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A functioning democracy is a very hard thing to love, and even harder to trust

By Louis Black, Fri., Oct. 22, 2004


I

A functioning democracy is a very hard thing to love, and even harder to trust. This is the most awkward time to defend democracy. The current administration is the worst of my lifetime, with policies so destructive and ill-conceived that it will be generations before this country recovers. Noticeably, though President Bush cannot acknowledge making any major mistakes, the centerpiece of his campaign is discrediting Kerry rather than celebrating his achievements. It seems likely that sophisticated Republican polling indicates the American public is unhappy with Bush and worried about the consequences of some of his actions, but they view a Kerry presidency as potentially much worse. Maybe not; maybe they just love Bush.

Democracy, in the abstract – as a philosophical proposition about citizens and government – is beautifully rendered. Reading the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights is always intellectually stunning. This democracy is easy to love, and there are many willingly and loudly proclaiming such love.

Real-world democracy is repulsive; as with a hot dog, it tastes okay only if you don't know what went into it. The closer you look, the more stomach-turning are its contents. As we experience it, democracy is nearly impossible to love.

The charge is made that, because it has been twisted, corrupted, and subverted, democracy is failing, if it has not almost completely failed. It's been consciously sabotaged and deliberately crippled by politicians and voters, narrowly focused special interests, and uncontrolled big money.

Many who pledge their love of democracy still feel that no allegiance is owed our government – that this "democracy" is not really democratic, but a pathetic pretext, earning no obligation for citizens to participate.

Today, all sides and shades of democracy's greatest champions mourn its passing. Those excited about the U.S. creating a democracy in Iraq would just as soon limit the rights of dissenters at home. Truly populist champions argue the system is so distorted as to be completely untrustworthy. Ideologues who despair at political correctness and affirmative action worry that the right to vote is too easily rendered.

INTERLUDE – An Exchange:

"When did it function better?"

"In the past," is the common response.

"Was this 150 years ago, when slavery existed, or 100 years ago, when women didn't have the vote, or 50 years ago, when the remnants of old-time political machines ran the cities and segregation restricted voting rights in the South?"

"Well, it's not working now."

There are many reasons offered for this failure, most revolving around the notion that the government we have does not really represent what the people want/believe. In this country – though it is a democracy with guarantees in regard to beliefs, speech, and rights – (a. a significant chunk, b. a majority, c. almost all, d. other) of the American public believes as I do, even if they express this by neither vote, demonstration, nor poll. Unfortunately, because of (a. money, b. political propaganda, c. big business, d. the media's left-wing bias, e. the media's status-quo bias, f. other) the public's power has been neutralized, their voting discouraged, and rights suppressed.

Some believe the government is too under the sway of liberals; others feel the right wing has dishonestly taken control. All sides feel the others' ideologies, carefully disguised, have been forced down the throats of the American people. Almost everyone agrees money pollutes the system, and most agree that a significant portion of the public can't be trusted – although which portion and the exact reasons why they can't vary.


II

Some observations gathered from columnists and e-mails. See end of column for key.

1. "The public's failure to reject a President who apparently lies easily about his very intentions will testify to its passivity, inviting the immediate and brutal crushing of even mild dissent – for starters. ...

"Many think their best option in a world run by thugs is to align themselves with the most powerful thugs. No one knows better than we that this choice stems from fear and desperation. A significant number of the fearful seem willing – in fact hungry – to be persuaded not to give in to it. During the 60s, old political radicals learned to their surprise that hippies' philosophy of decency, of simply not wanting to live in a cynical mean-spirited world, had real power. Apparently, it still does. Therefore you must help me to encourage citizens not to aid and abet their own debasement. We must cast our spiritual votes for humanity – even though they won't count (not only because we're fictitious as well as dead). The getting-richer wealthy need evidence that the vast numbers of citizens growing poorer lack neither teeth nor souls. This may give pause to the cynical among the former, and heart to those who at some deep level wish, as most Americans do, for the anthem to be beautiful at last."

2. "Political 'debate' in this country is insufferable. Whether conducted in Congress, on the political talk shows, or played out at dinners and cocktail parties, politics is a nasty sport. At the risk of giving away the ending: It's all liberals' fault."

