Theory and Practice of Failed US Democracy

Two hundred thirty one years of radical, sometimes violent, events at home and abroad have taken their toll on the US Constitution.

American Democracy Becomes a Reality

On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square. These are the first lines of his speech: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” If these words sound familiar it is because they are the much-quoted second lines of the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Ho Chi Minh was a profound admirer of the United States and their democracy. He had repeatedly beseeched President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Vietnam did not become free and independent until the Vietnamese people, under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, defeated the United States and ended the American military occupation of their country in 1975. Thus, the promise of American democracy became a reality, but not in America.

The Durable, Long-Lasting Republic

American democracy was born in hopeful times. The country had just won its independence from Britain and was led by brilliant team of political thinkers, the revered “Founding Fathers,” Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al. The constitution they drafted and ratified, with its separation of powers, checks and balances, freedom of religion, and the guarantees of civil rights enunciated in the Bill of Rights, promised a durable, long-lasting republic.

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. Most of the Founding Fathers were rich and many of them were slave owners. They prudently–and anti-democratically–dialed into their constitution measures to preclude an uprising and takeover by of the underclasses. These measures limited the franchise to white male citizens over the age of 21 and included the electoral college, which negated the possibility of a one-man-one-vote democracy. Women weren’t granted the vote until 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment, and racial minorities had to wait till 1965 for full, effective voting rights, when the Voting Rights Act directed the US Attorney General to enforce the right to vote for African Americans. That was a 176-year wait and black voting rights are still far from perfect. The highly-contested results of the 2016 and 2020 elections suggest that elections remain an open sore on the American polity. Even so, they permit themselves the luxury a refereeing those in other people’s countries.

What Denatured American Democracy?

Two hundred thirty one years of radical, sometimes violent, events at home and abroad have taken their toll on the US Constitution. Over time the democratic republic that the founders foresaw has been battered and diluted by powerful vested interests and American “democracy” has been subverted to the point that it survives more as a useful myth than solid reality. Little by little it has been reduced to a slogan, then a lie and, lately, a scam. But we still use the same word–democracy–for a system of government that has morphed beyond recognition. That’s normal with political theories. They tend to differ in practice, and when  they evolve they don’t always do so in a good way.

The deterioration of American democracy is due to three principal factors, beginning with the growth of executive power snatching. Democratic government loses authority with each succeeding president. Sometimes power is snatched during wars or pre-war situations when it’s easier to grease the way with fear and patriotism. Sometimes it’s after national emergencies, of which 9/11 is the most glaring example. Other times it’s just because they can. President Donald Trump is the best example of that egomaniacal accumulation of personal power, like a three-year-old sticking knives into electrical sockets and surviving.

Big business control of government, thanks to the power of lobbying and grotesque changes in campaign financing law, is responsible for another series of grave attacks on democracy. The 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision turned corporations into persons–Shazzam!– with virtually unlimited rights to donate to political campaigns. Later rulings by the reactionary Roberts Court, including McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), would strike down other campaign finance restrictions, to the benefit of the Republican Party in subsequent elections.

The third force degrading the American democracy is the infiltration of extravagant miracle religion at the highest levels of government. If a person wants to believe he’s about to be “raptured” up into heaven by Jesus Christ, that’s his or her business, but not if he or she is Secretary of State. This phenomenon is all the more dangerous because it’s driven by opportunistic motives for pandering to a massive religious voting base, one of President Donald Trump’s specialties. And he’s not the only one. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) was created in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

Sticky Are the Seats of Power

The growth of business influence in government is driven by members of congress’s extreme devotion to re-election. They will resort to extravagant lengths to retain their seats. This incumbency/re-election phenomenon is more serious that it seems. How much waste of valuable time and resources has been generated in the White House over the years by presidents devoting themselves to their re-election projects? Running the country is a big job, one that should take absolute priority over political questions.

Seymour Hersh broaches this subject in his book, The Dark Side of Camelot, when he relates an informal conversation in the White House between President John F. Kennedy and an old friend from school. Kennedy confessed to his friend that he was witholding an important initiative so he could use it as an election issue. The friend told Hersh that he immediately thought it might be a good idea to limit presidencies to a single six-year term, thereby obviating the necessity of re-election campaigns. If that’s a good idea for presidents, might it not also be a good plan for legislators, whose case is even graver, as they are permitted to present themselves for re-election during their entire lives? Between them and the Supreme Court, America guarantees itself that many of it’s highest government offices are populated by zombies.

The single measure of limiting duration in office to a single term would eliminate the waste and abuse created by the massive re-election business. This might be included in the same Constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Electoral College. What are the chances of such an amendment prospering? Nil would be an optimistic guess.

Some Qualified Criticisms

Mike Lofgren worked in Washington as a political operative during most of his adult life, principally as a Republican Congressional aid. Though he retired in May, 2011, after 28 years on the inside, he hadn’t forgotten what he had learned from that privileged point of view. Quite the contrary, he was anxious to tell it. The result was his 2012 book, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, characterized by the Washington Post as “forceful, covincing and seductive.” In his preface to the paperback edition he gives us a clear idea of what to expect from his book. To the right reader, it is a banquet. This is just the first paragraph:

As with many religions, political parties have a tendency to start as movements, transform into businesses, and finally degenerate into rackets designed to fleece the yokels. One organization that has embraced this evolution is the Republican Party. And it has done so with a national scope and fundraising apparatus that would have made Jimmy Swaggart or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker mute with awe.

Mike Lofgren in “The Party is Over

Lofgren then proceeds in the following 200 pages to rip through decades of the Republicans’ misdeeds and absurdities like Napoleon’s dragoons on horses forged in Hell. This was four full years before Donald J. Trump was even a candidate, making Lofgren a 21st-century Old Testament prophet. Here’s another of his Apocalyptic declarations:

From my perch on the budget committee I watched with a mixture of fascination and foreboding as my party was hijacked by a new crop of opportunists and true believers hell-bent on dragging the country into their jerry-built New Jerusalem: an upside-down utopia where corporations rule, the Constitution, like science, is faith-based, and war is the first, not the last, resort in foreign policy.

Mike Lofgren in “The Party is Over

With this rich text published in 2012 no honest Washington insider can affirm that they didn’t foresee the gotterdamerung that Trump’s presidency would bring. The only ones free from this criticism are those who do not or cannot read.

Author and academic, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska, David Forsythe is the creator of the website and author, with Patrice McMahon, of American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: U.S. Foreign Policy, Human Rights, and World Order. Forsythe has this to say on failed American democracy:

In the abstract, Americans may express liberal and cosmopolitan views supportive of universal human rights. But this country that sees itself as a beacon of moral progress for all the world to see, the engine for global good, is the same country with a demonstrable history of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, slavery and lynching, Jim Crow laws to exploit and repress African Americans, anti-Semitism, periodic isolationism and xenophobia, grinding poverty under a harsh form of capitalism, gender discrimination and intolerance for the LGBT community, and a host of other defects.

David Forsythe on

America Distracted, Corrupted and Down for the Count

America has been so distracted over the past century by hedonism, consumerism, capitalism and every other ism that promises instant satisfaction that thoughtfulness, mutual respect and concern for the common good have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Today, December 26, Boxing Day, President Donald Trump, having vetoed the Covid relief plan that should have been passed months ago, left millions of Americans destitute of food and a roof over their heads. The President spent Christmas day playing golf. To an impartial if skeptical observer from abroad this seems like a bad sign.


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