In the slave-state of ancient Athens if you were an enfranchised free male (but not a woman, foreigner, or slave) and didn’t participate in the democratic process you were called an idiot. If you didn’t want to go to the Assembly where self-governing decisions were made by direct, simple majority vote, something like a sergeant-at-arms would come to the agora, the public square, with a rope freshly painted red and pull you, and other idiots like you, along until you agreed to do your democratic duty, your toga ruined and your sense of shame enflamed.
The history of Athenian democracy has made it clear that democracy is merely a form of government, not a divine formula for popular wisdom. The Athenian Assembly made some notoriously horrid decisions, chief among them voting to send a massive expeditionary force to Syracuse, in Sicily, in 415 BC, with three generals—one who wanted to invade, one who didn’t want to and one who was neutral, a perfect recipe for indecision and defeat. Athens lost a good part of its fleet and many thousands of men in the siege of Syracuse. One has to wonder what might have happened if all the inhabitants of Athens had been able to vote. Would stupidity have been thwarted by other perspectives?
Democracies work well only if everyone is enfranchised—most of us in America nominally are these day—and that they not only vote, but get deeply knowledgeable about issues, lobby hard for what they want, in person or through a myriad of indirect means, and come to understand the Constitution and work to protect and defend it.
American democracy is a zero sum process with one winner and lots of losers. We have to work hard to avoid the “tyranny of the majority” if we hope to prevail in the next election cycle. And everything depends on there being a next election.
A government-hating plutocratic, womanizing bully and self-serving rapacious merchant of greed like Donald Trump, accompanied by his extreme Republican lapdogs, has become the President of the United States fundamentally because our democracy is thin and flimsy, having been eaten away by corrosive influences over many decades.
Perhaps the most corrosive condition of all has been evolving since before the New Deal when the prophets and soldiers of capitalism behaved as if the Constitution was an obstacle and an enemy. Capitalism v. the Constitution is a ruinous conflict when it comes to defending the essential equations of American democracy: equal justice under law = liberty, and self-government = social health.
An excellent case of seeing the Constitution, and the government that arises from it, as the Enemy involves oil and gas corporations opposing federal regulations that limit the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that they can discharge into the atmosphere with their fracking technology. They oppose the regulations on the grounds of government interference in business.
But elected officials in the 1970s passed clean air and water laws precisely on the implicit understanding that “we the people” gave to the Constitution the charge to not only “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense,” but also to “promote the general Welfare, and ensure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity.” There can be no liberty if the “general welfare” has been sacrificed so some incredibly rich people can get even richer by constantly throwing the finger at us while raking in profits from under-regulated extraction processes that make our environment filthier by the minute
Even though the President (and his administration) have vowed to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” they baldly promote environmental and social policies that undermine the “general welfare.” And that is the corrosive byproduct of the conflict between the Captains of Capitalism and all the rest of us.
Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that private interests, and those with vast amounts of capital, can damage the “general welfare” in pursuit of their personal gain. There is not an Article in the Constitution on “business,” though there is a clause in Article I regulating international, interstate, and tribal commerce.
In the long run, protecting the general welfare is why the attorneys general of New Mexico and California, Hector Balderas and Xavier Becerra respectively, are suing the Trump administration for putting the breaks on applying regulations to slow methane emissions by requiring oil and gas companies to install new or updated equipment to keep methane from being a climate-change menace. In a separate action last week, a federal appeals court stopped the Environmental Protection Agency from delaying other methane-related regulations.
In seeing the Constitution as its enemy, the capitalist oligarchy that runs our country has created a false sense of uncertainty, or what I have come to call a sciencephobia, which says that the science of climate change is dicey and that hothouse gases, like methane, have not been proven to contribute to climate change, that the whole subject is a hoax to begin with, and therefore the general welfare is not threatened by their methane releases.
Oil and gas companies created sciencephobia with an acid of lies and propaganda that corrodes the democratic process and the power of the Constitution to protect the common good and general welfare of its citizens.
The acids of corrosion are so numerous and varied these days in American politics that our democracy has almost come to a standstill. Vast amounts of “dark money” flooding the election process with rancid, mind numbing negative advertising is like the coup de grâce and to top it off it’s matched by the most obnoxious fund raising tactics imaginable from “grassroots” “progressives.”
More acid seeps into our democracy from the extremist right and its long history of suppressing the vote by constantly alleging fraud and by shackling racial minorities, old people, and women, making the whole voting process purposely difficult and full of invented complications. And then there are the real cheaters, the gerrymandering shysters of the right in state legislatures around the country. They are like henchmen of the mob who lean on the roulette wheel of election chances to fix the spin.
And then we come to the immensely subtle and nuanced assault on the nature and necessity of politics itself, especially in a democratic system like ours designed to promote the general welfare and live by laws that are meant to guarantee that government operates by the “consent of the governed,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. Politics is about argument, persuasion, compromise, and adjustments. It is an extended form of what everyone in a “free society” does every day. Only the worst and most pathetic of us are screeching windbags with egos like spider webs and values fishy as rotten squid. But politics and politicians have become as disliked and mistrusted as journalism and journalists. It’s customary now, at this point in an essay, to declare oneself not a conspiracy theorist but it sure seems like a conspiracy to me to find that the governmental machinery protecting our freedoms and, at the same time, the watchdogs of those freedoms have both been actively and systematically attacked by those who consider freedom secondary to profits.
One might say the same thing about America’s horrendous system of compulsory education, one in which the subjects of government and the Constitution are so neglected that one can spend 12 years as a publicly funded student and graduate without a shred of Constitutional literacy. That’s perhaps the biggest reason our Constitution is corroded. It’s been so systematically neglected that generations of graduates know less and less about it to the point that the Constitution barely exists for them at all.
One of the worst corrosive agents is the acid that smells like a cloying perfume of self-righteousness coming from the dominant political parties, and even sometimes from the marginalized parties that would dearly love to, but cannot and probably never will, dethrone them, given our current system. Although the founders were afraid of what they called “factionalism” they did not mention political parties in the Constitution. And because they were afraid of “too much democracy,” as President Washington said, they created many “filters” to water down direct democracy, including a representative system and an Electoral College to select a president by the zero sum method of winner take all. Our founders did not create a parliamentary system in which a prime minister is chosen from the House of Commons composed of many parties able to create active coalitions. The founders wanted a more Roman form of government, one that reflected their detestation of kings and other authoritarians, a “mixed government” as Cicero called it, one in which executive power is checked by both legislative and judicial prerogatives.
A further corrosion comes from the often baffling and hidden nature of local politics across the country, with boards and commissions that often run vital services so hidden from public awareness that they amount to pockets of authoritarianism. But that’s for another column.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Barta IV)