Civics 100: You Have To Know How It Works To Fix It

Back in my IT days, one of the banes of my existence was “the friend who knows something about computers.”   Hearing that phrase meant that I was in for a long, involved effort to repair not just the original problem, which would have been a quick fix, but to repair what the helpful friend had done.   I’ve run into it in other fields, and it is often put as “They know just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to know what they’re doing.”   What would cause me to think back to that?   Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running into a lot of the more rabid Bernie Sanders supporters, and what has stood out in those encounters is that they don’t understand government.  In particular, they don’t understand the government this country operates under.

It’s been something I’ve been talking about for a very long time here when I mention “the frustrati.”    Milt Shook calls them the “Progressive Unicorn Brigade,” and he has a great piece up on “purity” and politics  that I recommend reading.   Over the past week, I’ve been getting into a lot of arguments with various members of that group, and I’ve been subjected to the same “complaints” that I’ve heard for the past 6 years.  The Democratic Party has been bought by business, if only we ran liberal candidates and stood on principles we’d win, President Obama is a miserable failure because he didn’t make all these wonderful (and mostly never promised) things happen, etc., etc., etc.     Elect Bernie and his “political revolution” will usher in a progressive utopia, because  “the people will be behind him!”  The quotation marks are actual quotes from their comments, by the way.  Yes, he’s going to break up Wall Street and the big banks, institute single-payer healthcare, and totally reform campaign financing for a start.   I’ve been quoted all sorts of opinion polls, along with statements like “no politician will stand in the way of anything with that sort of support!”      Telling them (as I have) that “you’re going to be badly disappointed” is met with even more vehement attacks, accusing me of being a Blue Dog, and most definitely “not a progressive.”

Over the course of these … discussions … several things have struck me.  First, they somehow believe in a “top down” approach, even to an extent, a dictatorship.  That is, the President (Bernie Sanders in their case) decrees because he has “a mandate,” and it happens.  They also believe, because of various polls, that a majority of the people believe the way they do, any evidence to the contrary.   Which is why I’ve been telling them that even if Bernie Sanders were to be the nominee and elected, they’re going to be badly disappointed.  They’re pushing the wrong way, and it’s because they don’t understand government.

Why would I keep harping on that?  It’s not because I necessarily disagree the ideals behind Bernie’s platform.  It’s because I do understand our government’s structure.  There are 50 states.  They range from huge, mostly empty states (Alaska) to islands (Hawaii), to desert (Nevada) to heavily urbanized (Maryland).  All of them have different priorities, needs,  demographics, and they all get to elect two Senators.   There are 435 House districts, ranging from one for an entire state to 11 in one city.   All of them have different priorities, needs, demographics, economies, and political “leans.”  In order for legislation to pass, you need to get 51 Senators and 218 Representatives to agree to it, in an ideal sense.  Each house of Congress has its own rules governing their procedures, so you may need more than that depending on the situation.   Which is why getting legislation made and passed has often been compared to making sausage.  In order to round up those 218 votes in the House, you need persuade all those Representatives from a wide range of constituencies that it’s a good thing.  There’s often a lot of favor trading, additional things inserted into or taken out, and  changes made to do that.  The end result is that the legislation may in general resemble the original plan, but there will be a lot of differences in the details.  The same thing happens in the Senate, and then both houses have to get together and iron out any differences before voting on a “final bill.”  That gets sent to the President, and after he signs it,  it’s law.   All good, right?  No, it’s just the start.

After the law passes, the law has to be implemented, which is the job of the President.  That means regulations have to be written, go through a public comment period, changes made to the regulations to address concerns made during the comment period, and then eventually, the final regulations.  All of which requires a budget to enforce, and again, Congress has to enact a budget.   What if someone thinks the law is a bad idea, even “unconstitutional?”  Then it gets challenged in court.  That’s the judiciary’s job.  Eventually it may make it to the Supreme Court for a decision on whether the law is or is not constitutional.  If they rule it isn’t, then the law is void, and you have to start over with something that will pass muster.  If you’re lucky, they may rule than only a part of the law is unconstitutional, but if it’s a critical part, you’re in the same boat.

All of that constitutes “Basic Civics,” which really doesn’t seem to be taught anymore.   It’s why I say that Bernie’s “frustrati” supporters are doomed to disappointment.   A President doesn’t get to do things “by decree.”  He can’t force Congress to vote on or pass anything he wants, the way he wants it.  They don’t answer to him.    Even if Congress does take up some or all of his agenda items, it doesn’t mean they’ll pass it, and if they did, it most definitely wouldn’t resemble the “ideal.”    It’s because what the constituents for any given official in Congress may consider necessary, ideal, or even dead wrong is different from all the other official’s constituents.    You see, every elected official wants to be reelected, and in order to do that, you don’t go against your constituents wishes very often, and you most definitely don’t want to vote for something that’s going to hurt them.    When I hear complaints about “corporatist Democrats,” the first thing I think of is “what are the major businesses in their district?”  No, really.  Few representatives are going to vote for something that harms businesses that employ many of their constituents, particularly if they want to remain representatives.   That’s aside from regional differences.  What may seem like “the greatest idea ever” for the people in New York City, may be considered “the worst idea ever” in Upstate New York.

What it all comes down to is that if you have a progressive agenda and you want to see it enacted, you have to get 218 House districts at a minimum with progressives.  You need at least 51 Senators.  Even then, it’s not going to be “perfect.”  It’ll be a compromised, weak in some areas, somewhat contradictory mix, if you get it at all.     Otherwise, it doesn’t happen, no matter who you elect as President, how many polls you cite, or what sort of mandate you think they have.     But I understand that, because I understand the government we have.  I know that getting progressive achievements means a lot of work, a lot of compromise, and I’m not going to be 100% happy with the initial steps.   The problem the frustrati have is that they think just electing a President is enough, and it’s why they’re doomed to perpetual disappointment.   If you want to fix something you need to know how it works, and the problem with the frustrati is they don’t know how it works.  They know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to know what to do.


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2 responses to “Civics 100: You Have To Know How It Works To Fix It

  1. Wow! What a long-winded and sad piece. The argument boiled down to it’s essentials reads: Even though the system is beyond repair don’t elect someone(Bernie) who wants to change the system, elect someone(Hillary) who’s manipulated that corrupt system to their own advantage and who will not really change the system because it works for her and the elite corporate/financial institutions she serves. Very progressive…not!

    • Thank you for proving my point about the frustrati. Did I say the system was beyond repair? No, but it requires work and involvement from the ground up. For over the past 20 years, I’ve watched people like you spend more time attacking every Democrat under the sun, no matter what their actual accomplishments or policies are. You’re not “helping change the system,” you’re actually insuring the people who are most against everything you stand for – the Republicans – are winning. Remember Nader? 8 years of Bush. Remember pushing Ted Kennedy into a primary and spending lots of time attacking Jimmy Carter? 8 years of Reagan, 4 years of Bush. Over and over again, the end result is that we – the people who are actually doing the work – have to play defense instead of going on offense. Now, here’s the reality for you: Keep it up. Even if Bernie were to be elected, your constant bitching will insure that his coattails are nonexistent, so his ability to do anything to keep his promises will be equally nonexistent. You see, it just turns out that he’s going to need those Democrats you are complaining about to get anything done.