What Democracy? - Part I by Harry Lonsdale
Author’s Note I am frequently asked why anyone would run for major public office in the present political climate, in view of the vultures in the press, the loss of privacy, and the need to raise enormous amounts of money. I can’t answer for others, but I have done this more than once and learned something in the process.
In the 1990s, I ran three times for the U.S. Senate from Oregon, as a Democrat. Initially my purpose was to get to the Senate and to try to stop the overcutting in the national forests of the Pacific Northwest. But, when I discovered how corrupt and money-driven elections are in our country, I ran a second and then a third time, hoping to bring about meaningful campaign finance reform and bring a touch of integrity to the Congress.
I lost all three elections: to then-Senator Mark Hatfield in 1990, 53-46%; to then-Democratic Congressman Les AuCoin in the 1992 Senate primary (by 330 votes out of 360,000 votes cast; AuCoin lost to then-Senator Bob Packwood, who later resigned); and in 1996 to Tom Bruggere in the Democratic primary, who then lost to current Senator Gordon Smith.
I was substantially outspent in all three contests.
I have thus seen the power of campaign money. I have concluded that in elections where both candidates are financially competitive, positions on issues and one’s personal background and character matter. However, if one candidate is well financed and the other candidate or candidates are not, none of that matters: money prevails.
I’ve become convinced from these experiences that this thing we call our “democracy” is in deep trouble and that only citizen outrage and activism will fix it. (Yes, this means you!).
Well, not all of them, and not all of the time, but enough of them do it enough of the time that we’ve become wary of what they say.
And one of the biggest whoppers they’re forever spewing out is, “This is a democracy!” Knowing who they really represent, it makes me want to puke.
Well, it isn’t a democracy and they know it isn’t. Never was and probably never will be.
I will therefore address three things: • What is our form of government, if not a democracy? • Why isn’t it a democracy and should we even care? • Do we even want a real democracy? (“Be careful what you wish for…”)
What Is It? So what is it, if it isn’t a democracy? It’s a republic. Even that answer isn’t easily arrived at. Many textbooks of history and government waffle on the definition. Here’s what my Webster’s College Dictionary says: “democracy – government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives….majority rule….” There’s some ambiguity there. To hold the ruling power directly is one thing; to hold it through elected representatives is something else—something quite different, as it turns out. When ‘We the People’ hold power through elected representatives, that’s usually referred to as a republic. I’m not sure why politicians don’t refer to our system of government as a republic. Maybe it isn’t sexy enough. Maybe they’re trying to fool us.
Actually the definition of democracy that I prefer is one articulated by Alexander Meiklejohn in his little 1935 book entitled, What Does America Mean?: “a society which is carrying on an enterprise in which all its members have a genuine share…(one in which) all people can actively and responsibly partake in the achievement.”
Isn’t that what we all want? If we want it, why don’t we have it? Aren’t we in charge? Well, we don’t have it because the folks that set up our system of government, the so-called Founding Fathers, didn’t want it.
The Famous Founding Fathers I have ambivalent feelings about the famous Fathers. First and foremost, I praise them. They were very much ahead of their time. Many of the men who created our Constitution in that summer of 1787 were also the signers of the Declaration of Independence, 11 years earlier. Had the Revolutionary War had a different outcome, those gentlemen would have been dangling at the end of a rope. When they signed their names to that document on that first 4th of July, ending with the words, “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” they weren’t kidding.
Our Constitution in many respects is a masterpiece. The notion of a balance of powers between an executive, a legislative, and a judicial branch wasn’t exactly new . . . however, the implementation of it was. No question, the men who deliberated and hammered out this Constitution brought a tremendous amount of talent and commitment to the table.
