Whatever Happened to Democracy?
Copyright 2000 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA
Quite by accident, at the end of the spring, I found myself in Washington, D.C., for a whole week. It was the first time since 1964 and it was a moving experience in which I renewed my connections with our political history and founding ideals. Two things in Washington impressed me most --- the enormous number of young men and women who have given their lives for the ideals traditionally expressed and the tremendously eloquent statements of those ideals that one can find inscribed at various memorial sites. I certainly recommend spending some time at the grave sites of both Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy as well as at the wonderful new memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt. And one should also walk along the Vietnam Memorial. I found myself reading names randomly, and somewhere in the middle of it all I was simply overwhelmed and overcome with grief.
Putting together the teaching of democracy with the signs of American history in DC, I have come to several broad conclusions. First, young people, who had scarcely lived enough to understand what life is and who they were, died terrible deaths for our political ideals. Second, young people today are only minimally interested in exercising their political rights and duties and are mostly uninterested in exerting whatever effort is needed to make democracy work, certainly not dying for it. Third, as lofty as our ideals seem in the statements of those who have tried to make them real, there is an undeniable and obvious reality of something unlike democracy in America today. We have paid terrible prices for those ideals but what has the result been. The gains have consistently gone to the powerful and privileged few. All of this comes together dramatically in the memorial to FDR where we can remember a man who spoke to the issues of social justice and to the common good, out of necessity. Unfortunately, the ideal of freedom frequently gets carried away by the mighty few who understand that ideal merely as their own economic freedom -- all bought with the lives of young Americans.
The following essay may seem rather confusing then because it is written from confused grounds and in a very confusing time. I remain faithful to the ideals of democracy and to a free society, and I am encouraged by all of the great statements that have been made on their behalf. The reality of American political society, on the other hand, is something quite different, and I am increasingly concerned that it always has been something quite different.
Today, our democratic privileges and responsibilities are taken very lightly. While political parties still draft platforms, they get little attention from the public. The development and management of candidates is unblushingly handled by expert public relations firms whose intent is to bring candidates to victory no matter what it takes. It would seem that no one involved in politics has a shred of respect for truth; in spite of Plato's criticism of Athenian democracy, the age of the "merely rhetorical" has returned. The public response to this situation has largely become withdrawal from the process. Every two years, the percentage of registered voters to the total qualified population declines as does the percentage of actually voting voters to the merely registered voters.
The crisis in democracy is not new. It was already evident by the 1960s, when I began teaching, and it was not just because of the current symptoms -- the growing military involvement in Vietnam, the escalating unease of race relations, rising frustrations regarding women's rights, and new concerns about the natural environment. One should remember that Eisenhower himself, upon leaving office at the end of the '50s, had warned the American people about the rising political power of the "military industrial complex." Randomly selected from my bookshelf, I can find such books as Lewis Andrews and Marvin Larlins'Requiem for Democracy?, Alexander Meiklejohn's What Does America Mean?, David Braybrooke's Three Tests for Democracy, and Murray Stedman's selection of essays called Modernizing American Government, all testifying to a growing political skepticism and all published in the 1960s.
Impulsively, we ask What ever happened to democracy? Inspired by John Dewey's passion for the subject and its relation to education and guided by my own occasional teaching in American philosophical history, especially the great works of what we call the American Enlightenment, I find it natural to start from the point of view that America was a democracy by intention and that something has, indeed, happened to it. Unfortunately, there is a good possibility that nothing has actually happened. Careful critical and historical investigation of our national origins may ultimately show that democracy was always merely a convenient ideology that sheltered many special interests and privileges. One should read Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. What we see today is quite possibly the long-term effect of the simple fact that the United States has never really been a democracy at all and that it is rather a long-term oligarchy possessed by small numbers of very wealthy individuals with many special interests and privileges. The democracy as an ideology remains, of course, but the vague ways in which that ideology is manifest in everyday life have become disturbingly irrelevant and vacuous in the face of material realities. The majority of Americans seem to have given up.
In many respects, the history of American warfare in the 20th Century is a sad text on the decline of the selling power of democratic ideology. The two patriotic World Wars and even the Korean War were fought by ideologically faithful American armies, in their minds defending the "land of the free and the home of the brave." By the 1960s and the Vietnam "conflict" (never a "declared war") many young Americans were far too uncertain about this ideology and far too convinced of the socio-economic realities of the Establishment to serve willingly. Armed conflicts since Vietnam have obviously and openly been more about maintaining the safety of global capitalism than about defending democracy. Americans, today, will accept the use of lethal force only so long as it does not cost American lives. [See below] In other words, warfare is no longer a matter of the political conscience of a people; it is merely an economic issue of costs-and-benefits calculated at a national level. The advent of what we call "high technology," from the Atomic Bomb during WW2 to the computer-guided air-to-ground missiles of the Gulf War, has all been aimed at allowing the US to wage war from a distance and without substantial risk to American lives. But when lives are no longer seriously involved, war becomes merely a matter of global economic policy and an acceptable tax burden; it is no longer a real political act by a people.
