This ‘Democracy Thing’ Is Waaaaaaay Harder Than It Looks

We Americans have it in our heads that we are what “democracy” looks like. Democracy has news for us: no, we’re not.

If the bottommost line there is in what sets democracies apart from other forms of government is voting — by the total number of citizens legally qualified to vote — then, historically, America has shown poorly. According to Pew Research, as of 2016, Americans were toward the bottom of the list where participation in elections is concerned. Americans used to vote in very high numbers (as a percentage). Eighty percent of eligible voters voted in the 1836 election (the first post-Andrew Jackson one where his hand-picked successor and veep Martin Van Buren pulled out a victory over the (at that point) nascent Whig Party. Until 1900, at least 70% of eligible Americans voted in every presidential election and at least 60% of us voted in off year elections. And then, a great slide begins.

I’m making a guess here. A drop off in American interest in our democracy happening right as America becomes a world power (heading into World War I) occurs at the exact same time as the Ku Klux Klan is growing in popularity? It sure sounds like a big piece of the American electorate is staying home instead of voting. We know exactly “why” those newly empowered Americans chose not to use their new power as citizens. Racism has always been at the heart of voter suppression and Republican gerrymandering. One doesn’t have to say “Democratic voter suppression” to differentiate it from Republican voter suppression because (while Democrats have been guilty of gerrymandering to gain an advantage), Democrats have never tried to suppress Republican voters. It’s simply not how any (contemporary) Democratic voter thinks; in fact, it’s entirely antithetical to what makes a Democrat a Democrat. Democrats are entirely confident in the superiority of their ideas over anything any Republican is selling. This is why modern Democrats believe in elections.

On the chart below, that’s evidenced by the presidential elections of 1932 and 1936. Franklin Roosevelt first won election as POTUS in ’32 — as the Great Depression was settling in. In ’36, FDR holds steady as the intensely progressive New Deal produces results that put Americans back to work. Then the war happens and the Greatest Generation pulls together — as the data points show. Voting lulls as the war drags on, falls off considerably after the war ends but then bounces back in 1952 because who doesn’t “like Ike”? Actually, Adlai Stevenson (the Democrat who Eisenhower defeated twice) would have been an amazing president; America has issues with smart people however. America boomed in the 1950’s. We became the engine for the world’s economy (with a tax rate that had the richest paying considerably more than they pay now (even if no one ever actually paid 91% of their earnings above $200,000).

See that sudden uptick at the end of the data set? That’s 2016. The upward trend continued. over 168 million Americans voted in election 2020. Sure, more Trump voters voted, but way, waaaaaay more Democratic voters voted, too. That trend started (to our news media’s surprise) in election 2018 when the Democratically inclined began to realize the very real existential threat Trump posed to America.

Turns out Joni Mitchell was right in her song Big Yellow Taxi: “Oh, it always seems to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. America’s voters saw the Republican Party actively trying to take away their rights (to vote, to have an abortion, to breathe clean air) and responded in the only way they could: by showing up to vote the Republican bastards out. Ah, but Republicans don’t play by rules.

While America’s founders did fear someone power mad like Donald Trump would run for office, it didn’t occur to them that such a candidate’s power madness would be stroked by his political party. Then again, America’s founders didn’t count on there being political parties in America. Shit happens, ya know?

Organized human civilization began roughly eight thousand years ago — when we transitioned from being nomadic hunter-gatherers into farmers. Agriculture demands staying in one place in order to benefit from it. But, because this stationary place with its organized food production can feed more people than wandering in search of food can, villages and then towns and cities eventually grew nearby. And, once those human collectives became bigger than an extended tribe, as historian Yuval Harari points out in his brilliant book Sapiens, humans had no choice but to invent “governing”. At its core, government is simply an organizing principle by which large groups of humans can live together without killing each other. Who governs and who’s governed. That’s the bottommost line there is.

From eight thousand years ago until 1776, with a few exceptions, humans relied on the “divine right of kings” to govern how we governed. We got it into our heads that some of us were really and truly chosen by the divine to lead (and have most of the money). This is pure bamboozlement. No one’s blood is any better than anyone else’s. No tribe’s blood is superior. The only thing about which some humans can claim any sort of superiority is the pathogens lurking inside them. White Europeans were vectors for some extremely lethal pathogens — smallpox, bubonic plaguechickenpoxcholerathe common colddiphtheriainfluenzamalariameaslesscarlet feversexually transmitted diseases (with the possible exception of syphilis), typhoidtyphustuberculosis (although a form of this infection existed in South America prior to contact), and pertussis. Syphilis was the one pathogen Native Americans sent over to Europe. Europeans were especially driven by the divine right of kings because they tied their kings to their Christian faith.

