I live in a rural, upper middle-class community composed primarily of retired, religious republicans. It’s a stark contrast to many of the people I’ve met in Austin, the city that wears its “weirdness” with pride. So I pay attention to the voices I hear when I walk in these two diverse worlds. Today I was listening to the post-election comments in my local beauty salon where women who were not happy with the results of the election were at least pleased with my new hair color! But I digress…
What struck me in listening to them was not the way they talked about the winners and losers, but how the election was cast in terms of “my side” vs. “your side”. Elections have always been horse races, but I seem to recall that the horses were the individual candidates NOT a political party’s control of the house. I pretended to thumb through old issues of Time Magazine while the weekly “wash and curl” set (you know, the silver-haired, grandmotherly ladies that “get their hair fixed on Friday so it will look presentable on Sunday) disagreed about whether or not it was better to have both sides of the house and the executive branch from the same party. Some expressed concern about “what the Democrats will do to us”. Others were glad to “get rid of the lying Republicans.” I wondered if any of them considered whether or not the best people for the job were elected regardless of party affiliation.
This sent me back to the book, The Broken Branch by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Not being a political scientist or historian, I appreciate their highly accessible and interesting description of the history and operation of the House, Senate, Judiciary, and Executive branch. If I understand Ornstein and Mann, our nation’s founders were deeply concerned about balancing power and ensuring governance in the interest of the public’s common good. This drove their thinking about term lengths and limits and authority. Even the electoral college was part of the grand scheme to ensure adequate controls to limit abuse of power. Here are some of the quotes I highlighted from the first couple of chapters.
- “The Constitution…does build an institutional edifice in which Congress is seen as a powerful, independent body, one expected to represent a large and diverse republic, to deliberate on important policy questions, and to check and balance the other branches. In the words of Nelson Polsby, the framers intended Congress to be a transformative legislature, not simply an arena in which external forces work their will.”
- “The president, chosen for a four-year term by electors appointed by the states, would lack the political muscle provided by popular election.”
- “the framers tried to design Congress in a way that would attract people of ability to work for the common good.”
- “The key was building governmental institutions that channeled the ambitions of elected officials to serve broad public interests.”
I wonder if Congress is well-suited to serve broad interests and common public good or if they are hang-tied by their political party. Can we as citizens move beyond the political party horse race and the red-blue narrative and demand that our elected officials stand up for broad public interests. My friend, Susan Clark told me earlier tonight that she thinks the recent election is a sign that we want more balance and dialogue about the direction our country is going. I’m unusually skeptical, but I hope she’s right. I hope that we approach 2008 more thoughtfully and deliberatively. So what do we do to make that happen?