Monday, November 16, 2015

Democracy in the US


    In my last blog I pointed out that our government regularly lies to us. It does not matter whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, or whether Congress has more members of one party or another. Our government again and again acts in secrecy not from some foreign power but from American citizens. Our government again and again misrepresents what it does and conceals some of its activities.

    The point of repeating these familiar facts was to argue that we do not live in a democracy as it is usually defined for us, namely as a government that is  "of, for, and by the people." It is definitely not by the people because they don't even know what the government is doing. It is not government for the people because the secret acts often do not benefit the people. The war in Iraq is one example of that. It is not government of the people because they are being lied to by a ruling group of politicians and business people who hold the rest of us in sufficient contempt to lie to us without shame.

    That is an important lesson that many Americans have not yet learned. They are confused by other aspects of our electoral system, by other aspects of our media which have more freedom than media have in many other countries, and by our judicial system which provides fair hearings to a significant number of citizens.

    All of those, are of course important. In electoral campaigns and in various more or less official media – from the New York Times and Washington Post to random blogs and tweets, citizens express their views on many things and sometimes those views make a difference. There has been – to begin with a negative example – a vigorous opposition to the Iraq war from the very beginning but neither President Bush nor Pres. Obama was very much moved by that. The opposition to the Vietnam war, on the other hand, was so massive that the government could not ignore it. Support for gay marriage has made a difference in courts and in legislative bodies. Support for legalizing marijuana has also affected government policy and the opinion of legislators.

    In our country, what people think sometimes makes a difference. But that is of course true in every country. The Germans did not advertise or talk publicly about their killing Jews, or homosexuals, or communists. They knew better than to stimulate opposition by letting people know what was going on. The secrecy of the Stalinist regime teaches us the same lesson: even brutal dictators care about what people know about them. All governments are vulnerable to public opinion.

    But it may well be true that ours is more vulnerable than a firmly entrenched dictatorship. The free speech we have, which is not unqualified by any means, does allow us to speak out in ways which other countries would not allow. My blog would quickly end me in hot water in no time at all in China, in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia and many other places. Being able to speak out is a real advantage and I am the last person to deny that. I enjoy the leeway that I have  been given.

    As a white person which some resources I am not afraid of the police and I would be confident to receive fair treatment in the courts if that came up. There are many other Americans who cannot be that confident, but some of us can and that, too, is very good.

    But all of these privileges, however valuable they are, do not yield a government "of, for, and by the people." That does not exist in the United States of America.