Wither American Democracy?

The Supreme Court’s striking down of a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is the latest turn in what democracy advocates would call an erosion of American democracy. Justice Scalia was reported as saying that “we don’t need the Voting Rights Act. That was for when there was racism. Nowadays the South is no more racist than I am.” A year ago, Supreme Court Justices were grilled by members of Congress for having no checks on their power. Their response, in a nutshell, was “we’re honorable.”

Justice Antonin Scalia

A string of anti-democratic events could be brought out as evidence against Scalia’s stunning claim, but many of those events are not in the South – at least not the deep South. The systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the 2000 election has by now been well-documented, but it was mainly in Ohio and Florida, not the states that the Voting Rights Act really targeted (Alabama,  Mississippi).

The most disturbing developments, of course, have been in Arizona, a state in which racial profiling has become the norm. Recently, in the ironically-named town of Surprise (ironic because it is no longer a surprise when these things happen in Arizona) a retired African American firefighter was booked for a DUI after testing with a blood alcohol level of 0.0. Other troubling developments have come at the Federal level – the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, and the recent report from Common Dreams that anti-war protesters can now be considered domestic terrorists – to name only two of the most disturbing. If indeed there is an effort to subvert democracy, it is dispersed in its targets and operating in many sites and at different levels.

The effect of money in politics has been decried by many, including conservatives like John McCain, and certainly the effects of SuperPACs and the Citizens United decision are troubling, but we need to examine what we really expect from the political system. Power has always been concentrated. A brief history of land ownership (the source of political power in many societies historically), for example, could go something like this: 1% owned 99% of the land. As recently as World War I, Howard Zinn points out, anti-war activists were massively suppressed. The Greek democracy we often look to as the source of democratic ideals was restricted to free Hellenic males in Athenian society and for only a few years. Aristotle actually opposed democracy, which he defined as the rule of the poor (who were the vast majority), in favor of “polity” – rule by the (at that time fairly small) middle class.

None of this, of course is to argue against democracy, only to clarify the term. Demos in Greek refers to “the people,” in whom power was to be vested. But if, as one of my government professors claimed, the average American thinks about politics for five minutes per month, and college graduates can’t name the Vice President, how is the demos to exercise power?

Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and perhaps that’s why there is also an assault on education and teachers. If American are more concerned with their Idols than with their leaders, what type of democracy is actually possible? Information (and misinformation) is readily available, but not, in the main, accessed. We have access to political reality on CSPAN but watch a manufactured reality instead.


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