The Democracy Movement is a war over democracy in America, whether we shall have it.
The Democracy Spring event in Washington, DC in the spring of 2016 was not the opening salvo of the Democracy Movement, it was merely a sign of where we are today.
The Democracy Movement began in earnest as a response to the infamous Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, a decision that declared, not for the first time but in no uncertain terms, that corporations were natural persons under the Constitution and therefore entitled to Constitutional rights and protections, and that money in unlimited amounts was protected speech. As this decision undermined what we all were brought up to believe – that we are a democracy, that We the People rule, and that we are all created equal under the law – a movement broke forth to correct this insult to our collective identity. And for lack of a better name, this is The Democracy Movement.
The sole premise of the Democracy Movement is that the form of government in the United States of America is not in actual fact a democracy, rather it is a corporatocracy, an oligarchy (rule by a few), a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or even a fascist (business and government united) state. The sole goal of the Democracy Movement is the erection of a real democracy in these United States.
“So what is this thing that we are fighting to win: democracy?”
A democracy is the form of government where the people rule themselves. It is embodied in our culture by the first three words of our Constitution: We the People. There are two forms: one, a representative democracy where the law-makers are chosen representatives of the people, and the other a direct democracy, where the people do not choose others to represent them, they participate themselves.
The single advantage of a direct democracy is that it seems more honest – more “democratic” – the people clearly do rule themselves. The disadvantage of a direct democracy is the time that ordinary citizens must devote to self-rule: it ain’t free, it costs precious time. The most obvious advantage of a representative democracy is that while citizens do not have the time to become expert in the questions that they must answer, full-time representatives of the people do have the time to become expert in a few areas of specialty. The gravest disadvantage of a representative democracy is that the representatives may become corrupt, serving their own selfish interests rather than the interests of the citizens whom they represent. Indeed, this is the very problem that the Democracy Movement seeks to solve.
As an aside, the word “democracy” is from the ancient Greek demokratia (popular government), from demos (common people) + kratos (rule). In ancient times, “common people” was a disparaging term, like “mob.” The philosopher Plato preferred a Philosopher King over democratic self-rule because by temperament and a lifetime of training he would be the ideal ruler of a state. The fact that democratic Athens had condemned his mentor Socrates to exile or death did not help to endear Plato to democracy. Plato’s equally famous student Aristotle was of two minds regarding democracy: if a nation-state was majority poor and under-educated, a democracy would be no better than mob rule; if, on the other hand, the nation-state was solidly middle-class and well-educated, and if the number of super-rich and super-poor was only a small number, then that nation-state was a perfect candidate for self-rule, for democracy (he called this form of self-rule a “polity”).
Even in American Revolutionary times, democracy was still a pejorative, still “mob rule.” Only in modern times is it not insulting at all (although for snobs it remains a slur). Our Founding Fathers did not trust democracy or self-rule because they did not trust the common man, who was not as well-educated or worldly-wise as these very uncommon men were. In addition, the word democracy cannot be found in the Declaration of Independence nor in the U.S. Constitution. But it is discussed in The Federalist Papers, propaganda papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay that made the case for ratification of the Constitution. In The Federalist Papers, however, a democracy was only that direct democracy mentioned above, and it could only comprise a small community of citizens. The Founding Fathers' word for our representative democracy was a “republic.” In their terms, we live in a “democratic republic,” not a pure democracy.
Whereas our nation did not really begin its life as a democracy – a nation with self-rule – it has clearly evolved in that direction. In the beginning, the right to CHOOSE who our countrymen wanted to represent them belonged to a few, only 1) white 2) Protestant 3) land-owning 4) men. However, as who had the right to choose their representatives was a state’s decision, over time Catholics and Jews were given the right to choose, and the land-owning requirement was softened little by little, a state at a time. This right to choose those who would represent them is the “right to vote,” or “suffrage” in a word. The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave suffrage to all black men. After a 50-year struggle, women won the right to vote (nationally, in every state) in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment. And 18 year olds won the right to vote (nationally, in every state) in 1971 with the ratification of the 26th amendment. So, all the limits on suffrage that we began our national life with – white Protestant land-owning men – have been shattered, even if it did take 182 years. But we still have suffrage issues. Republicans accuse Democrats of voter fraud, and Democrats accuse Republicans of voter suppression. But as neither political party has taken any of their charges to court, I will say only that their unwillingness to make a “federal case” out of it is part of their corruption; it is as though they have a gentleman’s agreement not to sue each other – which is good for them, and bad for us.
We have one more suffrage issue: criminality. State by state, we deny suffrage to felons. Some states do not. Some states deny suffrage only to felons who are still in prison or on parole; other states think, “once a felon, always a felon” (like Javert in Les Misérables). What is particularly disturbing to me is that marijuana possession or use is a felony in some jurisdictions. Imagine losing your right to vote because you got caught one time smoking weed? And if society really believes that serving your sentence makes you quits with the criminal justice system, then restoring suffrage to an ex-con must be part of that thinking.
