GERLING: Lakoff and Westen Miss the Constitutional Elephant in the Room

September 3, 2010
Kelly Gerling

Professor Drew Westen wrote an article on Huffington Post about the coming election that gained the attention of Professor George Lakoff. Westen’s article is called: What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November.

Professor Westen makes great arguments about what Democrats should have done, and should do, to better serve the American people and help their party do better in the upcoming elections. I like it. AND he provides no evidence whatsoever that the leaders of the Democratic Party intend to do what he recommends, despite the good polling sense it would make. And that is the crux of Westen’s failure—he doesn’t deal with their lack of motive, mislabels who their “base” is, and so misses the ultimate cause of the problem of American political corruption whereby we have a huge chasm between public policy and public opinion.

Professor George Lakoff’s Commondreams article in response to Westen’s is called Moral Leadership and the Myth of ‘Centrist” Thinking.

I agree with Lakoff’s article about Professor Drew Westen’s article: it is good as far as it goes, but leaves things out. Lakoff’s citing of the lack of a moral argument (on top of Westen’s policy argument) is right on. AND Lakoff’s critique article, like Westen’s, is good as far as it goes, but . . .

Lakoff ALSO misses key concepts that matter.

Both Lakoff and Westen make the profoundly erroneous assumption that the “base” of the Democratic Party consists of progressive-minded voters. This is false. Their base consists of major corporations and the rich people they spawn. President Obama raised $750 million for his campaign, over two-thirds of which came from large donations. Our politicians want the money.

THE PRIVATE MONEY is a moral problem and a policy problem. For both of those reasons stated by Lakoff and Westen respectively, the money is a proximate cause of the corruption of our government. But the money in the US system is not the ultimate cause of the corruption. The ultimate cause is the Constitution and how the American people interpret it. The US system is on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to private and corporate money influencing elections and candidates. Here is an amicus brief stating the details across democratic nations. In a modern, healthy, multi-party democracy, there are remedies to this sort of problem. New parties can rise up. Politicians can be recalled and replaced. Referendums can make new restrictive laws. Governments can be restructured. Constitutions amended or rewritten. But in the US, our national Constitution and how we interpret it precludes these options. The situation is much like a family with a sick child which is unwilling to agree to obvious medical treatments for some moral or religious reason. The child stays sick or dies, because obvious remedies are precluded. So the Constitution and its interpretation are the ultimate causes of our corruption. And constitutional causes, especially ultimate causes, require constitutional solutions.

Why constitutional solutions? Because the four daily-operating, policy-vetoing bodies, in the cumbersome, antiquated, 18th century balance-of-powers design, are all bought-and-paid-for conservative, corporate, plutocratic bodies: the House, the Senate, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court.

The House is the best of the four, and is awful with lobbyists swarming all over it like flies laying eggs of money. The other three are also controlled by the corporate plutocrats running the nation. The Senate is the most disproportionate legislature among mature “democratic” nations where a Wyoming resident has about 70 times the voting power of a California resident. The purchase of the Presidency requires hundreds of millions of dollars from rich private individuals and corporations. And the Supreme Court is a creature of the vastly overpowered Senate where a group of senators representing as little as 25 percent of the nation can veto any nominee.

Now what prevents this system from being remedied? Simple. The American people have lost their sense of the basics of government that led to the creation of our nation and other democratic nations.

To wit:

Americans have lost a sense of the inherent right of revolution to “alter or abolish” government enshrined in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

Americans have lost a sense of popular sovereign rule inherent in the Preamble of the Constitution whereby “We the People . . . do ordain and establish” the constitution and its governmental design. Obviously, whatever the people, as one people, ordain and establish, by majority rule, can re-ordain and re-establish to suit us.

Americans have lost a sense of amendment by majority rule. The states have had 233 state constitutional conventions to modernize their constitutions along many progressive lines, especially the right of the democratic majority to make decisions and the right of amendment to alter government via initiative, referendum, and conventions. Look at Montana’s Article 14 amending process and imagine if Americans asserted such rights for our nation’s governmental designs, rights, and limitations, to amend our Constitution. Look at the amending processes of the states, which have adopted over 150 new constitutions and over 12,000 amendments.

