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Where is Democracy in this Picture?

By       Message David Model       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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As the interminable circus marches on towards its ultimate and merciful conclusion on November 4, 2008, pundits peer through their electronic microscopes seeking any activities that they can report as significant events in a miasma of irrelevant factoids masquerading as real issues.   When real issues rise above the cacophony of memorized sound bites or calumnious rancor, they are bereft of any meaningful commitment and are frequently dumped on the trash heap of unkept promises or have hidden costs.


All of this posturing is part of a larger game in which the two major candidates blather on about the message of the hour, day, or week depending on the political needs of a particular constituency.  The point is not whether they are contradicting themselves or changing opinions but the fact that the positions they take at any time during the campaign are entirely irrelevant. In fact, they only adopt positions that will maximize their vote-getting potential.  Campaign promises are sucked into a galactic black hole, lost forever with all previous campaign promises.  Recall former President Reagan's promise to balance the budget which disappeared into a sea of red ink once he became president or Clinton who promised to give Americans access to "quality, affordable"- health care.  Clinton followed through on his promise to reduce the deficit but at the expense of the poor.


Chasing votes during elections rather than standing on a principled and honest platform is only one of many weaknesses which render the American system of democracy virtually ineffectual and devoid of its basic principals.


One of the important principles in a democracy is that citizens must have a real choice among two or more parties who clearly offer a different agenda.  Campaigning in the United States is not about offering the voters a real choice but about presenting an image and a message which will win them a majority of the electoral votes or a seat in Congress.  For example, McCain's central message is that he is the experienced veteran who is very competent to serve as commander-in-chief and oversee the formulation of foreign policy while Obama is a mere neophyte.

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Selling the message and image depends to a large extent on local and national advertising.  The expense of advertising engenders a dichotomy among candidates in which the candidates or parties with the most money have a clear advantage.  This dichotomy excludes any third party or independent candidate from running a campaign with the same ability to deliver their message to the voters.  Another problem with paid ads is their negative impact on people's perceptions of candidates and platforms as clever, manipulative gimmickry replaces thoughtful discussion of the issues.  As an example, consider the shamefully dishonest swift boat ads portraying a real war hero as a coward. As in many European countries, paid advertising should be banned.  The mainstream media participates in this charade by not offering any real critical analysis of election campaigns.


Another essential principle of democracy is the necessity of political parties and candidates to be beholden only to the public interest.  For example, Obama's decision to reject matching funds reflects his interest in maximizing his war chest through corporate donations using various gimmicks to avoid election law prohibitions against direct corporate donations.  McCain is not only the beneficiary of corporate donations but his staff is replete with lobbyists and other business interests.  Power is the ultimate prize and without corporate donations, it is well beyond reach.  In effect, American voters are choosing a president whose success was based on corporate money.  Inevitably, presidents will focus on corporate interests when making decisions.


Another related critical flaw in American democracy is the lack of equal access to decision-makers.   In an ideal democracy, the people who are elected to serve the citizenry must treat each of them as equally as possible in formulating policy but in the American system, there is virtually an insuperable chasm with lobbyists on the same side as Congress and everyone else on the other side.  Lobbyists spare no expense in an effort to persuade elected officials to serve their client's interest.  They have three critical advantages over the ordinary citizen consisting of unimpaired access to decision-makers, a huge wellspring of resources, and an in-depth knowledge of the intricacies and complexities of the legislative process.  Such unbalanced influence renders democracy impossible as long as elected representatives are willing to listen.

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In addition, they often actually draft the legislation as in the case of Monsanto and GM foods.  In another example, the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 which prohibited the federal government from negotiating lower prices with drug companies.  The pharmaceutical industry spent $100 million on lobbying and campaign contributions and employed 1,000 lobbyists to sell the bill to Congress and according to Walter Jones, member of the House of Representatives, lobbyists wrote the bill.  Despite the Orwellian wording of the bill, the public were the losers and the pharmaceutical companies the winners in an example of how lobbying and donations corrupts the democratic process.  Case in point, Jim Demers, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, is a supporter of Obama.


Further proof that elected officials subordinate the public interest to the demands of powerful corporations is the gap between the policies and decisions of the government and the opinions of the public as manifested through surveys of public priorities.

For example, a 2008 Gallup poll revealed that 63 percent of the public believes that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake as opposed to 36 percent who disagree.  This result demonstrates that the public has moved well beyond withdrawing the troops to believing that the war was wrong in the first place while the President refuses to withdraw any troops and both candidates talk about redeployment (in Iraq), maintaining the war against terrorists, and protecting America's interests.


In another example, Gallup showed that 61 percent of the public believe that the emphasis should be on conservation in addressing America's energy problem as opposed to 29% who still believe in oil, gas, and coal.  Obama's willingness to meet the public's preferences on the question of energy can be called into question by his connection to lobbyists in the energy sector including Michael Bauer, lobbyist working for the clean coal industry and Frank Clark, lobbyist for the nuclear industry.  Obama has also committed to off-shore drilling.   


According to the same poll, 68 percent of Americans believe that the quality of the environment is becoming worse as opposed to 26 percent who disagree.  Sixty-five percent believe that the effects of global warming will manifest themselves within five years as opposed to 38 percent who disagree.  If the key to a functioning democracy is the responsiveness of elected officials to the will of the people, then members of Congress deserve a failing grade.


In an ideal democracy, the legislative structure would be non-hierarchical so that no member of the legislative assembly would have the power to exercise a veto or unduly influence other members to vote in a particular way.   In the American system, the Speaker of the House and the Chairs of Committees and Subcommittees have extraordinary power to influence the success of legislation.  Chairs of both Committees and Subcommittees have the power to bury legislation and to set the agenda for the committee.

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At the top of the hierarchy in the House of Representatives is the Speaker who sets the legislative calendar deciding when legislation is debated and voted on.  As well, the Speaker is very influential in choosing the Chairs of Committees.  Concentration of power in one person undermines the principle of representative democracy by not allowing the representatives of all the people to participate equally in the passage of legislation.  There is no democracy when one person has so much power over the legislative process.  For example, Pelosi is responsible to a large extent for preventing even a debate on impeachment.


Representative democracy also requires that the outcome of an election in terms of the distribution of seats among the participating political parties must reflect the will of the voters.  The electoral outcome in the House of Representatives is based on the number of seats won by each party, not on the popular vote.  For example, one party can win a number of seats by slim margins but lose the remaining seats by huge margins.  In the extreme case, one party can win all the seats by one vote yet only represent half the population.  The solution to this problem, proportional representation, is practiced in all but three democracies, Canada, the U.S., and the UK.


The problem lies not in the candidates or eventual winners but the system itself which is so rife with flaws that it barely qualifies as a democracy.  In a genuine republic, the government would be concerned about the weal of all its citizens not just the top 10 percent.  Democratic rule would not tolerate approximately 35 million people living in poverty, 55 million living in near poverty and a child poverty rate of 22 percent.  At the same time, the government has been offering huge tax breaks to wealthy citizens and to corporations along with subsidies to corporations which are earning record profits.  In the OECD, the United States is the only country without government-run health insurance and paid maternity leave.

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I have been a professor of political science at Seneca College in Toronto. I have published five books the last of which "Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death" was released in May/08. As well, I have been featured in CounterPunch, Z (more...)

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