The Men Behind Democracy’s Curtain
The idea of representational government—of the people, by the people—has long underpinned the world’s most visible democracies. This was never how they actually worked. We’ve mostly stopped pretending they do.
For much of my adult life, I have believed myself to be a well-informed citizen. Educated, well-read, well-traveled and generally open-minded, as a creative and curious person, I am given to vigorous discourse — not to win, but to help find the edges to any argument, in order to expand them, for all parties involved. It’s how I feed my growth.
I didn’t realize, until recently, that I have been utterly misguided about a fundamental tool of civilization: the one in which I was raised.
As a Canadian son— part of a reasonable nation with a democratically elected body that proclaims to value the wellbeing of its citizens, I have been a firm defender of democracy since I first understood it. I believed it to be the most inclusive form of governance in modern use, by which I refer to the notion that all citizens are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them representation in government—for the people, by the people. Democracy isn’t perfect; but it has, in the documents that enunciate its most cherished values, in the US—as elsewhere—most closely modeled the hopes and desires of the people who find themselves part of it, in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence makes clear that the foundational goal of the would-be nation was to throw off the yoke of tyranny. In it, Jefferson writes:
“To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
It is a beautiful passage. And after 33 amazing years spent in my adopted home, as an American citizen, I now believe the child has become like the father. The final sentence above, in bold letters, is how the United States itself operates today. It’s just that no one has yet risen to “throw off” our government.
The House of Cards Falls
Two things have happened. First, in 2016, American politicians and the public at large both removed the (metaphorical) masks of decorum they had been judiciously wearing, when the man they conspired to elect to represent American democracy, both at home and on the world stage, proved that they were no longer necessary. Everyone could be their true selves, without fear of societal repercussions that had hitherto hindered our more debase biological urges from surfacing, unchecked. Our true selves, it turns out, have no real interest in democracy, or the documents that birthed the United States of America. They contain bothersome impediments to the complete consolidation of power that has truly driven the nation’s business, for ages: the power to shape it in one’s image, and to leverage the economic might of an outrageously wealthy nation for personal gain, while taking care to settle up with those who helped us reach our goals.
You know—like every single autocracy, monarchy, dictatorship and military junta that has dominated civilized history, much as they still do today, for the majority of living humans.
Second, in 2020, a global pandemic attacked every human being on the planet. Like anything that ‘stress-tests’ our institutions, a microscopic, lethal pathogen showed all of ours to be straw houses. The things that kept us at a simmer — jobs, food, savings, homes, safety, trust, common ground, truth and our very lives — all came crashing down for an enormous swath of the American public, sending them scrambling to secure their own survival, in its wake. Normally, our politicians would palliate those losses with “thoughts and prayers”, and promises to take corrective action of some kind, to help us triumph. No longer. The elected leaders have stood by and watched the people burn, just as Emperor Nero did, before them — without pretending any longer to give a sh*t. If Americans were split before COVID-19, they live in different realities, by different rules, on different planets, today.
And the pockets keep deepening.
A Plan Comes Together
Democracy began as an idea, based on two north stars, in my view. Chief among these is the right to vote for a leader to represent your voice in government. It is followed closely by the relentless and exclusion-free application of due process that protects the legal rights of an individual, and at the same time demands that political and lay citizens alike obey the same rules that govern the land, as laid out in its articles.
In the past four years, the illusion that these two things are even loosely practiced in the United States has been dispelled. Voting has been especially hard-hit. Gerrymandering, which dates back to 1812, has made it increasingly unlikely for citizens’ votes to be counted representationally, by design. Ruling state legislators and governors, when representing the same party, have long used their power to redraw a voting district’s boundaries in advance of the decennial Census, to unfairly disadvantage the opposing party. In recent years, this strategy has been supercharged by technology’s precision and block-by-block insights. To no one’s surprise, Wikipedia openly states:
“In the lead-up to the 2010 United States elections, the Republican party initiated a program called REDMAP, the Redistricting Majority Project, which recognized that the party in control of state legislatures would have the ability to set their congressional and legislative district maps based on the pending 2010 United States Census in manner to assure that party’s control over the next ten years.”
No one even tried hiding this.
