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The politicians are the false patriots of our country

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Though Americans have no monopoly on patriotism, we do appear to be uniquely self-conscious about it. The French and the British love their flags no less, but if you see the Tricolor or the Union Jack, expect to find a school or some other government building, not a used car lot. They have no daily ritual corresponding to our Pledge of Allegiance and probably do not understand what the current fuss is about.

It was Britain's eminent Samuel Johnson who said "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

"But let it be considered," explained James Boswell, Johnson's biographer, "that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest. I maintained that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels."

Indeed, few are. However, sincere patriotism, like sincere religion, demands more than a profession of faith. It also means acting on what the faith represents. We pledge allegiance not just to the flag but also to "the republic for which it stands . . ." A republic, by definition, is a government in which the people are supreme and the politicians work for them.

In that light, our patriotism isn't exactly flourishing. Only 51 percent of those who were eligible bothered to vote two years ago. Off-year elections are even more shameful; in 1998, only 35.7 percent turned out. An estimated 119-million Americans stayed home, more than the entire populations of France and the United Kingdom combined.

But the absent voters are not the scoundrels, the false patriots, of this piece. That dishonor belongs to the politicians who have made a mockery of the right to vote.

They have done it by selling out for large campaign contributions that make them largely invulnerable even to viable challenges, by gerrymandering voting districts to make them noncompetitive, and by refusing to reform the presidential electoral system.

Imagine yourself a Republican in Massachusetts -- yes, there are some -- in the last election. You didn't need a poll to know that Ted Kennedy and all 10 Democratic congressmen would be re-elected; five were unopposed and the rest, including Kennedy, would coast to landslides. You knew the Gore-Lieberman ticket had a lock as well. Why vote? For that matter, why should a Democrat vote, except perhaps for the fun of it? The wonder is that nearly half the people did.

It was almost as bad in Florida, even though here the presidential race was tight. Of the 23 congressional districts, 18 were either entirely safe or uncontested. Races for the state legislature were similarly rigged. Half the seats in the state House were either uncontested or destined for landslides of 60 percent or more. Of those who could have registered and voted, only 42 percent turned out.

The new reapportionment is worse. The Republican majority did the Democrats no favor by giving them 23 safe House seats. They are, by design, too safe. In 17 of them, Democrats are 60 to 79 percent of the total registration. This is called "packing"; it stripped other districts of the Democratic-leaning voters they needed to be competitive. The result is that the Republicans, who already hold nearly two-thirds of the House despite having less than 40 percent of the statewide registration, will likely pad their advantage even more.

Floridians are disenfranchised nearly as effectively as in the days of the pre-reapportionment Pork Chop Gang, when a handful of voters in small counties elected majorities of the House and Senate. But in many other respects Florida was better governed than it is now. The Pork Choppers did not despise government; they did not hesitate to spend money where it was needed, so long as the special interests -- their true constituency -- didn't have to pay for it.

The Pork Chop Legislature was also a one-party monolith; with too few Republicans to mount a leadership challenge, it was essentially a nonpartisan legislature. That was better too in many ways; nobody laid down party lines for members to follow. Even in the early phase of the two-party system, following reapportionment, Democratic and Republican leaders worked together to minimize irrelevant partisanship. But the closer they came in numbers, the nastier it got. On finally seizing power, the Republicans in the House (though not the Senate) abandoned all self-control.

Florida has vindicated George Washington's low opinion of political parties. He warned in his Farewell Address that "the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge . . . leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty."

This is an eerily accurate description of the Florida House of Representatives, where only a few of the Republicans ever dare, and then only rarely, to buck the party line as laid down by Jeb Bush, Tom Feeney and Johnnie Byrd. There is no opportunity for thoughtful amendment; on key bills, no amendments are allowed.

If I could wish one thing for this state, it would be the nonpartisan legislature that Jesse Ventura sought but did not get for Minnesota. Redistricting would no longer matter so much. Neither would soft money, because only parties can receive and spend it. Members would need to be concerned only about their individual contributors and their constituents -- though, one would hope, not necessarily in that order.

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