American Culture

America 101: we are not a democracy and never have been; is this good or bad?

America is famed – especially in our own collective mind – for being the greatest democracy in history.

This is a fun and noble self-image. But “democracy” is a word with a meaning, and have we ever, even for a second, fit the definition?

  • For the first several decades of our existence as a nation a significant proportion of the population wasn’t allowed to vote. In fact, as of 1860, nearly 4 million Americans – around 13% – were property. For fun, every time you hear the term “founding father” or “framers of the Constitution,” substitute a phrase like “wealthy slaveowner” or “legislative tool of the human chattel lobby” and see if it alters the tone of the discussion.
  • For the first 140 years, give or take, over half of the adults in the country – specifically the female half – weren’t allowed to vote.
  • Originally, the vote was reserved to landowners. So, rich white men, basically.
  • But by the ’20s, blacks were free and women had the franchise, so now, finally, we were a real democracy. Or not.
  • Okay, fine. But we got serious about our Civil Rights issues in the 1960s, so better late than never. Ummm.
  • The two-party system has proven remarkably stable. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in how it so effectively excludes non-conventional and dissenting ideas from gaining traction in the public mind (or, the gods forbid, actual representation in the government).
  • Then there’s the small issue of the electoral college. You realize that all votes case in presidential elections aren’t equal, right? Thanks to this little artifact of 18th century thinking, aimed at making sure the rabble didn’t get out of hand and that the interests of a few people were protected against the interests of the many, a vast majority of votes cast this November will. not. matter. at. all. If you live in one of a few battleground states – Ohio, PA, Florida, usually, and maybe NC, maybe Wisconsin, maybe Iowa and Colorado – you matter more. If you’re Cuban American living in the greater Miami/Dade region, your vote has historically counted all out of proportion to your numbers (although your influence is waning). But one person/one vote? Please. Tell it to Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland and Al Gore.

Notice how I haven’t even mentioned Citizens United and the fact that our wealthiest citizens arguably have more power now than they did back when Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Monroe, Madison, Adams and the rest codified “rich white boy” as the eternal law of the land. I trust you don’t need “oligarchy” explained to you.

So no, Virginia, despite de Toqueville’s snappy title, there is no democracy in America. We may have been a republic, although we were a poor excuse for one if we were.

But is this necessarily a bad thing?

Depends. I addressed the subject in detail a few years back, and at that time I said this:

As my friend Walter Lippman noted as far back as the 1920s, ours is a complex society, and it’s almost impossible for the average citizen to know enough about most issues to actually cultivate an informed opinion. Society is unimaginably more complex now, 85 years on, and if anything citizens – excuse me, consumers – are even less capable of understanding the issues that shape their lives than they were then.

Think about it. In America you’re embroiled in a war that factored heavily in the last elections. Millions of people who cast votes in support of pro-war legislators would be hard-pressed to find Iraq on a map, however. People also care passionately about issues like stem-cell research, despite the fact that most don’t know what a stem-cell actually is. Americans are confused over scientific issues where there is near-unanimous consensus about the facts because politicians in service to corporate interests promote the myth that there is a “debate” on the issue.

What do a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a drooling hillbilly who doesn’t know what “dihydrogen monoxide” is have in common? Their votes count the same. A lifelong international policy analyst with two PhDs and a woman who can’t name a country that begins with “U”? Ditto. When racially charged issues creep into campaigns, as they inevitably do, your vote counts no more than that of the moron in upstate New York who’s never been to the South, never met a Southerner, couldn’t name the 13 states represented by the stars on the Confederate battle jack, but nonetheless has one nailed to the side of his house.

In fact, when it comes time to vote, America does not require any knowledge of the issues (real or imagined) at all. If you think Canada is a state, that doesn’t mean you can’t vote for a candidate who’s against Canadian-style socialized medicine. Your inability to distinguish between “lesbian” and “thespian” doesn’t mean you can’t vote against the rights of people in states you can’t locate on a map to marry.

Put another way, a society is best when it cultivates the maximum possible intelligence in its citizenry and harnesses it in addressing the problems facing the nation. The country’s potential is lessened when smart people are not given every opportunity to contribute, and it’s also lessened – perhaps even moreso – every time an idiot is allowed to influence the course of anything.

Right now, the US is getting stomped on both criteria. Its education system couldn’t be much less effective if someone were, you know, actively trying to sabotage it. As for overparticipation by underachievers, well, you have a TV and every day they show footage of rallies featuring a variety of presidential frontrunners, so I’m going to assume you don’t need this explained to you.

So America isn’t a democracy, and when push comes to shove it hardly matters. There has never been a system of governance that can overcome corruption at the top and stupid at the bottom. And there never will be.

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