03 November 2008

The Fate of Democracy in the US I: The Problem

I have grown increasingly concerned about the status of 'democracy' in the United States. There are two major problems that I can see:

(1) Political power, ideally in the hands of the voting public, is not realized owing to insufficient access to information. The majority of the voting public consists of fully-employed adults who spend forty to sixty hours a week working and commuting. In addition, they must tend to family affairs -- bill-paying, school functions, house maintenance, automobile maintenance, time with children, shopping for groceries, etc. -- and to their own personal needs for rest and relaxation. This leaves them with precious little time with which to access and analyze information. Voters are expected to vote for presidents, vice presidents, senators, representatives, judges, tax commissioners, school board members, clerks, coroners -- the list goes on. They are also expected to vote on a long list of referendums, most of which they've never heard of until the ballot is in their hands. Because they have no time, they are forced to depend on other sources to retrieve and analyze information for them -- namely, television advertisements and "information" distributed by special interests groups like PETA and "traditional values" lobbyists.

Television advertisements are a poor way indeed to distribute information. Our society's problems are complicated. They demand and deserve thoughtful analysis and commentary. Voting records serve more consideration than "Representative Schmuck: Conservative, Christian Values" Or "Representative Joe Schmuck: are his LIBERAL values yours?" Television advertisements are short and sensation -- and yet even if people don't believe them, they are still influenced by them. People readily believe what they want to hear, and there's a killing to be made by capitalizing on that. I find it obscene that the voting public is informed by television -- a medium completely dominated by money, where "truth" is just a facade with no substance. Political advertising, like all advertising, is organized lying. The exceptions prove the rule. Special interest pamphlets and mailings are also very problematic. Because special interests typically focus only one or two key issues, they must harp on it to mobilize their voting base. They do this by ignoring other and often more important issues. The role played by special interest groups make it possible to succeed in electing one-trick ponies -- candidates who work for them on that issue, but are incompetent otherwise. Advertising sabotages the ideal that people vote in their best interests by presenting them with limited, biased, or false information. They are manipulated into voting for the ADVERTISERS' best interest, for the lobbyists' special interests -- not for their own.

We find ourselves in a situation where the voters have no power because they cannot make informed decisions for themselves: they are dependent on information fed to them by advertisements and special interest promotional material.

2. Actual political power, as held by politicians, is often misused or not used by the politicians in the interests of the common good, and this is so because of the system that we use. Representative democracy, capitalism, and the influence of the media have resulted in a combination that is not beneficial t to the common good. By themselves, democracy and capitalism are not bad ideas: together, though, and coupled with the power of the mass media, they make it possible for the peoples' interest to be completely ignored.

The United States is not an actual democracy: it is a representative democracy, where the voters send in proxies to do the voting for them. Ideally, this would work: the politicians are supposed to be professional civic administrators who decide what is best and do it. Voters can't even handle elections every two years -- let alone making decisions every day. We create the jobs of senator and representative so that there will be people whose only responsibility is to collect information on a situation, analyze the consequences of it, and act in a way that is conducive to the "promotion of the general welfare". If they do not do this well, ideally, they are removed from office and replaced by someone who the electors think is more competent.

This is not the case. The founding fathers never envisioned universal suffrage and the mass media. To borrow from Neil Postman, they created a constitution that envisioned a relatively small number of men making rational choices to serve their best interests -- not millions of people voting based on emotional appeals and out-and-out lying that constitute television ads and special-interest circulars. The result is the enslavement of democracy by money. I'll explain what I mean by that.

While democracy has always been a servant of money, so much money is now available that democracy has become an actual slave. The majority of campaign contributions to go advertisement -- organized lying. Each politician must counter the slander produced by the other side and produce slander of his or her own. Advertising costs money -- and money comes from business interests and special interest groups. Promises are made to them. Who wins? Whoever lies the best and whoever produces these advertisements. Who loses? The American people, whose interests have been subverted in favor of lobbyists and selfish businesspeople.

While democracy has always been the servant of monied interests -- witness the American and French revolutions -- so much capital is now available that democracy has become a complete slave. The majority of campaign contributions to advertising, which is just organized lying. Even if the advertisers don't intend to lie, the medium of television limits them to soundbytes. Polticians have to counter the lies the other side tells about them with their own lies. It takes a lot of money to advertise on television, especially during primetime or peak hours. Lobbyists and political action committees provide an easy source of revenue -- obtainable for promises of favorable legislation. Politicans whore their office and responsibility out to whoever can provide the money, just so that they can keep their offices. Who wins? Whoever lies the best, and whatever lobbyist supports the best liar. Who loses? The American people.

Not only has democracy become a slave to money, but it has become a slave to the whims of the public. To be frank, people do not always not what is best. We would like to think that we do, and we take umbrage when some 'elitist' implies that we aren't -- but consider! Consider that if people make judgments based on limited, poor, false, or biased information, they are tremendously liable to make bad decisions. Considering the mediums through which they typically get their information, why are we surprised to find ourselves in trouble?

Elections have become sheep-calling contests, with the contending politicians and their supporters yelling out buzzwords. The buzzwords change rapidly. I remember watching the political conventions, where one of the main issues was immigration. It dominated one particular Republican debate -- and yet now, we hear nothing about it, and we heard nothing about it before the economic crisis. We hear nothing of Iraq -- but people are still dying. The government there is still unstable. Why do we not hear of these issues?

I believe it is because of this problem that the citizenry are motivated chiefly by emotionalism and whims. Politicians who are running for election cease to do their jobs -- they are too busy campaigning, too busy making speeches and cajoling the populace. Their problem is that the populace gets tired of hearing the same words over and over again, so they have to move on to new ones. Politicians, in order to maintain their positions, must constantly cajole. They must constantly compromise the purpose of their office to obtain funds so they can do this -- and so concerned are they about losing their posts that they fear making unpopular choices that will evict them from office. Bear in mind that unpopular decisions are not necessarily bad, nor are popular decisions necessarily good.

The result of these two factors -- an uninformed voting public and the constantly compromised nature of political offices -- is a broken system. When James Madison and others wrote the Constitution, they could have never imagined the industrial revolution and the generation of more capital that has ever been witnessed in the history of humankind. They could have never imagined cheap newspapers, radios or television -- they never imagined a system where business interests could simply buy political advertising, lie to the voters, and protect their enormous profits. Had our Constitution been written in 1976, I believe it would have been quite a bit different.

How do we mend this system? How do we set it right? Is there a essential crack that we can fill with mortar and restore stability? I think there is -- and I believe the flaw is money. Remember how much voters rely on advertising, which is paid for by monied interests. Remember that advertising consumes the lion's share of campaign contributions. The money required -- $3 billion in the presidential election alone -- comes at the price of making promises: not promises to the voters with their divided interests, but promises to the people who have the money and only the interest of maximizing their own profit. We thus have both ill-informed voters and compromised politicians being unable to fulfill their potential. They are hindered by the inordinate role of money in our political system.

My solution is to remove money from that system as much as possible -- and I write on that here.

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