reins of government as the so-called career politician–especially if you whittled down the size of government to it’s “necessary functions.” (i.e. no regulatory agencies or bureaucracy, and following a strict libertarian economic dogma without all that pesky macroeconomics) It started with Reagan and we’re seeing it’s horrible final conclusion with Trump, and like so much of the filthy that comes from the Right, the Democrats think they need to emulate to attract and appease anti-government paranoids and those who suffer from a terminal case of Dunning-Kruger.

    Well, screw the common dullard! Give me experts! Give me academics. Give me policy wonks and lifelong bureaucrats. Give me technocrats and latter-day mandarins. Give me a government exclusively run by people who understand how civilization works who are not beholden to uneducated trash–especially from Red State shitholes!

  3. says

    There are people running the government in Red State shitholes — they’re working on the city council, in zoning boards, on school boards. They move on to county offices, and sometimes get into state government. They’ll still get to be part of the administration of our country, but they’ll have to do the basic gruntwork and learn how everything works, first.

    But yeah, that appearing on TV or in movies is considered a reasonable qualification for high office is a major problem. Trump has no qualifications at all to be in office right now.

  4. cartomancer says

    The cursus honorum had its problems too of course. It tended to prevent those who weren’t already well connected (which in Roman terms meant the scions of the great, established patrician families) from making much progress in political careers. There were always more candidates than jobs available, and the selection process (the consuls and lower magistrates were nominated by the senate, then voted for in the centuriate assembly, where the top two property classes held half the votes and those without property to speak of almost never had any say) tended to mean that the wealthy, established families got their sons preferential treatment, filling up the gaps and keeping newcomers down.

    I’m not against the idea of having relative newcomers take high office. If one looks to the Roman example then it is to be noted that Pompey the Great was the first big shake-up to the system – he’d been so successful as a military commander in his teens and twenties – eradicating the pirate threat in the Mediterranean – that it was thought inappropriate to make him start at the bottom with a mere quaestorship when he reached 30. One might point to Alexandria Occasio-Cortez as an example of where fresh blood is more than welcome.

    The problem is not that people are chosen without experience or formal qualification, it’s that people are chosen on utterly inappropriate criteria. Joe Biden has more than worked his way up the cursus honorum, but he’d be a crap president too.

  5. Chris Capoccia says

    Yes, would definitely be better if half the people decided to run for Senate instead. If only we could agree on which half

  6. cartomancer says

    It does, however, seem to me that your president is rather too powerful. I’m not sure what you gain by having one person, albeit with a substantial staff behind him, as your executive branch of government. In most countries the head of the executive branch is the leader of the party or group that makes most of said branch up – the leader of a political party, most usually, and not just any old someone who has put together a campaign.

    What you need is a more parliamentary system, where much less hangs on the personality and whims of one individual.

  7. laurian says

    I stumbled across that CNN thing and thought the network was launching a senior center bingo service. I wasn’t all that wrong.

    @Akira. Your last sentence reads surprisingly well in German, Italian, or even Japanese, circa 1930. Fact is no constellation of Superior Beings, mortal or divine, are gonna save us from ourselves.

  8. robro says

    cartomancer @ 6

    What you need is a more parliamentary system, where much less hangs on the personality and whims of one individual.

    Curious what you think of Boris Johnson becoming the next UK PM as the erstwhile Tory leader, even though quite a few Tories are concerned enough about his “no deal” Brexit position that they’re ready to ask QE II to step in, at least according to a Guardian article yesterday. Leads me to wonder if the vaunted British parliamentary system is working that well, particularly given that Boris has a sketchy background.

    Frankly, I’m not sure the problem lies in the particular system of government except that no system of government seems able to modulate the powers outside of government: money and media. The very rich manipulating their well-oiled media machines have greatly subverted the “voice of the people”…to the extent that was ever an important part of the process…while they basically own the people nominally running the show.