Our problems stem from corruption of money controlled by an illegitimate minority who rule both parties. That statement deserves an article in Duh magazine. That in turn means the base of both parties consists, not of the people who vote for them, but of a certain illegitimate minority the people—the rich, who determine who gets to run for office among the two parties. This illegitimate few are the money givers. The election king-makers. The plutocrats. They act in their own interests to hijack the system in a financial coup. Citizens, only about half of whom even bother to vote are not the base of either dominant party. We the people are hostages of the system and haven’t thought our way out of our predicament. It is a situation clearly explained by Thomas Ferguson’s investment theory of elections in the US.

This corruption problem would be easily solved if we Americans believed in our right of revolution; our right of assembly and referendum for amending our Constitution; and our right for the democratic majority to fashion government according to what suits our idea of good, representative, accountable, non-corrupt governance.

But since Americans, including progressives like Lakoff and Westen, don’t quite grok these ultimate basics of democratic governance, they are left dealing with proximate causes and short-term non-solutions—solutions like the one they both Westen and Lakoff agree on: suggesting Democrats pay attention to the base that isn’t their base—citizens, while they are bribed by the rich. Politicians won’t do that. They pay attention to who pays them to stay elected and maintain the plutocracy so they can be players in it.

Americans could, if they chose, assert their right to assemble to craft constitutional, structural fixes; put those fixes to a national vote of the American people; and declare them amendments to our government via a new, modified Constitution. What might such a new constitution or suite of amendments accomplish?

We could declare corporations have half of their boards of directors made up of elected employees as Germany does. We could decide that money is not speech, and in fact undermines one-person-one-vote. We could decide that the Senate and House merge into one body that is accountable to the people and take away the presidential veto. We could decide that we want a multi-party system with full public financing of elections, like Germany, New Zealand, Finland or Sweden. We could decide to put some of our best university professors in Congress in fields of political importance like Ireland does. We could make our amending process like Montana’s—easy for the majority to alter our government as we need to, in order to have a government that is a mirror of the people, so as to make public policy and public opinion match. We could do all of these things and more, as governments in Europe and New Zealand have been doing for decades, if we knew our rights as citizens. These are remedies from the Declaration of Independence, from the Preamble of our Constitution, from Amendments 1, 9 and 10.

Yet neither Lakoff or Westen even elude to these obvious structural, constitutional causes or solutions. And these ideas have been exhaustively presented by these authors and books for many years: Sanford Levinson (Our Undemocratic Constitution), Doug Amy (Proportional Representation), Daniel Lazare (The Frozen Republic and The Velvet Coup), Bruce Ackerman &  James Fishkin (Deliberation Day), Akhil Reed Amar (For the People), Larry Sabato (A More Perfect Constitution), Steven Hill (Fixing Elections, 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy, and Europe’s Promise); and John Dinan (The American State Constitutional Tradition).

I conclude by saying the problem and the solution are each rooted in consciousness. The political consciousness of liberty and justice requires the assumption that We the People, the democratic majority, have the right to alter our form of government as we see fit, whenever we choose. New Zealanders did this in the 1990s and created a multi-party system from a two-party system. Why do they have rights to alter their government to their liking that Americans don’t have?

The basic idea was written quite clearly in 1776 in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, still in the Virginia Constitution in Section 3:

“. . . when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”

What is so difficult about this?

This sort of structural, constitutional change would be a revolution of consciousness by the American people to turn our corporate, militarist, totalitarian plutocracy into a modern democratic-republic government. The only question is how bad will it have to get before American progressives wake up and lead the way towards ultimate solutions.

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Kelly Gerling has over three decades of experience as a change agent in many roles, including as a counselor, hypnotherapist, marriage and family therapist, life coach, mediator, workshop leader, leadership facilitator, NLP trainer, public speaker, and writer.