Saving Democracy

Modern democracy is a very recent development in human history. Most people would place it at the founding of the US. Once the idea was planted, however, it took root and there has been a growth in this form of government since then. The path has not always been smooth, there have been some spectacular smash ups, starting immediately after the French Revolution.

The question I chose to address is how to prevent a democratic society from slipping back into a non-democratic one. But first some definitions to avoid confusion.

I treat a democratic government and a "republic" as meaning the same. Athenian democracy has been superseded and should only be considered as a philosophical springboard for the modern form. I will discuss key characteristics which define a democracy later.

In opposition to a democracy there are various restricted forms of governance. What they all have in common is that the ruling group is small and the rules of selection are arbitrary. The most important, historically, have been monarchies, religious hierarchies and oligarchies. The rulers are chosen by heredity, force of arms, or a power play within the ruling elite.

I consider these all these as types of an "authoritarian" form of government. When the government expands beyond control of law and tries to regulate human thought I consider the regime "totalitarian". This is usually taken as a modern development, needing the tools of mass communication and propaganda, but I think the Spanish Inquisition qualifies also.

I define a "fascist" regime to be a type of authoritarian regime where the state and the industrial sectors merge, either explicitly (as in the state takeover of certain industries) or implicitly where government officials control commerce or business leaders serve simultaneously in government. I don't use the word as a synonym for oppressive or brutal regimes.

Now what are the characteristics of a democracy? First it has a government "of the people". This means that the vast majority of people residing in the country can select their leaders via the ballot. If the number of citizens is restricted (as before women got the vote, for example) then it is an imperfect democracy. Whether the leaders are selected directly as in a presidential system or indirectly as in a parliamentary system is a detail.

In my construction, a full democracy also includes personal and economic principles. I chose to call these aspects of democracy as well. Personal democracy means people have the right to chose their own locale, their choice of political and religious affiliations, their choice of profession and mate and to express their views freely. Economic democracy means people have the right to set up their own businesses, subject only to restrictions on illegal enterprises. What sort of business to establish and how to manage it in terms of expansion or business direction are not under government control. This does not exclude the need to meet labor, environmental or other restrictions established by the law. After all in a democracy the laws flow from the people.

So a democracy means more than just the ability to vote. It also means a legal framework which evolves with the consent of the people. A good formulation of the legal basis of a democracy comes from Franz Neumann. Here is one version of his basic principles:

1. All men are equal before the law.
2. Laws must be general, not specific (this rules out bills of attainder).
3. Retroactive laws are illegitimate.
4. Enforcement must be separate from the decision-making agencies.

Point one guarantees that everyone is treated equally and prevents the existence of a ruling class. It also prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of who they are rather than on the basis of what they have done.

Point two prevents the legislature from creating laws aimed at helping or harming specific named individuals. Bills of attainder are a type of legislation in which the individual is named explicitly as having violated this law. The legislature thus acts as judge and jury bypassing the judicial function. This is explicitly outlawed in the US constitution. There had been enough recent European history of abuses of this type that it was thought best to make the abolition of this abuse explicit. General law also implies that legislation cannot be written which specifically names some one who will benefit.

Retroactive laws permit an abuse of power from being punished and allow any law to be ignored at will. Permitting this type of activity renders all laws arbitrary in their application.

Finally, point four is designed to prevent the abuse of power by the executive branch. Those making the laws shall not be those who enforce them, and vice versa. Otherwise there is a risk of selective enforcement or favoritism.

So to summarize, a democratic society has a government "of the people", imposes minimal restrictions on freedom of personal action and economic activity and is governed by a legal framework established by the people themselves.

Unfortunately, history has shown that things can go terribly wrong. The French Republic established after the revolution of 1789 dissolved into anarchy and mob rule and gave "democracy" a bad name for the next 100 years. The democratic government installed in Russian in 1917 didn't last out the year. The democratic Wiemar Republic installed in Germany after WWI failed by the early 1930's. In every case the democratic structures were too weak to resist the rise of authoritarian regimes. In more recent times there have been many cases of "democratic" regimes in Africa and Latin America being replaced by military juntas. Sometimes this dynamic has repeated over and over as the military juntas are forced to reinstate democratic rule because of popular unrest.

Not to over generalize too much, but it seems that what all these failed democracies have in common is the brief time they existed before being overthrown. This seems to indicate that there is more needed than the formal legal framework which was established. A set of laws, governing bodies and (perhaps) a constitution is not enough. What was missing was a democratic "creed" which was embraced by the populace. Probably the most important phrase in the past three centuries was "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...", from this flows democracy, but only if the people know and are willing to defend the creed.

