Bent Or Broken?

Posted: October 4, 2011 in Social & Economic Dynamics
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CNN  recently ran a series of articles based on the theme “Why is our government so broken?”.  The articles are generally well balanced and contain some thought provoking ideas. Some of these ideas can also be applied to our local government situation.

Here’s a few of the articles that started my wheels turning, if you are up for some reading…

Similar to the view expressed by William Bennet, I don’t completely agree with the common sentiment that national government is “broken”, although I would not agree with his assertion that the current situation is a “good thing”. When we use the word “broken”, I think what we really mean is that we are not getting satisfactory solutions to the problems we care the most about. As an analogy, consider that the purpose of a car is to get you to where you want to go. If the driver is lost and driving around in circles, something is obviously wrong, but you wouldn’t call the car “broken” would you? The fault lies in the people operating it.  

To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t problems with our system. Things like the gerrymandering of congressional districts, partisanship, corruption, and the influence of special interests all subvert the original intent of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” However, all these factors have been present throughout our country’s history.  Many people have a sense that something is wrong with our government now that wasn’t wrong with it before. I’m not convinced that these “usual suspects” are any worse than they ever have been.

The way I see it, our system of government, with its checks and balances, is designed to stand still when there is not a broad consensus on what direction to go in. If recent polls are accurate (as quoted in the article by David Gergen), there exists a widening gulf in our nation’s ideology, and so it would seem the political discourse is currently reflecting that.

Our nation is no stranger to having a charged political climate. There has always been conflict and heated arguments throughout our history. Browsing the historical records of the US Senate, we see our government struggling with division before the Civil War, during the Great Depression, and before the two World Wars.  However, one instance sticks out to me as a stark warning. In 1856, we had a one member of congress physically attacking another over a heated argument regarding slavery.  Historically, this event is regarded as an example of the breakdown of reasonable discourse that led to the Civil War.

While we should take comfort that our nation has survived many crises and that the situation we have now is not likely the end of the world, we should be just a little frightened knowing that it is certainly possible for things to spiral out of control as they did before the Civil War.  So how do we make sense of the current gridlock and disunity over the nation’s finances and the role of government in our society? Consider this excerpt from the article Is America becoming a house divided against itself?

“Those of us who are older — born somewhere close to midcentury — grew up in an America where there was a general consensus that the United States was a great nation, that you could be a success if you worked hard and played by the rules, that government had a positive role to play when trouble hit, and that politics must stop at the water’s edge as we united against dangerous enemies. But with Vietnam, the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s, Watergate and more, our sense of common purpose began collapsing…

 …If you go back 100 years, you find that the U.S.was a huge pioneer in public education. … The U.S. was a real pioneer in creating a national, very deep university system. … The U.S. was a pioneer in the interstate highway system. … We stepped to the plate in the past and made very, very bold investments in the fundamental environment for competitiveness. But right now, we can’t seem to agree on any of these things.”

This, to me, is the heart of the matter. As a nation, we are growing apart in our view of what we want the future of America to look like. The failures of our government have shattered our traditional image of America and forced people to re-think their vision of what their nationality means to them, and people have come up with some very different viewpoints.

Relating this to our local situation here in Amsterdam, I see a similar story with similar results. I look at the sense of failure over the massive urban renewal effort (with the mall being the centerpiece), as a pivotal and defining situation for our city. I believe that anyone old enough to remember the mall at its peak only to witness its rapid decline (which would include anyone in their mid thirties on up) probably carries a latent sense of hopelessness when it comes to thinking that our government (or anyone else for that matter) has workable solutions to reversing our decline as a city.  Consequently, I see two divergent views for the future of Amsterdam emerging. One view is to reverse the mistakes made in the urban renewal period and remake the city in an image closer to that of other cities we see with successful downtowns such as Saratoga Springs or Schenectady by developing an urban culture and promoting the identity of the city. On the other hand, we see a vision for remaking city in the image of successful suburbs, abandoning the idea of urban culture, thinning the housing stock and ultimately allowing our government services, along with our identity, to be absorbed by the town and county. Both are valid directions, but it’s hard to see how these two visions can be completely reconciled or compromised on.

