Saturday, November 24, 2012


An exploration of the meaning of democracy and of ts state in America

John Chuckman


When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the first volume of his famous book, Democracy in America, he noted that the single greatest novelty he observed on his travels was what he called “equality of conditions.” A great deal of his analysis of American society in the Age of Jackson hinges on that observation, but as any informed journalist or economist or observer of the human condition today will know, America now features a great and growing inequality of conditions.

Does this change mean that the democracy de Tocqueville observed is disappearing? This is just one of a number of questions we explore.

De Tocqueville, an aristocrat from an old French family, had observed that there was a general movement in Europe towards the decline of aristocratic power and wealth and the increase of middle-class power and wealth, a kind of “levelling” as he called it. He characterized the phenomenon as an “irresistible revolution.”

After his travels in America, he was convinced that this irresistible revolution had gone further there than anywhere else and wished to explain why this should be so and wished to provide guidance for those shaping the future of France

What de Tocqueville was accurately observing in Europe were the social and political dimensions of what today we know as economic development, although he did not have the language. Today, we know that steady strong economic growth induces change in every aspect of society, political, social, and all its institutions. It is the story of the modern era, measured roughly from the late middle ages, to see changing technology driving the economy towards growth which, in turn, drives increasing social, political, cultural, and institutional changes.

From the late middle ages into the twentieth century, we see once-powerful monarchs gradually become constitutional figureheads while parliaments and assemblies and congresses of elected officials gradually assume political authority. These changes happened at varying rates in different countries now regarded as democratic, and they took on a character reflecting the history and customs of each country, but the overall trend across nations was the same. De Tocqueville saw this, and we see it today in a place as previously exotic to democracy as China.

The key driving force at work in these centuries of change – something de Tocqueville, at best, only vaguely understood – is gradual growth in the size and wealth of the middle class under conditions of continuous economic growth.

The structure of most early societies resembles a pyramid, with a supreme ruler at the top supported just below by aristocrats and priests and the great bulk of people spread along the bottom. In such a society, there is almost no change in status possible, always excepting a natural genius born at the bottom who comes to be recognized for a special skill valued by those at the top. In such a society, most boys end up doing just what their fathers did, most girls end up doing just what their mothers did, and there is limited opportunity to gain education, in part because there is limited opportunity even to use an education.

But starting in the late Middle Ages, something remarkable started to happen in Europe: the rate of change in applied science, ways and techniques for doing practical things, began to change noticeably. The harnessing of water and wind, the control of waterways and construction of canals, the building of new roads, the breeding of superior horses, and a thousand other changes accumulated in their impact to yield a rate of economic growth not previously known. Modest industries began to emerge, trade at greater distances picked up, and that great driver of economic growth, specialization of tasks, began its rise to dominance in society. We are all used to hearing of the Industrial Revolution, but that event did not, as it were, spring full-grown from the head of Zeus. Going back to Henry VIII’s time, and even before, the foundations were being laid with developments like improved plows, improved wheels and axles, ocean-worthy ships, and the enclosure of agricultural property previously treated as commons shared (inefficiently in economic terms) by all peasants during the Middle Ages.

As growth continued and even increased, it created previously-unimagined opportunities to work, to trade, and to make things for others. Those who were successful at these many tasks became what we now call the middle class, and the classic extreme pyramidal shape of early society began to fatten around the middle while the base narrowed. As a larger and larger group of people became well-off through expanding trade and industry, it came to have little reason to trust that a monarch or even, at a somewhat later stage, a group of aristocrats was capable of protecting and promoting its increasingly complex interests. Indeed, in many cases, the traditional aristocrats, whose wealth derived from the ownership of land, were uneducated people, quite ignorant of how business or trade worked.

With the rise of new wealth, gradually, the value of education began to grow along with the specialization of skills. These new men (for they pretty much were only men in the early modern period) proved not only useful to monarchs and aristocrats as advisors and experts but were skilled in gaining political power over time. The changing realities of wealth made them increasingly necessary to the state for everything from loans for trading voyages to supplying large quantities of new goods like guns or preserved food or textiles. Eventually, even many of the lands which had constituted the wealth of aristocrats over many earlier centuries and almost the sole source of wealth in early society began to change hands. Prejudice concerning the worthiness of birth gave way to recognition of the worth of knowing how to do things, especially things which generated new wealth. Respect for titles slowly gave way to respect for money and know-how.   

De Tocqueville’s key explanation for the fact that the “irresistible revolution” had gone further in America than in other countries had to do with the nature of the early settlers. Many of them were puritans, what Americans call Pilgrim Fathers, a people who in their religion had democratic beliefs such as all men being equal before God and the rejection of hierarchies in the church. The puritans fled England and some other European countries because they were greatly disliked for good reasons, Americans always putting the events into terms of seeking religious freedom from persecution, and de Tocqueville has no argument with that. However, we now know that the early puritans were often extremely nasty and intrusive and even destructive. Scholars of the Tudor period give us a picture of puritans running through the ancient (formerly Catholic) cathedrals, smashing statues, slashing paintings, and destroying priceless manuscripts. Some puritan groups actually made a point of attending the services of other Christian groups just to make noise and disturb them. So it is quite understandable that they were disliked without talking about anyone trying to suppress their religious freedom.

De Tocqueville does not discuss any of the puritans’ negative history, but he says the puritans brought with them to the New World a good deal of know-how. And, indeed, they did: puritans were often tradesmen and businessmen, a key part of their religious beliefs including the idea that material success was a sign of God’s blessing. So de Tocqueville sees a young, energetic, and entrepreneurial people, all imbued with notions of equality before God, giving America its great start. De Tocqueville believed strongly that a people always bears the marks of their origin, and he was himself a religious man who was glad to be able to attribute America’s democratic success, in part, to “the spirit of religion”.

Except for the “spirit of religion,” a far less clear concept to my mind than de Tocqueville assumed it is, he was right. There was a role for puritan ideas of equality in influencing society’s political orientation. But it is interesting that often groups who seek a freedom for themselves end up later trying to deny it to others, and that was very much the case with the puritans and religious freedom. They were not tolerant, and many of their spiritual and genetic descendants today in the United States are among its least tolerant of its citizens. They are the people who insist on injecting religion into public life, despite Jefferson’s one unqualified great human-rights achievement of establishing religious freedom in Virginia, something in which the sceptic, for so he was, made agreements with the groups who felt oppressed by matters like the established church to which all previously had to pay taxes. Here is another interesting question about American society: whether freedom of religion can remain intact with the constant encroachments made by religious people everywhere from Washington lobbying groups to taking control of local school boards.    
How does democracy work in America? That seems a simple enough question to ask, yet a great many people outside of the United States either do not know the answer or understand it in only the sketchiest fashion, and a surprisingly large number of Americans themselves do not know, for the workings of America’s government are complicated, and at times downright puzzling, despite the country’s elegantly simple founding document, the Constitution. The Constitution, it should be noted, explicitly calls the new nation a republic, rather than a democracy, many of the Founding Fathers having a poor idea of democracy – including such notable figures as Washington, Hamilton, and Morris - but few Americans in general speech today would describe their country as other than a democracy, and the Sunday School lessons regularly bestowed upon the world by the State Department never fail to take credit for being a democracy. We shall have more to say on these matters.

Today, a great part of the world is directly affected by the workings of American government through trade and security and financial issues, and no major American policy or legislation may fairly be said to be America’s private interests: that fact is simply the unavoidable result of having become the center of a global empire with treaties and agreements and trade almost everywhere and a currency used as the world’s reserve currency. Yet in this matter there is great confusion among ordinary Americans who like to believe it is no one else’s business what America does.

