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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

the continued significance of democracy

Do you ever have times when conversations seem to follow you around? It may simply be the intense political times were in, the global conversation about democracy highlighted by our apparent attempt to nation-build Iraq, the whole Abramoff/Delay thing... It probably has something to do with where I'm situated in my intellectual/political/career development. In any event, I don't seem to be able to go half a day without having the big conversation: what is the state of democracy in America?

Even though it's an obvious starting point to anyone's approach to government, as a full conversation it doesn't seem to make itself into the public square all that much. It's funny that that's true because, as was evident from the comments on Chimaobi's recent post "The Continued Significance of Race", the discussion gets to the most basic question of how radical or status quo a person's approach to politics is (regardless of underlying ideology). Those who have less faith in our democracy are likely to move to means outside the system, while those who have ultimate faith will likely desire to become a part of it. It may be that it doesn't happen because after people have made those decisions they don't usually stay in dialogue (they become de facto opponents; a problem in its own right), but that's not true for us. As we decide (or try to decide, or begin to decide) what to do with ourselves for the rest of our lives, we're in a unique position to have an honest discussion that, to me at least, feels urgent. And we haven't yet gone our seperate ways (geographically speaking anyway). So let's get to it!(more in expanded post)

The debate on Chimaobi's post is a perfect starting point. In questioning his analysis of race in the context of Governor Schwarzenegger's responsibility for the death of Tookie Williams, one reader wrote
Jersey, the only way in which your argument makes sense is if you believe that "the state" has absolutely nothing to do with "the people." Obviously, the democratic process is far from perfect and must continually struggle to rid itself from the influence of power, corruption, money, etc., but it still has something to do with the will of the people. [...]

You can hate the will of the people all you want, but acting as if state-sanctioned murder is not also people-sanctioned murder is to completely discount the concept of democracy. The state was not protecting itself from Tookie Williams, the people believed themselves to be protecting themselves (as misguided as that impression surely is).
Chimaobi responded
Giving "the people" the right to vote without open access to informational resources is like giving a baby a high-end laptop. It's a great device--in theory--but what can the user do with it except mess it up? Without the proper background in how to use said device and a grasp of the implications of using it in one way versus another, the device is used recklessly... there are strong media forces that work in collusion with the government at numerous levels blocking the public's access to particular information (http://www.tvnewslies.org/html/bush_lies.html). There is a huge discrepancy between the information that the state has versus the information that the people have. Bush's ongoing wiretaps, the revelations in his ranks of undercover CIA agents, and the Patriot Act attest to this (and don't give me that it's in the "national interest" stuff--yeah...so is a ban on assault rifles). When information is tailored in this way a better word for it is propaganda. An informed population is a population ready to elect leaders.
Another reader, Paloma, then wrote
"Giving "the people" the right to vote without open access to informational resources is like giving a baby a high-end laptop. It's a great device--in theory--but what can the user do with it except mess it up?"

This is quite galling-- it sounds like you're saying people are too dumb to vote. I'd wager that's not what you mean. I'd wager what you actually mean is that people who don't agree with you are too dumb to vote.
Alright, a few thoughts. The first thing I would note is the irony of Paloma's response to Chimaobi's argument. It's funny to me that in a conversation that is fundamentally about the quality of our discourse someone would try to win a debate with such a simplistic, rhetorical and inaccurate straw man. As you can see if you actually read what Chimaobi wrote, if you step beyond that one-sentence quote he wasn't placing the blame on "the people" for being dumb, but rather on the powerful for not popularizing enough real information to make their decisions informed enough to mean anything. I wouldn't go as far in my analysis as Chimaobi does, I still have some faith, but I think we should at least start with an actual discussion about the realities of our country rather than falling back on platitudes and accusations (I'm sure this is somewhat hypocritical, but I'm trying and if I do that yell at me!).

I think the depth of information and education in this country is shallow enough to raise serious questions about the quality of our democracy and call for a serious discussion of it. First of all, you can't deny that there is an elite class of consultant, political operatives and media pundits whose job it is to manipulate information in a way that is advantageous to their causes. If you simply consider the norms of politico debate (see GOP-Open today), arguments often focus around the tactics of manipulation in politics that will convince parts of the electorate to focus more or less on certain issues so that different parties can win elections. It's a matter of those of higher education and training using superior information (polling, marketing, advertising) to move people to vote and think differently. Some call this persuasion, but when it comes to something like Bill Clinton advocating for school uniforms or President Bush going around the country to sell a Social Security plan based on what were simply false statistics, it's not an issue of changing people's minds so much as distracting them or lying to them (or both). The extent to which people don't have good enough information about the importance of issues (school uniforms imposed by Fed Gov't: not particularly important compared to, say, nuclear proliferation) or about the reliability of the facts (when is social security going bankrupt? according to who's #s?), the ideological persuasion having to do with whether or not students should wear uniforms or social security should be privatized (or semi-privatized, or whatever) is beside the point.

