What right does any thinking person have to be impatient with the progress of democracy in Iraq, Africa or elsewhere? In its third millenium of trial and error, democracy still has a long way to go.
Some of us have the idea that if you cast a vote, it’s a democracy. Not true. It becomes democracy when you, and every other enfranchised person in your community, are true stakeholders in that community. You all sink or swim together.
The Gazans had a real vote. Instead of taking a stand for their own well-being, they elected Hamas and took a step toward a form of collective hell. Zimbabweans had a vote, stuffed ballots and all, but Mugabe will not give them a stake in their own country. Clearly, self-determination is only a part of the formula. The underpinnings of democracy, the wheels and machinery that make it work, are many and complex. It is the most difficult, most complicated and perhaps the most illogical form of government. The very persistence of this evolutionary step in human development over the last three millenia is not due to any single feature that stands out in that long historical record, but something ephemeral: some chord in the human heart that resonates to notions of “liberte, egalite, fraternite”.
The three major pillars in the architecture of democracy are justice, participation, and information.
Conflict and cooperation are seemingly inhomogeneous aspects of human nature, but they are the soul of politics in a democracy. We cooperate to gang up on people whose ideas are threatening. The majority visits punishment on the minority losers. It’s not fair. So we go to some form of redress - war, feud, perhaps a contest between opposing parties, or a court of law. The purpose of the law is, first, to prevent the wars and feuds, and second, to enforce the tenets of our mainstream sense of justice in an evenhanded way. When a large group of people come to believe that their collective sense of fairness is is violated in the law, they become, at best, outcasts. They are no longer stakeholders. You can’t have secret tribunals, torture and bribed jurors in a functional democracy. People will learn very quickly that others cannot be trusted, a fair game is a fool’s game, and there is no one to make it better. Factions form and, unchecked, run amok.
Participation is the opposite of subjugation, exploitation, and gross manipulation. To participate, you have to be able to play a part in the group destiny - cast a vote that matters, share in the harvest and feel secure in the arrangement. In exchange for some form of tribute, such as taxes or service, you give up a part, but not all of your autonomy. It has to be a reasonable bargain, and it should not be hard to make a reasonable bargain, because there are many things an individual cannot do alone. On person cannot fight a war, build a highway, or create a currency system. Those are things that only make sense in the collective. On the other hand, choosing a spouse, deciding on an occupation and raising children are things we want to reserve for ourselves. We want to have the opportunity to make progress toward the goals we set for ourselves, the “pursuit of happiness”, provided it does not prevent others from doing likewise. It’s a version of the Golden Rule. By extension, government should do those things that are best done collectively and let us have the rest. I recall some philosopher (Rousseau?) referring to that as the Social Contract. In a broad sense, the combination of the Golden Rule and the Social Contract define the rules for participation in a democracy. When democracy collapses they are the first things to go. Fascists will throw out the division between personal and collective activities. Tyrants will throw out the Golden Rule. The unsane distortions of the human psyche that result have been seen in Nazi Germany, Uganda under Idi Amin, and the ethnic massacre in Rwanda. One of the most lethal and thorough forms of assault on these principles is accomplished by a perversion of religion by such as the Taliban. How could a sane democracy sponsor 14-year old children as suicide bombers?
If you don’t know what’s going on, or worse, if you can’t understand the issues, you are in deep trouble in a democracy. The weakness of the democracy is the need for open and informed debate on real issues, and an opportunity for the participants to vote yea or nay, and to frame the debate. In modern times, we have an explosion of data and a simultaneous implosion of understanding. It does no good to have a random opinion on nuclear energy - that just leaves you open to manipulation by vested interests. Propaganda is the distortion of facts and opinion in the face of public interest. It’ is the common tool of oligarchs and tyrants who could not stay in power based on their real communal merits. Control of the media and the repetition of simplistic slogans are also tools of disinformation. Flooding the media with drivel is another. It provides a high noise level as a barrier against any intelligent signal. Understanding based on verifiable facts, on the other hand, is hard to come by. There is a lot of data on our progress in Iraq, but very little understanding of what we are trying to accomplish and how each action leads toward or away from that goal. The sequestering of information by governments, secrecy in collective matters, or the undue influence of a few voices who have purchased or pre-empted media will undermine the value of votes. Information on the sexual conduct of an influential government official is put there as a distraction from the massive frauds and horrific mistakes that are being made elsewhere, just as the 4th century Romans substituted free bread and circuses for the Greek Citizens Assembly..
