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Democracy 2.0, Democracy Should Be a Messy Business with Lots of Noise
By Wayne D. King
The View From Rattlesnake Ridge
Spring has finally come to Rattlesnake Ridge.
Our daily walk in the shadow of Rattlesnake is a time for reflection. Sometimes I listen to the latest book I have downloaded from Audible, but mostly I prefer listening to the birds and the angry Red Squirrels that chatter from the trees, or the bears that hoot and grunt from the woods.
Quiet, the absence of sound, is really not a good thing here. The sounds of a healthy environment – the sounds I hear beneath Rattlesnake Ridge – are the noisy sounds of life: leaves rustling in the breeze, a Pileated Woodpecker drilling for insects in an old White Pine, critters large and small celebrating the return of longer days and warmer weather and readying themselves for the days ahead.
A healthy community is the same way really. There is the daily buzz of activity but there is also the conversation, debate, agreements and disagreements that attend everyday life and local governance. Sometimes it’s enlightening, sometimes it’s more heat than light, sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes downright weird.
Take the case of the late Colonel Joe Kent. Colonel Kent – a rock ribbed Republican – played a major role in my first election to the Senate in New Hampshire. He was the Co-Chair, along with Doris Tunnell, of a group calling themselves “Republicans for King.”
“The Colonel,” as he was known around town was active in local government and he showed up for every town meeting, school board meeting and quite a few planning board, conservation commission and other meetings. He and his wife Ann – a loyal Democrat – also founded a group that would eventually preserve the Quincy Bog, a beautiful example of a glacial pond habitat now on its quiet way to field as the succession and eutrophication process plays out. It is a small place on the planet that is full of life and its wondrous cacophony.
Now Joe was a conservative guy; never threw out anything that he hadn’t worn to a frazzle. He had an old jacket, the kind we rarely see these days, with leather patches on the elbows. He loved that old coat. Ann did everything she could to keep that coat presentable because Joe liked to wear it when he attended the various town meetings. She sewed it, patched it, even replaced the elbow patches when they wore out. She was beginning the process of breaking the bad news to Joe that the old jacket was just too ratty to keep repairing. Then one day she simply gave up. Into the trash it went.
Two weeks later as Ann was putting away some other clothes, she discovered the coat hanging in Joe’s closet. He had retrieved it from the trash, possibly on his weekly dump run.
One evening, a few months later, Joe wore the coat to a meeting of the town selectmen – they were all men then – Joe had retired from this “prestigious” group a few years before but that night he had some business that he needed to discuss. The topic, lost to history I’m afraid, led to a heated exchange between Joe and the town fathers until finally, at the end of his rope, Joe got up and walked out. His last words to the board were “You’ve not heard the last word from Joe Kent on this!” Whereupon he walked out of the town hall and promptly dropped dead in the parking area.
When the people of the town gathered together to say goodbye to the Colonel, including many of those who had been in attendance on that last fateful night, some may have noted that he was wearing his favorite coat. Ann buried him in that old ratty jacket. She had a great sense of humor and irony.
I tell you this story because Joe and Ann Kent represented everything that is good and decent heart-warming and funny about the wonderful people with whom I share this special spot on planet earth. They participated in the life of our community in every conceivable way.
All over our country citizens are participating in the life of their communities in the same way. Lively and raucous debates are frequent, even encouraged, because they eventually find their way into committees, or teams, or ad hoc groups of people, rolling up their sleeves and getting down to the hard business of building consensus.
Too often, when we are bemoaning the divisions in our country, we pine for consensus but forget that the process for achieving it is often messy. In fact, the messier it is – the more often that citizens feel that their hands have touched it and they have been heard – the more likely it is that the middle will hold and consensus will be achieved. Bi-partisanship, civility, all of these things we feel to be in short supply these days are at the end of this rainbow but the rainstorms, the thunder and the lightning must come first.
The folks on Rattlesnake Ridge know this. Town meetings are never dull. Everyone who wants their say gets it. Usually it’s pretty civil but not always. A few years back, one attendee referred to me as “Comrade” suggesting that I was a big spender for wanting to see some improvements to the school. Months later that same fellow rescued Boof when he got away from me on our walk, we had a great conversation when I came to fetch him. Remarks made in the heat of the debate were forgotten and we were just good neighbors reaching out to one another.
Unfortunately, the folks who are leading our country seem to have forgotten all this. The procedures and rules that have been created in both the House and the Senate are designed to stifle debate and closely control the agenda. This process denies the American people the opportunity to understand the full range of opinions and options for resolving the issues we confront.