Legal challenges to gerrymandering are ultimately heard by… you got it, the Supreme Court. Thus, the ultimate control over elections is handled by the very entity whose bare-knuckled brawl just concluded this morning with the election of a judge whose elevation broke with 115 years of history — and the Republicans’ own past public assertions — when it essentially delivered a Supreme Court-adjudicated election result to the party that now controls it.
They’ve already tipped their hats in this direction, in advance of next week’s election. In a New York Times article just yesterday, writer Adam Liptak reported:
“At least nine times since April, the Supreme Court has issued rulings in election disputes… which addressed matters as consequential as absentee voting during the pandemic in Alabama, South Carolina and Texas, and the potential disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions in Florida.” He writes, “Most of the orders, issued on what scholars call the court’s “shadow docket”, did not bother to supply even a whisper of reasoning.”
Harvard law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos reacted:
“If courts don’t have to defend their decisions, then they’re just acts of will, or power. They’re not even pretending to be legal decisions.”
Back in 2000, judge Frank Easterbrook wrote, “Explainining is what distinguishes judges from politicians.”
Today’s SCOTUS can’t be bothered with such distractions as explaining its actions. It has cases to decide, before Nov. 3.
Before this election cycle, it had never done these things so close to an election. Now, the SCOTUS, the pols who greased it and the dark money that drives both are on a mission—appearances be damned.
Judge Barrett’s confirmation late last evening — two weeks earlier than publicly announced — assures that not only will she sit on a lopsided, partisan court, to hear and adjudicate immediate disputes in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as the New York Times reported separately, this morning; but most ominously, perhaps, to adjudicate “a potential challenge to the election results that the president has cited as a reason he needed a full complement of justices before Nov. 3.”
Again, no mask. Not even the pretense of fairness, at play.
It’s a bald-faced power grab.
Meaning, as gerrymandered as the nation’s voting districts are; as surreptitiously influenced as it is, by Russia and Iran, among other outside parties with ‘interest’; as funded as it is, by super-donors wielding limitless so-called “dark money”, as Senator Shelton Whitehouse so clearly outlined during his BRILLIANT grilling of Judge Barrett, aired on Fox News on Oct 13, whereby he traced the dark money to the super-rich that select judges — including those destined for the Supreme Court — and subsequently instruct the ruling political body what to do, and when, then reward its ‘agents’ handsomely for their efforts; and as cowed, silenced, and discounted as the votes of the working poor, the absentees, the former felons and the mail-in voters will all be, this election cycle, in record numbers; the election for the President of the United States will not be fair, insofar as it is no longer representational of the people.
To say it again: the election for the President of the United States will not be fair, insofar as it is no longer representational of the people.
And if it’s not representational of the people, it is no longer a democracy.
The Ruling Class
Dēmos — the common people, and one half of the Ancient Greek word for democracy — have finally been openly relegated to a back seat, in the US. But here’s the thing. They were already there. The only difference is that now that no one is required to wear a (figurative) mask any longer, no one needs to pretend that the common people — the ones that elected them to represent their interests, in government— drive their agendas. Instead, the elected body can focus their efforts on consolidating power and reaping the spoils, without distraction. This presidency has shown that the code of conduct and the Laws of the land no longer apply to those with enough political and societal clout to buy their way out of them. From non-divestment of financial interests, to blackmailing allies, to firing dissenters, to sowing unrest, to withholding one’s history, to rejecting subpoenas, to allowing foreign agents to interfere with our sovereignty, and countless other ‘firsts’, as reported by The Atlantic, and others, our leader has shown us the way to do it right.
My concern isn’t about winning; nor is it about Republican vs. Democratic policies. If one party wins fairly, so be it! That’s what democracy is supposed to do. It’s not even money, or power, per se. My concern is about precedent. It’s about what is tolerated and modeled as acceptable behaviors, in the world’s most visible democracy. It is about the very nature of what democracy is.
So the idea of not only being above the law, but directly shaping it, in undemocratic ways, is troublesome. And it is the domain of the true elite.
