What ails our democracy
NC Policy Watch follower Betsy Caudle Lowman of Boone recently sent us the following essay — we hope you will enjoy it.
U.S. declines into “de-MOCK-racy”
By Betsy Caudle Lowman
Each year The Economist, a conservative British news magazine, rates the nations of the world on the degree to which they operate according to democratic principles. This year, Norway replaced Sweden at the top of the heap. The United States is not included in the highest category, which includes Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and Britain. Should this surprise anyone? Americans love to believe they have government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” but this has never been less true than at present.
Among other things, “of the people” means the direct election of those who govern us. But moves on the national and state levels are currently afoot to restrict who can vote and to limit voting to days and times at which working people cannot get to polling stations. Gerrymandered voting districts have further distorted representation at all levels of government. Conservative North Carolina lawmakers are even delegating decision-making on many important issues to cronies on “special commissions” which cancel public hearings at will.
When the constitution was written, “of the people” referred primarily to white male property owners, and this nation is now returning to that oligarchy. Think of Russia for an apt comparison.
Are we any longer governed “by the people”? No. Technically, anyone can run for office, but only the rich can really afford to do so, given the cost of campaigns today which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — even for two year terms representing sparsely populated districts. Often, the only option for non-millionaires is to run using money from groups set up by rich people to obtain special treatment from government – a phenomenon made much easier by the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision.
The IRS is currently being criticized for reacting to a flood of applications for tax exempt status by organizations with clearly stated political, not philanthropic agendas, in the lead up to the 2012 election. Originally intended to help small non-profit organizations that benefit everyone such as the PTA and volunteer fire departments, nonprofit status was suddenly demanded by political action groups to avoid taxes on their activities and the listing of their donors — added bonuses for those who want to manipulate anonymously the electoral process.
The U.S. Congress elected “by the people” presently consists of at least 47% millionaires based on assets they are required to report and not counting holdings they have shifted to trusts, other family members and offshore accounts so they can appear to less wealthy than they actually are for accounting purposes. The average salary of a member of Congress at present is $174,000. Lifetime free health care for representatives and their families is also guaranteed after just five years in office. Congress members not yet in the millionaire league can stand down and become lobbyists in order to join ranks of the severely wealthy. Does this assembly (which usually operates three days a week and will take 239 days of vacation in 2013) represent a population with an average income of $63,000, 10 days vacation a year and expensive health insurance? Answer that question yourself.
Government in the U.S. at all levels fails miserably to operate “for the people.” Instead of addressing the real issues that concern us all – the national debt, unfair tax loopholes for the rich, an overpriced medical-pharmacological-insurance health care system, an education system that compares unfavorably to the most democratic countries mentioned above, much needed infrastructure upgrades, protection of the environment from further degradation – lawmakers spend their time name-calling or skirmishing over the trivial like children in a sandbox. Having won election, they ignore the crowd-pleasing promises they made to voters and promote their ideological agendas — whether it’s establishing a state religion or declaring that life begins at conception. Compared to first rank countries, the U.S. fails its governed miserably.
Sadly, the U.S. has lost its democratic moorings. It has mutated into a “deMOCKracy” – a form of government “of the rich people allowed to vote and influence elections, by rich people or their lackeys in legislatures at most all levels, and, especially, for the benefit of rich people. GINI coefficients – measures of wealth disparity – are lower in Russia, India, Egypt, Morocco, and Kenya than in the U.S.
People who currently criticize Congress and protest for wider voting rights, fairer taxes or better health care have in common their recognition that America is becoming a failed state compared to more successful countries across the globe. The current situation has developed because “good men have done nothing.” It will get worse unless this latter situation changes dramatically in the near future.
Betsy Caudle Lowman is a concerned North Carolinian who lives in Boone.