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Democracy in America Today

Democracy in America Today          Gerry OShea

The French aristocrat, Alex de Tocqueville, visited the United States in the 1830’s and wrote about his experiences in Democracy in America. Although very liberal for his time, he worried whether what he called “the tyranny of the majority” would bring down the whole American experiment with democracy. He feared that allowing all men to vote (we were still seventy years from women getting the franchise) would lead to the untutored masses introducing some of the revolutionary ideas that were percolating all over Europe in those years.

He needn’t have worried because America never embraced any kind of proletarian agenda. In fact, for the last half century immense power has been garnered by unrepresentative special interest groups who often thwart proposals favored by a majority of the people.

This recent type of governance in America is aptly called a plutocracy, a system where rich people dictate public policies that largely benefit their own interests. No wonder that two years ago the prestigious Economist magazine downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one.

 On April 20th, 1999, twelve students and one teacher were mowed down by two disgruntled senior pupils in Columbine High School in Colorado. There was a national outcry that two eighteen-year-olds had access to such deadly weaponry, and big demonstrations were held all over the country demanding legal prohibitions that would, at least, make it very difficult for teenagers to get weapons.

A study carried out after the high school massacre revealed that 89% of Americans, including a clear majority of gun owners, favored compulsory background checks for all gun purchasers and a federal ban on the sale of military assault weapons. Still, there has been no change in the law, and, in fact, since Columbine more than 200,000 children have been threatened or attacked by people carrying guns in the United States.

Why has the Congress not acted on an issue that enjoys such widespread support? The answer centers on a powerful minority spuriously arguing that any interference with gun ownership would inevitably lead to the erosion of constitutional rights. Instead, in a masterful fudge, they point the finger at the need for better mental health programs to prevent perpetrators from engaging in hostile anti-social behavior.

The National Rifle Association(NRA) has a significant lobbying presence in Washington, and they write big checks for legislators who agree to follow their promptings. Ironically, a clear majority of NRA members favor strong new prohibitions on gun ownership.

The Pelosi-led House passed legislation to require a background check on all gun purchasers plus a ban on the sale of military-style weapons. That bill sits on Senator McConnell’s desk and he has shown no inclination to defy the NRA and allow a vote on it in the Senate.

There are other issues that enjoy widespread popular support but are consigned to legislative limbo because of the power of special interests. These include implementing the Paris Climate Accord which a clear majority of citizens agree with as they do strongly with Obamacare, which Trump and his conservative allies want the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional.

 Liberal democracy is anchored on the idea that the wishes of the majority trump all other considerations in the formulation of public policy. The masses of Americans have not become illiberal on most issues, but economic elites have taken over and they are focused only on maintaining and enhancing their own moneyed power.

A sense of economic fairness for all citizens is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. That principle was mostly accepted by American leaders until the 1970’s. When Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, was in the White House in the 1950’s the highest tax rate hovered around 94%, and he never tried to change that because he thought that if workers on modest wages had to pay income tax, then the big earners had to contribute to the treasury at a much higher level.

Warren Buffett, the investment tycoon with 90 billion dollars in his personal bank account, calls attention to the astounding fact that his secretary pays a higher percentage of her income in taxes than he does. President Trump refuses to release his personal tax data to the public because he fears that showing these figures would enrage his followers who, in all probability, would see how little he has paid over the years.

A proper estate tax, collected after the individual’s death, clearly benefits the exchequer and helps to prevent the perpetuation of wealth. Winston Churchill spoke well when he praised this tax as a “corrective against the development of a race of idle rich.” Andrew Carnegie also warned that falling into inherited wealth “deadens the talents and energies” of the recipient.

All that conservative wisdom is now disregarded in America to the serious detriment of the treasury with the estate tax reduced to a mere 0.2% of all estates. The PR campaign against it for the last few decades was brilliantly contrived. They called it a “death tax” and successfully conned most people into believing that such a levy on the deceased is contrary to common sense and tainted with cruelty.

 Mention of Warren Buffett brings to mind that he and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos together have more wealth than over 50% of the American population. On the other side, up to 10,000 cars formed last weekend at food lines in San Antonio. A similar appalling situation prevailed in many cities. Most of these people are workers who are unable to feed their families without a job. Is this a country to be proud of?

Over 40% of employees cannot pay an unexpected bill for a few hundred dollars. A recent study by researchers in Boston College reveals that three out of four American workers aged from 50 to 62 do not have an employer-paid pension or healthcare policy for retirement.

 Twenty-five million Americans, many of them working for a minimum wage, do not have insurance if they need to see a doctor or go to a hospital for treatment. Many of these low-paid workers are the ones who in the current COVID 19 crisis are performing really dangerous work, delivering food, packing shelves in supermarkets or cleaning the hospitals and subways. No other Western country would tolerate this situation where such workers don’t even have access to preventive care or a bed in a hospital.

Young people are rebelling against the status quo. In a recent poll 61% of citizens aged between 18 and 24 reacted more positively to a socialist over a capitalist agenda. And, overall, in a different study 47% of people declared that they would seriously consider voting for a “well-qualified socialist.” Statistics like these would have been unthinkable in America just twenty years ago.

Capitalism and greed are inextricably linked. The philosophy of pulling any string to accumulate wealth and status is rife among the moneyed class. They crave preferential treatment. Big money opens doors in Washington and other centers of power, and companies write large checks to enhance the privileges of the already-privileged. And let the devil take the hindmost!

In a real democracy the good of the community has to take precedence over private gain. The minimum wage must be raised to at least $20 an hour because no citizen can hope to pay bills on less, housing has to be affordable for a decent life, mass incarceration of non-violent citizens makes no sense and must end, student debt has to be at least partially relieved and environmental protection must become a priority. Without major progress in these areas we will continue as a seriously-flawed democracy. The current COVID19 crisis has shaken up the whole economic system as well as engulfing the people in fear of a rampant and deadly pathogen.  Perhaps in emerging from this dark night we will insist on a more thoughtful society that values policies promoting the common good over all other considerations.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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