Shocking New York Times Revelation: Democracy Requires A Level Playing Field

“Managing Freedom”

Among the many unpleasant aspects of the American Empire, few are more disturbing than the way it reflects and reinforces many Americans’ dangerous and self-satisfied indifference, ignorance, and/or denial as to the nature of their own society and history.  For an excellent example, see a recent commentary in the New York Times.  The thought-piece in question, written by Times writer David Rhode for the paper’s reflective “Week in Review” section, bears the interesting title “Managing Freedom in Iraq – America Brings Democracy: Censor Now, Vote Later” (June 22, 2003, Section 4, page 1).

The basic Bush-sympathetic premise of this thought piece is that the United States faces a dangerous and difficult conundrum in its effort to export democracy to Iraq.  “The United States isn’t,” Rhode notes, “perceived as a cultivator of democracy” in Iraq (imagine!).  “It is seen,” rather, “as a military occupier that supports democracy and free speech when they serve its interests, but suppresses them when they don’t.”  This skeptical Iraqi perspective is reinforced, Rhode acknowledges, by American officials’ recent decisions to cancel key elections and censor political groups seen as embracing resistance to the US occupation.  “At first glance,” Rhode notes, “even some Americans saw both moves as, well, anti-American.”

“But,” Rhode argues, America’s “decisions here in Iraq are not easy.  Is instant democracy,” he asks, “the right thing, for example, when the contestants aren’t standing on a level playing field and many of them don’t even know the rules?  Some argue,” Rhode notes with approval, “that holding a vote now would favor a handful of groups in Iraq – well-organized religious fundamentalists, politically sophisticated exile groups and anyone with cash to burn.  The voice of the average Iraqi would be lost…”

Rhode respectfully relates the American defense of censorship in Iraq: “as a liberator and now occupier, the United States has the right to defend its interests …particularly in light of the rising number of attacks against American officials.”

To further support his argument that American officials are right to suspend “Iraqi freedom,” finally, Rhode notes examples of “recent post-conflict elections gone wrong,” particularly citing the Bosnian elections that “returned nationalists to office instead of the moderates favored by American officials.”

Degraded Democracy

There is much to criticize in this commentary from a genuinely democratic perspective. We can start by noting the preposterous nature of the assumption that democracy can be exported through the barrel of an imperial gun, imposed by a rich and powerful global state on a weak and impoverished nation.  We might add that Nazi Germany also claimed to the right to defend its interests by censoring those who dared to resist its supposedly liberating armies of occupation.
Also noteworthy is Rhode’s bad assumption that US policymakers seek to implant substantive democracy and free speech in Iraq or anywhere else.  As is evident from the record of the last century, most dramatically in Central America, US policymakers have  long supported democracy overseas only on the condition that democracy work to serve leading private (corporate) US interests and perceived US geopolitical ambitions.  Since the popular majority in foreign countries is rarely aligned with those interests and ambitions, such democracy has never been a US priority. 

To be sure, “developing” nations are often encouraged by the US to engage in elections.  But, contrary to Rhode’s knee-jerk identification of elections with “democracy,” the elections the US promotes are of a specific and limited kind.  They amount to an exercise in pseudo-popular selection of representatives from among a safe and small circle of privileged elites unlikely to challenge US interests.  The real name for this US-favored version of “democracy” is “polyarchy, “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to leadership choice carefully managed by competing elites. The polyarchic concept of democracy,” notes sociologist William I. Robinson, “is an effective arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within and between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively than authoritarian solutions” (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy – Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 385).

As Chomsky has explained, the “doctrinal meaning of democracy” in the hands of U.S. intellectual and policy elites is very different from its real or dictionary meaning – one-person, one vote and equal policymaking influence for all persons regardless of wealth (among other characteristics).  The “doctrinal” version “refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites” and ” the public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants’ …They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters – like public policy – that are none of their business. If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that’s not democracy. Rather it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads – at home by more subtle and indirect means.”

One of the rules of polyarchy is that the dominant hierarchical system of socioeconomic management is an unfit subject for public discussion, deliberation, and reform. By limiting the focus of “democracy” to “political contestation among elites through procedurally free elections,” Robinson points out, polyarchy makes “the question of who controls the material and cultural resources of society” essentially “extraneous to the discussion of democracy.” 

The problem here is that that question is far from “extraneous” to the functioning of democracy. The unequal distribution and concentration of wealth and other material and cultural resources has a crippling influence on “one-person, one vote,” conferring wildly disproportionate political influence on those fortunate to possess an inordinate share of such resources.

Democracy’s Devaluation Begins At Home

Which brings us back to the United States and to Rhode’s single worst assumption – that the US has a democracy worthy of export. By Rhode’s democratic criteria – a “level playing field,” with an equal chance for political and policy influence for all “ordinary citizens” and no disproportionate influence for those with “cash to burn”  – elections should be suspended in the United States, where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and possesses vastly greater capacity to fund campaigns and win policies tailored to its interests than the non-affluent majority. That top hundredth makes more than 80 percent of campaign contributions above $200 in the US, helping contribute to America’s reputation as the “best democracy that money can buy,” and generating truly remarkable levels of voter disengagement and political apathy in the US. 

Thanks in part to the massive media-driven costs of American campaigns, the candidates who win the race for private dollars tend to win elections in the great preponderance of cases.   Candidates serious about winning are beholden to wealthy corporate donors, who possess massive stashes of political cash they seek not to “burn” but to use as a profitable investment in the policy process. 

