Is Democracy the Problem, or Money-Corrupted Governance?

I’ve been pondering this NYT story–which is presented as news yet which in fact is analysis attempting to provide a general explanation for protests in democracies–since it came out. Its general explanation for why so many people are protesting is that people–primarily youth–have grown disillusioned with voting.

Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.

Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

Note, the title of the article (which presumably the authors didn’t write) refers to a “scorn for vote,” but even this last sentence focuses on the ballot box, rather than the system the ballot box supports. The article doesn’t offer any polling to show this generation (or even just protest participants) are objecting to voting, per se, nor does it question why the record number of youth who came out to vote in the US in 2008 are now among those occupying Wall Street. Rather, it offers these quotes from a protest participants.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

[snip]

“We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems,” said Sarita Singh, 25, among the thousands who gathered each day at Ramlila Maidan, where monsoon rains turned the grounds to mud but protesters waved Indian flags and sang patriotic songs.

“But that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our country.”

[snip]

Mr. Levi, born on Degania, Israel’s first kibbutz, said the protests were not acts of anger but of reclamation, of a society hijacked by a class known in Hebrew as “hon veshilton,” meaning a nexus of money and politics. The rise of market forces produced a sense of public disengagement, he said, a feeling that the job of a citizen was limited to occasional trips to the polling places to vote.

“The political system has abandoned its citizens,” Mr. Levi said. “We have lost a sense of responsibility for one another.”

All three of these speakers are talking about something more than democracy. They’re talking about democracy that has been delegitimized by its insulation from voters; two specify that corruption is the culprit.

In other words, the article claims to report something about protestors’ attitude towards democracy, while mostly downplaying the role that money has had in the failed governance that results from that democracy, though the protests focus on the latter.

The authors fail to distinguish between democracy and capitalism in other ways, too. In one case, for example, they use a quote talking about capitalism to support a claim they make about voting.

Frustrated voters are not agitating for a dictator to take over. But they say they do not know where to turn at a time when political choices of the cold war era seem hollow. “Even when capitalism fell into its worst crisis since the 1920s there was no viable alternative vision,” said the British left-wing author Owen Jones. [my emphasis]

And while they say, “the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year,” they only examine the technological similarities, the reliance on social media in both. They don’t bother to consider the commonality between Tunisians demanding jobs, Israelis demanding affordable housing, Europeans fighting austerity or (in the case of London’s riots) for some kind of future. And while they link to news on Occupy Wall Street, they don’t even mention Wisconsin, perhaps because the involvement of unions and middle class teachers would spoil their desired narrative, which claims protestors are also bypassing unions.

A globalized economy has presented similar problems leading to similar protests in democracies and authoritarian regimes alike, but the NYT’s reporters want to claim this is about democracy and not economics.

All of which builds to their judgment, one terribly sourced paragraph spinning these protests as a profoundly undemocratic movement.

While the Spanish and Israeli demonstrations were peaceful, critics have raised concerns over the urge to bypass representative institutions. In India, Mr. Hazare’s crusade to “fast unto death” unless Parliament enacted his anticorruption law struck some supporters as self-sacrifice. Many opponents viewed his tactics as undemocratic blackmail. [my emphasis]

“Critics have raised,” “many opponents viewed.” None of them named or quoted in the article, but all critically deployed to interpret the evidence the reporters set forth as being primarily about democracy and not about so-called capitalism (otherwise known as elite looting).

For the record, I do believe there’s commonality among these protests. Not just the ones the authors puzzle through in Israel, India, and Europe, but also those in Madison, Wall Street, Egypt, and Tunisia. I do believe it’s worth reflecting on this commonality. But I find it telling that an article published in the most elite news institution and complaining that, “protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite,” interprets the commonality here as a rejection of democracy, not a rejection of elite looting.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. coral says:

    Yeah, I have been thinking about that article, too. What it doesn’t articulate is that the demonstrators want a real democracy, not just the ability to vote in a system that is rigged in favor of a smaller (and fatter) elite.

