The FISA capitulation vote reminds us, once again, of how out of step Congress is with the voting public, it's putative boss. Ancient Athens practiced a formal ostracism in conducting its democracy, determined by the voting public, to banish citizens for 10 years. While the practice of Athenian ostracism was uneven (and sometimes silly and unethical), it also is credited with helping Athens survive. I call for a formal ostracism, by registered Democrats and Republicans of Democrat and Republican members of Congress, respectively. The penalty would not be banishment, but rather informing of the office holders' constituents of their dubious representative's status. With any luck, enough ostracisms would ensure that incumbents stand no chance of re-election.
Mott Stoller of openleft.com has asked the readers of his blog What would you like to say to Steny Hoyer? (After the recent FISA capitulation vote.) My answer is rather lengthy, and involves writing no letter at all, so I've decided to write up a diary entry, and post it here. The realization of my answer is long overdue, and if anybody out there can make it happen, please do so.
I wouldn't write a damn thing to Stenny Hoyer, because I don't think Hoyer gives a hoot about anything I would say. But I can think of something his constituents would give a hoot about, which would help rid us of sell-outs like Hoyer.
Some time ago, I wrote out my thoughts, born mostly out of my disgust with Pelosi on the one hand, as well as the Democrats, in general, rolling over on a previous 'battle', for a revival of ostracism. I firmly believe that the Constitution is defective, in that there is no provision for removing Congress people. The President can be impeached, but how can we dump Pelosi? Then there's the whole issue of incumbency being so difficult for challengers to overcome. I don't want Congress people feeling secure in their jobs (or worse, yet, feeling secure only if they please plutocratic interests, and count on skill in managing public perception for us 'little people'). In the modern day business world, most of us have to perform. Why shouldn't incumbents feel the same, of their putative bosses? Why not a continual improvement of Congressional personnel, such that the American public is empowered to give out essentially report cards, and the worst 5% (for example) of the 'class' are sure to get the boot, every 2 years? Many businesses have periodic layoffs, looking to get rid of their worst non-performers. Should not the government of the most powerful nation on the earth be subjected to a similar pruning mechanism? Especially if you believe, as I do, that we need to get rid of not 5% of our 'representatives' (cough-cough), but rather 50%!
This idea was posted on the old Randi Rhodes message board, and is not available, now. However, it's basically a very simple idea.
The ancient Athenian democracy practiced a formal ostracism. ( See wikipedia's entry on ostracism ). While of dubious ethics (it could be practiced preemptively, to ward off damage to the government resulting from strife between factions), it is credited with having successfully made Athens more stable.
The ostracism penalty in Athens was banishment for 10 years. While I wouldn't mind banishing a good deal of our Congress critters for 10 or 20 years, that is hardly necessary. The way to accomplish a modern ostracism is to have postcards sent out to the constituents of Congress persons, informing them of their Congress persons' 'victory' in the ostracism voting, pointing them to an accompanying web site where the defects of the Congress person are discussed in a dedicated forum, and asking them to please, please consider voting for somebody else next time an election for that Congress person's office comes up. The title of the ostracism postcard would read something like this:
In 2008, Q2, Representative STENNY HOYER of Maryland has been OSTRACIZED by the registered Democrats of the United States of America
Ostracism votes would be conducted online, 4 times a year. That would provide frequent feedback (read: pressure from the public), as well as some opportunity for corrective behavior during the remaining part of their terms. Hopefully, any office holder who receives multiple ostracisms can count on NOT winning re-election. The voters in the ostracism process would not just be constituents, but voters throughout the country. (This is required, actually, since if you confined the voting to constituents, they would be forced - in the case of their Senators - to ostracize one of them, even if both were fine.) Preferably, only registered Democrats could vote, and they could only vote to ostracize members of the Democratic Party. (A similar process should be created for Republicans - they are also abusing their constituents....) Recipients of the postcards, on the other hand, would be any constituent household. The net result should be ostracism of, say, the worst 5% of Democrats, and the worst 5% of Republicans, every 4 months. So, when registered Democrats get to ostracize 5% of Democratic Congress people, if there's 50 such Senators and 218 Representatives, then the net result is that 3 Democratic Senators and 14 Democratic Representatives get ostracized. The voting could be held over a 2 week period, and ostracism voters could add comments. (These would hopefully be read by the staffs of the ostracized Congress critters.) If it's not possible to obtain rock solid lists of registered Democrats and Republicans, an alternative process might be to make all voting identities public, complete with address information, and a required online legal agreement that the individual doing the voting is who he or she says they are, and that they are indeed registered to the required party (Democrat or Republican), subject to legal penalties for fraud. (A wrinkle on this idea is to also send reminder postcards to constituents a week before election day, if any of their representatives has received even one ostracism during the previous 2 years, and furthermore is up for re-election.)
Most Americans do not follow politics on blogs such as this one, and if the issue doesn't get the amount of press that it should in the Main Stream Media, the Stenny Hoyers of this country can count on the public either not knowing about this issues, or else mostly forgetting. However, if they've received an ostracism report card, in the form of a post card mailed to their house, with links back to an informative web site, we can expect to have major influence with what I'll call the 'politically lazy'. A politically lazy voter is likely to be VERY susceptible to a reminder - especially a last minute reminder - of what his/her non-politically lazy PEERS think about a particular candidate. Not what pundits think, not what the media thinks, not what specials interests think, certainly not what the candidates' campaign staff thinks, but rather what fellow voters think. And that is something very powerful, akin to testimonials by common folk in advertisements, but with a negative twist.
Directing politically lazy Americans to an ostracism portal web site will could have a secondary benefit - some of these will stop being lazy, and some will become activists, instead! Once again, with a nod to wikipedia, we read that
A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word 'idiot', which finds its origins in the ancient Greek word ἰδιώτης (idiōtēs), meaning a private person, a person who is not actively interested in politics; such characters were talked about with contempt and the word eventually acquired its modern meaning. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles states: 'it is only we who regard the one not participating in these duties not as unambitious but as useless.'
A body politic full of idiotes has led directly to the current day situation with a shredded constitution. I can easily see, and at least hope, that an ostracism process would have an electrifying effect on potential voters, helping them make the transition from idiotes to responsible, empowered, and enthusiastic citizens.
To this end, there are networking possibilities with activist groups such as the Progressive Democrats of America and moveon.org. E.g., PDA members in an ostracized Congress person's district or state could also send out postcards or email, and offer to meet with interested voters in discussing alternatives to the ostracized incumbent. While the (Democratic) ostracism process should reflect the will of the registered Democrats as a whole, there is nothing wrong with activist or progressive sub-groups using the results of the ostracism to reach out to fellow voters to try and sway them in their direction. It's only natural that different members of the Democratic Party have different ideas about the direction that the Democratic Party should be going in.
I emailed Lawrence Lessig, of change-congress.org, with this idea a few months ago, and he replied "Very cool. Thanks." I wonder if there is now enough disgust with politicians misbehavin', such that the activist base can help put it aright using a revival of ostracism. Ultimately, IMO we also need to change the Constitution to allow removal of bad apples, but one step at a time.
ETA, May, 2009: I have started up a web site, DemocracyABC.org, for the purpose of building an internet-exploiting infrastructure to help take political power out of corporate and plutocratic hands, and instead make the government more amenable to populist control. Ostracism is one of the many projects I will be pursuing.