There have been bright spots in a rather dark 2015..., a nuclear deal was reached with Iran after decades of sanctions were unsuccessful at stopping the development of nuclear weapon capability, diplomatic relations were reopened with Cuba after 54 years, Obamacare subsidies for low income Americans were upheld by the Supreme Court. What else has 2015 seen?
January saw the offices of Charlie Hebdo attacked to punish the Paris magazine for publishing cartoons of Mohammed. In March, Hillary was revealed to have used personal email for State communications while she was Secretary of State...leading to endless hearings...and Netanyahu was invited by the Speaker of the House to speak to Congress against the Iran deal.
In April, mandatory water restrictions were imposed on Californians by Governor Jerry Brown in response to a multi-year drought. He warned, "..It's a different world...the climate is changing...we're in for tough times..." A huge earthquake hit Nepal killing over 8000 people. And Freddy Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, provoking protests against racially motivated police violence. Just one of a number of incidents of questionable police behavior toward blacks which came to public notice after Ferguson became news in August 2014.
In May, Ebola was declared over in Liberia after a yearlong effort to control and eradicate the disease. `Grexit' was the watchword as we held our collective breath while Greece decided whether it would accept the bailout terms being offered and stay in the EU or not. It did.
Pope Francis visited the US and spoke to Congress and the UN in September...and continued on to Cuba. Speaker Boehner resigned from his position in the House of Representatives not long after the Pope's visit. After several uncertain weeks, during which Boehner did manage, with bipartisan support, to get a two year budget deal passed, Paul Ryan became the new Speaker. In Paris in mid-November, coordinated bombings by ISIS killed 130 people.
Refugees are flowing into Europe at an unprecedented rate; many from Syria, but also from countries in Africa. Syria is still at war. ISIS has become a worldwide concern. Many issues seem intractable but on the positive side, Secretary of State John Kerry is still hopeful about negotiating.
Also positive, in December, the 2015 Paris Climate Conference will, for the first time in 20 years of climate meetings, aim to achieve a legally binding agreement to keep the increase in global temperature less than 2 degrees C...believed to be the point at which life on the planet would fundamentally change.
Little points of light...may they grow and shine more and more brightly...
Ruth Bonn, Lead
In a new book, The Republic of Conscience, Gary Hart, senator, presidential candidate, diplomat and professor, puts the issue in the context of the founding principles of our democratic republic. These principles were set forth as essential if the new republic were to survive for posterity, unlike republics of the past. The four principles upon which our nation's government is founded are: 1) Popular Sovereignty- government is by and for the people, not a small group of individuals, 2) Civic Virtue- what we would call civic duty- citizens need to be involved, informed, to vote and to pay taxes, 3) Concern for the Common Good- care for the health of the "commonwealth", the things that we, the people, hold in common: the air, water, public lands, common defense, waterways, roads and transportation systems, and the air waves and 4) Resistance to Corruption- the founding fathers thought of corruption as putting special, narrow or personal interests ahead of the common good, ahead of the public interest. Our government is massively corrupt by this definition.
What brought us to this point? Hart answers, "...staggering campaign costs, political contributions, political action committees, special interest payments for access, and, most of all, the rise of the lobbying class."
In the 1970's there were 160 registered lobbyists; now...around 13,000. Access is key. Connections help. A few minutes of a senator's time, (and more of a staffer's) and contributions to a reelection campaign follow. Businesses spend $34 on lobbying for every $1 spent by various groups representing consumers or taxpayers. So whose voice is heard? Hart contends that the lobbying industry has become so influential that it is "nothing less than an unofficial but enormously powerful fourth branch of government"... a branch which is accountable, not to the people, but to special interests. The $2.6 billion now spent on lobbying expenses is more than the entire budget of the U.S.Congress.
The cost of running for office has increased astronomically. Spending in the 2014 election was three times that in 2010, pre-Citizens United. In the current presidential election, just 158 families and their companies have contributed almost half of the money---most through channels legalized by Citizens United. An individual can now give a candidate a contribution up to the federal limit, and then give an unlimited amount to the candidate's super PAC. "Dark money" (from nonprofit "social welfare" groups and other nonprofits like business leagues which are not required to reveal their donors) paid for over half of the ads aired by outside groups in the 2014 election.
Requiring the licensees of our air waves to give a certain amount of air time to candidates is the single best way to fight the influence of big money, Senator Hart believes. The air waves are part of the nation's common wealth, he notes; they are only leased to communications companies. The overturning of Citizens United is also essential to reduce legal corruption. And citizens need to rise up and protest; to "have the courage to drive the money changers from the temple of democracy and recapture government of the people, for the people, and by the people."
Senator Hart points out that a republic is an ideal to be worked toward; it can never be a finished achievement; there must be a continual struggle between the tendency toward self-interest and a concern for the common good. Self-interest is predominating now in the US; the ideal of the democratic republic is languishing in critical condition. Government which is driven by narrow self-interest, destroys a sense of community, of common good and of nationhood. It is hard to imagine any politician now saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
Ruth Bonn, Lead
Voter participation is lower in the US than in other well established democracies. In the US, voter turnout averages about 60% in Presidential election years and 40% in off years. Other democracies average 70-80%. (New York State's 2014 midterm election voter turnout was 28.8%.) A contributing reason for low turnout may well be that compared to other democracies, America makes it difficult to vote.
Registering is required to vote. Most other democracies have universal voter registration. This is not the case in the US where a potential voter must register...and do it again each time he or she changes addresses. In most democratic countries, registration is automatic. The government is responsible for maintaining an accurate and complete voter list and for providing the appropriate polling place with a list of those who are eligible to vote. Voter registration can be used as a way to keep legally eligible people from voting by providing an opportunity to discriminate or to intimidate. To make registration more accessible, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires states to offer voter registration when a driver's license is applied for and at offices which provide public assistance or disability benefits. Eleven states plus the District of Columbia presently offer same-day registration, allowing any qualified resident of the state to go to the polls or an election official's office on Election Day, register that day, and then vote.
Voting is inconvenient. In the US elections are on Tuesdays. Most democracies vote on weekends, have more than one day to vote, or get a day off to vote. When voting is made easier, more people vote. Individual states are making changes to facilitate voting. Three states have instituted voting by mail. A ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary), and the state does not use traditional precinct poll sites. The states with the 4th and 5th highest voter participation rates in 2014 (Colorado and Oregon) both have vote-by-mail systems. Thirty-three states allow early voting. Any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. North Carolina's voter participation increased by 35% in 2014 over 2010 after instituting a ten-day period of early voting. Absentee voting is available in all states, but in 20 states, including New York State, an excuse is required. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. New York is among the most restrictive in terms of ease of voting.
Felons are restricted from voting. In 2012 approximately 5.9 million Americans, 2.5% of the total voting population, were prohibited from voting because of laws that deny the right to vote to people with felony convictions. In the US rates of imprisonment are higher than any other country-- 7.5 times higher than the European average. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system result in disenfranchisement for 1 of every 13 African Americans, more in some Southern states. In NY, felons in jail or on parole are not eligible to vote.
States with the highest voter participation in 2012 made voting convenient. Oregon votes by mail. In Alaska you can vote early in person or by mail and on election day you can request a ballot by fax and vote by fax. Minnesota, Maine and Wisconsin all have same day registration. New York State should take note.
Ruth Bonn, Lead