Don't forget to vote. Elections are the best thing about the United States.
They're also among the worst things. I hate election season—it makes me view my fellow citizens, with whom I otherwise get along fine, as weak-minded ideologues and moral nincompoops, and I dislike that. Election season is not worth the stress, aggravation and worry it causes. At least we can start shifting our anxiety, dyspepsia, anger, depression, and feelings of dread to somewhat different topics tomorrow morning. (We hope. It didn't go that way during the miserable, grinding election of 2000, when Vice President Al Gore received half a million more votes than Governor George W. Bush.)
A recent newspaper article I read explains how America should consider becoming a constitutional monarchy; a new book argues Against Democracy, as its title states; and, this morning, David Brooks, a conservative columnist at a liberal newpaper, calls for a new political party, in a column called "Let's Not Do This Again."
It does seem to be the time for reconsidering the system. Except that there's zero chance all of us could agree on what system to adopt. We can't agree on anything, so why should we be able to agree on that?
Over in Mikeland...
But here's what we do, sez me. First, we build a campus in the middle of the country somewhere. Kansas would be good; they were giving away land for free in Kansas a few years back, to try to entice people to come live there (it didn't work). Then, we impress into service a Tribunal consisting of 5,200 people from all across the U.S. These people will work for the rest of us for seven months.
This 5,200-member Tribunal of the People by a rotating committee of statistics professors from thirty American and five foreign Universities and members of the U.S. Census Bureau to statistically represent the U.S. voter population by gender, race, region, age, marital status, wealth, and religion or lack of religion. Otherwise the choice is random (like jury duty on steroids). Each Tribune is be rewarded by receiving an average of double their own usual income, averaged from their tax returns over the previous three years, plus a fancy plaque thanking them for their service to the country. These people must only be citizens of sound mind (and, obviously, they must have filed tax returns for the prior three years).
The Tribunal is charged with doing what the rest of us ought to do, and would do if we had the time, the leisure, and the sense of duty to do it: give the election of our leader proper attention. That is, they would be charged with vetting presidential candidates thoroughly and intelligently on behalf of the rest of us.
(The above isn't my original idea, by the way. I read it somewhere. I just can't remember where. Sorry I can't give attribution where attribution is deserved.)
Proper safeguards to protect the Tribunes from undue influence (such as bribes) would be put in place.
Up to fifty candidates would be considered. These must be between 42 and 59 years of age (the latter the so-called "Reagan Rule," named for Ronald, who had senile dementia during his last two years in office; the former is the age of Teddy Roosevelt when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of McKinley and became the youngest man ever to hold the office). Up to six recognized political parties with the largest party memberships may propose up to four candidates each; each additional prospective candidate must present a petition of at least thirty thousand signatures of voting-aged citizens. All candidates must have previously held a minimum of three elected public offices, or been a member of the U.S. Congress for at least five years, or be or have been a governor of a U.S. State or the mayor of a U.S. city of more than 500,000 population, or be a present or past cabinet member, to be considered.
Then, the Tribunal of the People and the >51 candidates repair to the campus in Kansas for seven months. During that time, the candidates give speeches and make their cases, each one meeting everyone present personally; each candidate is vetted for past behavior, past accomplishments, ideas for the future, knowledge of policy and international affairs, physical health, psychological health, general intelligence, honest, moral character, likeability, and anything else anyone can think of; and every night people gather in rotating groups for discussion. Experts can be called in to evaluate or quiz the candidates. The candidates are held up to the light, poked, prodded, examined, and listened to until the cows come home.
In a series of votes, the Tribunal, beholden only to itself, whittles down the field; first to 35, then to 20, then to 12, and finally to five.
Eleven weeks before election day, the five candidates proposed by the Tribunal are presented to the American people as the candidates for President, along with a short written summary and a short video summary of why that candidate was chosen. The general campaign begins. And last eleven weeks. Total. No more.
And—this is important—the members of the Tribunal return to their homes across America and make themselves available to their local press and their friends, family and countrymen as sources of information about the five candidates.
Not everyone can vote. Here's how it goes:
Resident: Anyone who resides in the United States but meets no other qualification can cast an advisory ballot so their opinion can be heard, but their vote doesn't count.
Citizen: Anyone who is a U.S. citizen and between the age of 26 and 76 and has either taken two years of high school civics courses (which by the way become mandatory for all public and private school students, one course taking place in eighth grade and the other in junior year of high school) or has passed a test similar to the one immigrants now take to become citizens, gets one vote.
Vested Citizen: Anyone who meets the above conditions and also is both employed at least half time and owns the property they live on, even if mortgaged, in conjunction with fewer than two other people, gets two votes.
Leading Citizen: Anyone who meets all of the above conditions and is the principal and independent owner of a business employing at least 50 people, or is or has been a member of the U.S. Congress, or is or has been the Governor of a U.S. state, or is or has been a chief of a police force of more than 150, or is a tenured professor at a State University or one of the top 50 private universities who has also served as department chair or department head, or has achieved the rank of full Colonel or higher (or the equivalent) in the U.S. Armed Forces, gets three votes.
The vote is a runoff, and there is no electoral college—whoever gets the most votes wins.
So there's my Utopian thought for the day. (Imagine, doing away with the electoral college! That should appeal to everyone, regardless of party, dogma, or faith. Which is why it's so utterly preposterous.)
What do you think?
