Democracy and Faith in Institutions

Here’s what bugs me: It isn’t just Iraq that’s in a mess. Democracy itself, as an institution has suffered some serious body blows in the last 5 years, and that worries me more than even terrorists.

Social institutions only work if people believe in them. And what we’ve seen over the last 5 years is an object lesson in the impotence and failures of democracy.

I’m not an “I-told-you-so”-er, but I’ve said along that you can’t just wave your arms and say “Domini, Domini, Domini, you’re all living in a democracy now.” It takes many years to build up the kind of faith that is required for these things to work. America didn’t just become a democracy on the day that the Constitution was signed – we had over 200 years of colonial governmental traditions to draw upon and believe in.

It isn’t enough simply to believe in the power of democracy as an abstract concept – you need to have faith that when things start to go wrong, your society will continue to hold together, and not degenerate into civil war.

For one thing, you need a loyal opposition. You need to believe in your heart of hearts that the other side, the people you despise, will at least have the courtesy to talk things out, and not just storm the parliament building with guns when they don’t get their way. Otherwise, what’s the point of even participating? Why not just get your own guns and storm the building first before they get there?

You need to believe that the game is fair – that people aren’t rigging the system, gerrymandering you into irrelevance or stealing your vote.

You need to believe that the people you elect are more than just incompetent, selfish boobs interested solely in lining their own pockets. That you have a real choice, not just a contrived and trivial one between lesser evil and mediocre evil.

Instead, we’ve seen – both at home and abroad – a cascade of examples that seem almost designed to rob people of their faith. To dispirit and destroy their belief that they truly have the power to change things.

Politics is an area where success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. What I worry about is whether other potential proto-democracies are going to look at the Iraq example and maybe think twice about this whole democracy thing. And I worry that the people here will also get dispirited, although not for quite the same reasons.

We (the Enlightenment and its descendants) took power away from the oligarchs because we showed that our way worked – and worked better. The only way the oligarchs can ever get their power back is to somehow demonstrate that it doesn’t work so well after all. And the way to do this is to take the tool that we created and misuse it.

You see, like the free market, democracy is not a natural law – it is a machine, constructed by humans, to solve a certain set of problems. It is no more a natural law than Robert’s Rules of Order. But that machine only works if you give it the correct environment – it’s source of power is emotional investment of the citizenry within in, an investment that they will only give so long as they perceive it to be capable of solving their problems.

Thus, the way to destroy democracy and its institutions is to attempt to apply them in contexts in which they will surely fail.

3 Responses to “Democracy and Faith in Institutions”

  1. Keith’s Complete Waste of Time » Blog Archive » I rather agree with this guy… Says:

    […] Viridia.org » Blog Archive » Democracy and Faith in Institutions […]

  2. Dolores J. Nurss Says:

    I think that issues of scale has a lot to do with our current problems with democracy. What worked for thirteen states with more trees than people cannot run nearly so responsibly for fifty states crammed with metropoli. In fact, I would say that all political institutions suffer when their populace grows beyond a size for accountability.

    I first realized this in a discussion of Socialism with a Norwegian. She spoke about how well this system worked for Norway, and I pointed out that it couldn’t possibly work in the United States because of our vaster numbers. In a small country, it is much easier for people to perceive a government as their own, made up of themselves, to see their tax dollars as payment they collectively choose to spend on services that they wish to receive, and to feel uncomfortably answerable to the neighbors if they slack on their end of the bargain, either in evading taxes or evading work.

    But in the continent-sized, densely populated United States of America, Americans widely view tax dollars as [i]gone![/i]–taken out of our pockets and spent who knows where. Regardless of all the historical speeches about government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we do not consider the government to be “us” at all, but rather this great and menacing impersonal force. Social services meet suspicion and rebellion at both ends. The poor feel no shame to cheat a system that they perceive as run by those who keep them poor in the first place, while the rich feel no shame in cheating on taxes that support total strangers that they perceive as cheaters–and the more cheating goes on at either end, the more the other end feels justified in cheating.

