Democracy and Illusion

by Jonathan Wallace

We are told from first grade on that we live in a democracy, but most people never ask themselves whether this assertion is true. Is it?

Some folks will be very offended by the mere asking of this question, which indicates the depth of the indoctrination we all receive. Today it is more acceptable and commonplace to question the existence of God than democracy.

But why would the simple question, "Do we really live in a democracy?" create such a problem? As contemporary humans, witnesses to the spectacle of the stripping away of numerous well-rooted beliefs by modernity and the scientific method, this particular question should not be exempt.

I gave my answer in last month's essay, where I said that in my view the Federalist vision of "democracy" has failed. This was a representative republic, with massive safeguards built in to protect an elite against the will of the people. I quoted Federalist 10 for the proposition that direct democracies inevitably fail because they "have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention" and "have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property."

Turbulence, contention, security, property. I observed that American democracy does not have a very good track record on the first two heads. Personal security depends very much on who you are, as with the "wrong" color skin you can still get shot reaching for your wallet. This country has done very well by property. Is one out of four not bad?

I diagnosed the problem as follows. American democracy has a single point of failure. If the people's ability to vote candidates in and out of office has no meaningful influence on the decisions they make while in office, then democracy does not exist, because the will of the people has no influence on policy. Money has broken that link. Once the people admit a candidate in the gate, they have no further say in what he does, because his exclusive constituency becomes the people who give him the dollars for his next campaign. Though the voters have the authority to remove the politician from office on the next go round, two, four or six years later, this authority is easily defeated by a game involving media-disseminated disinformation, public complacency and short memory, and a byzantine legislative system which shields legislators from being held accountable for the choices they make.

Many people who would get incensed, really riled up, by the assertion "This is not a democracy" would nevertheless agree with the statements made in the prior paragraph. I do not think that Louis Harris polls or anyone else could scratch many voters who would rate their local legislator as "highly responsive to my opinions", if they could even remember his name. Fewer of us are voting, based largely on a perception that the system is a charade and that our votes don't count.

The problem is that we all pretend not to know what we really know, that the choice we make when we pull the voting lever does not give us any say into the decisions of the candidate we elect. If it did, I could pop over and see my invisible Congressman, Ed Towns, whom I have never encountered in my neighborhood, and tell him things like, "Ed, here's how I want you to come out on the privatization of social security," and he would care more about that than what Chase or Citibank think on the issue. Because I and a half million people with opinions are his boss.

Everyone knows that you can't get a personal meeting on a policy issue these days with most Congressman if you are not a significant contributor. You gave him that office by voting for him but you can't get into it unless you've paid.

That we all know this but don't want to know it is strikingly illustrated by an essay by Lars-Erik Nelson in a recent New York Review of Books (July 20, 2000). In the essay, titled "Watch Out, Democrats!", Nelson is reviewing five books on American politics. One is called "Democracy Derailed", and another is subtitled "Why the White Working Class Still Matters".

Nelson states the proposition that NAFTA and the WTO are bad for American working people, and that these people are still the mainstay of the Democractic party:

[F]or Democrats the key to winning elections still lies in serving the interest of members of the working class, providing them with government services that cannot be supplied fairly by the marketplace and restraining the excesses of unfettered capitalism.

Yet he notes that President Clinton "has used his considerable charms" to sell NAFTA and Chinese admission to the WTO "by promising that free trade will mean more and better jobs for American workers. They have not believed him and for the most part they have been right not to do so." Nelson acknowledges that there is a disjunct, some kind of break down in communications between the Democrat's constituency and their policy choices. What is the source?

In postindustrial Washington, Clinton and his favorites (wearing blue jeans to seem folksy) dine....on barbecue at a Democratic National Committee dinner that raises $25.5 million, much of it in $500,000 contributions, for the party that supposedly represents the common man.

Nelson observes that three of the books at hand warn the Democrats to return to their roots, but the warning "may not be heeded as the millions of dollars of contributions roll in..."

That "may" is a work of art. May not be heeded? May not?

Nelson makes this observation in the tenth paragraph of his essay and goes on for thirty eight more paragraphs analyzing the books' policy recommendations, as if the caveat he uttered in paragraph 10 did not exist. Or as if he had completely fulfilled his responsibility to us and the universe by mentioning it.

Why does Nelson, an intelligent, well-read man experienced in the workings of the American political system, not see that once you have made the assertion he makes in paragraph 10, there is nothing more to say?

Civil Liberties and Democracy

One objection to the thesis that our system is not effectively a democracy is that we still have civil liberties in this country and a strong judiciary willing to protect us against abuses of executive power.

