Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Failure of Democracy

Democracy doesn't work if people don't vote. And voter apathy, not only in America but around the world, is undermining attempts to put political power in the hands of the people, all of the people.

But the very word "democracy" is put into question by claims from Bush & Co. that they are promoting democracy in the Middle East, when in fact they are staging sham elections in Iraq and ignoring elected leaders in Palestine. This is of a piece with the murder of the meaning of "freedom," when they claim that the "terrorists hate freedom." Seeing this misuse of language in the media, I no longer know what the words mean, beyond flags for undending warfare.

These thoughts are further reflections on the recent talk by Bill Moyers reported here yesterday. Moyers says he is obsessed by democracy, and argues that it is more than "what we were taught in high school civics -- more than the two-party system, the checks-and-balances, the debate over whether the Electoral College is a good idea." Behind all that is "the radical idea that democracy is not just about the means of governance but the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency." Citing President Woodrow Willson, Moyers says that either "we take democracy into our own hands, or others will take democracy from us."

At that is what is happening today. Powerful interests, business and religious elites, are destroying democracy. And we are letting them get away with it by neglecting one of our most important tools, the ballot box.

California has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation, Moyers says, basing this on a recent article by Steven Hill in the San Francisco Chronicle which reports on several studies of voter participation and attitudes. The less than eight million who vote (out of a population of 39 million) are older, richer, whiter and more educated than the 12 million of registered and non-registered (but eligible) who do not show up at the polls. Frequent voters are more conservative. In most elections, little more than a third of eligible voters participate. All of this means that about 15% of adults make the political decisions in California, and they hardly resemble the state overall. There are two Californias, one that votes and the other that does not, and only a handful of voters elect political leaders who divide up the pie.

This is not a democracy where everyone has an equal say in the political process, even if we ignore campaign financing inequalities, along with powerful pressure groups that influence those few willing to vote. And California is not unusual; the problem is endemic. Moyers writes that "because our system feeds on campaign contributions, the powerful and the privileged shape it to their will. Only 12% of American households had incomes over $100,000 in 2000, but they made up 95% of the substantial donors to campaigns and have been the big winners in Washington ever since."

The election in 2008 will be the most expensive in American history with billions of dollars changing hands. Even the Democrats are rejecting public financing so they can raise more money to match the Repubican largesse. The rich, Moyers writes, cannot "see beyond their own perogatives. Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs, charities and congregations -- fiercely loyal, in other words, to their own kind," they narrowly define "membership in democracy to include only people like them." This means that they will vote to defend their money, their position and their privilege, doing whatever they can to deny the poor, the homeless, the illegals and the hedonistic young a share of their pie.

Moyers does not provide a solution to this quagmire, every bit as serious as the one in Iraq, beyond urging his audience to organize. And once organized, to vote the bastards out (I added that). Quite frankly, I don't see what can turn around voter apathy. We gave the vote to young people, and their turnouts are worse than all other categories, despite get out the vote campaigns on MTV. People act out of their interests, and the young are mostly interested in immediate pleasure rather than long-term goals. I think the poor and dispossesed in this country generally feel disspirited and powerless. Where are the leaders who might turn this around?

What will wake this country up?

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