John Baer: Is democracy in danger, & are we ungovernable?

Posted: November 18, 2009

A NUMBER OF fellow Pennsylvanians in

recent conversations and e-mails ask if I

believe that we're ungovernable. Interesting question; I know some think we are.

Is it the economy, or a function of an information explosion force-feeding citizens more facts and fiction than ever before?

There's no shortage of suggestions that democracy's in danger.

In Washington, a barely functional, bitterly partisan Congress can't or won't act on health care, and President Obama, who promised change, is bogged down by the same wars and economic ills so many thought he'd end. Republicans blame the Democratic president and the Democratic Congress, but they seem just as lost for answers as their rivals.

In Harrisburg, a lame-duck Gov. Rendell fails to achieve much of his progressive agenda. An inert legislature can't finish elements of a budget due last July (new gambling to provide new revenues), and its leaders seem to serve only as fodder for prosecutors looking to bigger careers. Think former U.S. Attorney/congressional candidate Pat Meehan and state Attorney General /gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett. (And, perhaps you noticed, prosecutors were just elected governors of New Jersey and Virginia.)

In Philly, Mayor Nutter, elected to bring the city "a new day, a new way," is mired in the same old union/pension/budget woes. This week he told the Daily News that he hears lots about his "tough job at the worst possible time."

Meanwhile, attempts at solutions draw examples of intervention by special interests.

The New York Times reports that lobbyists for the biotechnology firm Genentech got 42 members of Congress - 22 Republicans, 20 Democrats, including Philly Democrat Bob Brady - to put company health-care talking points into the Congressional Record.

This isn't unusual, illegal or restricted to Washington. Back in 1989, Philly Republican John Perzel (perhaps you've heard of him) got caught submitting an auto-insurance-reform proposal that he claimed was his that turned out to be a word-for-word plan from lobbyists for the state trial bar.

The Rendell administration this week announced layoffs of 300-plus state workers, bringing the total this year to 769. The same year that lobbyists for gaming, natural gas and tobacco spent $4.5 million, according to the Inky, to expand gambling, prevent a natural-gas-extraction tax and stop a tax on smokeless tobacco.

Are we ungovernable? I think Pennsylvania's hopeless. Nationally, I have my doubts.

But Syracuse University professor Jeffrey Stonecash, who specializes in political parties, electoral behavior and state politics, thinks that people miss a critical point.

"From the moment Obama got elected, there's this remarkable lack of appreciation for what Congress is all about and likely to do," he says. He notes that 13 Senate Democrats and 50-plus House Democrats are from states and districts won by John McCain.

"Everybody got caught up in this enormous optimism," says Stonecash, "but the unlikely prospect all these Democrats from Republican areas would go along with a liberal agenda is one thing everybody sort of forgets."

What about the impact of non-stop information, some of it bogus, much of it biased, coupled with "tea parties" and raucous town meetings?

"Political discourse throughout our history has been just as toxic," says Penn political-science professor Rogers Smith, "but the American body politic has shown it carries the antibodies to survive."

He agrees that there's greater visibility of "the clamor of angst," but says that the media give it prominence beyond its percentage of national thought.

Other experts I talked with also tend to land on the side of not-to-worry, suggesting that our history is marked by periods of economic turbulence and political polarization.

But I do worry: about the polarization of information on blogs and cable TV, as legitimate news outlets constrict or go away; about too many voters ingesting data that's untrue or politically spun; about the influence of monied interests and partisanship so severe it replaces public service.

I worry that our choices are narrowing to far right or far left. And I worry that that will damage democracy and leave us, well, ungovernable.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|