But, the American experiment intrigued the Europeans. After all, we were simply the lab for an idea that the French Enlightenment had been kicking around. The idea of human beings governing themselves instead of being governed by “superiors” was radical. The big mistake the European men who founded America’s democratic government was in writing “All men are created equal” while meaning 1) only WHITE, Christian, land-owning men and 2) by meaning ONLY men. America is a fantastic idea as yet unrealized.

And that is because democracy is hard. Or, as Winston Churchill put it, “the worst form of government except for all the others”. It’s just how it is; democracy is the best of a really bad lot.

That’s WHY actually pulling off democracy is so challenging. Living in an authoritarian shithole, you can take life for granted: it’s going to suck and there’s nothing you can do about it except follow the rules, keep your nose clean and pray they never come for you. Democracy, by contrast, is a contact sport. It demands active engagement with it if it’s to work as designed. I like Australia’s approach (Australia’s participation rate is 91.89%!). Come election day in Australia, no one has to actually vote, but everyone must show up at their polling location. By law they have to show willingness to participate even if none of the candidates meet their needs.

Americans used to understand that freedom wasn’t “free”. Every one of its awesome benefits comes with a challenging obligation: you have to show up. For some people, apparently, even just that is a bridge too far.

Look At It From The GOP’s Point Of View — You’d Cheat Too If All You Had To Sell In The Marketplace Of Ideas Was A Turd

To compete in a democracy, you have to sell your idea of how we should self-govern better than the other guy is. It helps a lot if your ideas are empirically better, too. That’s the case with the Democrats. Their ideas indicate that, unlike Republicans, Democrats still care about democracy. They still care about governing the best way they can so that more Americans can benefit from being American and living in America. Republicans do not want to live in a representative democracy any more. A lot of them never did care for this form of government, being royalists and authoritarians at heart. In theory anyway, Democracy is easy: each person above the age of 18 (though perhaps we should make it 16 for a thousand good reasons) get one vote. Come election day, they show up at the polls and cast their vote however they like. Period. End of story. No one’s vote is better than anyone else’s vote. They all carry equal weight. At least, that’s how it should be. But, from a Republican’s point of view, that means that a Black person’s vote has equal weight to their vote which means all hell has broken loose because, to a Republican, a Black person shouldn’t be voting in the first place.

Donald Trump keeps saying the quiet stuff out loud. For instance: “If everybody voted, Republicans would never win another election!” Want to know why Republicans will never enthuse over expanded voting rights? To them, that’d be like enthusing over your own extinction. The Republican voting base is not going to grow beyond angry white men and the women who cling to them. If Republicans really wanted to talk to people outside their base, they’d have to change their act completely. Just as well they don’t.

Republicans and republicanism favor profits over people. Progressives, by contrast, favor people over profits. We’ll leave money on the table and not beat ourselves up over it. Republicans, by contrast, can’t help being pigs at a trough, snarfing down everything they can get into their mouths. From a Republican perspective, actual human beings are the cash out in a business proposition. Every penny spent on a human or some human benefit is a penny less profit. And, if profit’s the name of the game…

What do conservatives really want to conserve? I know what Progressives want to progress toward — the future. I know Progressives want the best possible opportunities for the most possible people because that will renew and re-energize our politics and our culture. Conservatives don’t want to conserve the future, of course, because it doesn’t exist yet; in fact, conservatives want to avoid the future if at all possible. Instead, conservatives want to conserve all of the past that’s still locked into the present. If they could have their way, they’d take America back to the past — back to, what’s to them, a “Golden Age For White People”. Well, for white, Christian men and the women they’ve bamboozled into servicing them.

The reason conservatives don’t want to raise the federal minimum wage above $7.25? Frankly, if there was a way to bring back slavery, they’d do it. Slavery, after all, is stolen labor. Slaves don’t get paid for their work. The cost to house, clothe and feed them is the cost of a slave. So long as the slave’s work product is worth more than what it costs to keep them? Slavery’s profitable from the slaver’s point of view. Paying people the federal minimum wage keeps them permanently poor. No one can afford to pay any sort of decent rent if they work one minimum wage job for eight hours a day. They can barely afford to feed, clothe and transport themselves from wherever they’re bedding down to the minimum wage hell hole where they work.

