LIMITS TO DEMOCRACY: THE CIA AND KINDRED INSTITUTIONS
Apart from the obvious anti-democratic business of empires or spheres of influence maintained by military force, it is a notable that in all modern democratic societies large parts of the state and its private institutions are organized along lines virtually the opposite to democracy: they are organized along authoritarian lines.
This is remarkably so in the case of the United States. The Pentagon, the C.I.A., thirteen other intelligence agencies at last count, and various national police forces. We might also include major defense contractors working on top secret projects. All these institutions are not only secretive, they are organized on lines of authority little different to those in 16th century societies. Democracy, in any form has no role in these institutions, except presumably to direct their activities at a high level.
It is easy to say that because the national government directing these powerful institutions is itself democratic that the institutions serve democratic principles, but something’s being easy to say does not make it true. Power is power, however granted, and these institutions are centers of great power, and they are not, nor can they reasonably be expected to be, effectively scrutinized and directed by people serving the interests of democracy.
In many cases, perhaps most, such institutions actually enjoy great influence over the democratic government supposedly directing them. Hoover’s FBI springs immediately to mind. Naturally enough with these secretive institutions we never know very much concerning details of their activities, yet there are others instances which have come to light. The CIA’s misleading of a new and inexperienced President John Kennedy about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion was certainly an example.
The oversight committees of Congress must almost by definition be highly ineffective with regard to these complex and secretive institutions. Busy politicians can hardly be expected to keep up with vast resources and cleverness and ruthlessness of major intelligence figures. These powerful agencies include those who can print perfect duplicate currency, manufacture perfect false passports, and generate recordings or photos which are pure fantasy. Any congressman or senator on a committee who did manage to penetrate to some inappropriate truths would hardly be in a position to use the information in any way.
To whom would he turn with his information? Committee chairmen are invariably long-term, often ancient, politicians who, much like the heads of many government regulatory agencies, are closely bonded to the interests of the institution they oversee. To publicly suggest problems with such agencies would open any politician to ridicule, embarrassment, and even reprisals from people who have great resources at their disposal. We recall former CIA Director Richard Helms saying in testimony once that despite being under oath he regarded it as his responsibility not to tell the truth if it revealed secrets.
And, remember, a common activity of the CIA is subsidizing politicians and parties abroad to assure their election prospects against opponents, and who can reasonably doubt that that same nefarious activity may be used against selected American politicians? Of course, there is the infamous case in Britain of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s sudden retirement in the 1970s. There is substantial reason to believe it was the result of MI6 breaking into Wilson’s office and obtaining some embarrassing documents and recordings.
Besides, as we shall see, the national government itself often acts along undemocratic, and even anti-democratic, lines, so that effective oversight is not only exceedingly difficult, it often does not exist by choice. If you accept the idea, which I happen to believe is impossible to refute convincingly, that these great institutions effectively become a kind of government within a government – an ongoing establishment of careerists with sensitive and powerful jobs and great resources at their command – then we come to a very important set of limits in American democracy or in any democracy so organized.
State secrets are just one aspect of this government within a government, and state secrets, I believe, far more often than not, are classified only because they are embarrassing or compromising to an agency which has blundered or done something generally regarded as unacceptable or even criminal, not because they represent genuine threats to national security. We have, again considering the highly secretive nature of these agencies, a number of the most obvious failures by them in recent history: the assassination of an American president despite known threats; the failure to see the coming collapse of the Soviet Union, an epochal event of the twentieth century; the highly successful and complex attack of 9/11; and a number of terribly damaging spies. None of these events have been explained to the satisfaction of clear-thinking people, they remain surrounded with a deliberately generated fog of nonsense. Who can doubt that countless smaller events are classified only for what they reveal of incompetence, waste, or criminality?
Yet the citizens of every democracy tolerate the ongoing existence of great dark areas in their knowledge labelled as secret. It has been shown, many times, in the United States and other places where the practice of secrets is especially far-ranging, that when some of them finally come to be known decades later, the claim of their importance to national security is often laughable. Indeed, often the reverse is the case: national security in the truest sense is hurt by secrets which do not need to be secret.
Just in my lifetime, there have been examples of the last phenomenon. You do not have to be what is called a conspiracy theorist – sometimes a warranted label for the paranoid extremes of every human society, but too often a way of demonizing those who have honest questions and true observations about great events – to accept that assertion.
