Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality

The federal bureaucrats, think tank leaders, and congressional staff members they surveyed, Ginsberg said in an interview with VICE News, “have no idea what Americans think and they don’t care. They think Americans are stupid and should do what they are told.”
~ Alex Thompson

The US political system is functioning as designed. From early on, the Federalists envisioned a government controlled and operated by a paternalistic ruling elite of rich white men — some combination of plutocrats, technocrats, bureaucrats, and disinterested aristocracy.

The ‘People’ was intended to be a meaningless abstraction to placate the dirty masses. When the general population actually tried to assert their authority, they were violently put down. Over time, the ruling elite found less violent ways to keep the public in line, such as the increasing spectacle of elections.

If we are to take democracy seriously, we need to understand the kind of system we have. Then we should consider the alternatives.

The following includes two passages from a book. Below that are numerous links to articles. I wanted to share some views on democracy, elections, sortition, representation, oligarchy, technocracy, etc.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 492-523

In addition to participating in the debates occurring in the Assembly (the ekklesia), the Athenian citizen could be called upon to serve as a juror in one of the many legal actions involving private or public suits, to serve in an administrative capacity as magistrate overseeing some government function (such as water or grain supply, building projects, or trade), or to serve on the Council (the boule). The boule was a body of five hundred members and was responsible for drafting preparatory legislation for consideration by the Assembly, overseeing the meetings of the Assembly, and in certain cases executing legislation as directed by the Assembly.

The members of the boule were selected by a lottery held each year among male citizens over thirty years of age. Fifty men would be chosen from each of the ten Athenian tribes, with service limited to twice in a lifetime. There were ten months in the Athenian calendar, and one of the ten tribes was in ascendancy each month. The fifty citizen councilors (prytanies) of the dominant tribe each month served in an executive function over the boule and the ekklesia. From that group of fifty, one individual (the epistates) would be selected each day to preside over the boule and, if it met in session that day, the ekklesia.

The epistates held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and he welcomed foreign ambassadors. It has been calculated that one-quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held the post, which could be held only once in a lifetime. Meetings of the boule might occur on as many as 260 days in the course of a year.

The third element of the Athenian democracy was the system of jury courts known as the dikasteria. Jurors were selected by lot from an annual pool of 6,000 citizens (600 from each of the ten tribes) over the age of thirty. There were both private suits and public suits. For private suits the minimum jury size was 201; it was increased to 401 if a sum of more than 1,000 drachmas was at issue. For public suits there was a jury of 501. On occasion a jury of 1,001 or 1,501 would be selected. Rarely, the entire pool of 6,000 would be put on a case. No Athenian juror was ever subjected to compulsory empanelment, voir dire, or sequestration, nor was any magistrate empowered to decide what evidence the jury could or could not be allowed to see.

Jurors could not be penalized for their vote— unless it could be shown that they had accepted bribes. But the practice of selecting juries randomly on the morning of the trial and the sheer size of the juries served to limit the effectiveness of bribery. The Athenian court system did not operate according to precedent. No jury was bound by the decisions of previous juries in previous cases. This is a striking difference between Athenian law and more familiar systems such as Roman law or English common law. Such a system of justice was consistent with the Athenian opposition to elitism and the oppressive effects of received wisdom in matters of justice. Each citizen used his own common sense to make judgments based on personal belief and prevailing mores.

Some crimes had penalties predetermined by law, but in most cases the choice was left up to the jury.

Kindle Locations 2960-3046

Choosing by lot is the most democratic procedure of all. It establishes political equality by allowing anyone to govern, based on a chance event. There is no opportunity to buy the election or manipulate votes. However, the pool of candidates itself can be open-ended, as it was in Athens, or, for the most part, confined to the upper elements of society, as it tended to be in Florence. The same applies to elections. The pool of candidates can be open to anyone or it can be restricted by membership in a particular party, by property qualification, or by wealth. Voting itself can be restricted— by race, sex, social status, wealth, and so on— or suffrage can be universal. But, no matter, because the means of selecting the governors is independent of the form of government. A society can elect an aristocracy or an oligarchy or even a monarch.

At the height of his career, Napoleon Bonaparte was probably the most powerful person in Western Europe. He enjoyed great popularity at home, if not elsewhere. In 1804, he had himself crowned emperor. He held a plebiscite to confirm his authority and received the enthusiastic support he was seeking. In other words, Napoleon held an election to determine if he would be supreme ruler. Let us imagine that there was universal suffrage and that the election was scrupulously fair. Let us also imagine, just for the sake of argument, that the choice was unanimous, that not a single vote was cast to deny Napoleon the title of emperor. Thus we have a completely democratic, honest election with a unanimous outcome. What kind of government do we have the day after this democratic election? Clearly, an autocracy.