How does a people become invested in their "creed"? Through education. In France and Russia there was a large peasant class. Many were illiterate and had no understanding of their "unalienable rights", so losing them again was easy. Germany was a highly educated society, but it had just come out of a devastating war in which all the social structures had been destroyed. The new government was imposed by the victors, but the people were not versed in the workings of a democratic society. All their prior experience had been with various monarchies and militaristic hierarchies. They also didn't know their "unalienable rights", rather they had been brought up to "know their place".

So the question arises can a modern, well-established democracy, be replaced by an "authoritarian" regime? There are frequent overthrows of democratic states all the time. What has changed since the end of WWII, is that such authoritarian replacements do not wish to be identified as such. The democratic creed has become so universal that no dictator wishes to be seen as violating it. What typically happens is that a strong man gets into power. Sometimes this is by an overt coup d'etat, but many times they are elected. Once in office they use the legal trappings to cement their power. Frequent steps are changing the laws on term limits, outlawing rival parties, or arresting opponents using newly crafted laws and, when necessary, election fraud. Whatever techniques are used they go to great lengths to proclaim that their state is still democratic because it has elections.

The US has had some recent abuses of democratic power, but so far has avoided a complete breakdown in governance. Several of the worst cases of abuse happened in times of war or the run up to a war. Most involved suppression of personal rights, but there were a few attempts at imposing government control of industry. Nixon is usually cited as the most extreme case of the abuse of power, but his abuses concerned is personal power and those of his close associates. The rest of the legal system continued to operate and was eventually successful in reining in his administration.

Today, many are making similar charges about the Bush administration. Here are some worrying examples of potential abuse.

All men are equal before the law: This has been violated by the treatment of the Guantanamo inmates as well as those arrested for "terrorist" activity. Many have had no access to the legal system.

Laws must be general: This has been violated of late by the vast number of "earmarks" that have been inserted in legislation. By naming a specific firm to perform a specific task and be compensated by the government all generality is lost. The scope for abuse is large and we have already seen many examples. There are standard mechanisms for procurement. Departments get a budget, they have mechanisms to determine needs and evaluate vendors and then they allocate funds. Earmarks bypass this entire process.

Retroactive laws: The NSA warantless wiretaps and several other similar actions are widely seen as unconstitutional. In order to prevent those responsible from being held liable under either US or international law the congress is attempting to pass retroactive laws to "legalize" these activities. Regardless of how this initiative plays out, the attempt to violate one of the four legal tenets is an attack on democracy.

Judicial independence: The Attorney General and the Justice Department have been involved in formulating legal opinions. Recent example include the use of torture, the use of signing statements by the president and the NSA wiretap issue. Deciding the meaning and constitutionality of laws is the function of the judicial branch, not the executive branch. The Justice department is supposed to prosecute those who break the laws, not interpret them. They are violating the fourth precept and also weakening democracy. Congress has also passed laws which attempt to prevent judicial oversight by claiming that the law cannot be reviewed by the courts. So far the courts have declared such laws as unconstitutional. The legislature should not be trying to weak the judicial branch. This is anti-democratic.

So we have a situation where all of Neumann's legal principals are under attack. We are also seeing problems with the electoral process. Remember modern dictators always attempt to disguise their actions within a "democratic" framework. Voting is the backbone of this effort. Do I think that the present administration is planning a coup d'etat or rewriting the laws so that they can stay in office beyond their present term? No.

The threat is not from an individual, but from a permanent shadow government which has arisen over the past 40 years. The names of the players change, but those pulling the strings continue to come from the same small group. The US is in the middle stages of becoming a plutocracy (government by the wealthy). The economic trends are clear and we are seeing the beginnings of a parallel political effort.

We have had one prior period of a nascent plutocracy, during the first era of the robber barons. At that time the captains of industry managed to subvert much of government and install their own men into office. So there was the railroad senator and the oil senator, etc. But the industry were all new and their leaders were all self-made men. There was no permanent wealthy class. Some managed to establish dynasties, like the Rockefellers, but their power was rapidly diluted as the era of the trust busters put an end to the excessive political influence they had before. The break up of Standard Oil is the best example. In other cases, like Carnegie, they chose to give their fortunes away.

