Saturday, December 17, 2011


I think we can pretty much agree our political system is dysfunctional to the extreme at this moment in time. Many people seem to agree that one of the worst problems is the amount of money being poured into the elections, particularly after the absurd politicized Supreme Court decision that corporations are people and should be allowed to contribute as much money as possible. This means, among other things, the system is now corrupted beyond belief, and the fate of our elections rests in the hands of the corporations that can either buy them outright or inhibit anyone from dissenting by threatening to spend big money to defeat them. I grant this is an extremely important problem and needs desperately to be corrected. But as correcting it involves a constitutional amendment it cannot be corrected for a long time, if ever. This is, in my opinion, only one of the problems of obsolescence that seems to be in play.

Even if the money was taken out of the system, and even if it worked as a democratic system (which it doesn’t), it would still be dysfunctional because it is obsolete. Our democratic society, or Republic, if you will, was designed for a time that has long passed. It was all well and good at the time to pick leaders who seemed to be the best choices possible (mostly wealthy landowners). In those halcyon days most of the leaders were of about the same socio-economic level, and more importantly, knew much the same about the condition of the country both internally and internationally. You could vote for a Jefferson or a Madison knowing they knew as much or more about what was happening as anyone available. Not only that, things moved very slowly, there was always time to make necessary corrections, communication was primitive, and in the worst cases things had often sorted themselves out by the time anything could be done about it. Both domestic and international problems were well known by those “in the know,” and politics was much simpler then. But if the goal of “government” is to insure the well-being of the citizenry, and also to deal with international relations, things are very different in the modern world, fantastically more complicated, and thousands of times more difficult. The idea that one White landowner was much the same as another simply does not apply any longer. The requirements of office are much more demanding. That, I think, is where much of the problem lies. One candidate is no longer much the same as another, and none of the candidates are truly knowledgeable or suitable enough for the important offices they aspire to. We elect candidates who almost universally are not truly qualified. We do not have a large cadre of individuals with sufficient knowledge of either domestic or international affairs from which to select our leaders.

This can be seen clearly in the current crop of Republican candidates, but it is true of all candidates in general. I do not mean to be unkind but individuals like Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Donald Trump are quite plain and simply not qualified for the Presidency. In fact, I would argue none of the candidates are qualified. Romney thinks he is qualified because he was a successful businessman, but is that really enough to be President? Running a large and complex nation is not the same as running a business. George W. Bush was certainly not qualified, even though he was a Governor of Texas, nor is Rick Perry qualified. This is because Governors, like Presidents, are not elected on the basis of their qualifications but, rather, on political grounds, who has the most money or at least access to the most money, and so on. In fact Governors as well as many others, can be just plain ignorant if not basically stupid.

Interestingly enough, in the United States there are no prerequisites for holding important offices, none. This is why you can have candidates like Herman Cain who basically don’t believe you have to know anything at all to be President, just be a “leader.” But a leader who knows virtually nothing cannot truly lead, at least not successfully. George W. Bush is a recent case in point. Nor do I believe being a lawyer is in and of itself a sufficient qualification for the Presidency, although knowledge of Constitutional law should help. This lack of expertise runs throughout the system. Presidents need to have the best advice available, but those in positions to advise are often no more knowledgeable than the President himself, such advisors can be chosen for very questionable reasons. Our Senators and House members are similarly elected for strange reasons and often know virtually nothing about what they should know in order to successfully decide on vital national and public issues. Many of them are lawyers, others are wealthy enough to get elected no matter how little they know, some are businessmen, and others are even exterminators or comedians. They may well be decent people, and even well-intentioned, but they simply do not command the knowledge they need to make reasonable and thoughtful decisions; witness, for example, those who oppose action on global warming or other environmental problems, or those who blindly follow their religious beliefs when it comes to Israel, or those who oppose stem cell research, and so on. This is not always merely just a difference of opinion, it is often a difference of opinion based on ignorance.

We do not take “governing” seriously. If we did we would not cling to this obsolete practice of electing people on the basis of whether or not we might like to have a beer with them, nor would we be so cavalier when it comes to examining their qualifications. You have to be examined to have a driver’s license, to own a gun, to become a plumber or an electrician, even a hairdresser, but you do not have to have any qualifications whatsoever to be the most powerful person in the world, with a nuclear arsenal and the most powerful military on earth at your disposal. I submit this is a ridiculous way to run a country. If we want to have a decent, intelligent, and smoothly functioning government, one that will look after our national interests in the best possible way, we should have a large cadre of people well trained for that purpose, perhaps a National University for those who aspire to enter government service at any level. They should be well versed in history, political economy, geography, management, science (at least to some minimal level), as well as ethics and government. They should know where to look for advice and be confident their advisors actually know their business. In the advanced years of their training they should be given internships and become familiar with the ongoing problems of the moment, international relations, domestic problems, and so on. Those who distinguish themselves should be able to move up in the system, run for office, and ultimately be able to make thoughtful, conscientious decisions about public welfare and international problems.

Yeah, I know, pie in the sky. This can never happen until: (1) money becomes unimportant in elections, and (2) we must get serious about the governance of our country. If we wish to continue as a nation and compete on an international scale we must get our house in order, educate our children, and speed up the decision-making process. This is not the 18th century anymore.

However much we talk of the inexorable laws governing the life of individuals and of societies, we remain at the bottom convinced that in human affairs everything is more or less fortuitous. We do not even believe in the inevitability of our own death. Hence the difficulty of deciphering the present, of detecting the seeds of things to come as they germinate before our eyes. We are not attuned to seeing the inevitable.

Eric Hoffer

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