You cannot have it both ways – be at the center of the affairs of others while demanding that your own national political affairs are no one’s business outside of America - without implicitly advocating a form of aristocracy in which American voters, a tiny percent of the world’s population, decides internal matters in democratic fashion and external matters as a privileged aristocracy. Yet it is common today to find this peculiar combination of views in America.

It is similar to the thinking we’ve seen working in recent years with horrible places like Guantanamo and the rest of the CIA’s international torture gulag scattered over a number of obscure locations in the world. Somehow many Americans accept that the principles of their founding documents and best laws simply stop having any applicability or even meaning just over the American border, making it acceptable to do in a place like Guantanamo what you would not do inside the United States. It represents a rather odd set of principles whose limits are defined strictly by the extent of the jurisdiction of domestic courts. It is of course highly convenient when you are interested in doing some very unpleasant things.

But the inconsistencies in this thinking do not end there. In recent decades, it has become more common for the American government to apply American laws and the authority of American courts to those who are neither citizens nor residents of America. This went to the extreme of attacking a small country, Panama, whose leader, President Noreiga, had displeased the United States in order to arrest him and try him in an American court on American charges.

These inconsistent modes of thinking and acting demonstrate that democratic values do not consistently govern American instincts. If being a democracy means that citizens and their government always put democratic values first, I think it fair to say America has not arrived.          

There is a massive industry in Washington consisting of consultants and lobbyists hired at sensational salaries by both foreign interests and Americans themselves simply to reach the appropriate officials with the right words on any given issue. That fact is perhaps the best evidence of how ungainly and swollen American government has become despite the almost pastoral simplicity of its founding.

But this book is not a guide to the mechanics of American government, something which would be a rather dry reading for most readers. Besides, when we ask the question of how something complex works, we usually mean more than having a book of diagrams or organizational charts, we want to grasp a sense of what happens when the machine or organization is running. We want to understand the nature of American democracy and its effects upon American society, and we want to understand the nature of democratic values as they are understood in America and the state of those values in the society.

For some, it will seem odd to ask whether America is a democracy, as that term is commonly understood and as we shall define it, but it is nevertheless a valid question, because America’s founding documents deliberately use the term republic, a concept which today means very little except that you do not have a monarchy. After all, even the Soviets styled themselves as belonging to republics. Many of America’s Founding Fathers – that late-18th century group in frock coats regarded almost in reverence by many Americans – did not believe in democracy and, indeed, regarded the concept rather the way some today might regard Islamic fundamentalism or communism as something alien and dangerous, dangerous especially to the interests of property. And if indeed, as most people assume, America is a democracy, then just what kind of democracy is it?

When Colin Powell was tilting at the United Nations over support for the illegal and unwarranted invasion of Iraq, acting as the friendly face of an administration much of the world viewed as hostile, uninformed, and arrogant, he responded to France’s Dominique de Villepin’s witty reference to France as an old country – “old Europe” having been used by the Bush government as a pejorative to belittle European opposition to invasion - Powell answered back that he represented the world’s oldest democracy.

Powell, despite the positive reaction of the diplomatic audience to his riposte, was wrong. America, by no stretch of the imagination, started as a democracy, and as far as republics go, quite a number pre-date the United States, including the Dutch and Venetian Republics. De Tocqueville’s use of the word democracy comes in a special context, including both his perspective as an aristocrat and the new momentum of expanding the franchise during the Age of Andrew Jackson, the time of de Tocqueville’s travels.

This work is an effort to analyze some of the strengths and weaknesses of American political society as they have evolved since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous volumes of 1835 and 1840, and to offer an assessment of the contemporary meaning of American democratic society. It is also an effort to present a lively, and even entertaining, picture of what democracy means today in America. The author’s perspective and approach to democracy in America are different in many ways to those of de Tocqueville. First, the author is an American by birth, having spent both his formative years in the United States as well as a much later extended period plus a good deal of travel, in total nearly half his life, and I suspect there are nuances and meanings of American political society which only someone who has spent many years there may catch and appreciate. Yet, having lived outside the United States for the other more-than-half of his life and having adopted Canada as his home, the author also sees aspects of America with an outsider’s eye, as de Tocqueville did.

Perspective is everything, as we know from the various witnesses in a criminal trial or from the recollections of friends and associates of a dead notable person whose biography is being written. There is also the principle of modern science that some phenomena cannot be completely observed: given one measurement or observation of a sub-atomic particle, other contemporary ones become impossible. I think there is a sense of this principle which applies in human affairs. There is always some incompleteness or ambiguity in human affairs, something which I believe has not been widely enough recognized. This is why there are always alternative explanations possible in history and biography. To understand an important historical character, it is always necessary to read several biographies, but that understanding will still have inherent ambiguities and uncertainties. No less is true of entire societies.

De Toqueville travelled and wrote at the time of Andrew Jackson’s America, a time when the word democracy had become more common than it was at the founding. Of course, Jacksonian Democracy was itself not all that democratic since the majority of the population still could not vote, and important parts of government were not subject to direct election, including the Senate (originally appointed by state governments and made subject to election only in 1913), by far the most powerful branch of the legislature, but even the Presidency itself was subject not to popular votes but those of the Electoral College.

De Tocqueville, saw the young American society with the eyes of a curious and educated European aristocrat, one coming from a country which had experienced revolution, the ascent of an emperor, the restoration of monarchy, and another revolution which overthrew the restored monarchy. He called what he saw in America “democracy,” and indeed wrote of America’s “universal suffrage,” the property requirements for male voters in place since the beginning having been abandoned to a considerable extent (something actually not complete until a couple of decades after de Tocqueville’s travels), earlier religious requirements in some states having been dropped, and despite his being aware that women and slaves and some others could not vote.    

Jackson himself favored the franchise covering all white adult men and abolishing the Electoral College, but Jackson also embraced Manifest Destiny, America’s quasi-religious slogan for continent-absorbing imperialism, the patronage or spoils system in government appointments, the arbitrary removal of American Indians from their homes and settled farms in the East to the Western wilderness, and the importance of the executive relative to Congress – not a set of principles we think of today as especially democratic in nature. But democracy, like anything else, must grow and establish itself by steps.

Interestingly, de Toqueville was from an old aristocratic family, and he viewed America with the eyes of a man who intensely disliked France’s July Monarchy which had been established in 1830, a government which essentially represented the rise of the middle class over the aristocrats. That in itself, as any student of the development of democracy in the modern era knows, is one of the basic steps towards democratic government, the growing interests of the middle class, as an economy advances, being far too large and demanding to be adequately represented by aristocrats of an Ancien Régime.

America today, apart from whatever else it may be, is clearly the center of a vast empire. Yet history provides us with no example of a truly democratic state being an empire, and the contradictions and challenges involved in such a situation seem apparent. Great Britain at the height of her influence in the Victorian period certainly had some democratic institutions, but it was hardly a democratic state when you consider the limits on the franchise and the inadequate, still-corrupt structure of parliamentary representation. There are truly great questions and issues around the idea of trying to be at one and the same time Augustan Rome and the inheritors of those who shook off British imperial power in the 18th century.

The author has made no attempt to produce a purely journalistic or academic effort. Footnotes, as in Page Smith’s great multi-volume history of America, are not used. Entertaining anecdotes have their place. Humor and satire are included because the author believes that subtle truths sometimes come out of laughter which cannot always be captured by reportage or analysis. Absurdity is, unfortunately, a part of the human condition, and one observes it in many forms in various societies. America, despite her advanced status in the world, has at least her share of absurdities and, for reasons to be discussed, likely somewhat more than her share. There is no danger readers will fail to distinguish observations and analysis from poking fun, and hopefully, too, they will enjoy the variety in ways of examining the subject.  .

