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June 19, 2013

Democracy: An American illusion

by Arthur Scott

 When you ask Americans what their key value or belief is the word you hear most frequent is “democracy”/ “democratic”. This response when you listen close represents a learned cultural response, one heard or taught, but not based on knowledge or thought. It reflects an ignorance of American history, power, sociology, class and politics.

Even going back to the founding days of 1776, it can hardly be described as a democratic society. The revolution was orchestrated by a powerful minority of northern commercial and southern plantation families who had concluded that they had out grown their political/economic relationship with England and could do much better alone. They drew heavily upon the thinking of the Eighteenth Century Philosophy of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on human rights: “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”. These “rights” however were not universal, but limited to one percenters of the time who were WASP (white Anglo –Saxon Protestants). It excluded Blacks, Native Americans, women and the poor.

The Constitution of 1787 can hardly be described as “democratic”. Madison a Federalist, who was a major voice in crafting it, and in creating a new governmental structure, described the system as a “republic” and not a democracy. In a Republic, power is exercised indirectly by the people through their electorates or their representatives so as to maintain the dominance of the rich and powerful in managing the affairs of state. In 1789, House members were chosen by a small electorate of property holders. Senators would be chosen by state legislatures until 1913. Washington, the first President, was appointed by his electoral peers and not by the will of the people. Property, along with being white, male, and educated, was the overriding litmus test to be in government and enjoying the benefits of popular sovereignty. Only 4% of the white male population itself or 160,000 persons out of a population of 4 million could choose delegates to state ratifications conventions.

Popular sovereignty was limited even further by checks and balances and separation of powers that were the dual principles upon which the Constitution was written. These principles were directed at keeping the people confused and weak while simultaneously enhancing the ability of wealth to manipulate and control government as they alone knew how the structure was oiled being its designers. The Republican system was not created to promote accessibility or transparency but the exact opposite: misdirection and complexity making it difficult to ascertain accountability. In time these principles were ritualized through term limits, office qualifications, veto and different constituencies making it even more difficult or cumbersome for the ninety –nine percent to challenge the advantages of privilege and wealth in the country.

The property bias of the Constitution, as evidence by Article I, gave Congress the power to levy taxes over the entire population, not simply the wealthy, as well as to regulate commerce, money and property which greatly benefitted the rich: bankers, land developers, and shippers. Having national control over currency and credit, communications and transpiration was pivotal to industrial power and to the elite agenda. In many ways the industrial growth of American was built on the backs of the poor and on today’s anxious middle class. Article I created a national army essential to protect the wealthy from grass roots uprising of the people like Daniels Shay’s or to hold in check what is labeled today as class warfare. This article, too, anticipated the creation of a national/global army that would militarize America leading it to be controlled a powerful military-industrial complex.

The inherent inequality of the document was particularly egregious around Africans in which racism prevailed. The Conservative delegates attempted to hid their racial hypocrisy through ingenuous tricks of language as appears in Article IV, Section 2 which declares: “No Person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due.”

To create the “Union of the Wealthy” the affluent delegates agreed to sacrifice “equality” for “property” by institutionalizing slavery as reflected by the fugitive slave law and by reducing Black males to 3/5’s of a man thus giving the south some advantage in the popular count which determined the number of national representatives to be elected to the US Congress. Even the North, especially the New England state of Rhode Island, benefited from slavery by becoming a significant player in the lucrative slave trade as it was one of the major carriers of slaves over the Middle Passage.

In conclusion this pattern in which wealth, money and property, a plutocracy, dominates the socio- economic and political agenda can be described as a systematic part of the American political landscape going back to the “Birth of the Nation.”  Given such an institutionalize class bias it makes it difficult to level the playing field between the ninety-nine and the one percenters as the structure of government whether at the federal or state or local level is  rigged against the very “people”  it proclaims to serve. It is this “constitutional inequality ”that represents the true history of America in which Blacks, women, gays , labor, Latinos, Muslims and others have so valiantly struggled in transforming and correcting. The current controversy over intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency and the use of Drones represents a classical example by which property, national security trump due process, and individual liberties. As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

For further discussion/readings on this critical topic I recommend Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution; Howard Zinn, A People’s History Of The United States ; Monica Youn, Money, Politics and The Constitution; Bill Moyers , In Search of the Constitution/ PBS Version.

 Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies