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Problems with American Democracy

 Problems with American Democracy               Gerry OShea

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came from France to America to examine the workings of the prison system in what was the first country to revolt successfully against colonial rule. He was intrigued by the experiment here in democracy and conceded that the Republican form of self-government seemed to work while failing to get traction anywhere in Europe.

Alexis came from an aristocratic family and because his parents were viewed as hostile to the French Revolution they were imprisoned in Paris during The Reign of Terror. Still, he lauded the stress on equality in the United States but, true to his family origins, he worried how all this democratic power in the hands of commoners would work out for the prosperous aristocracy, which he felt was still essential for a stable political system.

De Tocqueville worried about what he called “the tyranny of the majority.” He imagined that the mass of poor people could overwhelm the Establishment and lead the country in revolutionary directions. He needn’t have worried because the people at the top then and now are well entrenched in the power structure in America, and they have no intention of giving up their control of the economic system.

Ironically, in the recent presidential election, it was white voters from the lower end of the socio-economic scale who were Trump’s loudest supporters, espousing the conservative status quo and getting very agitated at the possibility of imaginary socialists taking over.

However, there is widespread concern about “a tyranny of the minority”, words that mimic De Tocqueville’s famous expression two hundred plus years ago. There is widespread concern about how majority beliefs and preferences are rarely acted on. Why are policies that benefit most families almost never implemented?

The lack of gun control in the United States provides an excellent example of why people are so frustrated with the democratic system. Every poll or survey of popular opinion points clearly to overwhelming agreement that anybody buying or indeed possessing a gun should have a license issued by a law enforcement authority. Another basic demand by sensible Americans concerns forbidding the purchase by any citizen of semi-automatic weapons developed for soldiers engaged in warfare.

These rules for gun ownership apply in all Western countries, but because of a liberal interpretation of a clause in the United States constitution allowing local militias to carry arms, Americans have little problem purchasing weapons of all kinds, especially at gun shows.

  Forceful lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which pours big sums of money into political campaigns, prevents the passage in Washington of almost any measures regulating the purchase or use of firearms.  Militias in Pennsylvania and Michigan feel fully entitled to show up in voting locations wearing MAGA caps and carrying military-style weapons in a clear effort at intimidation. Allowing these antics by extremists in a mature democracy is contrary to common sense but it  passes as lawful behavior in some parts of America.

Proponents of change argue convincingly that limiting access to weapons will reduce the gun killings in the US which, proportionate to size, far exceed the number of civilian deaths from weapons in, for instance, neighboring Canada; opponents of any movement forward in this area, led by the powerful NRA, always make the case that such legal restrictions would only prevent citizens from defending themselves.

The official reaction to the nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016 and to multiple school shootings in recent years is instructive. The initial community outrage and demand for strong new legislation was at first supported by President Trump but after meeting with Wayne LaPierre, the top man in the NRA, even minimal changes were put on the long finger, and instead the need for better mental health treatment was trotted out as a sop to a burgeoning constituency for change.

Another example of unfulfilled preferences by a majority of the citizens centers on the provision of healthcare in American society. Pew Research, which provides valuable insights on the feelings of people on a variety of important civic and political matters, recently surveyed a representative sample of Americans on this issue. The results confirmed previous studies showing that 63% of respondents believe that all legal residents of the country should be covered for their medical needs in order to live a healthy life.

This accords with prevailing practices in all other developed countries. The current system in America excludes millions of people but still costs far more per capita than comparable economies in Europe.

These two areas, gun control and healthcare, exemplify a major problem with democracy in the United States. In both cases a big majority of citizens want progressive change, but after four years of President Trump no proposal was even brought forward to deal with either area.

 The Democrats are not blameless as far as gun control is concerned. However, they can’t be faulted for the Affordable Care Act which greatly expanded the availability of hospital care and doctor treatment for families, but it was venomously opposed by Republicans who have an important case before the Supreme Court which seeks to overturn the ACA with no proposal to replace it.

Given the prevalence of slavery and the exclusion of women in ancient Athens, the earliest home of democracy, we should tread slowly in praising their system. However, it is noteworthy that Plato and Aristotle, both still on the curriculum in most universities worldwide, warned that their democracy would be futile if it excluded poor people from their legislature. Men who lost a day’s wages to participate in the Assembly in Athens were compensated to allow them to take time away from their jobs to perform their civic duties.

If one of those Athenian statesmen visited Washington today and saw a bunch of affluent people, most of them millionaires, make laws prompted by lobbyists with deep pockets, he would not be impressed.

Today, three billionaires – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett – have more wealth combined than about half of the total population of the United States. Even during the present pandemic the super-affluent class accumulate billions while workers in hospitals and supermarkets endanger their health every day to provide a critical service for the community with low remuneration in many cases. It is the way the system works.

In his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All) Pope Francis hones in on this abuse of political power. He re-affirms church teaching since the Middle Ages that the goods in the world belong to all the people and not, as applies in our present capitalist system, to a few owning and controlling much of the wealth while many millions get the crumbs from the table. When last did you hear a sermon dealing with that theme?

With disproportionate wealth comes abundant power at all government levels. The richest people purchase influence while everyone else struggles to be heard. And, true to form, the affluent successfully pushed the propaganda that estate taxes, in their words, “taxed the dead,” and people fell for that bit of fast talk so they reduced these taxes to meaningless amounts and now we have a full-blown hereditary aristocratic class and a reduced national treasury that somebody else has to replenish.

American democracy is crying out for renewal especially by incorporating a meaningful economic dimension. What does democracy mean to a man earning $12 an hour and trying to raise a family? The Democrats promise a modest increase in the minimum wage to $!5 an hour, but even that is being fiercely resisted by most of the plutocrats. What meaningful definition of democracy covers a worker who has no health insurance for herself or her children?

America at its best provides help for movements in Third-World countries aspiring to a democratic system. It is a real challenge to explain why in America the candidate who got three million fewer votes than his opponent actually won the election. Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court was rammed through by 52 senators representing 12 million fewer people than the 48 senators who voted against. Experts tell us that by 2040, with the expected growth in the population of the cities, 70% of the senators will represent just 30% of the American population.

 The Economist magazine, hardly a revolutionary publication, in its 2018 annual Democracy Index demoted the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one. There are indeed serious questions about the future of democracy in America.

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


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