Frequently, false and even laughable claims are made for democracy, largely by politicians and generally without defining what it is that they praise. Defining democracy is no easy task, but, still, making great thumping claims for a poorly understood concept is helpful to no one except those in the business of advertising, marketing, or propaganda. When the State Department or the White House embroider statements about international affairs with bromides about democracy, we have every reason to become alert about what it is they actually are trying to say. That use of the word democracy is invariably dishonest and narrowly self-serving, intended to robe in nobility the basest drives and interests.


De Tocqueville observed that the closest to an aristocracy in America was its lawyers, but he was observing America in something of a golden age, a rather innocent time when people worked hard to improve their worth yet great wealth was relatively unknown. Even in his day, lawyers were disproportionately represented in Congress – today it is sometimes facetiously said that having a law degree is virtually a union card required for working in Congress – and, of course, lawyers were the pool out of which judicial appointments were made. But becoming a lawyer today in America is not a great achievement, there being a huge number of law schools turning out a huge number of lawyers. Day and night, for it is even possible to get an American law degree in night school, and, for all I know, on the Internet. Many of these lawyers do not make a very good living because there are so many of them and so many of them are mediocre talents. So while a law degree today retains advantages it had in de Tocqueville’s day, it hardly marks, in and of itself, entry into an American aristocracy.

De Tocqueville did not believe that anything closer to the European model of aristocracy could emerge under the conditions he saw in America, believing that restrictions on primogeniture and inheritance, some of the mechanisms creating a recurring tendency towards what he called equality in society, would assure something of a middling class of people in America, what we might call Jefferson’s much-idealized class of sturdy yeomen.

In his second book, de Tocqueville does briefly mention the notion of an aristocracy of wealth emerging in America, but he does not develop the idea. It now is clear that, just as once aristocracy grew out of the ownership of land, the primary source of wealth for the Middle Ages, so in a modern democratic state, aristocracy emerges from the newer forms of wealth generated by trade and manufacturing. America’s experience proves that aristocracy and democratic forms of government are not incompatible, that there are forms and practices which can evolve to accommodate this seemingly incongruous situation. I would only make this stipulation: that in the case of something approaching a true democracy, this might not be the case, but America’s government is democratic only in limited aspects, a reality we will examine more closely later.  

I believe there is a connection in this to what is commonly observed over time in any modern economy. Early in the life of an industry or enterprise – whether retail drug stores or automobile manufacturing – we often see genuinely competitive circumstances, not the perfect competition of economic theory, but something with enough of its characteristics to be compatible with the theory. Just as recently as the 1950s, there was a drug store on just about every second corner along a neighbourhood’s commercial streets, and many of these were small personal businesses. Going back a little earlier, to the 1930s and 1940s, there was a large number of manufacturers of cars, too, but both of these markets have evolved over the years into what economists call imperfect competition, where only a few large providers of the product or service dominate. And this tendency in markets is actually the typical pattern in a society like America’s: after an early stage of fairly vigorous competitiveness in a new business or industry, a much less competitive market structure emerges. It is a pattern seen in everything from soda pop manufacturers to newspapers.

The people running small drug stores in the 1950s undoubtedly made a fair living and were respectable members of their communities, but the people today owning large corporate drug chains, or large blocks of their stocks if they are public companies, are wealthy people and may even not be associated with a particular community. That phenomenon marks a very great change in the structure of a society over time and over many businesses and industries. The politics and political activities of wealthy people cannot be compared to those of ordinary working people or small businessmen, their very scale representing a change in nature. The inevitable growth in the scale of enterprises – something at work even in such tradition-bound, family-shaped work as farming or fishing – leads to the growth of an aristocracy within even a democratic state, although each citizen retains a single vote.

Other mechanisms are at work too. All laws concerned with restrictions on inheritance and inheritance tax are subject to change over time with the ever-changing face of business and politics. Only recently, Americans saw the Bush government strike down the inheritance tax, and no great waves of protest accompanied the fact, the measure being presented to the public in emotion-loaded and dishonest terms as preserving family farms. The inheritance of huge fortunes or vast on-going enterprises is an essential aspect of aristocracy.

De Tocqueville’s America was well on its way to accumulating truly great fortunes based on the success of new businesses. His “level” or “equal” society was dissolving perhaps at a rate not easily observed in the length of time he travelled. Half a century after his book, during the last part of the 19th century, came the era of the great “Robber Barons,” men whose industrial enterprises had reached immense size and worldwide influence: men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and others. Their vast fortunes were based in the previously unprecedented scale of their operations and from the decline of competition in important industries. A little while later, into the early 20th century, more great fortunes rose through the invention and mass production of new products and processes: the work of people like Ford, Edison, DuPont, or Watson. Needless to say, that trend has continued, even accelerated, and today unbelievably large fortunes are generated by computer-related and other high-tech companies which enjoy near or complete monopoly situations over some years, not just in America but indeed often the world.

The families controlling these great fortunes – whether involved with privately-owned companies or important blocks of stock in public companies - are in every respect aristocracies just as were the earls, barons, and marquises of 14th century Europe despite the fact that some of them enjoy wearing blue jeans or tee shirts. I was at an oil industry conference once years ago and was handed a business card from a representative of the U.S. State Department. I was struck by the family name on the card, Pabst-Wurlitzer, presumably a hybrid of the Pabst Beer fortune and the Wurlitzer Organ fortune. Thus, in the late 20th century, we see the names from mass-produced products in America – from Heinz Ketchup to Hershey’s Chocolate – taking on the same kind of psychological weight and presence as the names of earlier noble families, Norfolk or Westminster, names reflecting ownership of places.

America’s modern aristocracy cannot literally own electoral districts or numbers of voters the way earls once owned the peasants on their land or later controlled certain parliamentary constituencies called pocket boroughs. But America has managed to develop a sophisticated system over time which serves the interests of the aristocrats in a democratic society. One of America’s genuinely original contributions to the modern business world is in marketing and advertising, and the principles of marketing and advertising are indispensable parts of modern elections, especially for national office. Except in rare and special circumstances, you cannot run for national office without a great deal of money, money for advertising, marketing, consultants, and travel. That money simply does not come from the average citizen, and although efforts are made periodically to mount special appeals to the public for “grassroots support,” those efforts themselves are costly and time-consuming, and they still leave the need for large donations which come from America’s aristocracy. Indeed, campaign fund-raising is itself a recognized specialty, a form of expertise, in America, one which involves contacts and access to those able to make substantial contributions.

The Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly ruled that money is a form of free speech in politics, and there is no time in the foreseeable future one can expect fundamental change in this view. The success of money in politics much resembles the success of money in advertising consumer products, with a political duopoly sharing the market for votes just as a food duopoly shares the market for hamburgers or soda pop. Money cannot guarantee you will win in every case, but, on average over numbers of elections, it very much is decisive. The arts of skilful marketing and advertising assure that. A clever message repeated over and over produces votes exactly the way a good ad campaign moves product off shelves, and in modern elections the politician’s message often no more represents his true capabilities than an ad fairly represents the claims of an over-the-counter remedy. Indeed, the public has very much been conditioned to expect politicians often will not do what they said they would do when running for office.

