OBSTACLES TO DEMOCRACY
by Ed Kinane

Democracy: a political system in which we shape the decisions that affect our lives

We face many obstacles to achieving real democracy in the United States. Considering these obstacles will help us clarify our agenda for the short days and long nights ahead.

On November 3 more voters voted against the incumbent President than ever before in US history. It also seems, alas, that there were even more votes for the incumbent than ever before.

This seeming paradox stems from November’s record voter turnout. Greater turnout is highly desirable – especially if it means more informed citizens are getting involved.

Generally, the power structure benefits from low voter turnout. The power structure thrives when we are asleep, indifferent or too cynical to participate.

Mr. Bush seems destined to remain with us for four more years. That is, unless there is a timely and persuasive recount in states like Ohio. Or unless Mr. Bush is impeached or indicted for war crime.

The US seems further from democracy and closer to fascism* now than ever before in my lifetime. This would be true even if (say) Ralph Nader were being inaugurated January 20.

*In June 2003 the PNL reprinted Laurence Britt’s “14 Characteristics of Fascism.” Each is an obstacle to democracy. Britt, a political scientist, says these characteristics are common to Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Suharto’s Indonesia and Pinochet’s Chile.

Items on Britt’s list that I don’t even discuss here: hyper-nationalism, disdain for human rights, scapegoating, military supremacy, national security obsession, entwined religion and government, anti- unionism, anti-intellectualism, obsession with crime and punishment, cronyism and corruption, and rampant sexism.

Corporate Power Historically, much of democracy’s weakness – and fascism’s strength — stems from the rise of corporations. Corporations rule. There is nothing in them predisposed to foster democracy. Chartered by the states supposedly for the public good, corporations now are legal persons with more rights than humans. Corporations have no conscience and no social vision – or at least none that favor humans and the planet’s fragile environment. Indeed by law corporate officers are forced to forsake social responsibility in favor of maximizing profit for shareholders.

Corporations finance political campaigns. Such sponsorship is really a form of theft. Corporate-financed candidates, easily the majority, are stolen from their constituents. Such candidates surrender their soul and vision. As long as corporations buy our candidates, they buy Congress and the Executive. And the Executive appoints the Supreme Court.

But corporate control is even more insidious. More penetrating. Such control extends to the millions of people employed by corporations. Like the military (with whom there is much overlap), corporations are hierarchical. Workplace democracy is as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Employees – i.e. most voters – spend half their waking hours immersed in the little tyranny of the workplace. We’re either bosses or bossed. With this template imposed on our very being, what direct experience would we have with democracy? How would we know what democracy is? How would we even know what we’re missing?

What Does Democracy Mean?

If ever there was a cant word, a bullshit word, it’s “democracy.” Politicians use it all the time. They never define it…and we seldom demand that they define it.

Without quite saying so, politicians often equate “democracy” simply with voting or with the so-called free market system. This is a serious error. Politicians virtually never use “democracy” to refer to a political system in which the people shape the decisions that affect our lives.

Voting gets the hype, but it’s just one facet of democracy (or, for that matter, of dictatorship). This would be true even if the electoral process itself weren’t an obstacle to democracy.

As we learned in Florida in 2000, the electoral process has spun out of our control. But to say that is to mistakenly suggest that the Founders designed the electoral process to foster democracy (for an antidote to such thinking, see, Howard Zinn’s classic, A People’s History of the United States).

One website (nov3.us) suggests various reforms that could bring us closer to democracy:

count every vote!

guarantee a voter-verified paper trail for all voting machines;

replace partisan oversight with non-partisan election commissions;

make it easier to vote (e.g. by making election day a national holiday);

re-enfranchise ex-felons and non-felons;

implement instant runoff voting (IRV);

implement proportional representation;

replace big money control with public financing and equal air-time; ¨

guarantee “third parties” equal access to the ballot and debates;

abolish the Electoral College.

Other obstacles to democracy — many implied by the above proposals — abound. One is the “two party” control of the electoral process, of Congress, of the Executive.

Parties ought to represent identities, interests and ideologies. In the real world these are multiple…and yet we’re stuck with the Republicans and the Democrats, different wings of the same war party.

The Republicans and Democrats aren’t quite tweedledum and tweedledee. But they overlap hugely. Both rely on corporate funding, frequently on the same corporations. Such funding not only corrupts, it homogenizes.

The “two party” system filters out a broad array of issues – e.g. global warming or disarmament – vital to human and planetary survival. The “two party” system effectively disenfranchises those who see little point in voting; it discourages potential candidates who see little point in running. And for those alternative candidates who might be elected, it provides little point in serving.

Yet another obstacle to democracy is consumer culture. That culture, perpetrated by corporate capitalism, distracts, addicts, and co-opts too many of us. It also snares us in debt.

Distraction, addiction, co-optation and indebtedness are modes of disempowerment. They undermine awareness and public spiritedness. They heighten numbness and dependence. They foster anomie and alienation. They erode citizenship.

Dumbed Down by TV

The handmaid of the corporation, of “two party” control, and of consumer culture, is TV. Since the early sixties TV has had a profound impact on what passes for “democracy.” Because TV ads cost so much, candidates must turn to corporate funding to reach the electorate. This puts them morally in hock.

TV is a major player in distracting and addicting the populace. Insofar as its commercials and product placement encourage consumption, TV fosters in viewers a vested interest in the maintaining the system that provides the goodies. Needless to say, it also encourages indebtedness.

Further, because TV commercials are so stupid – cunningly so – it just wouldn’t do to have them embedded in intelligent program content; the contrast would undermine them. Hence the need for stupid programming and hence the dumbing down of those hooked on these programs. These junkies, with critical faculties numbed, become ideal targets for TV commercials, political or otherwise.

And then there’s TV network news. In their news reporting the networks, each bought up by multinational corporations, compellingly and consistently purvey the corporate/government view of the world. Regular viewing of such news fosters the illusion that we’re learning about what’s going on in the world.

The obstacles to democracy – and the props of fascism – are formidable and pervasive. They surround and infiltrate us. Let us resist them in our personal lives and combat them in our organizing lives.

Achieving democracy will never be other than a ceaseless struggle. But we have no choice. Fortunately we can draw on a rich legacy of experimentation here and from around the world. But that is a topic for another article….

After avoiding TV for decades, these days Ed regularly watches three hours a week: Bill Moyers’ “Now” at 9 pm on Friday and Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” 9 to 11 am Saturdays on SPC TV.