Democracy. I’m not sure I understand what it is entirely, and I’m not sure anyone does. I sometimes even doubt that the US government is a Democracy. In the US, Democracy has become identified with the concept of the Free Market and in the last century the Federal Government has become indistinguishable from the Military-Industrial Complex.
When Fascism was the top enemy, the prevailing mood in the US had a Socialist bent. When Communism was the top enemy, the prevailing mood in the US switched to a faith in Capitalism. Democracy is always trying to find the balance between Fascism and Communism, big business and big government. In modern US Democracy, the main choice isn’t between centralized power vs localized power. Both Republicans and Democrats are for centralized power. The choice is whether a Federal Government has power over Mega-Corporations or else that Mega-Corporations manipulate the Federal Government to their own ends. In reality, it’s probably both at the same time because the same people are working in both sectors.
Originally, the main choice the Founding Fathers faced was between centralized government vs localized power. The Republicans used to be Libertarians, but Libertarianism was also mired in an agrarian capitalism based on slavery. Many of the Founding Fathers believed that slavery needed to end. They chose not to end it themselves because they thought the inefficiency of the system would lead the Free Market to end it with no intervention. They were partly true (with the help of other governments illegalizing the slave trade), but there refusal to stand up for civil rights in the face of what was big business of the times meant that a couple centuries of African-Americans suffered as second-class citizens. Despite its failings in the past, Libertarianism does seem to be needed to offer balance in US Democracy. With the increased ability of citizens to organize locally because of technology, maybe there will be an increase in Libertarianism… but it will take a major shift before the public can loosen the grip of the Federal Government and Mega-Corporations (to simplify, they can be referred to in their singular form as the Military-Industrial Complex).
Part of my point is that Democracy isn’t limited to any one thing. Or rather Democracy is a little bit of everything. I suppose it fits in with the Melting Pot ideal. The original immigrants came from many different countries and cultures, and so they had very different views about government. By voting, supposedly the best ideas and people would rise to the top.
The reason it doesn’t actually work this way in reality is because the Founding Fathers were ultimately creating a Plutocracy rather than a Meritocracy. American Plutocracy is essentially a limited Meritocracy that serves the wealthy and powerful. It relates to the ideal of the Disinterested Aristocracy. These men were supposedly the best of the best and so deserved their power. And the corresponding idea was that the poor and powerless were obviously less worthy.
How this works is that power remains in the hands of a specific elite class by being handed down the generations within the same set of families (list of United States political families). This is why many presidents were either of royal lineage or married to someone of royal lineage (list of United States Presidents by genealogical relationship). This is also why Obama (the proclaimed underdog representing Afrcan-Americans) has 6 US presidents as cousins including his seeming ideological opposite Bush jr. I’ve even heard someone recently make an argument (a very old argument I should add) that Social Darwinism is based on Genetic Darwinism. Basically, the rich and powerful theoretically have better genetics. The argument is that centuries of a self-imposed breeding program of inter-family alliances has breed a class of superior humans. I know this sounds silly or even scary, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many people (in power) believe in some variation of this. It should be kept in mind that before the US became involved in WWII, many Americans were proponents of the Nazi ideal of eugenics. Eugenics had even been practiced in the US on a small scale for a time (through forced sterilizations).
I want to shift the focus here. Many argue that Democracy is a bad system that just so happens to be better than all of the other possibilities. That is a cynical response that actually resonates with me. Maybe Democracy is good enough despite its failings. The problem with Democracy is that any form of government can appear like a Democracy and yet only be a facade. A Democracy could even originally have been genuine and be taken over by un-Democratic forces and few people would likely notice. Some would argue (myself included) that this might’ve already happened here in the US.
A major criticism of Democracy is that it’s inefficient and only shows positive results (if at all) over long periods of time. It’s hard to know if a Democracy is actually working at any given moment because all of the disagreement makes it hard for anything to get implemented. If and when things do get implemented, they no longer even look like the original proposal and nobody is happy with it. Socialism and Fascism are much quicker methods of creating change. Centralized power has the benefit of getting things done often with very positive results (in the short run at least). The trains arrive on time and whole economies can be lifted out of slumps by a single decision. Democracy forsakes quick fixes for a long-term vision of social improvement. The theory is that it’s better to protect the Democratic principles than to sacrifice them every time a problem arises. Unfortunately, politicians want results because their popularity depends on results (or appearance results). Everyone wants results… especially when people feel under pressure or under threat. There is nothing like collective fear to inspire people to throw Democracy out the window and to give politicians leeway to take actions they would never dare to do in other situations.
Many examples can be given. Much of the US politics in the 20th century was a constant undermining and endangering of Democracy. It was the century when the alphabet agencies gained immense power. The issue with these agencies (and the same for the military) is that they’re non-Democratic entities (in that they’re not a part of the voting system). Also, it’s hard for the Democratic parts of the government (such as Congress) to provide appropriate oversight of agencies that operate through secrecy. Often the Federal Government has their own personal reasons to ensure the alphabet agencies’ secrecy. For example, Obama didn’t want (and didn’t want his name involved with having) certain information shared with the public because it would create a negative mood (towards his popularity and towards his political agendas). The question is whether the CIA, military, or private contractors broke the law (national or international), but this can only be answered if there is an investigation (which Obama doesn’t want).