Money – often cynically called the mother’s milk of politics in America – greatly increases the chances of being elected, and, once elected, the giving of money assures donors access to those in office. In a large country like the modern United States, it is virtually impossible for most people ever to meet the president or most other high office holders. In most large states, it is virtually impossible to meet even your senator, there being, for example, in California more than sixteen million people for each of two senators. This was not the case historically in the United States. There was a time that it was at least conceivable for anyone to meet a senator or even a president. The presidents indeed once held levees at which the general public could come to the White House, look around, and shake hands. The effects of scale over time have changed the entire nature of the relationship between those who govern and the governed. So, the access which comes with large donations of money truly has become something approaching exclusive, a situation which again parallels the that of old aristocracies vis-à-vis the king or one of his highest officials.

Senators in contemporary America also possess many of the characteristics of aristocracy. There are only a small number of them, the cost of obtaining the office effectively closes access to most, they are not elected in any proportion to population, and they enjoy great power and privilege. Senators approve every important appointment made and treaty signed by a president: simply by the tardiness of their application they may make a president look feeble. They must also approve every piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives, sometimes called “the people’s house” because it is elected in proportion with population. With the odd exception, especially from smaller states, when you see pictures of American Senators, the images are genuinely patrician in nature. And with good reason because the occupants are either wealthy and influential people or they are dedicated to serving wealthy and influential people, Senate seats do not have a high turnover rate, some of them serving as personal possessions for decades, and the inheritance of seats from father to son is not uncommon.

But the aristocratic nature of the American Senate is not understood just by those facts. The business of the Senate is conducted by committees, and the chairmen of the major committees are extremely powerful people, controlling the flow of legislation and even the discussion of legislation to a considerable extent. The chairmanships are based on seniority in the majority party, and accumulating seniority means some very cosy relationships with powerful families and industries in a district so that the flow of money is large and dependable. Of course, as in life in general, longevity tends to generate conservative principles. Further, we have the privilege of any senator or group of senators to filibuster a bill: they may speak indefinitely to block the passage of legislation. Filibusters may be overcome by a vote of cloture, but this requires three-fifths of senators, sixty senators in today’s senate, a number often extremely difficult to obtain. Thus, legislation in the senate, when there is any opposition to it, requires not just a majority but a supermajority.


You might think from the speeches of American politicians at gatherings such as Fourth of July picnics that they confuse democracy with an exalted religious state, one in which presumably there can be no sin or error. Representatives of the American State Department frequently speak in similar terms, although theirs is a more diplomatically subdued tone, as they announce the annual list of short-comings of the world’s other governments, apparently having been delegated by a higher power the task of separating the world’s democratic wheat from its chaff.

The humorous suggestion of an association between American democracy and religion is more apt than it may seem at first gloss: the entire collection of the nation’s political rituals and practices has been called the American Civic Religion, and not without good reason. There is a rather remarkable conflation in America of the expected norms of national political expression with those of Christian fundamentalism.

This comes despite the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were not religious men as we usually understand the description. The most eminent founders were men of their time, which in the intellectual capitals of Europe was characterized by the Enlightenment. A couple of centuries of pointless, bloody religious wars and persecutions finally had produced a generation of thinkers about society and government in England and France for whom religious questions were no longer a chief concern and, in some cases, no concern at all. Many of these thinkers were Deists and some were Atheists, and just so the main group of America’s Founding Fathers – JeffersonWashington, Franklin, Morris, and a number of others included.

Yet, to this day in America, the myth persists that America was founded as a “Christian” nation, or at least a nation “under God.” The very fact that this is possible, in the face of contrary historical fact, points to another association between religion and democracy in America.


The expression America’s Civic Religion does not refer to simple, natural expressions of patriotism such as the occasional singing of the anthem or to celebrations around the anniversary of the country’s founding but to what are deliberate and seemingly needless personal public displays and declarations. Some of the displays are not personal but made in groups under considerable social pressure and even sometimes legislation.

The seemingly irresistible urge many Americans exhibit for public announcements of their patriotism and political views parallels closely what happens at fundamentalist revival meetings where believers in the congregation are expected to rise one by one during part of the service to give statements, an act typically called witnessing or giving testimony. When Christian fundamentalists do this, they are generally speaking to their own in the congregation, rather than to non-believing outsiders.

As part of America’s secular political religion, we have flags as lapel pins, not unusual for citizens of many countries when travelling abroad, but in America they are worn at home, and they literally are required of every national politician who does not want his patriotism promptly questioned. For some reason President Obama started his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination without the daily ritual of a flag pin on the lapel, but a storm of rather irrational arguments soon brought him around.

This wearing of flag pins and other patriotic trinkets while walking the streets of your own town does have some unpleasant past associations. One recalls historical practices such as wearing the tricolor cockade during the French Revolution, a practice which, likely more often than not, had more to do with self-preservation than patriotic fervor. Of course, there is always a war-paint aspect to the wearing of such emblems, and it is an interesting and revealing aspect of America’s democratic society that few Americans would publicly question why war paint should be needed in day-to-day life.

But flag pins are not enough of the dear old Stars and Stripes. Every time a speech is made during a campaign, you might have noticed, it is against a backdrop of a gigantic flag hoisted to the wall, something big enough to cover a large portion of a football field and likely requiring a crane to put up and take down, or at least against a whole row of more normal-sized flags on poles with eagle tops and usually gold fringe, stretching across the stage like soldiers on parade. So lots of flag behind and a flag pin on the lapel are the minimum requirements for every tired puff-piece speech from every high school gym or auditorium from one coast to the other. Surely, there can be no confusion in audiences about the nationality or loyalty of the speakers that requires identification of their nationality, but giving a speech in America without these props would be treated exactly like a priest showing up at mass without vestments and chalice.


But actually there is some confusion over loyalty, and that is part of the explanation for the constant display. There is a genuine thread of paranoid fear in America, likely part of the genetic legacy of Puritan ancestors, which requires assurance and more assurance and over-assurance. Evidence for this is found in many aspects of American life. America has displayed from its origins the need for a demon or enemy, the name of the enemy changing periodically but always pretty much being imbued with the same threatening qualities. It is for this reason, I believe Moby Dick the great early American book, far more so than Huckleberry Finn: the image of Captain Ahab chasing the white whale across the world’s oceans encapsulates a profound truth about America.

In recent years, the enemy has been Islam, all its exoticism and mystery portrayed in earlier Hollywood movies having been transformed into dark things and evil plots. Before that, but actually never really fading away, there was Communism as a world-wide conspiracy of the godless. Merging with that was an earlier paranoid strain focused on Asians. America’s native people certainly had their period of being treated as the fearful other. Previous to America’s Revolution and for some time later, there were waves of paralyzing fear over the possibility of slave revolts. The American Revolution itself came about in large part because many colonists viewed Britain’s mere administrative act of putting them under the Quebec Act as a dire threat from Papism.       

In grade schools, there is mandated daily pledging of the flag - this in addition to singing the anthem – the pledge being literally an oath taken in public, something which should be abhorrent to all who respect privacy of beliefs or regard the taking of public oaths as inappropriate. The pledge is given by placing the right hand over the heart, much as a witness in court raises his right hand to swear to the truth of his testimony. The practice, which has the important effect of making each person’s full participation easily observed by the others in the group, does represent some moderation over the one which preceded it, for up to America’s entry into World War II, the standard etiquette was the right hand, arm straight, raised at an angle towards the flag, a virtual duplicate of the Nazi salute.

The pledge does not have a long history. Coming into use at the end of the 19th century, de Toqueville would never have observed it, but it is no coincidence that that timing corresponds to America’s emergence as an imperial power in the world. A series of wars and fights and acquisitions belong to the period, including the forcible acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, both in 1898.  Interestingly, the original pledge was written by a Baptist minister.

The same hand-over-heart salute also applies to any passing of the American flag or playing of the national anthem, as when, accompanied by the flag, patriotic marching bands pass.

