Thursday, November 04, 2004

Gary Leupp: Democratic Elections in Historical Perspective


An excerpt:

In this country, your location and economic status consign you to school systems where your thoughts and attitudes are largely formed. The needs of capital determine your job options and hours. Such factors shape how much attention you can pay to the news ---the whole world outside your immediate circumstances---and how critically you digest what you consume. A handful of corporations feed you the news, accompanied by assurances that this transmission is "fair and balanced." Meanwhile popular culture generally suggests you should be "proud to be an American, 'cause at least" you "know" you're "free"---even if you'd be very hard-pressed to argue that you're freer than a Swede, New Zealander or Japanese. Influential religious voices (in today's America and the France of 1848) preach that God Himself opposes significant social change, and wants you to vote for His chosen candidate.


One final example of this disparate phenomenon, "democracy." Our word itself comes from Greek (democratia, rule by the people), and from the political system in ancient Athens, where any adult male citizen could vote in the agora. No fallible equipment cast doubt on the accuracy of the poll. Voting was direct and open. But this admirable form of "popular" rule excluded women and slaves. Two and a half millennia later, in most places, full adult suffrage is the norm; men and women of all classes perform the ritual of casting ballots for those who claim to represent them. Whether or not the vote is "fair" from a Carter Foundation or Human Rights Watch perspective, it is conditioned by a class structure limiting its legitimacy every bit as much as slavery limited Athenian democracy.

Who is party to the discussion, allowed to publicly debate? Who pays to ensure that a candidate's voice is heard? Who markets the "facts" under discussion, decides what questions get asked? CNN routinely polls its viewers (democratically, you might say), posing questions like "Who do YOU think should be the next target in the War on Terrorism?" plainly indicating to the masses that the war by general consent is really a war on "terrorism" and really should continue and the informed viewer really ought to prefer one or the other war expansion choices. Such polls never give one the option of saying, "Your question is loaded; I reject all the options you give me." Similarly the U.S. political system, harnessed to corporate power, provides options between which those questioning corporate power itself have little reason to choose. One might of course prefer slow poison to hanging, but why should one have to select between such alternatives? Humanity can do better.

Read the Entire Essay

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