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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Our “Representative Democracy” Fatally Flawed?

“America is not a democracy but a plutocracy that is dominated and ruled by a wealthy minority.”

So begins the Second Chapter of a book titled “Beyond Plutocracy – Direct Democracy for America” by Roger D. Rothenberger.  In my opinion, his main point is what is often ignored by textbooks and some historians:

    “While claiming to have created a government that did not unduly favor any particular faction of people, the founders, a small group of privileged white men, aristocrats of their time, created a government that in fact, both by its inclusions and its exclusions, favored themselves, others of their class, their heirs, and similar others through the generations. The constitution that they wrote protects private property, private contract, and other interests that were of particular concern to the American aristocracy while ignoring or minimizing the interests of principal concern to everyone else. For good measure, this privileged few made it nearly impossible to alter its constitution and then only by the privileged elites that overwhelmingly populate the seats of government.”

Let’s stop a moment and offer just a few examples of what we can call the protection of private interests by government:
·    Protection and promotion of gun dealers
·    By opposing national healthcare, special interests ensure the protection of the economic interest of the medical industry from drug makers to hospital administrators and everyone in between.  Part D of Medicare – a boon to drug makers; Obamacare – protection of private insurers in spite of restrictions imposed;
·    Unquestioned and unaccounted tax incentives and breaks for corporations
·    De-regulation of businesses, such as airlines; the curtailing of investigative arms of certain agencies
·    Defeat of national legislation overwhelmingly supported by ordinary people, such as expanded background checks on gun purchases or the limitation on gun clips, opposition to comprehensive immigration laws or to equality of wages for women and the raising of the minimum wage for all
·    An attempt to privatize Social Security into personal accounts despite opposition from recipients and others

In the Constitution of the United States, there are some words (and lack of same) that are clues to where we are historically in relation to development of a truly representative democracy.  They also help to explain why we are having problems with our political system today.  Allow me to bring some of them to your attention. 

  • An excerpt from Wikipedia points up the importance of the protections in the Constitution for the slave trade:

 “The Constitution of the United States was drafted in 1787, and included several provisions regarding slavery. By prohibiting changes for two decades to regulation of the slave trade, Article V effectively protected the trade until 1808, giving the States 20 years to resolve this issue. During that time, planters in states of the Lower South imported tens of thousands of slaves, more than during any previous two decades in colonial history.  As further protection for slavery, the delegates approved Section 2 of Article IV, which prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.  In a section negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, Section 2 of Article I designated "other persons" (slaves) to be added to the total of the state's free population, at the rate of three-fifths of their total number, to establish the state's official population for the purposes of apportionment of Congressional representation and federal taxation. This increased the power of southern states in Congress for decades, affecting national policies and legislation. The planter elite dominated the southern Congressional delegations and the United States presidency. For nearly 50 years out of the 72 years between the election of George Washington to that of Lincoln, every President was a slaveholder, and every President re-elected held slaves.
It is extremely important not to miss the point here.  The Founders made sure that governmental protection of a huge industry was written into the founding document!  By 1815, the internal slave trade had become a major economic activity in the United States, with economic links throughout.  "The internal slave trade became the largest enterprise in the South outside the plantation itself, and probably the most advanced in its employment of modern transportation, finance, and publicity.” 
We should pay close attention to the fact that, in order to protect an industry, the Founders found a way to exclude (Indians and) slaves as voting citizens, but also found a way to count 3/5s of each slave so that their states’ population would be higher and their representation in Congress enhanced.  Thus, written into the document on which we base our entire system of “representative democracy” was an exclusion of certain groups of people as citizens,  the protection of the “property” and business interests of the land-owning class of slave-owners, and the trickery of a mechanism used to enhance the representation and importance of their delegations to Congress.  Not bad, if you believe in control of the masses and freedom for the privileged!  This all sounds eerily familiar, as though it is all happening again, as the Tea Party replicates the scenario., using exclusion of undocumented immigrants, protection of corporations alongside the detrimental treatment of minorities, and the trickery of the Big Lie to protect the elite.  Welcome to the world of manipulation and control that does not go away!

