Most Americans are convinced, mistakenly, that they live in a democratic nation. The idea of democracy is upheld with reverence, making it one of the most cherished of all mythologies, but its true meaning is obscured in a country where money is king. There have been many times in history when America was anything but democratic, when the country’s original inhabitants were slaughtered, or when millions were enslaved, or during the reign of Jim Crow and lynch law, or when women couldn’t vote. We are accustomed to thinking that because those days are over, we continue to make progress and that our country is improving over time.
It is true that we elect office holders, and have a Constitution which guarantees certain rights to individuals and a judiciary system designed to protect those rights. It appears that all of the ingredients which define a free society are right here in the United States. But if measured against criteria which show the full breadth of personal freedom, it quickly becomes clear that the United States is becoming less and less democratic by the day.
Does voting make a difference if the choices are predetermined by people not accountable to the citizens? Successful candidates for even minor public offices need to raise money in order to succeed at the ballot box. They become beholden to their contributors and don’t bite the hands that feed them.
Here in New York State, it was recently revealed that Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo used his rich friends to influence the legislative session via the Committee to Save New York. The phoney and grandiose name describes a $17 million campaign slush fund, which is used to promote Cuomo’s legislative agenda. The CSNY was the biggest spender of all lobbyists in New York State last year, making sure that Cuomo’s campaign for austerity and union busting won out in the legislature
Contributors to the Committee to Save New York reads like a who’s who of fat cat developers such as the Real Estate Board of New York. It is little wonder that the rent protections lost during a Republican gubernatorial administration have never been restored. How can American politics be thought of as in any way democratic if only the people with the gold get to make the rules? The word democracy doesn’t mean much if governors like Cuomo have to raise at least $25 million to run viable campaigns and then remain in the pocket of rich people who make sure that no one else even thinks about getting their way politically.
If the NYPD can stop and frisk over 700,000 people with no cause whatsoever, it can’t be said that our society is truly democratic. Those 700,000 people can vote, but that right doesn’t keep them safe from police harassment and possible brutality. Not one of the prospective New York City mayoral candidates has clearly stated an opposition to stop and frisk, which means that the unconstitutional activity may continue indefinitely. Apparently stop and frisk is just fine with the big money folks.
If America were a democratic nation, the people would have most of what they wanted from their government. We would have universal, single payer health care. United States troops wouldn’t be stationed in Afghanistan, or most of the one hundred odd other nations that are outposts in the empire. If we lived in a democracy, this country would not be the world’s imprisonment capital. Banks would be regulated and public schools would be fully supported by the government as they ought to be. Affordable housing would be plentiful and so too would jobs paying good wages to working people.
Instead of representing our interests and needs, the electoral system gives us the opposite of what we want. In November 2012 a president will be elected who will proceed to work with Congress and give us as little of what we want as he can possibly get away with. Millions of dollars, perhaps one billion dollars in campaign funds will be sent between now and election day yet we know for certain that we will end up with a corporatist president who will keep our country and the world in a perpetual state of war.
The expression of democracy ought to be fuller than just watching debates and going to the polls. Our system should acknowledge and act on at least some of our concerns and needs. It is time to be honest about our country as it is, a kleptocracy and a plutocracy, but a democracy it isn’t. It can be, but wishful thinking and myth making won’t get us there.