Free and fair competitive elections, that represent the will of the people, are a fundamental requirement for a modern democracy. Since the 17th century, representative democracy has been characterized by the conduct of elections among the public to choose a person for public office. And slowly but surely more and more excluded groups have become members of the voting public thanks to progressive movements of universal suffrage. However, the case of electioneering today in the two largest democratic countries – India and USA – raises the question whether elections have become the fundamental sickness, the cancer, of democracies?
Alexander Fraser Tytler, (1747 – 1813), Scottish advocate and Professor of History, and Greek and Roman Antiquities at the University of Edinburgh, dismissed the more optimistic vision of democracy by commentators such as Montesquieu, and representative democracies such as republics in particular, as “nothing better than an Utopian theory, a splendid chimera, descriptive of a state of society that never did, and never could exist; a republic not of men, but of angels.” Speaking about the measure of freedom enjoyed by the people in a republic or democracy, Tytler wrote:
“The people flatter themselves that they have the sovereign power. These are, in fact, words without meaning. It is true they elected governors; but how are these elections brought about? In every instance of election by the mass of a people—through the influence of those governors themselves, and by means the most opposite to a free and disinterested choice, by the basest corruption and bribery. But those governors once selected, where is the boasted freedom of the people? They must submit to their rule and control, with the same abandonment of their natural liberty, the freedom of their will, and the command of their actions, as if they were under the rule of a monarch.”
In India, voters are paid to vote for specific parties; bribed with booze bottles and TV sets by contesting candidates from every political party. In South Korea, in recent elections (April 2016), elderly men were allegedly given erectile dysfunction drugs to buy their votes in legislative elections. The incident happened just 30 kilometers south of the capital city Seoul, in a place called Suwon. Prosecutors launched an investigation to investigate how the candidate was able to procure so many pills as these erectile dysfunction drugs are a prescription medication in South Korea. Election time is spending time – alcohol, cigarettes, sex pills and TV sets… whatever gets the audience in an agreeable mood.
Candidates contesting elections are only interested in how much money they can pocket after getting into office; after all every investment looks for a handsome return. And though some in USA may frown on this as being dirtily Third Worldish or Asian; and experts from the Economist Intelligence Unit may call countries such as India a flawed democracy - the situation in the US is not very different.
Corruption by any other name should still smell as foul. Candidates in USA take huge sums of money from lobby groups to campaign; and vested interests of the corporate lobby groups become paramount for the politician voted in office rather than the interests of the people. Now this has angered many people in the USA as that country experiences a decidedly anti-establishment turn in its 2016 presidential campaign; and this anger towards the establishment even threatens to fracture one of the two large political parties.
However, there is a deeper divide within the larger voting public of the United States. Although the supporters of some of the right wing candidates such as Trump or Ted Cruz feel that attacking the establishment will solve the woes of the political system and that is enough. Their assumption is that the political and economic system of the US is inherently great – the best – and that it works; it is just these corrupt and selfish politicians in Washington who are the problem. In order to make America great again all we have to do is replace them with someone who understand s the inherent greatness of America and is not a Washington-insider.
On the other hand many young educated voters think that merely attacking the political system is necessary but not sufficient. These young people want an overhaul of the economic system and therefore support Sanders, a so-called left-leaning candidate. These young people make the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with an economic system that promotes inequality. However, the candidate, who is leading the races, seems to be addressing or at least attempting to show her concern for the larger problem of “racism” that has plagued America since its birth.
Democracy in America is at the crossroads – politically, economically and socially. Yet, it continues to go about its democratic process with the business-as-usual attitude.
In India, it i the same – voters continue to accept bribes during elections, and then express a strong feeling against corruption after the elections. There seems to be a predictable cycle to the occurrence of anti-corruption or other anger-laden movements. One can almost predict the next round of protests, which also systematically fizzle out. Politicians take stances as per their reading of the public mood; they think that their job is to simply make speeches and let the people hear what the people want.
Instead of addressing the systems of politics, economy and society – politicians hire marketing and public relations posers as advisers, pay them huge amounts of probably public money, to solicit their so-called advice in getting to know what people want and engage in image-makeovers to appease the public. Isn’t it strange that in a democracy, a politician who is supposed to have risen from the masses, needs a marketing and polling team to understand what people want? isn’t that enough evidence to show how far removed this process is from the grassroots.
