George W. Bush’s days—along with his 20% approval rating—are numbered, America is electrified by an historic race, and much of the world awaits an answer to the question of whether the next US President will continue the extreme right-wing philosophy, self-serving machismo, childish incompetence and blatant injustices of the last eight years. Thanks largely to Bush’s immoral and "failed" policies, Americans have recently been participating rather intensively in democracy, American-style. But while so many engaged American citizens have reason to be proud on the eve of our most recent experiment in democracy, the reins of the corporate republic unfortunately still remain in the hands of an elite few, with average Americans playing a relatively minor role in deciding the biggest political and economic questions.
By American-style democracy I mean that citizen attention and participation is sporadic—every two or four years people start getting serious in the run up to Election Day, then largely check out again—and the range of debate is narrower than in many other democratic countries. Most debate takes place between the confines of official Republican policy and official Democratic policy, both of which lie to the right of European policy, for example. For this writer, "democracy" simply cannot be boiled down to the infrequent question of whether you prefer candidate A or candidate B; deep democracy demands constant participation, open debate, and organized action by the citizenry. However, at this point in our history, and part of the reason we got ourselves two terms of the extreme right wing in the White House, is that we’ve allowed ourselves to settle for a brave new world of infotainment culture and consumption over political interest and responsibility.
Corporate mass media, with the blessings of Congress, have played a major role in transforming the country into a depoliticized consumer republic, which was the deliberate intent of prominent Americans in the first half of the 20th century (especially Walter Lippmann, a top journalist, and Edward Bernays, considered one of the fathers of the public relations industry, both members of the Creel Commission). The rise of consumerism as religion and the creation of false needs by the public relations industry for consumers not only enriched corporations but permitted increased control of public opinion by the "governing class," as Lippmann had it.
The news media in particular has undergone tremendous changes in the last 90 years, with most of the power of the airwaves having been gifted by Congress to wealthy private industry rather than to the public interest. While news media consumption is changing in interesting ways in the digital age, TV remains the most important medium. Americans increasingly state that the media’s political discourse includes too much infotainment, horse race coverage, and tabloid gossip and not enough information on subjects that really matter. In America, while corporations (including media corporations, of course) are legally given the right of persons who possess immortal armies of Washington lobbyists, real flesh-and-blood people have much less of a say than they should in an effective democracy. According to the IRS, income inequality is at its worst level since 1929. Is an effectively functioning democracy possible when the top 1% of the country earns more income than the bottom 50% and owns more wealth than the bottom 90%, and the news and information that the public depends on is controlled by those at the very top? Is basic justice being served if those on the bottom of the social ladder have little or no realistic opportunity to significantly increase their economic status or reduce their oppression? (In related news, the UN this week released a report on global urban wealth inequality which warned that the US in particular may be facing rising social unrest and mortality due to race-based economic inequality.)
Democrats, Republicans, and others are mobilized after 8 years of the Bush/Cheney debacle and 30 years of neoliberal economic policies that have favored the already wealthy over the struggling lower classes, and ushered in a global economic crisis of profound proportion (while global populations are suffering, Exxon just reported record-breaking profits of $14.8 billion in the 3rd quarter of 2008). People are feeling inspired and coming out of the woodwork in unprecedented numbers to participate in politics. Some observers are predicting that up to 65% of the electorate may vote this year, a number which is usually unheard of in America. Because the half of the electorate that doesn’t vote are generally poorer and more likely to be ethnic minorities, the closer that number gets to 80% or 90% or 99% in the coming decades, the closer we will come to policies that serve everybody’s needs.
There are of course working poor women and men who vote for right-wing policies that are not in their economic interest but who are attached to other principles and ideas that appeal to them, like Jesus, aggressive posturing related to chauvinism and racism, guns, and/or making abortion illegal. Some people may not even have any particular reason for their allegiance except that voting for the GOP is simply what’s normal and socially accepted in their social network. Republican propaganda has been almost Orwellian in its genuis and their get-out-the-vote machine has worked wonders in recent elections, and the ugly, divisive politics and fear-mongering by the McCain-Palin camp reached both farcical and tragic levels at times this season. But the left really seems to have much more room for improvement in registering voters and the bottom line is that the more people that vote overall, the greater likelihood for progressive policymaking.
This does not mean that all these votes will necessarily get counted unfortunately. In 21st century America too many people are legally and illegally disenfranchised. Because of an archaic electoral college system winning the most votes overall does not guarantee victory, something which would seem to be basic to a democracy. Voter suppression tactics including misinformation, intimidation, and purges from voter rolls have been reported far and wide for too long. Systematic vote fraud, although hard to prove, is suspected by many. Electronic voting machines, which are widely used, are easily hackable and are full of problems and many do not provide any paper trail.
Despite so many reasons for cynicism, many young people and marginalized groups, angry and disappointed with the current administration’s blatant abuses of power and perpetration of injustice at home and abroad, have become more politicized than ever this election cycle and are unifying around a highly intelligent, seemingly genuine, empathic and thoughtful candidate with African roots and a compelling personal history, including an early passion for grassroots civil rights organizing with underprivileged and disenfranchised communities. Barack Obama, while he is not immune to the kind of narcissism all applicants for the job inherently possess, could make an exceptional American president due to the many positive features of his personality and his lifelong exposure to diverse human experience.
However, despite offering several very significant and concrete improvements over Bush, Obama’s policies as a whole should not be mistaken for a platform supporting social justice. The Democratic National Commitee’s attachments to corporate money, the Israel/Palestine status quo, and the military-industrial complex currently run too deep. Yet, an Obama Administration could potentially mean real progress in the direction towards social justice, possibly even significant progress. There is the open question of whether the Democrats can possibly win a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate in order to begin to undo and remake the immoral policies of the neoliberal and neoconservative era in a time of economic crisis. But the bigger question, in my opinion, and the most important factor in determining the potential of an Obama era, is how intensely and how consistently the American people actively demand social progress from their government once the election is over. Unless he surprises us with an unsolicited overhaul of his inner circle and a host of broken promises and flipped positions after being elected (e.g. third-party health care, Afghanistan surge, FISA telecom immunity, death penalty, ethanol as an alternative fuel, redistribution of $750 billion from Main Street to Wall Street), citizens are going to have to stand up and demand justice. The door looks like it could be open for substantial policy changes with an Obama victory, but how much we get depends on how much the American people decide to stay engaged with the political process.