Indeed, the mushroom-like growth in size and variety of national security agencies in the United States since WWII is breathtaking. The CIA, for example, was signed into existence by President Truman in the belief that future executive decisions needed the support of sound, unbiased information about the world. It started as a fairly modest enterprise but in a matter of decades was consuming tens of billions of dollars. Since the events of 9/11 when the CIA’s annual budget had been estimated at around 30 billion dollars – the actual numbers are always secret – the size of the CIA’s budget has undoubtedly undergone a massive inflation, as have those of its many sister agencies.
Even during Truman’s term, already there were signs of trouble with the CIA. Truman expressed great concern over the operations side of the CIA versus its purely information-gathering side. Reasons for that concern have only multiplied over the years. Already by Kennedy’s time, CIA was running huge enterprises in secret, such as its anti-Castro operations. At that time, the CIA’s operations in the Southern United States for recruiting, training, arming, and organizing violent anti-Castro activities could be characterized as a gigantic terrorist enterprise, a company of thousands of workers with a budget of millions of dollars, dwarfing what we know of the pathetic little camp of Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.
That vast, secret enterprise engaged in many attempted assassinations, invasion, intimidation of American opposition, spying on Americans, the downing of at least one Cuban airliner, shooting-up Russian ships in Cuban ports, planting bombs in Cuban hotels, and gun-running. If that list of activities doesn’t constitute terror on a grand scale, it’s hard to know what would qualify.
The full story of that time undoubtedly has never been told, but the Church Senate Committee of the 1970s uncovered enough rodent trails to shake the confidence of many in the agency’s integrity. High-ranking CIA employees effectively recruited and worked with elements of the American Mafia towards the goal of assassinating Castro and accomplishing other highly unethical ends. And there was a great deal of confusion, which remains today, over the degree of the president’s knowledge and control of those events.
Following Church’s limited revelations, new efforts were made to reassert control over, and limit, the operations side of the CIA, but it wasn’t long before enthusiasts of operations were given their way under Reagan. Today, following 9/11, operations appear to have a greater role than ever. Where once, for some brief years after the Church Committee, assassination was explicitly forbidden, today we have regular assassinations by missiles fired from computer-controlled drones on the other side of the planet. Dozens of them, people tracked and killed by machines with no charges, no trial, and no evidence, just a technician sitting somewhere in a locked room guiding a death-dealing machine to its human targets. As a matter of fact, many others are routinely killed – neighbors and relatives – each time one of these technicians plays his deadly computer game.
Is it rational to expect that an organization with virtually bottomless resources, one staffed with large numbers of people whose entire careers are dedicated to lying, cheating, and even murder, will behave as an obedient servant when it sees political or social events inside the country moving in directions it regards as unfavourable to its interests? Of course not, and while the tales of such behaviour are likely among the most closely guarded secrets, we do have hard examples adequate to demonstrate the point, a point whose intuitive truth should be clear enough.
LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Abraham Lincoln reassured Americans about the nature of democratic government in America with his pleasant saying that you can fool some people all the time, and all people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It was classic Lincoln as homespun political philosopher.
Lincoln, regrettably, has been proved wrong on all counts. First, to direct or alter the course of elections, it is only necessary to fool all the people part of the time or indeed to fool a good portion all of the time, and we have many instances of both these situations having occurred in American history. The massive private financing of national elections in America is at its heart a mechanism to gain office and the spoils of office by misinforming voters.
Many of America’s “founding fathers” did not trust democracy, and the basis of their mistrust was the belief that citizens of substance had the only stake in society that warranted their receiving the franchise. Equally, they held the belief that a wider franchise offered the opportunity for the mob with no serious stake in society to vote to deprive those who had a stake of their wealth.
The protection against democracy of granting only a small fraction of white males the franchise – those meeting criteria of wealth – was buttressed by a series of Constitutional structures to make strong barriers against democracy. First, the Constitution creating the barriers was itself made excruciatingly difficult to alter. Then the Senate was made an appointed, rather than elected, body, the Senate being the part of the legislature with the great power of approving all presidential appointments and treaties while exercising a veto on acts of the House of Representatives. Further, the direct election of the president was given to a small, privileged group called the Electoral College: the votes of even the limited population who had the franchise being overridden by the still smaller, still more privileged group appointed to the College.
After two centuries of change and evolution in the Constitution, its mechanism of interpretation, and the extension of the franchise, the fears of the founders remain effectively threaded into the fabric of American society. Perhaps the main way – but not the only way, as we shall see later – those fears work today is through the system of campaign financing. In general, those who are best financed will win, but in a duopoly party system, even the party which is less well financed still clearly represents the interests of the people giving all that money.