Rather than discus this useless Utopian fantasy, which is only .01% more likely to come to pass than the U.S. suddenly becoming a constitutional monarchy (of which the chances are –.01%), let's limit the discussion to the following:
The "who gets to vote" requirement in the above scenario is intended to screen out the blatantly ignorant. Note that "ignorant" doesn't mean "stupid": it just means that someone doesn't know about something. For example, I am a smart guy, but I am ignorant of particle physics. Consider this passage from a recent New Yorker article:
Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their State has two of them.
Should people who can't be bothered to familiarize themselves with the very most basic fundamentals of the United States be allowed to vote? Would the increased likelihood of a better outcome for society as a whole be a adequate justification for depriving the blatantly ignorant of the right to vote? Why should native-born citizens be allowed to vote who know less about America than immigrant citizens who were born and grew up elsewhere in the world?
(Incidentally, I don't know the names of my two Senators, so I'm not exactly Simon Pure here. However, I do know the names of Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, the two senators from Wisconsin, where I lived until a year and three months ago. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.)
Just wondering. Your comment is not binding and will not be passed along to anyone in a position to do anything about it.
And cheer up, eh? It could be worse.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Paul Macdonald: "I should know better than to take this seriously, but there is one 'qualification' meant to display evidence of knowledge, I guess, that I just can't let pass. What exactly does membership in Congress demonstrate? Presumably, some knowledge of how government works, but certainly not an appreciation of the distinction between facts and opinions. Case in point, rich in irony, would be the chair of the House committee on Science. Current or former chair, take your pick."
Peter Wright: "There are some problems with this system! First up would be determining who exactly gets to be a 'Leading Citizen.' Is a Chief of Police to get three times the votes of a Chief of Paediatrics, or a Colonel to get three times the votes of a Ph.D. in Economics? Second, the 'Leading Citizens,' as the brokers of power, would soon set up a system that worked very much in their interest and to the detriment of others, as has happened throughout history. Finally, as the US government's possible actions (like collapsing the economy, or starting a world war) can have major repercussions on every other citizen of earth, the rest of us (if qualified of course!) should also vote: Thoughtful Canadians like me should get ten votes each."
Mike replies: Hmm, letting Canadians pick our president...not a bad idea, not bad at all. You couldn't be any worse at it than we are. Maybe we should have voted on Brexit for the Brits?
But seriously, as to your objection (also made by others): remember that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was not a recipe for revenge but constituted primitive legal reform...it was intended as a limit on revenge. That is, if someone put out your eye and knocked out your tooth, you were enjoined not to slaughter his cows, burn down his hut, rape his daughters, murder his babies in their cribs, and then declare a deathless vendetta against all his kin until the end of time. The argument here is that institutionalizing advantage limits the privileged to only that advantage; and no more. As in, "you already get three votes, that's all the influence you get." In other words it's intended as a limit on privilege, not a license for it.
Of course in reality, this kind of exercise would best be done by a laboratory full of scientists...statisticians, game theorists, sociologists, etc.
Michael: "Thanks for that, Mike. Sometimes, in moments of stress and discomfort, a temporary escape into fantasy lets the rest of the mind/body system settle down and recalibrate itself. This really hit the spot. The two threads running through your utopia, actual relevant knowledge and reasonable prior experience, are particularly soothing to my frazzled system. There is also a hint of disinterestedness in your vision, and a dash of looking to the greater situation. I feel strengthened now, and I may be able to sleep tonight. And perhaps even wake with hope, who knows?"
Mike replies: Grateful thanks for that reaction, and I'm glad it helped. I had to realize about a month ago that whenever I was feeling the dread of anomie and the doomcloud of depression, it was due to the political situation—and I had to learn how to talk myself into feeling better.
Jim: "A Brit here, so no skin in this particular game, but there's an equalities issue I'd be uncomfortable with around your voter requirements. On the specific point of giving extra votes to 'vested citizens' (or, equivalently, downgrading non-vested citizens), it feels like you would be partially disenfranchising those who are already disadvantaged. Some of those who are out of work will already be victims of a system that is failing to provide enough jobs, or jobs that meet their needs as carers or whatnot. Similarly, there's nothing inherently superior about owning as opposed to renting, and in some places renting will only be an option to the better off (or put the other way—poor folks will get fewer votes because they're unable to get a mortgage). Those are the people that a civilised society should be striving to provide better outcomes for, and you perhaps don't optimise for that if you tell candidates that appealing to them will get fewer votes than appealing to the people who are already doing alright.
"Is it perhaps also the case that those from poorer backgrounds will have had poorer educational experiences growing up, and so are less likely to meet your criteria for having passed civics classes?
"I've framed all that in terms of things like income inequality etc., but given history, I'd suspect that there's a high correlation between low income and being from certain ethnic backgrounds (African Americans, I'd guess—though I stress I'm writing from thousands of miles away without local knowledge of your nation's problems). So your proposal might be backing in racial inequality. At the top end for leading citizens, the situation is probably either that there is the same problem—i.e. you're designing a system that favours those that had better chances growing up—and/or is so small in scale that it's not worth the hassle and perceived unfairness of giving them bonus votes.
"But the other bits are more interesting—run-off voting as opposed to electoral college sounds eminently sensible. And the idea you mention about generating high quality candidates sounds like it has some nice features. The age range for candidates does sound a bit narrow. And are there any risks of limiting the types of people that might end up as candidates? Over here we have accusations of people being 'career politicians'—I don't think that's unambiguously bad, but it seems like you might have a richer pool if you ensure your system is compatible with people building up experience in other fields before transferring into politics."