I recently completed a series of conversations about democracy with a group of retired people. The average age was between 70 and 75. In their working life, these men and women had been doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers or business people.
We talked about different versions of democracy and about some of the shortcomings of actual democracies, including our own.
In a democracy all citizens are equal; every person has one vote. Everybody's ideas and needs are as weighty as those of any other citizen. But, the members of the group asked, is this democratic equality realizable in a society as unequal as ours?
That thought led to the main complaint: the role of money in politics. Citizens elect representatives to represent their desires and interests. But once elected, the representatives cater to the people with money, often living in different electoral districts, not to the people who elected them.
There are clearly many reasons for that: electoral campaigns tend to begin on the day after the previous elections. Campaigns are becoming more and more expensive. Rich people can flood campaigns with money thereby buying access to the Congressperson, if not the Congressperson him or herself. The others are left out in the cold, unheard, unheeded.
These were some of the topics touched upon in our conversations.
The last meeting was to be dedicated to a summary. Everyone was to bring in a problem and a suggestion for fixing it.
That conversation was complex and interesting. But as we came to the end of it, various people kept saying that, all in all, with all the difficulties we had touched upon, “the democratic system works.”
There was considerable agreement to that. After a series of conversations examining in some detail how the democratic system does not work, because workplaces are, on the whole, dictatorial and authoritarian, because the democratic system we have reflects the inequalities of our economy, and citizens are not equal participants in politics, everyone settled in with a happy sigh and agreed that, nevertheless, the system works..
I was struck by this complacency that made people say that money plays an excessive role in politics, that our government is, often not a government of the people, but is for sale to highest bidders but that nonetheless “the system works.”
That struck me as a gross contradiction. These were intelligent people. How can they say that the system works while they complain that they are not represented, that money again and again carries the day in Washington?
There are a number of explanations for this complacency: If we seriously believe that our democracy is in danger, we need to act. Being complacent is a lot less work.
Add to that, that while we tend to brag about our freedom and our democracy we also tend to believe, indoctrinated by periodic witch hunts like the McCarthyism of the 1950s, that it is unpatriotic to be critical of how our system works. It is true that we can be openly critical, much of the time, without being persecuted by the police. But our fellow citizens are not as tolerant.
The truth of course, is the opposite. Complacency betrays our institutions and our ideals.
Our democracy is in great danger. Not the least threat comes from the complacent “nevertheless the system is working.”