Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom
“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller, Rebel Lives
In this fourth week we continue to explore other aspects of democracy and begin an evaluation of how democracy is functioning today in the United States. So let us begin.
Here it is important to bring up another crucial point about the nature of democracy. Democracy is a historically radical concept about the question of sovereignty in society. Sovereignty today means having the ultimate or supreme power and authority in making decisions for a people or a nation or within a territory. The concept of sovereignty evolved into the political arena of society from the religious concept of the body of Christ as having two manifestations. One was the corpus naturale, meaning the consecrated host on the altar, while the other concept was that of the corpus mysticum, which meant the social body of the church and its administrative form. The corpus mysticum implied a collective social organization with a mystical essence and enduring existence which transcended time and place. Over the course of the Middle Ages this idea was transferred to the area of politics as it imbued the king or queen as having this same dual nature, that is, that their power and social roles were consecrated and embodied in their personal being and that this power lived on even after death because it manifested justice and dignity of the political realm. Sovereignty thus became power that was a “single, unified one, confined within territorial borders, possessing a single set of interests, ruled by an authority that was bundled into a single entity and held supremacy in advancing the interests of the polity.”
This is important because as society progressed the forms of sovereignty evolved and expanded to include “the people ruling through a constitution, nations, the Communist Party, dictators, juntas, and theocracies. The modern polity is known as the state, and the fundamental characteristic of authority within it, sovereignty . . . : supreme authority within a territory.” And with the rise of these various forms of sovereignty embodied in the state various socio-economic-political beliefs have arisen which enfold a view of how society should be organized, how economies should be run and how people should be ruled. Understanding these positions may give us insight into the way in which various classes and interest groups want the world to be.
Democracy has allowed for a variety these –isms, and, this is important, it is because of democracy that they are able to be expressed and manifested. Yes, there is always a dialectic going on between these positions and reality, but, as an example, liberalism does not make democracy realized. Rather it is the other way around. The spectrum of these views runs from anarchism, socialism, communism, social democracy, cosmopolitanism libertarianism, conservatism, to fascism.
The concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller segment of the population, while real wages stagnate for the average person is another aspect reinforcing the consolidation of oligarchy disguised as democracy, exemplified by “the risk of a drift toward oligarchy (that) is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed. . . U.S. politicians of both parties are much wealthier than their European counterparts and in a totally different category from the average American, which might explain why they tend to confuse their own private interest with the general interest.” This continues the degradation of both the illusion and the fact of democracy, hence the disaffiliation of much of the population from the political sphere and its concurrent mistrust of any form of government.
Perhaps the total collapse of involvement, in some form of a ‘great refusal’ will one day undermine the ideology which keeps the myth of this form of democracy alive. The inversion of a government which cannot govern due to its insulation from the ‘people’ and its sclerosis of power will have to reach a point of resolution. However, there is no necessity or determination that this will result in anything progressive. Neo-fascism in the guise of a ‘populism’, “nativism’ or some other political totalization is equally possible, as we can see in today’s dysfunctionality in Washington, D.C.
How is Democracy Working in the United States Today?
One concise definition of democracy holds that a true democracy has four elements:
- A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
- The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
- Protection of the human rights of all citizens.
- A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
One of the key things to note in this definition is that in order to participate in democracy you must be a citizen of the nation or country. This distinction is very important as we continue our discussion of democracy, rights, and freedoms. Because of this distinction, various economic systems can coexist within this definition of democracy. Ancient Greek city-states were based on slavery and only males were citizens, but for them democracy existed while women, slaves and any non-citizen could not participate in the governing of the state. Likewise, the United States had democratic institutions but only included white males who owned property in the early definition of democracy, while maintaining slavery, indentured workers and little rights for women and indigenous people. Let us look at each of these aspects of democracy and evaluate how (and if) today’s reality holds to the definition.
A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it. —Mark Twain
Do we have free and fair elections? Let’s look at some basic facts that make this questionable. First let’s look at the figures from the 2016 national election.
The voting age population in 2016 was a little over 250 million people, but the voting eligible population was only about 230 million people. Roughly 20 million people were denied voting because of various reasons. Some were legal immigrants, who work here and pay taxes, but are unable to vote because they are not considered citizens of the U.S. Another nearly 3.5 million people were denied the right to vote, because they had committed felonies and were either in prison, on parole or on probation. Due to the completely disproportionate racial mix of the prison populations, Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are heavily disenfranchised by this exclusion. As an example, nearly 8 percent of all African-American are disenfranchised because of felony convictions, mostly as a result of non-violent crimes coming out of the War on Drugs.
In the last presidential election in 2016 new rules came about that furthered disenfranchisement of some voters. In 2013 the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, eviscerated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The main legislation movement was to require voters to show identification at the polls in order to vote. Under the guise of prohibiting voter fraud, Republican controlled legislatures in fourteen states passed these new rules for voting even though an analysis of over 146 million votes cast in various elections between 2000 and 2012 found only 10 cases of voter impersonation. In the state of Wisconsin a federal judge called for an investigation into the claims that Department of Motor Vehicle officials were systematically denying people the documents they needed in order to vote. The variety of ways voter suppression is carried out in these fourteen states is truly remarkable.
