Democracy: A great idea
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Here in North America, particularly during election campaigns, we repeatedly hear about the democracy we enjoy. Democracy is used as the benchmark for fairness, justice, and integrity. To say that someone, or some institution or action is undemocratic is to condemn; if the accusation can be seen to have merit, there is no defence. To be democratic is good; to be undemocratic is bad. The notion of democracy is so deeply ingrained in our Western psyches as an absolute and unquestioned value, that the dissemination of democracy is virtually the only acceptable moral justification for a war of Western aggression.
Forget for a moment that in the last several decades the West has initiated and waged wars primarily for economic benefits or to feed the ego of US presidents; the continuation of those wars was always justified by the assertion that the invaded countries would be given democracy. Democracy was a gift that we were willing to bestow on the people of countries we first carpet bombed and then occupied. Once we devastated the countries, we would make it all worthwhile by instituting Western-style governments and democratic systems of governance; we would stick around indefinitely in the form of heavily armed “peacekeepers” to ensure that the newly democratised people didn’t backslide to their traditional non-democratic ways. Here in the West, the value of democracy itself is always assumed without question.
There are two major problems with that view. The first difficulty is formulating an argument that persuasively defends democracy as the ideal we assume it to be. And the second is finding an example of democracy anywhere in history or in existence today.
Winston Churchill, upon being voted out of office immediately after he orchestrated the Allied victory in the 2nd World War, famously said that the people of Britain could do what they wanted, as theirs was a democracy. And as to democracy itself, he said in a speech to the House of Commons on November 11, 1947, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
The notion that democracy is the best, indeed the only righteous form of government seems self evident; from the smallest group dynamics to the vast complexity of a system of government like that of the United States, something is considered just and fair if it has been put to the people and a majority approves. Even three children will recognise that if two of them want to do something and one doesn’t, the majority should get their way. And yet democracy as a philosophy of government or politics is a fairly recent development.
Ancient Greece (or more accurately, the city-state of Athens) is held up as a model of ancient democracy and in some ways it was. But Athenians would have been horrified at the prospect of real democracy being instituted; no self-respecting Athenian democrat would have countenanced extending the vote to people who were too ignorant to be trusted with that responsibility. It would be absurd to expect that slaves, paupers, or women ought to be among those enfranchised. Democratic though the vote was among leading Athenian men, the fact is those with the right to vote formed a tiny minority of the population.
More recently, even the Founding Fathers of the US did not agree that democracy as a model of enlightened governance was self-evidently the way to go. They were more afraid that the political process would be dominated by the rabble; there was real concern that most people simply weren’t sufficiently sophisticated, educated, or possessed of sufficient wisdom to have much say in government. Nevertheless, democracy as a political philosophy won the day and the US Constitution was written with elaborate safeguards and failsafe mechanisms to ensure that neither one branch of government nor any outside faction could upset the balance of powers. However, just like the ancient Athenians, the draftsmen of the US Constitution explicitly denied the franchise to their slaves, their wives, mothers, and daughters, and to anyone who was not a landowner.
Over the decades, the franchise expanded and the country became incrementally more democratic; women were granted the vote only in the 20th Century. It took the bloodiest war in American history, but slavery was abolished and African Americans were eventually given the right to vote. Nevertheless, Jim Crow laws curtailed that theoretical right and it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the Civil Rights Act (1964) and then the Voting Rights Act (1965) were passed. And still today there is an ongoing effort on the part of the Republican Party to disenfranchise black voters by legislating new hoops for them to jump through in order to cast a ballot.
In theory now, every adult US citizen has the right to vote for the candidate of his or her choice. But disregarding the gerrymandering that deliberately skews the results of elections, and ignoring the laws insisting that voter IDs rarely owned by minorities must be presented at polling stations, and forgetting about the dirty tricks like reducing voting hours and polling stations in minority districts, we still have to ask whether we are looking at a democratic form of government in the United States. The current state of American society would suggest that democracy in the US would be a terrific idea and really ought to be tried some day.
As this is being written (1 July, 2016), all indications are that the two candidates for the country’s presidency will be the Democrat Hillary Clinton and the Republican Donald Trump. Barring some unforeseen cataclysmic shakeup, those will be the only alternatives voters will really have. And yet by actual polls those two potential presidents are among the most thoroughly despised people in the United States. Donald Trump is ahead of Clinton in the “viewed unfavourably” sweepstakes, but both people have more people respond negatively to them in polls than they have positive responses.
That could perhaps be blamed on the candidates’ respective parties and their method of candidate selection which is so labyrinthine and Byzantine that the average voter is at a loss to understand or even participate meaningfully in primaries. The average voter has absolutely no idea that although they cast a ballot favouring their preferred candidate, their wishes don’t actually count; it’s the vote of the electoral college in their particular state that decides who actually wins. It isn’t cynical, it is only realistic to point out that the will of the majority doesn’t determine the winner of a presidential election; if it did, we never would have seen George W. Bush in the White House and we would be looking back fondly on the Al Gore presidency.
In the democracy that the US believes ought to be given to other nations as a gift, it is worth noting that occupying a seat in the legislature permits the representatives or Senators to vote as they see fit. Fair enough; that’s representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy. But is it any sort of democracy when 90% of the population is strongly in favour of legislating gun control measures, but congress refuses to do so? It is neither unfair nor cynical to point out that the members of congress who steadfastly refuse to vote as their constituents want are accepting contributions from the gun lobby that is against any form of gun control. Mitch McConnell, the head of Senate Republicans and consistent opponent of any sort of gun control, has accepted just under 1 million dollars from the National Rifle Association as a contribution to his last election campaign. If it walks like a bribe and it quacks like a bribe…
While much noise is generated by the established legislators about the lazy “takers” and the hardworking “makers” as justification for reducing welfare benefits for the most destitute, the same group writes an annual cheque for billions of dollars in corporate welfare for the oil companies that finance their campaigns. These grants are given to the most profitable corporations in the history of the world and are used largely to pay the multi million dollar salaries and bonuses of the corporations’ senior executives.
This is Western democracy. A government that, to be realistic, is comprised of an oligarchy of enormously wealthy individuals, transnational corporate interests, and a dug-in and all but permanent governing class. It is government of the wealthy, for the corporations, and by the established interests. It is complacency and blindness that encourages the average Westerner to refer habitually to their system of governance as democratic. It is beyond arrogant to insist on imposing that system on others and believing that they’re doing them an enormous favour.
The system in question is not fundamentally democratic; until we have put in the effort and political will to revamp it to the point that we can be a positive example, exporting it is the most pernicious expression of nationalist hubris imaginable.