Saturday, May 17, 2014

The State of our Democracy

After the President and the Board of Trustees of Rutgers University in New Jersey invited Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement address at this year's graduation festivities, students and faculty demonstrated against that choice. The President of Rutgers tried to make it look like a simple free speech issue. So did the editorial writers of the Boston Globe. But the protesters made it very clear that they were protesting Rice's complicity in seriously damaging our democracy.
(Much to her credit, the former Secretary of State withdrew gracefully.)
When President Bush was considering sending troops into Iraq, our government invented so-called "weapons of mass destruction" which the government of Saddam Hussein was supposed to possess. Respected members of the administration showed photos on national television which, they said, were images of those weapons of mass destruction.
But all this turned out to be a pack of lies. A cabal of psychopaths – VP Cheney, Secretary of Defense Ashcroft and others-- had conceived the plan of invading Iraq and were prepared to circumvent popular opposition by simply lying to the people.
Quite obviously a democracy cannot function if the government misleads the people. President Bush and his crew not only expressed profound contempt for American citizens and for the democratic process, but they also did considerable damage to that process.
In a democratic system, citizens play an important role in formulating government policy and legislation. For that to be possible citizens must know what the facts are in any given case. Citizen participation in the government cannot function when they are lied to.
But misinformation, misleading voters, misrepresenting issues and policies has unfortunately become standard practice. Speaker of the House of Representatives Boehner was recently reported to have spent $7 million on his primary campaign. That much money is needed for advertisements for 30 second spots appealing to the voters' emotions but not giving them either information or reasonable arguments for voting for the speaker. You can't do that in 30 seconds.
If our democracy functioned as it should, the speaker and his campaign staff would encourage discussions all over his electoral district in which voters could consider different issues calmly and with as much relevant information as is available. But that is not how we run electoral campaigns. Citizens are fed slogans, their emotions are aroused, candidates appeal to citizens fears and prejudices. What emerges from that is not a reasonable choice but a knee-jerk reaction.
If the speaker's ads convey any information, it is as likely to be one-sided, slanted or altogether fictitious. The speaker wants to get elected. If it takes destroying our democracy by lying to his constituents and misleading them, he is perfectly willing to do that.
It needs to be said, of course, that democracy was always in danger of degenerating into the sort of demagoguery it has become in our country today. 2500 years ago the Athenians experimented with democracy and found that it was liable to turn into a fight for jobs in which candidates would use any means whatsoever to win election. Thoughtful observers have always known of this potential threat to democracy.
Today this is not a topic for discussion because our political class is unwilling to talk about this most obvious fact that elections are no longer what they should be, occasions for calm reflection about the issues facing us. Instead they have become orgies of misrepresentation, emotional appeals and deception.
The students and faculty who protested having Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker are to be congratulated for seeing clearly the threat to democracy posed by the Bush administration's manipulation of the entry into the Iraq war. It is hoped that others will protest this sham that our elections have become.