    Elected officials are becoming less and less responsive to the people they purport to represent.

  2. Jim White says:

    “We have lost a sense of responsibility for one another.”

    That’s where I see the problem. Yesterday I tweeted something along the lines of saying the political battles in the US can be boiled down for the most part to folks on one side who are all about greed and self-interest against those who have empathy and compassion. (I guess I’m in a Lakoff mood…) I really feel that a common theme of the current demonstrators is that they are making a statement for something beyond their own self-interest and for the betterment of all their fellow citizens.

  3. phred says:

    Great post EW. I read the NYT article and was thunderstruck by their willful misinterpretation of the protests of 2011. It isn’t a rejection of democracy, but a desperate attempt to restore democracy.

    I’ve been giving this a fair bit of thought lately. And I went to the small but enlightening conference on whether or not to pursue at Constitutional Convention last weekend at Harvard Law School. All of this contemplation has led me to conclude I should do something rash, like write a post over at MyFDL.

    In short, my premise is this. As corrupting as money in politics has become, we are also suffering from a lack of representativeness. That is, the proportionality of our governing institutions is out of whack.

    For example, the US Constitution stipulates that the House of Representatives is not to exceed 1 representative per 30,000. What we have in fact is about 1 per 780,000. It is simply not possible for one rep to adequately represent the interests of so many people and so they don’t.

    If you will forgive the Star Trek reference, like Khan’s limitation to two-dimensional thinking in the Wrath of Khan, our political imagination has been confined to 18th century technical limitations on telecommunication. We still think a legislature or parliament has to be able to sit comfortably in a single room and be able to hear each other (as if we actually still had Congressional debates, which we don’t).

    In the 21st century, there is no reason for our governing bodies to be constrained by marble architecture. We would be better served to have a distributed legislature of 11,000 representatives (following the 1:30,000 rule) that reside in their home districts and communicate electronically as most of us do these days.

    I could go on, but that is the gist. Our population has grown exponentially since the 18th century, but our representative governing institutions (both here and abroad) have not. As a result we have lost real representativeness at the federal level. Restoring it, creatively using modern technology to do so, would go a long way towards reclaiming our democracy from the ruling elite that has stolen it.

    Sorry, a little long-winded, but that’s it in a nutshell. Oh, and on a side note, I am deliriously happy to see the editing buttons back. Well done : )

  4. Bay State Librul says:

    This is weird.
    During the one hour and twenty six rain delay, I was reading Howard Zinn’s 124 page essay on Disobedience and Democracy. In it, he refutes nine points in Justice Abe Fortas’s booklet on “Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.”
    I agree with Phred above, that our democracy is broken and unresponsive
    to our corrupt rule.
    Zinn writes “It is very hard, in the comfortable environment of middle-class America, to discard the notion that everything will be better if we don’t have the disturbance of civil disobedience, if we confine ourselves to voting, writing letters to our Congressmen, speaking our minds politely. But those outside are not so comfortable. Most people in the world are hungry, have no decent place to sleep, no doctors when they are sick… Somehow we must transcend our own tight, air conditioned chambers and begin to feel their plight, their needs. It may become evident that despite our wealth, we can have no real peace until they do.”
    Ain’t that the truth.

  5. phred says:

    @Bay State Librul: BSL, just a quick drive-by before vanishing for the rest of the afternoon, to offer my sincere condolences on the debacle last evening. A double whammy of stunning proportions. How the Rays come back from a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees is hard to imagine. Sadly the collapse of the BoSox requires less imagination after the past month. Sigh.

    On topic, great quote from Zinn. I was chatting with some folks the other night about the presumption that most of us have that the people who look after the functioning of our country will take care of things. Clearly, they are not, so now we have to figure out how to go about setting things right. It’s night entirely obvious, but a good bit of hobnobbing in the process of street occupations, should help light the way.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @bmaz: Not necessarily. You can have democracy with an economic system that limits corruption and maximizes the societal good for the masses, rather than for the elite.

