Pols, Parades, & Pets

When it comes to politics, I can sometimes seem a little... let's see, what's the right word... cynical? Critical? Sarcastic? Harsh? Snarky? Obnoxious? Disdainful? Probably all of the above.

So I imagine that many of you assume I'm being somehow mean-spirited when I tweet pictures of politicians marching in parades, or when I create a tumblr of pictures of Massachusetts politicians with animals, or other cases in which I express apparent enjoyment of the simple, prosaic, somewhat goofy aspects of American politics.

But in fact, I really do love this stuff. I love a lot about politics, but in particular stuff like politicians marching in parades or visiting the North Andover Sheep Shearing Festival.

And if you'll indulge me, I'd like to give a lengthy and overly intellectual explanation for my great pleasure in these aspects of American politics, in the hopes that some of you may share in it.

So let's go back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where 55 men fashioned a new framework for governing the country. They faced a range of nearly impossible conunudrums in creating something that they -- and the ratifying state conventions -- could agree upon and that actually had a chance of working.

To all that, as I see it, they added a purely elective degree of difficulty: they wanted this new government to actually manifest the quite radical concept of popular sovereignty -- what Lincoln would memorably describe as government of the people, by the people, for the people. This was an intellectual, philosophical goal that the framers by and large believed ran counter to the likelihood of good government. They believed, quite strongly, that the business of government should be in the hands of an elite class of sophisticates like themselves, insulated from the whims and passions of the poorly educated, self-interested, short-sighted, easily swayed, self-contradicting, prejudiced, unsophisticated general populace.

Yet they decided that the principle of popular sovereignty was so important, they were willing to accept worse governance as a cost of including it in a real, meaningful way. To me, this is the great American democratic experiment, that we continue to test out in practice today -- and in which I am a huge, true-blue, deep-down believer.

The framers hedged their bets on popular sovereignty in every way possible. One of the big hedges (which is also a hedge against various other concerns) is the insanely divided and cross-purposed government, which forces slow, conciliatory progress, and thus prevents bad governance by, in effect, preventing almost any governance.

But the framers also severely limited the direct expression of popular sovereignty (not even including the limitations they assumed would be placed on which portions of "the people" could actually participate).

In the end, they allowed the citizenry to directly choose only their representatives in the lower house of one branch of the federal government. 

The other legislative chamber -- the important one, in their minds, which could ratify treaties, confirm appointments, and remove Presidents and other officials through conviction of an impeachment -- would be chosen by state legislatures.

It's particularly telling, to me, that they didn't even consider letting the sovereign, self-governing people choose Senators directly, at least according to Madison's letter to Jefferson describing the debate:

In forming the Senate, the great anchor of the Government, the questions as they came within the first object turned mostly on the mode of appointment, and the duration of it. The different modes proposed were, 1. by the House of Representatives 2. by the Executive, 3. by electors chosen by the people for the purpose. 4. by the State Legislatures. 

They chose option 4, but you'll notice that popular elections weren't even proposed.

The framers similarly attempted to shield the executive branch from popular vote, through the third option on that list; they genuinely intended for people to choose wise elite electors, who in turn would choose the President. (And -- unlike most current state governments, where voters elect Attorneys General, Secretaries of State, Treasurers, and some other executive personnel -- the entire executive branch is selected by the President, with advice and consent from the Senate.) The judicial branch of course is almost completely shielded from popular whim, with "the people" left out of the direct process of choosing federal judges, who need never worry about earning new terms.

In addition, the framers made it nearly impossible for anyone outside of the federal government to actually affect federal laws -- there is no popular referendum or initiative process, and the path to amending the Constitution without Congress's help is so unwieldy it has not once been accomplished.

All of this ancient history is to say that this great American democratic experiment of constitutional government of, for, and by the people was considered a really, really, iffy prospect, even by the boldest thinkers of the time. Yet, they were willing to concede the likelihood of worse governance in exchange for the principle.

And it has worked out so well, that we have been able, over the course of American history, to cast many of the framers' obstacles to genuine self-government aside -- essentially, to keep upping and upping our bet on this principle of popular sovereignty. Presidential electors very quickly became a mostly irrelevant formality. A Constitutional amendment gave the electorate the power to directly elect their Senators. And the franchise has been expanded to an ever-greater portion of the populace.

The downside of this progression has been that our government, rather than being insulated from, is largely guided by the whims and passions of the poorly educated, self-interested, short-sighted, easily swayed, self-contradicting, prejudiced, unsophisticated general populace.

And it shows. But, being a true-blue deep-down believer in the great American democratic experiment, I think it's worth it.

Why? What do we get in return that makes it worth the nonsense?

We get the knowledge that it's truly our government, our country, in a way that you just can't have without meaningful popular sovereignty.

And how is that knowledge expressed? Through reminders that our politicians are not an isolated elite class of lords off in their manors, insulated from the citizenry. They have to come shake hands at the subway station. They have to chat up potential volunteers in living rooms. They have to come to little league games. They have to cut ceremonial ribbons with giant novelty scissors when a shop opens in the community. They have to judge pumpkins and eat cheese fries at the county fair. They have to tour the local economy-driving businesses and attractions, and sometimes that means they have to touch a hedgehog at the Worcester Ecotarium. And they sure as hell have to walk in the local parade, preferably holding a miniature American flag, and smile and wave at every one of us along the route.

More broadly, in this process of representing a voting public, politicians have to let us into their lives a little bit. We get to find out, through all of the above, that some of them really love dogs and some don't. We might get a glimpse of how they relate to children, or what kind of books they enjoy, or what song they would choose for WFNX my-song-vs-your-song, and all of that stuff that ultimately reassures us, at some level, that our political figures are actual real people chosen from among us to hold that office.

That's all symbolism, but it's important symbolism, at least to me. And I choose to celebrate it, with gusto.

I also choose to insult those same politicians mercilessly for the idiocy they do, whether in deference to, or in betrayal of, the poorly educated, self-interested, short-sighted, easily swayed, self-contradicting, prejudiced, unsophisticated general populace. I don't see any reason I shouldn't do both.

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