Watching the unfolding of events over the past few years, made me think and read again about the principles under which our nation grew through its youth into adulthood. I fear that our greatest previous presidents must be turning over in their graves.
Dear President Lincoln:
You certainly had some profoundly significant things to say back there in your address at Gettysburg seven score years ago. Your comments on "a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" or your "testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure" or your powerful and inspiring closing remark "that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth." were enough to make anyone's chest swell with pride at the privilege of being a citizen of such a nation.
If you took a look now at how things have played out since you said those words you might be rather surprised, dismayed, frustrated, confused and disappointed. The threat to whether that nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure is no longer attempted secession from the union, it is rather the systematic erosion of civil liberties in a manner perhaps best expressed by one of your predecessors, James Madison when he said: "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the rights of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation."
So just how is that nation which you were so determined to preserve enduring?
Things haven't gone quite as you may have envisioned, hoped, or expected. You might even say that things have gotten a bit messy over the last three score years or so.
We've become the richest and most and powerful nation in the history of the world, and have subsequently decided that we don't need to regard ourselves as bound by international norms as codified by the UN Charter, the International Court of Justice and the various conventions and treaties which we have signed. (See Note 1)
We have cast ourselves as the custodians of democracy and purport to represent, model, and foster it throughout the world. Yet our voting record in the UN belies that claim as we made eminently clear on Nov. 9,1981 when we voted against a UN resolution affirming the right of every state to choose its economic and social system in accord with the will of its people, without outside interference in whatever form it takes. One hundred and twenty-six countries voted for the resolution and one (us) voted against it. Then again on Nov. 22, 1983 we voted against the same resolution. That time one hundred and thirty-one countries voted in favor of the resolution, and one country (again us) voted against it. (Sort of flies in the face of your "of, by and for the people" line doesn't it!)
Then in 1986 we were found guilty by the World Court for our escapades in Nicaragua . The Court condemned us for our unlawful use of force, demanded that we desist and pay substantial reparations and ruled that all aid to the mercenary forces attacking Nicaragua was military, not humanitarian. In response, we simply dismissed the World Court as a "hostile forum," summarily ignored the call for reparations, and escalated our military efforts to undermine the democratically elected government in Nicaragua.
On Oct. 28, 1981 in the UN we were the only country to vote against an anti-racism resolution condemning apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. How does that jibe with your January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation?
And our presidential election of the year 2000 stands as an indelible smear on the face of the democratic process. The Supreme Court with its 5 to 4 decision perverted the election from a democratic process into a partisan political decision thus giving us our first president by appointment.
We are at best a limited democracy. The voting public does not have input into what our government does about foreign policy, health care, corporate globalization, foreign aid, education, the defense budget or the national deficit. There is overwhelming evidence that corporate lobbying and "soft money" fund raising pretty much control a political structure in which it now takes tens of millions of dollars to run for public office. At this point we have millions of minority citizens who are not registered to vote, and less than 50% of those of us who are registered actually exercising that right. In this past off year election (2002) 37% of the registered voting population turned out to vote. That would set what the media described as "President Bush's mandate" at about 19% of the voting population. In Bush's rhetoric, "We'll go to war with Iraq, unilaterally if necessary, initiate a regime change, install a democracy and maintain U.S. forces in the country for a few years to 'manage' things until the new regime is stable." Is this the brand of democracy you had in mind that day at Gettysburg?
Hearing such things, Mr. Lincoln, you might conclude that we've become a spectator democracy in which the voting public is periodically asked for passive consent. And such being the case, you probably don't find it surprising that millions of eligible voters are unregistered or that more than half of those who are registered don't bother to vote.
And surely you would ask: "Does this actually represent what most Americans want? Is this the will of the people? How is it you've lost all meaningful input into the direction and behavior of the government that represents you? And what, at this point, if anything, might be done to regain some meaningful measure of input?"
Well Mr. Lincoln, the very concept of communication has changed since your time. Thanks to the invention of radio, television and the Madison Avenue advertising industry, we now engage in a practice called "manufacturing consent" (See Note 2) whereby, rather than responding to the will of the people, the government in power manipulates the media with mis-information (referred to as "putting the correct spin on things") in order to fabricate consent for what ever it is they've already decided they're going to do.
