None Dare Call This Democracy

By: Robert Patton

We hear a lot these days about the importance of higher education and the steadily increasing costs attached to an undergraduate diploma. But, sometimes, we have educational opportunities of which we may not be fully aware and which come to us without a financial price tag.

For anyone either in college or of college age, this is such a time. Since you were a child, you were taught that as an American, you were part of the freest country on Earth. If your ancestry was African-American, you had cause to doubt this, but seven years ago, the election of a man to the nation’s highest political office may have given you cause to hope.

When you were in middle school or earlier, you may have noticed the erosion of the liberties guaranteed to you — on paper, at least — from the United States Constitution. But you were also told that this was a necessary price that all of us must pay for something called security. Again, if you were of African-American descent, you might have been disturbed when, time after time, some who looked like you were gunned down by those who, paid with your parent’s tax dollars, were trusted to provide much of that security.

Finally, having completed your state-mandated compulsory education and on reaching what we call the age of majority, you are now seeing democracy at its best in a year when the country chooses its next president. This is the process by which our government remains on track as one “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This is what it’s all about. And this is the example we set for the entire world to see.

If you are of college age right now, you were born at a time that showed great promise. The Cold War was over. Americans looked forward to something called the “peace dividend.” Computers, once a tool available only to the rich and powerful, were now available to all. The ship of state was finally on track with a president at the helm who was charged with steering it past the millennium into the greatest century ever.

But that never happened. One president after another took the nation into war. First, we thought to restore some middle eastern potentates to positions of power. They had an oil dispute with a neighbor and a battle ensued. American troops came in to restore things as they were. But not satisfied with restoration, America imposed sanctions that led to the death of roughly half a million Iraqis, mostly children.

When a new president moved into the Oval Office, sanctions remained and more people were killed with American arms in the former Yugoslavia. There were of course occasional assassination attempts. Air strikes at the home of one North African leader when he was not at home took out a family member. Then there was the destruction of a Middle Eastern pharmaceutical plant based on “bad intelligence.” But the big news was the sexual interplay between our president and a young female intern.Then we were back to democracy with an election decided not by voters, as the Founders intended, but by the Supreme Court. Now all through these years, the United States had provided funds and weapons that killed a great many people in the Middle East so it should be of little surprise that the American government was not very popular in that region.

Then came 9/11, an attack by 19 mostly Saudi Arabian fanatics that destroyed three New York landmark buildings and took more than 3,000 lives. Taking a half million Iraqi lives is one thing, but these were American lives. Our president, who once went to great lengths to avoid combat in Vietnam, rushed to order young men and women into combat in not just one action, but in multiple foreign wars, each lasting longer than any other wars in American history.

“They hate us for our freedom,” he said and dealt with that problem swiftly with the passage and signing of the Patriot Act, thus sweeping away many of those freedoms that somehow had generated all that foreign hatred. Three years later, with the nation fully at war, the only political opposition came from a candidate who offered his Vietnam combat experience as an argument for his election. That experience had led him to oppose the Vietnam War, but when the prospect of becoming president appeared, his preference for peace vanished.

Since the public had no clear choice, the voters stuck with the “war president” they had. Finally, after four more years of war, there was a new presidential campaign and a devastating economic decline. Major financial firms that had gone on a binge of high-risk investing and other financial shenanigans for years suddenly found themselves in deep water. The incumbent president called for a huge financial bailout by the federal government and both candidates for his office, suspended their campaigns so that they could rush back to Washington and vote for the bailout.

Once that was done, both washed their hands of responsibility and returned to the campaign trail. One candidate was a Vietnam veteran, a former POW, and the son of an admiral who offered the prospect of a true soldier as commander-in-chief. The other candidate claimed to be a man of peace and swept the field.

Americans chose peace and the Nobel Prize Committee was so impressed that they awarded their coveted Peace Prize to the new president on the basis, not of action, but of promises. That was seven years ago, and one of the new president’s first actions was to send another 75,000 fighters into combat in Afghanistan. Following that, there was one war after another. War with Syria was narrowly averted and American airstrikes with the help of France and Britain destroyed the government of Libya which had posed no threat to the United States. The airstrikes supported guerillas who are now fighting each other. American weapons provided to them and other insurgent groups throughout the Middle East are now in the hands of a new group which calls itself the Islamic State.

Our incumbent president cannot be blamed for all of this; he had a good deal of help from his secretary of state, who is now campaigning to replace him as president and continue his good work. And that brings us to the current election year, which furnishes a lesson in what used to be called Civics that is far more valuable and informative that almost anything that can be learned in an introductory course on Political Science.

We have, in the United States, a two-party system. This is not the result of any provision in the Constitution, nor was it the intention of any of the designers of that document. It just happened. Now, because it is is not mandated by any law or legal precedent, we have always had other parties and sometimes new parties have appeared and replaced older ones. The Republican party for example, calls itself the party of Lincoln, not that it has anything in common with Lincoln today.