Charles V— who made his home in Spain— presided over an empire that was ten times the size of the Roman Empire. He ruled over the Burgundian Netherlands. He was King of Naples and Sicily, Archduke of Austria, King of the Romans (or German King), and Holy Roman Emperor. It was his empire upon which “the sun never set.” “Spain” was not the Spain of today, but many separate “Spains,” something like the city-states of northern Italy. Charles needed to be declared King in Navarre, Valencia, Aragon, Castile, and Catalonia. In 1516, at the age of sixteen, he was elected King of Aragon, a “republic” with an elective king. The assembly gave notice that “we who are as good as you, make you, who are no better than we, our king. And we will bear true allegiance if you observe our laws and customs; if not, not” (Barzun, 93). Despite these noble sentiments and stipulations, the day after the election the people of Aragon lived under a monarchy.

Thus, there is no causal relation whatsoever between the means of selecting one’s governors and the form of government that results from the selection process. In fact, for obvious reasons, any time you have an election as a means of selecting the governor( s), you automatically will have an oligarchy/ aristocracy or an autocracy/ monarchy. Why? Because the many select the few or the one. Thus, voting in which elections are fully democratic and fair is in fact anti-democratic. One cannot have voting and have a democracy at the same time.[ 140] Remember, it’s a numbers game. The many choose the few. It is the few who govern, even if we choose them at election time.

“But,” you may say, “we choose them. They are beholden to us.” Neither one of these propositions is necessarily true. In his book The Ruling Class, Gaetano Mosca [141] observes:

The fact that a people participates in electoral assemblies does not mean that it directs the government or that the class that is governed chooses its governors.[ 142] It means merely that when the electoral function operates under favorable social conditions it is a tool by which certain political forces are enabled to control and limit the activity of other political forces. (Mosca, 98).

In other words, it seems as if we choose and control, but we don’t.

As Mosca points out, the deck is always stacked. “When we say that the voters ‘choose’ their representative, we are using a language that is very inexact. The truth is that the representative has himself elected by the voters … that his friends have him elected” (italics in the original). We end up voting for those who are preselected by virtue of their “moral, intellectual and material means to force their will upon others, take the lead over the others and command them” (ibid., 154) (italics in the original).

Thus, in practice, in popular elections, freedom of choice, “though complete theoretically, necessarily becomes null, not to say ludicrous.” The voter, for his vote to have meaning, ends up having to choose from among a very small number of contenders, the two or three who have a chance of succeeding, “and the only ones who have any chance of succeeding are those whose candidacies are championed by groups, by committees, by organized minorities” (Mosca, ibid.) (italics in the original).[ 143]

The relative handful who are selected to speak for the citizenry are rarely, if ever, a random selection. They are rarely, if ever, demographically representative of the population at large. And they are rarely, if ever, open to the wishes of their constituency. Instead, those selected to represent speak not for their constituency but for the organized minorities who put them in power, minorities with certain values in common, “based on considerations of property and taxation, on common material interests, on ties of family, class, religion, sect or political party”( ibid., 155). Thus, the preselected minority speaks for an even narrower minority who sponsored their candidacy based on a specific set of goals at odds with the needs and wishes of the vast majority. Mosca was writing in the 1930s. What would he say if he knew that it now takes millions of dollars to get elected to the House of Representatives, tens of millions to be elected senator or governor, and close to a billion to be elected president? He would probably say, “I told you so.”

“But,” you may argue, “we in the United States have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that protects our civil liberties.” Yes, true. However, the Constitution simply guarantees that we live under an oligarchy,[ 144] one that seems to be drifting toward monarchy. As for the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, they are critical to our civic democracy (C.D. +)— our rights to self-expression and freedom of movement— but, as important as they are, they do not determine the form of political government we live under.