The problem is that Democratic civil rights and state secrecy are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum… one functions to the degree that the other doesn’t. It’s true that state secrecy is a practical necessity, but I would add that it’s also a very dangerous slippery slope and for that reason should be used sparingly. A Democracy in order to survive has to protect itself from non-Democratic influences and sadly this means it must at times use non-Democratic methods. For example, to fight terrorists we have to be willing to fight dirty when there is no other alternative. However, we should never forget what we’re fighting for. If we sacrifice our ideals and standards, then the enemy has won by causing us to become like them.
Furthermore, we have to be patient because I pointed out Democracy works best when the longterm vision is kept in mind. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get pulled into just reacting to the momentary situation.
To illustrate, I’ll discuss the torture issue which is specifically what motivated me to write this post. Yes, we face dangers from terrorists, but it’s important to keep in mind that torture hasn’t saved us from any imminent threats. By torturing, we are sacrificing our ideals and standards, and also just plain going against national and international law (or at best walking on the knife edge of legality). Plus, as the most powerful nation in the world, our example holds great weight. What we do gives moral justification for others to do the same. This of course includes what others will do to US soldiers when they’re captured. By torturing foreigners, we endanger our own soldiers (and also citizens travelling or living abroad). If we are making such massive sacrifices, we better be sure we’re gaining some massive benefits. So, exactly what are the benefits? Maybe we’ve gained some intel, but it isn’t clear that we’ve gained much that is usable in and of itself. Without traditional intelligence gathering (such as spies and informants), information gained by torture is useless because it can’t be verified. The problem is that the US has supposedly been reducing in recent decades traditional inelligence gathering techniques. The advantage of these latter techniques is that they don’t require us to sacrifice our ideals and standards nor do they require us to break laws nor do they require us to endanger the lives of our soldiers.
Also, if we had emphasized traditional intellgence gathering techniques in recent decades, we’d have been more prepared and might’ve even prevented the 9/11 attack in the first place. Torturing, at best, was our agencies trying to play quick catch-up which is a very bad way of going about things. On top of that, there was the problem of information not being shared between agencies. That is the problem of secrecy. Even these secretive agencies end up keeping secrets from eachother because holding secrets means holding onto power.
There are very good reasons that we have these ideals, standards and laws… other than basic morality and civil rights. The world learned the hard way why torture is a bad thing. During WWII, there occurred some of the most gruesome fighting, terrorism and torture the world has ever seen. Governments realized that there needed to be rules of war because when given free reign people do very horrible things to each other. The history of WWII makes serial killers look like child’s play. Trust me, we don’t want to see a repeat of WWII. International laws against torture were created for very very very good reasons. I can’t emphasize that too much. Enough said.
Anyways, torture is as anti-Democratic as one can get. Leave torture to the bad guys and let’s try to retain our moral highground (whatever is left of it). Some might ask why we should care if our enemies are tortued. I would respond that history shows us how easily and how quickly a citizen can become an enemy of the state. If you think it can’t happen to you, you are sadly naive. Go study some history.
There is always an uneasy truce between violence and Democracy. Freedom when threatened has to be defended by force. That is how the US became a Democracy. But that very same force can easily be turned back against Democracy. The Founding Fathers and Americans in general were wary of having a standing army. After victory, the Continental Army was quickly disbanded except for two remaining regiments to guard the Western frontier and West Point’s arsenal. What protection was needed was given by state militias.
This would’ve been fine if the country had remained small instead of expanding, but conflicts with Native Americans required re-establishing a standing army. The standing army served the purpose of Manifest Destiny. Our country had a vision and everyone better get out of our way. The standing army was mostly used to establish and defend the ever expanding frontier. But it was only a few decades after defeating our external enemies that the standing army was turned against internal enemies. The Civil War gave the Federal government power like never before. The Libertarian country established by the Founding Fathers was officially ended. In it’s place, the US government started toying with the idea of international power and in a few decades the US was becoming a player in the game of international war. We were no longer just defending our freedom but were now extending our power. Afterall, you can’t just let your standing army sit idle. When you have power, there is strong allure to find justification for using it. What good is power if you don’t use it? The Founding Fathers offered some intelligent answers to that question (here are some of Jefferson’s opinions on the subject of democratic freedom and military power).
The Founding Fathers preferred not to have standing army at all during times of peace, but they were especially against a standing army being entirely under the control of the President. Because of this, Congress was given the sole power to declare war. However, you may have noticed that Presidents such as Bush jr have bypassed Congressional oversight by starting wars without having them declared. Pretty sneaky. The purpose of Congress is to enforce oversight so this doesn’t happen, and yet Congress willingly bowed down to this usurpation of power. This is how collective fear combined with powermongering slowly erodes away Democracy. It’s interesting that Bush jr superficially played the traditional role of the Disinterested Aristocrat who rules by serving the greater good (idealized by the Founding Fathers) all the while gathering power to the presidency and undermining Democratic values. The ideal of Disinterested Aristocracy (which I wrote about previously) sounds lovely and maybe worked in early America when the Federal government had very little power, but in contemporary politics it has great potential for abuse.
Democracy. So, what exactly is it? That is still uncertain to me. There is a more important question to ask. What is our Democracy becoming? What are we collectively becoming?