“One Down, Over 309 Million to Go”

Government officials traveled a long way to count 89-year-old World War II veteran Clifton Jackson. Jackson, of Noorvik, Alaska, is the first person to be counted in the 2010 U.S. census.

The census is an effort undertaken once every 10 years by the U.S. government to get an accurate count of how many people reside in the United States and where exactly they live. The census results can greatly impact citizens’ lives — congressional representation is determined by population, as is federal funding for facilities like hospitals and schools.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves arrives in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik, Alaska, in a dogsled.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves arrives in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik, Alaska, in a dogsled.

“One down, over 309 million to go,” U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said after counting Jackson. He traveled a long way — he even took a dog sled — to get to Noorvik.

Of course, officials don’t count every person by hand. Most Americans will receive forms to fill out in the mail in March, asking them to identify information like their race and the number of residents in their homes. But officials will travel throughout the country to count the hard-to-reach, like homeless people, in every effort to get an accurate number.

You can follow census officials’ counting adventures on their blog or Twitter feed.

Government by the 50% + 1?

I got an interesting comment on one of my recent blog postings that I wanted to highlight for a little more discussion. In response to the line in my post about my New Year’s resolution a few weeks ago, reader saimatabassum wrote:

“Democracy as said government by the people, but it’s not the exact way to define it. We all know in a democratic election, the party who has maximum support governs the country. Suppose a government is established by 60% of majority, that means the remaining 40% population is against the government. The remaining 40% of the society has to bear that government though they don’t like it. They are helpless for that. Isn’t it strange. So better to define democracy as government by the more or equal to 51% society of community.”

First of all, thank you saimatabassum for taking the time to read and comment. Secondly, I think there’s an important distinction to be made though between just holding democratic elections and having a democratic system of government.

Any campaign manager will tell you his or her job is just to get 50% +1 of the vote on Election Day; but democracies don’t end at elections — they start there. The work of governing is non-stop, and democratic governance is designed to make sure the 50% -1, the “losers” at election time, are still treated fairly and respectfully the rest of the time. The 50% -1 may not always get their exact preference, but even small minorities can have a big impact on policymaking in a democracy.

We have a key example of that in the United States right now, in fact. In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Democratic Party has sizable majorities, and the president is from this party. Yet key pieces of legislation have been difficult to move through Congress over the past year in part because the Republicans have been a strongly unified minority party. This particularly is an issue in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to end debate on a piece of legislation. President Obama addressed this impasse specifically last night in his State of the Union Address. He said:

“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”

The core principles of a democratic society — among them, freedom of speech, assembly and information — provide the tools for expanding the debate and making a position heard; it’s just up to the minority to use them effectively and responsibly. It’s also the responsibility of the majority party to use those tools to be mindful of the dissenting viewpoints in the country to work together for the betterment of all citizens.

Obama also reminded us of the inherently contentious nature of democracy last night. “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.”

So my question to saimatabassum, and everyone reading, is this: is it possible to influence your government when you are in the minority party so that you don’t just have to bear what you don’t like? What other recourse might you have?

Painful Choices in Haiti

The scenes of suffering in Haiti are heart-wrenching, but one finally made me cry. On the Larry King telethon aired on American television January 18 to raise donations for Haiti’s earthquake victims, a video clip was shown of a medical worker telling a mother and her injured little girl, who couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, that the girl’s leg would need to be amputated. The girl started sobbing and reached out her hand to her mother for comfort, but the mother turned her back to her daughter and the medical worker, crying that she would rather have her daughter die. Life in Haiti is hard, the narrator explained, but it is most especially hard on girls with physical handicaps. It was the medical worker who gently urged the distraught mother to take her anguished daughter’s hand finally.

Nothing more was said about what painful choice the mother made for her child, but I joined many other ordinary Americans who donated a few dollars to relief efforts. At the end of the two-hour show, nearly $5 million had been raised. No doubt, among the many good-hearted donors were people struggling with unemployment and their own economic troubles who nonetheless made the choice to donate money to those much less fortunate.

