Democracy — what it is and what it isn’t

As forms of government go, democracy enjoys an excellent reputation. Especially in the countries that have it. Short of having a superman running things, or an all-knowing computer program, the democratic principle is intellectually satisfying. How to do the fairest for large numbers of people?

As best understood, a democratic society is organized in such a way that ultimate authority is placed in the hands of the people, according to majority rule. Nominally, this is said to happen through a system of elected representatives (ignoring presidential and other state elections) charged with representing the will of large numbers of individual people. Make that, on average, over 700,000 people.

Our democratic system is sometimes described as “imperfect.” This is not a genuine admission about the system as much as it is a way of stopping further conversation. Saying it that way creates the illusion that it is “as good as it gets”. You’re not supposed to ask why and where it falls short, and by how much?

Let’s allow for a moment that a representative could fairly represent the will of you, me, and the other 700,000 people, perhaps because polls on issues do not vary greatly from 50/50. And when they do, that’s part of the imperfection.

What leans closer to perfection, though, is the accuracy with which representatives reflect the will of their party’s leadership. Myself and a small group of activists once asked then Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand if she would get behind the House effort to impeach G.W. Bush for allowing the criminal invasion of Iraq. She replied, paraphrasing, “Forget it. The party leadership will never permit it!”

That’s what it takes to have a long career in politics. That’s what it takes to become a party leader yourself. Sure, you’re there to represent all the people. And to a certain extent that’s what you have to do to get reelected. But you know what the job is.

In pursuit of individual freedom, democracy is an emancipation from rule by royalty, aristocracy, dictatorship or other forms of hereditary or class-based distinctions. But since democracy is not free from capital, it can never be truly democratic, because capitalists are a very small minority. Capital performs the role that other forms of rule could only do by decree.

To what extent this is true is the topic of a 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”

Many people are satisfied with this arrangement, but it is not satisfaction by choice. There is no choice. To change, we would have to go through the very people who, themselves, were placed there and are under the influence of capital.

So why wouldn’t we be interested in “spreading democracy” (the cover for imperialism) if democracy entails representing the interests of the capitalist class? Democracy may work imperfectly for average people, but it appears to work nearly perfectly for elites. This is the difference between the image of democracy served to average people, and the essence of democracy that capitalist elites benefit from.

To put a final twist on this, one of the signs of a great democracy is that its high officials are virtually immune from charges of criminality and punishment. This is especially true for the nation’s leaders. There are hundreds of examples of foreign leaders being indicted, convicted, under house arrest, imprisoned, even executed.

Establishment types justify this atypical feature, citing its stability to the state management system. The ship of state serenely floats along. No questions asked. If we take democracy seriously, we may wonder how the majority of our country’s people feel about this.

James Rothenberg, of North Chatham, writes on U.S. social and foreign policy.

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