Missouri Monocracy

Monocratic rule refers to complete political power or control resting with one party.  We have it in Missouri now and with the opening of candidate filing getting closer—February 23—it’s worth examining.  We hope to avoid indications the discussion will take a partisan tone although current conditions make partisan references unavoidable. 

It could be argued that the normal system of checks and balances does not check and does not balance under monocratic rule.  We have been here before although it has been many decades since the partisan breakdown in our legislature has been as lopsided as it is now, or worse. 

We are going to base most of our comments on the state senate, not because that’s where we lived for about 25 of the forty years we spent reporting from the Capitol but because it’s a small enough sample for the time we wanted to spend on this superficial study of a complex issue. 

Let’s start here:  Missouri’s legislature is controlled by one party that holds at least two-thirds of the seats in each chamber.  Missouri is the only state that has no controls on how money flows into the political campaign system.  It is easy to connect those two statements but it might not be entirely fair to do so. Life and politics are too complicated to be summarized that way.

One-half of the senate seats will be up for election this year.  Five seats will be open because three senators have reached the end of their limited terms and two have quit early.  Four of the five open seats are held by Republicans, one by a Democrat.  

All 163 seats in the House will be in play. 

Eight of the seventeen races for the state senate four years ago were not contested.  Two years ago, ten of the seventeen races for a seat in the senate were not contested (one had a write-in candidate who got six percent of the vote so we have considered that race “uncontested.”).  That makes eighteen of the thirty-four senators who are serving right now had no general election challengers or effective challengers in their last election.  

A quick survey of the House showed seventy-four members were elected two years ago without opposition in November.  That means 92 of the 197 seats in the General Assembly are from places where voters did not have a choice whom to elect and where candidates’ positions went unchallenged.  Forty-four percent of the people who are supposed to represent one-hundred percent of people in the state of Missouri in its government were elected without serious question about what they think, who’s behind them, or how they will balance the needs and competing interests of all of the people in their districts. From the perspective on this quiet street, that is an indication that Missouri politics is sick. 

Of the eight senate contested races in 2012, five winners received 51-56% of the votes.  Two were in the mid-60s and the victor in the other one got 82% in a district acknowledged as being overwhelmingly one way.  

Of the seven contested races in 2014 (not counting the write-in race), three had winning percentages of 50.088-56%.  Three percentages were in the seventies and one just barely missed that number. 

In the end, one party gained enough strength in both chambers of the legislature to make the other party mostly inconsequential unless something like last year’s right-to-work debate shutdown starts a minority forest fire the majority can’t put out.  That can and did happen in the Senate.  It’s pretty difficult in the House. 

Vetoes by a minority-party governor can likewise be largely inconsequential because of the two-thirds majority by the other side.  The check and balance system breaks down.  And has broken down.

The argument can be made that the voters decided they want a system where checks and balances are minimized and by looking at the raw membership numbers that seems apparent unless the thought arises that in more than half of those senate elections, voters were not offered a choice and candidates faced no scrutiny from an opponent. But as the folks at the state lottery tell us, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”  The failure of both parties to even try to contest races for a majority of the seats in the Senate and many seats in the House points to flaws in the Missouri political system that those who most benefit from the flaws seem in no hurry to fix. 

Controlling party justification of monocratic rule by noting two-thirds of the legislators are members of that party is, in effect, a dismissal of the needs or wishes of thousands of citizens who voted on the losing side or who had no choice through which to express themselves. The justification seems to follow the sentiments of UCLA football coach Red Sanders who said, “Men, I’ll be honest.  Winning isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing.”  (The quote is often attributed to Vince Lombardi, who did say it, but he was quoting Sanders.)   

Sanders seems to be the inspiration for today’s political climate.  Our experience indicates some people care only about winning.  Others care only about fighting.  Those who care only about serving are easily lost in the dust and smoke of the battle.  

Eight of the fifteen senators who had contests in their last elections won with 56% of the vote or less. When it comes to questions of policy and agenda, should they be softer on strictly hewing to the party line if they are to represent ALL of the people in their district?  In a more altruistic climate, the answer would likely be “probably,” which is about as positive as one can get in real world politics.  But what motivation is there under our present system to even go that far when the only thing that counts is winning and the losers seem to count for nothing?  

Only five winners got more than two-third of the votes in their districts (not counting the write-in district), which raises the question of how big a majority one needs to achieve to be able to dismiss the needs or wishes of the other side and make decisions or arguments on a completely partisan basis, or on the basis of the interest that seeks a benefit that is superior to any benefit losing voters might be entitled to as fellow citizens of the state. 

Much of this discussion is, of course, an exercise of political idealism likely to carry no weight in the blacksmith shop where the party with the big sledgehammer shapes the shoes everybody’s horse must wear.  But from time to time, someone must be naïve enough to mention it lest we become a state without hope for those out of power. There are a lot of voters who talk about these things although they have no way to rewrite the rules.

How, then, to bring some balance to a system that seems to lean strongly toward saying “winning is the only thing?”   Deeper thinkers than those of us on this quiet street can have more profound answers but one seems pretty obvious.  As long as Missouri has no limits on the flow of money into campaigns, there is only an incentive to funnel funds directly to candidates, making our political system one that is undeniably influenced heavily by those who seek to buy policies and those who find those funds the lifeblood of their careers. Those who benefit will and do deny that they are bought.   And perhaps they feel in their heart that they are correct and many probably are.  But if they are not bought, they surely must realize that in their contests they were able to afford better armor, stronger weapons, and faster horses and gratitude for those gifts takes many forms, not the least of which involves carrying the patron’s colors.  

While the focus on campaign funding has been the candidate and the individual donors who believe big donations mean big access, the political parties struggle.  We wrote about the situation last August 20 (The Party). 

Some suggest the rules should be changed to favor the contest, not the contestants–in modern terms, to seek a system that rejuvenates political parties that can field more candidates and give them stronger support. Will such policy solve the problems of the political system and neutralize the (dis)advantages of monocratic rule?  We have talked to no one who believes it is a complete solution.  But to some people, such a change stands a better chance of equalizing the floor of the arena and it stands a better chance of furthering conflicts based on a battle for ideas rather than on a fight for advantage.

Some of our associates think that “winning is the only thing” is okay in high-stakes sports but it makes for poor political systems. In politics, they think, the “winning” philosophy is a short-term goal that does not serve the long-term strength of a government and the needs of its people. One has cited the poem “Alumnus Football” by the great 1920s sportswriter Grantland Rice, which concludes:

            For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.

And they suggest the people benefit—all of the people benefit—when the fairness of the game is improved so that more can play it and can afford to play it well.  But they are skeptical about the willingness of today’s “winners” to make the game itself more representative of all of the participants.

Missouri faces a decision this year about whether we will continue a monocracy, where one side makes all of the decisions, versus regaining a democracy, where all of the people are involved in making decisions.  The monocracy will decide if there is such a choice. 

Let me know what you think......