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Whither Democracy, Part 1

By       Message Fred Gohlke     Permalink
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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H2 5/28/13

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Michael Payne, in responding to a comment on his May 16, 2013 article, 'A Dark, Very Troubling Period in America's History' mentioned that he "voted for Mr. Obama twice and I only did it because I feared the other guys even more and there (were) no other viable choices."    In addition to the multitude of voters who, like Payne, were forced to choose the lesser of two evils, more than 42% of the voting age population in the United States didn't vote at all.  As Jane Mansbridge points out, "trust in government is plummeting in most developed democracies." [1]  Why is our political infrastructure a shambles that produces so few trustworthy candidates for public office?  The answer lays in the foundation of democracy and the edifice we've built on that foundation.

Democracy In America
Democracy is a theory of government.  It evolves slowly.

Centuries ago, Plato thought democracy could not work because 'ordinary people' are 'too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians'[2].  He failed to note that some folks are more easily swayed than others, and that some individuals are not swayed at all.  Yet, Plato's faulty view of democracy dominated political thought at the inception of our nation and still governs political thought, today.

In the United States, our governmental system is defined by our Constitution.  When it was written, although the details of elections were left to the legislatures of the several states[3], considerable effort was devoted to protecting the people from the adverse effects Plato thought inevitable:

"When the Founders of the American Republic wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they did not envision a role for political parties in the governmental order.  Indeed, they sought through various constitutional arrangements such as separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and indirect election of the president by an electoral college to insulate the new republic from political parties and factions." [4]

Hence, nothing in our Constitution expresses or implies the need for political parties.  They are extra-Constitutional, quasi-official inventions designed to acquire the reins of government to advance partisan interest.

"In spite of the founders' intentions, the United States was the first nation to develop parties organized on a national basis and to transfer executive power from one faction to another via an election in 1800."[3]

The Party System
A party system developed because our early leaders used their standing to consolidate their power.  They created top-down political organizations that let them set the agendas and choose the candidates for which the people vote.  In the process, they disenfranchised the people and corrupted the political process because those who choose the options, control the outcome!
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Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson did not seek the answers to contemporary problems among the people, nor did they entrust the people with the right to choose the individuals they thought best suited to lead them.  Instead, certain that their own view of the issues facing the country were superior to the public's, they built organizations to attract people to support their point of view.

George Washington sat amid these strong personalities, and, as long as he was able, mediated the matters that concerned the country.  However, the dangers that awaited us were so apparent to him that, in his Farewell Address to the nation, with remarkable foresight, he sought to warn us "in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party" .  He called partisanship an unquenchable fire that "demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume" , and predicted parties were likely to become "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government".

We stand in awe at the clarity of our first President's vision.

Hamilton and Jefferson and their followers invented 'political parties' with party names, voter loyalty, newspapers, state and local organizations, campaign managers, candidates, tickets, slogans, platforms, linkages across state lines, and patronage.  They institutionalized their advantage by creating rules in the several states to preserve them and aid their operation.

These features advance party interest at the expense of the public interest.  They show how political parties are an embodiment of human nature; they put self-interest above all other considerations.  They function precisely as a thoughtful person would expect them to function.
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Oligarchic Party Structure
The parties that control all political activity in the United States are in no sense democratic.  When politics is based on partisanship, the partisans form oligarchic power blocs that become an end in themselves and ultimately transcend the will of the people.[5]  The American people do not elect the prime movers, those who control the parties.  In fact, most Americans don't even know who they are.  They are appointed by their party and serve at the party's pleasure.  We, the people the parties are supposed to represent, have no control over who these people are, how long they serve, or the deals they make to raise the immense amounts of money they use to keep their party in power.  They constitute a ruling elite above and beyond the reach of the American people.

When we allow those who control our political parties to usurp the power of governing our nation, it is foolish to imagine that we retain the power bestowed on us by our Constitution.  It is a tragedy that so few of us recognize that we have relinquished our right to govern ourselves to unknown people who proclaim themselves our agents.  Yet, party systems acquire a color of right because they are built on partisanship.

Partisanship is natural for humans.  We seek out and align ourselves with others who share our views.  Through them, we hone our ideas and gain courage from the knowledge that we are not alone in our beliefs.  Partisanship gives breadth, depth and volume to our voice.  In and of itself, partisanship is not only inevitable, it is healthy.

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I was born just before the Great Depression. I learned our country's virtues in a one-room schoolhouse and it sickens me to see them trampled as they have been. My perceptions of "right" and "wrong" have been strong motivating forces in my life (more...)

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