Saeed al-Mutafiq, who lives in Dubai, was asked by the Washington Post about the benevolent dictatorship that exists in his city state, and the possibilities afforded by a more democratic system. "Democracy", he said, "is a means, not an end. It's a system, a process, a tool. What is the end? ...a world-class healthcare system, a world-class education system, a job for everyone willing and able, the rule of law, civil rights, and liberties."
This is a reasonable comment. "Democracy", however you define it, is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for the improvement of the lives of the people. To work it has to be fair and its outcomes seen to benefit the whole community, or it ceases to be a democracy.
So what is the purpose of democracy in the United States? Some of the founders were ambivalent about it from the beginning. They may have rebelled against a king and an aristocracy, but even without the issue of slavery, the inclinations of some tended towards rule by an enlightened landed gentry. That idea did not survive industrialization and the Civil War. But voting rights were extended to American women only in 1920, after the following countries had done likewise for their women: New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania and the United Kingdom. Even so, democracy applied to the whole country only once African Americans could vote freely and without fear. Thus, the high tide mark of democracy in America was the period between Roosevelt's New Deal and President Johnson's extension of civil rights to the black community. Both Presidents met fierce opposition from a Republican Party whose attachment to the democratic process was more rhetorical than practical. Opposition to the democratic process resulted in the Southern states turning their backs on the Democrats and supporting the Republicans. Much as they deny smouldering racism, what the Republican party says and what it does about democracy are two different things. This has been convincingly shown recently by the gerrymandering of the Texas House seats by De Lay, by the efforts of the Georgia and Floridian Republicans to discourage black voting, and by the Administration's behaviour towards the poor and disposed of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Thus, democracy in American has been a tender plant, as it is in every so-called democracy in the world. Relentless propaganda, starting at an early age, has persuaded a conforming public that America is the champion and outstanding exponent of democracy, a light of the world, a beacon for the oppressed. The reality, messy though it is, is somewhat different.
The fragility of democratic government is well illustrated by what has happened to the democratic process since the incumbency of George Bush. Bush first came to power as a result of a judicial coup, and stayed in power by creating a convenient war and scare tactics about terrorism. The United States is not and should no longer be called a democracy after the first six years of ideological Republican rule. Arguably it has been moving towards oligarchy for at least a decade (and since the couldn't-care-less baby-boomers came to power). The dirty little secret is that the oligarchy is fully-fledged, controlled by a tiny number of very rich people and large corporations, a "conspiracy of mediocrity". (1)
Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income at the 90th percentile of the income distribution in the US rose only 1% per year. Between 1980 and 2004 the wages of the average worker, further down the scale actually fell slightly, after accounting for inflation, and so did the wages of half the working population who earned less than the typical, or median employee. The people who made the money are in the 99th percentile and above. The 99.9th percentile saw a rise during the same period of 497%. This is not healthy.(2)
Congress has been fixed on behalf of incumbents, taxes reduced for the super-rich, and every attention paid to the demands of big corporations , usually at the expense of the taxpayer and hard-working American citizen. The corrupt and damaging policies of the Bush Incompetency are well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that he and his accomplices are trying to undo the democratic advances of the 20th century and revert to an imagined 19th Century paradigm, where (they dream) civil rights were minimal, oversight perfunctory, and where they and their friends can get ever richer without the inconvenience of paying any tax towards the administration and infrastructure of the country.
The point of democracy should be that it serves all the people all the time, not simply a coterie of greedy and selfish multi-millionaires. Too many people confuse patriotism with nationalism. What we have now is a nationalist government, abetted by a docile press, that seeks to stay in power by banging on the big base drum (spelling deliberate). We need a new start with a governing party that is patriotic. That is, it seeks the common good of the whole community. We need a government that is open and does not daily classify more and more areas of government activities as secret. We need a patriotic government that respects the laws as passed by Congress and does not unilaterally decide what laws it will or will not obey. We need a government that does not lie as it sends its young men and women to their deaths. We need a new and honest way of electing our national politicians, and we need a new breed of journalists, who try to uncover the truth, not bury it.
Since the oligarchs, through their puppets - - Bush, Cheney, et al - - have declared unpatriotic war on the ordinary people of America, we must take back our country once and for all and stop rich people buying elections and contributing massive amounts of money to undermine the will of the people. The super-rich must be invited to contribute their fair share towards the government, the legal system, the roads, railways, healthcare and pensions of ordinary honest Americans.
It is hard to sustain a democracy. Few have managed it.
So what is the purpose of democracy? As Saeed al-Mutafiq says: "a world-class healthcare system, a world-class education system, a job for everyone willing and able, the rule of law, civil rights, and liberties". But it is more. It is a feeling that your voice can be heard; that it is worth taking part in the political life of the country; that the economic system is fair; that there is a just balance between the needs of business and the individual; that the Government stands as a reliable umpire between competing interests; and that the checks and balances actually work.
Long live government for the whole community! And may it be restored.
(1) From The Dark Frontier, by Eric Ambler
(2) From Paul Krugman's article in the New York Times of February 27th, 2006