Can American Democracy be Revived?

Stephen H. Unger
January 7, 2014

"These are the times that try men's souls." [1] Tom Paine wrote these words in December, 1776, when the success of the American revolution was highly questionable. They apply today, as the fruits of that revolution are clearly in great jeopardy. Here is an incomplete list of current soul-stressors:

  • Huge unemployment and under-employment, driven, in large part, by the de-industrialization of America

  • Gross, and growing, inequality in income and wealth, exceeding that in all other industrialized nations

  • A criminal "justice" system that has resulted in more Americans being imprisoned than people of any other nationality, including Russian and Chinese [2]

  • Inadequate and excessively expensive medical insurance, exposing most Americans to substantial risk of physical and/or financial ruin

  • Exposure to a growing list of inadequately tested chemicals, in our food, medications, and general environment

  • Utter failure to take effective action to deal with the problem of impending disastrous climate change driven by excessive emissions of greenhouse gases

  • Unending, undeclared wars

  • A bloated military establishment including hundreds of military bases in other nations, including Germany, Japan, Italy, Australia, Bulgaria, Bahrain, and Djibouti [3]

  • Americans, labeled as terrorists, and killed by their own government without a semblance of due process

  • Massive spying on Americans (and others) by the NSA and other government agencies, in gross violation of the Bill of Rights

  • Unprecedented number of prosecutions of government whistleblowers, with long sentences imposed [4]

  • A variety of constitutionally questionable methods for restricting people from traveling freely by air within or across our borders [5]

    The above list implies a government operating with little regard for the wellbeing of the general population, and for the democratic principles that motivated the founders of our country.

    The problem is not simply with the individuals currently in office, or with the particular political parties they represent. For the period encompassing at least the last three or four decades, perhaps since the Roosevelt administration, politicians from both major parties have been increasingly serving the interests of the corporate elite [6]. They differ only in rhetoric, and on a few issues that this elite has no particular position on (such as abortion rights, gun control, and gay marriage).

    Pleas versus demands

    A great many people are very unhappy about items on the above list. There have been numerous demonstrations and petitions protesting the wars, fracking, corporate greed, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty, offshore oil drilling, drone attacks, NSA dragnet snooping. Other such actions are in support of positions such as increasing the minimum wage, enacting single-payer health care, and taking effective action to substantially reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

    Such petitions and demonstrations serve several useful purposes. They educate the general public about the issues. They are important organizing tools, bringing together people with compatible views. They can help deepen understanding and commitment. But, tho valuable, having numerous people publicly urge that government act in same specified manner is rarely sufficient, by itself, to produce the desired result.

    The fate of the Occupy movement illustrated the weakness of relying on demonstrations unconnected to electoral action. It focussed entirely on issues and, in some cases, on direct action to address specific situations involving certain issues. For example, a group of occupiers might physically block the eviction by a bank of a family from their home But Occupy refrained from active participation in the 2012 election, thereby rendering itself irrelevant to the process that determined who would be in position to do something effective about the issues

    Elected officials, in both legislative and executive branches, are seldom moved by expressions of public opinion, unless they have good reason to believe that the expressers are likely to back up their views with votes. With regard to the above-mentioned issues, and others of a similar nature, there is no credible threat that the petitioners and activists would use their votes in this manner. They have rarely, if ever, done so in recent memory.

    In practice, tho their rhetoric is very different, both major parties are united in opposing the positions of the activists. Only by voting for candidates of third parties, who, at present, have no chance of winning, can people express their views at the polls. Relatively few are willing to do this. People who vote for, and possibly support in other ways, major party candidates who do not share their values, thereby lose any chance of significantly influencing events.

    Some people who act this way argue that supporting third party candidates is useless. The solution, they say, is to get better candidates nominated by the major parties. But there is no evidence that getting the major parties to field really good candidates is achievable. What we have seen is that, for decades, with very rare exceptions, the pool of major party candidates has been getting worse each election cycle. In fact, a case could be made that the best way to get the major parties to nominate better candidates would be to make third party candidates more competitive.

    Those who don't vote for candidates at least roughly in accord with their beliefs cannot effectively demand that the government change its ways. They can only beg that something be done about jobs, wars, assaults on civil liberties, environmental degradation, etc. Clearly, begging doesn't work.

    The voting dilemma and a possible solution

    The dominant philosophy of many voters has been to vote so as to minimize the likelihood that the front running candidates they consider to be the worst will be elected. In order to do this, they often vote for a candidate that they consider almost as bad, because no better candidate has a chance to win. During the run-up to the election, it is natural for them to try to see their chosen candidate in a favorable light. This attitude often persists if their candidate wins, to the point where they may change their positions on important issues to conform to those of the winner. So, instead of politicians adjusting their positions to conform to the views of voters, we have voters changing their views to match the positions of the politicians they voted for!

    An alternative is the straightforward approach: vote for the candidate you think would do best in office, one who best reflects your views, without worrying about how other people are going to vote. If the great majority of people behaved this way, our government would better reflect the wishes of the voters. As things stand, it is possible that a candidate preferred by a majority can lose, if his or her supporters are not aware of how many others agree with them.

