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Inside Politics: Can representational democracy be improved?

The Founding Fathers probably had rip roaring discussions in formal settings, public houses and their homes in the months before writing our Constitution. They penned a resilient enduring document. That resulted partly from their awareness that they were human, and that perfection is an ideal but not absolutely achievable or static in an ever-changing world. The Constitution of the United States and each state’s constitution cope with those realities via their provisions for amendment.

Amendments are, and should be difficult to achieve. The process was made arduous to guard against frivolous, fleetingly expedient, imprudent emotion-driven, or regionally or factionally biased changes. Arguably, an easily amended constitution is no constitution at all.

Yet, history underscores how willfully blind our Founding Fathers could be for the sake of expediency and how culturally and politically myopic they were, even assuming the most idealistic best of intentions. I know that is a strong statement. Yet, I think America’s early history surrounding slavery, women’s suffrage and overarching concepts of voting rights and representation supports if not totally validates the assertion. Furthermore, the Constitution’s failure to even address, let alone reign in, the corrosive effects of political parties, produced an ongoing unity-undermining co-dependency disorder among our institutions and citizenry.

Given all the givens, I’m a steadfast Democrat. Yet, in my heart I wish America were an issue-driven rather than party-driven nation. And, no, I don’t entirely accept the premise that parties represent issues. They represent overarching philosophies, and they are instruments of coalition-building regarding issues affected by those philosophies. Nonetheless, it’s intellectually dishonest to think that two major parties adequately and precisely delineate the nuances of the full spectrum of individual issues confronting society. Indeed, parties often simultaneously support separate issues that contradict one-another or the party’s overarching philosophy. The larger the party, the truer that statement.

Who among us truly supports 100 percent of a party’s positions? Who can honestly say they never find themselves, by default, aligning with their party simply out of tribal loyalty, especially when confronted with issues beyond personal understanding? And who isn’t often exasperated that our elected representatives don’t defer, or are unable to defer, decisions to a direct vote of the citizenry?

In his presidential farewell George Washington said, “However (political parties) may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Political parties undermine our democracy through the blatantly unethical practice of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering often results in the U.S. congress and state legislatures having disproportionately more representation by the party with fewer national or statewide votes. That outcome scandalously thwarts “representational democracy.”

I lived in New Zealand in the early 1990s and was impressed by how they overcame this problem in their parliament. They instituted “Proportional Representation.” It’s refreshingly straightforward. Kiwis elect MPs by party for each region (like America’s states or Idaho’s legislative districts). Their parties also elect a national pool of “at large” representatives. When the election is over, the national parliament seats all regionally elected candidates. Then it adds the few at-large candidates necessary to adjust the overall parliament composition to the ratio of national popular votes by party. Using such a system at the federal and state levels in America could drastically improve fair representation of the full electorate. It would also incentivize vastly greater voter participation.

Many nations and American states provide for referring issues directly to citizens via plebiscites. They all have their distinctive mechanisms for invoking or allowing and subsequently enacting plebiscites. So, it’s hard to identify one ideal model. Yet, moving Idaho toward easier and more frequent utilization of plebiscites merits consideration. It would far better endow representative democracy than recent actions making Idaho ballot initiatives harder to achieve or enforce, or the current proposal to radically marginalize the executive and judicial branches via an unprecedented increase of legislative interpretive and enforcement powers.

Voting rights per se embody an essential American value. However, voting rights aren’t explicitly defined in the U.S. Constitution. The insightful 2013 article by Soros and Schmitt in the Journal “Democracy” explains that our Constitution authorizes states to conduct elections and conduct voter registrations. It itemizes reasons or practices that may not be used to prevent citizens from voting. It also identifies positions that individual citizens aren’t eligible to vote for. But the specific right of each citizen to vote is not categorically, explicitly, and unequivocally defined. Some scholars argue the U.S. Constitution “implicitly” guarantees the right. Regrettably that is not the same as specifically, categorically, and explicitly defining the right. The latter is needed to blunt egregious new registration obstacles, roll purging, and imposing logistical restrictions on demographically targeted precincts.

Lastly, while there are legitimate issues surrounding the concept of affirmative action, one demographic remains egregiously and unconscionably underrepresented in our Congress and statehouses. I refer to gender balance.

Gender is the sole identifier that transcends every other demographic, be it race, national origin, religion or political affiliation. While righting this imbalance in the U.S. Congress would be a challenging redesign, it would be an easy fix in Idaho’s Legislature. Each legislative district already has an A and B seat. Assigning male representation to A or B and female to the other would bring about a long overdue and much needed diversity of perspective to our state government.

We recently amended Idaho’s Constitution to guarantee hunting rights. Shouldn’t it be much more urgent, ladies, to demand a constitutional guarantee of fair legislative participation to Idaho’s largest single demographic?

Other View: Like Garland, Gorsuch deserves a Senate hearing

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

President Donald Trump has made some lamentable appointments in his brief tenure. Judge Neil Gorsuch is not one of them.

Gorsuch, who serves on the federal appeals court in Denver, Colorado, is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Supreme Court clerk. Only 49 years old, he is genuinely well-qualified and well within the mainstream of conservative intellectual thought.

This presents a dilemma for Senate Democrats. Their Republican colleagues shamefully trashed an important democratic norm when they refused even to hold hearings on President Barack Obama’s superbly qualified nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. Along the way, Republicans helped to destroy the last vestiges of bipartisan comity in an institution where basic functions have been degraded by partisan rancor over many years.

Now Trump and the Republicans are urging Democrats not to mimic their own reckless behavior. It’s a tall order. Should Democrats comply?

After a thorough review of Gorsuch both on paper and before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and presuming no disqualifying information is discovered, they should.

Democratic partisans will want Democratic senators to do unto Republicans as Republicans did unto them. Many Democratic senators no doubt believe that such turnabout is fair play.

But the American system of government depends on respect not just for the law but for democratic norms, including bipartisan cooperation and deference to the powers of the presidency. Yes, Republicans have eroded those norms. That is not a reason for Democrats to degrade them further.

It is also very likely to be for naught. With Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell under pressure to end the filibuster that requires 60 votes to approve a Supreme Court nominee, a filibuster against Gorsuch could well be the Senate’s last. Given the erratic and confrontational behavior of the man in the Oval Office, Democrats may want to preserve the filibuster for a real emergency.

In his remarks after Trump introduced him, Gorsuch was gracious and dignified. If he proves as decent as he is accomplished, Democrats shouldn’t stand in his way. Let the vetting begin.