And it is a great deal of money indeed. It is estimated that an American Senator must spend on average about two-thirds of his or her time chasing campaign funds. A Senate seat in a major state requires on the order of fifteen million dollars for each election. But the amounts just keep growing. Hillary Clinton spent an almost unbelievable $36 million in 2006 for her New York Senate seat, with the total spent by both candidates being $41 million. Races in Pennsylvania and Missouri saw amounts of $38 million and $28 million spent for one seat each. No one but the most dreamy-eyed sentimentalist believes that those amounts are donated through a sense of civic duty or public spirit. If nothing else, substantial contributions buy access, so that political access is rationed in America, as is the case for so many other things, from healthcare to education or legal representation, largely by money.
By Lincoln’s day, the original narrow limits on the franchise had broadened, but nothing which genuinely qualified as democracy had yet emerged, the Senate being still appointed and the President still being elected by a small and elite political group and a minority of voters even being qualified to vote. Lincoln, naturally enough, accepted many of the assumptions and attitudes of his day, including limits on democracy. His words, for example, on extending the franchise to freed slaves were quite guarded and conservative: perhaps, he said, it could be extended to a few of the most intelligent.
Yet I’m pretty sure Lincoln would have dumbfounded by a single national election in which a billion dollars is spent, and spent largely on advertising, polling, marketing research, spokespeople, and artificially-staged rallies. I feel confident that the thoughtful man who debated weighty matters with hand-written words would be horrified by American elections with debates which are nothing more than joint press conferences, featuring candidates sporting blow-dried hair, capped perfect teeth, and pancake make-up, supported by budgets for vacuous advertising in the hundreds of millions of dollars, teams of political flaks paid to pleasantly lie and insincerely praise, and a cast of carefully rehearsed candidates who never actually answer a question and indeed rarely ever touch a genuine issue.
And Lincoln was certainly not the innocent, intelligent rustic he is often regarded or portrayed. He was a tough, self-made man who went from squalor in a dirt-floor cabin to a handsome, well furnished, two-floor home built to his family’s needs. He was shrewd, anything but naïve, sceptical about many human beliefs, and a man who took less than two years of formal education and made himself a successful corporate lawyer, representing an important company like the Illinois Central.
Of course, what Lincoln truly represents in American history is the hard man who finally welded together a United States that would become a world industrial power, a United States whose regionalism, with institutions such as slavery constantly reinforcing regionalism, could often barely function as a single government. To do this, Lincoln had to ride over the principle of self-determination and launch a great and bloody war. To this day, it is not at all clear that he was justified since an independent Confederacy would certainly have been forced both by social pressures and economic needs to end slavery on its own in a few decades, as happened in many other jurisdictions.
LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY: EISENHOWER AND THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
With the rise of what Dwight Eisenhower aptly called the military-industrial complex, we have an increasingly common situation in which all, or virtually all, the people are being fooled all of the time, at least in some vital areas of knowledge. Indeed, I think Jerome Weisner, former President of M.I.T., put it well when he extended Eisenhower’s warning, “It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex, but rather, of keeping the United States from becoming a totally military culture.”
The military by its very nature represents the very opposite of democracy: it is hierarchal and authoritarian, its job is control through killing and destruction, and it is always secretive. The rise in the size and influence of great authoritarian institutions like the intelligence establishment at the center of power in the United States parallels the rise in size and importance of the military, which serves the international imperial role demanded of it. huge permanent secret-service establishments, vast subsidized military contractors, and a large permanent military class exist precisely to serve those interests and grow as they grow.
If knowledge is power – a dictum as true as when it first was uttered and one, surely, with a special application to democracy – how can we ignore the backward-flowing power of ultra-secretive agencies over voters who must often cast ballots in blindness or, increasingly, armed with deliberate misinformation?
Just one example of the pernicious effects of ultra-secretiveness upon democratic society, of the scores one could cite, would be American elections leading up to, and during, the Vietnam War. The highly calculated and secretive nature of the American government’s efforts in Vietnam was largely unknown to American voters, starting with elaborate efforts to support continued French colonialism in Indochina during the early 1950s.
One of America’s popular attitudes early in the 20th century was against imperial power. The fact that many ordinary Americans had no sympathy with European imperialism was exploited time and time again by an American establishment keen on its own imperial destiny, most notably the complete assumption of Britain’s role in the world after World War II. The same line had previously been used towards Spain in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War.
