Bruce M Sabin
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"We the People are the rightful master of both congress and the courts -
not to overthrow the Constitution,
but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution."
                                       ~ Abraham Lincoln

In their book Politics by Other Means, Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter argue that American democracy is being destroyed by a growing reliance on non-democratic means of achieving political objectives. Rather than struggling for governing authority through election campaigns, various groups are ignoring election results and seeking to control government through lawsuits, media attacks, and similar methods. While Ginsberg and Shefter bring up many good points, they often oversimplify current issues.

Ginsberg and Shefter argue that there is a lessening emphasis on policy issues in debates, but an increasing use of tabloid-type stories by political opponents. However, this increasing use of smear campaigns could be a natural tendency of politicians to speak to the people ‘on their own level.' Are the people able to understand policy debates on issues such as economic stimulus packages? Consider what garners better television ratings–Meet the Press, or Jerry Springer. Economic issues are extremely complex. Ginsberg and Shefter indirectly prove this point in their own statement that "the cost, for example, of making a workplace suitable for handicapped employees fell upon the employer rather than the public" (p. 139). Of course, employers simply pass on any costs associated with legislation, so the cost is still borne by the public. The fact that politicians could claim employers are baring the cost, rather than the public, underscores the people's ignorance in economic debate.

On page 148, Ginsberg and Shefter decry the increasing use of the courts to set precedents that legislatures would not support through legislation. Judicial activism is often a means of bypassing the democratic process. Recent examples include the New Jersey case of Kenneth Powell who was tried for manslaughter because he allowed a friend to drive drunk, resulting in an accident and fatality, as well as when Missouri prosecutors put an unknown person's DNA on trial. These Missouri cases are an effort to circumvent statute of limitations laws. Another excellent example of misuse of the courts was the Clinton administration's idea of using HUD and liberal mayors to sue firearm manufacturers. Liberal politicians have had tremendous difficulty in passing the sort of sweeping firearm bans they would like to see. So, instead, politicians sought to bankrupt small companies through lengthy civil court battles. While many of those cases have been dismissed from courts, the costs of defending themselves have worn heavily on the companies. Smith and Wesson even signed a settlement with the Clinton administration giving the federal government many concessions in exchange for protection from tort claims.

There are times, though, when public interest groups should use the courts. There are many instances where groups holding minority opinions cannot influence legislature, yet still have legitimate claims which should be addressed. Many First Amendment cases cover issues that few politicians would be willing to risk defending. Courts, however, are less beholden to public opinions and are able to render impartial decisions. Another reason public interest groups may be emphasizing court battles more than political lobbying could be a desire for longer lasting change. When a group is successful in getting a law passed, the law will be threatened each time political power shifts in government. Consider the decision of Roe v. Wade. Had women's groups simply sought legislative action, it likely would have taken many more years before enough politicians were willing to vote for laws allowing abortion, and those laws would have been attacked when the more conservative politicians came into power later. As it was, the laws were attacked, but politicians such as Reagan were largely unsuccessful because a Supreme Court decision has so much ‘staying power.'

Ginsberg and Shefter place much of the blame for low voter turnout on the lack of effort by politicians to bring out the vote. However, there are two other issues which have affected voter turn out at least as much–distrust of politicians and citizen apathy. Despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln had not stated any desire to use his Presidential power to outlaw slavery, the South succeeded from the nation upon his election. The reason the South succeeded was because everyone knew Lincoln's moral beliefs and the South feared that as a man of principle, he might act on those beliefs. Liberals today made similar claims about John Ashcroft's ability to be Attorney General. However, as Ginsberg and Shefter pointed out about Clinton, he was known for taking the politically advantageous side quite often. Because many politicians are known for ‘saying one thing and doing another,' voters often do not feel compelled to bother voting. After all, there is no guarantee the person they vote for will actually govern anywhere close to the way he ran his campaign. If voters cannot be sure of what they are voting for, why should they bother voting? Secondly, America's prosperity has had tremendous affect on voter turn out. As Alexander Tyler pointed out hundreds of years ago, democracies lead to prosperity, which leads to apathy on the part of the people. During the 2000 election campaign, much of the electorate was convinced that who was elected would have only a negligible impact on their lives. When voters are so apathetic to election results, turn out is going to be very low.

On page 99, the authors write concerning Democrats eagerness to create federal domestic service jobs because government service workers tend to be loyal to the party that gave them their jobs. Since the New Deal, American liberal politicians have sought to create a nation of people dependant on the federal government. The Democrats followed this same course of action immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Democrats seized the opportunity to create tens-of-thousands of new federal jobs working in security. Tom Daschel's infamous phrase, "You can't professionalize unless you federalize" stresses Democratic commitment to creating federal jobs for every conceivable activity. The creation of these tens-of-thousands of federal workers came despite widespread knowledge that airport security had done nothing that contributed to the attacks, despite that federal workers are often guilty of the same lapses airport security was generally accused of, and despite the tremendous economic sacrifice of employing such a large workforce which would produce nothing, and add nothing to the economy. All this was done because Democrats saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to instantly create scores of Democratic voters. As someone once said, "The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money." Unfortunately, politicians have come to see the vote-purchasing power of tax money.

Ginsberg and Shefter make several good arguments in their book, and raise important issues. The book certainly contributes to the ‘what's wrong with America' debate. However, the book is one-sided. The issues raised in the book are multi-faceted and could be debated form numerous angles.


Agape, Sophia, Servitutis: de Deo, cum Deo, pro Deo