In a systematic study of public opinion polling during the Reagan administration, Joel Rogers and Thomas Ferguson demonstrated that on each major issue, foreign and domestic, the majority of the public disagreed with the policies of the administration throughout its term. This phenomenon, which is far from unusual, shows clearly the massive disconnect between the popular will regarding government policy and public electoral support.

The original idea of democracy – rule by the people – involved the active participation of all citizens in decision making. It certainly did not involve electing someone to rule us – serial monarchy – and really had very little to do with voting, though voting on issues was a tool to be used in the formation of popular decisions. In Athenian democracy, citizens met in public forums to debate issues. The ideal was that everyone was heard, everyone had a chance to express and argue for their views, and people would be swayed by the force of the greater argument. It didn’t always work that way, but it was a start, a first model of what genuine democracy might be.

A much deeper and wider version of this can be found in Spain of the 1920s and ’30s. (A great book on this is Murray Bookchin’s “The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936.”) Here, through much of the country, decision making was carried out under the auspices of radical unions in which people made decisions about production, consumption, social order, education, health and other matters. People were taught to take part in pressing issues of the day through weekly discussion forums attended by young and old, women and men, poor and middle class, literate and not. When issues needed to be dealt with at a broader level – at a level involving more people than could be effectively brought together into one conversation – representatives were chosen from various localities, constituencies and trades. These were not representatives in the serial monarchist sense – not people chosen and then free to do as they pleased – but representatives empowered to argue for particular positions, to make a certain range of compromises, and to report back to their people. At any point they could be recalled. Echoes of this model of democracy are to be found in Vermont town meetings, in Zapatista communities in Mexico, in activist formations and in numerous indigenous communities around the world.

Contrast this to what is called “democracy” in the United States. Here we have two major formal parties. They facilitate a process that results in two people who seriously run for president. The first winnowing of potential candidates is based almost exclusively on money. Since the only forum for debate – if we can stretch the word to apply to the kind of discourse that goes on in elections – is the capitalist mass media, one is only a “serious” candidate if one can raise tens of millions of dollars. Once money determines who can be taken seriously, debates are structured around minor differences of detail without any mention of the most serious issues that face the country. (One doesn’t raise tens of millions of dollars by addressing the issues I mentioned in my last column.) And then an election appoints one of these servants of the wealthy to stand in as leader for the next four years.

In that time, money again determines who has any influence on the temporary ruler. If you can afford major campaign contributions, lobbyists and the like, you are taken seriously. If not, you can be ignored. When Dick Cheney answered “so what?” to a journalist’s query about the fact that two-thirds of Americans now oppose the war, he was merely giving more explicit voice to an attitude that is definitive of American governance.

Of course one might think this is all to the good. One might think, for example, that it is better to have elected rulers than for people to be involved in decision making. A common attitude, one encouraged often at Georgetown, is that the people in general are too ignorant, too lazy, too uninformed or too apathetic to govern. And there might be something to this if elections consistently brought us “the best and the brightest” – I think we know better in the post-Katrina, post-Iraq world – or if this ignorance, laziness, apathy, etc. were not carefully constructed by economic blight, tedious repetitive work, crumbling schools and a massive advertising culture. But even if you don’t believe that elections bring us not the best and the brightest but the connected and the controllable, let’s call things by an honest name. The United States is not now, and has never been, a democracy. It does not aim to be, and it certainly doesn’t promote democracy throughout the world. What we promote is voting. And voting, to borrow a Marxian turn of phrase, is the opiate of the masses. It distracts us from the idea that we are smart enough to have a say about our own lives. It distracts us from the reality that money and connections rule this country, set the agenda and determine what we are allowed to discuss and address. By getting us all fired up every four years about which wing of the ruling class ought to govern, we forget that the idea of democracy was for us to govern.

I’m not saying one should not vote. I did so, for Obama. It took an hour. Then I got back to real work. It is to that real political work that I’ll turn in my final column on democracy. For despite the limitations of our electoral system, there have been real and amazing democratic changes in the history of this country. In my next column I’ll explain where they came from and the nature of moral progress in a non-democratic context.

ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.