These days we have families who control vast economic power and are into their third or more generation. Their priorities have changed. By and large they are not entrepreneurs like their ancestors, but are concerned with wealth preservation and maintaining their privilege. This type of concentration of economic power is, therefore, unprecedented in the US and presents a new threat.

So can democracy be preserved?

There have only been two multi-century democracies so far, the US and the UK. Both were partial democracies until recently. Both excluded classes of people from voting and both had de facto ways to preserve anti-democratic legislator selection. The UK still has an anti-democratic upper house. Other countries like Canada and Australia have even shorter histories as a democracy. So there really isn't much data to go on.

The biggest threat seems to lie in the US, as I've outlined above. The disregard for the legal framework is unprecedented and reminds one of the initial steps of the Nazi's when they subverted the Wiemar Republic. The multi-generational concentration of wealth is also unprecedented (at least in the US).

So what can be done to prevent things from getting worse? I see three actions as possible.

1. The wealth of the super rich needs to be dissipated. This was done successfully in the UK by means of death duties which served to break up the wealth of the landed gentry. The process takes decades, but it is relatively easy to implement from a legal point of view and changes come slowly so there is not much disruption to society. In addition the income tax policy could be changed to make it more progressive, as it was for much of the 20th Century.

2. The power of money in politics needs to be reduced. The main culprit is the cost of running for office. This is now so expensive that politicians need to sell out to business interests in order to gather enough money to run. Either that, or they need to be independently wealthy. This makes those able to run an anti-democratic condition. Elimination of temptation is another associated change. No spending allocations should be under the direct control of congress. These should be left to the departments with the responsibility. Congress has the constitutional task of passing the budget, but they don't have to be the ones to determine priorities. If the influence of money is to be eliminated than campaigns will have to be publicly funded and/or TV advertising will have to be controlled in some fashion. This could be by forcing stations to provide free time, or limiting the amount of ads so that all candidates get equal exposure. Constitutional issues need to be addressed since the latest Supreme Court view is that money equals speech. This is anti-democratic.

3. The populace needs to be better educated. John Dewey felt that the most important part of education was to train people to think for themselves and to evaluate information and come to their own decisions. Democracy requires an educated citizenry. Currently the darker parts of US history are glossed over since they reflect badly on our mythology as a benign nation. This slant also minimizes the efforts of the common people to overcome the power of the elite, most notably in labor relations. Educating the public must not stop with formal education, there are things that can be done in the mass media as well. The TV show "West Wing" was an example of how a civics lesson could be embedded in a dramatic series. Not only must education be improved, but the trend away from public education must be reversed. Public education promotes democracy and egalitarianism. Private and parochial education promote separatism and disdain for the general population. Public education also ensures that all children are exposed to the same core of information. Private schooling can skip those parts which don't agree with their dogmas. This leads to incomplete learning. Public education is under the watchful eye of everyone and can't deviate too far from accepted norms. Private education is under the guidance of a select view and can become as biased as they wish. If parents feel that some subjects are not taught in public school (for example, religion) then appropriate mechanisms exist to provide supplemental education for their children.

Is any of this practical?

Changes in tax laws are the easiest and the quickest. They only require a majority of congress to enact them. This means that public disfavor with current conditions can translate into new representatives within a few years. All it takes is sufficient outrage and a new group of candidates to represent their positions. Since this is easy to do, it is also easy to undo. However a successful re-equalization of wealth would remove the concentrated power that currently exists and make a transition back to plutocracy less likely.

Electoral change is more difficult, although there has been some progress. States have put in term limits and public funding, the Supreme Court continues to be an obstacle to change, but a state based change might cascade to the federal level. Quick change doesn't seem likely.

Educational reform is a continual battle, right now the forces of authoritarianism are having the most success. This ranges from the authoritarian No Child Left Behind act (federally mandated rote learning) to the use of school vouchers and government funding of religious schools (for "non-religious" purposes). If the public sees these efforts for what they are and starts to see the poor training children receive in such an environment there may be a push back. The battles over Darwinism show that there is a majority who still favor open public education.

Is this important?

In my prior essay I discussed the relationship between democracy and economic development and pointed out the few cases where they didn't go hand-in-hand. But, in general, democratic societies also perform better economically. Authoritarian management styles are unable to react to the changes in society that are needed to remain competitive. So if the US is going to maintain its standard of living in the face of increasing competition and raw material shortages it will require a nimble, open , egalitarian society, that is, a true democracy.

Moral: Education and equality are the basis for preserving democracy.


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Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.