Information vs Understanding
Access to education and access to a thoughtful analysis of events is critical to the democratic process. Many issues are subtle, or technical, or have side effects that are not obvious. We have a duty, as citizens in a participating democracy to do the best we can with these intellectual challenges, and to take the time to educate ourselves in whatever way is necessary. At minimum, we need to be able to see propaganda and distractions for what they really are, and not lose our sense of direction. We need to evaluate an argument on its merits, not on the basis of celebrity status or assumed authority. Frankly, there is no way short of having an educated electorate to prevent democracy from deconstructing into a media mudpile. The Greeks found this out the hard way, having a popular court execute Socrates for misunderstood thought crimes, and later killing nine guardians of the Athenian treasury accused of theft, when the shortfall turned out to be nothing more than an accounting error.
The Evolution of Democracy
It’s easy to rant and rail against the imperfections of modern democracy - there are so many. It sometimes seems like our elected officials are the ignorant leading the blind, and then it seems as if things could not possible fall that way unless there was an intelligent, malign conspiracy. Both are probably true. In direct democracy, where the people voted directly for the laws, the tax rates, going to war and regulating commerce, we have 2500 hundred years of historical examples, from the Athens Assembly, to the Scandinavian town “Thing”, to the Swiss Landsgemeinde, to the Polish Sejm. These were reasonably long-lived governments with interregnums of oligarchs. But the people longed for the liberty and sense of participation that democracy can bring, and it returned time after time. In the longer run, though, nearly every attempt slid into the same ditch. The elite did not believe it was fair that they, the holders of property, deserved no more say in the affairs of state than the lowest, poorest citizen. They mistrusted the rude, untutored rule of the crowd. These ideas of inequality were fed by religious concepts of grace, where the wealth and success of one man’s life came from some form of divine intervention, and conversely.
We know that closed economies are a zero sum game. One man’s loss is another man’s gain, and we observe that access to money and influence has a stronger effect on the success of an enterprise than the most well-meaning plebeian efforts. So wealth breeds wealth without limit, which is a problem in itself, compounded when one wants to make wealth and position a family entitlement. Compound it again when a consortium of the wealthy pool their efforts to control the destinies of a people. This is an oligarchy, and it cannot form without disenfranchising the many for the benefit of the few. Meritless entitlement stifles ambition, both in the entitled and in those that see them as an example. You cannot put idiots and misanthropes in fancy robes and call them leaders without dire consequences. On the other hand, you cannot stifle individual prosperity without the same effect. There has to be a balance.
Oligarchies have tended to breed internal rivalries, and since oligarchs brook no limits to their power, there are never real checks and balances. The rivals go to insurrection, and the oligarchs may choose a dominant leader to restore peace. Now you have a tyranny. The people, still democrats at heart, riot and rebel, and form a new democracy, maybe. The whole cycle repeats over and over, with the players seeming like insects following instinctive ritual. This is what we see in the historical record.
Out of this churning arises a more sophisticated from of democracy, with checks and balances against the more egregious forms of elitism, a mechanism for peaceful succession, an economy that provides sufficiency and a prospect of prosperity for the many, and the ability to defend itself against invaders. Thus we have 16th century France, some New World aborigine nations, and perhaps the United States. However, no current Western nation, including the USA, practices direct democracy. You will hear some say that direct participation by millions, or hundreds of millions is impossible. That may have been true before the World Wide Web, It is not true any more.
We have representative democracy that evolved from a different branch of the tree from the Athenian kind. Our branch of the tree grew out of Roman practice, where representation was by appointed consuls, chosen by votes of the tribe to which every Roman citizen was assigned. It was a thoroughly manipulated scheme, yet, arguably, a representative form of government.