On both a national level and a regional level, the question comes down to how we as a people can get to the level of cooperation and consensus it takes to get behind the types of big projects that are necessary to solve our big problems. I have no easy answers, but I do see a starting point in this excerpt from the same article…

“Surely there are many sources of the fractures in today’s electorate, just as there are many social scientists more qualified to take a crack at explaining them. But one potential contributing factor comes from a fascinating piece in National Affairs by Marc Dunkelman, who fears the winnowing out of so-called “middle-tier relationships” for the American citizen.

These relationships have long been, as Dunkelman puts it, “at the root of American community life,” and encompass such different-minded acquaintances as “bridge partners, brothers in the Elks club, fellow members of the PTA.” But these connections have withered in recent years, even as we stay close to those like-minded folks who inhabit our inner circles of friends and family, and are connected on an unprecedented scale by technology and social media to those farther away. Without these vibrant, heterogeneous “middle-tier” relationships, Dunkelman argues, it may simply be much harder to build the sense of public trust and unity that allows people to stand up to big challenges together.”

In our modern culture with our high degree of mobility and internet technology, it is far easier than in the past to pick and choose who we associate with on a regular basis. I’ve seen this evident in my own life as I currently drive my family to church in Gloversville rather than attend one of the 30 or so churches in the Amsterdam area. It would seem I have more in common with people who live 20 miles away than I do with those who live within walking distance. Because we now have a tendency and ability to gravitate toward social groups that already see things our way, I believe our ability to tolerate, compromise, or be persuaded by other people’s viewpoints has been diminished.

A politician can present a compelling argument as to why people should support his or her idea, but unless a broad groundwork of trust among the constituency has been established, that politician is going to have a hard time persuading enough people to form the majority required to push through a piece of legislation of any substance. They key to persuasion, in my experience, has as much to do with the level of trust as the quality of the argument.

So to put it all in perspective, I believe that to fix the big problems facing us, either on a national or local level, we need a solid consensus as to what the right solutions are. Consensus is formed through persuasion across a diverse populace and requires a certain degree of trust in order to happen. I believe the starting point is to be found in the “middle tier” relationships, where people with diverse backgrounds learn to tolerate each other and work together on some sort of common ground.

On a practical level, this is why I have chosen to invest time in our neighborhood watch group. Here you have a perfect example of people with different political views and beliefs sitting down and working together. We all want to see our neighborhoods improve, and it’s inspiring to be able to work with a small group of dedicated individuals who care enough to put aside time to working toward this common goal. Some really good ideas have come out of this group, some of which are beyond the scope of our little organization and may lead to other endeavors, but others we are able to put into action. This weekend we’re hosting a neighborhood party where folks can come and meet their neighbors. It’s a small, simple step to try to help bring people together, but it’s part of an effort that if embraced and expanded on by more people, I believe will begin to knit together a more united American fabric, one that will allow us to move beyond the current divisiveness and provide the underlying support for some of the big solutions needed to solve the big problems we face.

  1. Bill Wills says:

    Tim, fyi here is an email I just sent out. Although I didn’t read all of the material you have presented here and will at a later time, I can tell you it is broken not only in the public but also in the private sector.

    Mr. McClary,

    Please explain why I am being eliminated from the debate that the Recorder and the Chamber are putting together. Although I am not a “main” candidate, the opportunity for the electorate to hear only from a past and present mayor and not from another who hasn’t held the position but is well qualified is discriminatory and shortsighted on your part. It also looks like the “fix” is in. I have always been loyal to your paper and open to your reporters when questioned on various issues. Although I don’t spend as much as others I have taken out ads even when I ran unopposed in the past just to show that support albeit in a small way. You tout yourself as a community paper but then play God when making decisions like the one you have made here, all in the secrecy which your paper despises when public officials even try to do that on some sensitive issues which I have always objected to. It seems strange to me that the one who has advocated for a debate all along is the one who gets eliminated regardless of not having the status of being a “main” candidate.

    I request that you reconsider your position and Mr. Capobianco, temporary President of the Chamber, who has been copied here I request as a member of the Chamber that if the Chamber is involved that you advocate on my behalf to be part of the debate.

    Thank you!

