I’m starting my first special series of posts on this blog–dedicated to the inauguration of Donald Trump (what a surreal phrase to have to type)–with the supposed foundational concept of our government, and that it is a democracy.
Isn’t that the primary civics lesson we all receive in grade school? That America is the Great Democracy? (As if it’s the only democracy, which it isn’t).
The reason I’m questioning the truth of the nation’s democratic nature is because the claim comes with certain expectations–the main one being that we get to choose the people that govern us.
The other expectation is that we–the people–can change the tone of our leadership, the direction in which the government is leading the nation, and even the content of the laws that are used to govern us with our votes.
I know I’m not alone in feeling that the Presidential election of 2016 has thrown this contention into serious fucking doubt.
Merriam-Webster defines democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”
And American government fits this definition, as far as I can see, until we get to the end–the “free election” part.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organization established in 1889 in part for the “firm establishment of representative democracy,” there are seven criteria that qualify an election as free and fair.
Conveniently, the United States is not a part of the IPU, even though 171 member parliaments and 11 associate parliamentary organizations across the globe are.
Anyhow, according to the IPU:
(1) Every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections, on a non-discriminatory basis.
(2) Every adult citizen has the right to access to an effective, impartial and non-discriminatory procedure for the registration of voters.
(3) No eligible citizen shall be denied the right to vote or disqualified from registration as a voter, otherwise than in accordance with objectively verifiable criteria prescribed by law, and provided that such measures are consistent with the State’s obligations under international law.
(4) Every individual who is denied the right to vote or to be registered as a voter shall be entitled to appeal to a jurisdiction competent to review such decisions and to correct errors promptly and effectively.
(5) Every voter has the right to equal and effective access to a polling station in order to exercise his or her right to vote.
(6) Every voter is entitled to exercise his or her right equally with others and to have his or her vote accorded equivalent weight to that of others.
(7) The right to vote in secret is absolute and shall not be restricted in any manner whatsoever.
In America, felons and aliens (I really do hate that term) cannot vote, by law.
While one can argue that aliens are not citizens, and so they shouldn’t be allowed to vote for the leadership in a country that isn’t “theirs,” the disfranchisement of felons is a trickier thing to justify in a so-called democracy.
There are actually 21 countries in the world where felons can vote while in prison; 14 countries where only certain felons can vote while in prison; 10 countries where felons cannot vote while in prison; and only four countries where felons cannot vote even after they have been released from prison.
Yes, America–with all its talk of freedom, equality, inalienable rights, and rehabilitative prison policy–is one of those four countries where felons can be permanently disfranchised after they are released from prison.
The policy varies from state to state, but, as of now, in Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming, felons can lose their right to vote for perpetuity, which throws into question whether US elections can be regarded as “free and fair.”
Also, state laws often make it exceedingly difficult for Americans in certain regions to register to vote.
Then, there are the continual problems with voter fraud in federal elections, including underage people casting votes, dead people casting votes, people casting multiple votes, and aliens casting votes.
These things would be bad enough if in the Presidential election the popular vote determined the winner, but we also have the electoral college in the US, which pretty much negates the hell out of precept #6–“Every voter is entitled to exercise his or her right equally with others and to have his or her vote accorded equivalent weight to that of others.”
As we saw with W and again with Trump, the popular electorate can choose one candidate, but, because popular votes select electors, electors decide the Presidents, and the districts of the college are divided as illustrated below, that candidate can still lose the election.
Which makes one question, again, whether an election run by such a convoluted process can be regarded as “free and fair.”
And then there is the logical premise of the electoral college.
“[The framers of the Constitution] decided to delegate the decision [of who should be President] to wise elites. The framers thought they would be a check on demagogues and the popular passions,” says Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
The “people” is everyone, not a group of “elites.” So is America a democracy or something decidedly less, well, democratic?
Let’s look at it through another lens. Political sociologist Larry Diamond claims a democracy has four qualifications, if you will–
(1) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
(2) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
(3) Protection of the human rights of all citizens.
(4) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
I’ve already contested the idea that America has free and fair elections; only about 60% of Americans vote in Presidential elections and even less–40%–vote in midterm elections; there are a plethora of issues occurring in our country right now–Flint, the DAPL–that could be viewed as federally sanctioned human rights violations; and the application of laws and procedures in this nation are mitigated by everything from citizenship status to race to gender.
So America doesn’t qualify as a direct democracy, no. I think that’s a reasonable, if troubling, conclusion.
Political sociologists tend to label America as a presidential democracy. The signification of the modifier is this: we, the people, get compensated for not being able to change constitutional laws, put forth referendums, and give orders to elective officials (as we would in a direct democracy) by getting to elect House representatives and senators directly. And, in turn, these members of Congress “funnel” our interests into legislation and protect us from tyrannical rule by “checking” and “balancing” the President that we don’t actually elect.
While direct democracy might be preferable, as might a Presidential electoral process determined by the popular vote, we aren’t afforded these things because American democracy is all about constitutionalism.
Constitutionalism is belief in “the superiority of constitutional government and the necessity of a written constitution as the foundation of constitutional government.”
And the Constitution, in Article II, Section 1, says the President shall be elected by the electoral college. It establishes a permanent, oligarchical element in our “democracy” that keeps us–the people–from being able to truly choose our leader.
So what does this mean?
For me, it means that Americans have to do one of two things–either alter our concept of how much control we have over our government or fight to gain more control and make the nation a purer form of democracy.
And I opt for B because the fact that Trump is getting to be President even though he didn’t win the popular vote does more than just stick in my craw; the idea of him running the country terrifies me, quite honestly.
Everything that I believed about the danger he presents to blacks, women, the poor before he was elected, I still believe.
His bullshit talk of “togetherness” means nothing when his Cabinet appointments reek of white supremacy and his Tweets give off subliminal vibes of mental instability.
So I think that we should do a few things–Americans that still give a fuck about this country and want it to be the exulted democracy is already pretends to be.
We need to vote in every federal election–midterm and Presidential.
We need to do some lobbying of our own and broker our votes–only give them to the candidates that are talking about the issues that matter to us, saying the things we need to hear, and providing plans to fix the things that we view as broken.
Or we can lobby the lobby by spending our consumer dollars much more strategically, as in with businesses and industries that propose or back legislation that benefits us and not just them.
One of the first measures for which we should push, come the midterm elections, is the eradication of the electoral college.
No House or Senate candidate should get our vote unless he or she is willing to form a coalition with other candidates and propose an amendment to the Constitution that says the popular or general vote will elect the President and Vice President.
Too, we should push for newer, stronger laws that protect us against voter fraud and discriminatory registration practices and make it more difficult for poll workers and others to obstruct people from voting.
We may even need to push for the establishment of a screening process for poll workers similar to the process used in jury selection.
I can’t remember where I heard this line that I’m about to quote, but I remember it clearly, and I quote it to myself all the time: “America is work.”
I think one of our jobs as American citizens is to keep America as honest as we can, and one of the only tools we have to do that is the vote.
The other is our money.
We were promised an American republic by the founders, but we should’ve also learned from them that instituting the sort of government you want takes a drawn-out series of battles.
Trump’s inauguration will necessitate a new fight for our democracy.