As with 2020, the Republican Party has given up on selling ideas or policies. They simply sell hatred of the other now. Vote for the GOP because you hate people who don’t look like you.

As political advertising goes, that might get your base all fired up, but there aren’t enough boys in the bund to make this brand of Republicans anything other than a fringe regional party catering to the fringiest elements of Red America. After Merrick Garland gets through trying all the insurrectionists and then gets through with pulling threads on the corrupt Republican sweater, Republicans will pose even less of a threat because so many will have had to step down from their offices to deal with the very real legal peril facing them. Let’s remember — the Republican leadership KNEW a month before the made Donald Trump their presidential nominee in 2016 that he was corrupt and compromised by Russia.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays,” said current GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy as he walked into a meeting of the Republican leadership a month before their convention in 2016, “Rohrbacher and Trump — swear to God!” Then Leader Of The House Paul Ryan cautioned Kevin not to get too crazy about it. Paul wasn’t saying, “No, no, Kevin — you must be wrong! A man as honorable as Donald Trump would never let himself be compromised in such a way!” On the contrary, Paul was saying (literally) “Let’s keep this in the family!” Keep the fact that the man they were about to nominate for President of the United States was COMPROMISED by a hostile foreign power who’ve expressed the desire previously to wage cyber war against us. A roomful of Republican leaders agreed with Paul Ryan — and kept the secret a secret that they knew/suspected that their soon-to-be presidential nominee was likely OWNED OUTRIGHT by a hostile foreign government.

Republicans know they can’t sell what they’re pitching to American voters unless those voters are already hard core racists. That’s why they’ve resorted to gerrymandering, voter suppression and treason. That’s why they’ve resorted to cheating in every way they can think of. How else is any Republican going to get elected?

The Truth Is, America’s Never Actually Been Very Good At “Democracy”

As shocking as it is that we’ve come to this, it’s even more shocking that, to a third of the country, “this” makes them happy. They’re glad America has come to this.

Racists are never going to like Democracy because every election is a gamble — that is, if you let everybody vote. The whole point of voter suppression and gerrymandering is make the gamble almost negligible as a gamble. If less Democratic voters turn out because they 1) couldn’t register or 2) registered but couldn’t spend ten hours in line to vote, that’s as good as a vote against whatever the Democrats wanted. This is not a new game. And though it’s wrong to shame the victim — and the Democrats have always been the Republicans’ victim — the Democrats have known since Nixon (and before) how Republicans ticked. After a while, one has to stand up for oneself because no one else is going to.

On the day he resigned from office because of Watergate, Nixon’s approval rating sat around 29%. His guilt was so undeniable that a delegation of Republicans (including Barry Goldwater — the conservative’s conservative) went to Nixon to tell him he had to resign. That’s how bad it was then. The 30% is still there. They’ve filled out a bit but they’re still very much there.

So, a third of the country couldn’t care less if America sinks into authoritarianism. In fact, they’d celebrate if it happened. With a (theoretical) 70% majority, you’d think the rest of us would have long ago figured out how to keep the crazies in check. But half that 70% doesn’t care about politics (or didn’t). In America, we think 50% – 60% of the voters showing up at election time is success. Hopefully the days of disengagement are over. But, for now, all we can point at is our history.

Come election time, too many of us stay home. In 2016, 138 million of us voted. Unfortunately that was only 56% of eligible voters. That’s over 40% of American voters never showing up to meet their most basic, most important, most innately democratic responsibility as American citizens.

Source: Pew Research Center

Ben Franklin saw us coming. As he observed 240 years ago — Republic’s are wonderful things — if you can keep them. They don’t get kept by accident.

Keeping a republic alive and well is damned hard work. Of all Americans, the people who’ve worked hardest to keep our republic alive are African Americans. They should have bailed on us eons ago. But they understood how important liberty was because they didn’t have it. It wasn’t just a word to them or an abstraction. It was something they wanted above all else. Nothing fancy — just the equal treatment before the law that the Constitution theoretically guarantees.

We kinda screwed the pooch right at the beginning. “All men are created equal” and slavery are mutually exclusive propositions. You can’t hold those two ideas in your head and not lose your mind. And look how hard we made it for women to vote. Where’s the “democratic” in that?