In addition, when information is so highly influenced by money (who can afford ad campaigns, etc.), it's hard to act as if citizens are getting the information they need to assess any of this in the first place. If you were to argue that political consultants, pollsters and advertisers (along with politicians and members of the media) are simply those who constitute the public square, you would have to believe that that public square is one in which everyone's voices are heard equally and therefore the winner of a political debate has simply made the best argument or had the most inherent support in the people. This idea, that political actors come from places of equal voice and opportunity to have their say and make their case, is so inaccurate as to be laughable.

Now, I think Paloma's right that it would be dangerous to say that this means that voters are dumb, but I don't think that's what Chimaobi was saying and it's not what I am saying. I believe voters are still very able to make intelligent decisions in which they see through rhetoric and the propaganda machines on both sides and consider their own values and vote. But they aren't always given that opportunity, because there isn't always enough information to see through the propaganda. When I think that has been done, even if I disagree with the decision, that's democracy and I accept it. What I think happens, though, is that whoever loses points out the errors of the system and the ways in which this hugely problematic aspect of our democracy gets in the way of that ideal process and the winners, unwilling to believe that their victory is in any way illegitimate, defend the system. Until, of course, the next time they lose at which point they'll see the flaws and the other side will defend the system.

Quite frankly, the problem is that there aren't enough people who are intellectually honest enough to assess the system regardless of their partisanship and weigh the health of our democracy. What do you think? Are you? Hell, am I?


At 9:22 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

"When I think that has been done, even if I disagree with the decision, that's democracy and I accept it."

Hear, hear!

I'm an ardent believer that if people were exposed to the range of life experiences, residential communities, and U.S./Western/world history that individuals like me have been they would come to the same political conclusions as I. This is severely hampered though.

Why? Because people think I'm lying when I tell them my elementary school had bullet holes through the windows (unrepaired ones at that). Thanks, Secretary of Education! Why? Because people think I'm crazy when I tell them my neighborhood has pre-teen Bloods and Netas (another gang) that carry guns. Thanks, ATF! Why? Because people think I'm crazy when I tell them that the U.S. government is the most efficient, most powerful, and most lethal terrorist organization in the history of the world. Thanks, CIA!

These are realities that people live with everyday. These facts are things that people think about everyday. These are things that supporters of this "democracy" don't want to hear and don't seek to change in fundamental and radical ways any day. After school programs, the Red Cross, microfinance--these are short-term or band-aid remedies for a much deeper wound. Who's ready to do surgery?

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Samson said...

Hey Golis + Chimaobi,

First off, this democracy thread is mad interesting. I had a really enlightening conversation with my father (who was a communist guerilla fighter in the 1970s) about whether democracy and capitalism can coexist...any chance you guys might touch on this? Thanks for all your hard work.


At 2:44 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

True democracy can't co-exist with capitalism, no. Capitalism will breed disparities in financial resources and therefore certain people and companies will have lots of these resources while others have none. Those with lots of financial resources will most likely attempt to better their business by influencing legislation and politicians that would be in their business' interest. This can come in many forms from providing contributions to particular politicians, their parties, or campaigns (Visit this site for more info) to being able to influence media outlets to release particular information while suppressing other info. As I said in another post, peole can only vote and a democracy only really works when they're informed and this requires a free flow of information.

Another form that this can take is through blatant voter intimidation through violence. Take for instance my mother's example of voting in Nigeria where the PDP (People's Democratic Party...right) sends out their goons with M-16s to towns and cities during an election. As people stand in line they're asked who they're going to vote for and if they say an opposing party they're led away in "the bush" and killed. If they lie and the PDP goons notice, the same thing happens. This is just one historic example of what goes down. Those goons are paid by someone. Obviously someone with enough money to supply them with the weapons, pay for their transportation through the nation, and have them do them bidding.

But yo. When are me and your father gonna kick it, man?


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