Democracy: It’s About The Process

I proudly count Jack Hoag among my 11 regular readers. Don’t misunderstand: I’m proud of the other 10 as well. But Jack’s a special case.

I cannot fathom why Jack reads me. We come from different places. He’s an ex-Marine, I a draft-dodging ex-Peace Corps volunteer. He retired from the presidency of Hawaii’s largest bank, I from a professorship in a small state college housed in temporary wooden buildings. Jack is a fiscal and social conservative, I a liberal who loves expensive government programs.

Thus we disagree on most of the issues of the day.

That said, I always enjoy an email from Jack. Unlike one of my readers who begins his missives with “Dear Idiot,” Jack maintains a civil tone, no matter how disagreeable he may feel.

Last week Jack wrote about events on the first day of the Legislature’s special session on same-sex marriage. He acknowledged at the outset that he knew we disagreed on the issue: Jack’s against same-sex marriage, I’m for it. But he wanted to discuss “the process, not the issue.”

“Let’s pretend,” he wrote, “this session was called by another governor to pass a very strict anti-abortion law – same parameters, sham hearings, like last night when 1,800 people testified, about 90 percent against, and as soon as it adjourns, the ‘for’ foreordained decision was made. What was the point? Just going through the motions for the record?

“So in this hypothetical case where a monumental social sea change is proposed, without real public input, no time for serious dialogue and study, would you agree it would be a sham of the democratic process?

“You often write about the very real voter apathy in Hawaii. When so many people take time from their families, jobs, etc., and then witness such a shibai of the process, what can we expect?”

Jack’s right. We can expect anger, frustration, and a degree of resignation and apathy from those who see their side of the issue lose. But one side always loses in the democratic process – sometimes both, that last when compromise is reached.

And yes, much of what happens in a legislative body is “going through the motions for the record,” breeding frustration for petitioners and even legislators, whether in a five-day or a 60-day session.

But elections, not committee votes, constitute the heart of the democratic process. And election results over the past 20 years are the key “dialogue and study” session that produced the “foreordained decision” reached by the Legislature last week.

In 2010, Hawaii’s law-makers passed a civil unions bill, essentially marriage without using the word. Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed it. Then candidate Abercrombie promised, if elected, to sign one as soon as it reached his desk. He defeated candidates in both the primary and general elections who, to some degree or another, opposed civil unions.

In 2010, legislative candidates also made opposition to Bill 444, the civil unions bill, central to their campaigns. None won. And in 2012, a battered incumbent President Obama announced mid-campaign that he had become an advocate of same-sex marriage. I thought his conversion might sink him. Obviously, it didn’t.

In the final paragraph of Jack’s email, he notes that in the late ’90s, a half-dozen pro-same-sex marriage legislators lost their seats in districts where voters were fed up with their stands in favor of marriage equality.

Therein lies the recourse of those frustrated by the shibai of the legislative process, not in apathy, but in even greater engagement.