Lost in Conversation
Lost in the midst of the largest economic downturn in generations, lost in the 1% versus 99% realizations that there is an historic and growing divide between rich and poor, lost in polarized images of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party phenomena – lost in conversation is the reality that although the rich have the power, the less rich have the votes, at least in the democratic countries.
Protests from either side that refers back to our original democratic founding seem to miss a very important point – democracy requires citizen participation. Democracy is and was a grand experiment in governance in which instead of citizenry being ruled by a king or dictator or emperor or pope, the people would for the first time govern themselves. That basic assumption has become an utter failure.
The peoples’ electorate in the early colonies so undemocratically included only white men over the age of 21, and those elected were by and large already the prominent, respected, and . . . often rich and powerful members of their communities. Over time that electorate was broadened to include women, blacks, 18-21 year olds – all with the hope that a more inclusive democracy would be a better democracy.
The reality is that in the march of democracy in America, the electorate has fully shirked its responsibility. The few who do drag themselves to the polls are far too often uninformed about the candidates and issues they are voting on. It is far too easy to accept that one person’s vote, one way or another, is very unlikely to make an iota’s worth of difference. And little acceptance is given to the maxim that “all politics is local”. Thus suggesting that a scant few ever attend a municipal council meeting, write to their legislators, join a local political organization, or support with time or money a local candidate.
And into this gaping vacuum step the rich and powerful. Into this void step the special interests. They are not necessarily bad; they take up this opportunity because they just simply can. It is a natural and expected consequence of electorate apathy. It is a natural and expected reaction to the sense of indifference felt by so much of the electorate.
And this may be a natural and expected evolution in a democracy – especially an established democracy that has had as many iterations of the electoral cycle as has America.
Imagine a hypothetical island of ten people where one person happens to own 90% of the palm trees, the main food source on the island. His family accumulated these trees over time and now, due to the power of ownership of this resource, he has inordinate influence over the community. The other nine protect the island, and the palms, from invaders from other islands. They work on the palm farm to nurture and harvest the fruit, and they provide the island and the wealthy palm tree owner with all the other services this small island requires.
Now lets assume this island is a democracy. What prevents the nine from voting to more equally divide the island’s resources? What prevents the community, at the death of the palm tree tycoon, from some redistribution rather than allowing the palm grove to go to his spoiled progeny? My guess is that on this hypothetical island democracy of ten, that there would be natural tendencies to a somewhat more equal distribution of wealth and the benefits that accrue to such wealth. Not that hard work and innovation wouldn’t be rewarded. Just that excessive tilts in this wealth distribution due to good fortune, special privilege, the accident of birth, and the contributions of others much less rewarded, would be less likely.
Was American exceptionalism and the paradigm that anyone who worked hard could accomplish his/her dreams in America merely a myth largely perpetrated by the unique position America found itself in after two world wars – where the great economic powers of Europe and Asia were in ashes and America with its huge resources left intact?
And on top of an economic crisis, the country has become more polarized than anytime in recent memory. The politburo in China must be having a great laugh. They don’t have to put up with an unwieldy and dysfunctional democratic experiment – they can rule by fiat and as long as their population is as uninvolved in their collective destiny as are the Americans, then China may easily again step onto the world stage as a dominate player.
And lost in the conversation is the fundamental failure of America’s democratic experiment.