Unfortunately, many Americans hold the naive belief that the right to vote in elections itself encompasses the concept of democracy. As a consequence, we tend to believe that democracy is alive-and-well so long as the right to vote remains in tact, and we tend to believe that the only danger to democracy comes from those outside who might attempt to take the right to vote away from us. Of course, fewer and fewer Americans do journey to the polls, and some do not even bother to register to legitimize their right. I have had students simply and boldly tell me that they "just don't care; it seems useless." Perhaps they are correct. The right to vote, as such, is not the genuine issue; the issue is voting intelligently for a significant range of choices. While I am not sure that this is a "right," it surely is at the core of what makes a democratic system authentic.
What I have suggested here is that voting is necessary to a representative democracy but the mere act is also not sufficient. The idea of democracy presumes that representatives are chosen by all the people and that they make decisions that are reviewed by all the people. When these representatives stand for re-election or re-appointment, they must answer for the decisions they have made. The electoral process functions democratically if there is thorough and accurate distribution of information so that the people can truly review the records of their representatives and vote intelligently.
It is extremely important to note, however, that not even intelligent voting can save democracy if the voters are not offered a wide range of good choices. Americans continually confuse the mere act of being able to choose with the quality of choices available. In a democratic society, the choices available for voters must include options that address the interests and concerns of all people. The desperate situation today is clearly caused by the fact that so many voters see themselves forced to vote for the candidates representing the "best in a field of bad choices." Many voters rightfully believe that they have been effectively disenfranchised because there are no candidates that promise to represent their needs and concerns. The right to choose is insignificant when the choices are irrelevant.
In today's America only the candidates in one of the two major parties have a significant probability of being elected, and becoming one of those candidates requires a substantial amount of money as well as backing from the traditional realms of party-power. Those in power are, of course, the wealthy, interested individuals in American society for whom there are large stakes related to the way that government sets policies and enacts laws. All in all, with little exaggeration, it is clearly the possession of great wealth and systemic position that determines which candidates will be available as the voters' choices. Most major candidates need to be quite wealthy themselves just in order to be considered. The United States is, in this sense, an oligarchy rather than a democracy. It follows the rule of wealth.
We should ask whether the US has been an oligarchy from the beginning. The answer, realistically speaking, is that it probably has been. One needs only to observe that there were quite specific economic interests in back of the Revolutionary War and that citizenship and political participation were reserved specifically for land-holding men. Wealth still included the possession of human slaves.
Nevertheless, a version of democratic society was still possible in the late 18th Century, in spite of the oligarchic leanings. We can see this in Jefferson's conceptions of democracy as they were determined by the vision of agrarian society. Capitalism, indeed, meant owning your own land and being able to harvest the yield of your own deliberate work. Agrarian Capitalism brought people together in localities where common needs and interests could readily define the topics of political interest. Democracy and Capitalism could work hand-in-hand.
Clearly, today, the problem is size and diversification. Dewey understood this well and was commenting on it in his writings already at the turn of the century. The rise of industrial economies and the transfer of population out of rural areas into urban industrial centers has created an entirely different political situation. This process simply continued throughout the 20th Century; and farm population dropped from 80% to less than 1% today. The essence of Capitalism was transformed from stewardship of one's land to stewardship of one's own portfolio, that is, the acquisition of as much personal finance capital as possible by entering into and taking advantage of market forces. Unlike land which is inherently tied to a locality and, hence, a community of interested people, finance capital is tied only to markets which have effectively grown out of localities into a global environment. Global Capitalism today literally threatens the conception and effectiveness of national states. In a way, we should say that the political process, which used to be dominated by the cooperative interests of communities, has been fractured by the privatization of market interests.
What we have in America, today, is a system in which candidates must win elections in order to serve but can do this only with the help of the most powerful individuals in the country. A national candidate must put himself/herself before the voters through extremely costly communications media which are controlled by other wealthy, interested individuals. Transportation, staffing, local offices, media advertising, and professional advisors are all parts of a national campaign. Major candidates are now spending millions of dollars even to win primaries. Only great wealth can do this. Thus, the interests that will be served by elected officials are the interests of those who helped them win election. The people as such merely serve as a kind of computational machine that generates the resulting selection. Increasingly, we find that the interested and powerful individuals and corporations support both sides of the political fence so that they can own the votes of elected officials no matter whom the people select.