Later, in the 12th century, monarchs called assemblies of nobles, churchmen and burghers at their will, almost always to solicit funds or raise taxes. The word “parliament” derives from the French “parler” - to talk. In this respect, the parliament looked a little like the Greek Assemblies, with orators arguing issues, one pro and one con. However, in Athens, any man could raise an issue, and no one person had the right to shut him up. There were no lawyers, no nobles and no special privileges, and if you misled the Assembly, the punishment was swift and dire. Kings, however, held parliament prisoner in their courts, which were forever on the move, and under the watchful eye of the military, all sworn loyal to the King. In the Roman style, the three estates - nobility, church and merchants, were represented, but each estate chose its representative in a different way. The nobility was inherited. The church appointed or ordained, and the burghers often elected by their guilds or cities. The process of election was disdained in medieval times, and even more so in Athens, because rich men could by elections. They still do, that much has not changed. In contrast, the the direct branch of the democratic tree used a system of lots and frequent rotation, to make sure no one could buy power, and if by chance they they selected someone who was incompetent or tenacious to a position of power, they could not keep it long. The message here is simple: prolonged power begets tyranny. The hallmark of a democracy is the peaceful and lawful turnover of high office. “President for Life” is another name for “dictator”. However, even the routine change of elected officials is not enough to safeguard democracy, as we shall see. In short, the Parliamentary system evolved to the representational democracy currently exemplified by the United States. It did not stem from the Athenian tree.
Government in the United States was created as a deliberate compromise between direct democracy and rule by an egalitarian group. After some notable and horrible failures of common democracy, such as the English “Tragedy of the Commons” and the French Jacobeans,with a few grisly examples of plain old anarchy thrown in, the US founders had a fear of Proletarian rule - unread farmers voting only their selfish and short sighted needs, and to hell with taxes, armies, reserves, and infrastructure development other than the most rudimentary kind. So, the vox populi was sifted through an Electoral College, where an elite actually made the final choice. Only recently were many electors bound by oath to vote the will of their constituents. Even then, the elected officials have plenary powers of office without further ratification by the people, but subject to defined limits and to the checks and balances inherent in the charters of the Judiciary, Legislative and Administrative branches. For three hundred years this system has fostered intense struggles for advantage among the branches, but creaked along more or less as intended. The United States Constitution, and the thought put into it by an historic alignment of gifted statesmen, stands as a crowning achievement of government. It is not a defining moment of democracy. That question was left hanging in the balance.
So how is the question of democracy resolved in the US? The thought was that town meetings and local governments would be essential democratic forums, and the will of these aggregate up to the State and then the Federal level. However, as Federal resources began to far outweigh the States, the protection of States Rights written into the Constitution were largely overcome by Federal pre-emption of laws, Federal subsidies, the misuse of the Interstate Commerce act, income taxes, Social Security, SEC and banking regulations, etc. etc, etc. About all that’s left to the states is the ability to collect taxes, which the States do far too well, and hire cops to enforce Uniform Federal Everything. When we hear about States Rights nowadays, it seems a quaint notion usually raised in connection with the division of a tax pie.
So far, we have looked at the pillars of democracy, some of its notable antecedents, and the contrast between two branches of the evolutionary tree. Let’s take a quick look at parliamentary systems and political parties.
Early Parliamentary systems were called at the whim of kings to raise taxes, sometimes armies, and occasionally to announce the ruler’s policies or affairs of state, such as coronations or alliances. These were captive bodies with representatives of the three “estates”, none of which were fully empowered democratic officials, but rather envoys from their groups: churches, noble families, guilds and merchant associations. They were arrayed in front of the king in classes. As monarchies were forced to submit to constitutions, and the kings became figureheads, these bodies elected Prime Ministers from their ranks, whose responsibilities included the agendas and administration of the ordinary affairs of the State, while the nominal sovereign was still the king. Members of Parliament were elected in local and regional contests between people who stood for issues as members of political parties. The ones who favored the interests of the king and nobles, often the remainder of the noble class itself, were seated on the Prime Minister’s right hand side. The populists, who sponsored social programs of benefit to the masses and generally opposed the monarch and nobles, sat on the left. The centrists occupied the middle of this political arc. Thus we have the traditional origins of political left and political right. Parties in this arc changed ideals and names over time: Whigs, Tories (after Queen Victoria’s supporters), Socialists, Communists, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Labour. The spectrum was in continual change as individual parties formed, flourished and withered, and issues changed from those of the the nobility vs the common people, to socialism vs. laissez-faire policies, to modern conservatives vs. socialists.
