America’s Pseudo-Democracy

U.S. pundits mock countries, like Iran or China, where candidates are screened before they go on the ballot, but America has a similar approach, with candidates needing approval from plutocrats and special interests. But that’s just one problem of U.S. democracy, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Given the dangerous results of the recent election in the United States – one that saw the Republicans, a right-wing party increasingly populated with neocon warmongers, reactionaries and plutocrats take control of both houses of Congress – it might be time to take a look at a sober look at U.S. democracy.

We can begin be taking note of the generic observation made by Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worse form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The implication here is that democracy is really not the God-blessed system so many of Americans take it to be.

Mr. Moneybags from the "Monopoly" game

Mr. Moneybags from the “Monopoly” game

For instance, the public in a democracy is just as vulnerable to manipulation by various elites and interest groups as are those in non-democratic environments. The difference is that a democracy has a built-in procedure that allows citizens to have second thoughts about past manipulation. Thus they can kick out the bastards they were originally persuaded to kick in – even if it is often only to replace them with a new set of bastards.

This repeated procedure results in a time limit on the damage elected leaders can do. It is, of course, possible that democratically elected politicians can come close to ruining a nation (their own as well as others) even given their limited tenure.

The Recent Election

The recent election results tell us a lot about the weak points of democracy as practiced in the U.S. For instance, there is the fact that, at any particular time, one-half to two-thirds of Americans are paying little or no attention to what is going on in the public realm. They do not know, and maybe they don’t care, who is making policy for their community, be it in the mayor’s office, the state house or the White House.

Yet, despite this disregard, they can be readily manipulated by their politicians using the media. This is often done through scare tactics involving innuendo and outright lies about things of which the populace is ignorant: weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, barbarian Russians in the Ukraine, terrorists in Israel/Palestine, and a more recent one, the danger of an allegedly pending Ebola plague in the U.S. The extent to which this sort of misinformation can be used to sway the opinion of an otherwise uncaring public is limited only by how much money candidates and their parties have to spend on media advertising.

Even with millions upon millions of dollars spent on campaigning, moving Americans to the polls, particularly in a mid-term election like the recent one, is like herding cats. In the last election only 36.4 percent of eligible voters turned out, the lowest turnout in 72 years. Such turnouts give an edge to those who have best mobilized their constituency. Both parties certainly do try to do this, but Republicans appear to have an edge.

That edge comes from an ideological orientation that drives many Republicans to actively oppose causes ranging from gun control, to abortion, to the regulatory power of the federal government, all of which is pursued in the name of maximum individual “freedom.” To exert such negative influence, hardcore Republican voters will turn out in great numbers, particularly in the U.S. South and Midwest.

There are other unseemly weaknesses as well, such as the gerrymandering of voting districts by whatever party controls a state legislature so as to minimize the number congressional districts controlled by the opposing party. Through gerrymandering you can win most of the congressional seats while losing the overall popular vote. This is actually a form of cheating, but to date it is legal.

And there is a certain level of stupidity that seems particular to the Democratic Party. The Democratic leadership has a real knack for designing platforms and campaigns that ignore the working class, rural poor and much of that part of the U.S. population that is left of center. We know the left-of-center folks are out there and active because during most national elections, a number of progressive local ballot initiatives are passed into law.

In more general terms what does this all tell us of U.S. democracy? Well, it tells us that, just like more authoritarian forms of government, it is a system that is open to officially sponsored deceit. It tells us that this lying and other forms of corruption have been so persistent over time that millions of Americans are alienated from the political process.

And, finally, it tells us that democracies are not immune to the harmful consequences of ideologies that quite often override national needs. One can see this in the influence of those who, for ideological reasons, stand in the way of rational gun control or seek to prevent the federal government from asserting necessary financial, business and environmental regulation.

Democracy and Foreign Policy

We should also remember Churchill’s observation that democracy is not a flawless political system when we consider the dubious claims made for popular government in the realm of foreign policy. For instance, the claim that democracies don’t war against each other.

This claim is not well thought through and therefore, at best, an over-simplification. For if democracies do not often wage open war against each other, the stronger ones seem to have no compunction about subverting weaker ones for strategic and/or economic reasons.

This behavior includes frequent efforts to transform independent democracies into compliant dictatorships. The United States has quite a record in this regard – an ironic fact because it proclaims that a central goal of its foreign policy is to spread democracy. If that were true, how would Washington account for the following?

In 1953 the U.S. government destroyed through subversion the democracy in Iran. In 1954 it did the same thing to the democracy in Guatemala. In 1956 the U.S. refused to go along with United Nations-sponsored free elections in Vietnam and instead backed an unpopular authoritarian regime in the south of that country.

In 1958 Washington sent marines onto the beaches of Lebanon to support a minority Christian party’s attempt to subvert that country’s constitution. In 1973 the U.S. was complicit in the overthrow of the elected government in Chile. Since the late 1990s the U.S. has been engaged in an effort to subvert the democratic government of Venezuela because it disapproved of Hugo Chevez, the elected president, and his successors. And, of course, the U.S. actively subverted the free and fair election held in Palestine in 2006.

There are other examples of this sort of behavior that can be given but these are sufficient to establish the fact that democracies do act with hostility toward one another. Thus, the proposition that if all the world’s nations were democracies there would be no armed conflict is very naive.

There is a recent study by researchers at Princeton University that concludes that the U.S. is no longer a democracy of voting citizens. Rather, it is an oligarchy of “rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene [who] now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.”