The truth is, we’ve always talked a better game about democracy than we’ve ever delivered. Good thing that’s fixable. First thing we need to do is shut up. That is, white men need to shut up. We need to step back from the controls and let others have a go at it. After they finish fixing the mess we made of it, who knows? America might finally live up to its own ideals.

If we followed the lead of African American women especially — they will have been the true saviors of American democracy — we might even get good at democracy eventually. That’s not guaranteed. But, if white men listen — if we let the genius of E Pluribus Unum (that’s what makes America exceptional — diversity, not white guys and their money) wash over us — we might could learn how to be better.

Either Every Vote Counts Or No Votes Count

We need to make up our goddamned minds about voting. Personally, I believe that literally EVERY VOTE counts.

In election 2018, according to the Washington Post, in 133 races out of the 4,137 run that election cycle, the winner’s margin of victory was under 100 votes. That’s 3.2% of all races.

That would mean that a successful voter suppression operation only had to stop 100 people from showing up across thousands of voting districts in order to accomplish its goal: changing the outcome of an election, not by selling better ideas but by tricking or lying voters into not voting.

In a close race — decided by fewer than 100 votes — each and every voter tricked into not voting is as good as a vote for the other guy. What part of that is either free or fair?

In 2016, Republicans, with Russia’s help, carried out the Mother of all voter suppression operations. What was Paul Manafort’s intention when he handed Oleg Deripaska proprietary polling data from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota? Was it simply “Hey, Oleg, here’s some cool stuff you might want to peruse in your copious free time”? Or was it “Hey, Oleg, here’s proprietary American polling data. Weaponize it, please.

Next thing ya know? African Americans in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are seeing ads on their Facebook pages raging about Hillary Clinton’s secret racist agenda. It’s absurd. But the point of the exercise isn’t swaying the great unwashed masses. Sway one voter — you COULD sway a whole election.

If Russia’s efforts changed one vote — just one — that means they could have changed that election’s entire outcome.

Either our elections are free and fair or they aren’t. There’s no middle ground. Elections — like integrity — are either 100% legit or they’re not legit at all. Ever meet someone with most of their integrity (say 95%)?

No, you haven’t. You have integrity or you don’t.

An election is free and fair or it isn’t.

Every vote counts — or none of them actually do.

Hey, America — Next Time, Let’s Take Better Care of Our Democracy, Okay?

There’s a Joni Mitchell song — pretty well known — with a lyric that goes something like this —

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Democracy is Paradise.  Except we’re about to watch Democracy get knocked down for a lot less than a pink  hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.  All we’ll get out of our deal is a bankrupt whorehouse where even the STD’s have STD’s.

By the time most Americans realize their Democracy is gone, it’ll be just about to disappear from their rear view mirror.  “What was that thing we drove past a while ago?  No memory except that it was big or something.  Special maybe — can’t remember any more.”

It’s perverse that the  Poster Kid for Democracy never really was that IN to Democracy.  Too much of a commitment.  Too much like hard work.  Too much responsibility.  It’s worse than having a pet, fer Chrissakes.  The only GOOD thing you can say about Democracy is that it won’t poop in the house.  It might DIE in the House but it won’t poop there.

Americans have always treated voting like it was root canal surgery.  That’s heart-breaking considering how hard some people have struggled to get here to vote AS AMERICANS, how willing others were to die — just to have a chance to live the lives Americans take for granted.  Like their Democracy.

It’s not just voting though.  It’s Civic Education.  Civic Pride.  Civic Sacrifice.

The first two are easy.  Even lazy ‘patriots’ can pull those off.  They can pick up a book.  Read some of our founding documents — not just the ‘easy ones’ (Declaration of Independence) but the more challenging ones too — Federalist Papers anyone?  Prospective Voters also can get educated by diving deeper into issues.  What are they really about?  What’s really at stake for who — and why (almost always the MOST important question — WHY?)

Civic Pride’s even easier.  Feeling good about The Greatest Country On The Planet should be easy.  But feeling good comes with a bit of responsibility.  It IS important what you’re feeling good ‘about’.  If you’re feeling good because America’s values are a Beacon To The World, that’s awesome.  If you’re feeling good because you’re waving a flag and you’ll happily shove the business end of your flagpole up the backside of any leftist who’d dare to burn a flag — well, you might be feeling good for the wrong reasons.

That brings us to the Problem Child in the bunch:  Civic Sacrifice.  The thing Americans hate the most.  Because it’s ‘sacrifice’.  Done ‘civilly’ — meaning ‘for the greater good’ and not ‘just for self’.  It’s not that Americans aren’t generous.

