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Is Democracy Dead?

This is what concerns me. The situation in Morocco, in which the Constitution grants the king authority over all branches of government, strangely mirrors the situation in the U.S., where the “unitary executive theory” of the presidency means that our Decider routinely ignores laws passed by Congress, or issues “signing statements” interpreting them according to his will. General Petraeus’ testimony last week to Congress drove this home to me, because even though no one believes that things are getting better in Iraq, everyone knows the war will go on, and there is nothing you or I or even our Senators can do about it.

It seems to be sinking in among the American people that even though we still have a free media and free elections, it no longer matters. When it comes to policy, we don’t have a functioning democracy any more, because things aren’t decided by votes as they used to be. It’s like the Roman Senate that kept meeting for centuries after the Republic became the Empire. Our well-groomed and well-spoken Senators seem to be the last to realize they have lost their power. Or perhaps they know it very well, only their vanity keeps them from admitting it to the rest of us.

IOZ, one of the sharpest wits on the internet, put it this way in a post called “Candidate-for-Life” :

    When did this current “election cycle” begin. In 2006? In 2004? Earlier? Who can really tell. Soon, there will be no more elections, but only one singular election, and it will never actually occur. Committees will be formed, funds will be raised, dinners will be held, speeches will be given, candidacies will be officially announced, debates will be held, town halls will be attended, polls will be taken, frontrunners will emerge, former frontrunners will decline, vanity candidates will be asked how they expect to win, the newsmedia will cover it all with a joint feeling of breatheless anticipation and world-weary familiarity. Yet the polls will never open, the voters will never vote, the results will never be tabulated, and no one will win. […] Barack Obama will always attack Hillary Clinton; Tom Tancredo will always hate on immigrants; Ron Paul will always talk sensibly and be popular on the internet; Mike Gravel will follow his bliss; Fred Thompson will go on late night. And Candidate-for-Life Benito Giuliani shall outcampaign them all.
    The American people will be perfectly happy with the arrangment. Voting is a pain in the ass, anyway…. Fortunately, we all support the troops, whatever our differences on the campaign trail. Since no one will have been elected, no one will have had to decide at long last to bring the army home from Iraq. We will have the freest elections in the world and also be free from elections.

Jack Whelan’s blog After the Future takes a look at the same topic in a post called “How the World Works” :

    There is no real democracy at the national level anymore. […] The people we elect, no matter how noble their intentions at first, get eaten alive by the entrenched power system that has its own will, and elected representatives learn to serve that will or they will be marginalized as non-players.
    Because this is the way the world works. Power uses power to consolidate power. The power system is self-perpetuating because it only hires and promotes people who serve its interests without questioning them. […] They live in a culture of acquiescence to power, and so it is normal and expected behavior for them to acquiesce to it. They do it without thinking, taking their cues from whoever it is whose job it is to give such cues. And they take the cues because their careers and lifestyles depend on it. They would not have risen to the positions they hold now if they were not ambitiously good cue takers. […]
    And whether we approve or disapprove makes no difference because we don’t hire them, and our criticisms have little or no impact on their performance. […] The self-perpetuation of the system doesn’t require conspiracies and evil geniuses, just a lot of people pursuing their self interests and forming alliances with others who understand the game…. Challenging the rules is out of the question, and gets you kicked out of the game. […] The problem with Liberals is basically their naive belief that the system still works.

He proposes a solution of sorts, unlikely though it may be, because it calls on millions of Americans to get up off their butts and do something, to participate, to care:

    I don’t think the people who serve these power centers are evil, but they are the banal servants of evil. What is needed are heroes. […] The power system is self-perpetuating in this way. To change it would require a high level of awareness and a level of heroic commitment from millions of people inside and outside of government. And what citizens do in the ballot box is irrelevant until a slate of candidates arise who say they are willing to confront and subject this system to the will of the people. Until that happens, the charade continues….

Until that happens, is it really democracy we are exporting to the rest of the world, or bread and circuses and the rapaciousness of empire?


