Clumsily, noisily, the American system works…again

Once again last week, we saw the clumsy, grinding machinery of American democracy at work.  After months of debate, Congress passed a healthcare reform bill.  The President of the United States signed it.

Then, after states filed lawsuits, and a length public trial before the Supreme Court, justices declared that the reform measure was, with a few semantic tweaks, constitutional.

Many conservatives reacted with venom.

Glenn Beck declared that Chief Justice John Roberts was a “coward”.  Another right-of-center pundit suggested that it was time for right-thinking people to move to Texas, which should then secede from the union.

The law may be constitutional, they argued, but it is still an unfettered assault on the liberty of Americans, a despotic expansion of government authority.

Donald Trump described Roberts as “extremely disloyal.”

To which any thinking person replies:  piffle.

As common sense opponents of “Obamacare” rightly point out, the healthcare measure was approved and vetted using a democratic system, which itself has been vetted and refined over the last couple of centuries.

This was not an illegitimate imposition of state power upon free citizens by an occupying force.  Kings, despots and socialist cabals played no role in the process.

This was a decision made by elected representatives in the US House and Senate, signed into law by a sitting and duly elected president, one who who campaigned for election and won promising to focus on this issue.

It was then vetted by a free and independent judiciary.

There is, furthermore, an obvious and fair method for reversing the policy, one that does not require anyone to resort to the barricades.

All you have to do is find candidates willing to stand for election, and citizens willing to vote for them and this policy can be overturned.  As they say, elections matter.

It’s important to note that fears that America’s democratic system has deteriorated into despotism is hardly the sole purview of the right.

The flooding of elections with cash donated by millionaires and billionaires has sparked widespread alarm on the left, and among many moderates and independents.  There are concerns about voter suppression and ballot stuffing.

I think it’s reasonable for people to be wary about all these things, from the constitutionalism of our laws to the freedom and fairness of our voting system and the glut of campaign cash.

But it’s important to keep some perspective.  Our system is more fair, transparent and accessible to everyday citizens than it has been at any time in our past.

Since the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, campaign fundraising laws and ethics rules have cleaned up a great deal of the slime in Washington.

For all its flaws, the age of digital media means that politicians and their lives are open to far more scrutiny by far more people.  We also see a much more rapid turnover of lawmakers.

The system isn’t perfect.  The Citizens United decision, in particular, has raised some big questions about the role of cash in elections.

If dollars are a form of speech, doesn’t that mean zillionaires will get a lot more time at the podium than the rest of us?  Is that a good thing?

But we’ve gone through waves of concern about these things before, and we’ve gone through periods of reform.

The truth is, American democracy isn’t pretty to watch. But at the end of the day, it still grinds forward, struggling to address the big questions, the big concerns, the big opportunities of our society.

The next stage in the conversation comes in November 2012.

There again, the most important thing isn’t who wins or loses, but that the system works, deciding peacefully and fairly who will lead the world’s most powerful, diverse and complex society for the next four years.

I suspect that it will work just fine.

As always, your comments welcome.



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37 Comments on “Clumsily, noisily, the American system works…again”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Since this remains a free country, anyone who wants to move to Texas or any other miserably hot state is free to do so. But they are not free to secede, although they are free to move to another country. Maybe Iran?

  2. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Pete, I believe that Europe is the destination of choice. However, there are probably high-tech jobs available in Iran. Interested parties should thoroughly review the immigration policies before putting the house on the market.

  3. mervel says:

    I agree with Brian’s take on this. I find the overblown negative reactions bizarre. People act like Roberts is some sort of political hack who if he does not agree politically with something he has some sort of duty or fidelity to a political stand or party. This is exactly what the supreme court is NOT supposed to be. It should be almost a technical review of constitutionality, not a political choice. It should rarely overturn the will of the people as expressed through our legislative process.

    The other issue however is that the court did not uphold the expansion of medicaid, which IS a bigger deal than I think we realize. This says the government cannot force states to spend more money on medicaid (which is a joint federal state program and often the largest component of a states budget). That means the federal government is going to have to spend more to foot the bill for the medicaid expansion. Do we have the money?

  4. Kathy says:

    I can’t help but wonder if the health care law was determined unconstitutional if the title of this article would be the same.

    Sure, there are disgruntled Republicans and Conservatives out there who may be sore losers. I’m not one of them. I want answers.

    a) how is it that Congress passed a healthcare law in the first place without reading it?

    b) how is it that it is not a tax, but it’s a tax – and we’re all okay with the blatant lie?

    … the most important thing isn’t who wins or loses but that the system works …

    How nauseating. Stay tuned. We’ll see if that comment still stands when Romney wins in November.

  5. Peter Hahn says:


    a) Their staffs read it so they didn’t have to.

    b) its semantics. We call lots of stuff we don’t like a tax (even if its not a tax but just a cost increase), and lots of stuff we need not a tax that really is a tax (we call them fees or penalties). Who cares what we call it?

  6. Kathy says:

    Additionally, deciding things peacefully and fairly wasn’t the experience of this nation’s birth.