    With our prevailing voting system, plurality voting, each voter must vote for one of the candidates; the candidate receiving the most votes wins. This system often forces voters to chose between simply voting for the candidate they think best, and voting, against the candidate they think worst (often, as indicated above, by voting for a candidate they dislike somewhat less).

    A better system, called "approval voting" [7], is one in which each voter can "approve" any number of candidates in a race; the one receiving the most approvals wins. This would allow voters to vote for (approve) both their favorite candidates and the least objectionable front-runner. This method is used by a number of organizations, e.g., the American Mathematical Society to elect officers, and by the United Nations to elect the secretary-general. (A more powerful system is "score--or range--voting" [8], whereby each voter assigns a score to each candidate in a race and the winner is the one with the highest total score.)

    A glaring example of failure to represent

    Under our current system, where so many people treat an election as tho voting amounted to betting (so a vote for a losing candidate would be a losing proposition), our government does not really represent the people. A dramatic example is Nancy Pelosi, House of Representatives minority leader, formerly House Speaker when the Democrats had a majority. Over a period of over 25 years, she has not, after her first election victory, been seriously challenged, generally getting over 80% of the votes cast. Her district is in San Francisco, arguably the nation's leading bastion of liberals and progressives. One might have assumed that a representative of such a district would be a leading champion of civil liberties, a staunch opponent of militarism, and would certainly be a strong supporter of single-payer health care. In this case, one would be wrong.

    As Speaker of the House, in 2009, with the Democrats having majorities in both houses of congress, Pelosi was in a powerful position. The newly elected president, was riding a wave of popularity, and there was strong popular support for single-payer (overwhelming in her district). On numerous occasions, she stated that she favored this measure. But, as is the case with most Democratic politicians, particularly Obama, sweet words are one thing and action is something altogether different. While praising single-payer, in speeches and in press conferences, Pelosi killed off any chance of getting it made law, by not allowing house votes on it (reneging on her promise to do so), by suppressing committee testimony in its favor, and, along with other Democratic leaders, twisting the arms of leading single-payer supporters in the House [9].

    Perhaps the most dramatic action on behalf of civil liberties in decades was the heroic act of Edward Snowden in exposing massive privacy violations by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence organizations. Nancy Pelosi's response to this action was, "I think that he should be prosecuted." [10]

    When asked if she thought it was OK to use drones to kill people, not on battlefields, including Americans, without due process, Pelosi expresses uncertainty. She expressed uncertainly even as to whether the government should be required to admit having committed such acts. Pelosi partly justifies her uncertainty by pointing out that, according to polls, many Americans support such killings [11].

    President Obama launched an attack on Libya, not only without a declaration of war, but without obtaining even token consent by congress. Nancy Pelosi fully supported that bypassing of congress [12].

    Pelosi is not among the worst members of congress. But how, in a functioning democracy, could she be elected repeatedly by large margins, in a district filled with people who must be appalled by her terrible stances on such basic issues? One factor might be money, as she is one of the wealthiest members of congress. Campaign finance is a major factor in perpetuating the dominance of the wealthy elite. But this doesn't seem to be enough to account for such a gross mismatch.

    How much do people care?

    A more telling point may be that most people who characterize themselves as liberals or progressives do not seem to hold their views as strongly as do people who consider themselves right wingers. It also seems to be the case that young people today, while sometimes getting involved in specific causes (e.g., promoting solar energy) are seldom interested in addressing the political factors underlying our most serious problems. This is in contrast to the youth uprising roughly forty years ago, largely motivated by the Vietnam war. (That movement, partially successful, was ultimately derailed by drugs such as LSD and marijuana.)

    This is a grim picture. The forces of greed are in full control, with no remedy in sight. But such forces carry the seeds of their own destruction. After each victory, they reach for more. Eventually, they will over-reach, causing sufficient pain to awaken enough people to bring them down. We can only hope that this happens before the environmental damage becomes critical, and that the response they provoke is not violent.

    References

    [1] Thomas Paine, "The Crisis", December 23, 1776

    [2] Stephen H. Unger, "Brutal Prisons Are Hurting Us All", Ends and Means, January 20, 2010

    [3] Gloria Shur Bilchik, "Military mystery: How many bases does the US have, anyway?", Occasional Planet, January 24, 2011

    [4] Glenn Greenwald, "The Danger of the Still-Escalating Obama Whistleblower War", The Guardian, January 27, 2013

    [5] Susan Stellin, "Who Is Watching the Watch Lists?", NY Times, November 30, 2013

    [6] Stephen H. Unger, "Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: Our Fake Two-Party System", Ends and Means, January 5, 2011

    [7] "What is Approval Voting?", The Center for Election Science

    [8] Stephen H. Unger, "Range Voting: Packing More Information into a Vote", Ends and Means, 3/11/07

    [9] Mike Soraghan, "Pelosi: No House vote on 'single-payer' plan", The Hill, 11/06/09

    [10] Michael McAuliff, "Nancy Pelosi Says NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Should Be Prosecuted", Huffington Post, 6/13/2013

    [11] Amanda Terkel, Ryan Grim, "Nancy Pelosi Ambivalent On Drones Program", Huffington Post, 2/14/2013

    [12] Mike Lillis, "Pelosi backs Obama on Libya", The Hill, 6/16/11


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