Patriotic marching bands are an American obsession. You might almost compare them to activities like soccer in other countries. Virtually every high school, college, and university in every small or large town is able to field at least one marching band playing bad music in uniforms resembling those favored by the armies of banana republics. The national total of patriotic signs of the cross - if we may so refer to the placing of right hands on hearts - made in America each year thus is likely beyond counting.

Patriotic bands often come accompanied by baton-twirling girls strutting in sequined or satiny outfits with boots, short skirts, and underpants in patriotic colors - the full band experience being a loud blend of showbiz and cheesecake.    

Armed “color guards” accompany the flag at even the most humble get-together such as a booze-up for veterans at the American Legion Hall. The rifles carried by the color guard often are decorated - plated with chrome with shiny black stocks and perhaps white leather straps - giving them a visual appeal somewhere between props in a Busby Berkeley number and the shiny vessels raised and lowered by a priest during mass.

There are prescribed rituals around what should be the simple act of raising or lowering an American flag: these are laid out in pamphlets for the general public and in military manuals. I once watched the flag being lowered at the Annapolis Naval Academy where the ceremony reminded me of nothing so much as figures on an antique town-hall clockwork going through a sequence of jerky movements with the striking of the hour.

The flag is not to be left exposed to the dark, so just before sunset is the designated time for the lowering ritual. Why would it matter if a flag were left flying at night? Here superstition clearly plays a role. It is permitted under spotlights, a staging which possibly suggests Francis Scott Key’s vision of it on the battlements under “the rockets’ red glare.” It is all quite melodramatic, but then so are most religious ceremonies.

There is even a prescribed ritual for folding the flag when it is taken down or removing it from the top of a casket at a burial: it is to be folded in a sequence which result in a fat triangular bundle called a “cocked hat” in memory of the military headgear of officers in the late eighteenth century, and with only the blue and the stars showing on the outside. Why an eighteenth century hat? Who knows, but clearly there is the same obsessive, ritualistic quality we find in the prescribed movements of a priest during mass.

You cannot just throw away an old flag either: there are rules for destroying a flag once it has been damaged or has become faded or even has merely touched the ground. It is to be reverently handled by the acolyte who either cuts the blue union from the body of the flag, leaving it safe for disposal then as mere cloth, or the entire flag is respectfully burnt, presumably as though it were a departed loved one being cremated.

Of course, America is a big, brawling, and often extremely messy country, and it includes many who neglect the fine points of some of these official practices, but it is not shady used car dealers, motorcycle gangs, or urban street youth who set the nation’s official tone and rules.

There is a rather scholastic practice common among conservative and militia types of carrying in one’s wallet a folded copy of the American Constitution, leaving the practitioner in a position to settle arguments about rights on the spot. former Congressman Tom DeLay, charged with some very doubtful practices in amassing a fortune in campaign contributions, was a prominent wallet-carrier, always ready to pull it out and start quoting.    

There are a good many more testimonials of faith, but I think my favourite is the interminable series of debates in Congress during the last half of the twentieth century on passing an amendment to the Constitution allowing Congress to outlaw desecration of the flag, a so-called flag-burning amendment. The House of Representatives actually several times passed such an amendment, and the Senate came very close to doing so, but in any case long periods of time were spent arguing and posing before cameras over what is surely a trivial issue.

For those unfamiliar, the entire process required to amend the American Constitution is so complex and demanding that only the most deadly serious or politically-charged topics ever are considered. Of course, the catch in the case of flag-burning always is the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. A flag is just a piece of dyed cloth and disposing of it or burning it for some show or protest should be close to indistinguishable from the way you treat an old suit of clothes. But try telling that to a red-blooded patriot, and you could wind up with some extensive bruises for your trouble. How is it that a bit of dyed cloth gets magically transmuted? You might well ask a priest the same question about the wafer and wine.

That whole set of American political behaviors closely mimics religion in its many rituals and in its commandments. What’s more, America’s Civic Religion has its own Holy Writ in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, its own Twelve Apostles in the Founding Fathers, its panoply of saints from Betsy Ross to General MacArthur, and even its own Judas Iscariot in Benedict Arnold. No wonder many Americans get confused about its being a Christian nation.


One argument often heard from more thoughtful Americans trying to explain the seemingly overabundant expressions of patriotism is that the country is a very young one, still uncertain of itself, still awkward in many of its practices. Also, the idea is advanced that the melodramatic expressions are over-reactions to sensitivity around identity. This may have once been the case, but more than two and a quarter centuries after the Revolution seems a bit long to support the argument, at least without raising new issues around a very slow rate of maturing in American society.

There definitely was a time in the 19th century when Americans were self-conscious and ambivalent and over-protective around their identity. A number of American writers went to live in Europe to escape what they regarded as a parochial and rather artistically limiting society. At the same time, other American writers engaged in stubborn efforts to exalt American attitudes and ways in the world’s eyes. During the 19th century a number of important European visitors to American made some fairly tough observations on the state of the society. Apart from the famous, published observations of, for example, Dickens, there were many observations on such day-to-day matters as the practice of chewing tobacco and spitting so common in America that every public building had dozens of spittoons and stained carpets.


Yet another argument, one with a good deal of merit, is that put forward by Conor Cruise O’Brien that America’s excessive patriotic expression serves as a kind of defense against other tendencies in the society which would work against democracy. O’Brien stresses that the one important purpose that all the noise serves, the only welcome and beneficial one for the world at large, is in helping suppress a tendency, easily observable and consistently present through America’s history, towards strong men, often military types, a lack of patience with liberal milksops, and a recurring attraction to authoritarian measures and swift justice and heavy punishment – a tendency, in a word, towards fascism.

That shouldn’t surprise. Deference to authority is a characteristic of fundamentalist religion, whether the authority is understood as the literal words of the Bible or the words of a charismatic religious leader. Characteristic too is the urge for a certain kind of uniformity in human behavior: fundamentalist Christians believe that all people equally require salvation through Jesus and that those who have found that salvation will ever after conduct their lives within certain well-defined rules and standards. Authority and a drive for social uniformity are also, without doubt, fascism’s key characteristics.

The tendency towards fascism in America was observed by the great American journalist, William L. Shirer, around the time of his reporting on Nazi Germany, "Perhaps America will one day go fascist democratically, by popular vote." Or there is novelist Sinclair Lewis’s line about fascism coming to America draped in the flag and carrying a cross. Influential historical figures like Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor or Charles Linbergh displayed powerful attractions in that direction: Hitler kept Ford’s photo on the wall near his desk in the Chancery and Stalin admired and tried to copy Taylor’s scientific management. This thread in America goes back to John Adams and the Alien and Sedition laws - under which journalists could be, and were, imprisoned for saying the wrong thing - and to the excesses of Thomas Jefferson who one moment could sound like a saintly spokesman for a free society and the next remarkably like an advocate for the opposite. Indeed, Jefferson didn’t just sound that way, he acted that way a number of times in his political career, including his assistance to Napoleon in attempting to put down Haiti’s slave revolt and his imposition, complete with spies and harsh enforcement, of an embargo against trade with Britain which destroyed huge sectors of the New England economy. As well, there was his admiration for the excesses of the French Revolution and all his talk about having to spill blood every twenty years or so for freedom.


Of course, democracy is just a set of rules for organizing ourselves into a society of laws, and there are many variations possible in those rules, and even the best sets of rules, carefully considered as to their fairness, may have some unpleasant consequences. But most democratic governments do not regularly scrutinize their rules in order to improve them, and this may be truest of all in the case of the United States, because it has treated as hallowed rules and institutions which were long ago obsolete from a democratic point of view: these include the Electoral College for presidential elections, the cloture rules for the Senate, the very make-up of the Senate in not reflecting population, the way campaigns are financed, and quite a number of equally important matters.

