Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why I Do Not Vote: Part 1 of 2

In July of 1846, while on his way to Concord to run an errand, Henry David Thoreau was arrested by the local sheriff for failure to pay a poll tax.  By following his conscience, Thoreau had chosen to stop paying this poll tax in 1842 to protest the Mexican-American war and the expansion of slavery into the Southwest.  Thoreau did this because he had come to the conclusion that America’s political system was fraught with injustice.  Participating in that system by paying the poll tax, therefore, only meant he was contributing to those injustices. 

Like the days of Thoreau, today it is only too obvious that our political system is not only unjust but almost entirely undemocratic. American democracy is a fraud,  to put it simply, and to participate in it is only to contribute to that fraud while increasing the contempt that politicians have for the American voter who either knowingly perpetuates it, or is so gullible they have failed to notice the deceptions it both creates and relies on.  Perhaps it is because the two were never intended to be synonymous that the term "American democracy" is a contradiction in terms.  

According to Yale Professor Robert Dahl, America was never intended to be a democracy. Instead, it was intended as a polyarchy.   A polyarchy "is a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites."[i] Dahl's ideas of polyarchy are drawn from James Madison, who viewed our political system as one where power resides in “the responsible class of men” who hold the wealth of the nation.  Accordingly, Madison went on to explain, "The primary goal of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." And a polyarchy does just that. 

 In the United States, polyarchy protects the opulent, in part, by barring a substantial number of American citizens from participating in the electoral process.  More than four million U.S. citizens, for example, residing in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are excluded from participating in the election of the U.S. president or any voting-member of Congress.  Since these are the political bodies that hold ultimate sovereignty over them, the disenfranchised residents of these territories effectively suffer from taxation without representation.

American democracy, on the other hand, which is lauded around the world as the preferred vehicle of political freedom, was deliberately designed to check and, when necessary, override the will of the people. To put it more succinctly, American democracy was designed to be anything but democratic.   The reason for this, as Joseph Schumpeter[ii] argued in 1940, was because political elites believed that “ordinary citizens should limit their participation in a democracy to electing its leaders.” What Schumpeter was effectively arguing for, perhaps without realizing it, was a polyarchy.

In contrast to Rousseau’s belief that “the health of a polity depended on active citizen involvement in all aspects of governance,” Schumpeter felt that massive political participation was undesirable and even dangerous. This was because, Schumpeter believed, the electoral masses were “incapable of political participation other than voting for their leaders.” “Most political issues are so remote from the daily lives of ordinary people,” Schumpeter further explained, “that they cannot make sound judgments about opinions, policies and ideologies.” In such a political environment, “controlling the public mind” is necessary for avoiding “the crisis of democracy,” which happens “when normally passive and apathetic populations become organized and seek to enter the political arena to pursue their interests and demands, threatening stability and order.”[iii]

Poll after poll demonstrates just how much Schumpeter’s ideas are a part of American politics today by proving how often the votes and “opinions” of “ordinary people” are routinely ignored. One gallop poll, for instance, showed that 92% of Americans “feel that job creation is extremely important and should be the number one priority of elected officials.”  Instead, House Republicans effectively hijacked the Federal government in October, shutting it down and holding it for ransom for 16 days.  Rather than demanding measures that would result in job creation, they instead sought a course of job destruction by advancing a reckless agenda of deficit reduction.

Today, perhaps more than ever before, ignoring the American voter is proving to be this country’s political past time.   Polls show, for example, that 80% of Americans believe minimum wage levels should be raised and that 70% of Americans want a public option for healthcare.  Polls also show that 61% of Americans think the rich should pay more in taxes.  After the Sandy Hook school shootings in December of 2012, 91% supported universal background checks and a majority of people supported a ban on high volume magazines.  Cuts in education have been implemented despite the fact that 61% of Americans want no cuts to education spending. The same is true of Medicare and Social Security.   The list goes on and on, and clearly demonstrates just how little respect politicians have for the concerns of average Americans. 

Nor do politicians limit their disdain for democracy to just the American voters. Political scientist Lars Schoultz, in his book Beneath the United States, for example, shows how the United States has always perceived Latin America as a “fundamentally inferior neighbor, unable to manage its affairs and stubbornly underdeveloped.”  This perception of inferiority was apparent from America’s beginning. John Quincy Adams, who first established diplomatic relations with Latin America, believed that Hispanics were "lazy, dirty, nasty...a parcel of hogs." In the early nineteenth century, ex-President John Adams declared that “any effort to implant democracy in Latin America was "as absurd as similar plans would be to establish democracies among the birds, beasts, and fishes." 

As one of the country's foremost Latin America scholars, Schoultz shows how these core beliefs have gone unchanged for two centuries. “We have combined self-interest with a "civilizing mission"--a self-abnegating effort by a superior people to help a substandard civilization overcome its defects.” William Howard Taft felt the way to accomplish this task was "to knock their heads together until they should maintain peace," while in 1959 CIA Director Allen Dulles warned that "the new Cuban officials had to be treated more or less like children."

Schoultz goes on to explain that, from a U.S. policy perspective, the goal in Latin America has been largely the same as it has in the United States in general; that is, "to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority.” The military coups in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973 provide but two examples of this, and demonstrate just how far the United States is willing to go to destroy the threat of democracy abroad.  