    Alderman Wills

  2. Bethany says:

    I have to disagree with Mr. Wills on this.
    He’s not on the ballot–but rather a write-in candidate.
    Certainly everyone has the right to wage a write-in campaign, but in doing so, it is clear that you are not actually an established candidate for election, as the ballot does not include you.
    And before anyone assumes that I am singling out Mr. Wills…I ask, what would stop anyone else from announcing his or her run as a write-in candidate and expecting to participate with the same degree of legitimacy as a candidate that received a party endorsement and/or won the popular vote in a primary? It’s just not fair. Mr. Wills was soundly defeated by Mayor Thane and Mr. Emanuele in the primary elections. He’s not a named candidate on the ballot and does not merit a spot in any debate.
    By way of example, will Michael Chiara be given the same status as Karl Baia should there be a debate that includes supervisor candidates–he’s announced that he will be running as a write-in, but he carries no party endorsement and will not appear on the ballot.
    If I decide tomorrow that I want to challenge Supervisor Barone for my 3rd ward seat back, do I get to participate in the process? (I’m not, but if I did, I fully acknowledge that I should be excluded.)

    • Bethany, any declared candidate should be eligible to participate in scheduled mayoral debates. This has been past practice in Amsterdam and there is no reason why it should not continue.
      The 2007 Mayoral debate included write-in candidate Diane Hatzenbuhler and was covered with front page story and photos in the Recorder.

      Disallowing William D. Wills participation in this debate does a great disservice to the Amsterdam voters. His insight and experience on the Common Council will add clarity to issues that otherwise may not be revealed.

      You speak of fairness, yet fail to identify yourself as the Montgomery County Democratic Chairman or the female delegate for New York State Democratic Committee,105th Assembly District.

      My thought is that you fear Wills participation in the debate as it will hurt your endorsed candidate Ann Thane.

  3. Bill Wills says:

    o Bethany, then what you are saying is if you do not have the backing of a major political party, and as the result are not on the ballot, then you cannot participate in the democratic process of getting elected as an individual to a position. This year you must admit was unusual as only 17% of the electorate decided to come out and vote in the primaries during our flood disaster. Question to you is why was I not given the opportunity to debate my opponents before the primary? Why and still are they afraid to debate me? Is it because I offer an open government to everyone and may be considered a radical because of that?
    Look at what’s happening on Wall Street and across our Country. There is a mini revolution occurring noting the dissatisfaction of many with the status quo and their government that doesn’t care about the average citizen. How do you explain all of the Republicans debating now? They are not on any official ballots? This is America and not Iran or some Mid Eastern nation governed by dictators. Again look at what’s happening in those countries now. If you want a choice of only two already mayors and think that our City is going in the right direction than I and others running for office on the ticket for change and accountability to the people are wasting our time.

    You are advocating for a two party system that doesn’t allow for competition in order to keep the status quo going so don’t expect things to change in the future because neither Party is doing their jobs as can been seen on both the State and National levels and also on our own local level. They are more concerned with keeping their well paid positions and giving their friends jobs and the benefits/spoils of winning that prized position. Real change is what we need and you are not advocating anything but status quo.

  4. Rob Millan says:

    Sorry, but in losing the primary, Wills also lost any serious ability to further his campaign and certainly any real claim to a debate spot. He is by all means a non-candidate at this point. It would certainly not be fair to the two candidates who have successfully defeated him in the primaries and somewhat defeating of the purpose of even having a primary if the losers are still allowed to still be in the running. Primaries set the stage for serious competition; they aren’t a ‘test run’ for determining the ballot.

    Mr. Skrocki’s argument seems weak, as just because one or two or even ten instances of allowing a write-in candidate in the past does not mean it is or should be standard practice (see argument above).

    I do agree with Mr. Skrocki, though, that not allowing Wills to debate is because of the potential of taking votes away from the Democrat forerunner (that is by far the most obvious reason, Mr. Skrocki, make no mistake); but he should be more concerned with Wills also taking votes away from the Conservative Party candidate, as he did attempt to grab that seat in the primary.

    Mr. Wills, the debates are separate and apart from the elections. It is unclear as to why you are claiming this is an attack on the democratic process, as neither the elections nor their outcome are contingent upon the results of the debate much less who is allowed to participate in that debate. Further unclear is why you would claim neither party in the two-party system is ‘doing their job’ only after failing to win the candidacy of one of those parties. Wouldn’t having won the candidacy for one of those parties made you a part of the problem you want to fix?

    • Bill Wills says:

      Good point Rob. However, debates are not separate and apart from elections. Debates give the electorate the opportunity of comparing the candidates and listening first hand and not through the media’s interpretation of what they said.

      If you feel that 17% of the electorate has the right to determine who their candidate is than you are definitely missing the real point being made.

