Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Lance Simmens Headshot

Relearning Civics

Posted: Updated:

I just so happened to be on the Princeton campus this past week delivering a copy of my first book, The Evolution of a Revolution: An Attack Upon Reason, Compromise, and the Constitution, to Dr. Paul Krugman. In my book I outline the dysfunctional funk that our political system and our processes of governance have fallen into and actually offer six conceptual remedies for addressing it.

The six remedies include the following: placing value on the concept of public service; replacing our obsession with the concept of leadership with a promotion of statesmanship (the difference being that the later entails by definition vision and wisdom); reviving the notion that government can in fact work; focusing upon long-term versus short-term thinking; righting the unbalanced bias towards special interests by focusing upon the promotion of public interest; and removing the corrupting influence of money in our politics and government.

Little did I realize that only a few days after I had left the campus researchers there and at Northwestern would unveil a study that argues our nation is losing its democratic flavor and is more reflective of an oligarchy (a system where public policy is guided by and favors wealthy economic elites). Must be contagious.

Over a career that has spanned nearly 40 years in public service, government and politics I have witnessed and experienced a dramatic denigration of comity and civility in the legislative processes of government at all levels (federal, state and local), and the consummate ascension of campaign contributions as an important, if not the most important, determinant of public policy considerations. This last disturbing trend has been exacerbated by several Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being the McCutcheon case announced in a split decision over the last several weeks.

But one lesson I learned early on while working on Capitol Hill in the U.S. Senate during the 1980s and in the Executive Branch during the 1990s for the Clinton administration is that some of the strongest pressures for distribution of tax dollars are those directed at the wealthy, whether they be corporations or individuals. Under contemporary interpretations by the highest court in the land there is very little if any difference, which represents a very sad commentary on the state of affairs in our nation.

No clearer indication of the wayward path we have chosen in deciphering what our Founding Fathers had in mind is the absurd situation simmering in Bunkerville, Nevada. Regardless of the way in which the situation has been handled to date, and I am more than willing to accept that governmental officials may have badly mishandled the affair, the basic tenets of the case seem quite clear: namely, special considerations have given ranchers like Cliven Bundy a lucrative opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. In exchange for access to government-owned land ranchers are expected to pay grazing fees at rates that most would consider generously low. Yet here we have greedy capitalists in boots and buckles and ten gallon hats questioning why they are expected to contribute to the public good by actually honoring a contract they explicitly made with the government.

By all news accounts Mr. Bundy may have questions about the exact amounts due but does not have a legitimate beef (pun intended) with respect to the fact that he does in fact owe money to the government, and thus to the taxpayers. Whether or not this is good public policy can be left to others more familiar with the issues than the author and most likely the reader but the fact is there are processes available to remedy disputes over contractual matters and our representative democracy is the arbiter of policy disputes. This is democracy, a system of representation this country so rightfully cherishes and which serves as the foundation upon which the genius of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution of the United States itself is manifested.

Yet we now find ourselves as a nation dealing with an armed insurrection based upon some fanciful and ill-informed historical rendition of our systems of law and governance, where incredibly the makers and the takers are one and the same. And now they gather in this small community to profess their willingness to engage in violence over the principle that government has little if any role in promoting the public good. These are not patriots they are anarchists who neither have an appropriate understanding nor respect for the very documents and concepts they so fervently display to all within earshot.

The rise of the Tea Party and its near total take-over of the Republican Party has bred new life into the un-American notion that we should be a loose collection of entities, states, communities, and individuals who have little need for laws, taxation or a public sector. In other words, they have little need for the United States.

Whether they can be characterized as secessionists, survivalists, anarchists, or just plain outlaws this increasingly virulent anti-American tenor that occurs with more and more frequency should be seen as a warning signal of a system that is severely being tested and questioned as to its relevancy and effectiveness. That the system is broken is rarely in dispute; however the vast differences in appropriate fixes continue to widen an already unacceptable gulf between the haves and the have nots.

It is critically important that our leaders at all levels make conscious efforts to reintroduce to the citizenry the basics upon which civics, government and legal process find justification in our system of government. Thus, I believe that the six conceptual remedies presented above must be critically advanced in the public dialogue in order to preserve the union of states which most proclaim allegiance to.

The Nevada situation must be handled delicately as it is a powder keg with a very short fuse. But it is emblematic of a much larger problem facing the nation and its citizens as we stare into the abyss of an oligarchic structure that is foreign to the ideals of this democratic experiment. And while our systemic travails do have an asymmetrical political bent predicated upon the rise of the Tea Party within the Republican Party, conservative Democrats in red states must be careful not to be sucked into a vortex of simplemindedness and cynicism merely for the sake of perpetuating a broken system. Yes, this requires bipartisan examination.

So let's simply get back to basics and relearn what it means to abide by the precepts of democracy embodied in the Constitution, enunciated by the Founding Fathers in documents like the Federalist Papers, and found in the words and actions of great leaders and statesmen who have deftly guided America through numerous crises. We could all use a good civics lesson.