Time to Remove the Bananas... and Return Our Republic to Democracy

Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush both seem to have a funny idea about democracy: they think it's about voting. Saddam was able to win his election without even having to use corporate money or Supreme Court justices appointed by a relative: just hold an election and therefore it must be a democracy. Bush and many, if not most, other American politicians, think that giving hundreds of millions of dollars to huge media corporations to carpet-bomb the minds of voters means that democracy is served when a vote is held.

But in the earliest democracy, there was no voting: the Athenian Greeks had an annual lottery, and every citizen was in the pool. When your name was drawn, you had to serve in the Polis or legislature for a year. At the end of the year, you were out and replaced by a new person selected in the lottery. Sort of like jury duty.

What made democracy unique, in the mind of its inventors, wasn't voting: that was just a means to the end. What's unique about democracy is that it' s the only form of governance in the 6000 year history of modern civilization in which the power, authority, and credibility of government is derived from its citizens, and from its citizens alone. Whether by lottery or by voting, it is the citizens who both comprise and direct the government. Not warlords, not churches, and not giant corporations.

In contrast, civilization's three previous historic forms of government drew their power from different sources. Theocracies ruled by saying their particular god had given them the right to rule. Kingdoms ruled by the power of armies and the willingness to use violence and terror to claim and hold the throne. And in feudal states, plutocrats with the greatest wealth owned the apparatus of governance and held absolute control over the lives of average people.

The United States of America started when the previously-warlord-ruled kingdom of England had drifted into a new form of feudalism: in the 1700s it came under the sway of one of the world's first transnational corporations, the East India Company. The newly invented corporate form made it possible for a single company to amass extraordinary wealth and influence, which it then turned on the government which had authorized its existence.

When Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin met to edit the Declaration of Independence, they knew there had been these three historic tyrannies of religion, violence, and wealth so massive and concentrated as to produce a feudal-like state (what Jefferson called "commercial monopolies" when he strongly argued for an Eleventh Amendment to ban them as part of the Bill of Rights).

Three years before the Declaration of Independence, in 1773, the East India Company had lobbied (it was then called "bribery and influencing") the King and Parliament into reducing the Company's tax on tea and giving them an Enron-style multi-million-dollar tax rebate (in 4 out of the 5 years before their collapse, Enron paid no federal taxes and even received money from the federal government; the East India Company cut a similar deal with England in 1773 with the Tea Act). Thus the East India Company could sell their tea and other products in the Americas at prices that undercut and threatened to drive out of business tens of thousands of colonial entrepreneurs.

But America's Founders would have no part of it.

They rose up against the world's largest and most powerful multinational corporation and ejected it from the Americas at the Boston Tea Party; the British Parliament reacted with the Boston Port Act, which taxed the citizens of Boston more than a million dollars (in today's money) to repay the East India Company. That a single corporation could change a nation's tax laws to its benefit without the people having had a say in the matter ("taxation without representation") set the stage for the American Revolution.

To America's Founders, democracy meant that a government drew its power and legitimacy from its citizens, and must be responsive solely to its citizens, and not to any other institution.

Voting was one means to the goal of rule by "We, The People," but only one means. (Citizens, for example, didn't vote for members of the United States Senate until 1917; before that, Senators were appointed by the states. Among the Native American tribes Jefferson and Franklin visited to draw inspiration and models for democratic principles, decision-making was usually by consensus, as it still is in one Canadian province.)

Perhaps the low turnout in the recent American elections means the average American has become frustrated or lost hope. Clearly the results show what every television advertiser has known for 50 years: with overwhelming advertising saturation you can sell almost anything to almost anybody. But when the outcome of a political debate turns on who has the most cash, and the largest sources of that cash are corporations with specific legislative agendas to promote, the democratic election process has become a caricature of itself. Thus the often-heard response: "Why bother?"

I'm writing this from London, where a few days ago one of the local newspapers, The Guardian, ran a news story about our then-upcoming elections. In their November 2 issue, the newspaper referred to "the 2000 elections, when Florida became internationally famous for its banana republic approach to the electoral process."

So long as our Supreme Court continues to assert that non-voting corporations are "persons" entitled to Bill of Rights protections, including the right to participate in politics alongside voting citizens, we will continue to move further from the Founder's vision of a true republican democracy and into an ancient and hauntingly familiar form of governance that was once called feudalism and is now seen in banana republic nations across South and Central America.

It's time to get the banana companies out of our republic. A handful of rogue megacorporations and their "think tank" and "lobbyist" front groups are sullying our democratic waters, corrupting our political processes, and through monopolistic behavior wiping out local businesspeople and putting free enterprise at risk along with the democracy it once nurtured.

Stripping personhood from corporations (a simple return to the policies of our Founders) will open the door to truly reforming our electoral process, putting it back into the hands of the people, and make it possible to return to our airwaves the voices of politicians who haven't sold their souls to corporations for funds to buy advertising. This can be done by bringing back public service and public debate programming requirements, a ban on corporate money in politics and elections (they can't vote, the Founders said, so why are they involved in politics?), and putting in place instant runoff voting (IRV) to widen the political spectrum.

With these steps, We, The People, can bring about a revitalization of democracy in America, and reverse our current slide into banana republic neofeudalism.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.