Nowadays we talk about "sound bites." One of our current presidential aspirants, John Kerry, has been reproached by the press for not being good at sound bites. To elaborate on that concept, when President Clinton gave a state of the union address at the senate he was criticized for having gone on so damn long because he talked for 20 minutes. By that criteria your brief talk at Gettysburg might now be belittled for taking more than the 20 seconds which, thanks to the way television has shortened our attention span, seems to be the maximum length of a good sound bite. The very best ones are even shorter than that and are designed to devastate the opposition in perhaps 2 or 3 words: "Where's the beef?". This has replaced rational dialogue on issues of national concern.
You'd never have made it as a good sound biter, Mr. Lincoln. In one of your famous debates with Douglas, he led off and took three hours after which you suggested that since you expected you'd need about the same amount of time perhaps it would be appropriate to take a dinner break. The audience went and dined, came back and heard to the second half of the debate. Such an event is virtually unimaginable in this day and age. The best you could hope for now would be a one hour nationally televised debate (I now use the term debate loosely) in which a well know television newscaster would ask you and Douglas questions by turn. You would not actually have any kind of interchange with Douglas nor would either of you be expected to respond in any way to what the other said. You would instead consistently reiterate your sound bite sized campaign slogans and never respond directly to any question asked of you by the interviewer. You would, of course, have seen all of the questions well ahead of the actual ‘debate' - no surprises allowed.
So, in answer to your questions, Mr. Lincoln, it appears that the present governmental structure not only fails to represent the will of the people, it has no need to hear from the people and learn what that will is.
Here is a twofold proposal which would actually begin to move us back in the direction of your "of the people, by the people and for the people."
All the necessary electronic technology for conducting national referendums with published results within twenty four hours is currently available. We all have sufficient faith, for example, in our ATM cards to amble about the world popping them into machines will full confidence that we can get our money whenever we want and that no one else can get it. Attach an ATM type electronic device to every television set and issue all voters a card enabling them to vote on poll questions right from their home, from the local public library or any TV to which they have access. Each question would appear on all television newscasts for a week before the date of the referendum vote. On that date people would use their card to register their opinion and clear results (with correct factual answers where appropriate) would be announced as part of the news on the following day.
This would be a effective way to not only hear from the public, but to assess the authenticity of the public's knowledge and to enlighten them in areas where they are ignorant or misinformed. It would provide the government and the media with the issues on which people needed to be better informed in order to be responsible voters providing meaningful input to their federal representatives.
What kinds of responses (answers at bottom) might we get, for example, from national Survey such as these:
Questions could be asked on the environment, arms industry, global warming, national gun control, abortion, national health care, our electoral college system, the current U.S. defense budget, the education budget, the health budget, the "war on drugs," the"war on terrorism" and The Homeland Security Act, etc.
Survey and Referendum results would radically modify how politicians voted on legislative issues. It is, for example, common knowledge that at least 2/3rds of our population wants much stronger hand gun control. However, the population is not organized like the NRA is to put pressure on Congress to influence their voting; the population at large has no platform and therefore no voice and thus stronger hand gun control legislation is all but impossible to get through Congress. Regular national referendums would give the voting public such a platform and a voice. And we would have a clear reading on the national stance on any given issue.
This is not to suggest that national Referendums should carry any 'majority rule' legislative weight. Our elected legislative officials should vote their conscience. With this referendum system, however, they would do so knowing exactly where the public stands, and what the will of the people is on major national and international issues. The voting public would, in turn, know that their legislators had that information when they cast their votes in congress, thus generating legislator accountability to the constituencies they represent.
So that's my proposal Mr. Lincoln, and, given the amount of resistance we can expect from politicians, the congress, the administration, the media and the corporate structure, it looks like we'll need help from a statesman of your stature in order to actually get it implemented. We miss you.
A deeply patriotic, loyal, and severely disenchanted citizen.
Copyright 2005 The Trouser Rollers. All Rights Reserved.