American Democracy?

I had someone ask me why they should care about politics. It was just a few days ago. They were responding to my posting a bunch of political stuff on facebook. They didn’t see how politics helped one live one’s life.

I gave a rational response. Everything is political. One should care about politics because one cares about anything at all. Whether or not one is involved in politics, politics is involved in every aspect of one’s life. The personal is political. But rationality doesn’t by itself offer anything compelling, much less inspiring.

I’m not a person who is obsessively involved with politics. I often don’t even feel sure that voting matters. I see how democracy functions to a limited extent on the local level, depending on the local politics, but it is for damn sure hard to tell if democracy is functioning even slightly on the national level. If it is, it’s barely hanging by a thread.

This has become increasingly apparent as I’ve grown older.

The first election I cared about was in 2000. And what happened? It was stolen. There was never a full recount done and the supreme court chose our president. American democracy became the joke of the world. If this scenario had happened in a third world country, it would’ve been an international scandal necessitating outside intervention. Gore did nothing in response, no demand for a full recount, no righteous defense of democracy, nothing. The 2006 election also was problematic.

More recently, there was disinformation campaign that destroyed ACORN. That was an organization that helped average and below average Americans, especially in terms of voting. Republicans attacked them and Democrats caved. It was one of the most morally depraved acts in recent years. Now, Republicans have stepped up their campaign against democracy by pushing voter suppression.

Citizens United was maybe the tipping point toward a new era of corporatism. Polls show that the average American is far to the left of the Democrats and yet the majority position is rarely heard in the mainstream media or from either of the two main parties. Even a strong majority of voters can’t compete against the corrupting power of big money.

I’m not sure which is worse: Republicans attacking democracy or Democrats refusing to defend it. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the moment, voting against the attacks on democracy is strategically more important. If democracy is finally and completely corrupted and disempowerd in national politics, then any other attempts at defense are meaningless.

The last thing I want to see is Republicans being rewarded with votes for attacking democracy. It’s sad that this attack has happened at all. It’s even more sad that the mainstream media and the Democratic Party has given it so little attention. There is no more important issue in a democratic system than ensuring democracy functions. The only unforgivable sin in a democracy is to undermine democracy itself.

I don’t care about either candidate in this election or either main party in general. All I care about is saving what remnants of democracy that have managed to survive. However, if Romney wins this election, I’m going to give up on American democracy. I’ll join some critical leftwingers in their assessment that the entire political system has become dysfunctional beyond saving.

There apparently is a very large number of Americans who either don’t understand democracy or don’t care about democracy… or else maybe it is just cynicism and apathy. Democracy can’t defeat a highly organized and well funded campaign of propaganda and disenfranchisement. I’d like to believe that democracy has a fighting chance, but it is hard to keep the faith.

So, what is the point? When rationality fails me, my cynical response is to say, “Wake me up when the revolution begins.”

18 thoughts on “American Democracy?

  1. This is about the way I feel, and I think I’m a lot older than you. The first Presidential election I cared about–to the degree that I was able at that age–was in 1960. Its been downhill ever since until 2008. I agree with all of the points you make, but it wasn’t always this way. At one time both Republicans and Democrats believed in democracy and went to great lengths to defend it, more than just paying lip service. I don’t know how either side allowed things to get to this point.

    • Yeah, you are older. I wasn’t even born until 1975.

      So, I graduated from high school in the Clinton era. I was aware of the shadow that hung over that decade, but I was too young to really appreciate it. I was apolitical until I heard Nader speak in 2000 and his obvious humility blew me away.

      It was an odd election during which to gain my political maturity. It was demoralizing, to say the least. Even though I’ve heard about how American democracy once was, it’s never been that way in my life. For me, the right has always been radicalized and democracy has always been under attack. This has made me into a rather typical example of a cynical GenXer.

      Nonetheless, I’m not without hope. I’m a bit Taoist when it comes to politics. It’s all about timing and patience. A demographic shift is happening right now, the type of demographic shift that hasn’t happened in living memory. I do sense that demographics is destiny. The reaction of the radical right is so strong because they are so desperate. Apparent strength is the outward sign of inner weakness.

      We’ll just have to wait and see where it is all heading.