“Yes, but,” you may ask, “didn’t Madison say that the people had the last word, that they were sovereign?” Yes, he did say that. On several occasions he said that power is derived from the people (F.P., No. 37, 227; No. 39, 241; No. 49, 314). He also said that the “ultimate authority … resides in the people alone” (ibid., No. 46, 294), that the people are “the only legitimate fountain of power”( ibid., No. 49, 313), and that they are “the fountain of authority” (ibid., No. 51, 321). These are examples of what I call rhetorical democracy (R.D. +, P.D.–)— democracy of words, not deeds, the most frequently encountered kind of democracy in a world dominated by those who oppose true popular government.[ 145]

Once we clear away the mist of myth and rhetoric, we discover that the American government was established by men who needed to placate the people while setting themselves up as arbiters of the new nation’s destiny. In a 1991 book entitled The Rise and Fall of Democracy in Early America, 1630– 1789, Joshua Miller speaks of “the ghostly body politic” and declares that “despite the explicit anti-democratic statements of the Federalists, Americans persist in describing the government they designed as a democracy” (Miller, 105). This confusion, he maintains, was deliberately created by the Federalists, who used “pseudodemocratic rhetoric” (ibid., 106) to make it appear as if “popular sovereignty” was the same thing as “popular government.” “The Federalists ascribed all power to a mythical entity that could never meet, never deliberate, never take action. The body politic became a ghost” (ibid., 113). By ascribing all power to “the people”— an empty abstraction— and transferring that power to a strong central government, the Federalists were able to assume power for themselves while appearing to do just the opposite. “Popular sovereignty would give the new government the support of the people and, at the same time, insulate the national government from the actual activity of the people”( ibid., 121).

Democracy is a form of government in which political power is equally distributed among the citizen population. The people are sovereign not just in principle, but in fact. Aristotle declares, “Private rights do not make a citizen. He is ordinarily one who possesses political power” (McKeon, 550). In other words, our civic rights (C.D. +) do not make us citizens. Our direct participation in government (P.D. +) makes us citizens. “A citizen is one who shares in governing and being governed,” according to Aristotle (ibid., 604). “What, then, is democracy?” asks Max Weber. “In itself it means simply that no formal inequality of political rights exists between the classes of the population” (Weber, 275). In a democracy, political equality prevails.

I believe that for those of us living in the Western “democracies” the concept of political equality, as opposed to social equality, has simply disappeared from our lexicon, from our thoughts, from our utterances, from our struggles. We want a better deal for ourselves and our neighbors. Perhaps we even want social justice. But it never occurs to us that without political equality, our wishes cannot be fulfilled.

This was not always true. Once independence had been declared and fought for in the United States, just about everyone was aware of the issue of power and its distribution. Political equality represented a conscious choice for many. This was the case, as well, in the early Italian city-states, to a degree in the Roman Republic, and, of course, in ancient Athens.

Currently, as governments abandon even the pretense of serving the common good, there is a resurgent interest in political equality as a means to gaining some degree of control over the affairs of state. In the process of learning to govern we begin to unfold as individuals in ways that we didn’t know that were possible. We begin to understand that government shapes us just as we shape it.

* * *

Sortition: Democracy

Election is not synonym of democracy
Le Message

A Citizen Legislature
Stretching our thinking about how we govern ourselves

by Ernest Callenbach & Michael Phillips, Context Institute

A Real Democracy Would Use Sortition
by Virtually Yours, Disinfo

Sortition and Direct Democracy
by Yavor Tarinski, New Compass

Against elections
by Davd Van Reybrouck, Policy Network

Anxieties of Democracy
by Hélène Landemore, Boston Review

Democracy without Elections
by Brian Martin, University of Wollongong

Imagine a Democracy Built on Lotteries, Not Elections
by  Terrill Bouricius, et al, Zócalo Public Square

How Selecting Voters Randomly Can Lead to Better Elections
by Joshua Davis, Wired

Is It Time to Take a Chance on Random Representatives?
by Michael Schulson, The Daily Beast

Why elections are bad for democracy
by David Van Reybrouck, The Guardian

And the lot fell on… sortition in Ancient Greek democratic theory & practice
by Paul Cartledge, Oxford University Press

Allotment and Democracy in Ancient Greece
by Paul Demont, Books & Ideas

Ancient Athens didn’t have politicians. Is there a lesson for us?
by Tom Atlee, P2P Foundation Wiki

Ancient Greeks would not recognise our ‘democracy’ – they’d see an ‘oligarchy
by Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge

The Sortition Option
by Jon Roland, Constitution Society

* * *

They don’t like you.
by Alex Thompson, Vice

Washington ‘insiders’ snub their noses at US public
by Jill Rosen, Futurity

Study: Washington officials see public as largely uninformed
U.S. Capitol Dome
by John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

Washington’s ‘governing elite’ think Americans are morons
by Jeff Guo, The Washington Post

How dumb does Washington think we all are?
by Kyle Smith, New York Post

The political clout of the superrich
by Chrystia Freeland, Reuters

Surprising Studies Find DC Does What Wealthiest Want, Majority Opposes
by Dave Johnson,

