Our American democracy is under direct threat, for the first time in American history. There have been many indirect threats, mainly in the form of government overstepping its limits, but this is the first time when the progressive development of democracy from the founding days until now has been the subject of an attempt to over throw its functioning (there might have been many smaller attempts, but, this time, it is taking place on the national level.
What is that threat?
First, certain Republicans and a lot of the tea pot people have endorsed the idea of doing away with the 17th amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment allows for the direct election of US senators from the various states. Until this amendment took force, senators were appointed to office by state legislatures. (The first election with direct voting for senators took place not quite 100 years ago, in 1914, a time when many grand parents of people alive today were alive then, to put it in perspective.) Among those endorsing this idea is Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a man who at this moment is considering a run for the Republican nomination for president. What now makes him and other people so bold that they would propose rolling back the hard gained rights of American citizenship?
The other major effort to lessen the impact of democracy is in the “budget proposals” of Congressman Ryan if Wisconsin. He and others would have the rules of Congress changed so that it would take a 2/3s majority vote to change future taxes. How do you get a 2/3s majority for anything in a nation with 50 different states and many ethic backgrounds, outlooks, etc? The answer is that you don’t. Democracy would cease to function most of the time. No taxes could be changed. If the public decided they wanted to do so, it would require the entire nation making up its mind at once and then translating that desire into votes for members of Congress. In other words, it would never likely happen.
Where would the country be if these two anti-democratic measures were put into place? Hard to say, but the best guess is we would become a secondary nation in our standing and role around the world. We might even become like Mexico, where a very, very thin slice at the top has everything and the rest of the population has next to nothing. The 2/3s requirement would mean the national government would lose its ability to change tax laws. We’d be like California, stuck.
As for pushing the senate back to pre-1914, some facts should be understood: the senate is at this time an anti-democratic organization. It is intended that way. In the US senate, cows in Montana have many more votes than people in the larger states. Every state gets two senators, and that includes Alaska, which has, overall, not that many more people than Washington, DC, which has no senators at all.
The idea of granting “equal” standing to all of the states was to give the smaller states more of a role in the union. Without that anti-democratic measure, we might not have a nation. The Senate also acts as a break on what are called “popular passions”. A new House of Representatives can be sent to Washington every two years. To change the entire Senate would take a six year election cycle (1/3 run for election every two years).
Would it be a good idea to take an anti-democratic legislative institution and make it more anti-democratic? This is what Perry and others are pushing. This idea, more than likely, is designed to appeal to the extreme elements in the Republican party, but it is a threat to democracy that cannot be taken as a joke. The absolutionist elements of the tea pot groups and the Republicans are deadly serious about staging a kind of counter-revolution in America. They are not fooling around.
There is a lot of money behind the anti-democracy movement and that money is the third leg of the current threat. Depending on which estimates one wants to accept, between 300 and 500 million dollars was spent during the last election cycle to undermine Democrats and discredit Obama. That’s a lot of money. This money was in addition to that spent on actual election contests. It was spent by outside groups, not the candidates themselves.
It would be difficult to find any other period in American history where so much money was being spent to try to influence and control elections. The rise of the tea party groups owes a great deal to this spending: it fertilized the soil for absolutist candidates to get elected to Congress and other offices, including governorships.
The purpose of this massive spending is clear: to overwhelm democracy with money in the form of advertising, mainly negative ads. The money spent in 2009 and ‘10 also included a list of ‘dirty tricks” designed to drive Democrats from office. (There are indications that Con. Anthony Weiner was subjected to these kinds of tactics, too.)
What all of this means is that our democracy is in trouble and could be taken away in steps if we don’t pay attention. This is not some mysterious, back room campaign. It is being conducted right out in the open. Only in recent times, however, have presidential candidates dared to speak about any effort to take away our democratic rights. The campaign has gone public, in the most obvious way.
It can be argued that America’s wealthy class and mega-coporations have always been at war with democracy. “The will of the people” often threatens their interests in direct ways. Paying more taxes for social programs means less money for the wealthy, obviously. We have evolved a wealthy class in America to whom 10 or 20 million in the bank is only a start. 100 million and up, enough to support a private jet, own four or five luxury houses and ensure that several generations down the line also live the lux style is the goal. A billion would be even nicer.
Everyone wants to get what they want and need in life, but the wealthy, and the corporate, have the money to bend democracy to their will. In previous times, the idea was to defeat democracy, to take the lassitude and, face it, the ignorance of the public and turn them toward the needs of the wealthy classes. Now, the aim is not merely the defeat of democracy, but to dismantle it and break it into pieces so it can’t be put back together again. This is new and startling and, as a specific, political goal, is getting ZERO attention in major media outlets. (One reason is that reporters and editors are taught, in civics book fashion, to consider everything they see in moderate, terms. Another is that political reporters are still following the “horse race” narrative of elections: who’s up, who’s down?)
The TerryReport will have more on the background on the progressive development of our democracy and the tenuous nature of that system at the start of our nation in the next commentary.
Doug Terry, 7.5.11