Most democratic governments are organized with sets of rules which are haphazard collections from the past, accumulations of the accidents of history, and most certainly, even rules designed originally with the intention of entrenching privilege and bias.

I use the term democratic government quite deliberately to distinguish the many hybrid forms which may even have less in them of democracy than of other forms of government. Democracy itself, at least at this stage of human development, is always an ideal which remains an ideal in not being too closely defined. In general, we understand by that ideal a set of rules whereby every citizen has the franchise and exercises it to direct the actions of government, or at least the weighty actions of government. The more complications there are in the rules and the more links to go through in order to legislate, the more remote we are from democracy.

Of course, when American politicians speak about democracy, it is not democracy in general whose praises are sung but America’s particular brand. And that is not an unimportant point since America’s system of government, while having many democratic aspects, is, even in the twenty-first century, a considerable way from anything we could fairly call democracy. Early Americans rarely used the word democracy, instead almost always emphasizing the country’s identity as a republic. Now, a republic is little more than a government without a monarch, one represented by some person or persons elected by a group granted the franchise, however small and exclusive that group might be. There were a number of republics before the United States, including the Venetian and the Netherlands, and a republic need not be at all democratic. If only a small and privileged group holds the franchise, then a republic may be no more democratic than a constitutional, or limited, monarchy. Strictly speaking, at the time of America’s founding, the British monarch had lost so much power to Parliament through several centuries of progressive change and civil war and revolution, that Britain was every bit as democratic as the United States. It may even be not far from a monarchy with few constitutional limits, for a small group of privileged people selecting a leader is not so different to a kingdom with a group of powerful lords who may uphold or topple him.

Democracy may be viewed as a special kind of limit in human political society, the kind we find in the mathematics of differential calculus, something we may approach ever more closely but actually never reach. In that sense democracy is always an approximation, but some approximations are close and some are wildly off.

The world’s major democratic governments appear theoretically organized as Burkean democracies, wherein voters periodically choose representatives who are then to exercise judgment over issues during the time they hold office, having the time and resources to gain expertise as they proceed. In the eighteenth century, when parliaments first were exercising great independent strength, political parties as we know them had not taken hold. The individual member mattered, and parliamentary business often resembled a series of temporary alliances, but the gradual emergence of major entrenched parties, both in parliaments and congresses, has changed all that. We also have, during the twentieth century, the emergence in parliaments of a party’s leader demanding close to complete obedience by members in voting and legislation.

Thus prime ministers have emerged as extremely powerful figures, able to behave quite closely to dictatorial figures in foreign or domestic affairs, at least until such time as their party members revolt. The President in American-style government is a comparatively weak figure in domestic affairs because he does not lead the legislature. However because the Constitution made the President Commander-in-Chief, he has a huge authority in military matters.

This naming of the president as commander-in-chief surely represents one of the serious defects of the Constitution. The Founders believed they had a proper balance and division of power in giving only Congress the power to declare war while making the president commander. But that has proved very faulty in the 20th century. Most of America’s wars since the end of World War II, and there have been many, never involved a declaration of war. It’s almost as though the concept of a declaration of war has become outdated, a relic of the 18th century. But the President’s power as commander-in-chief is no relic. That has become immensely important with a gigantic standing armed forces, something most of the Founding Fathers could not have imagined and by which they would likely be horrified. After America’s ghastly debacle in Vietnam, new laws were passed limiting the president’s unilateral powers over the armed forces, but these just slow things up a bit and are no barrier to a determined president, as George Bush demonstrated with the completely illegal invasion of Iraq.

Today, few elected officials anywhere exercise the tough-minded, independent judgment of an Edmund Burke: the day-to-day practice certainly includes checking the political winds in one’s constituency before charting a course on an issue. But more important still are the political winds of the member’s party leadership, for parties dominate most political activity, leaving room only rarely for a member to depart out of consideration for local constituency sensibilities.

Already in that rough sketch we can see how far from democracy we are.

Some countries allow or mandate referendums – either binding or non-binding - for certain limited matters, such referendums, especially binding ones, being as close as we get to the ideal of democracy. While referendums have been used by state governments in the United States, they are not a practice of the national government. 


Winston Churchill gave us one of the definitive comments on democratic government when he said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.

Churchill’s observation is far more than a witty quip, for it certainly identifies one of the fundamental limits of democracy, a tough and seemingly insoluble conundrum. Democracy, as Churchill understood it, is often inefficient, messy, and laggard in dealing with great problems, at least as viewed from the perspective of a person with critical intelligence, brusque personality, and impatience for action – the very kind of man Churchill was. For certainly, a man of Churchill’s exceptional gifts often is able to see an important problem, at least in those areas upon which his interests are focused, before others and often capable of proposing an appropriate solution.

But there have been even more gifted men in history, men who enjoyed power without the constraints of democratic institutions, whose interests focused on matters which brought untold horror to millions - Napoleon readily comes to mind.   

Churchill certainly had a claim to authority on the subject of democracy, being an historian of distinction and having served as a genuinely inspiring symbol for the hopes of democratic society during the greatest war in human history.

Yet, as is perhaps not so widely known, Churchill was more than a little doubtful about the most basic component of democracy, the average voter. He was actually savagely cynical on the subject, having once remarked that the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Of course, further testifying to the ambiguity of Churchill on democracy, we have the fact that at the same time he served as a great symbol to free societies warring against tyrants, he was devoted to the continuation of the British Empire, a devotion which influenced his political behaviour during and after the war.


In their complexity and ambiguity, Churchill’s views perhaps provide the perfect starting point in discussing the limits of democracy, although Churchill was not unique in these views among Western statesmen of his time. One finds similar themes in the thoughts and behaviors of Franklin Roosevelt or Charles de Gaulle. Roosevelt stood against the enslavement of others by fascist dictators, yet he was a happy builder of American empire and a politician who did not interfere in some very dark corners of his own society where it might cause problems with his majority. De Gaulle, much like Churchill, was an admirer of empire, so long as it was French.  

Empire and democracy are certainly mutually exclusive concepts if by democracy you include all the actors in the story, and not just those in the “mother country.” But many people do not seem to make this distinction. Americans today, many of them, have little problem regarding the nation’s interventions abroad as legitimate because America itself has democratic government, even though those two concepts surely are non sequiturs.

Americans see their origins as a great revolt against British imperial tyranny, and the British establishment of the 18th century saw their Parliament’s rule in the American colonies as appropriate and even beneficent.

The data on colonial American life expectancy, births, and health of population plus the notable comments of some observers from abroad tend to support the historical British view. Many visitors from abroad commented on the relative freedom of the colonies, the lack of war, the freedom from conscription, and the energetic qualities of the local people. Some insightful people rated the pre-revolutionary colonies as the best known place on earth when all factors were considered.

So why was there an American Revolution, perhaps more accurately named an American Revolt because the colonies were simply throwing off rule from abroad rather than entering into any kind of radical departure in the way society was organized? There were a number of republics before America, and Britain herself was well along the path towards more democratic government despite being a monarchy. Newly-independent America certainly was no more democratic than Great Britain, and many of the thoughts and concepts of government attributed to the “Founding Fathers” were not original, indeed most of them originated earlier with British thinkers and the French philosophes.