Comment from leblase
Time: September 20, 2007, 07:32

Welcome to the real world!
Problem is, too many people are confused between a republic and a democracy: an elective system has nothing to do with democracy.
Actually, democracy is against the concept of government and even more so against the mere idea of a president.
Very very few people in our modern world would accept to live in true democracy, which I have witnessed only in a few tribes in four continents.

So let these people -and you eatbee;-) – go back to the true topic wich is: are elections the real expressiveness of the people?
Go even further and ask yourself, knowing the extent of the manipulation going on through simplistic mediatic words, if the true expression of the masses is viable?

Comment from eatbees
Time: September 20, 2007, 10:10

@leblase — My political instincts are libertarian, but with a collectivist slant. In other words, I believe that government has a role to play in looking after the common interest. This combination is unusual, and it’s hard to point to a model where it was actually practiced. I’m sympathetic to Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, the Spanish syndicalists of the 1930s, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s. The trouble for me comes because civil disobedience and counterculture are not a governing philosophy. Governance is about making rules. I can accept this on pragmatic grounds, if it’s in the common interest (which includes my interest) so long as I have something to say about it, the rules are equal for everyone, and my rights are protected. That is what constitutional government is all about.

I don’t think I agree with you that “true” democracy necessarily means direct participation in all decisions. If that is what it means, maybe we can find ways to harness the internet to do it, replacing elected leaders with direct polling of the popular mindset. Every day we would log on to vote on proposals or decide the best response to an emerging crisis. But I suspect that this would be even more prone to manipulation than our current system. I’m glad there are real humans in Washington, Paris or Tokyo making decisions. They shoulder the responsibility for us and are accountable. When they prove incompetent over time, we can replace them. If they commit crimes they can be prosecuted. If we don’t like the rules, we can elect people committed to changing them, and if that doesn’t work, we can form new parties and run for office ourselves. In parallel we have the responsibility to participate in society, whether by blogging, organizing demostrations, working in a soup kitchen, forming a labor union, educating ourselves and others, or in the worst cases of injustice, becoming sand in the machine to force it to stop.

To me, there is no confusion between elections and democracy. Elections are a mechanism for choosing people to represent us in a specific forum. Without that, who will regulate the corporations? Who will negotiate treaties with other nations? Elections are the imperfect expression of democracy, but democracy itself is much more. It is the feeling that we are free and responsible. It is a spirit of participation in society. It is an optimistic view of humanity. No true democrat would vote on election day and walk away satisfied. We are democrats every day of the year, and so is everyone around us. When the system we have created no longer reflects us, and it is impossible to change it from within, then it is time for democrats to become revolutionaries.

I’m not sure I can answer your final question, which has been debated since ancient times. Perhaps it is a false question. You ask if the “true expression of the masses” is viable, but is there any such thing? In my opinion, there are no masses, only individuals. When the opinions of diverse individuals are reduced to a single choice (Ségo or Sarko?) then something is lost. Even in Plato’s time, “manipulation through simplistic mediatic words” was a problem. His solution was to have philosophers run the state. For me, Montesqieu’s concept of the balance of powers, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, is a better solution. It’s an elegant compromise that makes sure that in competition for power, diverse views are heard. I suspect that is the best we can do.

Comment from leblase
Time: September 20, 2007, 12:14

Democracy is indeed hardly viable in this world.
Democracy is opposed to government, the way governance has always been practiced.
Your description of the goal of elections, once again, befits more a Republic (where people are selected to represent the mass) than a democracy (where people constantly take direct charge of issues).
I agree that, for practical reasons, we find ourselves in position to accept a constitutionnal governance, but I don’t agree that “the rules are equal for everyone, and my rights are protected. ” for different reasons that are not really the subject of the links you inserted in your post.
The bloggers mentionned -and your post- question the actual representative process of the elections as they are today.
It has already been a long time that the selective system of political parties, even the selective system within the parties has been perverted to the point where it now is an argument in America to boast of the results of fund-raising…
Fund-raising…Funds are the new criteria, and everybody seems to feel fine about this..
On another aspect, I’ll take the risk to say that the masses, bequieted as they are to the point of amorphism, generally have a faint and tainted idea of the issues at stake and are not really able or eager to decipher the lines of national and international politics, economies and finances.