      • I can understand your being moved by Nader, he is a man of great humility but also of great accomplishment. Seat belts and air bags for cars, warnings on prescription drug labels, so much that we take for granted today has Ralph Nader’s fingerprints on it. And he tells the truth. The Republicans weren’t always this way. It was only as the “wild west” conservatives began to gain a foothold that the party moved to the radical right. They formed a coalition with the evangelicals, the southerners who never forgave LBJ for the civil rights legislation, and even people like William F. Buckley, a man who came from priveledge. This gave them the numbers to become a force in American politics. Moderates like Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Scoop Jackson wouldn’t be welcome in the GOP today. Its no accident that President Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan today endorsed Barack Obama for re-election as she did in 2008. Democracy is based on compromise, and these people are unwilling to compromise on anything. Susan Eisenhower said today that unless they get their way they won’t cooperate with anybody, and that’s very dangerous for democracy. But maybe you are right to be optimistic. I agree that apparent strength is a sign of inner weakness, and this coalition is clearly at war with itself. Time will tell.

        • I don’t know that I’m right to be optimistic. I tend to think of it as cause and effect. I look for patterns and I see something on its way.

          I don’t know that liberals will be happy with the changes. But I’m fairly sure conservatives won’t be happy. It comes down to liberals being better adapted to dealing with change for it is part of their psychological predisposition.

          It’s all about change. And the rate of change seems to be speeding up… which may just be an apparence of speeding up since the results of change are becoming more apparent.

          Danger, risk, opportunity. Liberals will be more willing and able to see change optimistically. But it’s precisely at the moment of opportunity that there is the greatest risk.

          Out of desperation, conservatives are dangerous in the way an injured dog is dangerous. Growing weakness is far from powerlessness. Desperation leads to danger because it causes the desperate to act irrationally and hence unpredictably. There is a special kind of power in desperate unreason, even if such unstable power can’t be maintained for long.

          • That’s right, and we can see that desperation being acted out in the voter suppression laws they’ve tried to pass (great for democracy), outright lies that have been told during the course of this campaign, the concerted effort they’ve made to characterize the President as something “other” than American–one of “those” people–, and to position the haves against the have-nots. This is part of the “divide and conquer” strategy, but as I see it its their unwillingness to compromise that is the most serious threat. Without compromise there is no democracy.

          • What they’re doing is dehumanizing everyone who’s poor, middle class, non-white, young, old, female, and liberal – anyone in short who can’t be counted on to vote GOP, so that when they target them with their draconian economic and social policies, they can do so without having to deal with any real human blood on the their hands.

          • Its a glorification of wealth. Its almost Calvinist, those who are monetarily successful are God’s elect. I thought we had gotten past that.

          • It can’t be ALL about wealth; how do you explain the hate that conservatives have for Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and George Soros? Or for the rich Hollywood Celebs that support liberal causes?

          • Well they see them as traitors betraying the cause. In fact, they see the big picture much more clearly than the Conservatives do, and are willing to give up some of their personal wealth–without feeling put upon–for a greater good. That’s what’s really at the heart of the Conservative’s disdain for them. They make them feel ashamed of themselves as well they should.

  2. All of this makes me wonder about democracy. On a basic level, it’s such a simple concept. But that seeming simplicity is deceiving. That might be why thinking about it rationally is so frustrating. i doubt anyone comes to believe in democracy because of a rational argument.

    It’s not that people used to be more rational. Rather, something on the nonrational side has gone awry. Any vision of how a society can operate is fundamentally nonrational. A worldview forms the cultural foundation of a society. But how does that happen? And how does a worldview lose its power or get undermined?

    To me, democracy is one of the most compelling political visions imaginable. But obviously it isn’t equally compelling to many others. I want to resist being righteous. Having conservative parents has made politics personal. I talk with my parents regularly and so I get an inside view of the conservative mind. But I still struggle to understand the motibations and assumptions behind the thinking.

    There is this genuine fear some people have in regards to democracy. It’s not necssarily a dislike or even mistrust of democracy itself. Instead, it is a fundamental misgiving about human nature. Demcracy only works if those involved have a basic faith in humanity… which has nothing to do with whether or not humans are perfectable.