Wasn’t a democracy supposed to be the place where a simple farmer or a shoe salesman in some remote village in the interior could rise up to become the leader of a nation through sheer hard work, contact with the masses, having a deep understanding of people’s needs, and balancing it with the various forces at play. But, ultimately listening to the public rather than just giving speeches and staying in election mode throughout their tenure. Democracy was all about opportunity – what the masses did not have in monarchy and feudalism. But the era we inhabit seems to exhibit greater inequality than before. The elites, who do not use the term monarchs, have much more money and technological power at their disposal. More dangerously they have managers and lawyers. educated in the best institutions, the sharpest minds of the world to protect them from the rule of law and expand their wealth. The Panama Papers to me is more a case of how financial managers and accountants have flouted and bent the rules to suit their wealthy masters. It is a case of the human mind educated and used for the wrong purposes.
People, in their desperation, continue to either support one party or the other, even though one, two or all parties are useless when it comes to governance. People in democracies are caught in this bind that they have to make a choice; if they do not make a choice the system and their way of life will crumble.
Recent reports estimated that nearly 90,000 million Indian Rupees or approximately US$1.5 billion will be spent to buy votes in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where state legislature elections are scheduled for mid-2016. It is said that almost 60% of the electorate will get cash or gifts to the tune of $50 each. Now $50 per vote; that does not seem like a large amount of money; but when added together it is a huge sum; almost 1% of the GDP of Tamil Nadu, which in in 2014-15 was US$150 billion. Public health expenditure in India, in general, is at or less than 1% of the GDP.
The report says some form of bribing of voters started from the 1990s or even earlier, but many experts says that the 2006, 2011, and 2014 elections saw a huge increase. The larger question is: How do these candidates get the money to pay out such huge amounts to voters and how will they ensure recover? The voter taking the money is also not ignorant of the fact that the winning candidate will use corrupt means to recover the money invested in the election. The obvious answer is the winning candidate will engage in many corruption scams when he or she gets into power. A clear example of how corruption has seeped into the heart and sinews of the democratic process – the election itself. In fact, a recent newspaper article reported on how the incumbent Chief Minister interviewed candidates personally for this election and the one question asked of everyone was whether they had money to participate in elections. This is institutionalized corruption starting with the election process.
USA, a developed country, is no different. An article in The Economist wrote that the total cost of the 2012 elections in the USA, including congressional races, topped 7 billion US dollars; of which, 2 billion dollars were spent in the 2012 Presidential contest alone. A report in www.thehill.com estimates that the 2016 presidential election will cost as much as $5 billion, and top fundraisers and election-experts are already predicting it will more than double the 2012 campaign’s price tag.
The election system itself is flawed; and this flaw is most apparent in exemplar of all democracy in the world – the United States. Whenever we see elections covered in the news channels, what we find is this familiar map of red and blue states as per their geographic size. It creates this comfortable feeling that each state is represented and weighted proportionate to its size.
However, www.npr.org (graphics credited to Adam Cole) used data from the 2008 Presidential election to create a morphed graphic or image of the United States which clearly demonstrates that in US presidential elections state size does not matter. Electoral votes are more important and just looking at the US through this lens distorts the importance and relative size of the states. when they are re-scaled or re-sized based on electoral votes. The map of the US morphs into some other shape altogether when campaign ad-spending by state is factored in.
As the short animated film below demonstrates aptly, the United States that matter to the electioneers and campaigners who want to win elections is very different from the US that we are familiar with and see in the usual maps. Right from the start of the election process, how the candidate and the entire lobbies backing her / him views you, if you are in an unimportant state, is very different from how they would view those in so-called “swing” states that are more important for winning elections. The idea of equality dies the moment an election is announced. Wasn’t it the Declaration of Independence that stated “All men are created equal.”
The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence says:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Where is that equality for all gone? If Martin Luther King (MLK) were alive today, would he stand up and say – I have dream or would he be having nightmares instead?
When billions of dollars are spent on election campaigns, obviously lobby groups and vested interests are at play. When, at the end of the elections, the victorious candidate flashes the traditional 2 finger V for victory sign, he or she is very obviously showing the index finger which says: “You are my Number One” to the corporation or financial backer that funded the campaign and the middle finger to the people. There is no need for analysis here. The problems that will be solved in the next four or five years are the problems faced by the lobbying corporation, not by the majority of voters.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a U.S. constitutional law case, deals with the regulation of campaign spending by organizations. The United States Supreme Court held (5–4) that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation, and also extended these privileges to for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations. A second controversial ruling, SpeechNow.org v. FEC, by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals a few months later, held that there should be no limits whatever on the contributions to groups making such expenditures. (The term Citizens United has come to refer to both cases.)
