Somewhere in the middle of this country an 89-year old grandmother is walking for democracy. Chances are she won't make her goal. Well, maybe she'll make it to where she's going, but it's still a long-shot for democracy. Even so, Doris Haddock from Dublin, N.H. (better known to her friends and supporters as Granny D) is making the attempt. She began her peculiar journey on Jan. 1, 1999, in Los Angeles, and is headed to Washington, D.C., home of the longest-lasting "democratic" government on Earth.
She's walks about 10 miles a day, in spite of her arthritis and emphysema, talking to as many people as she can about the need for campaign-finance reform. She's somewhere in West Virginia as you read this, and has a long way left to go -- a very long way, if she expects to convince our leaders in Congress to change the inordinately corrupt system that got them all there in the first place.
Granny D is fond of quoting President Theodore Roosevelt on this issue, telling whoever will listen what the Rough Rider said in 1907: "Our government, national and state, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests -- [that] too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics. -- To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done." To Granny D and many others, it's the great unfinished work of this century.
To his credit, Roosevelt did manage to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns, but since that time it's been an endless game of cat and mouse: With every reform passed, an effective way to get around it has been found. Political-action committees simply replaced corporate contributions. Limits on individual contributions for candidates ("hard money" ) are now efficiently circumvented by unlimited "soft money" contributions to the political parties, which, of course, then go to the candidates anyway.
To most politicians, campaign-finance reform is a cynical game. Even the best- intentioned representatives will vilify the system on Monday afternoon, then rake in the special-interest cash first thing Tuesday morning. For the past several years, the House of Representatives has actually passed some version of a mild reform package, only to see it die in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster and pass any meaningful legislation at all. Some democracy!
The truth is that even though the public says it supports some kind of change in the present system, their elected representatives, like smart foxes, simply won't be bullied into building fences around the hen house. And since only about half the eligible population bothers to vote at all, why should the legislators bother? No, Granny D might raise a few eyebrows, but mostly she'll be raising only blisters. Campaign-finance reform won't come from the top down, last week's bipartisan show of good faith from presidential candidates Bill Bradley and John McCain notwithstanding. And until we can move the American masses off their butts and into the voting booth, it won't happen from the bottom up, either.
So, since the "carrot" of democracy is obviously not potent enough to get the spoiled teen-ager that is the American public to clean up its room and act its age, I suggest it's time to bring out the "stick" and start taking away some privileges. Thus, my solution is that we immediately enact term limits, not just on politicians but on all United States citizens. That's right: It's time to start earning the right to borrow the car.
I propose that any qualified American citizen who doesn't vote in more than two elections in a row forfeits his or her citizenship. That means, among other penalties, there will be, for the miscreant, no automatic protection by the armed forces in case of a hostile invasion, and no issuance of a passport, Social Security card or driver's license! The voting scofflaw will not be allowed to travel on the federal interstate highway system, visit a national park or watch a space shuttle go into orbit. Also, no Medicare, food stamps or trials by jury. He/she will not be permitted to complain about any government agency or elected official, and the singing of the national anthem at all sporting events will hereby and forthwith be prohibited! There. Now, that ought to get someone's attention.
I'm not kidding, either. If you think Teddy Roosevelt charged up that hill in Cuba so that we could let the whole shebang get filched away, or that an 89-year old woman is walking her Keds off so that people can just shrug and turn up their headphones ... well, you just chew on it, Mr. Citizen, and we'll talk about it after dinner. And by the way, there'll be no surfing the Internet tonight! That's right. Not until you vote. I mean it!