  9. consciousness razor says

    I guess you could toss out four because they don’t have much political experience: Williamson and Yang, and Mayors Pete and Bill. Everyone else is at least satisfactory in that respect, though not necessarily in any other. So there’d still be sixteen people who are supposed to debate each other, which means it’d still be a total clusterfuck. I would say even a four-way debate between Biden, Warren, Harris, and Sanders is already kind of a mess. You’ve debated a creationist before, PZ — you say you won’t do it again — and you know that sometimes it’s a mess with just two people on stage.
    I don’t have much use for these TV events, because there are other, better ways to learn about the candidates. I can do without the moderators’ stupid questions, the commercials, and so forth. I don’t make a big spectacle out of it, when I read their websites, news articles, etc., and that’s a good thing. Besides, of the top four in this race, I was only vaguely aware of Harris, but the others have been in the spotlight for a long time now. If I were just looking to be entertained, I have more entertaining things to do with my time; and those other forms of entertainment are also not harmful to our democracy.
    It’s true that the Democrats need lots of good candidates (not merely lots of candidates) in tons of positions at every level of government all over the country. But seriously, if you tossed out those sixteen that I mentioned before, are you saying you really want all of those specific people filling up important positions somewhere else? Or is it instead that there ought to be some group of Dems filling up 16 positions somewhere, but possibly not a single one of those specific people? So it’s not clear that we’d be solving either problem this way.
    I guess about half of them wouldn’t be so awful, at least compared to certain Republicans. But really, some should be running as Republicans, not Democrats. So make Republicans deal with that mess, not Democrats, and hope that they lose when they have to compete against genuine progressives that the Dems are supporting. We should be doing so even in the “lower” rungs of government, perhaps especially in those cases. At any rate, it’s best not to think of them as places to put all of our worst candidates.

  10. F.O. says

    As others have noted, the Cursus Honorum is a fantastic way to keep powerless people out of power.
    Further, it raises people who are utterly disconnected from the reality of the people they govern; this is a common populist point, but I think it does have value.
    I find it also problematic, in general, to give so few individuals so much power.

    I’m reading about democratic confederalism as used by the Kurds in Rojava which is basically a system of direct democracy where everyone takes part, it would be very interesting to see if it can be scaled to a nation of several millions.

  11. consciousness razor says

    But seriously, if you tossed out those sixteen that I mentioned before,

    To clarify, I mean the sixteen who aren’t Biden, Warren, Harris and Sanders — everyone with almost no chance of winning the primaries anyway. I also brought up a group of sixteen who aren’t Williamson, Yang, Buttigieg and de Blasio, but of course that’s not the same group.

  12. consciousness razor says

    it would be very interesting to see if it can be scaled to a nation of several millions.

    We’ve got more than “several” million in the US; over 327 according to google. So more like “several” hundred million. To put it differently, that’s a fairly substantial fraction of one billion. It’s a lot of people.
    Then again, the number is big enough (or too big) either way, so maybe it doesn’t matter that much.

    I’m reading about democratic confederalism as used by the Kurds in Rojava which is basically a system of direct democracy where everyone takes part,

    I don’t know anything about it, so would you describe it a little more? I wouldn’t want to make decisions, directly, about every little detail — every item in the budget, every bill that someone proposes, etc. (Remember it could be hundreds of millions of people doing that every day.) In an indirect representative democracy, we hire/elect a bunch of people, to do that kind of work on our behalf.
    It wouldn’t have to be just a “few” individuals with this kind of power, like you said — there could be lots and lots of them — but anyway, I’m sure you can see that it does help to resolve some of the issues that come with more direct control in larger populations. It really doesn’t scale up very well…. It wasn’t so great even in small city-states like ancient Athens. So, you make at least some of it indirect. And then the hope is that the representatives (possibly a large number of them) haven’t been given too much power.