So how was it that Americans during the 1950s supported governments which vigorously supported a renewed French imperialism? For the most part, they simply did not know, and that secret activity was to further and further embroil the U.S. into affairs in that part of the world, leading almost inevitably, when all factors are taken into account, to the Vietnam War, that gigantic and pointless waste of life and resources.
When the cause of French imperialism in Indochina was lost, Washington’s establishment worked diligently towards establishing and supporting a rump state of South Vietnam, a place which never possessed any more democratic bona fides than the Communist North: it served as an American imperial foothold in Asia at a time of the rise of communist China.
There was the almost ridiculous casus belli called the Gulf of Tonkin incident – its most generous explanation being a sailor hearing his own ship’s propellers and convincing himself he heard a torpedo – was exploded by an establishment eager for war into an excuse to launch a great army to the other side of the world.
Later, there were the secret bombings and incursions of Cambodia, an activity directly responsible for the fall of a neutral government and the coming of “the killing fields.”
Through all of that, Americans voted largely in blindness over events which would demand many to give up their lives, destroy millions of others in a great holocaust, and consume countless resources, eventually causing the serious depreciation of the currency. And, as if all that were not enough, the war almost ripped American society in two.
I think it fair to say that those are about as high as the stakes could be in elections, yet Americans voted through most of those events with no accurate understanding.
America’s great authoritarian institutions provide continuity in policy, as well as expertise, but their very size, relative independence, access to secrets, virtually limitless resources, and totem-like association with patriotism in a country where patriotism is a round-the-clock exercise not a little like fundamentalists professing Christ give them an inordinate degree of power and authority.
Some readers will at first regard that as an exaggerated claim, but if they will consider just some of the real-world examples of which we are aware, there undoubtedly being many of which we are not, they will likely convince themselves.
After all, what are the main day-in, day-out tasks of the “operations side” of intelligence agencies? In all major countries, they include disrupting other governments or organizations whose views or policies are unwelcome, influencing the rise of selected leaders in many countries, influencing the outcomes of elections, and, in the extreme, limit, overthrowing governments and assassinating leaders.
Even in a “nice,” largely congenial country like Canada, we see such things from what are essentially authoritarian agencies: our fabled RCMP – subject of countless pleasant myths from “always getting their man” to Dudley Do-Right or Sergeant Preston of the Yukon – a few years back, directly interfered in a national election with the announcement that it was investigating certain matters touching one of the political parties. Nothing came of it, but the well-timed public announcement had its effect, much like a well disguised road-side bomb in Afghanistan.
The RCMP had a not well understood role in the days of extremism in Quebec, being caught red-handed in some kind of minor agent provocateur act involving burning a building. Again in the wake of 9/11, the RCMP appears to have been instrumental in America’s disgraceful treatment of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian of Syrian origin whom American authorities deliberately deported to Syria for a long bout of torture after his plane merely made a stop-over in the United States.
One of Britain’s intelligence services, MI5, almost certainly played a role in discrediting Prime Minister Harold Wilson during his second time in office during the 1970s. MI5 had many materials to manipulate: Wilson was generally regarded as a highly intelligent and crafty man, which indeed he was, but one dedicated to changing many aspects of British society in a progressive direction.
Wilson also had been secretly accused by a Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, in 1963 of being a KGB spy. It was the kind of accusation, unsubstantiated to this day, that was a gift to political opponents during the Cold War. The then-influential James Angleton of the C.I.A., among others, accepted the accusation as true and undoubtedly worked towards pressuring British intelligence to act, British intelligence then being highly vulnerable to pressure after the highly successful exploits of the Cambridge circle of spies. Wilson resignation in 1976 surprised the world, and it most likely reflected inappropriate activities by MI5 putting pressure on him.
The creepy, quiet little political terror imposed on America for decades by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, while the subject of several excellent books, remains unappreciated by the average American. Hoover used his privileged position to spy on anyone who had political power, any public figure who either threatened his hold on power or represented values he personally deemed un-American, or indeed to influence the outcomes of elections.
Members of Congress for decades lived in genuine fear of his secret files on their private lives – both real and imagined. Hoover only had to make the most indirect and glancing reference in a private talk to achieve remarkable changes in a politician’s public stance. Hoover unquestionably effectively blackmailed several American presidents – notoriously including John Kennedy – presidents who on paper controlled his appointment. He typically ignored the various Attorneys General, cabinet officials, appointed as his direct bosses.
