The Day American Democracy Died (January 21, 2010)
The government of the people, by the people, and for the people, has perished. Democracy was terminally ill for a long time and just lingering on life support. Freedom of individuals to choose their leadership has been trumped by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision known as Citizens United which gave corporations equal rights with the people. As then-candidate Mitt Romney famously quipped, “Corporations are people.” Importantly, that SCOTUS decision was not a fluke or accidental, it was part of a strategic long-game designed and engineered to shift the balance of power even further into the hands of plutocrats. It was a culmination of carefully packing the courts at all levels of government with judges favorable to big business at the expense of middle class.
With the legalization of political action committees (PACs), the amount of money that can be spent on elections is virtually limitless. Even worse, PACs often are allowed to conceal their donors and thus it is impossible to determine who is supporting the ads. Masquerading under innocuous sounding, and often misleading names, they sway unsuspecting voters, usually with emotional discourse devoid of accurate facts. More disconcerting are the ads and social media campaigns using overtly false information, and doing so with impunity.
The notion that people have a real choice is an illusion. What is left of elections are referendums about what appear to be the lessor of bad or even evil options. Like many others, rarely have I voted for any candidate. Rather, we have voted againstthe candidates we thought posed the most harm to the country. In the current presidential election cycle, the leading candidates of both parties hold the unenviable record of being the most disliked in history. Yet, inevitably the media keeps referring to the choices as “the will of the people.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. At present the voters mostly are stuck with the simply awful candidates that represent the plutocracy in which we live.
The will of the people no longer counts, even when actions are supported by an overwhelming majority, such as in the case of gun control legislation. Other examples include most of votes going to Democratic candidates in the 2014 elections, yet Republicans taking majority positions in both the House of Representatives and Senate. In fact, 20 million more votes were cast for the Democrats, but because of gerrymandering, their votes were concentrated in previously conceded “Blue” districts, but generally spread out in predominantly “Red” districts.
It was Tip O’Neil who once famously stated, “All politics is local.” That is an anachronism. Evidenced in the 2014 elections, vast amounts of external funding flooded states and districts that were considered to be “in play,” while only minimum amounts were spent in “safe” districts. A prior example was during the 2012 election to recall Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. In that election, outside groups provided over $33M to successfully influence the outcome.
While the campaign with most money does not always win, (think Jeb Bush), the ability to inundate the public with a storyline is usually a successful strategy. Campaigns built on lies too frequently are successful. It should be noted that many of these falsehoods are intentionally placed including an emotional hook. It is anticipated that the public, especially with social media, blindly will retransmit the counterfactual message. Readers should remember the nonexistent “death panels” that were supposed to be part and parcel of the Affordable Care Act. Using the tobacco industry model, climate change is under continual assault; raising doubt is enough. Some of my friends are certain that at any time now Federal agents are going to knock on their door to collect their guns. The critical question, in all cases, should be cui bono (who profits)? Unfortunately, the answer is with dark money, provenance often is impossible to trace.
A quote often, but incorrectly, attributed to Thomas Jefferson states, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” The sentiment is correct, but has clearly been abandoned in our current political climate. Conveyed by a variety of media the public is now inundated with misleading and overtly false information. Agencies that attempt to evaluate the validity specific statements and claims, themselves become suspect. What is most disconcerting are the educated people, who when confronted with demonstrable falsehoods, vociferously state, “I don’t care!”
In reality this is symptomatic of a larger problem, the loss of trust and confidence in our most fundamental systems and organizations. Specifically, I refer to the federal government, the established news media, big business, and even our educational institutions. The U.S. Congress approval rating hovers around record lows at only 14.5%. More important is the disapproval level near all-time highs at above 77%. That is little wonder as the recent sessions have accomplished less than any prior terms. The overt refusal to approve a nominee for the vacant Supreme Court seat is a classic example of the partisan politics that has stagnated The Hill.
Confidence in the once-venerated U.S. Supreme Court has fallen to a new low with approval at only 30%. Given the blatantly political decisions that have been handed down in recent years, it is little wonder that trust in them has diminished. More problematic is that only 23% of the people indicated they had a lot of confidence in the criminal justice system. Yet incongruently, voters tend to support tough criminal laws and lengthy prison sentences. That sentiment has caused the U.S. to have the highest incarceration rates in the developed world and at considerable expense. Despite lack of trust in the system, people still support capital punishment for which retribution is a disturbing component. Heinousness of the crimes aside, executions cost more than imprisonment for life. More important, repeatedly the death penalty has been proven to be adjudicated on innocent suspects. Of course, it is applied disproportionately, mostly to people of color and/or from lower socioeconomic status.