It also allows small groups of partisans, particularly those inclined to think way outside the mainstream, to avoid having to defend their positions openly, where we can see and hear the extent of their “crazy.” They are often able to quietly control the agenda without having their views exposed in their full measure.
Take the case of the United States Senate “silent” filibuster. Today any Senator can choose to “filibuster” a bill by simply signing a form. Unlike the “talking” method of filibustering, so memorably depicted in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” by the great Jimmy Stewart, no Senator has to go through the uncomfortable process of debating the bill openly, or listening to the debate.
In both the House and the Senate, leadership of the majority party controls everything that comes to the floor and a Senate President or Speaker of the House decides what bills will or won’t receive a vote. This led, during the Obama Administration, to the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice, Merrick Garland, who never received a vote and thus was never seated, one of the great injustices in our Democratic history.
More recently, though there is broad consensus on the matter of the “Dreamers,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan refuses to bring a bill to the floor because, he says, the President has not given any indication of what he will support and Ryan does not wish to deliver a bill to the President that he won’t sign.
Ryan ignores the fact that the separation of powers, so carefully designed in the constitution, between the legislative and executive branches, presumes that Congress will act on what it sees as the best interests of the country and the President will take action on what Congress passes based on what he or she sees as the best interests. Congress is not subservient to the President, it is equal. Furthermore, such subservience did not keep Ryan from bringing no fewer than 30 bills abolishing the ACA aka ObamaCare to the floor, with no consultation with President Obama. His hypocrisy belies his deceit.
This problem exists when either party is in control of the House and the Senate. They may handle it differently but the results and the power plays engaged remain the same. Whether leaders are Republican or Democrat each is inclined to place their thumbs on the scales of debate and transparency.
Bringing such bills and resolutions to the floor is important, whether they will pass muster with the President or not, because this creates the opportunity for open debate, allowing the American people to take the measure of those making the case for passage or defeat of the legislation and, even more important, creates the opportunity for the public to hear the debate so that they better understand the ideas and their implications.
During the past few weeks a few small rays of light have shown through the dark shadows of Congress on this. In the House, a group of Democrats and Republicans have taken the first steps toward exercising a provision that allows a bill to be brought to the floor over the objections of the Speaker, specifically on the Dreamers act. If they continue in this direction the House will have the opportunity to vote on a Dreamers act, despite the Speaker’s roadblocks.
In the Senate a movement to create a law to protect the transparency of the Special Counsel’s findings in the Mueller investigation, even if the President removes him from his appointed office or uses the removal of some other appointee to try to limit the scope of the investigation. Republican Leader McConnell has indicated his opposition but members are pushing back and may be successful.
These efforts show some signs of hope but the central problem remains the same. House and Senate rules too often centralize control over the people’s representatives, contrary to the best interests of the American people and Democracy itself.
Democracy – or more specifically American Democracy – today is at a point of maximum danger. In an “Age of Accelerations” the world is moving and changing at a breathtaking rate. If Democracy is to move as rapidly and agilely, we need to make the process capable of meeting the challenges. Opening that process up, decentralizing it and giving power back to the people’s representatives will be much more noisy but also more transparent and productive.
If the Leadership feels they need something to do in order to be relevant, I suggest that they begin thinking about the future and crafting opportunities for members to debate, learn and discuss issues relevant to our future. It would be a nice change to have our representatives thinking ahead and beginning to ask themselves the big questions that will help us meet the challenges of the future instead of responding in crisis mode because we have failed to think about them.
Just as my noisy woods are a sign of a healthy environment; Just as my contentious and raucous community is a sign of a healthy democracy at the local level; Open, honest and thoughtful debate at the national level are needed to help us move from Democracy 1.0 to Democracy 2.0 without stumbling any more than we already have.
We need more debate, more noise, not less.
About Wayne D. King: Wayne King is an author, artist, activist and recovering politician. A three term State Senator, he was the 1994 Democratic nominee for Governor and most recently the CEO of MOP Environmental Solutions Inc., a public company in the environmental cleanup space. His art is exhibited nationally in galleries and he has published three books of his images. His most recent novel “Sacred Trust” a vicarious, high voltage adventure to stop a private powerline has been published on Amazon.com as an ebook with the paper edition due soon. He lives in Rumney at the base of Rattlesnake Ridge and proudly flies both the American and Iroquois Flags. His website is: http://bit.ly/WayneDKing