Allowing unlimited election spending by individuals and corporations, the Citizens United decision exposes US elections to money, from corporations and wealthy individuals, in a much greater manner than ever before. The Citizens United decision also paved the way for creation of Super PACs (political action committees), a concrete example of the how big money influences the conduct of elections. And all of this in the backdrop of a time when there is far greater economic inequality in the world than ever before. The Oxfam report, An Economy for the 1%, shows that the 62 richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population. The wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent. This has occurred despite the global population increasing by around 400 million people during that period. Meanwhile, the wealth of the richest 62 has increased by more than a trillion dollars.
Of course, people are angry, whether they are from the right or the left. Most people today would agree with the statement that they have no say about what the government does or that they cannot control the large corporations from controlling their elected leaders. So the people who enjoy establishment-bashing support Trump, while those who want to bash Wall Street and crony capitalism support Sanders. The leaders speak exactly what their followers want to hear. None of them have a systematic plan in place to solve the country’s illnesses and no voter has demanded a systematic plan from them. They candidates keep talking, the people applaud or jeer, and the circus goes on.
Just as many of us mistake a wedding for a marriage, we mistake the elections for a real democracy. It is not just about holding free or fair elections every few years, democracy is larger than that. It is about representing the people, giving a voice to the people, it is about getting people to participate in the process of government. However, when democracy is misunderstood as simply winning elections, then it leaves no space for true democratic leadership. Because the elected representative believes she is merely is a representative of the people, she has no compulsion or obligation to show the people the right path. The politicians says whatever he can in order to please and get the votes. The politician becomes the follower of the fickle polls rather than leader who shows the path; a bad salesman rather than visionary leader.
If you talk to the democracy cheer-leaders, many will cite numerous examples to show the democracy is working today; that far more countries are democratic than ever before and they even cite the rise of Mr. Trump, a non-establishment person as an indicator of the vitality of democracy.
It is important to re-consider the work of French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), who studied and wrote about American democracy, and found that aristocratic elites had been replaced by democratic elites. These new elites obtain power through appeals to the masses; and retain power by appealing to the masses.
More than elites what Tocqueville was afraid of was the unfastening or unhinging of restraints required to keep a liberal democracy based on majority rule in working condition. The people who win through majority rule tend to stifle dissent in almost despotic manner, considering their popular mandate as license for crushing anything that goes against their chosen path. Blaming majority rule as a chief factor in stifling thinking, Tocqueville wrote: “The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it, not that he stands in fear of an inquisition, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness in every day persecution. A career in politics is closed to him for he has offended the only power that holds the keys.”
Tocqueville argued that a serious problem in political life was not that people were too strong, but that people were too weak and felt powerless; the danger is that people felt swept up in something that they could not control. The new elites, produced by today’s democratic election processes, pander to the public, the lowest element. The leader instead of leading, showing the way, decides to follow the people. Distributing booze or $50 to the public is one example; telling the people that a wall will be built on the border and people from another country will be punished is another example. This kind of pandering by so-called leaders has a degrading effect on ethics, morality and society in general. When truth becomes irrelevant; and what the masses feel is most important, there is a tendency on the part of elite leaders to become amoral.
After all, the leaders in a populist democracy have to follow the people. This amorality is often the surest path to depravity and corruption. Tocqueville saw mass conformity to public opinion as a problem for democracy. John Lukacs (born 1924), Hungarian-born American historian and self-described reactionary, who has written more than thirty books, sees democracy as degenerating into nationalist populism in the US. The central tenet of populism is that democracy should reflect the pure and undiluted will of the people. This means that any leader, liberal or right wing, can use it; although politicians often use the terms populist and populism as pejoratives against their opponents. Such a view sees populism as merely using rhetoric or unrealistic proposals in order to increase mass appeal and garner more votes.
Lukacs, a self described reactionary on the lines of Churchill (and that should say a lot about his leaning), however makes some solid points against the current version of democracy. The prevalence of politics by poll and publicity in the West has led politicians away from true leadership and become more concerned with what “the people” want. It is thought processes and psychology that are important in a mass democracy and Lukacs writes: “our concern must be with how people think, how they choose to think, including how they are influenced or impressed to think and speak.” Lukacs has also been highly concerned with the role of television in manipulating the public through the subtle distortion of words and speech. As optics and talking points become important there is little genuine debate, and no space or any platform at all for dissenting voices.
Jose Ortega y Gasset (picture above) was a Spanish liberal philosopher whose body of work was produced in the first half of the 20th century, a time when Spain oscillated between monarchy, republicanism, and dictatorship. In his 1932 work Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset discusses the rise of the “mass-man” in social and political life. This mass-man is a cognitively primitive man; who takes it for granted that civilization is “just there” and has no appreciation for the intricate processes that are required in order to maintain it. Mass-man uses all the products of modern civilization, but does not appreciate nor respect the superior intelligence and effort by the individuals who are responsible for their development. Content in his own mediocrity, mass-man feels it unnecessary to strive toward excellence. Like a spoiled child mass-man feels compelled to impose his will on everyone.