One more issue is the inability of third parties to get candidates listed on the ballot. This is called ‘ballot access restriction.’ Because elections are controlled and administered at the state level, all third-party candidates must meet 50 different sets of criteria to get on the national ballot. This is an extremely confusing and often contradictory system of obstacles and preconditions which must be met. This leads to exorbitant fees, high numbers of required signatures, as well as complex legal challenges to the veracity of the signatures, and even the requirements to have the signatures spread across all counties, which make it prohibitive to get third-party candidates on the ballot to challenge Democratic and Republican office seekers, who are exempt from these conditions.
Another factor which distorts the democratic aspect of elections is the immense amounts of money spent on national campaigns. The infamous Citizens United ruling which effectively removed all limitations on campaign donations allows hundreds of millions of dollars to be poured into elections at all levels. According to Open Secrets, $6.45 billion dollars was spent on the presidential and congressional campaigns in 2016. The big donors and SuperPACs effectively buy access to candidates which makes them beholden to their interests. Average citizens, even as an aggregate, cannot hope to compete against this deluge of money.
The selection of candidates is also controlled by the party apparatus. We seldom see candidates who are not selected behind closed doors to have access to party funds and support. Additionally, presidential debates are arranged and controlled by private media corporations through contracts they have with the two major parties. Radical environmental or anti-capitalist candidates are shut out from even appearing in the debates. Further, the agendas, format, questions, and times for the debates are orchestrated by the media corporations to maximize advertising revenues, not the public access to information.
A further constraint on fair elections is the date, times and places of elections. In most democracies’ elections are held on a day that is a national holiday, or the weekend, so that as many people as possible can make it to the polls. However, in the United States elections are held on Tuesdays, making it harder for working people to get to the polls and vote. In recent elections polling places have been located in more remote locations and fewer have been open, making it less convenient to vote. People have had to stand in line for five, six and even eight hours to get a chance to vote.
The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President.
One hopes it is the same half. —Gore Vidal
In the 2016 election only 54.7% of the voting-age population cast ballots for the presidency. This percentage varied from state to state, with the lowest turnout in Texas, at 43.4% and the highest in Minnesota at 69.4%. This means that nationally 45.3% of the voting-age population, that is, over 120 million voters, did not cast a ballot for the highest office in the land. This lack of interest and disengagement from active participation in democracy has roots in several aspects of the democratic process in the United States. Let us look at a few of these.
One factor may be the way in which candidates are selected. Primary elections and caucuses, which are primarily used to choose candidates for the presidency are not all held on the same day throughout the country. These serial or staggered primaries cause “election fatigue” whereby people get worn out by the lengthy process and on-going advertising onslaught of political ads, most of which are inordinately negative and even depressing. The first two states to hold their primaries are Iowa and New Hampshire, which have overwhelmingly white and rural populations, often set the agenda, narrative and direction of the campaigns over issues that are not really mainstream concerns. While some people think the caucus system is “direct democracy” because the voting is done by the people in the room, this can be misleading and easily manipulated. Packing the room with persons swayed to a specific trailing candidate can give an outcome that is not representative of reality. In 2016 a 16% turnout for the caucuses was deemed ‘high’ and several precincts decided the outcome by coin tosses.
Even when the primaries are run fairly or have a substantial turnout, another factor dampening citizen involvement in democracy is so-called ‘Superdelegates.’ Nominees from both parties are ultimately chosen by the delegates to their respective conventions, not really by popular vote. But, even more absurdly, the Democratic Party has a contingent of Superdelegates which are not selected by the general popular vote.
Created in 1972 to block any candidate that does not have the blessing of the party apparatus, Superdelegates are high-ranking party officials who vote at the convention for their favorite candidate, with little input from the voting public. Superdelegates are elected officials and other party leaders and activists. They include sitting Democratic governors and members of Congress, past presidents and vice presidents and former chairmen of the Democratic National Committee. How does their voting work? Democrats award delegates on a proportional, rather than winner-take-all, basis. Take West Virginia’s primary. Sanders clobbered Clinton, 51% to 36%. But when delegates were divvied up, Sanders won 18 and Clinton 11. Adding in Superdelegates, the results were much closer: Sanders walked away with 19 delegates and Clinton claimed 18. That means Sanders’ landslide victory cut into Clinton’s overall delegate lead by precisely one. About 15% of Democrat delegates are free to back whomever they wish.
Another factor which leads people to think involvement in democracy and that their vote is worthless is the Electoral College. More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than any other losing presidential candidate in US history. The Democrat outpaced President-elect Donald Trump by almost 2.9 million votes, with 65,853,516 (48.5%) to his 62,984,825 (46.4%), according to revised and certified final election results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Yet, Clinton lost her presidential bid due to the Electoral College system which awarded Trump 306 votes to Clinton’s 232. For many it is self-evident – the election is rigged, and their vote does not matter. As was made clear in 2000, when Al Gore received more total votes but lost the election to George W. Bush, the popular vote does not determine who becomes president. The Electoral College is unfairly weighted towards the smaller states. All this was included in the constitution by the “founding fathers” as a final line of defense to block a candidate who might be hostile to the interest of the elite. So many ask, why bother?
Next week we will continue to evaluate the quality of democracy in the United States by looking at the protection of human rights of all citizens and examining if and how the rule of law is applied equally to all citizens. Again, please engage in respectful dialogue on these issues. The freedom we save may be our own.
 Philpott, Daniel, “Sovereignty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/sovereignty/
 Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, MA. Belknap Press. P. 514
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