For example, take the recent drama of Wen Ho Lee. This Chinese-American scientist working in the Los Alamos nuclear lab was marked for destruction by the Justice Department; one theory is that the executive branch acted under pressure from the Republican-controlled Congress, which was shining a spotlight on the President and Vice President's propensity to take illegal Chinese campaign money, some of it traceable directly back to the People's Republic. (No matter that Lee was Taiwanese.) The feds convinced judge James A. Parker to deny Lee bail and to hold him under terribly restrictive conditions, in solitary, chained like a psychotic killer whenever allowed out into court.... until the story unraveled and the government admitted it had misrepresented the evidence against Lee and misled the judge. Whereupon Lee took a plea for a much more minor offense, the unuathorized downloading of data, and was sentenced to time already served. Judge Parker made the remarkable gesture of apologizing to him, and in doing so fired a few barbs at the Justice Department.

Whatever Lee may have done, the prosecutors acted as if they had the goods on him--but didn't. Exactly what the constitution says they are not to do. The Wen Ho Lee case takes place in a time of disturbing evidence that executive disregard of civil liberties is on the rise. Government's violent overreactions against minor targets at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the trial and deportation of immigrants on evidence kept secret from them, growing prosecutorial use of seizures of property from people only marginally involved in a crime or not involved at all, and government promotion of schemes like Carnivore for intercepting Internet communications, all support an inference that neither Republicans nor Democrats have any fundamental respect for civil liberties. Decisions reminiscent of the out-of-control Nixon administration have been made regularly in a supposedly liberal Democratic administration.

But a federal judge rode in to the rescue and pushed to free Lee, by ruling in his favor on key evidentiary points, right? Yes, but we are talking about a side issue here. There are really two separate questions: The first is, How important are our voices in determining the policies adopted by the government? The second question, which is not as tightly tied to the first as you might think, is: How much civil liberty and protection against government abuse remains in our system? One could in theory have almost perfect civil liberty and no voice whatever in government, at least for a short time. This would in fact be a symptom of a system hopping the tracks, with the engine continuing to work for a little while after the wheels come off.

I believe this is what we have today. We have some judges, like Judge Parker in the Lee case, who were trained at law school in a classic liberal theory of civil liberties and fundamental protections granted by the Bill of Rights. They are heroes, but we are not likely to continue to see their like thirty years from now, with no backing from the other branches of government. Ronald Dworkin says that jurisprudence, especially the Constitutional kind, is like a novel co-written by generations of authors, with each chapter attempting to be at least mildly consistent with the plot so far. But this is a weak structure indeed in the face of powerful contradictory forces. The process of judicial appointments is politicized as never before, with candidates routinely being held up and even rejected by the Senate for their perceived politics, when a generation ago the only relevant question was whether they had the skills and training to do the job. In states where judges are elected, judicial campaigns have become the same exercise in soft money and negative campaigning as any other kind of election. Neither approach is likely to produce judges with the backbone to stand up to the government as Judge Parker did.

The real question is not whether we still have judges with some significant dedication to fundamental constitutional principles today-- we do. If, however, the people who appoint and confirm them have no such commitment whatever, then the model of the judge above politics who hews true to an Constitutional ideal no matter what the executive or legislature wants, is likely to vanish from the earth.

The only reliable protection for civil liberties in the future is a strong democracy with a commitment to constitutional rights. Otherwise all we have is the fitful voice of a nostalgic, bookish elite.

A survey of the landscape

Rather than assuming the existence of democracy in the United States, it is an appropriate experiment to pick up a lantern and go looking for it. Let's start with yesterday's newspaper, the New York Times for September 23, 2000.

On the first page is an article entitled "Senate Donors Among Guests at White House." The lead sentence:

President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton have had 404 overnight guests at the White House and Camp David since Mrs. Clinton began campaigning for the New York Senate seat in July 1999, including scores of donors to Mrs. Clinton's campaign and several of the Democratic Party's most prominent fund-raisers.

Also on the first page is a box entitled "Inquiry into E-mail", which says:

Retrieved e-mail messages turned over to investigators show that in early 1996, Vice President Al Gore's senior aides routinely characterized White House coffee sessions as fund-raisers, a description seemingly at odds with Mr. Gore's accounts.

On page 9, side by side with the continuation of the e-mail article, is another entitled "No Gore Inquiry in Donations from Lawyers":

Attorney General Janet Reno said today that the Justice Department found no basis for investigating Vice President Al Gore's relationship to donations from trial lawyers interested in a presidential veto.

In 1995, Congress had passed legislation limiting awards in lawsuits and Vice President Gore was asked by the Democratic National Committee to make phone calls to solicit attorneys interested in a presidential veto of the bill. On his list was Walter Umphrey, a Texas trial attorney; Mr. Gore says today he never reached Umphrey. A call sheet (notes with suggested language for a phone call) prepared two weeks later for Donald Fowler of the Democratic National Committee says:

I know will give $100k when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send A.S.A.P. if possible.

Umphrey's law firm has since given $790,000 to the Democrats.