    Right now they are intertwined, but they don’t have to be.

  7. DWBartoo says:

    @emptywheel:

    It is getting people to understand that essential truth, EW, which is the very critical next step … developing understanding and and informed imagination sufficient to contemplate the possibility of actual, and genuine participatory democracy … of course. that will play havoc with the notion that “the people” just shouldn’t know certain things …

    DW

  8. jayackroyd says:

    Pet peeve: the use of “capitalism” or “free market” to describe the current mixed economy model. Capitalism is a fine thing, the bedrock of liberalism. The Wealth of Nations, which I am rereading, is a liberal tract. The core value is market competition, which governments must intervene constantly to prevent producers’ cheating by selling adulterated products and to prevent monopolies from forming.

    What we have now is not free market capitalism; we have a plutocracy, a world-wide collection of rulers who have bought out the democratic institutions designed to protect citizens from exploitation.

    In the US we have a Senate and a president who thinks this global plutocratic governing system is both inevitable, and, largely a good thing, insulating technocrats from icky democracy.

    Serfdom beckons.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @jayackroyd: Agree whole-heartily. I used it in that one paragraph only because that’s the word Jones used, to emphasize that they were completing conflating democracy and what is called capitalism.

    But the problem is that it is not capitalism. Or one of many problems.

  10. Raphael Cruz says:

    an oft-neglected fact is that we’ve never really HAD a democracy… the constitutional republic that we mistakenly call a democracy was never set up to give “power to the people”… however, i completely agree that our present system has been so grossly distorted by money that any semblance of participative government has been washed away under torrents of cash, cash provided by those whose only desire is to ensure that those in positions to make law and policy have their interests at heart…

    given the wide-open campaign contribution landscape under citizens united (not that it wasn’t wide open before), any individual or group from literally anywhere inside or outside the u.s., could purchase the congressional seat in my district… in fact that just happened right here in my district where mark amodei defeated kate marshall in the special election to replace dean heller who is serving the rest of ensign’s senate term… amodei outspent marshall literally 4 to 1… could i have made a difference in the outcome of that race…? hell, no… will the few dollars i can afford to contribute to a presidential candidate tip the scale…? will hundreds of thousands of us tossing out paltry dollars into the hat outweigh the koch brothers…?

    more to the point, is there even a sliver of daylight between the democrats and the republicans…? does it matter in the slightest who is president…? it could, but not under the utterly broken system we have now… probably like you, i am being inundated with campaign funding requests on the order of 10-20 a day while i watch and listen to obama give voice to his latest round of populist rhetoric… words ain’t where it’s at, lemme tell ya…

    do i believe passionately in democracy…? absolutely… will i ever vote again… maybe after the apocalypse…

    And, yes, I DO take it personally

  11. Fan of Joseph A. Palermo says:

    All of this austerity targeting working people is not only digging a deeper economic pit but it’s rapidly lowering the quality of life.

    People are starting to catch on that their suffering is directly related to the abuses of a tiny wealthy elite’s desire not to pay one cent in additional taxes.

    These corporate and banking elites, in case you haven’t noticed, are becoming very unpopular.

    Do they really think they can use their power over our governing institutions to turn the screws on working people without ever suffering any kind of backlash?

    The failure of the private sector to meet basic human needs at some point will spawn a legitimacy crisis that leads millions of people to stop believing in the “efficiency” of global capitalism.

    In the 1980s, what brought on the collapse of the Soviet bloc as much as anything else were the actions of tens of millions of people living under those regimes who simply stopped believing in the system.

    This is pretty serious stuff.

    If destroying the livelihoods and futures of millions of Americans was perfectly legal and not a single financial services mover and shaker is going to go jail for the epic fraud committed it tells us something: the whole grand rip-off was pulled off with the help of our elected “leaders” whose priorities are so wrong they all should be run out of Washington on a rail.

