You Can Vote, but Can You Vote for Democracy?

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Common Dreams

You Can Vote, but Can You Vote for Democracy?

At a recent forum in a school, I asked the audience a simple question, “What are the essential attributes of a democracy? What are the institutions, the behaviors, the ingredients without which we can not have democracy?”

There was a pause while people began to think about it. Democracy is something we are lulled into taking for granted, not dissecting. We are constantly reminded that we live in the greatest democracy on earth. So, we should know its prime attributes as intimately as a fish knows water. But, do we really live in a democracy at all?

One after another, key attributes were named:

Freedom of Speech

One woman said, “We’ve got to be able to speak our minds.” But immediately another woman said, “Yes, that’s important, but it may be more important that we are told the truth, that our press is truly free so that we know they have it in their interest for all the people to know the truth.” So, freedom of speech is as much about the freedom to be informed accurately as it is about freely speaking. Freedom to hear. And, after some discussion, we agreed that we can’t have democracy without a free press because the people --- us --- who are ultimately responsible for the actions of the government, can’t do our job if we aren’t informed accurately. And it was agreed that we do not now have a free press because the major media are owned by corporations whose financial interests are not in supplying accurate information but in making profit & enhancing their images.

Accountability

Someone in the audience said that our laws have to be enforced fairly and evenly for everyone regardless of social or political position or rank. Democracy depends on fair laws being written and enforced. This is what we mean by “The Rule of Law.” When common people begin to suspect that powerful people are able to operate above or outside of the law, trust in democracy disappears. Cynicism grows.

There is a great tendency among people in power to embrace a belief in the rule of law except when it is really needed. For instance, many of the actions and policies of the Bush administration (and now the Obama administration) violated the Constitution and the Geneva Accords and the Nuremberg Principles about preemptive war, torture, surveillance, due process, etc. Many of these laws are considered the most important laws we have. Breaking them is considered a crime against humanity. Certainly a crime against the notion of the rule of law. They are not being enforced now because it is not be politically expedient to do so. If the lawmakers don’t enforce the most important laws of a democracy, do you have a democracy?

Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the American Dream depends on the “security of justice,” that is, trusting that the law is equally just for everyone. That’s what’s meant by a level playing field. Tilt the field and democracy slides off.

Someone else said that another aspect of this is the inevitable re-writing of the laws by powerful interests to protect those interests. So, the appearance may be the “Rule of Law,” but it has been so skewed that it is not the same for everyone. Powerful corporations and individuals use their influence to have laws written, for example, that allows them to pay low taxes, lower, in fact, than low income people. And then they say they are adhering to the law.

A few days ago a CIA agent named John Kiriakou was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for having “outed” the name of another CIA agent who was instrumental in practicing torture for the US. At this time no person guilty of torture in any of the US torture scandals has been charged with a crime. The only person ordered imprisoned is John Kiriakou the man who tried to expose and stop it.

Or, without much fanfare, the Justice Department and President Obama have changed the definition of due process. The Constitution says that no citizen’s life may be taken by the state without due process --- meaning a court proceeding. It has been changed to mean that a group of high level people meeting in secret constitutes due process. This was done to make extra-judicial assassinations of US citizens by drone missile attacks or any other means legal.

Money. A man brought up that a democratic system can’t allow undue influence of money by campaign contribution or lobbying. If money gives rich people or corporations access to candidates and office holders and media that voters don’t have, democracy is lost. It’s as simple as that. And everyone agreed that we now have a system completely permeated in the election and governing process with special interest money and corporate power.

Many people pointed to the Supreme Court Citizens United case of 2011 and the unlimited speech being allowed to enormous wealth. But the problem of corporations being granted personhood began back in the late 19th Century. Corporations are not persons; they are not mortal; their resources and time are not limited as most people’s are; they do not have consciences --- their charters only require them to maximize profit; they do not ask children what they learned in school today. Instead, they think of children as young profit centers to be manipulated and groomed as consumers.

I mentioned what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had once said, “You can have a democracy or you can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. You cannot have both.” Not only has great wealth permeated the legal, election, and media systems, but the divisions of wealth amongst the people is greater now than ever in our history and greater than all of the world’s other democracies. Marcus Raskin, one of our most thoughtful contemporary political philosophers says, “If economic relationships are not transformed and we do not show how economic redistribution can be accomplished through action, if we do not find a way of taming power through law and justice, the broader and primary meaning of politics is lost and democracy either as an end to itself or as an instrument to obtain the common good is reduced to a cruel joke.” ( The Common Good, 1986.)

Secrecy

Someone said, “Let’s assume that the government is by and for and of the people like Lincoln said. Then the people are the government. But how can the people be the government if the government keeps secret the information that it uses to make its decisions?” Democracy then would depend on blind trust, patronizing trust, not on transparency. I told the audience that I had a good friend who had spent many years in the CIA. He told me that he thought secrecy was the enemy of democracy. A government based in secrecy is more like a benign, or not so benign, monarchy than a democracy. It was agreed that our current government uses secrecy to hide its real motives rather than to protect our security. The political philosopher Marcus Raskin calls a government based in secrecy a “national security state.” A national security state uses lies and deception to hide its real actions and motives. It also cannot allow itself to be held accountable, for then it would have to admit the truth. When Dr. King talked of the security of justice, he was probably deeply aware of it’s opposite, the justice of security.