    We do not trust our government, because we feel so little influence over it. With a population such as ours, our votes feel like a drop in the ocean–a waste of time. Most of us cannot make the huge campaign contributions that can buy the ear of our so-called representatives. Sure, we can write letters to those representatives, but how much impact does it make to say, “If you don’t start representing me more accurately, I’m going to withhold my puny little one vote from you!”? (Yes, I do vote, and I do write letters to representatives. I have not seen great policy changes result from either action. The majority votes according to whoever can afford the best advertising campaign, financed by corporations who dictate policy.)

    Face it–we are not a true democracy anymore. Our lives are run by corporations, and corporations are not people–they have no soul, no nationality, and no ethic beyond that of a slug that will creep wherever stimuli prod it to creep. Most corporations exist to make money, and will spit out any human sub-units who get in the way of that purpose, replacing them with others less scrupulous. They are not evil in the sense of having malice, they are simply single-minded mechanisms too big for any one person to steer.

    Even without the pre-bribery of campaign contributions, our lives are almost wholly dominated by corporations rather than government. Few of us work for democratic co-ops; most of us find employment, during most of our waking hours, in businesses governed by people we never voted for, who can decide whether or not we receive livelihood based on rules we didn’t vote for, either. And then, in our increasingly limited free time, we have little say over the sources of the foods that sustain us, the artifacts that surround us, or the homes we live in. People say that we can “vote” by what we buy, but we face limits both in what selection we find offered to us, and how much buying power we have, by the corporations that run our lives.

    I would love to be able to afford 100% organic food and clothing, for instance, but I cannot get past the fact that institutions beyond my control artificially inflate the cost of organic products into a luxury item for the elite. Organic farmers harvest 80% of what agribusiness farmers do, granted–but they also have half the overhead, which ought to more than compensate for that 20% shortfall, except that corporations have discovered that they can sell these products at elite prices. Nor does that 20% shortfall cause sufficient shortages to make the product dear, in a country that suffers problems trying to unload surplus grain, to the point of pushing unhealthy products like corn syrup, promoting grain-fed cattle that are far less nutritious, more pollution intensive, less humanely housed, and more difficult to maintain than pasture-fed cattle, and dumping cheap grain on other countries whose economies the corporations desire to pverwhelm and take over. As for the manufacturers of organic cotton clothing, if they really meant their professed desire to save the world, you would think that they would sell something besides sportswear, that is too expensive for blue-collar laborers, yet too informal for white-collar workers to wear on anything but weekends–hobby clothing, for hobby values.

    In a world where one’s purchase is one’s vote, the poor get disenfranchised. And the disenfranchised stay poor. There is nothing democratic about it.

  3. Dolores J. Nurss Says:

    P.S.–sorry. I should never rant without offering at least some hint of a solution. I believe that would be localization. Involvement in local politics ought to, I think, take precedence over broader politics, which only appears to show more power by affecting more lives, but in fact affects them less personally and efficiently.

    I would also favor economic incentives promoting local, regionally-responsible businesses. Remember, the original Boycott was a man shamed into treating his employees better because his peers refused to have anything to do with him until he mended his ways–he lived in the same community that he shocked. Answerability is key. You are less likely to pollute a neighborhood that you live in, or cheat those whose faces you see every day, or create policies that will cause people whose company you enjoy to shout at you, “Why did you do that to me?” Additionally, businesses based outside of a community drain money out of town. Some goes back into the pockets of local employees, but when they’re minimum wage clerks, and the bulk of the money pays executives, stockholders, and manufacturers elsewhere, that means a whole lot of money ceases to circulate in the neighborhood anymore.

    I believe that every community ought to impose a lighter tax on locally based businesses and a heavier tax on outside businesses–starting with city government, and moving on to the state level, and advancing especially to the national level of tariffs, not only on foreign companies but also on American companies who choose to go wherever they can ignore American labor laws and pollution standards, thereby giving America a bad odor to the rest of the world, while undermining the American unions, and also creating an illegal alien problem (if employers go where they can find the best deal in labor, it becomes inevitable that laborers must go where they can find the best deal in employers.) To protests that reducing out of town investment would cost jobs, I would say that the economy is a kind of ecology, where if you clear out the dinosaurs, other life forms will fill in the niches–in this case, local businesses.

    Now–if only I could afford the campaign contributions to actually put this on a ballot!

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