3. "The unprincipled, profit-driven, spineless Democrats are 'directly responsible for the demise of democracy.' They've largely sold out their constituents because they are addicted to campaign contributions. Nader wouldn't have a chance if they had someone to vote for that they believed in."

4. "As there is less to dispute, liberals have become more bitter and angry. The Soviet threat has been vaporized, women are not prevented from doing even things they should be, and the gravest danger facing most black Americans today is the risk of being patronized to death.

"The liberal catechism includes a hatred of Christians, guns, the profit motive, and political speech and an infatuation with abortion, the environment, and race discrimination (or in the favored parlance of liberals, 'affirmative action'). Heresy on any of these subjects is, well, heresy. The most crazed religious fanatic argues in more calm and reasoned tones than liberals responding to statistics on concealed-carry permits. ...

"Rarely had the great divide in the country been so manifest. Liberals hate America, they hate 'flag-wavers,' they hate abortion opponents, they hate all religions except Islam (post 9/11). Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do. They don't have the energy. If they had that much energy, they'd have indoor plumbing by now."

5. "A new Cato Institute study conducted by Ilya Somin, an assistant professor of law at George Mason University, concludes that voters are ignorant about the candidates and their positions and do not know enough about the issues to make an informed choice. ...

"Somin adds, 'Particularly significant is the fact that, on many issues, the majority is not only ignorant of the truth, but actively misinformed. For example, 61 percent believe that there has been a net loss of jobs in 2004, 58 percent believe that the administration sees a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and 57 percent believe that increases in domestic spending have not contributed significantly to the current federal budget deficit.'

"The Bush administration has repeatedly denied a link between 9/11 and Saddam, but this fact is not getting through to most voters, and job growth continues upward."

6. "In terms of voting, it's a shame you haven't used your column to promote democracy and educate folks on the anti-democratic processes that comprise a system of disenfranchisement for most Americans. As previously stated, the Electoral College and our voting systems are prime examples. Fundamental change is required to empower people. The two-party system is anti-democratic. Instead, your anti-Nader arguments support this undemocratic duopoly. The truth is, as an anti-Bush Texan, my vote will not count in the presidential election. You can promote anti-democratic processes in the name of some illogical strategy ...".


III

It's scary to trust the voters, terrifying to have confidence in the masses. Why do you think so many progressive revolutionary movements, if successful, end up running totalitarian governments? The people can't be trusted, loyalists to the old governments actively conspire against the new government, and traitors abound. Better to have a focused, in-control government during the transition and educate the citizenry so they'll be responsible voters. Think about Iraq or the hard-right view of the American left.

Democracy is democracy. We live in a flawed, imperfect world and are flawed, imperfect people. Not surprisingly, our social, political, and economic systems reflect our failings.

Our standards are unreal. We want a democratically elected government that represents all the people to operate from our viewpoint and prioritize our concerns.

If we're Tom DeLay, we don't trust democracy; so we gerrymander to support Republicans – just as the Democrats did when they were in control. If you support Nader, then it's more important that you vote your conscience rather than trust democracy. More important than the lives of Iraqi men, women, and children; of American troops; the environment; the health, well-being, and education of poor children; freedom of choice; the social safety net; job opportunities for the undereducated and working poor is that you feel good about yourself. Now, that's democracy!


IV

No easy conclusions here – not a healing or an optimistic interpretation. The problem is that the far-right stereotype about progressives such as myself is at least partially right. I really do think all mankind shares common concerns and characteristics, though not in a hug-a-terrorist-and-find-a-friend or all-we-need-to-do-is-sing-"Kumbaya" way. Look at how often parents and children, brothers and sisters, and family members enter into bitter dispute. Consider the emotional violence accompanying many divorces, even when the couple has been together for decades. Witness the uneasy working state of this country.

With different races, religions, social customs, and political visions added to the mix, the territory becomes even more densely inhospitable. Not next decade or even necessarily this century, but sooner or later, we'll try – awkwardly, deceitfully, incompetently – to govern this planet together.

Now, if this is right, stop and think: When this country was threatened and feared for its safety, it turned to the right. If this country were invaded, especially by a force of infidels, how would the most die-hard, anti-government activists react? Not by welcoming the invaders. Now think of Iraq ... end story

Key To Quotes: 1. E-mail, 2. Ann Coulter, 3. E-mail, 4. Ann Coulter, 5. Cal Thomas, 6. “Postmarks”

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