Lost Democracy


The journalist Andrew Gumbel has written, "Nobody goes far in American public life without professing to love democracy.  It is the closest thing the country has to an established religion; disavow democracy, and you might as well disavow America itself."  His observation is correct. The term "democracy" possesses a revered mystique in the American mind.

Most of us remember from middle school history class that Woodrow Wilson, about a century ago, sought from Congress a declaration of war in order to "make the world safe for democracy." Countries should be left alone, his reasoning went, so that they can be free from domination by others and can chart their own respective courses.  After George W. Bush became president,  the American people were treated to a bit of irony. He sought to impose democracy upon the nation of Iraq, a move not exactly in the Wilsonian tradition. Few American presidents have used their might to topple a dictator friendly to our interests, but presently we have Barack Obama, who apparently supports democracy even when it means anti-American regimes will come to power and war against us.

"Democracy" is a slippery term. It's like a box of chocolates; one never knows what he'll get.  In fact, democracy can mean most anything to anyone.  I recently stumbled across the curious expression "the democratization of health care."  Those who speak in this way seem insistent upon some form of government-sponsored medicine.  It's like the democratization of meals, clothing, or home ownership.  Socialism is, apparently for some, an essential ingredient of democracy.  Because the term is multi-faceted with various nuances of meaning, it is not unusual for people to discuss democracy and to discover that they are talking past one another.  Unless one insists upon a comprehensive definition and explanation of the term from the jump, he or she may be hoodwinked by political rhetoric. Politicians, if you haven't already noticed, are skilled at draping ideas we loathe in words we love. They are the great "sophists" of our time, skilled in the art of spin and equivocation.

In spite of its various subtleties, complicated all the more by the fact that we live in a post-modern world, the term "democracy" still has a classic meaning.  "What is that?" you ask. Well, in a democracy, the people (demos) are the ultimate source of power.  They are active participants in self-government.  I don't mean that they constitute merely an electorate, which votes "yea" or "nea."  Democracy is  about citizens being informed and enlightened concerning the collective problems they face and being engaged in the solutions to those problems.  As you might suspect, democracy so conceived can become, and often is, a disorderly process.

One critical question which we Americans should ask ourselves is whether we agree with the precise view of democracy espoused by a candidate for office. Answering this question means scratching beneath the surface.  Sometimes we may be surprised by what we discover.

Yet perhaps the most vital question we can ask, and one which is guaranteed to cause any genuine patriot loss of sleep, is whether this country is even close to being a democracy in the classic sense.  Do you know that 58 percent of Americans cannot name the three branches of constitutional government? That 72 percent of them cannot name two of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment?  These sad statistics suggest a citizenry that is not informed.

Are you aware that only approximately one half of eligible voters show up to vote in a presidential election?  The percentage falls to 20 to 25 percent in state and local elections.  Around 11 percent of 18- and 19-year olds eligible to vote for the first time bother doing so.  America's voter turnout rate is one of the lowest in the world among existing democracies.  Again, all this points to a citizenry that is disengaged. 

A people who are uninformed and disengaged cannot function effectively as a true democracy.  Their "democracy" resembles a lifeless corpse, in which the closest one gets to actual participation in a democratic process is a staged political convention, which consists of a few days of rah-rah with the result already predetermined by the elite few. Even most of the convention speeches are narrowly scripted!

As we look closely at the current presidential campaign and get ready for the upcoming election, we must judge the result in light of the present state of our beleaguered political institutions and practices. It's no secret that the American people, even the more responsible ones,  have often tended to feel disempowered and without a political voice. Many regard their democracy, with its history of one stolen election after another, as a farce. They perceive their elected officials as unaccountable to them and as catering to corporate interests, the resources of which will insure perpetuity in office. This sense of disempowerment breeds lethargy, alienation, ignorance, and indifference regarding matters of the "common good." 

Is it any wonder that many citizens are far more likely to be concerned with attending to their own selfish interests and issues of personal comfort than with those of the community at large?  Joblessness and poverty don't help either.  They tend to diminish the middle class, create polarities of wealth and divisiveness, and drive citizens even farther into themselves.

I've been wondering how Barack Obama, whose record in office is a hopelessly frightful failure, can be running ahead of his challenger in crucial states like Florida, Virginia, and Ohio?  If we are to believe the polls (and some don't), then there is but one answer to this question: it's that a substantial number of American citizens have defaulted on their democratic responsibilities; i.e., they have acceded to passivity, and are noncompetitive, uninformed, disengaged, and largely dependent upon government largess to meet its basic needs.  The people to whom I'm referring, and we see them everyday of our lives, base their opinions on information they receive from 30-second political ads.  They don't read, don't think, don't analyze, and couldn't care less about communal issues. The intention here is not to point a finger of blame at them but to state a stubborn fact.  

Let me re-phrase my point in a blunt fashion.  The democratic experiment in this country has failed.  "Oh, no!" you exclaim, "that couldn't be!"  Yes, it not only could be, but also is.  A big percentage of people are living off their fellow citizens, and are doing so shamelessly and with Mr. Obama's enthusiastic encouragement. His administration has adopted what the insightful political philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls "the politics of faith," which seeks to perfect humanity by providing for all its needs.

A government that satisfies all our needs is one that also intrudes into our lives.  When government becomes severely intrusive, it is totalitarian.  Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who observed the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and did so like few others have ever done, tried to imagine the demonic side of democracy.  How might it someday, he wondered, roll off the tracks?  What he writes is riveting in its prescience, for it has become essentially a fulfilled prophecy.  Ponder his words:

I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world.  In the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls.  Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. . . .

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate.  That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle.  It would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood.  It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment.  It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances.  Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.  Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial.

Tocqueville put it in a nutshell when he described this kind of nation as “no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.” 

Whatever one may wish to call the state of affairs which Tocqueville described, it is certainly not a "democracy." It is closer to what Princeton political philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin labels "inverted totalitarianism."  The people are pawns in a game where government and corporate interests march together hand in hand.

Patriots need to face the truth and to consider their options.  Democracy, as the empowerment of people who are strongly independent, self-reliant, freedom-loving, and engaged in government, is all but over in America.  The trend did not begin with Barack Obama, but if he is re-elected, I predict that American self-government will become an archaic relic of the past. Even if he is not re-elected, all indicators are flashing red that someone else just like him will follow in his wake to manipulate the gullible masses with lies and empty promises.  "Government will give you medical care."  "Government will provide for your welfare in the event of an emergency."  "Government will secure your pension."  "Government will educate you."  "Government will . . . ." I'm sorry to break the news, but this is the pathway to chains, not freedom.

September 24, 2012