A byproduct of the clamoring for tougher criminal laws is the number of innocent people caught up by the furor to punish somebody. Across the nation, prosecutors, as elected officials, run for office based on their conviction rate. Of course, the public assumes that integrity is paramount and no ethical attorney would bring false charges and against an innocent suspect. This is simply wrong as cases of prosecutorial misconduct repeatedly come to light. A huge problem is that the offending prosecutors almost never are held accountable for their misdeeds. Note that 2015 saw the highest number of exonerations in history. If ever there was an argument against capital punishment, it is the number of those convicted of murder that were on that list. Because of the inherent weakness in the public defender arena, some innocent people take plea bargains just to avoid the risk of a harsher sentence.
The media does not fare much better in public trust and is in steady decline with only about 20% of the people having confidence in their accuracy. Appropriately, news originating on the Internet is even lower. Truly independent news sources is an archaic concept. Several factors play into that situation but the foremost is money. Print media has been especially hard hit, with many newspapers going out of business. Television news is driven by ratings and generally tied to the entertainment value of the station. Like many other industries consolidation by mega-corporations has limited diverse views, and nearly eliminated controversial reporting that would shed a bad light on sponsors or owners. As an example, here in Las Vegas the largest paper in Nevada was surreptitiously bought by Sheldon Adelson, a GOP mega-donor. When the leading columnist, John L. Smith, was told he could not write about the nationally influential owner, he resigned.
Polls indicate that citizens don’t have much confidence in big businesses either. They show a marked difference from small businesses but large companies only have about a 20% trust level. That is not a record low (16%) but close enough to it to be of concern. It is clear that most people believe that corporations place their financial interests well ahead of those of the public, or even the nation. Quarterly earnings reports are seen to be far more important than doing what is right or focusing on long-term goals. Product recalls and accusations of voluntary environmental damage certainly hurt their image. Then, of course, the exposure of dramatic price gouging by large pharmaceutical companies is yet another factor in trust degradation.
Many higher-level educational institutions are viewed as being too liberal in thinking, and thus suspect by conservatives. Right-wing talk radio hosts often lament that the younger generation is being corrupted and subversively indoctrinated in “progressive thinking.” A well-educated friend (Ph.D.), and GOP supporter, recently told me it was “impossible to be a Republican (professor) in a university.” Obviously he is not familiar with the philosophical position of Pepperdine University, where I received a master’s degree. While the notion that all colleges are liberal-leaning is held by many conservatives, that statement it is simply false. Consider the staff and faculty of such institutions as George Mason, Hillsdale, Brigham Young, or Texas A&M, which is the fourth largest university in the country. All are recognized as conservative institutions.
Integrally interwoven are universities and the financial system. Led by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders some politicians have been quite vocal about the staggering inequality that exists in our financial system. In recent decades there has been a dramatic shift in wealth concentrated in a minuscule segment of the population. Stories abound about CEOs being compensated in millions of dollars, yet actively fighting the concept of raising the minimum wage for their employees. A recent poll found that many of the young millennials no longer trust capitalism. A logical explanation could be the predominance of the “winner take all” philosophy that has dominated financial institutions and large businesses. Yet, the conservative-aligned talk radio hosts choose to blame the “liberal-leaning” education they received.
A fundamental factor in American lives today is fear. Fear permeates everything we do from politics to sales. Big Pharma bombards us with sales messages for diseases and syndromes that didn’t even exist a short time ago. Appealing to emotion versus logic, the Internet carries concerns about perverts in bathrooms, vast voting fraud, and that refugees are only coming here to kill us. In reality, none of those areas are significant problems. Legal issue proponents call for a ban of sharia law, even though it doesn’t exist in the U.S. Crimes are committed by citizens and illegal immigrants alike. Yet when the same crimes are done by an immigrant, the acts are viewed as especially heinous. The unfortunate bottom line is that fear strikes an emotional chord and it sells. It sells both products and political issues.
An Outline for Redemption
Restoration of confidence will not come easily in the U.S., but it is possible. There are a number of obvious steps that can, and should, be taken. We currently endure an antiquated two-party system as if we live in a binary world. While there are other political groups, such as the Libertarian Party or Green Party, when it comes to the outcome of elections they are insignificant. Like other third party attempts at the national level, while it may be emotionally satisfying at a personal level, at best they can act as a spoiler by diverting votes from one of the two major political parties.