Generally, the proportion of a party in Parliament was the proportion of that party’s popular vote. This was a far cry from the Athenian “up or down” vote on issues. There is now black, white and several shades of gray. This diverse assemblage was tasked with “forming a government” which means choosing a viable group of officers and ministers to run the country, starting with the Prime Minister. Every issue is decided on a majority vote in a parliament. Most often, no party holds a majority, so alliances must be made to choose a Prime Minister and pass laws. These alliances are often fragile.
Elections of the various members were sometimes whimsical or corrupt. The Athenians were dead on when they distrusted elections because they could be bought. There are “rotten boroughs” or the equivalent, where the election passes routinely to a person or a party member without any real challenge, election after election, through purchased votes. Crises often bring down the fragile alliances at the worst possible times.
In cases where there is no king or queen as a nominal head, there is a President, whose duties are similar to those of a constitutional monarch. With variations, this is the shape of every modern European government and most of the democratic governments worldwide - a representative, multi-party parliamentary system. Again, it has the weakness of purchased elections and instability in times of crisis, but nevertheless satisfies the democratic criterion of enfranchisement, participation in the issues of government, reasonable justice, and open debate/information, though this latter item is far from perfect. Most parliaments have shells of inner and outer circles, and the only the inner circles really know what’s going on and they never discuss it in public. In fact, preventing public exposure to the embarrassment of real knowledge seems to be one of the major objectives of this inner circle. People can’t vote for what they don’t know. The system breaks down here. Furthermore, for lack of constitutional safeguards, parliaments seem to have no limits to the intrusions they can impose on citizen’s privacy in the name of security, tax collection, or vehicle traffic management.
To accommodate turnover in the top ranks, parliaments are supported by vast ranks of more permanent civil servants, whose areas of expertise are vital to every task of government. Early on, the creation of an educational system capable of fostering these necessary skills became apparent. Graduates of colleges and universities then formed the core of the military, banking and merchant interests as well as the civil services. In fact, civil service became, and still is, a high calling which includes running for office and gaining election to Parliament.
It is fair to say that without the civil service, indeed the high regard for the responsibility of public service in general, parliamentary government would not be a viable from of government at all. This change from a selfish to an altruistic temperament among the elite, and the mobility of a people to join this elite through access to excellent educational facilities, is a difficult change to make. A moral/ethical change does not occur overnight, and cannot occur at all without the necessary enfranchisement, and the collective experience of self-determination and prosperity that results from it. This moral quality is entirely lacking in tyrannies and oligarchies, where greed, fear and retribution are the motivations behind official acts. It is a major obstacle to “installing” democracy in cultures where altruism is restricted to the family or the tribe, or where there is no educational infrastructure to build a civil service. You cannot dress an illiterate in robes and create a cabinet member. Yearning for liberty is not nearly enough.
To the extent that you attempt to create the trappings of a civil service without such an infrastructure, you will create a n new and vicious power elite, devoid of self-restraint, that will feed on itself to bring the worst of its kind to the head of government. You will create a dictatorship.
In fact, even with a long tradition of enlightened public service, the civil service aggregates enough power in even the best parliamentary governments to become power brokers in their own right. This is a weakness of the system.
Constitutional Republic, Bicameral Legislature and Other Devices
Having covered the basic flavors of democracy, lets take a look at the inspired pastiche of the United States version.
First, the USA is not classified as a pure democracy. The United States is a representative republic. Yes, we vote, and we mostly believe that vote has some affect on the way the government operates. Yes, we have a pretty fair system of justice, provided you can afford it. Yes, we have a reasonably efficient civil service and the educational system that supports it, although it has a penchant for inefficiency and self-serving bureaucracy. On the Federal level, we have nearly zero control over policy. All we can do is throw the bums out in the next election. When we vote, we get a lot of talk about what the candidate will do, and presumably that affects the outcome of the election process, but there is little ability to make any of those promises happen and they usually do not come to pass. Our President is more powerful than any modern king. The Judiciary is not quite independent since they are nominated by the President and most often approved by Congress. Congress itself is strongly influenced by the political parties it comprises, and the President heads one of them.
We are the most powerful nation on the planet at the moment, and we are in the historic position of being the principal defender of a block of developed democracies known as the “free world”, therefore we become exemplars of democracy. However, we are one of a kind in terms of government, and that form is not something that can be easily transplanted, or should be transplanted. Nevertheless, other peoples look to us for standards in the evolution of democratic government, so we must look at ourselves with a good mirror and see what we really are.
Our Congress is an Athenian style Assembly, in that it has both a Senate and a House of Representatives. In concept, the Senate was to be the representatives of the wealthy elite, the entrenched interests of the country, and the House was to be the vox populi. This bicameral system was intended to balance the popular will against the inertia of more conservative elements. We would be hard pressed to see such a distinction between members of the Senate and the House today. Because there are fewer of them, two per state, and the elections for each cover a broader demographic, the Senate is somewhat more stable in its membership and Senators are a bit more removed from their constituency. The difference is far less than the house of Lords and the House of Commons in the UK, where the Lords, because of their wealth and tenure, do seem to be the inertial element in the legislature.
Certainly one outstanding element of the USA government is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the body that interprets these, when necessary, into working law - the Supreme Court. The nine justices of the Supreme Court, even though they are carefully screened and vetted political appointees, are appointed for life, and they are all highly educated and powerful personalities in their own rights. Their predilections over major issues have been unpredictable in spite of the way they were chosen. All that can be said is that packing the court with conservatives, as each conservative President attempts to do, or with liberals, as each liberal President swears he will not do, has some long term affect on some issues, if and when they come up to the level of the Supreme Court.
Likewise, the next level of Federal Circuit Court Judges are also political appointees who gain some unpredictable independence of thought after they are seated. All, however, are sworn to uphold the laws passed by Congress, and those laws too often defy the precepts of common sense and good government.
So, we are a nation of laws made by Congress, bound to those laws by an independent but sworn judiciary, enforced by layers of police and enforcement agencies. But we never get a chance to vote for any of those laws, never get a chance to repeal the bad ones, and sometimes never even get a chance to review them before they are passed. The Athenians voted every law directly. Ours is a very different system.
The Two Party System
Power in the US does not reside with the Judiciary, they are sworn to uphold the law only. It does not reside with the President, he can be thrown out, and power must aggregate over time. It does not reside with the gaggle of Representatives, even with the Senators. Perhaps it resides with the inner circle of committee heads and bureau chiefs and cabinet members? But these are only tentacles of the real repository of power in the USA. The only group that endures, the only group that is not elected, in fact the group that influences every public face of power, from committee chairs to commissioners, from the FBI to the FDA, is the Political Party. But there are two of them and only one is in power at any time? They have caucuses and internal elections? We will examine why there are only two parties, why the barrier to entrance for any new competitors is impassible, and how the dance is arranged for the change of parties.
Have you ever, in spite of election rhetoric to the contrary, seen a newly elected party undo the work of its predecessor? They can’t. Have you ever, in spite of the election funding laws so recently touted by both parties as the cure for “undue influences”, seen any real change? No way. Both Presidential candidates have passed up public funding to avoid those laws. Do you read the newspaper account of campaign funds collected in the hundred of millions, right alongside the latest polls? Have you noticed the correlation? Now tell me: if two people, both educated, both presumably motivated to perform altruistic public service to their country, are so dependent on war chests of that size to win an election, what is really at stake? The war in Iraq? Nothing there will change - it can’t. Taxes? The President can’t make that decision. Health care? Neither candidate has a clue and their positions are not very far apart, and because they do not have a clue, its safer to follow the main road. What is at stake is the choice of ruling party, the moneys to flow to their backers, the imponderable chain of deals and appointments to be made, the power to influence even more. These powers will flow through and around the winning party for a decade, until the current generation winds down, their issues exhausted and their pockets replete, and the Loyal Opposition (same cadre, different names) comes to power in their turn. It can go on for another hundred years, maybe more. There is no sunset law, no term limit for political parties.
In Athens political affiliations were made around issues. When the issues went away, the affiliation ended. There were no political parties, such as we know them. Enduring issues created enduring affiliations, but they were generally what we would now call “single issue groups”, and there were many of them. In contrast, we have a Republican party, labeled “conservative”, and a Democratic party, labeled “liberal”, or so Rush Limbaugh would have us think. The Conservatives, who espouse limited government and minimum intervention in social affairs, have created Homeland Security, an uber-overseer of existing security branches, passed the most invasive wiretap and imprisonment laws since World War II, generated the largest budget deficits in history, and put a microscope called Sorbanes-Oxley on every public corporation as well as bringing assorted new regulatory powers to every agency under the sun, from the FDA to Treasury. The Liberals are now decrying the excesses of the Conservatives and want to reduce the role of government, balance the budget and conserve the environment. It looks like mission drift to me, and I’m not the only one who’s confused.
Instead of forming a party around an issue, or even a coherent set of issues, each party deliberately goes out looking for the issue that will: a) get them elected, b) put the other party at a disadvantage, and c) keep them in power. Forget a) and b), just go directly to c). Can’t find an issue? No problem, we can create one. Environmentalism, cap and trade, health care, education for three year olds, human cell cultures, it does not matter. They don’t need to understand the technicalities, only the demographics. They don’t need to solve the problem, there is much more play in creating the problem, or at least making it look bigger. Instead of just going away when the issue dies, it becomes vital, for the life of the party, to find another issue. In fact, solving problems, the way we expect things to be solved, is bad - they might go away and then you have a problem - finding another to take its place. The other party might get credit for the solution. Or worse, your solution might become an embarrassing failure. From the point of view of a party hack, opinions are good, solutions are for eggheads and techies, and the only thing that matters is the public perception that the party is effective.
I would like to vote, sometimes, for the Science Party candidate, or the Green Party candidate or even the Libertarian candidate, Ron Paul. I am reminded that I would be wasting my vote, splitting the party, not to mention disloyal (I’m a registered Republican, but not comfortable with it). Why is that so? What prevents me from voting for the issue of my choice through the candidate of my choice? Only that if he is not backed by one of the two main parties he cannot win, and there are no gray shades here. It’s winner take all.
In order to get a new party on a ballot you need a certain number of backers on a petition. The party has to register. The candidates have to have money to campaign. All these are money issues. Few people can afford to run for elected office without a great deal of money in their personal pockets or from supporters. No one pays for a Presidential campaign out of pocket (I wish someone would try - no backers to owe). A political party is a machine to collect money and then get votes. If you try, and get to first base, you can win a small brass ring - the public money from the Election Campaign Fund. It won’t be enough. The opposition will have ten TV ads a day to your once a week, campaign in states that never heard of you, and hire every named expert under the sun, while you will stagger along with your friends-and-family staff. Once they are selected in the primaries, they will have Secret Service protection and a covey of dedicated famous reporters, while you will have the local TV weather woman and a lecture about how your old Ford van is a major security issue. Go tilt at windmills, its saner.
The two party system is not part of our Constitution, nor is it anything our founders contemplated. If we want real change, it will not provide it. Here are some changes that will:
1. Require a political party to file a declaration of its principles when it is formed, and set up a commission to make sure it adheres to them. If it fails, cut off its right to collect contributions for a year. I leave the exact mechanisms to the experts to decide.
2. Allow any party who can show voter signatures equal to 1% of last year’s votes in a state to register and get on the ballot in that state. They must show that the 1% comes from states in which they have candidates and no other. They should not have their constituents in Texas and their candidate in Massachusetts. They should have a full roster of candidates for election in at least ten states. They are then eligible for funding from the Federal Election Campaign Fund. Here is my formula: 10% of the total fund, allocated to the states where they have candidates on the basis of state electoral votes. So, if a state has 10% of the total electors, then the new party gets 10% of 10% for that state and so on. When the money runs out, so does the ability to register. That should provide more national political parties.
3. Private campaign funds, PACs and payment in kind should all be counted toward campaign contributions, and the total for any party must not exceed ten times the amount that party would have gotten from the Federal Election Campaign Fund. The excess is added to the next FECF.
That should do it - level the playing field, put the emphasis back on issues and candidates, and, having reduced the influence of any single party, cut back on irrational legislation in Congress. I would look forward to a time when a Congressional Rep refers to “my opponent across the aisle” and has to name the aisle.
Never believe we have the perfect government and never give up on democracy. Prepare to stand as an honest beacon for good government before you foist something less on a captive country, and make sure you will be there for the decade at least, not just until the next election.