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Is the United States Even a Democracy?


Every one in the world knows that the government of the United States is a democracy, and that the United States stands for promoting democracy around the world. How do we know this is true? Because the government says so, all the time.

“Democracy and respect for human rights have long been central components of U.S. foreign policy,” claims the State Department. “Supporting democracy not only promotes such fundamental American values as religious freedom and worker rights, but also helps create a more secure, stable and prosperous global arena in which the United States can advance its national interests.”

Idealists would say this is a very benevolent sounding notion. Realists might say it is vacuous and inane. But the media, textbooks, even human rights organizations choose to propagate the idealistic version and claim as an article of faith that the United States does not just practice democracy, but embodies the very idea itself.

Democracy is used as a justification for everything the government does – domestically and abroad. Since the U.S. is the embodiment of democracy and democracy is good, then everything the U.S. does is good, by definition.

But it’s not very often that anyone bothers to actually analyze this. Other than being an abstract concept, what actually is democracy and how does the U.S. fit this definition? As most people know, democracy comes from the ancient Greeks. It means power to the people. In Athenian democracy, people participated in governmental decision making by directly participating, with a majority vote used to determine how to act. Even in this system, only free males were granted the right of citizenship and participation in government so it was not a true democracy.

A true democracy would grant voting rights to all citizens – and no one would be denied citizenship because they were considered property. Neither should race, gender, religion, ethnicity or any other factor prevent someone from attaining citizenship and exercising their right to participate in government. In a true democracy, anyone who was subject to the rule of a government – and of adult age – would enjoy the rights of citizenship and democratic participation.

When the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, the Founding Fathers took pains to ensure the new government would not be a democracy. They would create a government that bore some resemblance to democracy, but left the true decision making power in the hands of a small, elite group of men, who were better equipped to rule than the majority of the population.

James Madison, who drafted the document that the final draft of the Constitution was modeled on, made no secret of his disdain for democracy.

“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution,” Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10. “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.”

So in other words, the question for the Founding Fathers was how to protect the elites from the tyranny of the majority while maintaining a facade of popular rule? Madison’s solution was a “republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” A republic, further, would be better at “controlling the effects of faction.”

Madison meant that there needed to be a mechanism to control an opinion that was out of the control of elite interest, regardless of whether this opinion belonged to a majority. “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

The Constitution that emerged was able to achieve the delicate balance of some popular representation while keeping the true decision making power within the capable and deserving elite cabal. The House of Representatives would be the minor half of the lawmaking body of Congress. Its members would be elected by popular vote. The Senate would be the truly powerful body, with sole power over foreign policy for example, and that would not be representative. Each state would get 2 Senators, whether that state has 10 residents or 10 million. Further, the Senators would not be elected by the public. They would be chosen by the State Legislatures.

The President, the single most powerful member of the government, would be chosen by the vote of delegations of the State Legislatures. There would be a popular vote, sure, but it is non-binding. So if, for instance, 213 years later a son of a former President lost the popular election he could still become President even though another person had a higher number of votes.

So, fundamentally the U.S. government was designed to not be a democracy. It was designed to be a vehicle for white property owners to protect their interests – namely, their property and their right to perpetuate their ownership of it while those with less remained with less.

They would probably be pleased to know that several hundred years later their governmental experiment is fulfilling its purpose to perfection.

In a recent study, researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University concluded that U.S. policymaking favors the wealthy and special interests groups more than average citizens. In fact, the wishes of average citizens are hardly represented by their elected representatives, if at all.

“Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all,” write Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page.

“We believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened,” they conclude.

Of course, a look at the historical record showed this was actual the intent of the Founding Fathers all along.

Maybe because of the transparent lack of actual democratic mechanisms and institutions, the United States eventually began to narrow the definition of democracy essentially to one thing: the right to vote.

William Blum writes that this sense of the word was developed as propaganda to criticize Communist governments who considered things such as food, health care and education fundamental human rights. But they didn’t have regular elections. So our system, with its glorious box checking, became “democracy” while theirs was “totalitarianism,” Blum explains.

“Thus, a nation with hordes of hungry, homeless, untended sick, barely literate, unemployed, and/or tortured people, whose loved ones are being disappeared and/or murdered with state connivance, can be said to be living in a ‘democracy’ … provided that every two years or four years they have the right to go to a designated place and put an X next to the name of one or another individual who promises to relieve their miserable condition, but who will, typically, do virtually nothing of the kind.”

It has taken an Orwellian perversion of the English language to claim that countries like Venezuela and Cuba, who practice versions of grassroots, direct democratic groups like people’s councils and trade unions, are not part of democracy if they don’t have multi-party elections.

As this is really the sole basis of U.S. claims to democracy you would think it would be a valid claim. But you would be wrong. The truth is that in the history of the nation, there has not been even one single day where all voting-age United States citizens were allowed to vote in federal elections!

At the time of the Constitution, only land-owning white males were allowed to vote. This obviously left out landless whites, all women, and all African Americans. This was true until the Civil War.

“In 1860, just five states limited suffrage to taxpayers and only two still imposed property qualifications,” writes Steven Mintz.

So at this point, no African Americans or women had the right to vote. Shortly after, with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, African Americans were granted the nominal right to vote. However, poll taxes, literacy tests and other obstacles were used especially in the South to ensure that freed slaves were not able to exercise that right – at least in more than small numbers. It was not until the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that this type of disenfranchisement was federally prohibited.

Meanwhile, between the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870 and the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, no women were allowed to vote.

But even still, there was another group of citizens that could not – and still cannot – vote. U.S. nationals of foreign colonies acquired in 1898 were never granted the right to vote in federal elections. The largest group of these colonial subjects, Puerto Ricans, were even granted citizenship in 1917 with the passage of the Jones Act. Woodrow Wilson was kind enough to sign the law that would grant Puerto Ricans the privilege of citizenship. They would then be allowed to be drafted into military service, so they could die for the United States in World War I.

So even after women attained suffrage in 1920, no U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico or nationals of other colonies have ever been able to vote.  All the other current colonies – Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands – later did receive citizenship. Together with the 3.6 million residents of Puerto Rico, they number nearly 4 million U.S. citizens who were not able to cast a vote for or against Barack Obama but have to call him their President.

They are not able to vote on adopting a universal health care system, paid parental leave, or paid vacation for all U.S. citizens – or any other policy in line with the rest of the developed world. They are not able to have a vote on free trade treaties, funding to Israel, or anything else that is decided on the federal level by the rest of the United States citizens.

Even within the States themselves, millions of citizens who have been convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote for the rest of their lives. Michelle Alexander points out the similarities to the discriminatory system that reigned in the South until the Civil Rights Act in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”.

Most often, the people receiving felony convictions are poor black and Latinos who have committed non-violent drug offenses disproportionately enforced on those communities. Even in the case of violent offenders, the question begs itself whether the commission of a crime, which is paid for by the perpetrator in the form of imprisonment, merits a lifetime ban from voting. Is it fair to enforce discriminatory policies and then cut the victims of these policies off from the only avenue they have to change them?

Maybe someday Americans will decide that to meet even the minimal qualifications of democracy that exist in the U.S., all citizens must have the right to vote.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. His writing has appeared in CounterPunch, MintPress News, Latino Rebels, Countercurrents and other outlets. You can follow him on twitter.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.

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