Framing a False Democracy
Our nation has never been fully democratic. It started with the killing of the native people on the continent followed closely by the enslavement of African people. There was elite rule from the beginning, including a class system and indentured servitude. Voting was limited to white, male land owners over the age of 21. Black male slaves, not women slaves, got the franchise in 1865 and women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Citizens didn’t get to vote for Senators until 1913. The Senate itself is not representative, giving too much power to less-populated states. And the wealthy have always had more influence on elections; after a brief up-tick in political participation from the early 1960s to early 1970s, our nation is less democratic than ever.
Evidence of our less than democratic nation comes from the way we frame our democracy in the media and everyday conversations. They include some of the following troubling and misleading ideas.
Battleground State/Swing State:
If some states are “battleground states”, than others aren’t competitive at all. There were about 12 battleground states this election. The population of those states amounts to approximately 14% of the population of the nation and only a portion of those residents are eligible to vote. Moreover, only about a third of the eligible voters voted in the 2014 midterm election. That leaves less than 5% of the population of the nation having votes for Senate that mattered, and that is not democratic. This could be fixed by eliminating the Senate, instituting proportional representation, and banning gerrymandering. See: The End of Elections for more on this.
“Pundits”, corporate media talking heads hired to tell us what to think, tell us that the nation is not only replete with “battleground” states, but that some states are red and some are blue. They talk as if this is the natural course of things, the only way things can be.
What this means, however, is that not everyone’s vote matters in all elections. If you are a Democrat in a red state, your vote doesn’t make a difference, especially for president and the Senate and vice versa for Republicans in Blue states. For example, if you are a Democratic leaning voter in Tucson, AZ (a “red” state) or a Republican leaning voter in Stockton, CA (a “blue” state), your statewide votes for president and Senate don’t matter because these votes are for a winner-take-all, first past the gate election. Your one vote will make no difference in the outcome of the election. Large segments of the population are disenfranchised because of this system and our blue state, red state divide. In fact, all states are purple, and some are even partly green. Without proportional representation, the minority in these states are de facto disenfranchised.
The Two Party System:
The media talks about this as if the more than 315 million people in the United States can all fit under one of two political parties. And about 15% of U.S. residents think that it’s the best system, that it’s working. The best system for what, buying elections? What it does is allow minority rule.
Even though a majority of Florida voters didn’t vote for Rick Scott, the Republican governor was reelected. Gina Raimondo, Democrat, was elected governor of Rhode Island with only 40.8% of the votes. The two-party system creates less than democratic outcomes with candidates that win with less than 50% of the vote.
The Economist agrees, “AMERICA'S two-party system is a creaking monstrosity that has helped bring its politics to a grinding halt. The country urgently needs a nationally competitive third party (if not a fourth and a fifth) …the two-party system induces ideological rigidity.”
The only way to have a multiparty system is if the two party monopoly, the duopoly, passes laws that would lead to genuine competition against them, third parties. There is little hope that the duopoly will vote to decrease their power and influence.
Voter fraud was less that 0.00000002% between the years of 2001 and 2010; there were only 13 verifiable cases in over 640 million votes. However, many in the public believe the voter fraud lie because it gets play on the Internet and discussed by Republicans, conservatives and talking heads on television.
Many people don’t understand what an anomaly, let alone the meaning of statistical insignificance, and they see these 13 (out of 640 million) cases as a major problem. Thus, restrictive voting laws get passed by Republicans trying to limit Democratic votes (ibid). From 2001 and 2010, “...nearly 1,000 bills that would tighten voting laws have been introduced in 46 states, and since 2011, 24 voting restrictions have gone into effect in 17 states, including battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.” (ibid) These laws are not about protecting the sanctity of voting, they are about limiting voting access for people who favor Democrats: Blacks, young voters, Latinos, Native Americans, and the poor.
Capitalism means Democracy:
This lie is a classic that conflates democracy and capitalism. All we have to do is look at China’s love affair with capitalism and disdain for democracy to see that this is not true. But somehow, many Americans feel it is true for the U.S., that restrictions or regulations of even the mildest form on capitalism means we are anti-democratic. In fact, a nation being able to regulate capital to protect the rights of average citizens is a highlight of democracy.