  • “The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments;”  a 2/3rds vote required to approve treaties; 2/3rds vote to overturn a veto; 2/3rds vote to approve judges. The Senate was set up as the upper house – meant to be the place where the elite would rule and control.  Senators were appointed by state legislatures (made up of more rich land-owners), for six-year terms in order to consolidate their control
  • “No…ex-post facto law shall be passed or law impairing the obligation of contracts” written into the Constitution is something that still protects Wall Street robber-barons. The inability of the federal government to protect the rest of us from rich robbers by passing a law “after the fact.”  In other words, if what Wall Street financial interests did to us in the early 2000’s was technically not against the law at the time, no law could then be proposed which would seek their punishment.  Wall Street bankers have still gone unpunished for their unsavory speculation in hedge funds and junk bonds and mortgages, without sufficient reserve funds to back up a default; the Founders are still protecting the elite!  By the way, immunity from arrest during session in either House is also included in these protections (who else but the elite enjoy such privileges?).  Let us not fail to mention that protection of contracts was very important to the rich and their enterprises, but especially to the slave owners who most often bought and sold their slave “property” by means of contractual agreements.
  • “Each state shall appoint a number of electors” (and guess who in the states would be appointed? Not the poor or the working man or even the middle-class shop owner, but most often, the property-owners!)
  • No Bill of Rights allowed until after ratification (although several calls and documents for this came out of the states, those who held sway prevented its adoption and gained a delay – of two years, as it turned out)
  • The whole convention was conducted in secret (the rich delegates did not want the people to know what they were planning)
  • Written into this document is the protection of property and person by suppression of insurrection, domestic violence, and the abhorrent fact that a slave who escaped into another state had to be returned to the “Party to whom…service or labor was due” (The slave owner, of course).  Just what was going on in the colonies that caused this particular reaction?  The elite have always feared the rebellion of the masses against the restrictions placed on them – the Founders, like the English aristocracy with their “Riot Act”, were reacting to some real unrest, like Shay’s Rebellion” in New England.
  • At the apex of their class protection, there is the fact that the elite made it almost impossible for the Constitution to be easily amended.  Certainly, it would not be easy for the “people” to change things. Two-thirds of both Houses must “deem it necessary” to amend the constitution.  Or, the Legislatures of two-thirds of the states must make application to the Congress to call a constitutional convention.  Not easy to do; certainly not easy in terms of pushing an elitist Congress to arrange for an amendment or for a convention.  According to the author, all of this speaks to the attempts of the propertied elite to keep their own group in charge so they could control the machinery of government, in spite of what seemed to be an enlightened structure of governing.  Rothenberger sums it up for us:

 “In a Las Vegas gambling house, the house prospers simply by setting the gambling odds slightly in its own favor, just slightly over fifty percent. Given these odds in its favor, in the long run the house wins more than half of the time and prospers. Using the mechanisms of business and government, America’s wealthy elites set odds in their own favor much higher than just slightly over fifty percent. They do not win all of the time. They are not and need not be an absolute power (which would dissolve the illusion of freedom and democracy behind which they now hide.) The wealthy need only hold a (dominance) of power to win enough of the time generation after generation to amass in their hands a fabulous mountain of our nation’s wealth, the fruit of everyone else’s labor.
The American constitution and the resulting political-economic system are in intent and result one giant scam perpetrated against the many by the few.  The Constitution, the supporting body of law, the resulting public and private social, political, and economic institutions, and the current elite class (the American aristocracy) all work together to keep the current system in place. Rather than correcting the real cause of America’s many social ills by moving America away from plutocracy, the elite class and our elected ‘representatives’ actively sustain the status quo while appearing to attempt repair by eternally applying deliberately insufficient and ineffective patches to our unjust social system.”

Essentially, the odds are stacked against all those of us who do not qualify for the “American aristocracy.”  We may be fortunate enough to lead a comfortable life; to have a successful career, and manage to own some form of property, but we qualify only for the broad-based middle class, perhaps the “upper” middle class.  We are not part of the elite.  Their access, not only to costly amenities and opportunities, but to special privileges is far beyond what the vast majority of us can hope to attain. 

I’m moved at this point to mention something that may illustrate the stacking of the deck.  Which would you consider would have more impact on our way of life and our governing system: the sessions of the 113th Congress, or the invitation-only meeting in Las Vegas of about 46 multi-millionaires and billionaires brought together recently (and annually) by the Koch brothers?  I choose the latter in terms of their influence on the elections of 2014, and the production of negative outcomes that will have dire consequences for the middle class.

Liberal and progressive values have added to the life, liberty and happiness of many individuals and of our country as a whole.  In fact, whenever we edge ahead in civil and human rights, there seems to be a progressive movement in this country that pushes us forward, but generally it takes at least multiple decades or even a generation to arrive full-blown.  Whenever the values of the elite hold sway, we seem to stand still in the status quo, or move backward in terms of some sort of golden age in which conservatives felt more comfortable. But, if Rothenberger is right, we are essentially prevented from bringing about permanent change by the built-in elitism of the Constitution.  In other words, it is inevitable, given our constitutional foundation, that the persistent ideology - that a few elite should be in charge of most of what happens in our government and our society - manifests in the periodic emergence of major right-wing movements throughout our history.  Thus, we have to deal periodically with a political group or ideology that seeks to return this country to a conservative construct, inculcating once more the plutocratic concept, the governmental form of confederacy, and the belief that a strong central government is our enemy and our folly and should be either diminished or terminated.