The election primary enterprises conducted this year clearly have illuminated the serious fractures in the current system. Under the existing two-party system most voters are faced with the unenviable choice of selecting the person they disagree with the least. Both the Republican and Democrat parties suffer internal distress. This is not a new problem; but one exacerbated by limitless funds. In reality, politically connected plutocrats determine who will be the candidates most to their liking. Those options are then foisted upon the general public and the winner falsely anointed as “the will of the people.”
- A viable option is to break the existing structure and subdivide into several major parties which would be more representative of our multipolar society. That would force the leading candidate from the national election to form a government based on coalitions. Hardly a new idea, this form of governance is practiced by half of the countries who freely elect their leadership. The overriding factor would be to insure that some of the subdivisions were strong enough to survive an onslaught from the residual system. Breaking the stranglehold of the current parties would create a situation in which many more political positions would have to be accommodated; yes, giving the people more control of their destiny. By design, it would force coalitions and cooperative exchanges in order to govern more effectively.
- A logical step would be to have federal funding of elections while rigorously enforcing spending limits. Constraining the duration of the campaign would ease that burden as well. Taking away the obscene amounts of money expended under the current system is crucial, no matter what other changes take place. Citizens United, possibly the most ill-conceived SCOTUS decision ever handed down, must be reversed; a constitutional amendment if necessary. There needs to be transparency in the funding of all campaign related material, including PACs and issue-related ads. Nothing would negate the First Amendment rights to speech, but understanding the relationships between the content and the sponsor is critical. Therefore, transparency must include making public the real names of all donors/funders involved in the process; no dark money allowed.
- It is time to do away with the Electoral College and go to a straight popular vote. It is recognized that that action would change the dynamics of the election process. National campaigning would focus on the coasts, a few other major metropolitan areas, and many of the flyovers would be left out. However, it would create a fairer situation as the whole nation would be “in play,” not just the “swing states.” There have been four instances in which the presidential candidate with the most popular votes lost the election. Historically, the winners include John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hays, and Benjamin Harrison. Then of course, there was George W Bush defeating Al Gore in the hotly contested 2000 election which was finally decided by the Supreme Court which divided along political lines. The importance of that election cannot be overstated as the world would be quite different had the outcome been decided by the voters.
- Term limits for Congress members is another imperative. Suggested are two terms for the Senate and three for members of the House of Representatives. For any member of either chamber who presently exceeds those limits, their current term would be their last. If positions are combined in any way, set a limit of twelve years total. Of course the revolving door, a perennial issue needs fixing.
- As mentioned, gerrymandering is an immediate problem. We probably need a major overhaul with all districts being redrawn. Any proposed district that looks like a jigsaw puzzle piece should be automatically disqualified. The new districts, based on geography, not race or party affiliation, would all have to be approved by a Federal court with an appropriate appellate process installed.
There are a number of supporting issues that are necessary to confront if the trust and confidence of the American people are to be regained. These will be addressed shortly in another article. Among those requirements are establishing personal and institutional accountability in all organizations. Revamp our educational system based on facts and science, not belief systems of individuals or religions. While private schools should be allowed, they should not receive public funds as that detracts from the common good. We need an equitable baseline health care system available to every citizen as is now done in most developed countries. The long-lost, and specious, War on Drugs must be officially terminated. Mental health should be a national priority and not abdicated to law enforcement agencies. Laws and situations that obviously and inherently incorporate a conflict of interest should be eliminated. Examples include banning private prisons and stopping civil forfeiture actions that allow presumption of guilt of property and asset sharing with the confiscating agency.
It is long past time for intensive self-examination. The hubris with which most Americans, including many of our leaders, approach the rest of the world requires serious attention and unaccustomed humility. Clearly democracy is an evolutionary process, and one capable of regression. Based on our poorly-conceived foreign interventions, a lesson that should be drawn is that democracy cannot be installed preemptively in other societies with any expectation of success.
Possibly the best depiction of the emerging state of affairs was provided by fictional news anchor, Will McAvoy, in the television program Newsroom. Eloquently written by Aaron Sorkin, the speech, describing why America is not the greatest nation on Earth, captured many of the issues facing us today. For the first time in many decades we have declining life expectancy in some demographic groups, with inequitable economics the middle class is getting smaller, our educational system has fallen behind many other countries and yet some political campaigners call for dismantling the Department of Education. Many of them espouse counterfactual myths and reject overwhelming science-based evidence.
Redemption and reconstitution of our democracy will be arduous and painful. It will not come from typing “Amen” and “sharing” posts on Facebook. It will only come from addressing rampant hypocrisy in our current system and an acknowledgement that we are only a part of an interconnected global society. That also may require acceptance of our spiritual (not necessarily religious) nature.