Foreign Affairs Magazine tells us that, “Authoritarian capitalist great powers played a leading role in the international system up until 1945. They have been absent since then. But today, they seem poised for a comeback.” While they focus on the clearly authoritarian capitalism of Russia and China, the history of capitalism has been authoritarian. There have been only brief periods when the rule of capital was challenged in the U.S. with any success: the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights period. We now live under capitalist control of politics that we haven’t seen since before the Great Depression.
Economic freedom equals Political freedom:
This thinking is exemplified in the guest editorial by Chris Coyne in The Economist, “To reiterate the connection between capitalism and democracy, free markets tend to foster democracy because private property, which is central to any notion of capitalism, produces a sphere of autonomy that grants each individual certain liberties. Private property disperses power and shields each person from coercion. Further, well-defined property rights tend to encourage the emergence of private civil associations.” I guess even the less well off who can't afford property are free because at least they have the right to own things. Perhaps Coyne should visit the sweat shops of Guam, Myanmar, China, Guatemala and other nations where people live without water and in filth on less than a dollar a day.
Coyne’s ideas are merely wishful thinking not based in the reality of international capitalism. How does working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week making toys for rich people in rich nations grant, “certain liberties.” His statements are a clear example of the thinking that gets promoted when selling the myth that economic freedom equals political freedom.
More up-to-date thinking on capitalism states that, “Now some scholars argue that a free market can actually undermine democracy." Capitalism in the past 30 plus years has only increased inequality and damaged democracy in the United States. In many regions and nations of the world, capitalism has brought nothing but suffering.
Ever since higher profits and stock prices could be guaranteed and increased through laying off workers, the link between national prosperity and democracy has been severed. After WWII, effective use of manual, i.e. factory labor, increased profits for companies and lead to decent wages for workers. In the new economy, most skilled workers are no longer needed. Workers are now non-essential, interchangeable low-skilled parts that are easily replaced in most profit making enterprises. Decoupling much of labor from profit has lead to further authoritarianism and bigger profits for corporations. This limits the power of labor participation in unions and influence on governments. Governments no longer need to respond to workers to stay in power. They manage well by coupling with the banks, Wall Street and other large firms.
Inequality Threatens Capitalism:
Capitalism's tenuous link to equality has been severed as the means of profit-taking has evolved from industrialization to communications and computers to hyper-market hedge funds and speculation. Some modern economists like Paul Krugman still believe that free markets will save us. The truth is inequality doesn’t threaten capitalism since profit has been detached from labor and consumer spending. Hedge fund managers and speculators do quite well making money off of capital speculation from around the world. This raises GDP thought it does not improve the living standards of the lower classes. This change in the labor market leads to deskilled workers and low-wage jobs (for those still working) for about 26% of the population.
Inequality does, however, threaten our democracy. Poor people participate less in politics, and with the Citizens United ruling, money has more influence in our elections than ever. Congress listens to those with money, not the poor. In fact, as Princeton Professor of political science, Larry Bartels points out, “…the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.” Moreover, “The increasingly unequal distribution of income – and the even more unequal distribution of wealth – are problematic for a democratic system to the extent that economic inequality engenders political inequality.” (ibid)
We can extrapolate from Professor Bartels' data that as income inequality and poverty increases, Congress, specifically the Senate, will be responsive to fewer and fewer people since the views of the poor are “utterly irrelevant.”
Free Trade will Improve our Economic Standing, and It’s Democratic:
Even Nobel Prize-winning economic Paul Krugman has this one wrong; free trade does not lift all boats. NAFTA, for example, lead to a loss of at least 1 million jobs, higher income inequality and a higher trade deficit.
A major consequence of “free trade” is that it gives more power to transnational corporations and thus undermines democracy. While NAFTA allowed some corporations to ignore environmental and labor standards of nations that signed onto the trade pact, the new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact would go much further. According to Public Citizen, the TPP would limit the ability of consignees to regulate corporations, allows nations like the U.S. to extend tax incentives to firms that offshore labor, increases the ability of corporations to skirt local, state and national laws and allows foreign corporations to seek compensation for the cost of complying to U.S. environmental regulations. Under the TPP, national sovereignty would have to bow even further to transnational corporations.
More on the TPP here: http://www.citizen.org/TPP
If democracy is majority rule and minority rights, we are not a democratic nation. We don’t have majority rule; not even a majority votes in elections. Moreover, we don’t defend the rights of minorities equally. And laws in recent years have been written to increase the power and influence of transnational corporations. We must stop believing these lies about our democracy, educate each other, and abandon the duopoly.