      An old wise man once said that “quitters never win and winners never quit.”

      Thanks for giving me the chance to debate someone Rob.

      • Rob Millan says:

        Mr. Wills,

        Sorry, but debates are a totally separate function from the elections. They are not linked to each other in any way, shape, or form. There is absolutely nothing compelling about them, and quite frankly they’re optional. This cannot be said of the elections. Once again, it should be noted that the results of the debate do not determine the outcome of the election and that there is absolutely nothing in the election law that mandates a debate of any kind among the candidates.

        I don’t think I ‘missed the point’ at all. Do I think 17% is an embarrassing number? Yes. Do I feel “17% of the electorate has the right to determine who their candidate is”? Yes as well. This is not a valid point when arguing for a debate aside from the fact that they’re exclusive of each other. Do the 17% who showed up not count? We would have a result whether 5% or 95% showed up, but the fact of the matter is we had 17% show up, and so 17% is what we work with. I am unclear as to why any candidate would blame their exclusion from a debate on low voter turnout.

        Make no mistake- I’m totally for a debate, but one in which the candidates have rightfully earned their spot on it as determined by the private sponsors of the event.

  5. Alayne says:

    This is the same Montgomery County Democratic Chair that questioned the signatures of folks from her own city and HER OWN PARTY. Who does that? Bethany’s silly opinions are laughable.

  6. Bethany says:

    I am suggesting that you need to be on the ballot to participate. Had you carried an independent line for Mayor and secured a spot on the ballot that way, I would absolutely support your right to participate, as you would be a candidate on the ballot.

    @Gerald–we can disagree about the legitimacy of write-in candidates, but at this point, is there any real question about who I am? I use my first name, and last time I checked, there weren’t any other Bethany’s blogging in town. There’s no hiding that I’m the Democratic Chair or on the State Committee, so what exactly is your point?

    Mr. Wills has many many years of government experience. I don’t discount that. However, the voters of the Democratic and Conservative parties did not choose him as their candidate. So, experience aside, he has no more standing to demand a debate than any other City resident who wants to wage a write-in campaign. And I don’t think a write-in candidate merits a spot at a debate. We can disagree on that.

    @Alayne, I hold out hope that someday you will be able to be even slightly objective about anything I say or do. Your personal attacks and obvious hatred of me make it abundantly clear that you’re just going to rally against anything I support (or for anything I oppose). Despite all you’ve said about me online, and all of the personal attacks via email you’ve sent to others, I harbor no ill will toward you. But please, be reasonable. I’ve never, ever, responded in kind, and won’t, here or anywhere else. But your anti-me rhetoric is tiresome, and in many ways undermines the occasional legitimate point you have to make.

    • Bill Wills says:

      Bethany, I quite understand why political parties do not want anyone that is not on the ballot to be able to debate their candidate. However, that does not answer why the political parties before the primaries did not allow this candidate to debate theirs.

      But thanks for the mini debate you have graciously supplied here and I will leave you with the following. It is a tactical practice by political parties and the media to remove from contention any one that they feel is not worthy for recognition or may be a threat to their candidate for many reasons which is all part of life. But this practice is becoming more apparent and more appalling by the public and makes a mockery of our so called democracy. True democracy is not exclusive.


      Former two-term Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson is a candidate for the Republican nomination for President. CNN’s own poll showed Johnson leading both Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum, other long-shot candidates.
      So why is CNN constantly manipulating their so called “rules” to exclude Gary Johnson? It’s censorship!

      Unlike Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson was never defeated for re-election in his home state. Unlike Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson hasn’t spent millions of dollars on his campaign only to learn that the voters have no interest in his candidacy.

      Gary Johnson was a successful two term governor who created jobs at a greater rate as Governor than either Governor Mitt Romney or Governor Rick Perry. Gary Johnson has put foward a bold proposal to cut the federal budget by 43% and supports the legalization of marijuana which would save government billions in the prosecution of the non-violent crime of possession of small amounts for personal use.

      So why does CNN insist on censoring Gary Johnson? Why do they fear his ideas? The decision to block Gary Johnson from CNN’s next televised debate October 11th sets up a self-fulfilling prophesy- Johnson can’t be in the debate because his poll numbers are not high enough and his poll numbers can’t increase because CNN won’t let him in the debate!

      Former President Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both began their campaigns with 1% in the national polls. Both were included in national televised debates. Both were Governors of small states who began with no national reputation. Both were elected after voters learned who they were in the debate process.