The media they rely upon for their evaluation of the candidates are themselves biased either by economic links or by the relative efficiency of the professional journalists, who are themselves quite often manipulated by so-called experts (see the recent scandal of this Frenchman, fellow of the Nixon Institute and member of ABC’s board of experts, who published countless fake interviews) or by the usual suspects, i.e. the spokespersons.

Elections -the way they are regulated now-are most of the time the result of the manipulation of the masses, more than the expression of their true will.
That is not to say we must do without, but we have to change the rules in a way that will not be directed by the polls and the whims of TV, to mention only two of the real actors.

Comment from Mohamed
Time: September 21, 2007, 12:59

I wonder whether anyone here read a wonderful special in NEWSWEEK in the run
up to the 1988 electoral campaign. It was entitled, “The Keys to the White House”. It showed in detail how “political managers/coaches” suggested to people who had not tought of running for president or even a governor that they could very well take part in the campain and that they could win. The Special told everything about how money could be raised, how opponents could be disposed of, how to appear on a TV show, etc. In sum, it was a good read and proof that democracy is not only about principles, but also about personal glory, and worldly success.

Comment from Loula
Time: September 25, 2007, 22:43

Hello Gentlemen,
Eatbees, Leblase hehehe it is a remake of the pro and con of the republican ideal.
Ok, I tend to agree with Eatbees on participative democracy. It requires many procedural requirements and cannot be applied to every aspect of life simply because our beliefs could sometimes become obstacles to true debate. Some aspects of life can easily be debated such as the environment, others will never reach a middle ground such as the right to chose to carry a pregnancy or not. Accountability as said Eatbees is there and the right to vote is also there to get rid of those who didn’t live to our expectations.
The problem is that democracy has been used and marinated in many sauces that it became a shadow.

Comment from eatbees
Time: September 26, 2007, 00:03

@leblase — I agree with you that democracy is largely a lost ideal today, or I wouldn’t have posted the quotes I did. It sometimes feels that the U.S. with its Roman Legions will be occupying faraway desert lands for the rest of our lifetimes and even those of our grandchildren. Indeed, the U.S. is part of a global system in which Sarkozy, Merkel, Brown, Putin and the rest all fail to speak out, because they all have a slice of the pie. But being an optimist, I can’t accept that it has to be this way. Our societies have rules for choosing our leaders, so it’s our own fault if we let ourselves be put to sleep, rather than using every means to leverage our power as citizens. “They” are succeeding because “they” have convinced us we no longer have that power. But we no longer have that power because we stopped exercising it, so it’s a vicious circle. Let’s break that circle! I think there is still room for a Gandhi, a King or a Mandela to wake up the rest of us and remind us of our options. It’s true that it will take “heroic commitment from millions of people inside and outside of government” as Jack Whelan said. I’m ready to help make that happen. What a cool thing it will be!

@everyone — I think the real issue everyone is pointing to is the corrupting influence of money in politics. This is even more obvious in a place like Morocco, where there is no real competition for power and the State functions as a private monopoly for the benefit of a few. But in the last generation or two, even the wealthy democracies have done a good job of rigging the game in a similar way. No matter who wins an election, no G8 or NATO nation is in danger of seeing its governing elite removed from power! Global corporate interests will continue their expansionist path, colonizing the rest of us. This is why I think it becomes important for democrats in the wealthy nations to make common cause, possibly for the first time, with democrats in the poorer nations. A tiny global elite is amassing power and wealth while escaping accountability, because their activites are beyond the reach of any single nation. Osama bin Laden isn’t the only “non-state actor” taking advantage of loopholes in the international system to escape responsibility. Global capitalism does the same! So democracy, economic justice and accountability will have to happen everywhere on earth, or not at all.

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