With the CIA having participated in many coups d’etat abroad – and importantly, coups including a number against democratically elected governments, as those in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile – who is naïve enough to believe to believe that that agency never touches the internal affairs of the United States? I don’t mean violent activity like coups, but the CIA has a huge repertoire of techniques and games that it can play. The CIA regularly works in other countries to influence elections by putting favored figures on secret pensions, by working to discredit politicians not favored, by subsidizing organizations or parties, and by creating with its boundless resources propaganda and disinformation of every description.
Who can trace a secret verbal suggestion from an agency official to an important reporter or editor which serves to give life to a noxious story? And who knows how many reporters or editors are actually closet agency personnel? Only fairly recently we had the notorious case of Judith Miller working at the much-vaunted New York Times, effectively helping to discredit those who worked against the invasion of Iraq.
During the Kennedy years, the CIA was so deeply involved in anti-Cuban activity, it ran a giant, secret terrorist operation with camps in places like Florida which made Osama bin Laden’s redoubt in the mountains of Afghanistan resemble a boy scout camp. Thousands were trained, millions spent, warehouses of weapons and explosives supplied, assassinations and terrorists acts planned – all on American soil, all paid for by American taxpayers.
Yes, that ghastly operation was approved by the highest levels of the American government, but who can possibly maintain tight control on such vast and secret operations and resources? Clearly, the American government then could not, because mysteries around those times were still being revealed more than a decade later by the Church Senate Committee, and the mystery around Kennedy’s assassination remains a mystery to this day.
When you have a two-party system, it is unavoidable that you have what economists call bundling applying to politics. A vote for a candidate or party represents a vote for a bundle of policies and views. Most voters have one or a few policies for which they care deeply, and they accordingly vote on that basis. But that means that on many, or even most, other policies the voter’s views are not represented.
The effect of bundling in voting is that a national government may often speak with democratic legitimacy while in fact saying things which do not represent a majority of voters’ views. On minor issues, this essentially undemocratic result may not be regarded by most people as a difficult result, but on important issues, this result can be highly disturbing.
Of course, what is important to American voters at any given time will itself reflect the impact of other democracy-distorting influences, including most notably the great impact of campaign contributions upon the size and reach of every candidate’s advertising and the impact of what is stressed day by day in the corporate media where most busy people obtain their sense of what is happening in the world.
These two influences are immensely important.
Where once in America, the press was somewhat competitive, today there can be no doubt that it is concentrated into relatively few hands, and this change towards great concentration is characteristic of the world’s press. Economists know that industries which often begin as fairly competitive – at least roughly approximating the theoretical concept of perfect competition which underlies all generalized predictions of the role of competitors in markets – over time tend to become imperfectly competitive or even quasi-monopolies.
This pattern has occurred in many industries from car manufacturing to candy-bar companies. There are a number of reasons for this common phenomenon, but it is closely related to the concentration of capital in the functioning of a business; huge plants for huge markets and huge distribution and marketing systems create advantages of economies of scale which gradually render smaller competitors impotent. The high capital costs of entering such an industry act effectively as what economists call barriers to entry against new competitors.
The effects of this process have been underway for decades in the press and broadcasting. Who could hope to compete with the cost structure of one of the world-scale “media” companies in any given market? Indeed, once this stage of concentration is reached in any industry, we have not only the natural barrier to entry of capital costs but others which come into play.
Such a large company can do many things to hurt upstart competition, including dropping the rates of its local advertising – effectively subsidizing them with revenue from other markets – long enough to drive its small, far less flexible competitor out of business. It may also use advertising and marketing promotions, which it again is able effectively to subsidize from other operations, to help drive upstart companies out of business.
Clearly, the editorial judgements and views of gigantic national, and even international, corporations – themselves, we must remember, being anything but democratic institutions – are not likely to take an open and liberal (in the best sense of the word) view of issues, even in the rare case where they do not have close ties with a party. Moreover, what we increasingly find in such companies is a centralized direction of editorial material and news policy. In one large Canadian media company, editorials for its various local papers are actually largely the product of corporate headquarters, much the way the mix of ingredients in a Big Mac anywhere in the world are determined in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Such concentrated situations in a market do not last indefinitely, but they last long enough to serve defined interests extremely well for a considerable time. What Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the death of old industries displaced inevitably by new ones, comes into play, although not necessarily over any short time horizon.
