Chapter Two: America is not a Democracy
“Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.” James Madison November 20, 1787
One of the basic premises of American Exceptionalism is that our form of government is unique. Born of revolution our founding fathers in their great wisdom formed a constitutional republic where “The People” ultimately ruled. They firmly rejected the notion of Kings and Queens (despite the fact that it was at least suggested to George Washington that he become King) and other royals in favor or a representative government.
Reading the quote from James Madison, one might believe that the founders came up with a totally unique style of government. Closer to the truth is the fact that they did their best to duplicate that with which they were familiar. What they created was basically European style government minus the Kings, Queens, and taxation without representation. Some of the things an American with no knowledge of the world (most of us) might well believe that “Separation of Powers” and “Separation of Church and State” were unique to our country. Truthfully these elements can be found in governments around the world and Oliver Cromwell might easily had as much on our Constitution as Thomas Jefferson.
While America indeed has never had royalty per se. We have given the wealthy the same power and deference as that bestowed on dukes and duchesses and barons and baronesses. Since the beginning of our history, we have given the rich undue influence in selecting our supposed representatives to endure positive outcomes for their preferences. Even recently this has become enshrined in our elections through Citizen’s United which ensure the rich can throw unlimited anonymous money behind their candidates who will in turn promote their will. It took a while for the rich to assume their place in America as after the American Revolution, most of the rich were Loyalists and returned to England. After a time the robber barons took their rightful place and the most familiar names include Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Astor and Mellon. They ruthlessly used power and money to buy politicians, snatch resources, crush unions and obliterate opposition. Today these names have been replaced by Koch, Adelson, Murdoch, Trump and the most worrisome of all, Anonymous. It is the rich and powerful that have become our royalty and as they now control most of the major mass media the revolution will truly not be televised.
We keep telling ourselves that we have free elections and a representative government. We presume that they are subservient to our will and ignore the financial requirements to get and stay in office that make them beholden to contributors and not the public. We can take apart this fallacy by first examining who is allowed to vote.
The only constituency that has always had the power to vote in America is white males with land. There were theoretical early exceptions like in New Jersey where female land owners had the right legally to vote but might be discouraged to do so. Freed slaves had the right to vote in four states assuming they also owned property and met whatever tests were thrown up in their way.
By the time of the Civil War, all white men could now vote in all states whether land owners or not which is progress of a sort I suppose. 1870 gave us the 15th Amendment prohibiting denying the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude”. This combined with the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to anyone born in the United States in theory created a large new group of eligible voters. Many states however proceeded to pass a number of laws including literacy tests, poll taxes, white only primaries and voter intimidation tactics to prevent blacks and other undesirables from voting. I don’t mean to gloss over “voter intimidation tactics” which included threats, beatings and lynching’s which needed to be explicitly mentioned.
It was 1920 before women gained full voting rights as part of the 19th Amendment. This followed the suffrage movement being fought on both state and national levels. They earned the right in time to vote in the 1920 November Presidential Election. Women had been winning the right to vote on a state by state basis but only in 1920 did it become the law of the land.
It was not until 1966 that poll taxes were eliminated (at least on paper) from the states arsenal of voter suppression tactics. While the 24th Amendment saying just that had been enacted in 1964, most states were not forced to comply until later. Several states now had to seek prior clearance to making changes in their voting requirements and redistricting due to their extensive history of discrimination. This was mandated by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You may know that that section was recently gutted by the United States Supreme Court eliminating the preclearance requirements. Texas and other states went to work immediately placing new requirements and changing districting on the first day after the elimination of the preclearance requirement.
In 1971, before a backdrop of Americans being sent to Vietnam and not old enough to vote on the representatives sending them there, the 26th Amendment was passed lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18. A few states like Georgia had already lowered the age but the Amendment made it Federal law.
Lest one think that voting rights are settled in America I offer these examples. As I write this on April 6, 2016. Yesterday the Supreme Court unanimously turned back an attempt by Texas to do away with one man one vote (really should read one person one vote) in an attempt to not count members of the population ineligible to vote. Fights are ongoing in several states including North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and more to resist new draconian laws intended to make it harder if not impossible for certain segments of the population to vote. It is universally Republicans and other conservative groups proposing these changes and despite their claims of fighting almost non-existent voter fraud. The actual intent and result is to diminish the voting impact of minorities, the elderly and youth in an attempt to change elections. This combined with the successful attempt by Republicans to redistrict America and assume State and Congressional control after the 2010 census is how you get a result like in 2012 where Democrats won the national popular votes for congressional seats by a large margin yet Republicans end up with a stranglehold on the House of Representatives.
There is much more to say about the systemic attempt to dilute the power of specific voting groups but if I tried to say it all I might never get done. I do want to say that one of the methods by which a limited few conspire to control outcomes of elections is by limiting who gets to vote. The second way is by determining who is eligible to run for office.
Even in most local elections, requirements to run for office may include a filing fee or a number of petitions from constituents in order to be eligible. Sometimes one can cite undue burden and request the filing fee be waived (or fees to have petitions accepted) but the bottom line is that if you have money there is no burden and if you’re broke the struggle is real. For national elections each state sets requirements to get on their ballot which inevitably require deep pockets as well. None but the well to do need apply. Now there are some who line their own pockets and those of friends and family by paying themselves for campaign work and consulting. This may explain why some candidates destined to lose, stay in the race as they raise more funds and sell more books.
Political parties have more say than the voters. In the rare case I agree with Donald Trump. If a candidate wins an election, he/she shouldn’t see their delegates handed off to someone else demonstrating the will of the people never mattered. Should a candidate arrive at their political convention without the delegates to become the nominee. The outcome will be settled in a smoke filled room, out of the public eye.
One might reasonably ask who is in that room, making decisions that affect our futures. Out of sight and uninfluenced by the will of the people. That room will be heavily if not solely populated by white men. These white men will have been selected by other white men to fulfill the desires of white men. When I say white men in this context, I’m not speaking of all white men but the power brokers who have always presumed to know what’s best for the rest of us. Whether it’s the Republicans discussing “Convention Rule 47” or the Democrats use of “Super-Delegates” the one thing is clear is that this is not democracy.