I – like many Americans – have never been to Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The World Fact Book reports that 80 percent of Haiti’s 9-million population lives under the poverty line, and 54 percent lives in abject poverty. A history of political turmoil has contributed to keeping Haiti poor, according to the State Department’s Background Notes on the country. It is clear that Haiti must make painful choices to succeed as a democracy.

Nonetheless, however fragile, Haiti is a democracy – albeit a struggling one. When you think about it for a bit, the histories of Haiti and the United States have some similarities. Both nations fought against powerful adversaries to win independence. Haiti became the first black republic to declare independence from France in 1804 after a prolonged, but ultimately successful, revolt of its half-million African slaves. Africans played a huge role in the development of the United States as well and brought fruition to the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.”

Compassion for Haiti’s earthquake victims motivates American relief efforts, but also a belief that democracies need to be supported. Supporting imperfect democracies can be a painful choice, but one that is necessary. What are your thoughts?

Getting Politicians to Overcome Their Fear of Election Loss

I think President Obama may have just challenged a sacred political rule. In an interview aired January 26 ahead of his State of the Union address, ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked him if, in light of setbacks to priorities such as health care reform and polling data that show declining popularity, did he think that perhaps “one term is enough?”

“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,” Obama replied.

“There’s a tendency in Washington to think that our job description of elected officials is to get re-elected,” he continued. “That’s not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people.” Obama added that he is willing to take bold moves even if it costs him re-election in 2012.

The president’s statement resonated with the political cynic in me, since I have often shared the view that elected officials, once in office, seem primarily concerned with getting re-elected. As a result, they appear decidedly risk-averse and reinforce the popular perception of government as a bastion of inefficiency. In some moments of exasperation I feel this way, but I’m sure I am not the only one.

Are term limits the answer? If officeholders know that they have only a very limited time, will they be more focused on their legacy and try harder to make a difference? Or would the fact they will not need to defend their record to the voters make them essentially unaccountable to their constituents? Readers, I welcome your opinions on the matter.

Obama’s statement has already been described as a “death wish” by some pundits. For me, if the president is prioritizing bold action over the prospect of electoral defeat in 2012, it makes tomorrow’s State of the Union address a lot more interesting and even potentially inspiring as he outlines his agenda. He will need legislative help, of course. I wonder if lawmakers in Congress, many of whom face re-election this November, will be willing to respond with similar courage?

Fulfilling Constitutional Obligations in the Digital Age

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” (U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 3)

One of the constitutionally directed responsibilities of the President of the United States is to provide regular information on the country to the Congress. In recent history, that information has taken the traditional form of the president addressing a joint session of Congress in the State of the Union Speech.

(Historic aside: The first president, George Washington, also delivered his state of the union updates to Congress as a speech in 1790, but Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice during his presidency in 1801 as he considered it too monarchical. He instead submitted his updates to Congress in writing. It wasn’t until 1913 that President Woodrow Wilson reinstituted the practice of delivering a speech as the tradition.)

While President Obama’s first official State of the Union hasn’t yet been announced, governors from around the country have already begun delivering their smaller version of this requirement – the State of the State address. Each governor highlights issues of particular importance to his or her state and proposes initiatives for the coming year, just as the president does on the national scale.

(Futuristic aside: The constitution came into direct collision with the digital age over the State of the Union this year. The White House had suggested a few possible dates for Obama to fulfill his constitutional mandate, one of which happened to coincide with the season premiere of the popular television program “Lost.” Fans of the show took to the internet, even creating a #NoStateofUnionFeb2 Twitter tag, to avert the impending conflict. The result? On January 8, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced, “I don’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in ‘Lost’ are preempted by the president.”)

The State of the Union clause was designed as a measure of public transparency and accountability built into the institutions of federalism from the start. Of course, we have many more tools for transparency today, and as you can see from the letter of the constitution and the history, there is no reason other than tradition the president has to fulfill his constitutional obligation through an official Congressional speech. I’m not proposing a return to Jefferson’s written report, but it’s an interesting question in the new media age. One of the key tenets of the Obama White House is transparency and digital savvy, so shouldn’t the state of the union be clear already?

What do you think? Are public speeches still a valuable way to keep the public informed, or is it a tradition that could better be fulfilled in some other way? What would work best in your country?

We're Gonna Vent Our Frustration. If We Don't, We're Gonna Blow a 50-amp fuse.

