April 22, 2002
Political Science. Most adherents of the science of
politics don't blush when they use the term. I guess
because it's assumed that the objectivity purported by
science is both possible and important in an
understanding or critique of politics. Well and good,
so let's put it to a test.
When a 37-year-old surgeon uses the term coronary thrombosis in conversation with a 58-year-old medical researcher from China whom she has never met, both hold a remarkably similar, nearly duplicate basic definition of the term. Their experiences studying coronary thrombosis have differed and their shades of opinion regarding the treatment of the problem are seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are in full agreement with its basic definition. A little objectivity goes a long way.
The same can then surely be said in relation to the science of politics. When a U.S. Congressman uses the term democracy in conversation with a political scientist on CNN, they, and each of us watching at home with some interest in politics, are in full agreement with its basic definition. Right? Right.
Democracy Under a Microscope
Maybe we should dig a little deeper. Let's go official:
De-moc-ra-cy n., pl. -cies 1. A Principal or system of government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives. 2. The principals of social equality and respect for the individual within a community 3. Majority rule. 4. The common people considered as the primary source of political power. 5. A state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges. 6. Political, social, or economic equality: the absence of disavowal of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges.
Seems simple enough. Basically an organizing body by the people with equality as its objective. Except that identifying the quality of equality within a democratic state and then comparing one state democracy with another and objectively perceiving the more democratic of the two quickly reveals an ambiguity as rich as the prose of Finnegan's Wake.
The United States in the 21st Century, Anarchism and Socialism, Soviet Union Communism of the 1950's: each consider their political theory and practice as the essence of democracy. Really. A quick glance at the recently declassified Soviet archives and it is clear that the Stalinists actually felt that their task was to extend popular democracy within the Stalinist state and to make sure other countries become so democratized. Anarchists insist democracy will never be possible until government and power is radically decentralized and wealth more equally distributed. And Bush has communicated the "proud beacon for democracy" and pro-big business rhetoric as blatantly and loftily as any president before.
U.S. democracy claims capitalism is necessary for democracy. Stalinist Russia claimed U.S.-style corporate capitalism was the enemy of democracy. And anarchism insists that the opposite of democracy is both capitalism and a strong government. Apparently "a principal or system of government by the people" is a little too vague.
Each of the above devotees of their own brand of politics has presumably read the official dictionary definition of democracy, and each probably assumes that the other interpreters of democracy are either crazy/confused or dirty lying propagandizers. Maybe only one of them is right. Maybe Bush's America is the pinnacle of democracy. Or maybe, just maybe, democracy is only a baby. A new idea brazenly being tested out, twisted and contorted like a new pair of leather shoes.
If not a baby, a child at least. Not yet a fiery teenager willing to try a bundle of new things at the risk of offending the status quo. Consider that democracy as we know it is only a few hundred years old. And consider how much American democracy changed just within the 20th Century, with women winning the right to vote and the civil rights and labor movements with their democracy of the streets. Is our democracy today at its full maturity? What does democracy look like?
Democracy As Is
A basic assumption of the growing movement to reform campaign contributions is that democracy is not possible when corporate entities (and yes, that includes labor unions) are essentially responsible for a politician's election success. So in this light, we certainly don't have a democracy in this country, if by democracy we mean everyone in the society having an equal say in the major policy directions.
And then there's the question of the media's role in a democracy. Can a corporate-controlled media be objective and even mildly representational of the populace? Will a Nader, or issues that Gush and Bore ignore, be fairly represented when the three or four corporations that own the major media outlets each gave over $500,000 to both campaigns in the 2000 presidential elections? Does the media greatly influence the populace, or does it merely report the stories we need and want to know about and present them objectively by considering as many perspectives as possible for any issue? It seems obvious that these entities have interests and profit margins that will always come before fair, representational reporting and programming. Why should we expect anything else?
The United States may be a beacon for democracy today (everything's relative!), but as democracy's biggest cheerleader, we might at least define what it is and then consider how our society matches up to our understanding of its perfection. Are we too brash, even unpatriotic, God help us, if we admit that democracy is developing? What we have in the U.S. today is clearly not the perfection of democracy. To think otherwise seems altogether dangerous. And perhaps even more hazardous is a democracy of consolation where we reluctantly admit that at least this is as good as it gets.
High Drama in Venezuela
Take the wild, recent events in Venezuela. On April 12, 2002, in protests against some of the policies of the once vastly popular and freely, democratically-elected President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, at least 12 protesters were shot dead by plain-clothes snipers as tens of thousands of protesters approached the Capital. Not a day later, claiming that the President was behind the deaths, a coalition of businessmen and military officers entered the Presidential building and arrested the President. Several hours later they proceeded to dismiss Congress and the Supreme Court, arrest high-level members of the government and send others into hiding, cancel the constitution, and declare that Pedro Carmona Estanga, an oil man and the head of Venezuela's largest business association, was president.
It was not particularly surprising when Chávez, a populist politician, friend of Castro, and critic of Bush's War On Evil, received no support from the Bush administration. The administration, in phone calls to Congress the day of the coup, reported that Mr. Chávez had resigned, even though officials now concede that they had no evidence of that. Though we may never again see a more perfect example of a coup d'état, the Bush administration refused to call it a coup and endorsed Chávez's ouster, insisting that Chávez had brought this on himself. Imagine if Nixon was forced to resign by a similar military and corporate coalition in the wake of the Kent State shootings. I'd guess the Bush administration wouldn't hesitate to employ the coup d'état label there. But Banana Republics require a little more ambiguity. Right? Right.
