Elections bring an enormous sense of excitement in the United States, especially in D.C. I’m going to devote three columns to the topic of democracy (and its shadow, voting) because I feel that one of the most important political lies that has been sold to people over the last hundred years or so is that voting for representatives is democracy. In this column, I introduce some obvious limitations of the current system. In the next, I’ll look at what real democracy might be like. And in the third, I’ll discuss the way that U.S. history has seen people genuinely taking control of their own lives.

Don’t get me wrong. It is far better that one gets to vote for one’s rulers than it is to have this decision made in any other way. But for all that, the gap between the election of representatives and genuine democracy – rule of the people, self-government, everyone making together any decisions that affect them – is enormous.

It pretty much goes without saying that elections are only as good as the range of choices one has. In some of the authoritarian communist states of the past, they would hold “elections” in which the party would nominate a couple people who were essentially indistinguishable. No one took it that the right to choose between them amounted to real self-determination. Or consider the current situation in Russia in which lots of people are free to run, but the structure is set up in such a way that the result is a foregone conclusion. Again, this is clearly not democracy. So just how different is the two-party system? How wide are the choices we have and how do candidates gain meaningful access to the ballot?

Here are some issues that might seem worth debating and might seem significant enough to be contested in a democratic election.

On foreign policy: The United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined; the United States stations troops in well over 100 foreign countries; and the United States is responsible for nearly half the world’s international arms trade.

On economic policy: It is illegal for unions to organize internationally; it is illegal for unions to strike in support of a strike in another industry; the vast majority of people do not own their own businesses, but work for others; there is no guarantee that a person who is willing and able to work will be given a job; and companies are allowed to move production from one country to another, but workers are legally tied to their country of citizenship.

On social policy: Married people are given numerous legal benefits over others; working people are not guaranteed a home or a living wage; homeowners are subsidized by the state in ways that renters are not; drug use (other than alcohol) by adults is illegal, resulting in the largest prison population in the world; and no candidate can mount a meaningful run for national office without the ability to raise tens of millions of dollars.

On environmental policy: Cars are the primary form of transportation in the United States, funded by massive state investment in roads, bridges, etc.; most U.S. food is produced in one region and consumed in another; most U.S. food is produced by enormous multinational agro-business that employs a chemical intensive form of agriculture; and investment in genuinely renewable, non-polluting energy sources is miniscule.

These are just a few random examples from the hundreds I might have mentioned. My point is not to argue for any particular view on any of these. (I think most should be changed). My point is that no candidate will campaign either for or against any of these policies. None will even be mentioned as an issue. All simply “go without saying” as if they are natural facts like gravity. Your democracy gives you no right even to discuss such matters in the context of an election.

This should worry you. It should make you wonder just how much democracy is guaranteed by a two-party electoral system. It should make you wonder just what is determining who can actually run for national office and what is setting the agenda that they run on. It should make you wonder what part of your political life should be devoted to voting and what other avenues you might have for genuine political participation.

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

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