Sunday, January 31, 2016

   What difference does the vote make?


In the past I have frequently complained about our so-called democracy and said that it is not really a genuine democracy -- a system where the people rule -- but an oligarchy, rule by the few. But now I am, as so many other critics of our democracy, sitting on the edge of my chair and wondering what the next few weeks will bring. Will it be Hilary or Bernie? Will any Republican make a dent in Donald Trump's lead? All of the sudden the critics of democracy seem to have forgotten what they have been saying for the last four years and are about to take bets on the outcomes of the first primaries.

Is that being inconsistent? Well no. The political system we have may not be as Democratic as it is often said to be. But it is all we have and is, at the moment, the only real conduit for possible political change. It is also a better electoral system than many and we must acknowledge that in spite of all of our criticisms. In Egypt the people elected a military man for president and are now saddled with the same military, authoritarian dictatorship they got rid off with great effort and sacrifice in 2011. The people of Hong Kong have elections but the Chinese government decides who can run for office. You may say about Sheldon Addelson and the Koch Brothers what you want, their role is not as nefarious as that of the Egyptian general and president el-Sissi or of the central Chinese government in Hong Kong.

At the same time we must not have any illusions about how our system works and about the extent to which "the people rule." Suppose that Bernie Sanders wins not only the Democratic nomination for president but also defeats Donald Trump handily. In January 2017 he and a small staff arrive in Washington DC to take over the reins of government.

What they will find is a federal government that has close to 3 million employees. The new president, Bernie, needs to get to know the heads of the Pentagon, the CIA, homeland security, national security agency. He needs to get to know the people who approve of new medications, the FDA, the people run the economy and so on and so forth. Once he has met all these people he must try to have them adopt his priorities and policies. That will obviously be an uphill struggle.
He will never get to know any but a tiny minority of the leadership of the federal government agencies. He will never know what goes on in these agencies.
The leaders of the Pentagon, for instance, have their own interests, namely to keep the military as large and as powerful as possible. They have their own projects. They are intimately connected to large industries that build futuristic bombers and battleships for warfare we may never have to engage in. They are also intimately connected to the congressional representatives from the districts where these weapons, old and new, are manufactured. The bureaucracies the incoming President inherits are massive, sluggish, unwilling to change and reluctant to take orders from outsiders.

Obama's experience is instructive. He never did manage to close down Guantanamo. He did leave Iraq and is being roundly criticized for that. He has not managed to end the war in Afghanistan and every indication is that that war will be with us for many years to come.

Clearly the person of the President does make a difference. Had Mitt Romney been elected in 2008 we might be in very different situation. But we might also not. Some Presidents are very powerful; others are not. Bernie may be unable to budge Pentagon policy because the generals think that democratic socialism is ridiculous and Bernie does not deserve being taken seriously. They may ignore Hilary because she is a woman.

The process by which our government arrives at decisions is immensely complex and rarely predictable. We cannot know whether one candidate or another will affect policy in ways I and my friends desire. It is misleading to think of democracy as a system where the people rule. No one rules in the United States. The question is rather what groups of our population have an influence over decisions that matter to them.

Whether any given group can affect government policy on a specific issue does not only depend on who wins an election. The candidate supported by a particular group may turn out to be unable to budge the generals, budge Wall Street, or the fossil fuel companies. In that case our excitement about Iowa or New Hampshire will prove slightly comical.

But let’s be optimists and assume that we’ll luck out and the best person gets elected and will prove to be able to make some changes for the better.