      Gary Johnson’s candidacy is as legitimate as Jon Huntsman or Rick Santorum or Herman Cain (who’s support in polls was as low as Gary Johnson’s until he was allowed in the debates). It’s time for CNN to end the censorship. It’s time for CNN to let all legitimate candidates be heard.

  7. Tim Becker says:

    The concept of the “debate” is not found in our US Constitution or in most local charters which are modeled after it. However, it’s clear that the debate format has become an important institution in our political system. Ross Perot receiving 19% of the popular vote in 1992 is widely credited to his inclusion in the televised presidential debate. Inclusion in a debate bestows credibility and gives a candidate valuable face time. However, for any debate to be successful it requires the cooperation of the media and the candidates involved. Therefore what is “fair” or what is “standard practice” is pretty much anyone’s call. I do think that if Mr. Wills had prepared to go independent on the ballot from the beginning that would have strengthened his hand in the matter.

    I personally think that Wills should be part of the debate, as he has shown he has a good amount of support and he will most likely have an impact on the race. However, the Recorder also has their right to do things however they want. Perhaps another media outlet, such as WCSS or WVTL will host a separate debate?

    In keeping with the “Broken Government” idea, the debate process is often times cited as a part of the election process that is not democratic, because the media outlets can basically make whatever choices they want as to who gets invited to debate or not. Would a publicly funded debate with consistent criteria as to who could participate solve the problem? Either on a national or local level?

  8. Alayne says:

    @Bethany, It is nothing personal and facts are facts. Did you or did you not question the signatures of the Democrats that signed Bill Wills petition? Some of the signatures on that petition happened the signatures of my friends and neighbors, AND ALL ARE REGISTERED, VOTING DEMOCRATS. Do you not see anything wrong with questioning, and attempting to discard perfectly valid signatures of fellow democrats just because you don’t agree their choice? As county chair do you represent the Dem party as a whole or only the Dems that happen to agree with your choices?

    BTW, as long as you brought it up, the only time I have even mentioned you in any “email” correspondence is when I responded to the many unsolicited emails I received from the author of the saynotojoe website. Sadly, but, not surprisingly, your statement only proves to me that you are well aware of and obviously in contact with the author of this site. Telling.

    It seems the more recent players in local politics have brought things to an entirely new low. It also seems the entire democratic process has gone from being bent and/or broken to being warped and/or completely destroyed.

  9. Roberto and Bethany,

    If this debate is to be broadcast over radio or cable, it must comply with FCC equal time standards. By their description William D Wills is a legally qualified candidate for office. Excluding him from any broadcast debate would require the broadcaster to provide Mr. Wills with an opportunity and similar circumstance to be heard (another debate).

    Title 47: Telecommunication
    Subpart H—Rules Applicable to All Broadcast Stations
    Browse Previous | Browse Next
    § 73.1940 Legally qualified candidates for public office.
    (a) A legally qualified candidate for public office is any person who:
    (1) Has publicly announced his or her intention to run for nomination or office;
    (2) Is qualified under the applicable local, State or Federal law to hold the office for which he or she is a candidate; and
    (3) Has met the qualifications set forth in either paragraph (b), (c), (d), or (e) of this section.
    (b) A person seeking election to any public office including that of President or Vice President of the United States, or nomination for any public office except that of President or Vice President, by means of a primary, general or special election, shall be considered a legally qualified candidate if, in addition to meeting the criteria set forth in paragraph (a) of this section, that person:
    (1) Has qualified for a place on the ballot; or
    (2) Has publicly committed himself or herself to seeking election by the write-in method and is eligible under applicable law to be voted for by sticker, by writing in his or her name on the ballot or by other method, and makes a substantial showing that he or she is a bona fide candidate for nomination or office.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Interesting point – I suppose that the last phrase “and makes a substantial showing” is the one that would be open to interpretation by different people.

      • Alayne says:

        On a positive, this may all work out in Wills favor. Folks are tired of being manipulated by unfair politics and the media. This could very well earn Mr. Wills some extra votes.

  10. You know what? There’s an awful amount of scuttlebutt and freaking out about an event that (a) hasn’t been finalized and (b) hasn’t even been announced yet.

  11. […] This information irked Recorder Editor Charlie Kraebel who attempted to dispel the information in Tim Becker’s blog Pars Nova here. […]

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