(I’m listening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones)

Innovator Steven Clift is hoping to win millions of dollars to fund a project that would use Internet technology to spur greater democratic participation.

His entry for the 2010 Knight News Challenge is an online database that would automatically send you information on the issues you care about, and public meetings and other grassroots opportunities where you can make your voice heard.

For the user, Clift’s proposal is quite simple. You type in your address and some key words (human rights, education, taxes, health care, etc.) and his system will automatically generate an alert whenever public meetings in your area are going to take place and one of your interests is on the agenda.

“The most democratizing aspect opportunity of the internet, when it comes to democratic information, is to provide timely access to that information when people can still act on it,” he says in his video presentation. Often people find out about public meetings after the fact so they aren’t able to participate. Elected officials, in turn, are very interested in the input of their constituents before they make their decisions.
If he wins the Knight News Challenge, Clift’s Web site, e-democracy.org would have the funding needed to compile information from the approximately 30,000 state, local and federal governments from across the United States, and would use it to create an interactive public meeting events calendar. Even if you couldn’t come to the meeting, you could still leave a comment, text or video expressing your views to your elected officials, he says.

It is easy to see how you can have more of an impact on the issues you care deeply about while the decisions are still being made. So good luck to Mr. Clift. If he wins, we’ll soon get to see his plan in action.

When I Am King, You Will Be First Against The Wall

(I’m listening to “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead)

In the early 1780s British King George III reportedly asked the American painter Benjamin West: What will George Washington do now that the American colonists have won their war of independence?

“They say he will return to his farm,” West said.

“If he does that,” the astounded monarch replied, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

While Americans have always taken pride in rejecting monarchy, even the constitutional form that is practiced in many countries around the world, there have been times when a monarch served as a key figure in overcoming political crisis and averting violence.
For example, in Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervened in 1992 to end deadly clashes between the country’s military government and pro-democracy demonstrators. After an attempted 1981 military coup in Spain, King Juan Carlos appeared on national TV to rally popular support against the takeover.

In a sense, a hereditary monarch can serve as a symbol, or a “focus of national unity” that is above the fray of competing political parties and ideologies. I can’t help but wonder if the absence of such a universally accepted figure in the United States contributes to excess partisanship in American democracy?

But, on the other hand, there is also the recent example former Nepalese King Gyanendra, who dismissed the civilian government in 2005 on the grounds of needing absolute authority to defeat Maoist insurgents, which in turn provoked the Nepalese to abolish their monarchy in 2008.

For those of you living in a constitutional monarchy, how do you view the role of the king or queen in your democracy? Do you support having a monarch or would you prefer a republic?

It is interesting that many Americans are still fascinated by monarchy, even if they are committed to republicanism. Newsweek did an article in 2008 on who the current American king would be if George Washington had been more personally ambitious. The British royal family still commands a lot of popular attention and even affection here, more than two centuries after the revolution.

That’s probably a good thing, considering that a message purportedly from Queen Elizabeth II revoked our independence after the 2000 U.S. presidential election went undecided for weeks.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas, If Only For A Week

For me, the month of December has always meant a return to seasonal sweaters of questionable taste, semi-professional over-eating, listening to cheesy holiday music non-stop and, most importantly, three weeks or more of vacation from school. For each of the last two years, in fact, I had more than a month off for winter break and took the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world and meet people I would not otherwise have been lucky enough to encounter.

Not so much this year. This year I have a job (believe me, I am not complaining about that), and I am using every ounce of my vacation time to see my family and hometown friends for a few days.

One of the unique things about living and working in Washington, D.C., is that very few people are actually from here. I am originally from Georgia (the state in the southern U.S., not the eastern European country), and much as I hate the thought of navigating the Atlanta airport so close to Christmas, I am excited to go home. I have co-workers who will be going home to places as far apart as Connecticut and California – very different experiences from Georgia, and from one another – but we have all made our home (at least for now) in D.C.

