Thursday, March 4, 2010

The End of Democracy As We Know It

TEODAWKI -- The End Of Democracy As We Know It. That's the period that we're living in at the moment. Democracy -- rule by the people -- is on its way out (if it was ever really in?). How do we know this? It's obvious when you look at the underlying structure of how our country works right now. For the first rule of systems thinking is, structure influences behavior. So while we still supposedly have a democratic government, structurally we have something quite different, which leads to behavior which is anything but democratic.

Sure, we still hold elections where people vote in representatives, who in turn are supposed to listen to what their constituents want, and then argue with each other about what the best legislation is to give the most people what they mostly want. That's how it's supposed to work. But of course, it doesn't work that way any more. Thus democracy is evolving... but the big question is, what is democracy evolving into?

There are a number of structural shifts that are taking place. Lawrence Lessig wrote a recent blog called "Systemic Denial" that articulates one of these, which is basically that, because of the current structure of how elections are financed, politicians are basically addicted to raising money for their reelection campaigns. A significant percentage of a politician's time is spent raising money so they can continue to be a politician. That structure, which can be easily changed, is at the core of why democracy is on its way out. The solution, of course, is a simple one -- public financing of all elections, including judicial as well as congressional and presidential. Lessig's comment on his blog is that while this solution is the obvious one that we should be talking about, even when you bring a serious group of high-thinking experts into a room to talk about how to make things better, the concept of public financing of all elections isn't even brought up for discussion.

Without public financing of elections, what we end up (and what we have) are lobbyists and mega-corporate money flowing into the coffers of elected officials so that they can spend that money on their re-elections, in exchange for preferential treatment from the sources of that money in the legislation that is created and ultimately voted into law. This is such a common idea that no sane person doubts this is true. Yet the idea of questioning whether it's actually a good thing isn't even brought up for discussion, except among the vast majority of U.S. citizens who don't think it's a good idea, but who, for obvious reasons, don't have any control over changing it.

Here's another structural issue that's at the root cause of the problem: the politicians who are reaping the benefits of the current structure of financing are the only ones who can change the structure. We certainly can't rely on the Supreme Court, as we have just had a 5-person majority ruling that corporations -- legal entities with limited liability -- are deemed to have the same rights as people do, especially when it comes to "free speech" in giving money to political campaigns.

Bill Moyers, one of the greatest champions of democracy in the last century, did a recent segment of his Journal where he covered this very topic, but from a very different, and less known, perspective... that of the corporate influence not only in congressional financing, but also in the financing of the election of judges in 39 states. Entitled "Judges for Sale," it reveals that most of the judges in this country, including the  Supreme Courts of most states, are elected by public vote. They, therefore, are also immersed in the addictive structure of needing to raise money to be (re)elected. This is a serious, serious problem in our country, because the one branch of government which must be seen as being impartial is our judicial system... and that system is becoming as corrupt and subject to corporate influence as the rest of our political system. For it is very clear that the vast majority of elections are won by those who spend the most money. And it is far, far easier to raise a lot of money from a relatively small number of large donors than it is a relatively large number of small donors (the internet not withstanding). Thus the downward cycle of democratic destruction perpetuates itself, and democracy loses more and more of its structural reality, replaced with a corporate-political marriage that leaves the average citizen left out of the decision-making process.

The problem is that we know what the solutions are. We know how to fix the structural problems that are slowly but surely destroying democracy, and destroying most of America. But we simply don't have the power and influence right now to implement those structural changes, because the entities that need to enact those changes are exactly the ones that are most benefitting from the current system, and they have basically rigged the system to keep it that way. All of the major players, including the corporate media, are involved in this structural inertia, and that's simply the way it is.

This is the way evolution is heading at the moment. That much is clear. This is what is. The big question is, what can each of us do about it? My current thinking is similar to the thinking of many people who see this as just one of many downward spirals that are reinforcing themselves, getting stronger and stronger as the days go by... start designing lifeboats. Recognize that strengthening local communities is one of the most empowering, and effective, ways to avoid relying on any governmental structures to "do the right thing". Set up your own small communities, start to grow your own food, design your own systems of thrival, and practice local resilience... I can guarantee you that you'll never be sorry you did.

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