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'The system we live under is a joke, a farce, a calculated lie... '(Photo: Keith Ivey/flickr/cc)

Democracy's Most Cherished Act

Robert C. Koehler

Democracy! A word, a way of life, our highest ideal: Everyone is equal; no one is marginal.

I still feel the force of this word, though the middle syllable — “mock” — grows increasingly dominant when I hear it, especially now, as election season rolls around again. The enormity of my indifference to this election is balanced by something that feels like grief. The system we live under is . . .

Words fail me. Pardon me while I quote Nietzsche.

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Writing is either an act of hope or an act of cynicism, and I have always committed myself to reaching for the former in my commentary on current events, no matter how disturbing the events may be. But in this moment, I feel myself walking the edge of cynicism: The system we live under is a joke, a farce, a calculated lie. I say this as someone who believed in it deeply, who embraced our history of expanding inclusiveness.

Democracy in the United States of America used to apply only to white property owners, but in my grandparents’ lifetime, in my parents’ lifetime, in my own lifetime, we saw the moral arc of the universe bend toward justice. The right to vote expanded. More and more people mattered and became eligible to participate in the creation of our society. This was human progress, and it was good.

The agendas of various special interests were always in the picture, of course. Racism was always lurking, available for exploitation. Elections could be rigged. With the onset of electronic voting, vigilance was more crucial than ever. I embraced and celebrated the vigilance: Fair elections held society together. I still believed in democracy. I believed that, at its core, it was a positive force.

That belief has been ebbing for the last six years. My reaction to the following sentence made me realize how empty my reservoir of belief has become. Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, addressing the spate of voter ID laws and other cynical Republican efforts to keep various unfriendly constituencies away from the polls, wrote:

“The real reason for the laws is to lower turnout, to hold onto power by keeping those who (are) in opposition from exercising their solemn right — to make it hard for minorities, poor folks, and students, among others, to participate in democracy’s most cherished act.”

I felt nothing but a rush of impatience. Voting — “democracy’s most cherished act” — is now a completely empty ritual, or so it seemed for a deeply dispiriting moment. I realized I had given up on it as an instrument of social change, a manifestation of the moral arc of the universe. The cynic’s graffiti felt closer to the truth: “If voting could change anything, it would be illegal.” And the picture accompanying the graffiti was Barack Obama’s.

Following eight years of George Bush and the disastrous war on terror, Obama came in on a cry for peace as deep as I’ve ever heard. His support was global. He had, it seemed, a mandate for profound change. But his performance in office — his embrace of militarism in the Middle East and expansion of drone warfare, his defense of the NSA and domestic mega-spying, among much else — has made it clear this mandate doesn’t matter and was never the point.

Mandate or no mandate, the controlling interests of the American empire command bipartisan homage. They’re not going to be voted out of power.

Coming to terms with the reality of the Obama years has altered my thinking on democracy itself, and beyond that, the concept of the nation, which has emerged from the cauldron of endless war and exists primarily, I fear, as the most efficient form of war’s perpetuation. The nation’s cornerstone is self-defense and a sense of superiority over other nations, values that are summoned continually and never fail to deliver the desired result. We’re organized to go to war, and democracy — voting — doesn’t change this, even if we keep thinking it will.

“The proletariats of each country, growing in numbers and strength, are made to wage war against each other,” Michael Parenti, discussing World War I, wrote recently at Common Dreams. “What better way to confine and misdirect them than with the swirl of mutual destruction. Meanwhile, the nations blame each other for the war.”

And World War I, the war to end all wars, begat World War II, which, William Rivers Pitt writes at Truthout, “never ended, because the manufacture of war materiel made the manufacturers rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and they began to exert influence over American politics . . .

And the Cold War took hold and “. . . O my Lord,” Pitt goes on, “how the money rolled in, because conflict for conflict’s sake became the operational ethos in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and Africa and South America and Central America and especially in the Middle East for decades . . .”

And the situation continues to escalate and Obama can’t and won’t stop it and the next president we “elect” won’t stop it either. Maybe democracy is still a viable concept. I harbor a vestige of hope that it is. But democracy’s most cherished act has got to be something more profound than pulling a lever or making an X in a box.

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

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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