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The Carletonian

American Democracy is Dead. Long Live American Democracy!

<ve failed. Nearly two hundred-thirty-eight years later, we have failed.”

This is a refrain accompanied by the snide “No kidding” across the nation. Over every dining room table, during lunchtime debate with friends, it’s the same sentiment: our government is not our own. That sentiment was already solid for some people since the third millennium began, what with the 2000 election. Perhaps the recent study published jointly by Princeton and Northwestern last month will push people off the fence about how they feel about government. This recent study, analyzing answers to 1,779 survey questions on matters of policy based on income level of respondents, was to determine “to what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?” The conclusion from 30 years worth of data by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page went something like this: “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Sound surprising yet? It is then with no wonder that commentators such as Robin Pennachia are labeling the study the “duh report”. Considering that the Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission this year that the wealthy can contribute funds to any number of political campaigns, it’s awfully timely. If anything, the media took no time to blast the report findings, spinning that American government now resembles an oligarchy of wealthy elites more so than the egalitarian democracy our civics classes have lauded on to us ad nauseam.

Before we get riled up (or scoff again), let’s put on the breaks for a second. The report does suggest that those from lower incomes and the middle class are able to attain their desired policies, but usually this is accompanied by the upper classes agreeing with the rest, or vice versa. For example, if the federal government does increase the minimum wage, then based on Gilens’ and Page’s report, the policy change would be due to the elites supporting the policy in addition to the middle and lower classes. It is also worth noting, however, that the American system of government has “impediments to majority rule” – and if you still remember those civics lessons, this means checks and balances. (Whether you like them or not.)

These points being said – and I highly recommend reading the findings, which are available online – we still have a say in government. It’s just that others now have a more persuasive, monstrous, and green (not that “green”) say than before. This is not our government, so it can seem. Rather, it is a government dominated by economic elites. With the presidential elections costing in the billions of dollars, who can argue that? What is left of our say?

So we have not failed completely. Although all citizens can be held culpable for what seems to be a “loss”of democratic values, it is the inescapable that systems can always be played by the people with the means to do so. Instead, we have been failed. Failed by what we have been taught and understood.

Yes, America is no exception. I do not wish to beat a dead horse that’s been beat for a decade, but that fact that we are no exception has always been this case since before the nation was born. That “American Revolution”? The signers of the Declaration of Independence owned lands west of the borders the British had set. They were protesting paying taxes that the rest of the British polity had to pay for. As reductionist as it sounds, the Revolution was one fought by colonial elites who had their own interests to consider. Even with half the colonialists still loyal to Britain, the Revolution happened anyway because of these elites. It is the same drumbeat of history, of those with the means of manipulating systems.

I say this to temper what our heritage of enshrining democracy, liberty, justice, and all other niceties. We have been “privileged” by our own ideas of democracy that it can be easy to acquiesce to the economic elites in power across the nation today. We got complacent with what we learned long ago, and our leaders have, in the past hundred years, have used this “privilege” of democracy, flaunting it when it suited the “national interest,” or whatever that meant. Even if it meant supporting the likes of the Reza Shah Pahlavi or Papa Doc Duvalier, their peoples not having the same privileges of democratic society that we do.  Idea of privilege was meant to make us look better, more civilized. It doesn’t take much to know that we aren’t. Like the parents to their little kid when he gloats too much: “you’re no special than the other kids.”

Today, we want to believe in these same ideals, but not just because they were taught to us. These ideals of democracy and the like, frankly, are sensible ways of organizing ourselves, balancing efficiency of rule with ensuring that all people can participate in decision-making and shape it. Yet we sit today at a crossroads of what it means to live in a liberal, democratic society. And we ought to be worried. When a president can order a drone strike on an American citizen in Yemen, we ought to consider. When a national government can require citizens to have health insurance, we ought to debate when it doesn’t work out exactly well. And when our own digital information is being analyzed at some level as we speak… well, we sure as hell ought to speak up.

We cannot cling to the privileges of our democracy – that is, that we can’t get wrapped up in the mythos of origins and our values. We want to believe in democracy because of our own beliefs in individual rights, in equitable group decision-making, in freedoms (however we define them, or believe in a lack of them). We should be aware that our democracy is imperfect, much like any system devised by humans, that it is pliable by the elite. We should be aware of it and then do all we can to limit the influence of the elite, knowing all well that they may not always know what is best for us, because who does, really? At least let us figure out a way to balance power.

Or can we? We cannot go back to the “old days” – time is irreversible. Perhaps our national government is not our cause. Shall we separate? Secede? Create a transnational corporation and shift to corporate government? Too risky right now. And too destabilizing.

Yet all politics is local. Our best hope, and our closest battle in upholding a more ideal democracy, is really close to home, in paying attention to local issues, volunteering, going to town hall meetings… We might as well start now before the national elites come up to our doorsteps. They’re prowling about, and sooner than you think.

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