One might try to console oneself by reflecting upon the fact that we still have a "free press" as a result of our Bill of Rights. With a system of free public communications media we ought at least to become informed of what our public officials do in office. But reflect again, we must. There are few situations in which we actually hear what the candidates think about important issues before the nation; furthermore, by the time an election comes around, the communications media have already failed in fulfilling their responsibilities to a democratic people by virtue of having ignored most of the important national and international events of the previous two years. What we witness are, instead, media "feeding frenzies" in which spectacles are belabored to us for far longer than we can tolerate them, followed by long periods of weather, sitcoms, sports, traffic accidents, and violence. In a deeply important sense, the American public simply does not know what actually happens in the world today. They assume that the media offers information; but what the media actually offers is entertainment. The media, too, is controlled by wealth and it distributes what is profitable to those who possess wealth --- namely, commercials. Programming is almost entirely motivated by what kind of entertainment the producers believe will keep an audience present from commercial-to-commercial.
In sum, it is difficult, today, to seriously say that one's vote does matter. "Information" flies through the media right-and-left with no apparent respect for truth; it all depends on who pays for it, something that is almost always hidden. ["Californians to Save Our Homes," fighting against Indian gaming with inflammatory commercials showing casinos springing up next to neighborhood schools, usually turns out to be an organization funded entirely by the Nevada gaming industry.] It is next to impossible to know what candidates actually think and what they might do once voted into office. It takes a dedicated researcher to even know the basics of what is actually going on in the world today so that a rational judgment can be made about candidate positions. And, finally, the wealth behind the big parties may simply not want your interests or mine to be represented. The posture of government on all issues, domestic and foreign, is determined by wealthy interests which government officials consistently read as "American interests." This is what oligarchy ultimately entails; the needs and interests of the majority of Americans are never represented.
When we explore American culture, today, it is obvious from the very start that a "culture of equity and freedom" is sadly lacking. Our society is far closer to an aristocracy of wealth and privilege. A very small percentage of Americans possess a very large percentage of the nation's wealth. A huge number of Americans live in poverty in conditions that will never allow them the opportunity of developing themselves or providing adequate development opportunities for their children. These are simply undeniable facts. The sad breakdown of culture, however, is the fact that this tragic lack of human social equity has little or no moral impact on American society. It is rationalized by those who do possess power by the claim that these are just lazy or unfortunate people who did have opportunities but failed to take advantage of them. Simply put, the plight of millions who live below the poverty line is their own fault. People who have succeeded are hard working and responsible. What we ignore in this constant mantra of privilege and success is the subtle fact that only the individual is considered. Society is viewed merely as a matrix in which individuals use their own talents and guts to thrash their way to the top. The possibility that we might help each other and consider another person's progress as part of our common success is ignored. In point of fact, the failure of large numbers of people to achieve reasonable social and economic goals ought to be viewed as an enormous failure of the entire system. What after all is society about unless it is about living in some important sense together? Is the rationalization of "sink or swim" a social theory at all?
Today, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its own population than any other nation in the world. Can we say that a culture of freedom is successful here? The incarceration of fellow citizens is a major industry. It is even more disturbing to examine the racial and ethnic breakdown of these statistics. Between poverty and the prison system, African Americans and Hispanics are the hardest hit. To say that this is "their own fault" is laughable; it is clearly the product of systematic and institutionalized prejudice.
If it is true, then, that American society is fundamentally failing in its announced mission of creating a culture of freedom, why don't we hear more about these failures? After all, we pride ourselves about living in the "information age." We have huge networks of communication. Yet there is no information and there is no discussion. But is this really a surprise? The media of communication are owned and operated by the small percentage of wealthy individuals who take no interest in egalitarian social theory. What gets communicated is whatever serves their interests and maintains their privileges.
Meanwhile, the only effective opposition out of three challenging parties was Ralph Nader's Green Party which failed to win enough votes to qualify for Federal funding in the next race. It is clearly disagreeable to Americans to have third-, fourth-, or fifth-parties because that would make winning much less predictable. Everybody wants to vote for somebody who can win; and, in this country, that can only mean one of two people. The dead heat between Gore and Bush rather clearly indicates that there is nothing more than chance involved. Americans saw them as equivalent to each other, and they probably are. At least, they are both owned by the same big corporations.
All in all, this was the most extravagantly financed campaign yet, beginning with the primaries and passing through the glitzy conventions to the fall candidacies. One can look at that money and feel sad for everything that it could have done in our society -- better health care, better education, better public transportation, etc. But it's worse than that; because so much of it went into communication, it fed the wrong people -- the advertising agencies, the big broadcasting services, the public relations people. Our "gross national product" has two ends -- the people for whom money is spent and the people whose wealth is increased by the spending. In our society today, well more than half of the American population is missed on both counts.
