Thursday, July 16, 2015

Democracy


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
The two most ringing phrases in all of American history are indisputably “We the People of the United States …” from the Preamble to the U S Constitution and “… all men are created equal …” from the Declaration of Independence.  And they both seem to argue for democracy – rule of, by, and for the people.  But every once in a while, a stray Republican, one not running for President, reminds us that democracy is not called for or even mentioned by the U S Constitution, or any other founding document for that matter.  He is right.  By all rights, we are a republic, a nation ruled by laws; but not by Constitutional mandate a democracy.  In addition, none of our Founding Fathers (excepting Thomas Paine himself) desired universal suffrage (suffrage is the form of a democracy, it is the right or privilege of a citizen to vote or otherwise participate in the processes of governing).  Indeed, to a man, they all feared democracy.  They feared the voice of the demos, the herd, the common people.  Consider that all of our Founding Fathers were highly educated and highly successful men.  Their version of “We the People” meant “we and our social peers,” a natural aristocracy even if not an inherited one (as in the old country).  A “real democracy” (in today’s usage) implies universal suffrage, suffrage of the common man.  But no democracy for these demigods.

As an aside, Winston Churchill said that "{it has been said that} democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms {that have been tried from time to time}."  Plato hated democracy because, among other reasons, it had murdered his beloved teacher Socrates.

Well, then, what are we to do?  Ever since the Constitution was ratified, we have expanded our (unmandated) democracy, expanded the right to vote to those who were previously disenfranchised.  Initially, suffrage was limited, state by state, to white property-owning Christian (usually excluding Catholic Christian) males of age.  Nevertheless, state by state, they dropped the land-owning requirement, so that by 1828 ordinary white Protestant men were able to elect the first true “people’s president” (and first Democrat) Andrew Jackson to the Presidency.  Catholics and Jews won suffrage over time, state by state (interestingly, and ironically, the U S Constitution forbade any religious test to hold public office, even while some states limited suffrage on religious grounds).  Blacks won the right to vote in 1870 with the ratification of the 15th amendment (putting aside the fact that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was needed to enforce their paper right, putting aside the fact that blacks are still denied the vote from state to state to this day).   Women won the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment (after fighting for suffrage for nearly 80 years).  Finally, 18 year olds won the right to vote in 1971 with the ratification of the 26th amendment.

Despite democracy’s lack of a proper birth in the U S Constitution, we have a history of amending the Constitution to expand democracy and make it ever more inclusive.  Democracy is in our blood, not from the beginning but over and over again since then.

Ironically, now that we have nearly universal suffrage, we also have an embarrassingly low rate of voter participation for all elections.  And even more embarrassingly, the groups that had to fight to win their own suffrage have the lowest rates of voter participation (except for under-65 women, whose sense of civic responsibility keeps growing compared to men).  But blacks and young adults suffer from very poor voter turnout every election cycle.

It is also ironic (“ironic” is totally the wrong word here, as I mean the opposite of ironic, but there is no good and dramatic word that does that) that Republicans, some of whom claim that we are not really a democracy in the first place, should sometimes work to make low voter participation a reality by indulging in official acts of voter suppression (and yes of course I am aware that Democrats can as justly be accused of voter fraud, even if the numbers are far fewer). They work (by impeding voter participation) to make true that which they claim is true (we are not a democracy) in the first place.

Finally, in an irony that is massive and cruel, it is arguable that we are not in any real sense a democracy as 1) a majority of us (even of those who have had the vote all along) never turn out to vote, and 2) the power vacuum that this disinterest creates has been taken over by the forces that are interested in ruling: wealthy men and multi-national corporations.  And rule by a few has many names but none of them is “democracy.”  And this finally is all that I ever write about: our broken democracy and the part that YOU must play to win it back.  Join the party, read my book.

Post Script: While I am not optimistic about even a proper democracy being able to solve the great and pressing issues that lie before us, mostly because voters only see their short-term interests, I still wonder what our skeptical Republican friends would put in the place of democracy.  Do YOU have an answer?  If not democracy, what then?  We are open to your creativity.