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Post What is Wrong with Democracy?
Created by John Eipper on 06/24/18 3:59 AM

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What is Wrong with Democracy? (Tor Guimaraes, USA, 06/24/18 3:59 am)

John Eipper commented on the movie The Death of Stalin and its director's words: "Something weird is happening in democracies."  (See Paul Levine, 19 June.)

It seems as if the world is increasingly aware that there is a problem with one of the great pillars of modern civilization, but Armando Iannucci's words shed no light on what is wrong.

Democracy is dying because by definition governments are not being representative of peoples' interests and aspirations. Instead legislators, government executives, and increasingly even members of the judiciary represent the interests of the few wealthy and influential private interests. What is the vehicle used to accomplish this?  Money.  Specifically, what are the major tools? Here are a few to be scrutinized and stopped if one truly wishes to restore democracy:

Corporate welfare.
Obscene disparity in income and wealth acquisition.
Decreasing income taxes for the wealthy.
Citizens United enabling the buying of elections.
Vote suppression.

JE comments:  Yet authoritarian populism is on the rise around the world, and the populists win precisely because they pander to the people's interests and aspirations.

A WAISly question:  is Gerrymandering common outside the US?  Are there "functional" nations where it is specifically prohibited?  I'd like to hear from our non-US colleagues on this.

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  • Gerrymandering in UK? (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 06/24/18 3:41 PM)
    In response to John E's question, gerrymandering is explicitly prohibited in the United Kingdom, where the parliamentary constituencies are drawn by non-political bodies on the basis of the principle of keeping natural units (towns, city districts) together as much as possible. The United States seems to be an outlier in this respect.

    JE comments: Eugenio Battaglia has written that Italy is also free of gerrymandering.  Just today in the Detroit Free Press, I received confirmation for what we already knew:  Michigan is one of the absolute worst states (top four) for gerrymandering.  The contorted districts benefit Republicans:


    A two-party, "winner take all" system lends itself far more to gerrymandering.  In parliamentary systems with proportional representation (i.e., Party X receives 15% of the vote and 15% of the seats), there is no incentive to get inventive with the map.

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  • Democracy is Alive...and Well (Istvan Simon, USA 06/25/18 5:02 AM)
    I agree with the list of problems pointed out by Tor Guimarae (June 24th), but not with his conclusion.

    First, the list of problems is applicable only to the United States. There is no Citizens United for example in England, the Netherlands, Germany or France. Second, I strongly disagree that democracy is dying. Not at all. On the contrary, in spite of all the problems cited by Tor, democracy is alive and well.

    Take for example the disgraceful policy of Trump separating mothers and children at our southern border. It was the outcry of the American people that forced T to revoke his cruel policy. This is one example of the fact that democracy is alive and well in spite of Trump's efforts to the contrary--in spite of the gerrymandering, in spite of Citizens United, and so on.

    JE comments:  Was the Executive Order rescinding the "separation policy" the first time Trump yielded to public pressure?  I can't think of an earlier example.

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  • Gerrymandering in UK? How about Shirleymandering? (John Heelan, UK 06/24/18 5:00 PM)
    JE asked on June 24th: "Is Gerrymandering common outside the US?"

    There was a famous case in Westminster (of all places) that became called the "Homes for Votes Scandal." 

    Wikipedia reminds us that "following the election and fearing that they would eventually lose control unless there was a permanent change in the social composition of the borough, council leader Shirley Porter instituted a secret policy known as 'Building Stable Communities,' focusing on eight marginal wards where the Conservatives wished to gain votes at the 1990 local council elections... Eight wards were selected as 'key.' Secret documents showed that these were chosen for being the most marginal in the local election of 1986. Three: Bayswater, Maida Vale and Millbank had been narrowly won by Labour. St. James's, Victoria and Cavendish narrowly returned Conservatives. West End returned one non-Tory, an Independent. Hamilton Terrace saw its Conservative councillors electorally squeezed by the SDP.

