In search of accountability
Discipline in the current political climate is easy to talk about but impossible to achieve
By Barry Gordon 05/17/2012
It is in our nature to need someone or something to blame for our problems. While we would all like to believe that we are adult enough to recognize that some things are simply out of the realm of human control, that belief rarely prevents us from pointing our finger at the culprit or culprits who got us into this fix, whatever this fix is. “Blame” is rather an ugly word, however, so the word we tend to prefer is “accountability.” People must be held accountable for their actions, right? It’s a fundamental principle of society. It’s why we have prisons.
Similarly, in politics, we are concerned about holding our state legislators or our congressmen accountable for their actions. The problem is that over the past few decades, we as voters have done more and more to make our representatives less and less accountable. And we don’t even know it.
The creation of political parties — an idea that many of us have come to hate — had its roots in accountability. Ask yourself what is easier: To hold an individual responsible or a group responsible for its exercise of power? When it comes to politics, the latter is easier because the media tends to report on group or party action, while it isn’t always easy to find the voting record of a single legislator. You can do it, but it takes a lot of time and effort. So political parties provided helpful shortcuts to people. Party candidates metaphorically stood on a “platform” of specific principles and policy positions and enabled the voters to have a pretty good idea of what they were getting when they voted for someone with a “D” or an “R” next to their name.
The other essential component of accountability was majority rule — another idea we’ve come to question. When one party was in the majority, and when a majority vote was all that was needed to pass legislation, the scorecard was easy to figure out. If they were doing the job we sent them to Sacramento or Washington to do, we’d keep them in office. If they didn’t, we’d throw them out and give the other team a chance. It was all pretty basic.
Of course, over time, and for many reasons I won’t go into here, the parties “sorted out” and became more polarized and more ideological (although today most of the pragmatists have “sorted” themselves into the Democratic Party). Partly, this was due to the fact that party activists — those who had a passion for politics — tended to be more ideological. The obvious cure for this was to stop voting for polarizing politicians and vote instead for more centrist candidates, but we chose not to do that. There was no sign at the polls saying, “Moderate voters not welcome.” It’s just that moderate voters weren’t all that interested in becoming activists or in voting in primaries.
Finally, the electorate found its culprit — the process itself. We weren’t electing problem-solvers because, darn it, the process just didn’t allow us to. So we started tinkering with the process. Term limits, supermajorities, open primaries, citizen redistricting. Maybe that will help.
California is about to enter into a major experiment, virtually getting rid of the influence of parties by nominating the top two vote-getters in each district regardless of party. The hope is that it will result in more centrist candidates going to Sacramento, candidates who will have less of a political agenda and collaborate to solve the tremendous problems plaguing our state. I don’t know if it’s going to work. I hope it will.
But there is a downside. Once we’re detached from the familiar moorings of political parties, we are left with more intangible criteria on which to base our vote. We lean on things like resumes, which can be distorted, pumped up or hyped, or make our decision based on personality. We respond to vague platitudes and promises that are rarely specific in terms of actual policy choices. Do we really know how someone is going to vote when they get into office?
In addition, the candidates have become less beholden to their own parties. They can raise their own money or are often self-financed. They have their own media operations and sometimes their own research sources. What do they need the party for? At least in the past, legislators had to be at least somewhat accountable to their own party. But no more.
And finally, by giving the minority the ability to block any majority action that they disapprove of we have made the majority unaccountable for its own lack of success. The problem is that we still assume the majority has the power to work its will. So we blame it for the system of gridlock and opposition that we created initiative by initiative.
The solution is as simple to state as it is impossible to achieve. I believe we need to move in exactly the opposite direction. A stronger political party, one on which the candidate was forced to rely for much of its resources, could enforce some much-needed discipline over the political process. It would likely come up with stronger nominees than does the primary system currently. And it would be more effective at putting forward a clear policy agenda, so long as we remove artificial barriers that give the minority the power not simply to dissent or persuade, but to obstruct. Most importantly, it would be accountable to the people. With a majority party able to actually get something done, we would finally know whom to congratulate for its success and whom to blame for its failure. And that’s what accountability looks like. n
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and is an adjunct professor at Cal State LA.