    This perfectly legal grand larceny against the country must not go unpunished. And it’s up to the people to start doing the punishing.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/the-jobs-creators-brand-g_b_987557.html

  12. Bill Hicks says:

    Another way that democracy is corrupted is by the scientific but partisan construction of districts which can almost never change party affiliation. Another way is by setting up a state system (such as the U.S. Senate), where some people’s votes have enormous power, while other’s very little (e.g., the Montanan vote vs the Californian).

  13. coral says:

    Chris Hedges has a pretty amazing post up on this subject.

    A taste:

    Choose. But choose fast. The state and corporate forces are determined to crush this. They are not going to wait for you. They are terrified this will spread. They have their long phalanxes of police on motorcycles, their rows of white paddy wagons, their foot soldiers hunting for you on the streets with pepper spray and orange plastic nets. They have their metal barricades set up on every single street leading into the New York financial district, where the mandarins in Brooks Brothers suits use your money, money they stole from you, to gamble and speculate and gorge themselves while one in four children outside those barricades depend on food stamps to eat. Speculation in the 17th century was a crime. Speculators were hanged. Today they run the state and the financial markets.

  14. TuffsNotEnuff says:

    “Democracy is not the solution to our problems. Democracy is our problem.

    From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of democracy, must bear the burden.”

    — St. Ronnie first during his 1980 debate with John Anderson, and then in this form as part of his First Inaugural Address, January 1980

    Obviously confused about democracy and government and protection from individual greed, rapacity and broad criminality.

    Adjusted to reflect what the word “government” means in America. Or meant… prior to the “Citizens United” redefinition of citizenship.

  15. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Fantastic post.

    Per phred: In short, my premise is this. As corrupting as money in politics has become, we are also suffering from a lack of representativeness. That is, the proportionality of our governing institutions is out of whack.

    For example, the US Constitution stipulates that the House of Representatives is not to exceed 1 representative per 30,000. What we have in fact is about 1 per 780,000. It is simply not possible for one rep to adequately represent the interests of so many people and so they don’t.

    If you will forgive the Star Trek reference, like Khan’s limitation to two-dimensional thinking in the Wrath of Khan, our political imagination has been confined to 18th century technical limitations on telecommunication.

    Go to Wikipedia – or better yet, US Census – and look at the disparities in pop size among states. Yet every state has two Senators. The Founders did not see this coming.

    Demographically, the US (and globe) is now a place of **cities**. In 2007, probably for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas — so I’m not actually at all surprised to see social upheavals in cities like Cairo that have >44 people/sq mile.

    But the political system favors a$$hole$ like Richard Shelby of AL, Hatch of UT, and the smaller pop state GOP senators. The entire voting populations of five US cities are now larger than the US pop of 1776.

    Things are incredibly out of synch.
    No wonder the world’s on fire. And I fear that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

    Community building just might be The Next Big Thing. Because heaven knows, we need it.

  16. listeninghere says:

    @jayackroyd:The NYT article dared me to hope there are enough constructive thinkers out there to substantially move this albatross of global economic power holders…media spinners…and mass population manipulators. The new word-phrase “hon veshilton” perhaps is one way to broaden the recognition of this reality. Is Israel itself able to throw off these shackles and allow more space for Palestinian and other values in general? If movements don’t take a stronger foothold I’m concerned jayackroyd is right, global plutocracy rules, and “serfdom beckons”.

  17. Uncommitted says:

    Under an ideal democracy, well-spoken, educated, and property-owning people such as myself will combine others like myself (ones with something to lose or a lot to gain) to erect defenses against the losers of society who have no such skills or resources. We’ll use rhetoric and control of the media (if only due to our enhanced buying power) to convince the have-nots that they need to go on without. We’ll also permit the provision of enough bread and circuses to keep the poor from revolting against us–but only just. We will do this under a democratic system because it’s natural to do so. We will use whatever is available to maintain and further our interests.

    So come out and say what you mean: It’s only through a sort of Marxist revolution and the forceful rejection of not only money but of difference itself that the ideals you present can be achieved.

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