  13. George says

    The other issue with the Cursus Honorum? A nice resume is no indicator of performance. Some of our best Presidents had rather unimpressive prior careers. Consider Lincoln and both the Roosevelts. Compare Lincoln to James Buchanan or his counterpart in CSA, Jefferson Davis. Lincoln comes off as pretty lightweight, but there’s no question over who was the more effective leader. More recently, George HW Bush had one of the best resumes in modern times. He was still a crappy President. Suppose Trump had bought himself a Senate seat somewhere before running. Would that have made him less of a terrible human being or a crap President?

  14. allonym says

    Hmm. It looks like they split it up into “white night” and “diversity night.” I believe that that arrangement was the luck of the draw, but it’s interesting how it shook out. I’m kind of selfishly disappointed that we didn’t get Warren & Biden on stage together yet, but with the crazy number of candidates it won’t make a difference anyway. Our system is so ridiculous, it’s more than a year until the election and I’m already feeling the campaign fatigue (but don’t get me wrong, I will crawl over broken glass and hot coals to vote Trump out, fatigue notwithstanding).

  15. F.O. says

    @consciousness razor #12

    Yes, I am aware of the population size of the US =P

    Right now I’m reading these two articles that seem to discuss the system in practice:
    https://libcom.org/news/democratic-confederalism-kurdistan-25042016
    https://komun-academy.com/2018/06/27/radical-democracy-in-practice/

    But if you want a TL;DR version of my (still poor) understanding of the system:

    The population is divided in communes, and the whole commune participates in decision making: participation is not mandatory but everyone has a right to participate, including children.
    The commune is fully responsible for everything it happens within it, ie nothing is decided about the commune without the commune itself being involved and more in general the more a decision affects someone, the more that someone should have a voice.
    Decisions are taken to unanimity (I saw this working surprisingly well myself).

    For decisions that interest more than a commune, each commune delegates someone to represent them and all the delegates meet and discuss, possibly electing a delegate if decisions need to go to the next tier.
    The important part is that delegates have the only task to represent their commune(s) for a specific meeting, which means they are changed very frequently, they can be recalled and removed at any time.

  16. F.O. says

    It would take three levels of delegation (150 ^ 4) to manage a nation the size of the US.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    … using money in the form of donations as a criterion for who gets to be in the debate is offensive …

    Clearly our esteemed host does not run a television network selling hundreds of millions of dollars of campaign ad time.

  18. says

    @#6, cartomancer

    It does, however, seem to me that your president is rather too powerful. I’m not sure what you gain by having one person, albeit with a substantial staff behind him, as your executive branch of government. In most countries the head of the executive branch is the leader of the party or group that makes most of said branch up – the leader of a political party, most usually, and not just any old someone who has put together a campaign.

    Every president since at least 1980 has acted to expand the powers of the presidency, and very few people have objected to it when it comes from “their” side. (As with so many other things, Democrats will always say they’re against it, but where were they when Obama’s legal team was arguing in court that nobody in the entire world had legal standing to challenge the executive branch over drone bombing, detainment in Gitmo, declaration of “unlawful combatant” status, or domestic spy programs?) A majority of the membership of both parties wants a dictator, but they want to be able to pick that dictator. The inability of either party’s membership to collectively say “hold up, what if all this power we’re handing over to the Presidency ends up in the hands of somebody from the other party who is terrible?” is responsible for a great deal of trouble — under Obama we let the President spy on everybody’s communications, declare people “unlawful combatants”, have “unlawful combatants” killed without trial even if they have US citizenship, and incidentally spent $1 trillion on the nuclear arsenal… and now Trump has all of that, and people are suddenly unnerved. People really have no foresight at all, no wonder they keep supporting people like the Clintons.

    What you need is a more parliamentary system, where much less hangs on the personality and whims of one individual.

    Yeah, that’s been working out really well for you as a decision-making system. Tell me again, which of the Brexit proposals got through Parliament before the deadline?

  19. Dunc says

    I’m increasingly inclined to go the other way – appoint all significant posts by sortition. It can’t be any worse.