Justice of that sort, which is based in fear, embraces anything --- preemptive war, torture, unwarranted surveillance, lying, targeted assassinations --- to maintain a sense of security. And, of course, those behaviors are self-fulfilling prophesies, requiring more and more extreme security. They are also huge profit generators for corporations which supply the weapons of war and instruments of security.

Voting

It was brought up that most people think of voting as the cornerstone of democracy --- as long as they are able to go into a voting booth and freely select their leaders, democracy is working. It was pointed out, though, that voting doesn’t mean a lot if the people offered as candidates are not representing the real needs of the people, nor offering real solutions to the problems. I think that most people at this meeting felt that the two party system has devolved into a one party system with a lot of rancor. How long can a democracy persist if the choice it offers is the lesser of evils? Voting then becomes an instrument of denial rather than affirmation of principle.

Also, many people were skeptical of the vote counting in this country. We know that in the 2000 presidential election, and maybe the 2004 election, the votes were not counted accurately. With this question we came back to accountability. What does it mean in a democracy when it becomes clear that an election was stolen and/or rigged and nothing is done about it? That the courts refuse to allow the vote to be counted?

And what does it mean when the rule of law is used as a means of suppressing low income and ethnic voters? There is a great effort currently in this country to require voter ID cards, the obtaining of which is a much greater burden on poor, ethnic, and older citizens than middle & upper class people. The rationale used to advance this idea is that the cards are necessary to prevent voter fraud. In fact, it has been shown that there have been virtually no cases of such fraud in the past 20 years. This movement is meant to limit the voting of low income and racial minorities who tend to support one party over another. And we see the legal system being used to advance this same end in a much more draconian way through the cradle to prison pipeline. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, documents the unequal enforcement of laws to criminalize ethnic minorities and remove their voting rights.

Education

This meeting was held in a school and everyone agreed that we can’t have a democracy without well educated people, people who seek the truth, people not easily manipulated by fear or propaganda, people who can differentiate between policies meant to help them and policies meant to exploit them. Uneducated people are easy prey for tyrants. Poorly educated people are easy prey to racism, to super-patriotism, to exceptionalism. We have to insist that the first obligation of our schools is not turning out skilled workers for the status quo. Skills are important, but critical thinking citizens are more important if we want to promote our ideals first and then our economy.

There is no causal or philosophical link between a successful, capitalist economy and democracy. And only critical thinking young people can possibly solve the great social, economic, and environmental problems we’ve got today. As ZoeWeil of the Institute of Humane Education says, “We need to be graduating a generation of solutionaries.”

Philosopher and peace activist Paul Chappell says, “When people in a democracy are not educated in the art of living --- to strengthen their conscience, compassion, and ability to question and think critically --- they can be easily manipulated by fear and propaganda. A democracy is only as wise as its citizens, and a democracy of ignorant citizens can be as dangerous as a dictatorship.

Citizenship

The consensus of the meeting was that the only thing that might guarantee the maintenance of a viable democracy is citizenship. The people must always see it as their obligation to be involved in civic affairs.

One of the most important aspects then of education is the teaching of citizenship. When we relax into the idea that the foremost duty of a citizen is voting, the democracy is probably already lost. We can vote today, but we can’t vote for ANY of these prerequisites for democracy.

This quote from Ralph Nader should be self evident: “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.” But this one from Helen Keller is not so evident and speaks to something deeper about any political organization: “When one comes to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim on them." Here is the necessity of citizenship --- rights, even the ones we like to think of as permanent, inalienable, can and will be taken away from us if we do not constantly make good our claim on them. Inspiring language, even language written into law, is often only words and easily detoured. Only action makes it real.

Courage. We talked about the propensity of every form of society and social organization to get mired in the status quo ---- leaving power and decision making (and profit) to those who take it. This is why good citizenship almost always takes courage.

As Jim Hightower says, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” It’s an obvious irony that at every stage of the history of this country the prime force responsible for expanded freedom, equality, justice and civil rights is not the law, not the separation of powers, and, in fact, not the people in power. It’s been the courage of citizens to insist the ideals of the country be made real for them. As Frederick Douglass said, “Find out what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong that imposed upon them.” Breaking that silence, throwing off that imposition, is not done by democratic institutions; it’s done by people with the courage to insist on the animating principles of the institutions.

In conclusion we were rather surprised to agree that by the benchmarks that we had established, the United States does not have a democracy.

It was asked then, what do we have? We weren’t sure. I said that few governments ever live up to their own ideals, but if we were ever to have a government resembling a democracy, it would depend first on citizenship and courage. Living in a country that is not a democracy has nothing to do with the citizens’ ability to act democratically.

If there are teachers reading this, I would suggest that you lead your students in a similar inquiry into the fundamentals of democracy. I would be interested to hear what they come up with.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly [send him email] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Please visit The Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available.

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