Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Health Of Our Democracy

The word democracy derives from the Greek word meaning "the power to the people." Because we treasure it so dearly we are constantly vigilant of threats to it. So with all the talk from conservatives about Pres. Obama precipitating the fall of democracy, I wanted to share my impressions on the current threats to democracy we are facing. I don't think democracy is in any real danger in the short term, but these are the issues I see as worth keeping an eye on, in no particular order:

Campaign finance laws

In the recently decided case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court struck down a law that limited the amount of direct campaigning that can be done by corporations and groups. The ruling allows special interests, lobbyists, corporations, labor unions, and the like to spend potentially unlimited amounts of money on political campaigning for or against individual candidates.

This means several things. For one, corporations are now able to buy candidates by promising them immense amounts of money in return for political favors. For another, candidates who speak out against corporations or special interests will be overwhelmed by the corporate money spent to have them ousted.

Because of the exponentially larger amount of money available through corporations, candidates will no longer see the necessity of soliciting funds from the average citizens, nor will they need to persuade an army of volunteers to help them through an election, which are fundamentally democratic ways of getting elected. The average citizen is now expendable. In essence, the Obama campaign strategy relying on millions of Americans donating and volunteering is a thing of the past, replaced by candidates relying on just a few corporations.

The supposed impetus of this decision is to protect political free speech. But the Constitution only protects the free speech of the people, and a corporation is not a person. A special interest is not a person. A labor union is not a person. If democracy is the power to the people, this decision, which takes away the power of the people and gives it to corporations, is the antithesis of democracy.

Lack of term limits

I've made my point about term limits known here. Without term limits in Congress we get an entrenched political elite with virtually no ties to the American people and no sense of urgency to solve the problems of everyday Americans. These politicians' first priority is to remain an elected official with all the power and fame that goes along with it. They are always in reelection mode and, indeed, over 90% of incumbents win reelection. With term limits we would get fresh ideas, fresh leaders, and more emphasis on the American people.

Widening gap between rich and poor

I went into more depth here about the widening gap between the rich and poor in America. Not since the pre-Depression era has the gap been so gaping. The top ten percent of income earners own a majority of the wealth in the United States, meaning of course that the 90% of the rest of us own less than half of the wealth. And it is only getting worse.

Wealth and power being accumulated by the elite very few is the death knell of a healthy democracy. We live in a political system where, increasingly, money, and money alone, talks. A family that has to worry constantly about putting food on the table, losing their home, the lack of affordable health insurance, and the like, will have less free time and mental and emotional will to get involved in the political process. They are also more likely to become jaded and disinterested in a society that is set up for them to fail. This is the new reality for the majority of American families and it is bad for democracy.


I remember back in 2005 when the Republicans were debating whether or not to employ the "nuclear option" and end filibusters on judicial nominees, and potentially ending the practice altogether, thinking that I wish they would go ahead and just do it. Where before it was used sparingly, it is now accepted that any bill in the Senate needs a super-majority of 60 votes to pass, where the Constitution only requires a bare majority. The filibuster is so plainly undemocratic, and potentially unconstitutional, that it should be ended. Here is a chart that demonstrates why now is the time to end the practice (from wikipedia):

Since the Democrats have taken over power in the Senate the use of the filibuster by Republicans has skyrocketed, and before that its use was steadily increasing. The axiom of "majority rule," which is the entire point of "the power to the people" has been replaced by "minority rule." Those that received fewer votes now have more power than those that received more votes.

Destruction of public natural resources
There is nothing more democratic than our natural resources. Everyone has free access to air. Everyone has access to our public lands. Everyone needs access to these things to reconnect with the earth and each other on a spiritual level. God created this world for our use and enjoyment, "for the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare."

But what happens when a certain few corporations are able to freely pollute our air and water, develop our last vestiges of wilderness, and profit from our communal lands? Is it democracy when a single logging company spoils old growth forest that belonged to the public at large? Is it democracy when a single oil refinery makes the air we breath harmful to our health? Our natural resources should be preserved for the people, for all to enjoy, and not managed for the profits of a few corporations. I don't think the destruction of natural resources is a direct threat our democracy, but I do think it is a apt barometer for the health of it.

I'm sure there are other legitimate threats to democracy that I have not named here, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but I think these are among the most important.


Daniel H said...

Campaign Finance Laws:

The problem with your argument is that under the law, Corporations are treated as people. Thus, technically, the ruling is fair. Do I agree with it? Absolutely not. But I think that the underlying logic of treating a corporation as a person is a big part of the problem.

Term Limits: You mean that Orrin Hatch, who's served for 40+ years in the Senate is a career politician, although he says he isn't?

Rich and Poor: I'm with you, 100%

Filibuster: I believe that Filibuster has its uses, but it's simply being abused by the party on the outs, and I think it's ludicrous that we're all shanghaied in such a manner.

Natural Resources: I think that there is a value to developing public lands, but I agree that this development is pro-corporation and anti-people, and frankly, should stop.

Jacob S. said...

You're right that we have traditionally treated corps as people under the law (state statutes, mainly), but I don't believe it has ever been a constitutional ruling (could be wrong). Once the Supreme Court says the constitution is interpreted as giving corps rights normally set aside for actual humans, then we have a problem, in my opinion. And I think we agree here.

And what are the conservative strict constructionists saying about this ruling? Do you think that Jefferson and Madison and the others intended state-created corporations to have the same basic rights they gave to people? I don't know, but I doubt it.

M.Galt said...

Jacob S,

Does the health of our democracy rely on lying? I mean if we lie to people then we can essentially say anything we want all along never having even the slightest intention of actually doing it? I mean you lied on our blog about not having a blog so is that sort of like it being OK for Obama to lie about televising all the health care talks and then not doing it?

I’m interested to hear from a lying LDS perspective how you could time the two together, faith and lying I mean.