  20. colinday says

    @consciousness razor
    #9

    DeBlasio may not have much experience, but he was elected by more people than any other candidate except Harris, Gillebrand, and Booker.

  21. Rich Woods says

    @The Vicar #19:

    Tell me again, which of the Brexit proposals got through Parliament before the deadline?

    That’s really a vindication of the Parliamentary system. A Prime Minister who feared that he would lose seats to a single-issue party decided to appease them by offering a referendum. It all went horribly wrong — mostly because he didn’t understand just how much bile and lies would be thrown about, mostly by people he thought of as his friends — and he lost to them, dumping his career, his party and the country in the shit. His party chose a new leader who took the office of Prime Minister, who had to be taken to court to be told that she couldn’t push Brexit through without the approval of Parliament. She called a general election but lost her majority and could only govern by making an alliance with a group of fundamentalists despised and/or mocked by almost everyone, costing the British taxpayer a billion pounds in the process. She then proceeded to decide what shape she wanted Brexit to take, setting red lines which she was told would create an unsolvable problem, barely getting agreement within her Cabinet and not even attempting to talk to any of the other parties. When a Withdrawal Agreement was eventually reached with the EU it came as no surprise that a third of her own party didn’t like it and consequently Parliament voted against it, several times.

    Yes, we have a bizarre system of government that could allow all that to happen, but one of the few good things which has come out of this mess is the reminder that Parliament is sovereign, as the next Prime Minister — a person notoriously bad at detail — is about to find out to his cost.

  22. consciousness razor says

    DeBlasio may not have much experience, but he was elected by more people than any other candidate except Harris, Gillebrand, and Booker.

    I don’t get how you think that argument goes. You could be saying something like “NYC is big.” So I’ll say “Yes it is” and then “he does not have much experience,” because it’s still true that he doesn’t have much experience.
    Anyway, I think your claim is just false…. The sum of the public advocate and mayor elections (according to wikipedia) is approximately 2,247,000. (He was also in the city council, but that’s so lacking in notability that even wiki doesn’t have it recorded, except by some vague percentages. If you want to bother with those, feel free to hunt down that information.) The figure I gave before is adding multiple elections together, to get him the big numbers like you want. I don’t think it’s accurate to describe that as “elected by more people,” because what this certainly does is count many of the same people more than once (broken down by election, it’s 725k, 796k, 726k). It’s not “more people” when you add them up, if you’re not counting different people.
    For Warren, playing by the same rules, she got 1,696k and 1,633k = 3,329,000. The total is bigger and each individual item is bigger. It only took two elections here, not three, because it’s literally “more people” who elected her in each than in any of de Blasio’s elections.
    For Biden, it would be silly to go through the rest of his long career, because of course he got 69,498,516 of the popular vote in the 2008 presidential election (along with his running mate). 69.5 is greater than 2.2 — enough said.
    For Sanders, including only general elections he won and not other votes cast for him in other situations (although the latter is not exactly a small number), I’m getting a total of roughly 1,798,000. This is from 4 elections for mayor (only 24k combined) and 11 elections for US Representative or Senator (the remainder). It is less than de Blasio’s 2.2 million (though not by that much), and it isn’t too surprising because Vermont is small.
    But there is another way to look at it: we can notice that Sanders was elected many more times. That tells us some useful information, because people (even very large populations) can be duped once or twice or maybe more; but if they do become dissatisfied for whatever reason, they would probably express it in the ballot box eventually, not reelect that person again and again and again and again and again, etc.
    If de Blasio kept running for NYC mayor (or whatever) over and over, then would he continue to win another 10 elections or more? That’s pretty unlikely, no matter which politician it is. If he had more experience, we could know (in hindsight) what the answer happens to be. We can already answer that with somebody like Sanders, because in fact he does have that kind of experience and has passed that particular test.
    Leaving all of that aside, I think Biden (not de Blasio) won your game. Whether or not it’s a very interesting game, he won it.

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