“America is just the country that shows how all the written guarantees in the world for freedom are no protection against tyranny and oppression of the worst kind. There the politician has come to be looked upon as the very scum of society. The peoples of the world are becoming profoundly dissatisfied and are not appeased by the promise of the social-democrats to patch up the State into a new engine of oppression.” – Peter Kropotkin
The United States is one of the freest countries in the world, in terms of the rights of individuals. And this freedom did not come without long, brutal struggles.
The 1960’s, a period often derided as being the days of hippies and drug addicts, was a time in which many of the long struggles for basic human rights came to a head: The civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, battles for labor rights, and so on.
Students, minorities, and women began to disobey the powerful, militaristic state with the hopes of realizing some of the ideals that American elites give lip-service to, but rarely act upon.
Through these inspiring struggles, rights were won; rights which, on paper, remain in place today.
However, reversions to authoritarian measures have slipped through the cracks.
There are countless recent examples that show how democratic forms are not enough to ensure true democracy, in the sense that the people have any meaningful say in the political process.
Take the so-called “War on Drugs, a “war” which was, we were told, waged to end the abuse of harmful substances.
In reality, it has been used as a means of social control of mostly minorities and the poor.
Ridiculous sentencing laws and the fact that having a criminal record can hinder one’s ability to vote has created a situation in which a significant portion of the population can no longer participate in the political process, often because they happened to be walking down the street with a joint in their pocket.
And, of course, the “War on Drugs,” has not eradicated the abuse of harmful drugs, but has made the problem worse, as could have been predicted at the time the war was waged.
Drug addicts need treatment, education, a strong community of support, and opportunities, not jail time.
Also out of the “War on Drugs” have sprung private prisons, which profit from more and more citizens living in a cell, and this has culminated in the U.S. having the highest prison population in the world.
And then there is the militarization of the police, which confirms that there is in fact a serious war being waged, and it’s largely against the domestic population.
Here’s the brilliant Michele Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, on the drug war and the current system of mass incarceration:
People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior.
But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.
Then there is the other major war, first declared in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan, then re-declared in the post-9/11 era: the “War on Terror.”
Much like the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Terror” has been used to justify means of social control by the state through mass spying and data collection of American citizens unsuspected of wrongdoing.
It has also justified today’s massively escalated drone program and interventions in the affairs of other countries against the will of the population.
And, again drawing the parallel to the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Terror” has not reduced the level of terrorism, it has made the problem worse.
Instead of using it to take rational steps toward reducing the threat of terrorism (at home and abroad), U.S. elites have used the “War on Terror” to justify the forceful reduction of democracy at home, and the destruction of an entire country, Iraq — which culminated in the rise of ISIS — abroad.
Both of these wars are used to justify attacks on basic freedoms of the population — and therefore on democracy itself — which are shrouded in fear-mongering and high-minded rhetoric.
Then, there is the somewhat less explicit but incredibly damaging problem of money in politics.
Sure, the “ordinary” citizen can vote, but the billionaires have monopolized the act of exercising political power with their checkbooks. And, of course, it’s legal. We are offered an illusion of choice, but it is, more often than not, one pro-business candidate versus another.
Add this to the rapid rise of income inequality, which is incredibly damaging both to the population and to the economy, and you have a country in which the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ has turned into ‘one dollar, one vote’, as the concentration of wealth leads almost inevitably to the concentration of political power.
In other words, the United States is moving toward what would be described, in an honest press, as an oligarchy.
A study done by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page of Princeton University confirms this move, finding that the rich more often than not get their way:
When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.
Further, Page and Gilens offer support for the claim that democratic forms are not enough for a society to be truly democratic:
Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
Then, finally, we come to the profound — and shockingly explicit — show of disdain for democracy from political elites and the business class throughout the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
While protests surge on the streets of major countries involved in the “trade deal,” our leaders ensure us that the deal great for everyone: great for improving working conditions, environmental standards, and so on.
The problem is: you can’t read it.
If it were true that the deal was great for the masses of the population, political elites and the massive corporations involved in the negotiations would be itching to reveal its contents to the public. However, they know that if they release the contents, the people won’t like it, so they use their power to ignore democracy and ram the deal through Congress.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz comments:
One of the reasons you should know [the TPP] is important is that they’ve tried to get it passed without anyone knowing about it…And that should make you suspicious. [The bill’s backers] always say … they’re going to create jobs. If that were really true, you’d expect the unions that represent the workers [affected by the bill] to be all in favor of it.
And, unfortunately, there are countless other examples of the decline of democracy in the United States: ranging from lack of healthcare access and the rising costs of education which are preventing future generations from progressing, to the attack on unions and the working class, which leads to workers working longer hours for lower pay and fewer benefits, and on into infinity.
So, sure, America is one of the freest countries in the world in terms of individual rights under the law, or what Kropotkin called “written guarantees…for freedom,” but it is also profoundly undemocratic in many ways, particularly when compared to other industrialized nations.
Similarly, the United States can claim that it is the richest country in the world, but the concentration of wealth makes the economic situation for many seem a far-cry from rich and prosperous.
But this is due to lapses in personal responsibility, we are told; indeed, we are fed all explanations outside of those which claim that the system created by big business, with the help of “our” elected officials, is inherently unfair.
A glimmer of hope: Despite the fact that we are rarely told by politicians and the corporate media that the economic system is inherently unfair, a significant percentage of the population believes that it is. In this sense, the propaganda has failed, at least to some extent.
Where the propaganda has not failed is where it encourages people to stay out of the affairs of government, to be mindless consumers more focused on entertainment than information, more focused on reality television than seeking the truth about what is going on behind the scenes in Washington.
And due to this “democratic deficit,” as it is often called, people are dying.
Future generations are put at risk because business — again, in partnership with elected officials — refuse to take substantive action on climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the two most pressing issues facing us today, both of which threaten the survival of the species.
So we may have democratic forms, but this fact can in many ways contribute to the “democratic deficit.”
By providing the public with an illusion of choice, and by assuring them that their opinion matters when it doesn’t, they are coaxed into passivity and obedience, even when this passivity and obedience directly contributes to suffering felt across the globe. “Hey,” we are told, “you can still vote, so we still live in a democracy!”
But The American Dream, as many used to know it, has essentially disappeared. In the words of the late, great comedian George Carlin, it’s called the American Dream because “you have to be asleep to believe it.”