Americans are unfailingly generous.  But they have a weird animus toward their government — OUR government.  Some Americans see the government as a lethal assassin style Boogie Man capable of penetrating their brains, poisoning their garden furniture and turning their own bridgework into a spy satellite.  I hope like hell that no one so afflicted read any of that — I don’t want their going off the deep end on my conscience.

This isn’t all Americans — of course it isn’t.  It’s a wacky sub-set of Americans.

This wacky subset has fallen in love with a Mythic Figure (Americans — imagine!) — the Intrepid Frontiersman.  They think that’s them — the guy carving A Great Nation out of a Vast Wilderness.  Actually, that ‘Wilderness’ was someone else’s home but never mind.  Even their Mythic Figure is a shit.

THIS, strangely, has become, for many, the Proto-Patriot.  The Guy They Emulate for his ‘independence’ and ‘freedom lovin’.  And this guy?  He fears the government.  He loathes it because all it wants to do in his fever swamp of a mind is take away his Freedoms.  Well… actually, he’s only afraid they’ll take away his gun.

And,, perversely, that’s what motivates and motivated this guy.  It motivated him so much — his fear that a make-believe government would march — storm-trooper like of course — into his house to take his guns — that he made it his life’s work to re-imagine the Constitution as nothing BUT a justification for gun ownership (the fact that the Constitution says exactly the opposite be damned).  Well Regulated Militia, anyone?

The Gun Lobby — along with the Evangelicals who wanted to move heaven earth and our Whole Democracy to make abortion (and probably birth control itself) illegal.  They have hijacked our Democracy — by semi-legal means.  Ironically, what motivated them more than anything was demographics.  They saw what the numbers said:  There’s going to be less and less of THEM and more and more of THE OTHER.  Brown people, black people, people with foreign-sounding names and strange cultures and even stranger foods.

That scares some White People almost literally to death.

This Nativism does not go well with Democracy.  They are mutually exclusive propositions in fact.  Can’t share the same living space without killing each other.  This creates a Culture of Mistrust for Democracy.  Trusting other people?  Hell no.  Trusting your own kind?  Sure — worth a shot (you already know to get them before they get you).

These bastards somehow won the Culture War.  They must have — our Elite MSM keeps telling us that it’s THEIR disappointment at Life that’s driving everything.

The rest of us never even knew a Culture War was happening.  We were too busy living.  Too busy enjoying the benefits that knuckle-scraping Culture Warriors are at war against.  A big piece of that Culture War was aimed at Democracy.  Too many diverse people watering down the voting pool?  No way, Jose (to borrow an expression).

Americans need to cut the shit about what it IS to be an American.

Being an American — It was special my whole life.  I refuse to let Donald Trump and his band of GOPirates make being an American less special because they’re taking racism & bigotry & misogyny & corruption  to new and ‘exciting’ places.

First — we need to make Election Day A HOLIDAY.  It’s a Day Off Work to CELEBRATE the most Fundamental Right of BEING an AMERICAN — getting to VOTE.  We should rhapsodize about voting.  We should make it automatic that on your 18th birthday, like EVERY AMERICAN, YOU get registered to vote.

Then — We should do what Australia does.  They mandate that, on Election Day, you MUST go to your polling place.  Once there, you do not have to vote.  Once you sign in, you can leave immediately if that’s your wont.  Or you can vote whatever way you like.  You just have to show up.

Americans JUST HAVE TO SHOW UP.

It would be an awesome beginning.  Voting — as a muscle memory exercise — becomes easier to remember to do than NOT voting.

Weird, huh?

Then there’s the relationship between Americans and paying taxes.  Americans despise the idea of paying taxes because 1) it conflicts with their self-image as Frontier Guy and 2) Americans never see what they’re getting for those dollars taken from them and given to the government.  Americans perceive that they get nothing for the money — except less money in THEIR pocket.  If Americans could see the ‘benefits’ to paying taxes the way they see the benefit to paying more for a better cell phone or unlimited data — they’d pay it and maybe even shut up.

Not having to ever FIGHT to have the right to vote — or any of the other rights that belong to you because you are American — has made American Civic-Mindedness flabby and soft.  In these here times, it needs to be rock hard.  Six packs and pecs and bi-ceps all ripped to the max.  It takes had work and sacrifice to get your body in shape.

Democracy works exactly the same way.  With more sweat.