And so, we arrive finally at the “Reagan Revolution” (which ultimately led to the “Bush Debacle!”).  That revolution was tied in to the conspiratorial right-wing John Birch society, and to Barry Goldwater’s concept of government which Reagan promoted. Lower the taxes on the rich, devalue and diminish central government programs, protect the rich (corporations and banks), devalue and destroy unions, promote the military and military power, de-regulate on a grand scale, devolve federal programs and accompanying money to the states where they can operate as they please, eliminate Great Society programs and those of the New Deal, and use government to promote certain social issues (religious in origin?) such as pro-life anti-abortion, family values, the primacy of free enterprise, and the promotion of large corporations. 

And here we go again with the Tea Party movement: a reiteration of all that Reagan promoted but with an interesting twist: no quarter given!  The Tea Party adherents are not concerned with how they are perceived, with compromise needed to pass legislation, with people who must suffer the loss of necessary social supports, or with Truth and facts.  They are concerned primarily with pure ideology, i.e. with the “constitutional” imperative of protection of the elite class, the primacy of states, with the devolvement of power from a central government to state governments, with the protection of the capitalist system mainly through tax incentives,  de-regulation and privatization; with the protection of certain cultural imperatives: sanctity of (heterosexual) family, the outlawing of abortion, the restriction of civil, personal and human rights for certain groups, and the restriction of opportunities for the under classes, the privatization of more and more governmental functions, the reduction of the deficit which translates to a war on the poor, and restrictions for women; the suppression of voting rights on those groups and individuals who they consider as "unworthy” voters.

One cannot ignore the not-yet-proven assertion that this will never change unless the people mount a counter-offensive.  (Do I hear “Class Warfare?”--  Well, at least we know where that started, and by whom it was started!). Assuming it is the constitution that is actually preventing our system from recognizing the people as the essential element in governance by democracy, the question becomes: what must we do to change the status quo?  I have commented in past blog postings on those elements which I think are essential to amend in our constitution.  In brief:
·    Changing the manner and process of amendment itself
·    Term limits
·    Fair and publicly-funded elections; overturn Citizens United decision
·    Restriction of unfettered rule-making in the two Houses of Congress
·    Broadening of citizen participation in government structures and processes
·    Closing of the revolving door used by former office-holders and their staff to obtain lucrative positions in private firms based on their inside knowledge of congress and its members

One of the more controversial conclusions Rothenberger puts forth for consideration is as follows:

“Our supposedly democratic, two-party political system is entirely a farce. While haggling endlessly about how to best manage it, both parties ultimately serve the same plutocracy.  Our elections are and always have been merely a show, a slight of hand, the exercise of form without any real power for the vast majority of the electorate to elect truly representative officeholders. To the extent that our government feigns democracy, it is intended to be just something to placate the majority, the common people, while the elite avoid the sharing of any real power.  Superficial political and social issues may be somewhat affected by the electorate, but the fundamental essence and structure created by the founders—the plutocratic form, governance by the wealthy—always remains in place. As a result the electorate is always powerless to affect any fundamental result or real change.  The result is an unjust society in which, despite the whining and moaning of the economic upper half to the contrary, the lives of the economic upper half are permanently subsidized by the lives of the bottom half. The upper half uses the bottom half as a beast of burden.”


So often, a mood of indifference or perhaps that of disappointment in the ruling Party results in a wave election in which the other Party is voted into power without any consideration of what this means for these very fundamental issues.  Often the electorate finds it has made a mistake because the Party in office does not do what it says it will, or the Party elected does exactly what it said it would do, which turns out to be worse than what was done before they acquired office.  So on and on it goes, but fundamental change is nowhere to be seen, and the voter treads the eternal wheel without relief, without desired change, and certainly without the representation for which they thought they voted, and the necessary increase in wages they thought they earned.

The 2010 election was such and 2014 is shaping up the same way.  Meanwhile, the voter blames everyone in Washington for this predicament; for the lack of change that might benefit the bulk of us in some fundamental way.  On the one hand, the electorate is to blame for its utter ignorance of what is involved, but at the same time, the system is to blame for what it has fomented. 

In my opinion, a counter-revolution is our best hope, but what does that entail, and just what does it mean?  We will try to answer that question very soon.