    Earlier in American history (or at least earlier in the 20th century), there was a shared feeling that democracy was not only possible but also good. Even the average conservative was drawn in and raised up by this shared feeling of optimism. Was that all a mirage, a false sense of consensus?

    In trying to understand, I want to get at the root. What precisely is democracy? What is at the heart of the democratic vision? It’s not so much a political vision as it is a social vision. It’s a way of understanding human nature and thus a way of relating.

    • That’s right, it is a social vision, what philosophers have called the “social contract.” The people agree to certain things, e.g., pay taxes, obey the laws, in exchange for certain guarantees, e.g., freedom of the press, conscience, assembly, movement, essentially the Bill of Rights. The point is that while individuals might have autonomy, in reality people don’t live on little islands, we are relational living in a society with other individuals. Democracy is a social contract which seeks to respect the freedom of each individual while at the same time facilitating his relationships with other individuals. Democracy is necessarily dynamic, not static. New knowledge informs our understanding of things, consensuses change, and human nature sometimes necessitates imposing sanctions on certain types of behaviors. We agree to those sanctions in exchange for the majority of people being able to come and go as they please, go to work, the movies, play ball, walk down the street, whatever we want. There are responsibilities on both sides, people are obliged to obey the laws imposed by the government of elected representatives, e.g., stop at red lights which is necessary for the smooth flow of traffic. That might actually be a metaphor for how a democracy is supposed to function. Fallen human nature and remedies for it are built into the system. To reject democracy because of human nature is a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And what would the alternative be?

      • Your questions would be non-sequiturs to most conservatives, because they have been programmed to remind you that we are a Republic, not a Democracy. I’m not entirely sure why they do this, but it’s so common that I suspect it’s a well-though-out piece of propaganda from right-wing think tanks. On the surface, it would seem that they just want to deny our democracy so that they can proceed with the dehumanization of those they don’t think are worthy of a say in their own government. But I suspect something deeper. Perhaps it’s because technically an Aristocracy or a Plutocracy can be weaseled in under the umbrella of types of Republics, and can therefore be established without contravening the supposed intentions of the sacrosanct Founding Fathers?

        • Yes, I’ve been hearing “the US is a Republic not a Democracy, let’s keep it that way” since the ’60s when Barry Goldwater ran. You’re probably right about a Plutocracy being weasled in under the guise of a Republic, that’s what we have now. The Plutocracy is comprised of the financial interests (Wall St), with healthy input from the military/industrial complex.

      • I’m reminded of two things.

        On the individual level, what creates the conservative predisposition is the same thing that creates hatred, fear, mistrust, and disgust about the new and different. In this context, I suspect that xenophobia is the main issue (as I pointed out in a recent post about Romney and Mormons).

        I share my parents’ genetics as do my brothers. I even share many personality traits and cognitive tendencies with them. So, why are they strongly conservative while my brothers and I are strongly liberal?

        The one clear factor seems to be environment.

        My parents grew up during the 50s and 60s in working class towns in Indiana where there was little racial and ethnic diversity. It was an era when overt racism was still aceptable, at least among working class whites. It was also the era of the Cold War and an era of decades of low immigration rates. At that time, xenophobia and fearmongering was at it’s highest point in the 20th century. Also, the benefits of decades of public investments were taken for granted and a new generation of Americans grew up not knowing what sacrifice meant or why a strong democratic mattered.

        My brohers and I had a very opposite experience. We grew up in multicultural liberal college towns. We moved around a lot and so experienced different regional cultures at a young age. Our childhoods were during the 80s when immigration rates had a massive increase. It was long after desegregation. Our generation was the first generation to be collectively accepting of cultural diversity and interracial relationships. Our young adulthood was in the 90s when the Cold War was ended. It was a time of peace and prosperity when what was considered a serious national tragedy was the president getting a blowjob.

        I came to fully see the significance between these environmental upbringings when I read about a particular research study. What the researchers found is that children raised in a multicultural environment tend to grow up to be socially liberal adults and that children in a monocultural environment tend to grow up to be socially conservative adults. This aspect of political predisposition seems to demonstrate that learning about and becoming personally familiar with diversity causes one to be more open and accepting of differences.