Pedro Carmona was President not 24 hours when he was forced to resign amid widespread street protests, dozens of deaths by the hand of the coup's military, and rebellions by several military officers who refused to go along with the coup. Never before in modern times has an elected president been overthrown by corporate and military leaders, a successor sworn in, and the overthrown leader returned to power on the heels of a popular uprising. Days after Chávez was restored to power, Bush administration officials admitted that senior members of the administration met several times with Carmona and the other military leaders of the coup in recent months. In response to questions about the administration's involvement, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stated: "Our message has been consistent. The political situation is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally." Democracy indeed.
So it's clear that Bush II isn't concerned about sticking to democracy in Venezuela. I'll give him credit and assume that he felt that removing Chávez from office was the best thing for the Venezuelan people. But acting in others' best interest, regardless of the honorable fatherly instinct at work, and circumventing a democratic institution, doesn't align terribly well with the image of the world's leading defender of democracy. For all I know, our Venezuelan strategy is exactly what is required at the moment. But to ask for us to continue to believe that our government's foreign policy is only, or even chiefly, governed by our desire to impart democracy on other nations is a bit too much to ask.
Asked whether the administration now recognizes Mr. Chávez as Venezuela's legitimate president, one Bush administration official replied, "He was democratically elected," then added, "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however." Come again?
A Spade is a Spade
It is not my objective in this essay to criticize the policies of the Bush Administration. But I am requesting a little honesty. Just a little. We all know that lying and bending the truth are prerequisites for the job, but politicians need to give us a wee bit more credit.
Venezuela is the 4th largest oil producer in the world (and the third biggest supplier of oil to the United States). Our interests there are certainly not for democracy per se -- the politics are a lot more complicated than that. So why doesn't the Bush administration come right out and tell us exactly what our policy is and why? National security concerns? The Venezuelan people and the major players there and in Latin America know perfectly well who we support in their country and why. So lay it on us. We'd like to listen.
The truth might go something like this: Democracy in developing nations is dangerous. We'd like that these countries could govern themselves reasonably and fairly, but unfortunately sometimes it's better to support a strong-arm leader who keeps the impatient poor at bay while allowing industry to develop at a quick rate with our generous help. Everyone benefits.
Seems a little callous perhaps, but consider the case of Kuwait. The Kuwaiti Parliament, established in 1961, is the only parliament in the Gulf Region. Sounds just fine, except that the democracy has brought Islamic fundamentalists into government and with it a Parliament that often legislates against freedom. In 1999 it blocked a decree by the Emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to open elections to women, and it has recently voted to require the separation of sexes at Kuwaiti University. I don't know about you, but if I was an open-minded Kuwaiti citizen, and critical of fundamentalism, I would be quite concerned about many of the Kuwaiti democratically-induced policies. Apparently democracy doesn't always equal freedom.
We're Big Boys and Girls Now
We probably have a lot to be worried about in burgeoning democratic countries. If our policies are not always fully pro-democracy, just tell us the truth, we can probably take it. The vast majority of Americans could surely be convinced that it is better to influence the democracy of an unstable nation than let fundamentalists or terminally-corrupt presidents run the show.
As Mr. Lennon shouted some time ago, "Just gimme some truth." We'll still allow the politicians to hide away in their secret or closed committees and conjure their master plans, but when they come to the surface to speak to us with their prefab public masks, tell us exactly WHAT and WHY are our policies.
If the people decide that right now in our particular development of democracy that it seems a good idea to have the corporations and the wealthiest half of 1% of our population disproportionately influence our domestic and foreign policy, fine. Just fine, as long we democratically choose this scenario.
If you consider the seeming popularity of Bush II's presidency, and assume that the supporters understand that a very small number of people are daily making critical decisions without public dialog; decisions that are affecting us and will certainly determine much of our children's world, then obviously we do not desire perfect democracy. So let's rename it. Or at least clarify the term. Call it Democracy ver. 6.1. A whole new industry would be created to excitedly track when the new 7.0 edition is to be released. When the Patriot Act literally denied much (and some would say all) of the Constitution, we certainly updated our software -- maybe skipped right from Democracy version 4.2 to Democracy 6.1.
For all I know, the intentions of those who wrote and influenced the Patriot Act disregarded the Constitution with tears in their eyes and with the aim of only protecting our Constitution and version of Democracy. But me thinks we've grown beyond our britches and it's time for a little straight talk.
Children rely on faith. Parents can't tell the whole story, so fact and scientific objectivity are reserved for later years. The convoluted ambiguity and difficulty of life is necessarily kept from children until they have some skills to deal with the multiplying shades of gray that form from the black/white of a child's world. But there always comes a time to substitute the birds and the bees for the stork. A bit of truth and science.
Maybe we won't react all that well to the news that, at the moment, democracy on the planet is far, far from any objective standard of a government by the people and for equality -- probably not as well as we did when Santa Claus showed his true face. But it's always better to tell the children the truth than have them stumble upon it at school recess. I'd just hate to have us learn it from another 9/11 bully on the playground.
Lance Bauscher is a free-lance writer and documentary filmmaker. Two of his feature-length documentaries (UTOPIA USA, featuring Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and a film about the life and ideas of Robert Anton Wilson) will we released within the year. This is Bauscher's first contribution to Swans.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Lance Bauscher 2002. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This Week's Internal Links
SCENES OF WAR, A Glimpse Behind The Curtain Of Silence - by Gregory Elich
Orwellian Inversion, Or Just Another Day At The New York Times? - by Stephen Gowans
Make A Sign - by Michael Stowell
Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering, Pinky? - by Deck Deckert
The Immigrant Nation (Part II): Around My Heart - by Alma Hromic
The American "Dream" - by Stevan Konstantinovic
A Whispered Light - Poem by Sandy Lulay
War Is Peace - by George Orwell (Book Excerpt)