    Don’t misread me. I’m not suggesting a revolution for the sake of it. But let’s agree that the patriots of American History are hailed as heroes. There may be some patriots today who are too radical for our taste. But I’m sure the naysayers today who enjoy fairness would not have appreciated Patrick Henry, Ethan Allen, and the rest.

    I’m tired of conservatives getting labeled for what may be courage.

  7. Kathy says:

    Peter, the play on words we use today to make our case is nothing but deception. Our society has become diluted. We have changed the definition of words to fit our liking with the intent to dodge the bullet.

    Oh, I feel better now. It’s not a tax. It’s a cost increase. Ludicrous!

  8. Brian Mann says:

    Kathy –

    It’s really pretty simple.

    Those who take up arms against despots, as the founding fathers did, are heroes.

    But those who take up arms against a fairly elected democratic government and defy the rule of laws created by a free people are criminals and terrorists.

    –Brian, NCPR

  9. Bob S says:

    Any system that is being funded by less than half of its population cannot be described as “working”.

  10. Kathy says:

    Terrorists? Criminals? Strong language, Brian!

    I don’t see anyone taking up arms or defying the rule of laws. In fact, what I do see are courageous individuals who’s mindset is to preserve – not harm. To not be afraid to stand up and speak out. I have more respect for that than to accept what is deemed to be “fair”; especially when I won’t take the kool aid and be dooped into believing some of the rhetoric, ie; “it’s not a tax”.

    We have more acceptable passion for the outcome of a football or baseball game than this ruling by the Supreme Court.

  11. Kathy says:

    This ruling has expanded the government’s power. It is more than just health care for all. The Federal Government now has the power which the Constitution had limited.

  12. Peter Hahn says:

    “We have more acceptable passion for the outcome of a football or baseball game than this ruling by the Supreme Court.”

    I was living in San Francisco when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl. It was rioting in the streets and definitely more passion than for any Supreme Court decision.

  13. No one should be surprised by the chief justice’s vote. Like it or not, he’s been a pretty consistent opponent of the sort of judicial activism the far right wants.

  14. “Another right-of-center pundit suggested that it was time for right-thinking people to move to Texas, which should then secede from the union.”


  15. “Any system that is being funded by less than half of its population cannot be described as “working”.”

    This is why we need Medicare for All. The overwhelming majority of the population pays taxes of the sort that would fund single payer.

  16. TomL says:

    Bob S says “Any system that is being funded by less than half of its population cannot be described as “working”. Well, the “less than half the US population pays taxes” is a myth.

    Anyone who works legally pays federal payroll taxes (82% of households), and payroll taxes are higher proportionally to low income than high income earners. Anyone that drives a motor vehicle, or pays a fare to ride in one, pays the federal gas tax. It’s also passed on the price of vehicle-transported goods. If you use a phone, you pay a federal tax. If you add on all the other ways people directly and indirectly pay federal taxes, you would find that the proportion of the population that contributes to funding the federal government is near 100%.

    Probably everyone pays state and local taxes in some form (income, real estate, sales taxes, etc.). When you add everything up, as a percent of income the poor pay about as much in taxes as the rich – see

  17. How about a little old-fashioned negotiating? Would conservatives be willing to trade repealing Citizens United for repealing Obamacare?

  18. Bob S says:

    TomL. Where do you think this country would be as a fiscal matter if the taxes paid by the top 10% of taxpayers was deducted from total federal collections? The fact is that the vast majority of the bottom 50% are getting a free ride. In fact a large percentage of them only file returns to claim a refund against taxes they have never paid. Those are called “refundable credits”.

  19. Bob S says:

    Brian. I’m not a conservative but I won’t make that swap. If Citizens United goes away we will return to the days when only unions are are pouring huge sums into campaigns without criticism. I enjoy the current leveing of the playing field.

  20. Larry says:

    Who gets to determine who is a despot? You? I vertainly hope not.

  21. Brian Mann says:

    Bob S –

    The good news about the Citizens United case is that we have a mechanism to decide whether or not it’s a good ‘swap’ or not. We have elections, and law-making, etc. Because this was a decision by the Supreme Court, changing it would require an extraordinary amount of effort. We’ll see if Democratic groups can pull that off.

    Larry –

    Your point doesn’t make sense. If someone is elected president by a majority (or, under our system, sometimes a plurality) of free citizens voting their conscience, and then serve their terms with the check on their power provided by a government divided into three branches, and further divided into fifty state governments, then they are obviously NOT despots.

    –Brian, NCPR

  22. Peter Hahn says:

    BobS – how can anybody who pays a significant and painful amount of his/her income in taxes to various tax collecting entities be said to be getting a free ride? As TomL points out, thats everybody.

  23. Larry says:

    OK, Brian, you mean like right now; not throughout the course of American history. What really doesn’t make sense is your selective application of the description. Does your description apply to Nixon? He was hounded from office, and rightly so, for despotic behavior. I think what you really mean is that your guy isn’t a despot. I’ll also remind you that Washington, Adams, Franklin, et. al. were considered criminals and terrorists by the lawful government of their day.