Nor was America in any meaningful sense more free after the Revolution. It was free of the sensible Crown rules which had tried to prevent rampaging expansion and exploitation over the Indian territories west of the colonies as in the Ohio Valley, or perhaps that is an overstatement since the colonists regularly had broken those rules seeking quick fortunes, George Washington chief amongst them with his land speculation. America was free of British rules governing imports and tariffs, but then many colonists had studiously ignored those rules, men like John Hancock having made fortunes in smuggling, a major colonial industry. America was freed from the wild, paranoid fears about the Pope taking over which Britain’s institution of the Quebec Act had engendered, a major cause of the rebellion, or perhaps that is even going too far since anti-popery remained a fierce attitude in the colonies, with effigies of the pope burned every November for decades and decades afterwards.


Apart from the obvious anti-democratic business of empires or spheres of influence maintained by military force, it is a notable that in all modern democratic societies large parts of the state and its private institutions are organized along lines virtually the opposite to democracy: they are organized along authoritarian lines.

This is remarkably so in the case of the United States. The Pentagon, the C.I.A., thirteen other intelligence agencies at last count, and various national police forces. We might also include major defense contractors working on top secret projects. All these institutions are not only secretive, they are organized on lines of authority little different to those in 16th century societies. Democracy, in any form has no role in these institutions, except presumably to direct their activities at a high level.

It is easy to say that because the national government directing these powerful institutions is itself democratic that the institutions serve democratic principles, but something’s being easy to say does not make it true. Power is power, however granted, and these institutions are centers of great power, and they are not, nor can they reasonably be expected to be, effectively scrutinized and directed by people serving the interests of democracy.

In many cases, perhaps most, such institutions actually enjoy great influence over the democratic government supposedly directing them. Hoover’s FBI springs immediately to mind. Naturally enough with these secretive institutions we never know very much concerning details of their activities, yet there are others instances which have come to light. The CIA’s misleading of a new and inexperienced President John Kennedy about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion was certainly an example.

The oversight committees of Congress must almost by definition be highly ineffective with regard to these complex and secretive institutions. Busy politicians can hardly be expected to keep up with vast resources and cleverness and ruthlessness of major intelligence figures. These powerful agencies include those who can print perfect duplicate currency, manufacture perfect false passports, and generate recordings or photos which are pure fantasy. Any congressman or senator on a committee who did manage to penetrate to some inappropriate truths would hardly be in a position to use the information in any way.

To whom would he turn with his information? Committee chairmen are invariably long-term, often ancient, politicians who, much like the heads of many government regulatory agencies, are closely bonded to the interests of the institution they oversee. To publicly suggest problems with such agencies would open any politician to ridicule, embarrassment, and even reprisals from people who have great resources at their disposal. We recall former CIA Director Richard Helms saying in testimony once that despite being under oath he regarded it as his responsibility not to tell the truth if it revealed secrets.

And, remember, a common activity of the CIA is subsidizing politicians and parties abroad to assure their election prospects against opponents, and who can reasonably doubt that that same nefarious activity may be used against selected American politicians? Of course, there is the infamous case in Britain of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s sudden retirement in the 1970s. There is substantial reason to believe it was the result of MI6 breaking into Wilson’s office and obtaining some embarrassing documents and recordings.

Besides, as we shall see, the national government itself often acts along undemocratic, and even anti-democratic, lines, so that effective oversight is not only exceedingly difficult, it often does not exist by choice. If you accept the idea, which I happen to believe is impossible to refute convincingly, that these great institutions effectively become a kind of government within a government – an ongoing establishment of careerists with sensitive and powerful jobs and great resources at their command – then we come to a very important set of limits in American democracy or in any democracy so organized.

State secrets are just one aspect of this government within a government, and state secrets, I believe, far more often than not, are classified only because they are embarrassing or compromising to an agency which has blundered or done something generally regarded as unacceptable or even criminal, not because they represent genuine threats to national security. We have, again considering the highly secretive nature of these agencies, a number of the most obvious failures by them in recent history: the assassination of an American president despite known threats; the failure to see the coming collapse of the Soviet Union, an epochal event of the twentieth century; the highly successful and complex attack of 9/11; and a number of terribly damaging spies. None of these events have been explained to the satisfaction of clear-thinking people, they remain surrounded with a deliberately generated fog of nonsense. Who can doubt that countless smaller events are classified only for what they reveal of incompetence, waste, or criminality? 

Yet the citizens of every democracy tolerate the ongoing existence of great dark areas in their knowledge labelled as secret. It has been shown, many times, in the United States and other places where the practice of secrets is especially far-ranging, that when some of them finally come to be known decades later, the claim of their importance to national security is often laughable. Indeed, often the reverse is the case: national security in the truest sense is hurt by secrets which do not need to be secret.

Just in my lifetime, there have been examples of the last phenomenon. You do not have to be what is called a conspiracy theorist - sometimes a warranted label for the paranoid extremes of every human society, but too often a way of demonizing those who have honest questions and true observations about great events – to accept that assertion.

Indeed, the mushroom-like growth in size and variety of national security agencies in the United States since WWII is breathtaking. The CIA, for example, was signed into existence by President Truman in the belief that future executive decisions needed the support of sound, unbiased information about the world. It started as a fairly modest enterprise but in a matter of decades was consuming tens of billions of dollars. Since the events of 9/11 when the CIA’s annual budget had been estimated at around 30 billion dollars – the actual numbers are always secret - the size of the CIA’s budget has undoubtedly undergone a massive inflation, as have those of its many sister agencies.

Even during Truman’s term, already there were signs of trouble with the CIA. Truman expressed great concern over the operations side of the CIA versus its purely information-gathering side. Reasons for that concern have only multiplied over the years. Already by Kennedy’s time, CIA was running huge enterprises in secret, such as its anti-Castro operations. At that time, the CIA’s operations in the Southern United States for recruiting, training, arming, and organizing violent anti-Castro activities could be characterized as a gigantic terrorist enterprise, a company of thousands of workers with a budget of millions of dollars, dwarfing what we know of the pathetic little camp of Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.

That vast, secret enterprise engaged in many attempted assassinations, invasion, intimidation of American opposition, spying on Americans, the downing of at least one Cuban airliner, shooting-up Russian ships in Cuban ports, planting bombs in Cuban hotels, and gun-running. If that list of activities doesn’t constitute terror on a grand scale, it’s hard to know what would qualify.

The full story of that time undoubtedly has never been told, but the Church Senate Committee of the 1970s uncovered enough rodent trails to shake the confidence of many in the agency’s integrity. High-ranking CIA employees effectively recruited and worked with elements of the American Mafia towards the goal of assassinating Castro and accomplishing other highly unethical ends. And there was a great deal of confusion, which remains today, over the degree of the president’s knowledge and control of those events.

Following Church’s limited revelations, new efforts were made to reassert control over, and limit, the operations side of the CIA, but it wasn’t long before enthusiasts of operations were given their way under Reagan. Today, following 9/11, operations appear to have a greater role than ever. Where once, for some brief years after the Church Committee, assassination was explicitly forbidden, today we have regular assassinations by missiles fired from computer-controlled drones on the other side of the planet. Dozens of them, people tracked and killed by machines with no charges, no trial, and no evidence, just a technician sitting somewhere in a locked room guiding a death-dealing machine to its human targets. As a matter of fact, many others are routinely killed – neighbors and relatives – each time one of these technicians plays his deadly computer game.

Is it rational to expect that an organization with virtually bottomless resources, one staffed with large numbers of people whose entire careers are dedicated to lying, cheating, and even murder, will behave as an obedient servant when it sees political or social events inside the country moving in directions it regards as unfavourable to its interests? Of course not, and while the tales of such behaviour are likely among the most closely guarded secrets, we do have hard examples adequate to demonstrate the point, a point whose intuitive truth should be clear enough.         


