Swans Commentary » swans.com November 19, 2012  



Real Democracy Requires Political Competition


by Joel S. Hirschhorn





(Swans - November 19, 2012   Now that the presidential election and myriad other state and local elections are over in the U.S., it is important to go back to fundamentals and ask the key question: Is the U.S. truly a first-rate democracy deserving broad global respect? I say no. Because the evidence says no.

I cannot imagine any objective measure on which people without a bias in favor of the U.S. could possibly conclude that the U.S. is a first rate democracy. I find it interesting that fewer Americans voted in the recent presidential election than in the previous one. For me this is just more evidence of a widespread view in the U.S. that both major political parties stink.

Once again four significant presidential candidates from minor or third parties received very, very few votes, about just one percent nationwide. No surprise, considering that they were nearly totally ignored by the press and had a miniscule amount of money for advertising. What has seemed obvious to me for a long time is that with all the talk in the U.S. in favor of competition there really is no significant political competition. As so many people have believed for a long time, the two major parties are just two sides of the same coin.

Coin is the right metaphor. Both major parties are all about political campaign money and inevitably serve the interests of specific groups and sectors that provide the money rather than serving broad short- and long-term public interests.

The two major parties keep out third-party candidates from national televised presidential debates, ensuring no competition from them. The media do not complain nor threaten to withhold coverage unless they open debates up, which certainly would make them a lot more useful and interesting. The Democrats and Republicans are allowed a political monopoly.

Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama distinguished themselves by being unrepentant serial liars (though Romney was the bigger liar). No surprise here. Virtually all two-party politicians have only a minor relationship to the truth when it comes to both campaigning and governing. The dumbing down of the American public over many decades has resulted from numerous factors, including the national epidemic of dishonesty within the political, commercial, and media worlds. In sum: Americans are overwhelmingly dumb, distracted, and delusional. This is exactly what the major political forces want. And this explains why Americans do not rise up in revolt against their oppressive political and economic system that has created the world's highest level of economic inequality within First-World nations and a successful erosion of the much praised middle class. The U.S. is well on its way to a two-class society: the rich and the poor, with the rich controlling both the political and economic systems and successfully extracting the wealth of the nation for themselves.

An urgently needed revolution is prevented in the US delusional democracy by the two-party plutocracy that is hugely successful in keeping out effective political competition. The two recent political dissent movements, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party with certain interesting mutual concerns, have not been effective in overturning the plutocracy. The Tea Party just became part of the Republican Party and the Occupy movement stayed away from overt political engagement; neither achieved substantial national support among the vast majority of Americans fed up with both major parties.

One important condition standing in the way of Americans facing ugly realities about their country is all the nonsense from both major parties about American exceptionalism. No person with intelligence and critical thinking ability could possibly buy into this world view. Extrapolation from the past to the present is not some law of physics that always holds true.

Yet Americans have become addicted to this false belief. To want to overthrow the oppressive two-party plutocracy requires acknowledgment that the U.S. no longer excels in the things that determine the quality of a society, at least for most members of it that are not rich enough to be part of its economic aristocracy. What the U.S. excels in is private gun ownership, people in prisons, military spending, spending on political campaigns, and gigantic levels of advertising and marketing of commercial products (especially unhealthy foods) and services to stimulate consumer spending that in its own ways keeps most non-rich people addicted to materialism and oppressed.

An illustration of just how deluded so many Americans are can be found in these post-election survey results: While 71 percent of Obama supporters said the US economic system favors the wealthy, just 26 percent of Romney supporters saw this reality. Similarly, 77 percent of Romney voters thought the US economic system is fair to most Americans, compared to just 22 percent of Obama supporters. Other results: The demographics that Romney appealed to were white men, especially over 65 years old, white born-again Christians, and those with high incomes; clearly their view of the US economic system is delusional. Yet the system the Romney voters saw as not favoring the wealthy and fair to most Americans was also viewed overwhelmingly as getting worse. But they put the blame on President Obama, not the economic system more controlled by wealthy and corporate interests.

People who live in other democracies, and Americans like me who have traveled extensively to other nations, know first hand that people in a number of other nations have very high levels of quality of life, economic security, educational opportunities and health care, as well as freedom and liberty. Considerable recent research has also shown that upward economic mobility, so much vaulted in the U.S., is now better in a number of other developed nations. I can understand why people want to visit the U.S. as tourists, but I have a hard time understanding the widespread desire to live here, except, of course, for those living in terrible conditions in developing nations or those experiencing economic disaster, and those in overtly oppressive political regimes, such as Russia and China. I know of many Americans who have gone to live in other nations and they are incredibly happy there and, personally, if I were a lot younger I would probably also do so.

But Americans are not voting with their feet to any significant degree, though a great many are not voting in elections -- far less than 50 percent overall for all elections. I respect Americans who do not vote, though I wish they would choose to vote for third-party candidates to send a clearer message to the two-party plutocracy. However, a favorable development would be a drastic reduction in the number of Americans voting in federal elections. If the fraction of eligible voters participating dropped to perhaps 25 percent there would no longer be legitimacy to the US political system. But the billions of dollars now being spent by the two major parties in their campaigns are effective in promoting specific segments of the population voting for either major party, as if it was an important patriotic act.

One of the worst aspects of the faux US democracy is that its electoral and voting system is probably the worst on the planet, with no national, federal standards and requirements. The result is a mishmash of state voting systems, often without integrity and efficiency. There are incredible opportunities for political manipulation and voter fraud. This year, in many places, people waited for many hours to cast their vote. Even Third-World countries often have better systems. When it comes to the process of voting there is nothing exceptional in a positive sense about the US system, no national holiday for voting, no national legal requirement to vote. Worst of all is the Electoral College system that ends up putting all the campaign focus of presidential campaigns on a few battleground states, causing many citizens in other states to feel like their votes don't matter.

A ludicrous dimension of the decayed state of the U.S. is that despite all the attention to a bad economy with high unemployment, there are over 3 million unfilled jobs, including half a million in manufacturing. The problem is that employers cannot find people with the necessary skills. So these are not low level, low salary jobs. What a failure of the US education system. Probably no other advanced economy has this kind of problem.

I am despondent about the future of the U.S. I cannot imagine that it will be able to maintain its status as a global superpower and economic powerhouse in the longer term. I believe that just as history has illustrated the decline of once great world powers, so it will also come to pass for the U.S. Who to blame? Americans, for lacking the courage and intelligence to rise up in revolt against the corrupt, dishonest political establishment that serves the greedy upper class and corporate interests.

So much attention is given to various kinds of financial or economic bubbles inflated with greed, deception, and delusion. I see a US political or democracy bubble that probably will not burst until millions more Americans suffer more harm. And maybe not even then, if they remain addicted to the myth of American exceptionalism.


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About the Author

Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior staffer at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association. He now writes about politics and government, and is the author of Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government and Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health And Money.   (back)


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Published November 19, 2012