This media- and money-addicted perversion of democracy is deeply enabled by the Supreme Court’s notorious plutocratic ruling that money equals speech.  In the Buckley v. Valeo (1976) decision, the high court determined that campaign expenditure limits violate candidates’ free speech rights.  It ignored the basic fact that vast private wealth invested in the political process tends to drown out the positive free speech rights (including the right to actually be heard) of candidates and parties that do not have access to vast private fortunes.

Thanks to this and a host of other and related factors – campaign finance is only one of many ways the wealthy few dominate American politics and policy – it is absurdly difficult for people who might dare to speak against concentrated wealth to win elections or even get a meaningful hearing in the halls of public opinion.  Such candidates are censored by the nature of the nation’s political system, as American elections are becoming little more than a recurrent celebration of big capital’s permanent dictatorship. The democratic ideal is widely understood by Americans to have been negated by the harsh realities of “dollar democracy” and the “golden rule” (“those who have the gold rule”). “As the United States approaches the 2000 presidential race,” the idiosyncratic columnist William Pfaff noted three years ago,  “the fact must be faced that America has become a plutocracy, rather than a democracy.”

Meanwhile, activists and intellectuals trying to spark resistance to these dark facts of American political life struggle to get their message through a communications system in which a handful of giant corporations control more than 50 percent of the country’s electronic and print media. Beneath the ongoing debate over whether the “mainstream” American media is predominantly liberal or conservative, the spectrum of acceptable debate within the American “mainstream” (really corporate-state) media is remarkably narrow at the end of the day.  This reflects not so much the much-debated political predisposition of reporters and editors as a simple, powerful fact of political-economic reality: the stupendous, ever rising concentration of mass media ownership into few and fewer giant, global, profit-driven corporate hands.  Also worth mentioning is the reliance of these firms on corporate advertisers, “whose sole concern,” notes the prolific left media critic Robert McChesney, “is access to targeted markets” among affluent Americans.  Those Americans do not generally wish to hear or read about the difficulties of the great majority on the wrong side of the American System at home and abroad.

The American media are turned into “anti-democratic forces in society.” Reflecting also their key and multiple connections to public authorities and agencies, they are easily used for the cause of manipulating public opinion in support of authoritarian domestic and global purposes – a task of special significance in a nation that possesses a strong democratic tradition.

The owners and managers of this media have no interest in giving meaningful coverage or commentary space to the limits of American “democracy.”  They profit enormously from the corporate-plutocratic/polyarchic homeland reality.    Government censorship of this media is essentially unnecessary, thanks to the latter’s underlying embedded-ness within the overall framework of socioeconomic inequity of concentrated power.  

The Consequences of Dollar Democracy

The policy and related dark socioeconomic consequences of this degraded homeland democracy are all too evident in the age of the imperial boy-King George W. Bush, who’s been in political heaven since Nine-Eleven. Under the rule of America’s oxymoronically labeled “capitalist democracy,” the wealthiest nation in history supposedly lacks the money to properly fund education for all of its children.  It lacks the resources to provide universal health coverage, leaving more than 42 million Americans without basic medical insurance. It can’t properly match unemployment benefits to the growing numbers out of work, victims of a “jobless recovery.”  It lacks the funds to provide affordable child-care, housing and prescription drugs for those on the bottom of its steep socioeconomic hierarchies.   It lacks the money to provide meaningful rehabilitation and reentry services for its many millions of very disproportionately black prisoners and ex-prisoners, marked for life with a criminal record. It lacks money to provide adequate job-training benefits and family cash assistance grants for inner city and rural poor, to protect consumers and the environment and to shield minorities from discrimination in crucial labor and real estate markets.  It lacks money for publicly financed elections and free television time for candidates, both necessary to counter the corrosive impact of private wealth and massive, related socioeconomic inequity on American “democracy.” 

It can somehow afford to spend trillions on Fat Cat Tax Cuts that reward those who are least in need in the false name of “economic stimulus.”  It can spend more on the military than all of its possible enemy (“evildoer”) states combined many times over, providing massive subsidy to the high-tech corporate sector, including billions on weapons and “defense” systems that bear no meaningful relations to any real threat faced by the American people.  It can afford to incarcerate a greater share of its population than any nation in history and to spend hundreds of millions each year on various forms of corporate welfare and routine public subsidies to not-so “private” industry.  American government can somehow afford hundreds of billions and perhaps more than a trillion dollars for an openly imperialist invasion and occupation of a devastated nation that poses minimal risk to the US and its own neighbors.   It is weak and cash strapped when it comes to social democracy for the people but its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to meeting the needs of wealth and empire. 

An Appeal to the International Community

After all this, it seems like overkill to remind Rhode that the US has its own glaring recent example of a horribly corrupt “election [presidential, no less] gone wrong,” and that imperial boy King George owes part of his success to the disproportionate political influence of “well-organized religious fundamentalists” (the Christian right) and even some “politically sophisticated exile groups” (Castro-haters in Florida). 

Whatever the social and political forces that favored Bush in 2000, it is clear from Rhode’s commentary that something must be done to permit real democracy and freedom in America.  To begin, Americans should appeal to the international community for a liberating military intervention and occupation of our damaged homeland.  The time period of the intervention requested will be indeterminate but it is expected that foreign troops would not leave the US until social, economic, and communications conditions have been established to level the political playing field and establish adequate voice for ordinary Americans.

Paul Street is the author of “Capitalism and Democracy ‘Don’t Mix Very Well’: Reflections on Globalization,” Z Magazine (February 2000): 20-24.

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