Is this the end of Democracy?

By Jim Smith

Fear stalks the nation. Its people are afraid to express themselves even though they hold strong views against government policies. Neighbors hide in their houses, fearful of encountering each other. A steady drumbeat of accusations against arabs, gays and “illegal aliens” emanate from the mass media.

Is this a book review of George Orwell’s 1984? Hardly. This is Venice and the US of A circa 2007. A hugely unpopular foreign adventure in Iraq fails to attract opponents into the streets for mass demonstrations. And when a newspaper - the Beachhead - asks “Venetians in the Street” for their opinions on Bush’s troop “surge,” most will express their negative opinion but are too paranoid to allow their names and photos in the paper.

What could possibly make people think democracy is in danger? Could it be the presidential succession since 1988:

Bush (1988-92)
Clinton (1992-2000)
Bush (2000-2008)
Clinton (2008-2016?)

It gets worse. The great Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, observes: “It is dangerous to confuse the idea of democracy with elections. Just because you have elections doesn’t mean you’re a democratic country.”
So outside of elections, what do we have: illegal wars, extraordinary rendition, torture, a bloated military budget, the largest prison population in the world (2,186,230), secret CIA bases, presidential signing statements, denial of habeas corpus rights, illegal eavesdropping, electronic voting machines without a paper trail.

The United States has never been strong on democracy. The founding fathers (no women allowed) never used the word, preferring to call their new creation a “constitutional republic.” The word democracy, which means “rule by the people,” just wouldn’t have applied very well to a country that excluded women, slaves, native Americans, and even white men who didn’t own property from being allowed to vote, or hold office.
Let’s go back to the Golden Age of American Democracy. At least, we would if we could find it. Certainly it didn’t exist while there was slavery, and it couldn’t have been when women were not allowed to vote or own property, you wouldn’t find it when unions were considered criminal conspiracies. And, during the last 60 years, the Cold War, the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism have not been fertile ground for the flowering of democracy.

That leaves us the four terms of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. But even then, millions were out of work and living below the poverty line until war production created massive numbers of jobs. Maybe World War II was the Golden Age, if you can ignore the 400,000 U.S. military deaths (part of a world-wide carnage of 50 million). This was also a time when Japanese-Americans were rounded-up and put in camps, and when no-strike laws were imposed on workers.

Shortly after Roosevelt’s death, his successor, Harry Truman, (surely one of the worst of a bad lot of presidents) decided to do what no other human in history has ever done - drop an atomic bomb, then another, on innocent people. It was hardly a democratic decision. Then, he presided over the establishment of the National Security State, which founded the CIA and enacted all sorts of provisions to protect the rulers from the ruled. Except for modest reforms instituted or contemplated by John Kennedy (and we all know what happened to him), it’s been downhill ever since.

The 9/11 attacks gave Boy George the justification for establishing the Dept. of Homeland Security (was the allusion to Nazi-speak on purpose or accidental?), and spurred the growth of authoritarianism.

On the local level, what urban planners call “public space” was abandoned for the tranquility of big screen TVs hidden behind alarm systems and too-tall fences. “Public” transportation was abandoned for encapsulated private automobiles. Likewise, walking became a thing of the past, unless one is accompanied by a large, threatening animal. And, there is no reason for us Venetians to feel smug. We don’t even have a city government.

Public forums, block parties, neighborhood pubs, candidate debates, contested elections and public events, not sponsored by the Fortune 500, have become so rare that they make news when they do happen. The carefully controlled neighborhood council system recognizes the problem, but seeks to channel it into frameworks that are safe to autocratic bureaucrats and remote elected officials.

Given this history, and present day practice, the end of democracy in America becomes a question not of “if” but “when.”

Meanwhile, the facade of democracy remains. Today, most people except prisoners and non-citizen residents can vote, but don’t bother. In November, 2006, only 39 percent of Californians who were eligible to vote actually did vote. Yet, something ominous, like the shadow of a big predatory bird, hangs over the body politic.

Perhaps the foreboding that many of us feel accounts for the popularity of HBO’s soap opera, Rome, which is set at the time of the end of their republic. How did they go wrong, and what can we learn from it.

The Romans maintained their republic - which is some ways was more democratic than our system of government - for more than 500 years before sinking into despotism for another 500 years. Likely, America doesn’t have that much time on either end. Their Senate, like ours, was a club for the rich and powerful. Most in Congress today, as in ancient Rome, are multi-millionaires, and some like Jane Harman and John Kerry could fairly be called billionaires.

The Roman Senate rejected - sometimes brutally - all reforms and reformers. In 132 BC, Tiberius Gracchus, an advocate of land reform, was assassinated. His younger brother Gaius Gracchus was assassinated 11 years later. Their lives and deaths bear an eerie resemblance to those of John and Robert Kennedy. Then in 107 BC, Gaius Marius instituted similar reforms which were overthrown by a brutal right-wing dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (think General Pinochet).

Rome’s greatest reformer, Julius Caesar, was killed by a lone gunman (actually, he was stabbed 23 times by elite senators). Ever since, he has continued to be stabbed by upper-class twits who write Roman history. (A refreshing look at him as a progressive reformer is contained in Michael Parenti’s book, Julius Caesar.)

After 100 years of defeat and repression, the poor and working class who made up the majority of Romans were more than happy to have an Imperator (commander-in-chief), or Emperor, who would take their side against the big landlords in the senate. In the civil war following Caesar’s assassination, most of the old families that made up the Senate were killed. They had so discredited themselves with the average Romans that no one cared. Instead, the population looked forward to the New World Order that the Emperor Augustus was putting together.

Also contributing to Rome’s slide into authoritarianism was it’s expanding empire. Rome’s habit of interfering in every dispute in the world, often sending in troops who didn’t leave, ultimately undermined its democracy back home. Roman’s continued to go about their day-to-day business believing in the myth that they still lived in a Republic, while the business of the empire was carried on between the Emperor and his appointees who ruled the provinces from Spain to Iraq.

What’s the lesson for us here? Rome’s ruling class, like America’s, was so rigid that it met modest efforts for reform with repression. Contrast this with the European ruling class that has adapted to a less extreme income distribution between poor and rich, to universal health care and extended unemployment insurance, etc. It too may crumble as the rest of the world industrializes, but its fall will surely be less violent and more “democratic.”

Is it hopeless for us, then? Not at all. Americans may yet reconnect with that wellspring of inner strength that has occasionally emerged, for example, in our fight against fascism during World War II, and in the 1960s when we fought for civil rights and ended the war in Vietnam. With effort, we may be able to throw off the addictions that keep us passive and apathetic - TV, sports, religion, anti-depressants, video games - and shrug off the false allure of empire. If we stand up for our rights we can still save that most precious of all Greek inventions - democracy.

Posted: Thu - March 1, 2007 at 07:00 PM