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The Fading Light of American Democracy

“America was targeted for attack,” President George W. Bush declared on September 11, 2001 “because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” That may have been true once but unfortunately ever since September 11, 1973 the shining light of our democracy has been dimmed by our actions at home and abroad.

In order to understand why begin by recalling that in a true democracy every individual has an equal say in determining the rules that govern all. Democracy, in the words of President Lincoln, is government “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” Democracy, furthermore, embodies the ideal that no individual has an intrinsic worth greater than another. Hence, in a democracy everyone has the right to hold and express unpopular views, receive a fair share of goods and services produced, and be free of the fear of being unjustly imprisoned, tortured or punished.

Two reasons, therefore, explain how in the years from 1930 to 1970 the U.S. became a beacon of democracy. First during that time the U.S. put into place laws such as the 1935 Social Security Act (providing public assistance to the aged, blind, disabled and dependent children) the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing a minimum wage), the 1964 Civil Rights Act (that aimed to end racial and sexual discrimination), and the Miranda ruling (that helped protect prisoners from violent interrogations) that protected workers, individuals accused of crimes, and people who held unpopular views. Second, in World War II the U.S. played a key role in defeating fascism on two continents and then helped its former enemies establish healthy democracies.

Unfortunately, however, on September 11, 1973, twenty-eight years to the day before the Attack on America, our image as a defender of democracy was shattered when Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in a bloody military coup d’état. Allende in the eyes of President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, was a communist hostile to the interests of U.S. based multinationals with investments in Chile. Consequently, Nixon and Kissinger helped to engineer the coup. Afterward, furthermore, they supported Pinochet as he abolished the Chilean congress, outlawed political parties, censored the press and imprisoned and tortured thousands. The implicit message behind this sequence of events was the United States supports the interest of the wealthy even at the expense of democracy.

Since September 11, 1973, furthermore, our democratic image has been further tarnished by our support for repressive forces and undemocratic regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere and by the manner in which wealth and income has become increasingly skewed and liberties curtailed at home.

The Gini coefficient for the U.S. in 2008, for example, was 44 according to the U.S. Census Bureau while the Gini coefficient for the European Union was 31. The Gini coefficient is a single number that characterizes income distribution in a country. It varies from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (perfect inequality). Furthermore in 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau, the top 5% of income earners in our country received 21.2% of all the income generated in the economy, while the bottom 20% received only 3.4%. And according a to a study by Levy Economic Institute scholar, Edward Wolff, the top 1% of wealth holders in our country held 35% of the wealth in 2007 or more than twice as much as the bottom 80%. Clearly such wide discrepancies in income and wealth translate into wide discrepancies in the ability to support policymakers and promote policies that favor one’s own interests and are a primary reason we may now be seen as having a government of the people, by the rich, and for the rich.

Finally, the “war on terrorism” led to the PATRIOT ACT which according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “vastly … expanded the government’s authority to pry into people’s private lives” and the Military Commissions Act which led to people defined as unlawful enemy combatants being tortured at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

Hence the light of American Democracy began to dim after the first 9/11 and darkened further after the second. Consequently, we have a long long way to go if it is ever to brighten the world again.

PAUL CANTOR is a professor of economics at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut.