Desperately Seeking Democracy | Surviving to senior status prompts me to look back at some tenets that pass for accepted wisdom and measure them against their application in history and practice.
Forward Thinking: Desperately Seeking Democracy
A fundamental belief passed down to us is that our system of governance is, and should be, democratic, one in which the concept of “one person, one vote” has aspirational resonance.
However, over the past five decades, our system of governance, as applied, cannot be described accurately as the sharing of political power based on the expressed will of a majority of voters. This has been amplified in the times of Donald Trump.
Government by applied democracy is relatively recent on the world stage and our brand of American, “representative” democracy is, at best, an evolving experiment: the ongoing quest for a “more perfect union.”
One ideal fundamental to democracy is that individuals have a say in shaping how lives are governed and that the majority decide through peaceful means and processes, like elections, legislation, and court decisions.
The kicker has always been over which individuals get to vote for the lawmakers, executives, and judges who temporarily populate our government.
Our history shows grudging evolution from excluding all but white men who “owned” real estate (many of whom insisted that ownership of others – slavery – was permissible), to eventual (albeit, fiercely resisted) inclusion of blacks, women, and indigenous people as participants (with “owned” in quotes to honor the indigenous peoples encountered by the colonizer.
For them, individual ownership of the common wealth, what we call “real estate,” that is, the expanse of pristine land in the “new” world, was a foreign concept, introduced, for better and worse, by our immigrant ancestors).
The original, shameful accommodations for slavery continue to permit mischief in the body politic. Acquiescence to this anti-democratic concept resulted in embedding arbitrary and anti-democratic features at the heart of our constitutional system.
An aged-out doozy is the Electoral College, which runs willy-nilly over the principle of “one person, one vote.” Recently, in particular, it has saddled us with presidents who did not earn the majority of votes cast. Why?
Who Benefits When the Majority’s Choice Is Rejected?
In the Senate, an individual's vote in highly populated states like California, New York, or even Pennsylvania has much less clout than a vote cast in less-populated states, like Wyoming, Alaska, or Montana.
The troubling reality: this grossly disproportional representation gives voters in less-populated states a bigger bang for their vote. Whatever a state's population, its voters get two senators.
Curiously, Wyoming's population warrants just one congressional representative but still gets two senators. Why?
It is difficult to reconcile our current system, entrenched with flaws intended to perpetuate rule by popular vote minority, with the idea of the U.S. as a democracy based on majority rule.
The flaws arise from responses in the late 1780s to demands that our national system of governance make room for the undemocratic idea that it was fine for propertied white men to own black people.
For example (1) the propensity to gerrymander legislative districts to help the party in power retain power; (2) the foolhardy Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (concluding that huge corporate contributions to political candidates are beyond regulation by equating the “right” of the corporation – a fictitious legal entity – with the distinct right to free speech of the individual); and (3) other anti-democratic customs, like using the filibuster to thwart the will of the majority.
We can't say it often enough: our current system is anything but democratic. It skews toward allotting power based on wealth.
Yup, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, an imbalance perpetuated by American democracy as applied.
Born of the acceptance of slavery, and despite the detour of a bloody Civil War, we suffer a system that remains tilted dangerously toward rule by popular vote minority.
Fortunately, our system, at least theoretically, provides opportunities to self-correct through: (1) law developed through court decisions by non-partisan judges; (2) enlightened legislation; and, if necessary, (3) constitutional amendment.
Unfortunately, the self-serving, controlling minority's inertia, coupled with the distractible voting public, will likely continue to enable those in power to stay in power for far too long.
Vote carefully and wisely.
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