    "In these wards much of Westminster's council housing was slowly renovated and advertised for open-market sale, rather than re-letting when each unit became vacant. Much of this designated housing lay vacant for months or even years before sale. To prevent its occupation by squatters or drug dealers, these flats were fitted with security doors (installed and serviced by a major contractor at £50 per week per door).

    "A second semi-secretive strategy was the removal of homeless voters and others who lived in hostels and were perceived less likely to vote Conservative, such as students and nurses, from Westminster. While this initially proved successful, other councils in London and the Home Counties soon became aware of homeless individuals and families from Westminster, many with complex mental health and addiction problems, making an unusual proportion of calls on services in their area. In public the Council claimed areas and the whole borough was subject to 'stress factors' in the economy leading to a fall in population, locally and overall in the City of Westminster.

    "Based on the unfair political considerations, these eight wards took priority in high-visibility services for four years before the 1990 whole-council elections: from street cleaning, pavement repair to planting and environmental improvements.

    "The City of Westminster Council Leader--Dame Shirley Porter (nee Cohen)--was fined heavily (see the case Porter v Magill) and escaped to Israel returning some 12 years later.

    "The event became nicknamed 'Shirleymander.'" (See also "The Westminster cemeteries scandal," a British political scandal which began in January 1987 when Westminster City Council sold three cemeteries, three lodges, one flat, a crematorium and over 12 acres of prime development land in London for a total of 85 pence.)

    Some people accuse the rescheduling of electoral boundaries for the next UK General Election as gerrymandering, as it appears to benefit Conservative candidates both on the island and constituencies on the near mainland.

    JE comments:  There are numerous "-Gate" variants, for any type of scandal.  Now we have Shirleymandering in addition to Gerry.  Are there others?

    Eighty-five pence for all that London property?  This makes Manhattan, at 24 bucks, seem exorbitant.

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    • Gerrymandering in Venezuela (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 06/27/18 4:55 AM)
      I never case to learn something new every day on the WAIS Forum. It is a source of inexhaustible ideas, historical facts, personal anecdotes, ideological debates, economic and political issues. Thanks to WAISers for the benefit.

      The latest thing I learned was the word "gerrymandering," new for me, a non-Anglophone by birth.  I was surprised and fascinated both by the meaning and its origin. First, I did not know there was a general concept to manipulate district boundaries to obtain political advantages in the electoral process, in countries where these practices are legally allowed. Second, I learned that the alleged origin of this word dates from 1812 and Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who redistricted the state to benefit his Democratic party, and one of the resulting Boston districts resembled a salamander.

      Now to return to John E's question, "Is Gerrymandering common outside the US?"  Yes, at least it has been very common in Venezuelan elections for the last 20 years, during the Chávez and Maduro regimes. They have repeatedly used this corrupted practice to manipulate elections and to gain advantages through the results.

      JE comments:  Anyone who grew up in the US remembers the original political cartoon from the Gerry age.  The image was a staple of history and civics textbooks.  Ol' Elbridge would become Vice President briefly under James Madison.  He died in office in 1814.

      Many thanks, José Ignacio, for your kind appraisal of WAIS.  The Forum teaches me something every day, too.

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  • How Does Populism Arise? (Tor Guimaraes, USA 06/29/18 3:29 PM)
    In my WAIS post of June 24th, I stated that to counter the slow but pernicious destruction of democracy in America and many other nations, our nation must find the common sense and will to stop some of the primary surreptitious methods used by special interests to undermine democracy, such as corporate welfare, obscene disparity in income and wealth acquisition, decreasing income taxes for the wealthy, Citizens United enabling the buying of elections. gerrymandering, and the many ways for vote suppression.

    It is also undeniable that democracy has died and is dying in many nations, because by definition governments are not being representative of people's interests and aspirations. Instead their governments have sold out to a few wealthy and influential private interests. This trend seems to be getting stronger and unstoppable.

