The contemporary illusion of American democracy
Drew Lischke | Monday, September 17, 2018
Normally, I would refuse to start an argument by posing a question riddled with oversimplification and abstraction to which a fundamental answer is nearly universally accepted. Anything that fits these characteristics is generally a cliché (and I don’t like clichés). With that being said, though, my refusal only exists in normalcy. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we are no longer operating within normalcy. With all this talk about “the erosion of democratic norms” and “dangerous assaults on American democracy” and the “potential for a constitutional crisis,” perhaps such an oversimplified, yet fundamental, question is a reasonable place to start.
So, here it goes: what is democracy? What is this lofty ideal, this complicated Athenian principle, this fragile American norm, condensed into reality from the precipitate of the minds of America’s founding fathers and mothers? I’m not privileged with infinite space in this column to methodologically develop a comprehensive definition of democracy. So, in an interest of spatial conservation, I’ll provide my conclusion.
Democracy is government of the people, institutionalized by power equally distributed amongst the people, for the utilitarian good of the people. Many argue that America is the perfect manifestation of this definition. They defend their understanding with tropes and cliches (the belief in everyone’s capacity to hold office, the idea of one vote for one person, the rejection of policies that advantage a select few and disadvantage the majority, etc.)
Let me be the first to tell you, if you haven’t already heard by now, that none of these tropes and cliches subsist in contemporary American society. Democracy in America is no longer reality — it’s simply an illusion.
Let’s first look at the claim America is a democratic government of the people. This claim, at its base, is that American offices are held by average Americans. This is no longer the case. Perhaps this was true long ago when the political sphere was not a livelihood. In the 1800s, Americans would work to subsist economically in the day (plant some seeds, physically abuse a slave or two, print the newspaper, etc.) then reside over town hall meetings in the evening. In this system, the average American electorate (the average white, American man) would participate in politics nearly as an extracurricular. Now, however, this is no longer the case. Political institutions and offices have become careers.
Who cares if political office holders are now their own class of Americans? The answer is probably very few people. But, that’s the point — everyone should. A politician no longer holds office due to a genuine desire to act in the interest of Americans. A politician today holds office to secure their livelihood. Political office is no longer a medium for effective change but rather a medium for economic security of the official. This is obviously problematic. But wait, there’s more.
The entire notion of “one person, one voice, one vote” is debatably false. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision swiftly ensured the destruction of that norm. Now, corporations are treated with a voice (much louder and more pronounced) than the average American. Even the idea of individual, large political contributors is problematic. Now, the political choices that the American electorate has are limited to choices pre-vetted by these big donors and corporations. And don’t even get me started on voter suppression campaigns and gerrymandering — anything that makes it harder to vote or minimizes a person’s electorate power is an automatic challenge to the notion of “one person, one voice, one vote”.
Politicians being supported by “big money” interests obviously presents a problem for the notion that American democracy is aimed at the good of American citizens. What is truly good for American citizens rarely makes it past primary elections. The American electorate is limited to a choice of what is truly good for these donors and corporations.
All this and more (there are many other issues including but not limited to the electoral college, the disproportionate representation of the senate and the increasing power of executive bureaucracy) adds up to a democratic institution which ceases to be truly democratic.
Instead of a government of the people, America has a government of the class of career politicians. Instead of the institutionalization of equal power distributed amongst all citizens, America has institutionalized the inflated power of corporations and elites and the deflated power of the average citizen. Instead of government for the utilitarian good of the people, we have a government for the utilitarian good of corporations and elites. In reality, our democracy is an illusion of democracy. It no longer exists.
But, just because something no longer exists (or never existed) doesn’t mean it can’t be reclaimed (or claimed in the first place). So, what needs to happen to establish true democracy in America? We need term limits for all political office holders. We need to repeal the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. We need to abolish private donations to political campaigns in favor for publicly funded campaigns. We need to revitalize grassroots politics and subsequently abolish our two predominant political parties. We need to abolish disproportionate representation (including the Senate and Electoral College).
With these steps and many more commonsense measures, America can recapture its democracy. Only so much of this can be achieved through political reform, though. It’s up to us, the American electorate, to recapture what’s left of our dying democracy. We need to start prioritizing political rights. We need to pressure politicians to implement common sense campaign reform. Without drastic social reform and the political reform which will accompany it, our government will continue to exist as a democratic illusion. It’s entirely up to us.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.