What really is behind creative destruction is the constant flow of changing technology, and when the technology for doing something changes significantly, the costs of doing it also change. When you change the technology enough, you actually change the nature of the market itself. The automobile displaced horses and wagons, but it did more than displace them: the market for automobiles is different and more complicated than was the historical one for horses and wagons.
Personal computers and the Internet clearly today are eroding the revenues of traditional newspapers – in such historically lucrative areas as classified advertising – while enjoying the much lower costs of electronic production and distribution. However, it is not at all clear that the new set of great changes underway are going to result in a more democratic press. Too many things are happening at the same time to safely predict the outcome, but there ultimately be the same pattern of development in Internet communication of information as has happened in the printed or broadcast versions.
The contemporary trend only more deeply entrenches A. J. Liebling’s clever aphorism about freedom of the press being guaranteed only to those who own one.
Bias however is not new to the press: it has always been part of the fabric of newspapers going back to the beginnings of the American Republic. Each political party has its “own” newspapers, that is papers which favor the party’s views or policies, which may even be owned by people influential in the party.
Early on in America, parties showed little shame in controlling newspapers on their behalf. Indeed, the newspapers they controlled showed little shame in their often vicious and name-calling attacks on political opponents. Thomas Jefferson, for example, hired a couple of pretty unscrupulous fellows, Philip Freneau and James Callender to write attacks on the Federalist administration. Incidentally, Jefferson, no slouch himself at unscrupulous behaviour, had no qualms in his role of Secretary of State at putting Freneau on the government payroll as a translator while his important function was as attack dog of the Washington government under which Jefferson himself served.
Churchill’s second remark is an extension of the first, but it is also something more: it brings us face-to-face with the age-old problem of who is qualified to vote in a democracy. For example, one of the oldest and most powerful objections to allowing large parts of a population vote is the question of how an uneducated electorate can vote about issues it does not understand?
All countries which are today democratic in one degree or another started down the historical path of development in the modern era from forms of authoritarian government with monarchs and great lords beginning to share some authority with members of the rising business class. The new wealth of businessmen, so different in nature to the wealth of an ancient landed aristocracy, was the ticket for a seat at the table where decisions of state were made. It was a long and drawn out process with more than a few instances of old landed aristocrats objecting to sharing any power or privileges with upstarts.
Gradually, the new men of substance, assumed greater and greater powers within government, and the mechanism for putting them there – the franchise for electing them to whatever parliament or congress had emerged in each country – also spread to a larger and larger pool of people. Quite simply, democracy derives from the emergence of a middle class, and the larger that middle class becomes – hence the importance of strong economic growth – the more widely is the franchise granted and the larger becomes the pool of people eligible to participate in government.
A large and growing middle class has many interests which cannot possibly be served by a king and great lords or, for that matter, any other form of authoritarian government over the long term. Some of these interests will not even be understood by authoritarian figures of an old regime, such as needs for laws governing business and trade or for special economic policies. The middle class, too, as it grows, assumes a greater and greater portion of the total wealth in a country, and, today no less than in the past, wealth always is accompanied with privileges and power. After all, the basis for the authority of kings and great lords of the past was the land which they had inherited and owned, the land being understood earlier as the only real source of wealth, so much so that those who owned the land often owned the people who worked it too.
The modern era – that is, roughly the time since the beginnings of the Renaissance – has seen this process repeated many times in many places, with variations in its pattern which reflect local conditions, wars, economic setbacks, and the degree of strength of the local old order. It may be taken as the general rule for the birth of democracy, and special claims to bringing democracy to the world, from whole cloth as it were, a not uncommon notion in the United States even among educated people – may be treated for what they are, chauvinistic claims to being something special apart from the experience of others.
At various stages of the evolution of modern democracies, there were powerful arguments by privileged groups against sharing the franchise with people in general, the arguments focusing at one time or another on the lack of education, the lack of a real stake in society (i.e. property), inherent inferiority (the American South right into the 1960s), religious preferences distorting votes (an idea which lingered still in the United States in 1960, and one that had played a major role in the onset of the American Revolution, or more accurately, revolt against British authority and the hated Quebec Act), or indeed a combination of such factors as with the resistance against granting the franchise to women well into the 20th century.
Relatively few Americans appreciate that this was just as much the case in America as, say, in the United Kingdom. The early government of the United States called itself a republic, to distinguish itself from a kingdom, but the distinction was largely one without a meaning. Only a very small group of Americans could vote in the early republic. An estimate for the eligible voters of Virginia, for example, puts them at one percent of the population.
