Democratic failings

By Lizzie O’Shea
Photo of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney before US Presidential debate

This article is a guest post from the Chairperson of our Board, Lizzie O’Shea.

The Apollo Theatre in Harlem was jammed full of people for the recent US Presidential candidate debate. A community forum preceded the televised event, with local activists of all persuasions. Insightful questions were thrown to the panel from the floor and tossed around on stage with intellect and wit. A young male college student asked about the growth of the military state and how to reallocate the vast percentage of this spending to education; a woman questioned how tax cuts to the rich were useful, as the trickle-down effect appeared not to be working. Another asked about flailing race relations and whether Obama represented genuine change or more of the same.

Then the lights went down and the screen lit up. The candidates started politicking. Not one of these issues was raised. They spent endless tracts of time competing as to who had the better credentials as a leader who supported energy independence. They fell over each other to make claims that they would drill even more oil in newly available fields. Newly available, of course, because the Arctic Ice cap is melting even more quickly than scientists thought.

Essentially, it is socialism for the rich and oligarchy for the poor.

When formal political processes have disassociated so fundamentally from the genuine concerns of everyday people, it is very hard to see how we live in anything that can be considered a democracy. Instead, we have consensus on the vast array of political issues, including most obviously for the purposes of the US Presidential election. The war on drugs, the immense prison population, the nuclear arms race, climate change, freedom of press and defence of whistle blowers, drones and their kill lists are all issues that are simply off the table in this campaign. The distinctions between the two candidates is so fine, positioning between political parties has become little more than a public relations sleight of hand.

This consensus, of course, is hardly amongst the majority, it is very much amongst the elite. The idea that the rich elite run our democracy always had a somewhat conspiratorial whiff to me, because at the end of the day, both rich and poor have the vote (and the poor have 99 per cent of it). But Amy Goodman from Democracy Now recently had a telling exchange with conservative billionaire David Koch which changed my mind. It took place on the floor of the Republican National Convention, which endorsed Mitt Romney. Goodman asked a single question: “Mr Koch, do you think unchecked concentration of wealth will undermine democracy?” A human wall of handlers quickly gathered around Koch, preventing any answer being given. Eventually, Goodman was asked to leave because of “security issues.”

The reality is that Mitt Romney was not the most powerful man in the room that night. He was doing the bidding of a group of people and their policies have been negotiated and agreed to beyond the reach of democratic processes. The repositories of power that determine this consensus amongst the elite, which has such a profound influence on everyday people’s lives and the survival of future generations, remains literally unquestioned.

Essentially, it is socialism for the rich and oligarchy for the poor.

It is not reasonable to expect that the candidates will follow polling or take up popular or moral political positions because the majority is not their constituency. President Obama, of course, has created a similar, predictable legacy for himself. Amongst other things, he has done nothing to stop the war on terror, but has indeed expanded it and plans to continue it for the next decade. His defenders claim that this is a legacy he inherited, apparently his tinkering around the edges is his achievement. But as one commentator recently questioned: “If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn’t cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care. I am not equating President Obama with a slavery apologist or an Islamic fundamentalist … Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as ‘the lesser of two evils’ is unacceptable.”

Elections, like the one about to take place in the US, present a difficult political problem. It is foolish to think that a reformer can fix even the worst excesses of the system, so it is understandable why a section of society which is discontent with the system want no part in create a mandate for more of the status quo. But equally, this is a moment where to abstain from the debate on the terms it is presented is often interpreted as puritanical and indifferent to the idea that things could be worse.

Australia presents no exeption to this rule. A large number of issues enjoy bipartisan support which undermines potential for policy reform. Gay marriage, euthanasia, drug legalisation, gambling reform, our response to climate change, the intervention and ‘Stronger Futures’, off-shore processing of refugees and the need to return to a surplus at any cost – these are controversial issues that have captured public attention at various points in time. But bi-partisan consensus can mean that either genuine prospects of reform seem distant even with clear public support for the cause (such as gay marriage and euthanasia) or any kind of meaningful, informed discussion is difficult to come by (refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy generally).

But in Australia, we have also recently seen this problem expressed in a different manner. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute has found that only a paltry 39 per cent of Australians aged between 18 and 29 think democracy is better than other forms of government. Nearly a quarter agree with the statement that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.” In the context of the US Presidential election, it is not hard to sympathise with such a sentiment. Indeed on the vast majority of issues, it is difficult to understand why more people did not agree with the latter statement. The solution, in my view, is not better civics education, as some have called for. This will not solve the problem that the democracy that we currently have arguably does not deserve its name.

Indeed, according to the original creators of the concept, our current system hardly fulfils the criteria necessary for a democracy. The inventors of the concept, the Greeks, originally envisaged a requirement of democracy that there be what Aristotle called “a bias towards the poor”. Democracy is not possible where there is significant economic inequality because power will remain intertwined with wealth. As Tony Lynch outlined in his recent article in Dissent magazine, power in democracy cannot be based on seeking to impoverish your fellow citizen because such a system will mean that the impoverished are, by definition, not in power. In short, democracy is more than just about the franchise, it is about enfranchisement.

More problematically, an alarming 37 per cent of the young Australian respondents to the Lowy survey agreed that in some circumstances non-democratic rule can be best. So while there is a healthy sense amongst young people that those jostling for power do not represent them, such a critical thinking teeters very close to the edge of potentially destructive cynicism.

When people are kept in a deliberate state of ignorance and fear, again it is not hard to see how such a trend becomes possible. An artificial news cycle which endlessly reports political trivialities instead of policy debate, coupled with fear mongering about refugees and terrorism has the power to create irrational political views amongst otherwise rational people. It has similarly taken root in various organised right wing movements all around the world, which traditionally target immigrants and advocate for a return to authoritarianism.

But in spite of all this, there is room for hope. The last four years may have been predictably disappointing for those who sought change they could believe in. But it has also been full of political surprises: the explosion of the Occupy movement all across the world, the desire for freedom seen in the Arab Spring in defiance of US foreign policy attempts to thwart it, the rise of Wikileaks as a modern form of journalism devoured by millions globally. The US election is a political moment where people are almost required to take notice. That actually presents an opportunity, as Matt Stoller put it “to build this network of organized people with intellectual and political integrity into a group who understands how to move the levers of power across industry, government, media and politics.” There is a basis of discontent to build this, it is just a matter of getting organized.

The irony of what happened in the Apollo Theatre that night was that when Obama came on the screen, in spite of all their recent protestations at his failings, the audience let out an enormous cheer. Every time Mitt Romney was silenced by a smart remark, the noise was deafening. Mere moments after expressing disappointment at Obama’s rule, hundreds of people where whooping his every word. Some may call this cognitive dissonance, but my view is that people just like watching a Republican get smacked down. The real failure was not that people fell in line with Obama, which is perfectly understandable when the only other guy on stage is Mitt Romney. The real failure was that this system has not offered them any kind of alternative that truly deserves their cheers.

So while we must expect much of the same from the White House, regardless of who is elected, we cannot expect the same from the mass of ordinary people. The future is brimming with potential.

Elizabeth O’Shea is a lawyer in Melbourne working on public interest litigation. She has worked at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, and has also worked in Louisiana, USA with a capital defence office working with indigent prisoners on death row. She is currently Chairperson of Right Now’s board.