Benjamin Barber terms this as infantilism – in his book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole. Barber finds that consumer culture has turned adult citizens into children by catering to the lowest common denominator and that the market has conditioned us toward convenience, taking the easy things, and rejecting anything that requires hard work, persistence or is even slightly complex.
Most interpretations of Ortega’s book claim that there is inherent elitism and anti-democratic bias in his writing and even some contempt for mass-man. Ortega y Gasset is certainly elitist, however, he glorifies the elites who invest in society and contribute to it, not those who cling to power for its own sake and justify their hold by clinging to the past. Ortega points to liberal democracy as the ideal form of government, when in fact it is quite contradictory because any democracy is the rule of the will of the people and therefore likely to give more power to the mass-man. Ortega writes:
“The political doctrine which has represented the loftiest endeavor towards common life is liberal democracy. It carries to the extreme the determination to have consideration for one’s neighbor and is the prototype of ‘indirect action.’ Liberalism is that principle of political rights, according to which the public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room in the State over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does; that is to say as do the stronger, the majority. Liberalism is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded on the planet.”
Lukacs finds this democracy at risk due to gaps in free flow of useful information. The press no longer performs its function and role of assimilating and reflecting the political views of the public. As with other media, the press focuses on entertainment, which is packaged as news but are actually a mutant infotainment. Crap in-Crap out – the vacuous media create a public that is force fed emotionally powerful images that are useless for informed decision-making. Philosophy and history are removed from public discourse and replaced with political sloganeering taking the life out of liberal democracy.
Lukacs is concerned with the manipulation of public opinion; and often compares contemporary democracy to that of Nazi Germany, where demagogic populists seized power, took control of the media and brainwashed their way through subsequent elections. Modern history shows a steady increase in popular sovereignty, in the power of public opinion and in the appeal of aggressive nationalism, which tends to control that opinion given a chance—with the aid of mass media.
In that assertion, conservative Lukacs’ concerns with manipulation of the public resonate with the views from the left of the spectrum such as those reflected in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media; and the work of Australian social psychologist, Alexander Carey, who brought the history of corporate propaganda to public attention. Labeled by journalist John Pilger “a second Orwell in his prophesies,” Carey pioneered the study of corporate propaganda published in 1995 in a collection of his essays under the title, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty.
Is our democracy, today, a victim of propaganda? And aren’t elections the best time to do that?
The political process of problem solving does not work anymore
For most people, democracy is the system by which every four or five years depending on our country we walk into a booth and stamp a piece of paper or punch an electronic machine and magically elect our leaders. These leaders are then bound by the morality of democracy to solve our problems. Of course there is no legal diktat that forces them to solve problems, but that is the expectation. That is the promise on which they are elected, that they will change things in our favor and make our lives better. It is assumed based on their speeches prior to the elections (including the primaries in USA) that they have actually heard us, have understood the common person’s woes and complaints, and will address it during their term. And every four years we find these elected representatives letting us down. They break their promises and never live up to our expectations. In that sense, democracy has been consistently failing us over the past century. However, the show goes on.
Elections are held again and a new set of so called leaders now make promises to change. And nothing much ever changes. In fact it becomes worse. The problem seems to arise because human and social problems are expected to be solved through policy measures and reasoned problem solving methods. However, the elected representatives are elected through a political process. There is a split between the methods of policy and that of politics. The means of policy formulation is analysis whereas the end of politics is to ensure that those who have funded the election campaign are rewarded through the process of politics.
Today’s politics demands minimal or zero analysis because the ends are already known. If an oil company, a financial conglomerate, or an automobile manufacturing corporation has funded the election campaign in a long drawn out political process then at the end of the term this oil or financial or car company has to come out the winner. Politics is based on assessing the opponent’s moves and lining up options such that one can checkmate the opponent. Policy analysis, which is based on root causes analysis. is about understanding the cause or causes of problems and then lining up solutions or alternatives that most effectively and efficiently address those causes.
No politician running for office in this system of elections can afford to care about the causes of the problems faced by the people; it is the problem faced by the lobby groups that funded the election that becomes more important. More importantly the lobby groups also provide the solution to the politician for solving the problems they face – pas this bill which will ensure that our lobby group makes a huge amount of money, our return on the investment we made in your election campaign. Thus, the winning candidate has to simply manage the consequences of implementing those options provided by the corporate or other lobby group. Before the elections the candidate makes promises, tells people exactly what they want to hear and after winning the election, the candidate makes excuses for inaction, blames the other parties and candidates.