Except in the words used, the early American reality was little different to the reality in George III’s Britain. One European writer aptly characterized the American Revolution as an event which replaced a group of foreign-born aristocrats by local ones. Indeed, in modern China, the membership of the Communist party, the only people whose votes really do mean something, is roughly that same percent of the total population as those with the franchise in Virginia after the Revolution. Most of America’s chief founders not only were not democrats, they disliked the word “democracy” in very much the same way prominent American politicians regarded the word “communist” in 1955, indeed a repugnance in the latter case which remains to this day in subdued fashion.
I shall return later to that aspect of democracy in America. For now, we’ll continue with general limits to democracy.
THE ROLE OF HONESTY IN A DEMOCRACY
One does not usually think immediately of honesty playing a role in democratic government, but it does indeed play a great role. The most elementary example of its importance is in vote fraud, the honesty in counting the votes. People associate vote fraud with third-world countries or totalitarian regimes, but the practice has played an important role in American political history and continues to do so today.
When I was a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, it was widely accepted that the Democratic machine controlling city politics used vote fraud. There were regular newspaper stories and personal tales about names from cemeteries being registered as voters, of ballot counters with pieces of lead stuck under fingernails to invalidate ballots by surreptitiously placing an extra mark on them, and about party men accompanying voters into early voting machines to “help” them vote. In general, there was a sense of humorous acceptance instead of anger at an attack on the very legitimacy of an election.
These practices and others were certainly not exclusive to Chicago politics. By all accounts, they have been common in many parts of the country for a long time: other big-city machines run much as the Chicago one plus many rural places where influential landowners or the owner of the only local industry or corrupt officials went unchallenged in much the same way as the patron or godfather went unchallenged by peasants in a third-world place. Every now and then, a new critical biography or history brings to light specific instances. We know, for example, Lyndon Johnson’s first win for Congress in Texas was owing to vote fraud by the local machine. The case of Kennedy’s victory in 1960 is well known, the Democratic machines in Chicago and Texas delivering the required votes in a close election. Vote fraud in Florida played a role in Bush’s victory in 2000, and vote fraud in Florida and Ohio played a role in his 2004 victory.
Vote fraud takes many forms. In Florida, one form it took was the closing of polling places while long lines of voters still had not cast a ballot. In a number of states, vote fraud included deliberately misinforming voters about registration or location of a poll.
The very fact that most Americans are not outraged by such tales tells us a good deal about the state of democratic political culture in the United States.
One of the fundamental problems with election honesty in the United States is that the administration of elections, including the elections for federal offices, is a local responsibility. Of course, the opportunity and incentive to cheat are greatest at precisely the local level where fewer critical eyes are involved and where local attitudes determine election ethics. Local administration of elections also explains why there is no uniformity across the country in the nature of ballots, the rules for registration, and the way polling places are run. Ballots include everything from paper ballots requiring the traditional “x” to voting machines with switches to the infamous stiff paper forms, used in Florida in 2000, that require punching out perforated circles called “chads” next to the names. Apart from dishonest registration and counting, ballots in all forms can be manipulated to some extent just by the way candidates are identified and ordered. Today there is increasing use of computer voting by touch screen, but the systems used have been shown to be subject to manipulation, and in any case, the need for valid registration can still be gamed.
The immense number of barriers to entry, created over many decades, by the two major parties in their respective comfortable fiefdoms. These barriers work to keep American politics running as a duopoly, making it very difficult for new parties to break into the political market, as it were. But they also serve in many cases locally as unfair weights against the opposing major party. There are a great many of these, but one example will serve to highlight
I don’t want to catalogue all the possible ways of cheating at an election, just to make clear that there are many, and with every advance in the technology of voting, new methods of fraud will be devised.
In general, when there is a very large gap in the popularity of two national candidates, vote fraud doesn’t play a role, but most modern Presidential elections tend to be fairly close, in which case, vote fraud can be decisive. With both major parties having absorbed the lesson of “moving to the center” as an election strategy, close elections are likely to be the rule in future.
Another kind of dishonesty is that involved in just getting a candidate’s name on the ballot. America’s neat division into Republican and Democrat is not quite the natural thing it is sometimes made to seem in the popular press, and here again the local administration of elections plays still another role. There is an immense variety of what economists call “barriers to entry” across the fifty states, all carefully crafted over time by local politicians wishing to maintain either their own advantageous position or at least securing the duopoly of power enjoyed by the two parties. The requirements for every state are different, some more complicated than others.