  24. TomL says:

    Bob S, it is simply false that ‘the bottom 50%’ are getting a free ride. In 2007 (before the recession hit) 40% of households owed no federal income tax. (If the Bush Tax Cuts expire (as they should), only about 36% of households will owe no federal income tax.) However, only 14% of households paid no payroll tax. The poorest 1/5th of households averaged 4% of their income going to federal taxes. A full 12/5% of the poorest 1/5th of households go to federal, state, and local taxes.

    Low income working people who take the Earned Income Tax Credit, on average (60% of those who pay no federal taxes), pay federal taxes well in excess of their EITC receipts over their lifetime. So who are the other ‘free riders’? Mostlly poor elderly on social security (who probably paid into the system for decades), disabled workers (ditto), students (who will pay into the system), enlisted soldiers (does anyone dare to call them freeriders – I hope not).

    Here is one source if the truth about federal taxes . One can reasonably argue whether our tax money is spent justly, and whether American’s are over-taxed, but it is simply wrong to argue that low and moderate income earners are not contributing their fair share.

  25. scratchy says:

    Who cares what either Glen Beck or Donald Trump think? Why give those two publicity hounds more of the attention that they crave?

  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I don’t think Nixon qualified as a despot. Sure, he was a crook and and underhanded sneak, but he was well aware of political pressure from the Left and he bowed to that pressure to do things like founding the EPA and enforcing desegregation! The Clean Air act, and OSHA.

    It is correct that Washington, Adams, Franklin, et. al. were traitors to the King and Franklin ( I believe ) said, we must hang together or we will surely hang separately.

    Secessionists are by definition traitors. Advocating seriously for secession is treason.

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Stupid iPad does funny things like double and, and exclamation points.

  28. mervel says:

    If Nixon was a despot he would not have had to resign. Its too bad he was so immoral; I always kind of liked him, I thought he had some good ideas.

  29. mervel says:

    As far as leaving the union goes I don’t think we have risen to the level where that is required. The constitution does provide that option of this country does leave the constitution, but I think people should be ready to die for that cause, just as the Southerners died in large large numbers. It is not joke to start a civil war. It’s always been a sort of fun little thing to talk about among some conservatives but the reality is quite different. The second largest state in the Union for all of the “talk” is actually much more like California than it is some rural outpost with feelings of leaving the union. Texas is one of the most urban states in the Union with its second largest city electing a gay mayor; of its four major cities, two of them vote Democratic. Texas leaving the union is a gag that works sometimes, but come on.

  30. Larry says:

    Really? Nixon resigned because he was well on his way to despotism and the American people wouldn’t have it. All despots have some good ideas; that’s their initial attraction. The point here is that Brain Mann thinks that anyone who is duly elected isn’t a despot and I don’t agree with him. I believe he’s trying to excuse Obama’s power grab via the ACA.

  31. Pete Klein says:

    I think I am like most Americans in that I am an American first and since 1964 a New Yorker second.
    New Yorker, Californian, Texan, etc. is not anywhere near as important as being an American.
    That goes double for being anything else including, man, woman, Christian, Muslim, whatever, straight, gay, whatever, black, white, brown, whatever, Republican, Democrat, whatever.
    The only important label is being an American.

  32. Larry,
    I oppose Obamacare. But “Brain” (Brian) Mann’s point is that if you don’t like Obamacare, duly elect legislators and a president who will repeal it. That’s certainly the pitch the GOP is making.

  33. mervel says:

    The federal and state governments are already heavily involved in health care, the aca increases the involvement a little, but not much.

    I just don’t see a tax to pay for health care any worse than a tax to pay for unneeded wars and military expansion. If I don’t like the creation of our military empire or don’t like paying Lockheed Martin my tax dollars to make useless unused and unneeded weapons; I don’t have a choice, I pay them or I go to jail. So if the will of the people is that you pay taxes to give Americans health insurance what is the big deal constitutionally?

    I think the program itself is not very good and without cost control will likely fail, but that is a legislative issue not a constitutional one.

  34. mervel says:

    Roberts was correct we make people buy insurance for a whole range of things and we make people pay taxes all of the time.

  35. Larry says:

    Except for car insurance in some states (which you can always opt out of by not owning a car) I can’t think of another insurance people are required to buy. Additionally, can the government now require us to pay any amount for anything by simply calling it a tax?

  36. mervel says:

    Yes I was thinking mainly of car insurance. You can opt out of buying this insurance also by paying a pretty small tax, which makes sense we already have to tax all of us to pay for medicaid etc.

    I think the biggest kind of scam with the ACA is that the fact is this will be a MASSIVE program if we actually do provide health insurance coverage at reasonable prices.

    The real danger beyond that is that insurance rates will go crazy high, even higher than they are now and EVERYONE will pay more and the uninsured won’t be able to afford it anyway and will end up paying the tax or for most of them simply blowing it off as there is no penalty for not paying the tax.

    Constitutionally I think this bill is fine, operationally I fear it is somewhat of a joke.

  37. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    When people can opt out of being human I’ll stop insisting on universal health care.

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