Thursday, November 12, 2009

Perils of Democracy

Perils of democracy
We are proud of our democracy and with good reason. Our government, with all its imperfections, is vastly preferable to the crude despotism the government of Burma or Zimbabwe.
At the same time, democracy is always precarious. We must be extraordinarily vigilant and speak out about abuses, if we want to save what democracy we have. Here are two examples of the major threat to our democracy: the role money plays in our electoral system.
A person who is very well informed told me recently that representatives in Congress must contribute large amounts of money—on the order of half $1 million or so --to their respective parties to, in essence, pay for their committee assignments in Congress. I had never heard that it; I tried to check it by googling a number of different related topics. Only with considerable effort did I find some articles in a reputable social science journal confirming the story. The major parties raise funds from elected officials by tithing them in proportion to the importance of their committee assignments.
Surely, you may say, the major parties should be free to raise money as they please as long as the methods are not illegal. True, but consider this: members of the House and Senate spend more time fund-raising than doing anything else. Instead of writing bills or reading the bills they are about to vote on, elected representatives are on the phone asking people for money or conferring with their fund raisers. Hence many bills remain unread when they are voted up or down. The members of Congress are too busy raising money to do the job we elected them for. Members who are running unopposed do not need as much money and would therefore be free to attend to their proper business of legislating and running the country. But since they have to pay large sums of money to their party for their committee assignments, they are still forced to fund-raise first and legislate second.
My second example is quite amazing: Pres. Obama asked for and Congress voted for stimulus funds for improving transportation. The state of New Hampshire, through its elected officials, planned to ask for stimulus funds to build a high-speed train between Nashua, NH and Boston, MA. This train would have to run on a track owned by a private railroad company. The CEO of that company does not believe that this is the time to think about high-speed public transportation. He has therefore refused to negotiate with the State of New Hampshire about the use of the right of way. One man is blocking a project considered important by a whole slew of elected officials. What gives him this power to interfere with the plans emerging from the democratic process? You know the answer: money. Private ownership of the railroad right-of-way trumps democracy.
These are two example of a pervasive evil. At the ballot box we may each have only one vote regardless of how much money we have. But between elections money talks much too loudly in our democracy.