My take on this is only slightly different. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the United States was in fact a “democracy” of competing interest groups whose parochial goals override the national interest and/or those of ordinary citizens.

The average voter is an important constituent of his congressperson, senator, governor, or even mayor only for that short period of time when he or she must be convinced to cast a ballot. When that time is over, the voter recedes into the background and the real constituents are now powerful interest groups with the money to buy political access and influence. Those who control and represent these interest groups are part of this country’s ruling oligarchy.

Such is the pseudo-democracy most Americans hold so dear. It still has its virtues relative to more authoritarian forms of rule. However, these too may be shrinking.

After 9/11 the rule of law and freedom of speech in the U.S. have been compromised. You can still write an essay like this one, but if you work for the government or the mainstream press and divulge the government’s criminal excesses, you are likely to end up in jail or exile. These are precarious times and they don’t show American democracy in a very good light – a sobering picture indeed.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

11 comments for “America’s Pseudo-Democracy

  1. November 19, 2014 at 04:48

    I found the passage incorporating Churchill’s quote to be of poor construction, frankly. For one thing, there’s a good time for using the phrase “the people” and a bad time for using it without qualification. There are, for example, the people among “the people” who pay attention. And then there are those – I refer to them as the 99% of the 99% – who don’t. As in the Matrix, Those who are plugged into the system treat messengers from outside of it with suspicion and even attack them. Some of the 99% of the 99% are like that. Are we talking about ‘their’ view of democracy?

    And do we really want to imply that Winston ‘My empire right or wrong’ Churchill’s concept of democracy is one we should embrace?

  2. Bob Loblaw
    November 18, 2014 at 17:04

    Then there was that inconvenient study at a prestigious university that concludes America is an Oligarchy.

    This is no co-incidence.

    Rage Against the Extreme nailed it 20 years too early.

  3. John Puma
    November 18, 2014 at 12:33

    The corporate-owned media is mentioned only in regards its role in giving time directly purchased by politicians but not as the much more continuous, and insidious, propaganda arm of its owners.

  4. Peter Loeb
    November 17, 2014 at 07:40

    In many western countries (eg US) there is a presumption that “democracy” is
    a requirement of nations. The US does not have a “democracy”
    ( undefined here). Examining the many members of the UN, shows that
    most do not have “democracies” in practice (some do in form only)
    Instead, the US is a combination of the powerful (See Gabriel Kolko).
    In addition the US party is irrelevant—except for the party faithful. See Kolko
    (several works), Noam Chomsky, Naseer H. Aruri in “DISHONEST BROKER…”
    George Orwell once wrote: “All men are created equal but some are more
    equal than others.” This as a more accurate starting point than Winston
    Churchill’s oft-quoted saying.

    More significant than “localism” etc. is that fact that citizens live in political
    environments designed by the powerful and their interests. No one can make
    a judgement based on facts not presented. In the recent US election foreign
    policy was never an issue. This includes Palestine, Ukraine,China etc.
    Such a design of the nature of events facilitates the “manufacture of consent”
    and “thought control” (see Noam Chomsky) .In fact, it is more informing to consider
    different political parties over many years. In the US many Administrations
    contributed to the current situation in Palestine/Israel with the Bill Clinton
    administration(Dem.) probably taking the prize (See Aruri, op cit).
    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Tombstone Gabby
    November 16, 2014 at 13:07

    Why do you think that we live in a democracy?

    As I recall, the Pledge of Allegiance uses the word “Republic” – and it is a “Constitutional Republic”, not even a “Democratic Republic”.

    Just asking…..

    • s. keeling
      November 17, 2014 at 04:58

      USA is a democratically elected republic, or a form of democracy. The word Republic doesn’t convey a lot of speacial meaning to it. Read a dictionary.

      • Bob Loblaw
        November 18, 2014 at 17:01

        But calling the USA a republic makes the GOPers feel so much superior!

    • John Puma
      November 18, 2014 at 12:27

      When those in power begin justifying their global perpetual war as “making the world safe for constitutional republicanism,” then we just might consider an answer.

  6. Oliver K. Manuel
    November 16, 2014 at 11:45

    Worldwide deception of the public may end if we get answers to questions about strange events surrounding the formation of the UN on 24 Oct 1945.

    The next year, on 3 Oct 1946, David Snell wrote an article in the Atlanta Constitution concerning Japan’s atomic bomb program at Konan and its atomic test off the east coast on 12 Aug 1945.

    In researching their book, “The Flight of the Hog Wild,” Bill Streifer and Irek Sabitov recently discovered a response from Izvestia – the official Communist newspaper of the Soviet Union – published ten days later on 13 Oct 1946:

    I cannot read Russian myself, but I understand Izvestia called the Atlanta Constitution article “delirium” and described the author – David Snell – a “provocateur.”

    Hopefully you or one of your readers can confirm/deny the validity of that translation.

    [Bill Streifer said the full citation is “The Chain Reaction” (Цепная Реакция) by B. Ilyin (Б. Ильин), as part of a selection of related articles under the title “On Topics of Foreign Life” (На темы зарубежной жизни), Izvestia, Oct. 13, 1946, p. 4.]

  7. John
    November 15, 2014 at 16:43

    Excellent article, and a sad truth.

  8. November 15, 2014 at 14:33

    Corporatism plus reaction defines the Republican Party very well. This is the definition of fascism by Generalissimo Benito Mussolini. Fascism in American politics explains much of what seems counter-intuitive, stupid, or evil in elections, fear-mongering by the Right and Democratic Party cowardice, Obama’s leadership shortcomings, and a foreign policy of war and more war.

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