True elitism isn’t the result of a quality education, or a particular philosophy. Elitism is moneyed influence. It takes the form of access — to such pedestrian things as better doctors, financial advisors, lawyers, products and co-conspirators. The outcomes of moneyed influence are better health; better wealth; better legal outcomes; and better advice. The more money you have, the better the outcomes are in each of these spheres. No surprise there. We all knew that. But beyond these things, elitism also takes the pernicious form of influence. That is, with enough money, you can buy people — politicians, as much as anything else — to enact laws that benefit your wealth, and policies that amplify it.
Dark money rules the United States of America: in the military; in public safety; in health; in food; and obviously, in commerce. But it also plays out in the highest courts in the land—the ones that are, in effect, above the Law, because they are the Law.
If you want to do a deep dive into the facts that undergird this phenomenon, I truly encourage you to watch all 28 minutes of Governor Whitehouse’s speech on Capitol Hill. You will learn several things about how the United States truly works, from an insider with access to all of the data that we, as plebes, never see; one who had the patience to explain it to the viewing public on Fox, while pretending to show it to Judge Barrett, who sat facing the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Whitehouse sits.
So while this reality was true long before 2016, Trump’s lack of interest in pretense — beyond embellishing his image — meant that the official gloves were taken off. Accordingly, the rest of the pols, not to mention the citizens who had publicly shown a kinder, gentler face to their communities for so many years, until now, have collectively breathed a giant sigh of relief, and have doffed their masks and their tepid smiles, and said, “F*ck it! Time to stop pretending to be what we never were.”
And the people lost the illusion of civility.
I am no longer confused about what truly drives the United States’ official business anymore, as much as I held out hope that it wasn’t so. Nor am I confused about the embodied duplicity in its elected body, who hold up the nation’s founding documents as the cardinal drivers of fairness in one hand, while setting fire to them with the other, and the super-rich shove wads of compensatory cash in their pockets, in the shadows.
“Athenian democracy took the form of a direct democracy, and it had two distinguishing features: the random selection of ordinary citizens to fill the few existing government administrative and judicial offices, and a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens. All eligible citizens were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state,” according to Wikipedia.
Even then, it was imperfect. Women, slaves, the under-20’s and foreigners couldn’t participate. So as long as you were male, 20-plus, and a free Athenian, democracy worked, for a spell.
Not so of its descendants. Back in the 1700’s, French judge Montesquieu — the man who pioneered the separation of powers as we know them today, and influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States, deeply — wrote of democracy:
“If a republic be small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection.”
It was in response to this notion — that a nation could destroy itself, if left unchecked — that the United States instituted a system of checks and balances to safeguard its fledgling government.
Well, 245 years is a long time to come up with workarounds. And today, a confluence of forces—an American Narcissus for president, the contortion or rejection of laws, the dark money that drives political agendas, and a powerful virus that conspired to unveil us—have revealed what they’ve been doing, all this time.
The state of American politics today is the best evidence that I’ve seen to suggest that for all its theoretical benefits — that of one person, one voice, represented in the business of the nation — democracy is just another failed system, much as socialism and communism before them were, once they were tested in real places, full of real people. The larger the democracy, the faster it breaks from the inside, as Montesquieu warned us. The smaller democracies — those of Scandinavia, giant-but-empty Canada, and far-flung islands in the South Pacific, all of which are collectively of little interest to global political scrutiny, for the most part — have time left, before they, too, follow their bullish neighbor into the muck.
To each his or her own arc.
By contrast, autocracies don’t pretend to burden themselves with due process, or an open vote. They openly consolidate power, like the American Elite do in the shadows, then act. What matters most in autocracies, we have seen, isn’t what form of government rulers leverage while in power. What matters most is what they do for — or to — those whose lives are shaped by their decisions. And there are many flavors of benevolent dictatorship to choose from.
In the tragic case America, today, a good self-preservation tactic would be to accept the Republican way for what it is—a benevolent autocracy—and secure one’s place and prosperity within its well-built boundaries, lest we be left outside and on the wrong side of the Law.
True democratic rule, as elucidated in America’s most cherished documents, is an illusion; power trumps ideologies, every time.
We can no longer afford to be fooled by Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful, if misleading, rhetoric.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
The Wizard is dead! Long live the wizard!