 America’s use of violence and political espionage are not limited to disrupting the democratic processes in other countries alone, however.   Such tactics are used on American citizens as well, to undermine and defeat all those brazen enough to assert their constitutional rights or foolish enough to threaten the status quo.  In an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr, for example, “MIT professor of linguistics and political activist Noam Chomsky spoke about the purpose and the targets of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program that ran from 1956 to 1971, otherwise known as COINTELPRO. Chomsky explained that "COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out not by a couple of petty crooks but by the national political police, the FBI, under four administrations... by the time it got through." It was aimed, according to Chomsky, "at the entire new left, at the women's movement, at the whole black movement. It was extremely broad,” and “Its actions went as far as political assassination."

The FBI, in fact, has used covert operations against domestic political groups since its inception. As FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover issued directives governing COINTELPRO, ordering FBI agents to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the activities of political movements and their leaders. Such tactics are still used to this day, and have been alleged to include discrediting targets through psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents, and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassination of people like the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton on Dec. 4, 1969.  

The FBI's stated motivation in all of this, ironically enough, was "protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order." To protect the “existing social and political order” the FBI went as far as investigating people like Martin Luther King and even Albert Einstein.

Since such outward displays of violence leave a bad taste in the mouth of the American voter, other more subtle forms of manipulation have been designed to manufacture the consent of the governed.  In Profit Over People, Chomsky explains at great length just how this manipulation has been utilized to subvert democracy. 

 “[D]octrines ... have been crafted to impose the modern forms of political democracy. They are expressed quite accurately in an important manual of the public relations industry by one of its leading figures, Edward Bernays. He opens by observing that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” To carry out this essential task “the intelligent minorities must make use of propaganda continuously and systematically," because they alone "understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses" and can "pull the wires which control the public mind. Therefore, our "society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda," another case of "consent without consent." Propaganda provides the leadership with a mechanism "to mold the mind of the masses" so that "they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction." The leadership can "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers." This process of "engineering consent" is the very "essence of the democratic process," wrote Bernays. [iv]

Bernays was not alone in his conclusion that, in a democracy, the people must be controlled. In the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, one of the founders of modern political science Harold Lasswell “warned that the intelligent few must recognize the “ignorance and stupidity of the masses” and that it was important not to succumb to “democratic dogmatism's about men being the best judges of their own interests.” They are not the best judges: we are. The masses must be controlled for their own good. And in more democratic societies, where force is unavailable, social managers must turn to “a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda.”[v]  

Historian Thomas Bailey agrees. As Baily put it, "because the masses are notoriously short-sighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests. Deception of the people may in fact become increasingly necessary, unless we are willing to give our leaders in Washington a freer hand." Commenting on the same problem as a renewed crusade was being launched in 1981, Samuel Huntington made the point that "you may have to sell [intervention or other military action] in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has done ever since the Truman Doctrine"[vi] Today, the “war on terror” and the “war on drugs” are used almost ubiquitously to create such “misimpressions.” 

Sir Lewis Namier also explained, rather succinctly, that our political representatives have an unparalleled level of contempt for democracy because they believe "there is no free will in the thinking and actions of the masses, any more than in the revolutions of planets, in the migrations of birds, and in the plunging of hordes of lemmings into the sea."[vii]  As a result, politicians are certain that “only disaster would ensue if the masses were permitted to enter the arena of decision-making in a meaningful way.”[viii] To prevent the “disaster” that would “ensue” from democracy, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses,” Bernays proscribed in his book Propaganda, is thereforean important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.[ix]

Bernays went on to explain how, in effect,We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.[x]

The simple reason for all of this effort to control opinion is because, as David Hume pointed out in his Essays Moral and Political, while “force is always on the side of the governed, rulers still manage (and in many ways “need”) to ensure the submission of the people.’[xi] Rulers do this by the “implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.”[xii] This has been described as Hume’s Paradox of the Governed, whereby “in any society, the population submits to the rulers, even though force is always in the hands of the governed.” What the rulers understand, but the ruled often forget or are easily distracted from, is that they, the rulers, “can only rule if they control opinion, no matter how many guns they have.”[xiii]

Voting, therefore, is to believe that American opinion is not controlled, when so much evidence demonstrates that it is. It is to put faith in the fiction that most people understand the depths of the problems the world is facing, even though most of us are only shown a select subset of those problems through a narrow key hole of perspective. Through the magic of mass manipulation, the audience, like Hamlet, is easily duped into believing they see the world in all its "infinite space," when in fact, they see a perspective "bound in a nutshell" of a television set. Or, to use the poem by William Blake, people are shown a grain of sand and told to believe it is the entire universe. 

While America is a number of many great things, it is certainly not a democracy.  If anything, its political system can be described more aptly, in part, as a kleptocracy, which is “where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population, often with pretense of honest service.” The first part of the term “klepto” comes from the Greek word klept─ôs, meaning "thief." In other words,  kleptocracy means, to be “ruled by thieves.” And from skewed tax codes that favor the few to environmental destruction that robs from the many, this is a definition of America’s current political condition with which people across the voting spectrum can all agree. 

[i] According to British historian Mark Curtis
[ii] Joseph Schumpeter was an Austrian American Economist and political scientist
[iii] Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky.  54
[iv] Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky. P 53
[v] Id at 54
[vii] England in the Age of the American Revolution (Macmillan, 1961, 40); cited by Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune (Norton, 1988, 471).
[viii] Id.
[ix] Propaganda, by Edward Bernays, p 9
[x] Id.
[xi] Essays, 1741, p.32

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