What has happened however is that two parties have gotten themselves so thoroughly entrenched into our political system that other parties are almost completely untenable. Our own Bernie Sanders, although he calls himself independent, caucuses with Democrats in Congress and to all intents and purposes functions as a Democrat.

These two parties have done everything in their power and some things that stretch that power to its absolute limits to maintain organizational control over every aspect of the nomination and election process. Most of the time that control is hardly noticeable. A small minority of voters show up on primary day and vote for names that are familiar to them. The results are reported and rarely disputed. Then on election day, voters, usually far fewer than those that would be eligible, choose from the names on the ballot. In many cases candidates run unopposed.

In Vermont, Peter Welch originally won his seat in the House of Representatives unopposed. Saddam Hussein enjoyed similar electoral successes as president of Iraq. You would think that a job that paid $175,000 a year, is loaded with perks including an expense account that, cleverly used, can take you on trips to far-flung parts of our planet, and had no educational or experiential requirements whatsoever would be deluged with applications. But it simply is not so.

Occupants of public office are largely put there because they have the support of their party. This year, the presumptive choice on the Democratic side was and is Hillary Clinton. She has paid her dues by supporting her party for decades. When her last leap for the magic ring ended in failure, she swallowed her pride and joined the administration of the man that had politically beaten her.

On the Republican side, there was a slight deviation from the pattern. The party faithful were divided between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Jeb was a member of the ruling family of the party and did his part to make sure that his brother George won the presidency even when more Americans voted for his opponent. Then, when taking his starting position, he evaded any question regarding the disastrous decision, by George, to invade Iraq. Jeb was well known and absolutely loyal to both party and family.

But some Republican leaders sensed an air of skepticism. There were all these unemployed people, in spite of the glowing reports of economic growth fed to the news media on a regular basis. There was the growing sense that the national debt, just a hair below the $20 trillion mark might be a problem. So, the upper echelon of Republicans began to lean toward Marco Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants, who claimed to be a self-made Americans. He was self-made in the sense of getting cushy jobs in government at an early age, but he liked to talk about his bartender dad, presumably to demonstrate that he had the common touch.

But there was a problem. Every American paid a small amount of attention knew that we had been taken for a ride by establishment politicians for more than a quarter century. So, when Donald Trump came along, many people followed, not so much because he presented a coherent plan that made good sense — he actually presented no plan at all — but because he promised to “make America great again.”

Again? When was that? Perhaps right after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of course after World War II? Some noticed that Trump argued that the trillions spent on foreign wars might better have been spent at home. Do you need an advanced degree in economics to detect a ring of truth in that idea? Yet not one of the 16 others who fought for the Republican nomination agreed. Every one of them lusted after the title of Commander-in-Chief and itched to make war throughout the Middle East, in Central Europe against the imagined Russian menace, and anywhere else they could think of.

On the Democratic side, only Bernie hungers to bring the cash and the troops back home. Hillary only promises to keep up the good work of the Obama administration and points to the disastrous results of her tour as secretary of state as evidence of her foreign policy expertise. Amazingly, she continues to lead the field even as more than half of all registered voters do not trust her to tell the truth.

So far that would seem to be a simple story: Democracy in Action. The establishment lies to the people and the people rise against the establishment. But not quite.

On the Democratic side, the party machine is prepared to give the nomination to Hillary whether Bernie gets the most primary votes or not. You see, before this quasi-democratic process begins a large number of votes are given to so-called superdelegates. These are current office holders such as Pat Leahy, former office holders like ex governor Madeleine Kunin and lame-duck office holders such as Governor Peter Shumlin. These are all individuals that have demonstrated their commitment to faithfully follow the party line. Fully 15 percent of the delegates that will select the Democratic slate for the presidency are superdelegates. This is only slightly better than democracy in Burma where the Army starts with 25 percent of all parliamentary seats.

But wait there’s more. On the Republican side, there are states such as Colorado where party rules allow the leaders to cancel primaries and choose delegates without voter participation. On the Democratic side there are states such as New York where rules established by the party eliminate the possibility of a candidate winning by attracting voters from other parties  or voters who had claimed to be independent. If they change their mind and want to switch sides, they need to do it well in advance of the primary election. It’s not much different from the states that are trying to impose photo ID requirements with full knowledge that there is no voter fraud problem and the effect of such rules will be to eliminate many poor black citizens from the voter registration rolls.

Meanwhile, conspiracies abound. The governor of Ohio, far behind in delegates is openly planning to win at the convention through processes  fully known only to himself and his cronies. Ted Cruz, the other Cuban in the race hopes to come from behind and win through deals at the convention. He promises to rip up existing treaties on his first day in office and launch military strikes almost immediately.

If all of the mad men (and one woman) have their wish, we can be at war with Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Russia before the end of January.

Is this democracy? Some may call it thus, but I dare not. The real question is: where is it leading? How many of us will feel truly represented when November rolls around and the votes are in? How many will take pride as self-identified Republicans or Democrats? Will both of these parties survive or will new alignments take their place? And what will the world think?

Stay tuned.