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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Politics Fail Us

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The frustration all of us feel over the failure of politics to serve the public good is multiplied when one party or the other seems to have adequate control to do just about anything it wants.

At the national level, with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, many of us were appalled to see how difficult it still was to accomplish long-held Democratic goals of reforming health care and creating more jobs.

There, at least, unwieldy rules intended to protect the rights of the minority party could be blamed for allowing unanimous Republicans to try to block progress at every turn.

But what’s the excuse of the Wisconsin Legislature?

There, too, Democrats are in control of both houses and the governor’s office. And legislators are not saddled with obstructionist rules that require super-majorities to overcome filibusters.

All majority Democrats needed were majority votes to pass anything they wanted.

Yet, when the legislative session ended, what should have been high Democratic priorities of promoting jobs and alternative energy or saving Milwaukee County’s public transit system were left on the table.

A couple of other bills badly needed by the Democrats’ most vulnerable constituents—regulation of predatory payday loan companies and state intervention in the worst public schools serving poor children—barely managed to pass in the closing hours.

Clearly, more than partisan majorities are required. We also have to elect officials who are politically courageous enough to vote for good things and against dumb things despite ridiculous attacks from the other side.

Two bills—a dumb one that passed and a good one that didn’t—demonstrate the power of dishonest debate to make it difficult for gutless legislators to vote against something dumb or in favor of something good.

It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely bill to pass in America’s Dairyland than one to allow the sale of milk without pasteurization, the process discovered in the mid-1800s by Louis Pasteur to curb deaths and sickness from typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever and salmonella.

What could possibly prompt politicians to pass such legislation in the face of opposition from the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and public health officials everywhere?

Apparently, all it takes is a Tea Party attitude that government shouldn’t be telling people what to do. That includes telling businesses not to sell food products that can sicken and kill people.

No sentient being could have failed to notice massive recalls of beef, spinach, peanut butter and other food products in recent years. Obviously, we need more government oversight to protect us from unsafe food, not less.

Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation and his Academy Award-nominated documentary film, Food, Inc., provide all the evidence anyone with a strong stomach could possibly want about the need to restore public protection in the food industry.

But in the Tea Party view of America, the “people” know better than government, science or a bunch of elitist experts.

In the case of raw milk, it was a very tiny sliver of people who hold the superstition that milk that hasn’t been treated to kill deadly toxins is healthier than milk the government certifies as safe.

Voting Rights for All?

Let’s move from an issue that only a very few people cared about to one that affects all of us: voting. The partisan divide on voting is well known.

Democrats want to make it as easy as possible for people to vote in a democracy. There is a partisan advantage to them because the people who traditionally have had low voter turnout—the poor, racial minorities and some of the very elderly—are more likely to vote Democratic.

This also puts Democrats on the side of, well, democracy.

Republicans, on the other hand, want fewer people to vote. There’s also a partisan advantage in their position. In low turnout elections, those most likely to vote are higher income people who are far more likely to vote Republican than all that Democratic rabble.

This is an elitist, undemocratic position. Republicans obviously can’t oppose democracy in public. So, instead, they scream vote fraud.

The Democratic voter registration bill considered in the closing days didn’t even address the most serious denial of voting rights in Wisconsin: restoring voting rights to felons returning to the community after incarceration.

Democrats didn’t want to face Republican criticism for encouraging former offenders to become good citizens. And, in the end, they couldn’t even summon up the courage to expand voter registration by automatically registering everyone who received a Wisconsin driver’s license.

Since the majority party is going to be attacked by the other side no matter what it does, we should at least expect Democrats to have the guts to vote against the sale of unsafe food and for democracy.

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