Democracy. It’s a word Americans grow up with. Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
He also said things like, “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people [the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia] by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
He said that and a lot more. But he shared our idealization of democracy, helped eliminate our imperialist rivals Japan and Germany in WW2 (fascism was never a problem), and wanted to drop an atomic bomb on Moscow in the aftermath of that war. He was, like us, pro-democracy, pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist, and anti-communist.
Democracy is a high ideal, but how close do we come to it in practice? A succinct definition: government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
One shortcoming is the distinction between “exercised directly by them” and “by their elected agents”. One could argue that it is too unwieldy to involve all the people in a decision making process. But one could also argue that there is less than a direct correspondence between the will of the people and that of their elected agents. Few states have ballot initiatives on important matters. They are totally absent at the national level.
Plato argued against leaving important matters in the everyman’s hands. Among them would be the unwise, the unskilled, the unfit, the unwashed. In his judgment common people were incapable of governing themselves. Instead, he argued for a certain class of people — a ruling elite— and that they alone possessed the knowledge and wisdom to govern the many.
The point here is not to denigrate Plato but to reveal the degree to which his negative view of democracy coincides with Washington’s view. Plato placed oligarchy over democracy. So does Washington.
This should come as no surprise. We see it everywhere. Every hierarchal system of power — military, corporate, educational, government — operates unilaterally and secretly. The commanding general sees no reason to consult the PFC, the CEO the telephone operator, the university president the cafeteria worker, POTUS the lawnmower.
Even if one admits a need for hierarchy, it can still be hard to take. Let’s go back to the first word of this essay, democracy, and consider it on the domestic and foreign levels.
We have a representative government, but these agents of ours operate within a system corrupted by money. It’s always been crooked but it’s getting worse by the day. It used to be said that we should elect a rich person because a rich person wouldn’t have to steal, but who can steal as much as a billionaire?
We’re free to vote (most of us) but we’re only voting for voting because we’re not free to choose outside of the closed Democratic/Republican duopoly. This season we’ll be treated to more show debates put on by the the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation jointly owned and run by the Democratic and Republican parties. It virtually assures that, between them, the state will function as usual in the interest of ruling elites.
A good example of this self-perpetuation is the most recent transition in the executive branch. Incoming Obama, the Iraq War critic setting himself up as the very antithesis of outgoing Bush, he bearing fresh blood and stains from Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Fallujah.
A decisive moment if this actually was an era-defining juxtaposition. Bush, in his invasion of Iraq, looked forward ignoring history. Obama, in his judgment of Bush, looked forward ignoring justice. And then they put their sincere faces on.
The rub is that, despite Washington’s disdain for it, democracy indoctrination of the public is a constant. It’s an illusion, although a persistent one.
We are a very active democracy promoter on the foreign level. Whenever we intervene in a foreign country by turning the economic screws, whenever we plot the overthrow of an independent state, and whenever we set our military to finish the job, it is always in the interests of furthering democracy.
The Middle East is now littered with the effects of our democracy promotion. It didn’t start or end with it, but the G.W. Bush administration deserves special credit for its invasion of Iraq. All it took was a president with an under-developed worldview in the thrall of some pernicious neoconservatives. Flag waving triumphed, there and in Afghanistan. And always, amidst the other lies, democracy.
Democracy again in Libya. In Syria. If democracy takes hold across the region there will be peace. But no people.
By virtue of our subordination to those in high position and our casual acceptance of national and patriotic themes, those who steer the ship of state enjoy conditional reverence from those below. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, Tenet, Libby, Bolton, Feith (it’s so hard to leave people out), and then Obama and Clinton ushering in the drone state.
How to describe their positions with respect to time and public emancipation? Pariahs in waiting.