I began by asking the question "where did democracy go?" but I had to allow that the problems may have been with us from the very beginning. Perhaps a better question would be "is American democracy alive and well?" This does not depend so much on history as it does on contemporary social criticism. The answer to this is clear, it seems to me. American democracy is extremely unhealthy, and the technical problems with balloting last week demonstrate that not even the vote is so obviously ours any more. In a much deeper sense, where democracy is challenged to provide equality of opportunity and a culture of freedom, the indications are much worse.
Look at what Bush has done with our country. Even before the 9/11 crisis, Bush had demonstrated his true colors by giving away the budget surplus to his corporate buddies, along with numerous other favors and benefits. He has been a leader in attacking environmental policies, and he has consistently nurtured the conservative Christian Coalition in opposing women's rights, gay&lesbian rights, and everything else on their agendae.
At this point, we know very little about the actual events surrounding 9/11 except that the Bush administration has removed largish sections of the investigation report that dealt with our relations with Saudi Arabia. It is also clear that the Bush administration sheltered their Saudi friends in the US immediately after 9/11 and gave them safe transport out of the country. The open question is how much the Bush administration knew about the event itself in advance and to what extent the event was used to solidify Bush political power. In the aftermath, given the Patriot Act, the solidification of power and the abuse of power in a so-called democratic society is obvious and shocking. In three years, democracy and our Bill of Rights, in particular, have taken a huge fall (in the name of democracy and freedom, ironically) and the outlook for a recovery is now very gloomy.
An important point to monitor in the Bush administration is the fact that a small group of conservative and politically aggressive men sought Bush out in the first place, helped him through the nomination process, won the election for him, and have been the key figures in implementing his policies. These people had long-term interests in the invasion of Iraq and the events of 9/11 simply gave them the rationale, ultimately, for carrying the nation into war, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. It is clear, now, that Bush used flagrant lies about "weapons of mass destruction" to convince Americans to support their war. But he will get away with all of this because the critical process in America is completely dead. The next election may be decided on the basis of a candidate's support or opposition to gay marriage while major economic problems and conspiracies go completely ignored.
There is only one real question in all of this. And that is the question of whether there is any conceivable way in which democracy can be recovered in America. One thing is clear, I think. If there is to be a change, it will have to come in a social upheaval with the dimensions of what we saw during the Vietnam War. And that, I suspect, means that it will have to come from the youth of this country. But what issues will bring the youth to the point of radical action?
August, 2005. What Has Become of Us? Indeed, in spite of the war in Iraq and a failing economic policy, George W. Bush successfully won the election of 2004 and beat a fine Democratic slate of John Kerry and John Edwards. Once again, the election hinged on the fringe of one state --- this time, Ohio. And once again, there were verifiable irregularities in Ohio that could easily have thrown the whole thing over to Kerry. George Bush will have spent eight years in office transforming American society and it is doubtful that he was ever really elected legitimately!
Bill Clinton spent eight years in the White House and the Republicans were absolutely unrelenting in their numerous attempts to eliminate him, so unhappy were they with their loss of the election of 1992. When Clinton foolishly had sexual relations with an intern and lied about it, they attempted to impeach him. It took a couple years of the nation's attention. However, Bush allowed his powerful friends to take us into war in Iraq and lied over-and-over to the American people and the world in order to cover for them. Somehow we do not seem to believe that this is worthy of impeachment --- not even critical discussion. As a result, almost 2000 American lives have been lost to date, tens of thousands of American service people have been terribly wounded and disabled, tens-upon-tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been killed and wounded, Iraq has been totally destabilized and is at the edge of civil war, and terrorists around the world have been given far more inspiration and cause for terrorist attacks than they ever had in 2001. While Bush declares that the world is a safer place, it has in fact become substantially more dangerous. Bush consistently lies about serious and deadly things and gets away with it completely. Clinton lied about having sex and was almost hanged. What has become of American society that this can be?
What is truly amazing today is that the majority of Americans do not seem to understand their own needs and interests because they consistently vote against them. Instead, they are inspired by an ingeniously composed Republican rhetoric that seems to support political principles and moral stands while actually doing everything within their power against the interests of ordinary people. Why? The answer seems simple enough. The American mind has been "dumbed down." Critical discourse has been successful extinguished and descriptive discourse, substituted. Everything is superficial. Just watch the evening "news!" Then check out the BBC news or some foreign newspapers. The difference is striking.
Americans today are the most dangerous people on earth because they possess the greatest amount of military and economic power in the world and they do not possess the intelligence to use any of it wisely.