        Basically, it is about trust, specifically a trust in other people no matter superficial differences; but more importantly it is a sense of trust that must be learned at a young age. To create a democratic society it is necessary to create democratic-minded individuals which is to say liberal-minded individuals. A multicultural environment is one factor and there are probably many other factors.

        This brings me to the collective angle. What is a democratic culture and what creates it? Or to shift the question slightly: What kind of culture allows for and encourages the creation of both democratic individuals and democratic processes.

        Ever since I learned about it, I’ve been fascinated about the idea of cultures of trust. There has been some research measuring this in different countries. I know some of this research has looked at economics and businesses, but I don’t know that anyone has studied the potential relationship to democracy.

        How do cultures of trust develop? Northern European countries measure more highly with this. Why? Is there something fundamental to a culture that predisposes it to trust or mistrust? What causes societies to shift in their shared sense of trust?

        Considering the differences between my parents and I, I wonder if there is a generational dynamic going on. As younger generations cme into power, will we see a culture of trust returning to the US?

        • I think that rather than being a generational dynamic it might well be geographical. I, like your parents, grew up in the 50s and 60s, in a suburb of NYC where I was exposed to few black people. Yet my parents were vehemently anti-racist, and hammered that into us from a young age. Neither of my parents went to college, my father didn’t even finish high school. He lived through the Great Depression, was at Pearl Harbor, and worked at the Post Office. He had black co-workers, and my mother told us she had black friends in high school. We would never think of making a racist remark or–God forbid–use the “N” word. I do think environment is very important, but I also think there is wisdom in the song “You have to be taught to hate and fear” from “South Pacific” and it has to start at a young age.

          • I would generally agree that geography is central as I’ve written a lot about that, but I do think generational dynamics are important (even if they play out differently in various places). Obviously, the mid 20th century wasn’t experienced the same in mostly Indiana as in NYC.

            Also, there is the parent angle (both as style of parenting and as adult role models), but I’ve come across research that supports the view that peers have more influence than even parents. Even though my mom’s dad was a racist, she isn’t. However, in some respects, my parents have attitudes that could be called racialist in terms of a mild xenophobia.

            One way or another, environment is important. But it is a complex issue. We do have a certain amount of inborn predisposition, no matter the environment. Also, changes in environment continue to effect us throughout our lifetime. For example, my parents became more conservative after moving down to conservative South Carolina and I became more liberal after moving back to liberal Iowa City.

            One other research that interested me had to do with how political attitudes can shift in adults. In the aftermath of 9/11, liberals who watched video of the attack were more supportive of conservative policies than those that only listened to the radio. The violent imagery promoted a fearful state of mind which in turn promoted an at least temporary conservatism. What this shows is that liberalism and conservatism aren’t absolutely separate categories but instead exist on a shifting spectrum.

            So, I was wondering what kind of environmental factors (such as what kind of media) would help to promote liberal-mindedness and thus strengthen support for democracy. Conservatives feel afraid right now. The world they’ve known is changing which means the future is unknown. For the first time in US history, minorities will collectively become the majority. Meanwhile, everything that conservatives have fought against is becoming more acceptable and in some cases even legal.

            This is where generational dynamics comes in. Conservatives of the older generation aren’t going to change with the times. As has been explained with scientific revolutions, old scientists don’t usually change their minds; instead, old scientists die and younger scientists with new ideas take their place. Older liberals can deal with the change fairly well, but older conservatives can’t. However, a new generation of conservatives will grow up with all of this being normal and so they won’t fear it. A new generation of potential conservatives are growing up in a more multicultural society and so they will be relatively more liberal-minded than older conservatives.

            That’s my theory, anyway.

          • You’re probably right. I also don’t think you can overlook the importance of economic stability (or lack thereof) in all of this. We’re dealing with that as well as changes that conservatives have a hard time accepting, so economic instability plus fear of the unknown probably contribute to the xenophobia we’re seeing. The economic instability in Germany between the wars was a primary factor in Hitler’s rise to power. Or, as some have said, if WWI had ended the right way there wouldn’t have been a WWII. But thats a topic for another discussioin. In any case, your original topic is multi-faceted.

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