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Dysfunctional hairs of a vaunted democracy

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — Three recent developments in a span of two days reminded me how dysfunctional and uncivil America’s vaunted democracy has become.

First, there were images of Massachusetts voters wildly cheering Scott Brown. He had just won a special election for a U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. In an election there is a winner of course, but there were a couple of unsettling things about people cheering Brown’s win.

Here was a state that kept sending the same Democrat, Ted Kennedy, back to Washington for five decades, knowing his one goal was to achieve universal health care. It was a state, too, that had become the first to enact a statewide universal health care system, just four years ago. And in December, the U.S. Senate had passed the first serious bill, however defective, toward realizing Kennedy’s goal. Yet the residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had chosen a Republican who promised to nullify the whole thing.

Most unsettling was Brown’s vow to be “the 41st senator.” To see the absurdity of this, you must know the U.S. Senate’s rule on filibuster or “cloture.” This body requires only two-fifths of its members plus one to obstruct a particular measure.

The 100-member U.S. Senate at the end of this past year had won exactly the minimum number of supporters to pass the health care reform bill: 60 (58 Democrats, one socialist, one independent). That means that if those opposing — 40 and all Republican — added just one to their ranks in the coming votes, the scale would tip. Hence Brown’s vow.

If this rule strikes you as a travesty of democracy, the Senate as a whole is just that. It is constituted to trample on the will of the people. By giving two senators to each state, regardless of size, it simply makes a laughingstock of proportional representation. Sen. Max Baucus, of Montana, who played a central role in diluting and obfuscating the health care legislation, for example, represents less than a half a million people. Each senator from the largest state, California, represents more than 18 million.

Then, on the day the media went berserk on the advent of “the 41st senator,” another willful Senate rule, along with another undemocratic reason for using it, came to light. The nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration withdrew. The reason? A single senator on the 25-member Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee had held up his confirmation hearing. Why? The senator, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, feared that the nominee, Erroll Southers, might give the TSA employees — those airport screeners created after 9/11 — collective bargaining rights.

What amazes me as much as the rule that gives such power to a single senator is the fact that an elected representative of the people can openly treat workers’ rights as something akin to a criminal act and get away with it. It is, in my view, the undemocratic nadir.

Of course, this country is no different from most others in the way it has dealt with workers and labor unions dishonorably. In fact, the power and influence of labor unions in the United States lasted only about 30 years following the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s social legislation. I remember seeing often the face of the great labor leader Walter Reuther on Japanese TV and newspapers in the 1960s. But, as I later learned, already in the 1950s, conservative politicians in America had begun denouncing labor unions as “un-American.”

Antagonism to regular workers unionizing quickly spread, especially after Republican Ronald Reagan became president. From 1980 to 1999, the union membership rate fell from 24 percent to 14 percent — below 10 percent if limited to the private sector. It has fallen further since.

For some years now, however, the Gini coefficient (rich-poor ratio) of the U.S. has been as high as that of China, with the unemployment rate much higher. Isn’t it about time that some of the people’s representatives, if not a Republican from South Carolina, came out strongly for regular workers?

The only good thing that has happened in the past year is the confirmation, without much fuss, of the pro-labor Congresswoman Hilda Solis as labor secretary early in the Obama administration. But she has remained disquietingly silent ever since.

Then, on Jan. 21, the Supreme Court declared certain restrictions on campaign financing unconstitutional. It was one more case of “Damn the weaker members of society, more power to the monied.”

Briefly: The 2002 law banned “corporations” using money for “electioneering communications” during a 30-day period before the general election. However feebly, it was an attempt to strengthen earlier laws to reign in a well-financed third party’s political ads, mostly negative or “dirty,” when they might have utmost influence on the election outcome.

Citizens United, a wealthy conservative group that made a 90-minute “documentary” called “Hillary: The Movie” at the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, knew the law. So it made its lawsuit on technical grounds. But the five conservative justices of the Supreme Court swept the technicalities aside with a grand “freedom of speech” mantra.

As Justice Stevens pointed out in dissent, their act was “a rejection of the common sense of the American people” since the days of President Theodore Roosevelt when corporate power to buy politicians reached earlier heights.

In a speech last fall to consider American antipathy to social or civil programs, New York University professor Tony Judt wondered: “Why is it that here in the U.S. we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?”

One reason may be that “economism” has come to reign supreme, Judt suggested. Americans today neglect to think other factors make up our society. Adam Smith, for example, is famous for the “invisible hand” of the free market, but who remembers he also argued for the importance of “moral sentiments?”

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator who lives in New York.