The Democratic primary has been at the center of the American political climate lately. With Super Tuesday behind us and many more primaries to go, the focus on elections will surely increase. But, is this what democracy should be about? I argue no. The way in which we think about and interact with the American experiment of democracy is, I believe, critically flawed.
The media, to no one’s surprise, plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of democracy. I would argue, however, that it has been pushing unimportant, horse-race politics while avoiding the real issues. Taking the current Democratic primary as an example, the media focuses on who is up by one or two points in swing states instead of talking about what actual policies each candidate supports. It goes after sensational stories like demonizing and generalizing Bernie Sanders’ supporters as angry white men online as opposed to actually asking why Sanders has such strong support from young people. One shouldn’t be surprised that commentators bash anti-establishment actors and protect big money interests like the pharmaceutical industry, military industrial complex and multinational corporations. In the commercial break, one can watch nonstop ads paid for by those very interests the media is supposed to be gatekeeping.
I’d like to shift focus to our current conception about what democracy is in the American sense. A particularly important example can be found in the “Trump phenomenon.” A majority of the country disapproves of President Donald Trump, something I’m sure many liberals would agree with. However, many people think the problem begins and ends with the current administration. This is my contention. Trump is a symptom of true anger, fueled by distrust in our political institutions, rising health care, college costs and stagnant wages, among other things. It’s no wonder people jumped on the bandwagon to try anything other than another status quo neoliberal like Hillary Clinton in 2016. We need to recognize there are concrete and major problems with American democracy that require systemic change rather than a mere change in administration.
Another misconception often had about democracy is how to visualize it. Many see voting once every four years as proper democracy, and yet there are still those who don’t exercise their right to vote. Democracy is much more than simply that. Calling representatives, engaging in protests and actions and not asking for, but demanding change is how we should think of democracy. Furthermore, if the system doesn’t enact policy that the American people want, how can we call it democratic? An overwhelming majority of the country supports raising the minimum wage, single-payer health care, tuition-free college, legalizing marijuana and increased gun control. If the constituents want these policies, but the system consolidates power into an oligarchy that enacts none of these policies, and often the direct opposite, how can one call this a democracy?
The last misconception of democracy I’d like to discuss is the way many of us see the political spectrum. Most Americans think of a line with liberal at one end and conservative at the other, with the Democratic and Republican parties either side of the center, more or less. I believe that this reduction of such complex ideas misses all nuances in politics and shifts what would be the center far to the right. Instead, we should focus what we think of “left” and “right” around the idea of economic systems — various forms of socialism on the left and various forms of capitalism on the right. In addition, we should reflect on how conservative our current understanding of politics is. Bernie Sanders’ ideology, social democracy, is seen as “far left,” “socialist” or “communist” by media outlets and a significant portion of the country, when in actuality, Sanders is someone whom I would deem “center-right.” Why? He believes in the fundamentals of capitalism, markets and private ownership in a well-regulated welfare state. That is not a different economic system in the slightest. It’s a variation of capitalism. That is a very different understanding of what is politically “left” or “right” from what we currently believe it to be.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about the issues of American democracy, but what do we do about it? I believe we should embrace a broader definition of democracy, both political and economic. We must overhaul our political system, doing away with draconian undemocratic systems. The Senate is one example. Since every state gets two senators, no matter how large or small, we now live in a situation where 50 percent of our senators are elected by only 16 percent of the total population. That means, even in cases where 60, 70 or 80 percent of the country wants a policy, it can still be stopped by a small minority controlling grossly disproportionate power. This is not democratic and is contrary to the idea of “one person, one vote.”
Another reform that could be done is the abolition of the Electoral College. To say the candidate who won fewer votes wins, which is what the Electoral College has the power to do, is to deny the autonomy of the voters. If a conservative, with whom I would have gross disagreements about policy, wins the popular vote, who am I to deny the will of the people? I’d ask for the same standard to be applied when two of the past five elections were undemocratically denied by the Electoral College. Despite the will of the people being evident in the number of votes, the Electoral College has the power to do this simply because smaller states were awarded more votes per capita than larger states.
Another reform could include the removal of as much money in politics as possible. Through reforms such as public financing, one can take out the influence of big money interests that buy politicians through independent expenditures and campaign donations to super political action committees (PAC) that can accept unlimited sums of money and then advocate for a certain candidate over another. As long as big money interests can buy the political system, no systemic change can occur.
And speaking of big money: consider the absence of democratic values in the American businesses that decide how we live. Imagine the government told you what clothes to wear, what you could say, when to do an action, how to do it, what would be done with what you produced and what you got in return for your work. We would call this political system a dystopian nightmare — an Orwellian denial of the most basic liberties and rights we take for granted. Yet when a CEO or board of directors tells us the very same things, we call it a job. We say that’s the “real world,” and to go against it is to be “radical.” What I am getting at is a fundamental contradiction between great disdain for political totalitarianism and in the next breath, acceptance of a totalitarian workplace.
Democracy is something the vast majority of Americans may claim to support, but when we actually look at our economic and political system, how much do we actually live up to it? Surely, we can do better through broad overhauls of our entire political process. And when it comes to the economy, I believe George Orwell said it best in “1984”: “Doublethink” means “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Seth Gully is a sophomore triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.