Saturday, February 19, 2011

Democracy, Debate, and "Being Heard"

"This is what democracy looks like"-- A chant shared by more than 400 union workers in Madison's Veterans park this week

"That's not democracy. That's not what this chamber is all about."-- Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on the Democrats' boycott of the budget vote

"We call on every citizen and taxpayer here, and assembling across Wisconsin, to continue the tradition of peacefully expressing their passionate opinions to their government. We assure you all – you are being heard."-- Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca

"They shot down debate when people had a right to be heard"-- Democratic State Senator Chris Larson

“Tens of thousands of citizens have petitioned legislative offices to change the bill... I agree with them. They deserve more time to ensure their voice is heard."-- Democratic State Senator Bob Jauch

"The president has chosen to attack leaders such as Gov. Walker, who are listening to the people and confronting problems that have been neglected for years at the expense of jobs and economic growth."-- U.S. House Speaker John Boehner

“We are taking the phone calls and we are listening, but the fiscal crisis that we're in doesn't slow down"--- Republican Assembly Representative Johny Nygren

"I think it's important for them to have their voices heard. I respect that."
--Governor Scott Walker on protesters

To be sure, a lot has been said this week in Wisconsin about unions, about salaries and benefits, about comparisons between the public and private sector, about rights and privileges, about the history of collective bargaining, and about budgets. But what has struck me as interesting has been that there has also been a lot said about democracy and about communication. It's almost as if we have two sets of debates going on: one about concrete and specific ideas, and the other abstractions about how government operates or should operate. There are plenty of blogs you can go to to read about the former. I'm interested in exploring the latter.

What is "democracy"? David Cratis Williams and Marilyn J. Young define democracy as a "communication system," and this is what they write about it: " is a process of opening, questioning, advocating, refuting, persuading, debating, deciding, and changing...But even at its 'best', democracy is rarely efficient, and it is always contentious...a static, stable, peaceful end is never attained, even in theory." By that definition and way of thinking, protesters are right to say that their demonstrations are what "democracy looks like."

But the key word for me in the above quotation is "debating." This seems to be the value that both sides are laying claim to in the case of the Democrat walkout. Democrats are claiming that a delay in the vote is necessary to promote further debate, while Republicans say that the debate should take place on the floor of the legislature. Democrats say that not enough time has passed to allow opponents of the bill to have their say, while Governor Walker counters that the unprecedented 17 hours of testimony in front of the joint-finance committee reflects a willingness to allow voice to the opposition.

The quotations above seem to indicate that both sides put a value on debate as a tenet of democracy and that they place a high importance on allowing political expression (even if they differ on what that means in practicality). But I wonder if the rhetoric is so centered around the importance of upholding democratic processes that the process itself becomes the product. In other words, debate and expression is seen not as a means, but an end. When the Democrats seek to delay a vote in order to promote expression, do they have an honest belief that it could result in their opposition changing their minds in the interim? After all, in response, Republicans were quick to say that the tactic has solidified their caucus.

It's standard procedure that before bills are passed in legislative bodies, lawmakers are allowed to take the floor and discuss their support or opposition to the bill. And very rarely do their words have any resonance beyond the halls of their immediate building. Occasionally, a few seconds of a soundbite are excerpted by a media outlet and relayed to a vast minority of the populace. But I have never heard a quotation by a legislator that indicates that she or he had been swayed by testimony. In fact, such an admission would likely be viewed as a sign of weakness by the electorate. Ideological malleability is not a trait that is celebrated by either side of the aisle.

But a system in which bills are introduced and votes immediately taken is inconceivable. No matter our partisan leanings, we all have been brought up in a system, solidified through generations, that preaches that discussion is needed before action (even if informal discussion has already long been taking place) and that to speak out (or, in the passive voice, to "be heard") is not only a right, but an obligation. So is there a way that we could uphold these principles and avoid the charade of inefficiency that we all pretend doesn't exist?

I believe there is. First, we need to start teaching the Wiliams and Young definition of democracy. We need to acknowledge that democracy doesn't begin or end with legislative bodies, that our individual political belief systems are formed through complex environmental factors (and not always as a direct result of reasoned analysis of issues), and that political conflicts are healthy and necessary. And to address the political and psychological need to "be heard," we should take a lesson from the judicial branch. When a bill is introduced, each side should be given time to produce a written opinion, a "majority" and a "minority" opinion. Instead of testimony being given, a member of the majority party should be required to read out loud the minority opinion without comment, and vice versa. And then after the vote is taken, democracy can resume.


Blogger Rachel - P said...

Well said there why don't you write your representatives and let them know your idea of how it should be done?! : )

2:35 PM  

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