Public policy is based on the rational, more deliberative part of the brain, while election campaigns as Mr Trump as shown are base don appeals to the primitive reptilian brain that reacts without thinking and responds to fear.
Democracy, based on equality for all men, which is supposed to empower the disenfranchised, give voice to the voiceless, and liberate is form the shackles of ignorance and despotism, has achieved the opposite. And all this thanks to the process of elections and electioneering which is considered the litmus test and essence of a democracy.
The following comment by Alexander Fraser Tytler (although the same has also been occasionally attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville) has given us a list of phrases commonly known as the “Tytler Cycle” or the “Fatal Sequence” (From bondage.. to …back into bondage):
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: “From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.”
The people are confused. Are they free or are they still in bondage? They perceive something as wrong but do not quite know what it is exactly. They blame the political party, the politician, the economic system. They rarely even consider the notion that something might be wrong with the processes of democracy. Now it would be heresy to think that.
While homo economicus, in his consumerist avatar, may face no existential problems today, homo politicus seems to be in the throes of an existential dilemma. The left and the right keep fighting with each other without any meaningful dialog. The left and its supporters subscribe to this notion of un-ending progress, a future where all sorts of hierarchies are eliminated while the right looks to the mythic past and the fundamentalist right will die to uphold tradition. Both engage in dreaming – the right has a nostalgic yearning for the past and the left for a more equal future. And both engage in bickering, the right and left constantly fight with each other, almost eternally one can say, instead of coming to a resolution to this peculiar problem of democracy – how to make it work like it was supposed to.
“So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture- chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red- hot pokers. Hell is— other people!” ―Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
Jean-Paul Sartre, who tried to refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, wrote No Exit (Huis Closs). Published in 1943, this play has three characters who are dead and their punishment is being locked in one room for eternity. The source of Sartre’s famous (mis)quotation “Hell is other people”, this play captures Sartre’s philosophical ideas about the constant ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object in the world of another consciousness. This play sought to put forth the existential idea that man is an absolutely autonomous individual, determined by his own will alone, for whom his consequent separation from others facilitates liberty and free choice.
However, these ideas of liberty and free choice are difficult to put in practice as we also live in a society of other beings – human, animals, trees and the planet. We have responsibility to others and therefore the concept of free choice, whether in a mall or in a voting booth, come into direct conflict with the fact that our actions have to account for the fact that we are responsible for others.
Homo politicus and homo economicus have to contend with the fact that we are also homo socialis and now, more than ever, homo ecologicus.
Chinese leader Zhou En Lai was probably closer to the truth of democracy. When asked for his assessment of the role of the French revolution of 1789 in promoting modern democracy, Zhou had wryly commented: “It is too early to say.” And though some have said that Zhou never meant this or his comment was not about the 1789 revolution, elections today in so-called full or flawed democracies are clear reflections of the failure of this hallowed institution of our modern times.
Is this the only kind of democracy that can be successful? The kind that panders to the lowest common thought possible, the kind that brings out the worst in human beings. Can human beings rise in the way they think of their lives and this planet? Will this kind of base thinking help us fight the problems of climate change or even corruption that almost everyone seems to hate? Are we as a human society condemned to be manipulated by elites – aristocratic or democratic? So, have elections, conjured as the cure to feudal lords and monarchs whose control the people wanted to escape, become the poison of today’s democracy? Or does the problems of democracy lie elsewhere?
Jose Ortega y Gasset, mentioned earlier, proposed that philosophy must focus on the only truthful reality —the life of each individual or “my life.” Ortega y Gasset captures the essence of his philosophy in the famous line (in Spanish): “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (which means “I am I and my circumstance”). Ortega finds the two to be intertwined: There is no ‘me’ or ‘I’ without things, and things are nothing without me. Therefore the I or the human being cannot be removed from “my circumstance” (the world).
According to Ortega y Gasset, it is the bounden duty of philosophy to attack our existing beliefs because only this will promote new ideas that will help us understand reality. In order to investigate the essential reality of the universe and of life, philosophers have to discard prejudices and previously existing beliefs.
Take Ortega y Gassett’s maxim and apply it to today’s world. I, the homo politicus, am intertwined in the circumstances of elections and democracy. But what is the truthful reality of this democracy? What has democracy become? And what have I (the human being) become in the bargain? Democracy is a lofty idea, but does it only go to prove that humans are good at dreaming up ideas and terrible at implementing them. When we think, we think freely. And when we do, we are bound by our baseness and selfishness.
© The Essayist, 2016
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