December 8, 2010

The strength & problem of American democracy

By Lorraine Collins

As one who has been an observer and occasional participant in local, state, and national politics since the Eisenhower administration, it's been kind of hard for me to sober up after the most recent election. Election years offer a real high for those of us who are referred to as political junkies, and now we have to wait two whole years for another fix. Normal people are immensely relieved that they don't have to pay attention to all this for a blissful two years.

Well, actually, of course, this isn't exactly true, because the next campaign began on November 3rd, so far as I know. I studied political science in college and very nearly majored in the subject until I fell back on the safer degree in English, having been convinced by  my academic friends that political science just wasn't worthy of serious study.

Boy, were they ever wrong. If anything deserves study in this or any country it is how and why governments are formed, how and whether the consent of the governed is achieved, and how much influence people with money and power exert on the electorate. This has been a good year to think about that in the United States and in this quiet and essentially neighborly state. Just think of the millions of dollars spent in South Dakota's Congressional election, and ask who was so eager to spend it, and why. Does this have anything to do with South Dakota, or with agendas established elsewhere?

It was a tough election for Democrats in South Dakota but they can at least take comfort in the fact that since Republicans more or less own and control the state, it is their responsibility to solve all the myriad problems we have and if that doesn't happen, it's their fault. In South Dakota and the rest of the nation, so far as I know, nobody wants to raise taxes or eliminate services. So it's going to be really tricky to figure out how to do one without the other.

As for Congress, it's going to be interesting for those of us who are political junkies to see what happens between now and the convening of the next Congress in January. They might actually come together to do something in the lame duck session. It's kind of hard to imagine this, but maybe they can practice being civil to each other, which would be nice.

The other night I heard a TV pundit talking about the election, saying that the main effect had been to rid Congress of most of the moderates. A lot of moderate Democrats, like Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, for instance, lost their seats in Congress, so the only Democrats left, I heard, are those most liberal, from safe liberal constituencies. Meanwhile, many moderate, main stream Republicans who ran in the primaries had already been defeated by the so called "Tea Party" sponsored candidates, some of whom have radically conservative ideas.

So what we have left in Congress are left wing Democrats and right wing Republicans. If that's true, does anybody expect these people to come to any sense of compromise and moving forward to solve problems for the sake the Republic?

We in South Dakota have a sort of tradition of discarding the people we've sent to Washington about the time they achieve some expertise and clout, complaining that they have "lost touch" with the homefolks. Republican Larry Pressler and Democrat Tom Daschle are recent examples and the same charge was made against Herseth Sandlin.  Frankly, I think one thing that happens in the "throw them out" orgy, is that we discard a lot of people with considerable experience in trying to achieve compromise, trying to arrive at a consensus. This is what successful politicians do and how good laws can be made.

 But though we want professional accountants, doctors, artists, writers, lawyers, we don't seem to want professional politicians. That may be the strength of American representative democracy, but it's also the problem.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at

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