Democracy: a form of government in which power ultimately rests with the people, either directly or through elected representatives.--Wordsmyth Dictionary
Americans cannot teach democracy to the world until they restore their own.--William Greider
The cure for the problems of democracy is more democracy.--John Dewey
So we’re going to bring democracy to Iraq . . . whether they want it or not. I’ve got an idea: let’s fix it here first.
According to most definitions of “democracy,” the word suggests a political system in which power resides in the hands of the citizens. In such a system, public servants are chosen by the people and entrusted to work in the best interests of all concerned.
Yet, according to Richard Swift in his No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy, many of the political leaders in our nation suffer from an arrogance of power—“the unstated but persistent conviction that the 'divine right of kings' has been modified into a kind of ‘divine right of elected leaders.’” During elections, candidates may promise us whatever their focus groups indicate we want to hear. Once elected, however, it’s business as usual.
And who can blame them? Politicians know they need lots of money to be re-elected. And they know where to go to get it. According to Robert McChesney in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, “In the United States the richest one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans make 80 percent of individual campaign contributions, and corporations outspend organized labor by a margin of ten to one.” With the deck stacked like this, do you really think our elected officials are going to pay much attention to you and me once they’re in office?
Given this scenario, where do we get the chutzpah to claim we’re going to export democracy abroad when we seem to have such a shortage of it at home? At best we have what might be called passive consumerist democracy—dozens of toothbrushes, cereals, coffee makers and cars to choose from, but only two uninspired presidential candidates. At worst we have plutocracy—a system of government in which the wealthy rule, in which they pre-select political candidates of both parties by funding those they favor.
One thing you can rely on: the ruling elite will dance with the one who brung them. In 1996 Congress passed and Clinton signed a welfare reform bill—legislation that focused on moving welfare recipients into the workplace generating a total annual savings to taxpayers of approximately $3 to $4 billion, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Be assured that there will be no corporate welfare reform, however—a government dole estimated at $125 billion each year, according to a 1998 Time magazine report. Is this what democracy looks like?
Let’s look at another example of how our method of government favors the wealthy—our court and penal systems. Today our nation holds over two million of its citizens behind bars—an incarceration rate that is five times higher than any European country. The United States has five percent of the world's population yet we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Approximately seven out of every 1,000 Americans are in jail.
And who’s doing time? Again, McChesney: “In 2000 . . . a Texas man received sixteen years in prison for stealing a Snickers candy bar, while, at the same time, four executives at Hoffman-LaRoche Ltd. were found guilty of conspiring to suppress and eliminate competition in the vitamin industry, in what the Justice Department called perhaps the largest criminal antitrust conspiracy in history. . . . The four executives were fined anywhere from $75,000 to $350,000 and they received prison terms ranging from three months all the way up to . . . four months.”
Folks who wind up in jail are typically poor, disproportionately black with negligible political clout. Is this what democracy looks like?
One percent of the population in America owns one-half of the nation’s wealth. Ten out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. die before their fifth birthday as a result of poverty and hunger. Our states and cities face massive budget shortfalls while our federal government pumps untold billions into war without end. Is this what democracy looks like?
Before we purport to export democracy to Iraq or anywhere else, I think we’d better fortify it here first. Let’s stop laying the problems of our society at the feet of the politicians and take responsibility for them ourselves. Let’s become active, engaged and informed citizens. Let’s reclaim the power that’s rightfully ours. Let’s work to fulfill the promise our nation holds and make it the best it can be—for each and every one of us.
This is what democracy looks like.
Readers can contact Bruce Mulkey via e-mail at email@example.com. Visit his website at www.brucemulkey.com.
© 2003 ASHEVILLE CITIZEN-TIMES