Stark New Evidence on How Money Shapes America’s Elections
by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Stacked Deck
by Lauren Strayer, Demos

The Political Roots of Inequality
by Nolan McCarty, The American Interest

Is America an Oligarchy?
by John Cassidy, The New Yorker

Testing Theories of American Politics:
Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

by Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, Princeton University

First Chapter: Affluence and Influence
by Martin Gilens, Ash Center

Under the Influence
by Martin Gilens, Boston Review

Economic Inequality and Political Power (Pt. 2 & 3)
by Martin Gilens, Monkey Cage

Critics argued with our analysis of U.S. political inequality. Here are 5 ways they’re wrong.
by Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, The Washington Post

A new study says politicians don’t favor the rich. That’s debatable.
by Dylan Matthews, The Washington Post

Trans-Pacific Trade Pact Highlights the Political Power of the Affluent
by Brendan Nyhan, The New York Times

One Big Reason for Voter Turnout Decline and Income Inequality: Smaller Unions
by Sean McElwee, The American Prospect

Why U.S. Politicians Think Americans Are So Conservative When They’re Not
by Philip Bump, The Wire

* * *

Political Elites Disconnected From General Public

Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism

6 thoughts on “Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality

  1. The US has always been a plutocracy pretending to be a democratic society.

    It is just that as of late, we are reach the limits of propaganda and more people are waking up to realize the cruel reality.

    • I like to keep it context that a large part of the population during and since the American Revolution have fought for democracy and against plutocracy. They did win some battles that shouldn’t be dismissed. If not for them, we’d be living in a country that is a thousand times more authoritarian.

      Still, it’s small comfort to be reminded that it could have been much worse, especially when one considers it still yet might get much worse. More people are beginning to, as you say, wake up to realize the cruel reality… maybe because they are realizing it keeps getting worse with no end in sight.

  2. The real question I think is when cynicism will lead to serious action. I find it amusing that Clinton fans want to “shame” Bernie supporters into voting for Clinton. Not real action, just perpetuating the status quo.

    The far right never really believed in democracy to start with.

    • I’ve been wondering about that. Seeing how strongly attached so many are to the status quo is beyond disheartening.

      I would have thought more people would have hit a breaking point by now and seen the failure of the system, a failure by design and with a purpose that has nothing to do with democracy, which is to say it really isn’t a failure. One can easily argue that the system is working perfectly fine, probably succeeding, when seen for what it is.

      This is similar to thinking that recent wars have been failures based on the assumption that the only reason a war is fought is to win in the traditional sense, but it appears that maintaining power globally has little to do with winning wars. All that is required is to ensure others don’t win by overthrowing governments and destabilizing regions.

  3. I think that I understand now how authoritarian regimes must have gained power historically. Many people just go with the flow, even though the flow is screwing them over. The sad part about this is that most Clinton supporters are not 1%ers (which would make some sense that they support her).

    The other problem is that the economic problems were caused by the corporate worldview that Clinton espouses. They betrayed the New Deal and the Left for campaign money. Well, I guess it is not quite a betrayal as much as it is they never cared about the left to begin with – they outright lied about what they would do. The problem is that political cynicism is caused by economic despair, which the Clinton’s have helped worsen.

    What is distressing is that most people don’t seem to realize and they buy the “she’s not Trump line”. As it stands, there is a high probability that she can win on this propaganda. Then the cynicism that caused her rise will worsen when she inevitably betrays her base and disappoints.

    • The simple of it is this. Lesser evil thinking leads to greater evil. People keep choosing lesser evil until there is nothing but evil left. Too many mistakenly think of political evil in simplistic terms. It never appears as evil.

      Even Hitler surely seemed like a breath of fresh air to the German people of the time. Facing so many economic and political problems, Hitler probably was considered by many to be the lesser evil, even if they didn’t entirely believe his claims toward the greater good. But it was a step by step process of lesser evil thinking that led to that point. Someone like Hitler doesn’t come out of nowhere.

      In fact, Hitler did do much good initially. He turned the economy around. And he rebuilt infrastructure. He made the German people feel proud again, that they weren’t merely losers of WWI, but also a great nation.

      Likewise, the US has seen immense economic growth these past decades. Amazing infrastructure has been built such as the interstate highway system, modeled on Germany, and the internet. Great technological advances have been made by US companies. It’s just that this has come at great cost to those on the bottom of society. And now the middle class is realizing too late that the ruling elite consider the middle class to be part of the lower classes.

      People support lesser evil because they think the evil will only effect other people, not them. “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Humans are predictable and so easily manipulable by the ruling elite.

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