Getting a third party on all the ballots for a national election is a complicated and expensive thing to achieve even for an extremely rich man like Ross Perot who ran as a third-party candidate. The fact that is so again provides insight into the spirit of the democratic political culture in America.
There are other kinds of dishonesty which play an important role in American elections. Since the Supreme Court decided that corporations are not to be limited in their giving, the expense of elections has nowhere to go but up. The mid-term Congressional election just finished at this writing was the most expensive in history. In this way too, an effective barrier to entry is created. Just as very large corporations spending huge amounts on advertising make it close to impossible for new competitors to emerge, so this lavish spending by two parties serves the same purpose in the political sphere.
Of course, the vast spending has many more implications than serving as a barrier to entry. Large contributions buy access, and candidates are reduced to what should be embarrassing activities in seeking large contributions. Bill Clinton set a new level of crassness in seeking contributors by selling things like a night in the Lincoln bedroom.
First, I would cite the ever-increasing role of advertising and marketing. American elections today are run pretty much exactly the way two companies manage the sales of soda pop or hamburgers. A great deal of money is spent on market research – polls, focus groups, etc – so that the “message” of a campaign can be fine-tuned.
There is the role of promises being made during election which are not kept. This practice has become so common that it is the subject of cynical humor, but not all instances of it are the same. Some promises are made carelessly before a candidate appreciates from the perspective of office how difficult or impossible the promise is. In this case, the broken promise is usually credited to inexperience. Another form of
an increasing serious problem with politicians who want to grab voters’ attention and voters who have limited time to inform themselves and question issues and positions.
A DOUBLE PARADOX: A PRESIDENT WHO DOESN’T MATTER AND ELECTIONS PUTTING THE UNELECTED INTO POWER – A TROUBLING DEVELOPMENT IN AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
George Bush’s term as president taught us one remarkable new lesson: that the president, if ignorant enough, lacking in energy, and open to manipulation from powerful people behind him, actually does not matter a very great deal. Few astute observers can doubt that Bush served mainly as a kind of figurehead while the direction of policy was largely determined by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and a few others. He wasn’t in any way forced to be a figurehead: it was the nature of his personality and character that he chose to run understanding his inadequacies after a lifetime of stumbling performance and comfortable with the idea he could go to bed each night at nine o’clock. In effect, America had an unelected government.
You could argue that Cheney was elected, but that would be a purely technical argument because candidates for the virtually meaningless office of vice-president are picked by politicians, bundled with the candidate with whom people actually are concerned, serve with little sense of answering to the electorate, have no defined duties in the Constitution beyond breaking ties in the Senate, and if unsatisfactory may be jettisoned with no recourse to the people for the next election.
Sarah Palin is even a more extreme case of the same thing. The woman is plainly stupid, having demonstrated it dozens of times. Of course, there is no law against stupid or ignorant people running for office, but most people surely have an innate belief that people of no skill or talent will never reach high office. You could say that the nuclear “button” – not really a button but a device which always accompanies the president – is almost a public symbol of faith in this belief.
Of course, money plays just a huge role in Palin’s promotion, as it does in all American politics now, America approaching in many ways something pretty close to a plutocracy.
All Palin has done, since quitting her fairly humble job as governor of a state with about the population of greater Cleveland half-way through its term, is collect millions of dollars for cheerleading, waving her arms and shouting words that never go beyond clichés, slogans, and the odd ghost-written joke. You might dismiss her as the comic relief on the political rubber-chicken circuit, but the phenomenon truly is more serious than that: she is being guided from behind the scenes into being another even more grotesque Bush-like presidential candidate.
Had she an ounce of sense, she’d know she is completely unqualified for high office, but she is as ambitious and egotistical as she is stupid, a dangerous combination indeed.
For the powers that be – the big-money and establishment people behind her – her kind of candidate, gullible and easily manipulated while keeping the public stirred up with empty slogans and dumb rhetoric, is desirable.
Bush was her forerunner, a remarkably mediocre man who let the Cheneys and Rumsfelds actually run things without being elected.
It is a dangerous new development in an American society whose democratic credentials are badly worn.
The world’s only hope is that this woman is so overwhelmingly stupid she will not succeed beyond collecting millions from a minority of people who have more money than they know what to do with.