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The Dearth of Democracy in America

(photo: Dean Terrry)

No competent observer of the 2012 presidential campaign could possibly think that this is a participatory democracy. Mitt Romney was forced to adopt the silliest positions imaginable, including the criminal rape policies pushed by the fundamentalists, and it still wasn’t enough to satisfy a huge faction who believe that Mormonism is a Satanic Cult. Romney will promise anything as long as he and the fatuous rich slugs he represents, people like the insufferable Mark Cuban, get their tax cuts.

President Obama could have been any kind of centrist and won, but he chose to move far to the right of center, promising austerity for the middle class, immiseration for the unemployed, and gradual impoverishment of the old through some as yet undisclosed plan to cut Social Security and Medicare. He promises to continue all but the very worst of the policies of the Bush administration, including the free pass for banksters, increased power for corporations through privatization, and the suppression of civil liberties.

Neither candidate makes much of policy, preferring to struggle to win one day at a time in the horse race by any means, including lies, misquotes and petty jabs. Obama adds another layer of idiocy, calling attention to the areas in which he finds agreement with some position Romney has taken. By doing so, he attributes to Romney a level of commitment to policy that Romney lacks, diffusing one of the clearest differences between the two candidates.

Where is the public in all this? Beyond a small fringe of religious and economic fundamentalists, where is there a group calling for deficit reduction, interfering in women’s rights to control of their bodies and their health, giving the financial sector a free pass and tons of money, and endless wars on terror and civil liberties and pot smokers? Who do you know who thinks we need to deal with potential Social Security funding problems that might emerge in a couple of decades? The public knows better.

But Obama and Romney both relentlessly ignore the wishes of the public. They make no effort to lead the public to understanding of the issues that actually affect their lives. Obama doesn’t listen to his most impassioned supporters about their issues, Global Warming, employment, corporate power, or any social issue beyond a late and luke-warm endorsement of ending discrimination against the LGBT community, and a firm defense of current laws concerning rape. Romney promises everything, meaning he promises nothing.

Sophia McClennen describes this issue in her book Colbert’s America, which was a recent subject of our Book Salon:

Most advocates of democracy recognize that, for it to truly function, citizens need to be able to actively participate in making key decisions about government policy….[R]esearch on democracy shows that decision-making authority tends to privilege an elite, or certain power blocs, at the expense of others, who are often minorities….

In order for these various [excluded] groups to be brought together for meaningful debate of social issues, scholars have argued that there must be a “public sphere.” …. Habermas explains that the public sphere is that space between individuals and government where people come together to debate important social issues.

This idea owes a great deal to the American Philosopher John Dewey, as I discuss here and elsewhere. McClennen says that Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to shut down public discussion of all issues concerning terrorism. She points to Bill Maher who was fired for saying that Bush’s claim that the terrorists were cowards was false. Of course they weren’t cowards. They willingly embraced death in pursuit of higher ends. But truth isn’t a defense to a hunkered-down population or a repressive government. La la la, I can’t hear you, is the outcome demanded by a government bent on absolute control of public discussion and a subservient media unable to process anything so outré as truth.

McClennen argues that Stephen Colbert opened up space for discussion of those and other issues. For her, the pivotal moment was Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in April 2006, in which he called out the President and his media sycophants. That’s only part of the picture, though. She points out that the media simply dismissed Colbert’s routine as “not funny”, by which they meant the creeps in the room. It was bloggers who pulled the speech out of the C-Span archives and pushed it into public consciousness. It was bloggers who said that Colbert all but called the younger Bush a base fool, and in fact called the media a bunch of foolish tools. It was bloggers who provided the space for the public to discuss through comments first that speech, and then the lies and distortions of the Bush administration. It was bloggers who created the public sphere, such as it was.

It’s fair to say that speech energized the liberal part of the public, and that energy was amplified by the blogging community, leading to capture of the House by the Democratic Party in 2006. Barack Obama built on that energy to capture the White House in 2008, and the Democrats regained control of the Senate. The liberal blogging community thought that they (we) were affecting the political sphere. We thought we had opened a discussion channel between the government and the most engaged part of the supportive public. Then we found out that Obama didn’t care about us or our issues. In fact, he thinks we are a bunch of fools or worse. After four years of this administration, the blogging community faces financial pressures as media giants attempt to starve us out.

That will be the end of whatever space there is for public discussion. I had high hopes for Occupy. My hopes reached their height when Occupy the SEC filed its brilliant comment letter on the feeble Dodd-Frank regulations. That was a real opening of public discourse, driven by a motivated and knowledgeable group of lawyers and finance people who worked together to express the views of the public, not the views of the thugs and liars who wrecked the economy. But it was a brief moment.

We are not engaged in participatory democracy. We are watching a CNN/Fox/MSNBC reality show, with two people battling it out over who who gets to screw the public. It’s hard to see the value in being a citizen in such a weak version of democracy.

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I read a lot of books.