Sure looks like the sale of an executive veto to me--to draw any distinction we would need to get into logic-chopping and fine manipulative distinctions of the "I never had sex with that woman" variety.

I turn to the paper's second section and read that "Talks Collapse for Soft-Money Ban in Clinton-Lazio Race." Subtitle: "Mrs. Clinton wants outside groups to be able to help her but not Lazio." Hillary Clinton is quoted deep in the article as explaining that the outside groups which are spending money to support her, like the National Abortion Rights Action League, are "more independent" while the conservative groups spending to support Lazio are "closely tied" to his campaign.

On the next page is a refreshing account of a campaign not beholden to other people's money....Jon Corzine, the multimillionaire running for the Senate in New Jersey, who has spent more than $20 million of his own fortune in the campaign:

Mr. Corzine disclosed on Monday that his family's charitable foundation had made more than $100,000 in gifts to groups whose leaders or sponsors later endorsed him, along with hundreds of thousands more in donations to groups that wield political influence of one kind or another, like the Archdiocese of Newark and Planned Parenthood of New Jersey.

All of the above is nothing compared to an article that appeared in the Times two days later, on September 25. Entitled "Noncandidate Clinton's Steady Refrain: I Believe in Fund-Raising", the piece (on page A22) makes you feel like you have just eaten 140 pieces of cheesecake, one for every fundraiser the president has attended in 2000.

The president, says the article, is "engaged in an unabashed fund-raising frenzy", which has raised $90 million so far for the party. At a Michigan fund-raiser, State Attorney General Jennifer Graham capped a list of the ten things she loves about Bill Clinton with the following: "Mo' money. Mo' money. Mo' money." A political analyst from the Hudson Institute (what would a Times piece be without a thinktank quote?): "No one can get people to part with their cash like Bill Clinton."

What more do you need to conclude that the system is exclusively influenced by the money and our voices don't count? Could it be any clearer? Don't you already believe that the process stinks?

Do you believe that there is any accomodation between two voices: yours, and the money's? What do you believe happens when you want one thing, but the money wants another?

No, this used to be a democracy of sorts, but it got lost en route. The first step to doing something about it is to acknowledge the truth.

What to do about it

Just to give you an image of what we don't have. In 433 B.C., the people of two Greek cities, Corinth and Corcyra, got into a dispute with one another, and they each appealed to Athens to take their side. Both cities sent delegations to Athens. The following is from Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy:

It is hard for a modern reader to imagine the scene that took place in Athens in the summer of 433. In the United States, discussion of these matters would take place between the foreign envoys and the elected and appointed officials receiving them. These talks would be private and secret, and the major decisions would be taken even before any treaty was presented to the Senate for ratification. The ordinary citizen would only be an observer of what was made public. The Athenian procedure was far different. All discussion took place in the open on the hillside of the Pnyx from which the assembled citizens of Athens could see their own marketplace and the newly constructed Parthenon and Propylaea on the Acropolis. They heard every word spoken by the ambassadors from both delegations. Then they debated among themselves what action to take, each citizen, however humble, hearing every argument and and contributing the same single vote as the most experienced political leader. Everyone knew that the issues involved the security of the city and its empire, a question of war and peace; if the result should be war, the citizens themselves would do the fighting.

I find that very beautiful. I would like to live somewhere like it, and in return would be willing to front all the necessary risks. What we have called democracy in this country never came anywhere near what Athens had.

We could do better. I believe that people get the form of government they deserve. What I mean is that people will do to you what you tolerate.

Can it be fixed? On the one hand, the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that things fall apart, even democracies (none has ever lasted much longer than 200 years). On the other, I am an optimist; giving up brings about the thing you fear. Gandhi said, "We must be the change we want to see in the world," and so did Kant, in his own way. If we are to behave the way we would want everyone to, then lets be democrats.

No government on earth could survive if every one of its constituents faced in the same direction and blew on it together. This system exists, and it functions the way it does, because we allow it.

There are some simple and peaceful ways to bring it to an end: not by asking our money-fattened legislators to watch themselves more carefully, but by exercising control where we still have it, and before it goes away entirely: throw all the bastards out. In the past I have spoken out against term limits, in favor of keeping experience in government. But I've reached the point where I would be thrilled to see an entirely new Congress seated, all amateurs, not a single hold-over. We couldn't do worse: it couldn't be less democratic.

Think globally, act locally. I would like to see just one race where one candidate spends no money and campaigns only in person and on the Net. And defeats an incumbent who spent millions. No-one forces us to vote for the candidate who has the most money, whose face we see in television ads the most often. No, we commit that fuck-up all by ourselves, and we could stop. Once we first elect a candidate with no money and lots of Net presence, it will happen more. Countries do get more democratic sometimes, and peacefully. It happened in the Soviet Union and in South Africa. It could happen here: Democracy could spread again like a virus.

I would carry that virus proudly. What about you?