    John Eipper commented that "authoritarian populism is on the rise around the world, and the populists win precisely because they pander to the people's interests and aspirations." My reply is that there is a big difference between politicians pandering to segments of the population interested in a few single issues (abortion, gay marriages, etc.) and representing the long-term social, economic interests of the nation as a whole (healthy economy providing decent jobs, a strong education system, a decent health care system for all citizens, etc.).

    Indeed, a strong hypothesis is that once a nation has destroyed its democracy far enough to openly live with the obvious symptoms I listed above, significant segments of the population become uneducated, distracted and brainwashed enough to become easy targets for extremist leaders and authoritarian populism. Democracy does not come easy.  It requires vigilant, thoughtful, well-educated, long-term oriented citizens, capable of electing political representatives showing such characteristics and broad minded enough to accept compromises for the long term good of the nation as a whole.

    Finally, a little anecdote. Last time I was in Washington DC, we went to this weekly farmers' market. I was surprised to see a booth of the Republican Party. It had a list of very desirable ideological underpinnings for the party. I read the list and told the manager that I agreed with every word and the overall ideology. The only problem was it was just words and the real challenge is how to implement each item in the list. For example, I believe in having a strong military but for self-defense only, not to start pre-emptive wars, enrich the military/industrial complex, and replace governments democratically elected in other nations.

    JE comments:  And how did the folks in the booth respond, Tor?

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    • The ThinThread Saga (Tor Guimaraes, USA 07/04/18 6:46 AM)
      I have stated many times before that democracy is dead in our nation because the symptoms only get worse and our representatives do nothing about them or actually participate freely.

      Thus special interests increasingly undermine democracy by enlisting the help of our elected/appointed officials to perpetrate crimes like massive financial fraud, open corporate welfare, obscene disparity in income and wealth acquisition, decreasing income taxes for the wealthy, Citizens United openly enabling the buying of elections, the many ways for vote suppression, etc. But that is not the worst of it.

      In my last visit to DC, I became aware first hand of another symptom that we all complain about and do nothing: government run amok. I was interested in learning about a fantastic technology for managing extremely large databases.  It was dreamed up and developed by Bill Binney working for the NSA over many years. After a few trials it became obvious to a few NSA administrators that the ThinThread system worked well in managing the incredible task of keeping tabs on the activities of 7 billion people in the world. Perfect for fighting terrorism. I was interested in the possibility of using it in business to manage big data.  Instead, I hit a sh-- storm.

      The story goes that at first things were going very well. Bill and his team were asked what they could do with $1.2 billion but they only needed about $300 million. Then a new NSA director came in in 2001: General Michael Hayden. Soon he hired Bill Black and San Visner from a private company (SAIC) who wanted to kill ThinThread and replace it with their own system TRAILBLASER. After some administrative push and shove, Maureen Baginski, the 3rd in NSA command, killed ThinThread on August 2001. Needless to say, TRAILBLASER was useless to stop 9/11 but Tom Drake from NSA ran ThinThread on the NSA databases and clearly established that it would have provided the information needed to stop the disaster. TRAILBLASER after costing $600 million, plus many more millions for related salaries and expenses, was finally killed in 2005 as a major failure.

      In frustration Bill and his team resigned and filed a formal complaint with the DoD Inspector General. In 2007 Bill and his team were considered whistleblowers/traitors and the FBI raided their homes at gunpoint to retrieve any and all vestiges of ThinThread. The FBI fabricated evidence to get the warrant for home invasion, and a judge dismissed the case and saved Bill and his team from Guantanamo. Can we still call our country the land of the free and brave? I am scared to death by this case.

      P.S.: General Hayden got promoted twice since 9/11 for his excellent administrative abilities.

      JE comments:  What a disturbing story.  Perhaps ThinThread needed a beefier name, like HammerBlow?  The amount of money squandered on official IT must be astronomical.  They need the lean and mean capabilities of WAIS and our computer guru, Roman Zhovtulya of WebServiceCenter.

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