Editorials: A new constitution; and US voting rights

An unaccountable and opaque state-within-a-state? That, too, is one of the many arguments that are commonly made for a new constitution. Archive photo by Eric Jackson.

A new constitution for Panama

There was a lot going on in Panama City on July 27, and one of those things was a gathering of people from 35 community groups to picket the mayor’s office in the Edificio Hatillo. Many were the complaints, all under the general umbrella of “urban chaos.” Rezonings sprung on neighborhoods by surprise, developers flouting existing rules, inspectors and other public officials looking the other way, Supreme Court decisions being ignored — all adding to noise, congestion, pollution, destruction of green areas, deadly hazards (in addition to the maleantes) just to walk the city’s streets and so on. So often in the public officials say that, in the face of flagrant lawbreaking, their hands are tied by the rule of law.

Yes, there is a problem of people with the wrong motives in the wrong places. Yes, there are aspects of Panamanian culture that lead to government dysfunction. Yes, there is inertia in a country that has known little more than oligarchy, dictatorship and demagoguery in its relatively brief history as an independent republic.

People know that we can do better than this. It’s some of the better educated who will say that things have always been this way and must remain so, but generally they know better and just say that to protect their own vested interest or out of sheer laziness about learning or doing anything new. The poorly educated know that something must change, although they might or might not be persuaded by some huckster to vote for the wrong solutions. It’s going to be up to the better educated and less committed to the status quo to lead Panama in the right direction. Part of that direction is a new constitution.

We need elections for a constituent assembly. The argument about an originating versus a parallel assembly is mostly a procedural distraction. The present constitution calls for a parallel assembly but once elected such a body would have broad powers. For the discredited elected officials or courts to interfere with its work would cause an immense crisis, and if the members of that body drafts a new constitution that calls for early new elections and the replacement of the entire Supreme Court there would only be the voters to effectively stop them.

Panama City’s Mayor Blandón has just jumped on the bandwagon for a constituent assembly, on which the Cambio Democratico party and its mafia don Ricardo Martinelli are riding, along with far more reputable folks like the Colegio de Abogados.

It’s important to grab our chance for a new constitution, and while the arguments ought to be mainly about the substance of what needs to be in a new constitution, there are important procedural matters. The procedural question to which we should be paying the most attention at the moment is how a constituent assembly is elected. The citizens should not accept an arrangement that leaves our fragmented and widely despised political parties in charge of the process, rules that allow candidates to buy votes by passing out cash or other valuables, or a television campaign privately financed by the rich. We need a worthy new way of making political decisions en route to a worthy new constitution, and we need a public demand for this.


Congressional hearings and voting rights in the USA

Now comes the hue and cry about the Russians hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and leaking their contents so as to affect the US election. It might be a viable GOP campaign issue but for Donald Trump being such an outspoken admirer of Vladimir Putin and old business associate of the Russian mob. And will the Democratic hierarchy, which ought to be absolutely mortified both by the contents of those emails and by the ineffective computer software and expertise that Debbie Wasserman Schultz bought from family and friends, try to twist this into a neocon “the Russians are coming” meme? That would be a foolish move on Hillary Clinton’s part.

But all that said, foreign interference in US elections is something that ought to concern all Americans, whether it’s someone manipulating public discourse by hacks and leaks or foreign corporations and oligarchs using backdoor routes to fund US attack ads. In the scheme of things, this election year and all other presidential elections this century have been affected by far worse abuses than foreign interference. The theft of the 2000 presidential election by a sordid court decision with at least two justices who should have been recused because of family conflicts of interest set the tone. There is the legalized bribery and purchase of elections since the Citizens United court decision. A plethora of vote suppression schemes, “strip and flip” tactics by which voter registration lists are tampered with to eliminate certain groups of people in the former case and electronic voting systems that leave no paper trail are hacked to alter the results in the latter, the revival of racial discrimination in voting and a new wave of discrimination by age or relationship to a university add up to the stuff of which a new Voting Rights Act ought to be fashioned. But to do something about such abuses, there must be congressional hearings to expose and debate the problems.

However, there is a problem with congressional hearings, just as there is a problem with Congress. It turns out that Republican Representative Trey Gowdy tried to influence this year’s elections by running endless Benghazi hearings at which he deliberately presented falsified “evidence.” There are not enough votes among his colleagues for even the mildest reprimand. So far this century, neither the Senate nor the House have conducted any meaningful hearing on the general problem of compromised elections. The political caste just accepts that stuff as ordinary.

The riveting drama of televised hearings has at times served the nation, although if the truth is to be fully told the two most famous of these revolved around a despicable figure who kept carefully out of the limelight. The Army McCarthy hearings had their genesis in J. Edgar Hoover’s entourage going after the US Army for drafting Roy Cohn’s boyfriend. The end result was about World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower slapping down that assault on the Army that he had served, alcoholic fanaticism in his own Republican Party and Hoover’s assertion of power over elected governments. The Watergate scandal was very real, about real abuses that manipulated American democracy, but it was also an FBI coup, wherein high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt leaked damning information that was the product of Hoover’s spying on the Nixon White House. With more complete information than we had back then, the “good old days” don’t look so good.

However, American democracy is under multiple systematic attacks and there does need to be a legislative response. The conditions for such a response can only be met by the expulsion of compromised senators and representatives, most of them Republicans, in what remains of the primary season and in the November elections. The defeat of all politicians who have played the game, or even most of them, will probably not be necessary — just enough to intimidate the others. Then there ought to be hearings to demonstrate why Americans need new voting rights legislation.


Bear in mind…

The truth is the kindest thing we can give folks in the end.
Harriet Beecher Stowe


Any doctrine that will not bear investigation is not a fit tenant for the mind of an honest man.
Robert Ingersoll


As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
Josh Billings



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