“So, OK, we are not perfect, but we have near universal suffrage. Why then don’t we have a democracy? In what way do the people NOT rule themselves?”
Because those who put themselves forward to be our elected representatives must be pre-approved by a few of us, those with lots of cash that they will trade for power and influence and privilege. Because no matter who is elected, he will be so beholden to his most generous donors that what you and I need him to do does not matter a good god-damn. And because K Street (the street address for all the super-lobbyists in Washington, DC) writes all the important legislation that finds its way out of committee. Because in the end, Congress is not a one-person, one-vote institution, it is a one-dollar, one-vote institution. And you and I and 300 million other Americans cannot compete with the billions of dollars that a handful of corporations toss into the political arena year after year after year. And every million that they invest in politics rewards them with a billion in extra revenues, or a billion saved in costs or taxes.
Books have been written on this subject and I have contributed my own, so I will not belabor the point here; except to make that point one more time: the federal government is owned by big money, especially corporate money. And to say that undermines the notion that we live in a democracy – where We the People rule – is to state the obvious.
“Are you suggesting, in a paraphrase of Donald J Trump, that we have to ‘make America a democracy again’”?
No, because perhaps the people have never truly ruled; perhaps we have had periods in our history where our elected representatives voted to do good by the people (the Progressive Era, the New Deal), but corporate interests were never forgotten. We have been a sham democracy from the start. But realizing that unhappy fact does not excuse you or me from working to put in its place a real democracy, where you and I and our neighbors all have a voice that is equal to the voices of the Koch brothers or George Soros.
Monarchy – rule by one man, even if he is a benevolent man – calls out for revolt. Why? Because it is rule by one man, as though one man had been anointed by God to rule over us; it is a slander against humanity that one man should be so blessed. Aristocracy – rule by a few, rule by the best, even if they are a benevolent few who look out for everyone’s interests – calls out for revolt. Why? Because it is rule by a few of us, and who is to say who are the best among us? And because it is a slander against humanity that a few men should be so blessed. Democracy – rule by the many, rule by all of us, self-rule – is the only form of government that does not call out for revolt. Indeed, revolt against a democracy is a revolt of the few against the many, and who says that they are better than the rest of us? Only they do. But a sham democracy – a system that boasts universal suffrage but whose real rulers hide behind a curtain – is not a democracy, it is an oligarchy and it screams out for revolt, it screams out for a Democracy Movement!
Democracy is not perfect, it will make mistakes because humans are not perfect, they are flawed, they are weak, they are short-sighted. Many are uneducable, some by choice. (Personally, I would make suffrage, the right to vote, a privilege that must be earned by each citizen. How can we insist that an immigrant – a Swede, a German, a Mexican, a Russian – who wants to become an American citizen must earn his citizenship by passing a test about our nation and its political institutions? How can we at the same time exempt those who are born into citizenship from having the same minimum understanding of who we are?) Nonetheless, I would rather trust the masses of democracy – stupid, ignorant and uneducable that some may be – with the great questions of our species’ survival and improvement than trust a few “superior” human beings who have never in human history really looked out for anyone but themselves, a few Nero’s fiddling while Rome burns.
“OK, I get it. The unfulfilled promise of this great nation that I love is that it become a real democracy. What has to be done, and how can I help?”
The source of our national corruption is how big money corrupts elections and how big money corrupts the legislative process. We have to build a wall of separation between big money and the political world. The first milestone that we must work toward is passage of a Constitutional Amendment (the next amendment will be the 28th) that asserts 1) that only natural persons have Constitutional Rights (no corporation, no union, no artificial association of any kind – has Constitutional “rights”; they each have “privileges” that we citizens grant them, under the laws that we write) and 2) that money is never protected speech under the First Amendment (if you want to speak, get up on that soapbox and speak; but when a TV ad costs millions, that kind of speech is not protected under the First Amendment, as it is only available to the few who can pay the price; corporations do not have the right to vote, why should they have the right to influence elections?). What we all need to do is prepare ourselves for a long war – perhaps a ten-year war – because the big money interests that we want to shut down will fight us every step of the way. We must educate ourselves, for otherwise we will not be able to resist their siren song of “liberty,” even though liberty for them means slavery for us. We must work to force our state legislatures to do our bidding: we want an “Article V Convention” where our representatives from all 50 states come together to build that wall of separation. And at the same time we must build our movement and show our growing strength by coming together in Washington, DC every year until Congress really gets it, until all Americans truly get it. We have a democracy to build.
I wrote a book To My Countrymen and I write a blog Common Sense for the 21st Century to help you become better citizen soldiers for the war ahead. Try them out, see if they work for you.
A proper Citizenship implies participation from its citizens. But without a real democracy to act in, our voices are swept away in a gentle wind.
My friend, if YOU are worthy of the honorific “citizen,” you have work to do. Get to it! Our Democracy Movement needs you!!
Get on board!!!