Most D.C. residents are migrants from other parts of the country. That means it’s a dead-zone for the week between the Federal holidays of Christmas and New Year’s Day when everyone travels to wherever they call home, but it also means they bring back with them the best parts of their distinctive cultural traditions. They also bring their best ideas and specific experiences about the challenges facing different parts of the world. This freedom to move about the country – and the world – talking with people, sharing ideas, asking questions and thinking about things in new ways helps inform and support the work that goes on here the other 51 weeks of the year.

The thing that brings us all to D.C., regardless of political ideology or issue area, is a shared belief in the system of democratic governance that has held the U.S. together for over 200 years, and a desire to be at least a small part of the policy-making process. I know that’s what brought me.

Do you have an example of how sharing different ideas or experiences has enriched your community? Share it in the comments – and happy holidays!

Hail to the Chef?

As the mother of a 7-year-old, I pay close attention to government policies that could affect my child’s health. In particular, I’ve been monitoring what Chicago native Sam Kass has been saying and doing since he was hired as assistant White House chef and “food initiative coordinator.”

Kass believes in the principles of the locavore movement, which encourages people to buy from local farmers’ markets or grow their own food rather than shop at supermarkets. He is also a proponent of organic gardening. These ideas have clearly influenced the Obamas. In April, for example, Kass and first lady Michelle Obama invited elementary school students to help plant a kitchen garden at the White House that uses ladybugs rather than chemicals to control pests. Lettuces and herbs from the garden were used in President Obama’s first state dinner (PDF, 161KB) November 24.

A November 3 New York Times article describes the unique position Kass has in the Obama administration:

“Part chef and part policy wonk, he is reinventing the role of official gastronome in the Executive Mansion. Indeed, Obama administration officials describe him as a vital conduit to the first family,” the article says. “‘How do I get to the first lady, how do I try to transmit ideas and messages to her? Sam Kass,’ said Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy agriculture secretary. ‘He’s been a real ally when we talk about farm to school.’”

But not everyone agrees with Kass; in the past he has come into conflict with large agricultural producers as well as fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers. Others criticize the emphasis on growing one’s own food. “The average family can’t feed themselves all year round on their own garden,” Jeffrey Stier of the American Council on Science and Health told the New York Times.

An October 23 Politico article says Kass is working with the president’s Domestic Policy Council on two tasks related to children’s health: (1) to distribute prevention and wellness grants to fund strategies to reduce obesity and (2) to make sure the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act includes removing junk food from schools and incorporating healthier food in the school lunch program. (I can easily guess how manufacturers of high-calorie snack foods are reacting to the latter.)

What do you think about Sam Kass’ influence on government policies?

“Is The Glass Half Full or Empty?” I Ask Her as I Fill It

(I’m listening to “The Girl With the Weight of the World in Her Hands” by the Indigo Girls)

Women constitute half of the population but they have been historically very poorly underrepresented in government. My question of the day is: are legislative quotas the best way to rectify this?

Governments around the world have been enacting quotas to increase the number of women representatives and advance the notion of “equality of result.” (Professor Drude Dahlerup of Stockholm University has done a great and brief analysis on the topic, with a special focus on Scandinavia.)

For examples of recent efforts around the world to increase women’s participation in government, check out these America.gov articles on Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Macedonia, Maldives, Moldova, and Rwanda.

But is it more democratic to be able to vote for the best candidate, regardless of gender, or is it more democratic to engineer a government that resembles the actual population, especially in the face of continued cultural, educational and other societal barriers that prevent women from gaining their proportional representation?

It is interesting that in the United States, there is no quota system to guarantee women’s representation. Detractors of quotas can point to Representative Nancy Pelosi, who is the current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the third in succession to the presidency, or to the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came very close to winning the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Yet, only 20.5% of U.S. national representatives are women, which is only slightly higher than the worldwide average of 18.4% according to the World Economic Forum’s 2008 Global Gender Gap Report.

So, do countries like the United States need to enact quota systems of their own, or should the focus be more on breaking the barriers and attitudes that are preventing women from competing equally on the political stage? Also, does setting a threshold for the number of women legislators actually cause harm by creating a ceiling or limit to their representation?

I am interested in hearing from those of you who live in countries where there is a quota system in place. What have you observed that supports or discourages the use of quotas? Has the increased number of women in your parliament or legislature actually improved gender equality, or is it just a number that gets used to say that there is gender equality?