But if you read a detailed history of the Constitutional Convention, you’ll find extended bickering about property, and property rights. Most of the Founders believed that property ownership was essential to good citizenship and therefore that only property owners should be able to vote. “Property”, in those days, also included slaves, of course, and half of the Founders were slave owners. Yet, the words “slave” or “slavery” never appear explicitly in the document, nor is “property” ever cited. When Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence, he originally wrote “life, liberty, and property”, as the “self-evident truths” with which the “Creator endowed us”. Only later did he revise it to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
There’s no doubt that the Founders were mightily concerned with the security of their property, and they were subtle enough to place their faith in that security in the mechanisms of government they established. For example, in the bicameral legislature, the People (or at least a small percentage of them) were allowed to elect members of the House of Representatives, but not members of the Senate. Instead, the state legislatures elected Senators. And since both houses of Congress had to agree before any legislation became law, a key element of control remained in the hands of the elite. (Direct election of Senators didn’t happen until the 17th Amendment was passed, more than a century later.)
The maintenance of power in the hands of the elite was further strengthened by who could vote. In 1787, there were about four million people living in the 13 original states. But only about four percent of them, it is estimated, could vote. Excluded were the one million slaves, the two million women, anyone under the age of 21, and all non-property owners.
And so, the Founders did not create a democracy. In spite of Lincoln’s famous words nearly a century later, it was not “of, by, and for the People”, but rather of, by, and for the elite. And that elite control, though it’s been nibbled away at over the years by extending the franchise to everyone over the age of 18 (except convicted felons in some states) and by allowing for the direct election of Senators, persists today. It’s a lot subtler, even arcane, today, but it’s still with us, as I’ll describe later.
Our Constitution was an enormous advance from the “Divine Right of Kings”, but it didn’t give us a democracy. In fact, the word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Constitution, nor in the Declaration of Independence.
This was no oversight. Throughout history, the “rulers”—and that includes the Founding Fathers—actually feared democracy. We were taught in high school that democracy had its roots in ancient Greece and Rome. But what the Greeks and Romans practiced was a republican form of government. (Back to Webster: “republic—a state or nation in which the supreme power rests in all the citizens entitled to vote ... and is exercised by representatives elected, directly or indirectly, by them and responsible to them.”) Only a handful of citizens made the laws in Greece and Rome.
Two reasons, each with some validity, have been given down through the years for why our government, or any government, is not a democracy: 1. It’s unwieldy. We simply can’t have tens of thousands or even millions of people make the laws. It would be chaos. 2. You can’t trust the People. They’re fickle, uninformed, apathetic about governance, and they could make serious mistakes if left to their own devices. The elites, on the other hand, are well informed and we can trust them to look out for the rest of us.
If we needed proof that the People couldn’t be trusted, the French Revolution, which followed our Constitution by only a matter of months, provided it. The guillotine disposed of thousands of people, including some of the perpetrators of the Revolution itself.
However, in my opinion, both of those historical arguments against democracy—it’s too unwieldy, and we can’t trust an uninformed electorate—no longer hold, as I’ll get into in Part II of this article. And so, for the present, the bottom line is that we have a republic, not a democracy.
Democrats & Republicans For some years I’ve been struggling to arrive at an iron-clad definition for: What’s a Democrat, and what’s a Republican? I still don’t have the ideal definition. The two political parties are not to be identified with any single ideological issue, like abortion, gun control, or welfare, nor any combination of ideological issues. And so I wonder if the difference isn’t simply in their respective names: Republicans believe in a republican form of government where the elected (elites) make the laws. Democrats believe in democracy, where we all make the laws (if by some yet-to-be-defined mechanism).
Is our republican form of government working for us? Many would say that it is: more Americans are more prosperous than at any time in our history. In answer to the question, why don’t half of Americans even bother to vote?, Newt Gingrich offered this answer: They’re happy with the way things are; they don’t need to vote.
I don’t agree. Here are just a few of the things that I believe a majority of Americans want that our U.S. Congress won’t give us, for a variety of reasons (most of them involving money): • Universal health care, probably similar to the Canadian system. • Regulation of tobacco as a drug (billboards across our country proclaim this: “500,000,000 people, now living, will die from cigarettes.”). • Gun control. • Limits on U.S. military engagements, and on arms exports. • Better immigration control. • More progressive taxes, including corporate taxes. Is democracy the answer? I’ll address that fundamental question in the next installment.
Harry Lonsdale lives in Sisters, Oregon. His experiences running for office are described in his just published book, “Running. Politics, Power, and the Press,” available on-line at www.1stbooks.com, or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or toll free 888-280-7715. The book can also be ordered from your favorite bookstore.