Abraham Lincoln reassured Americans about the nature of democratic government in America with his pleasant saying that you can fool some people all the time, and all people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It was classic Lincoln as homespun political philosopher.

Lincoln, regrettably, has been proved wrong on all counts. First, to direct or alter the course of elections, it is only necessary to fool all the people part of the time or indeed to fool a good portion all of the time, and we have many instances of both these situations having occurred in American history. The massive private financing of national elections in America is at its heart a mechanism to gain office and the spoils of office by misinforming voters.

Many of America’s “founding fathers” did not trust democracy, and the basis of their mistrust was the belief that citizens of substance had the only stake in society that warranted their receiving the franchise. Equally, they held the belief that a wider franchise offered the opportunity for the mob with no serious stake in society to vote to deprive those who had a stake of their wealth.

The protection against democracy of granting only a small fraction of white males the franchise - those meeting criteria of wealth - was buttressed by a series of Constitutional structures to make strong barriers against democracy. First, the Constitution creating the barriers was itself made excruciatingly difficult to alter. Then the Senate was made an appointed, rather than elected, body, the Senate being the part of the legislature with the great power of approving all presidential appointments and treaties while exercising a veto on acts of the House of Representatives. Further, the direct election of the president was given to a small, privileged group called the Electoral College: the votes of even the limited population who had the franchise being overridden by the still smaller, still more privileged group appointed to the College.

After two centuries of change and evolution in the Constitution, its mechanism of interpretation, and the extension of the franchise, the fears of the founders remain effectively threaded into the fabric of American society. Perhaps the main way - but not the only way, as we shall see later – those fears work today is through the system of campaign financing. In general, those who are best financed will win, but in a duopoly party system, even the party which is less well financed still clearly represents the interests of the people giving all that money.

And it is a great deal of money indeed. It is estimated that an American Senator must spend on average about two-thirds of his or her time chasing campaign funds. A Senate seat in a major state requires on the order of fifteen million dollars for each election. But the amounts just keep growing. Hillary Clinton spent an almost unbelievable $36 million in 2006 for her New York Senate seat, with the total spent by both candidates being $41 million. Races in Pennsylvania and Missouri saw amounts of $38 million and $28 million spent for one seat each. No one but the most dreamy-eyed sentimentalist believes that those amounts are donated through a sense of civic duty or public spirit. If nothing else, substantial contributions buy access, so that political access is rationed in America, as is the case for so many other things, from healthcare to education or legal representation, largely by money. 

By Lincoln’s day, the original narrow limits on the franchise had broadened, but nothing which genuinely qualified as democracy had yet emerged, the Senate being still appointed and the President still being elected by a small and elite political group and a minority of voters even being qualified to vote. Lincoln, naturally enough, accepted many of the assumptions and attitudes of his day, including limits on democracy. His words, for example, on extending the franchise to freed slaves were quite guarded and conservative: perhaps, he said, it could be extended to a few of the most intelligent.

Yet I’m pretty sure Lincoln would have dumbfounded by a single national election in which a billion dollars is spent, and spent largely on advertising, polling, marketing research, spokespeople, and artificially-staged rallies. I feel confident that the thoughtful man who debated weighty matters with hand-written words would be horrified by American elections with debates which are nothing more than joint press conferences, featuring candidates sporting blow-dried hair, capped perfect teeth, and pancake make-up, supported by budgets for vacuous advertising in the hundreds of millions of dollars, teams of political flaks paid to pleasantly lie and insincerely praise, and a cast of carefully rehearsed candidates who never actually answer a question and indeed rarely ever touch a genuine issue.

And Lincoln was certainly not the innocent, intelligent rustic he is often regarded or portrayed. He was a tough, self-made man who went from squalor in a dirt-floor cabin to a handsome, well furnished, two-floor home built to his family’s needs. He was shrewd, anything but naïve, sceptical about many human beliefs, and a man who took less than two years of formal education and made himself a successful corporate lawyer, representing an important company like the Illinois Central.

Of course, what Lincoln truly represents in American history is the hard man who finally welded together a United States that would become a world industrial power, a United States whose regionalism, with institutions such as slavery constantly reinforcing regionalism, could often barely function as a single government. To do this, Lincoln had to ride over the principle of self-determination and launch a great and bloody war. To this day, it is not at all clear that he was justified since an independent Confederacy would certainly have been forced both by social pressures and economic needs to end slavery on its own in a few decades, as happened in many other jurisdictions. 


With the rise of what Dwight Eisenhower aptly called the military-industrial complex, we have an increasingly common situation in which all, or virtually all, the people are being fooled all of the time, at least in some vital areas of knowledge. Indeed, I think Jerome Weisner, former President of M.I.T., put it well when he extended Eisenhower’s warning, "It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex, but rather, of keeping the United States from becoming a totally military culture."

The military by its very nature represents the very opposite of democracy: it is hierarchal and authoritarian, its job is control through killing and destruction, and it is always secretive. The rise in the size and influence of great authoritarian institutions like the intelligence establishment at the center of power in the United States parallels the rise in size and importance of the military, which serves the international imperial role demanded of it. huge permanent secret-service establishments, vast subsidized military contractors, and a large permanent military class exist precisely to serve those interests and grow as they grow.

If knowledge is power – a dictum as true as when it first was uttered and one, surely, with a special application to democracy – how can we ignore the backward-flowing power of ultra-secretive agencies over voters who must often cast ballots in blindness or, increasingly, armed with deliberate misinformation?

Just one example of the pernicious effects of ultra-secretiveness upon democratic society, of the scores one could cite, would be American elections leading up to, and during, the Vietnam War. The highly calculated and secretive nature of the American government’s efforts in Vietnam was largely unknown to American voters, starting with elaborate efforts to support continued French colonialism in Indochina during the early 1950s.

One of America’s popular attitudes early in the 20th century was against imperial power. The fact that many ordinary Americans had no sympathy with European imperialism was exploited time and time again by an American establishment keen on its own imperial destiny, most notably the complete assumption of Britain’s role in the world after World War II.  The same line had previously been used towards Spain in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War.

So how was it that Americans during the 1950s supported governments which vigorously supported a renewed French imperialism? For the most part, they simply did not know, and that secret activity was to further and further embroil the U.S. into affairs in that part of the world, leading almost inevitably, when all factors are taken into account, to the Vietnam War, that gigantic and pointless waste of life and resources.    

When the cause of French imperialism in Indochina was lost, Washington’s establishment worked diligently towards establishing and supporting a rump state of South Vietnam, a place which never possessed any more democratic bona fides than the Communist North: it served as an American imperial foothold in Asia at a time of the rise of communist China.

There was the almost ridiculous casus belli called the Gulf of Tonkin incident - its most generous explanation being a sailor hearing his own ship’s propellers and convincing himself he heard a torpedo - was exploded by an establishment eager for war into an excuse to launch a great army to the other side of the world.

Later, there were the secret bombings and incursions of Cambodia, an activity directly responsible for the fall of a neutral government and the coming of “the killing fields.”

Through all of that, Americans voted largely in blindness over events which would demand many to give up their lives, destroy millions of others in a great holocaust, and consume countless resources, eventually causing the serious depreciation of the currency.  And, as if all that were not enough, the war almost ripped American society in two.

I think it fair to say that those are about as high as the stakes could be in elections, yet Americans voted through most of those events with no accurate understanding.

America’s great authoritarian institutions provide continuity in policy, as well as expertise, but their very size, relative independence, access to secrets, virtually limitless resources, and totem-like association with patriotism in a country where patriotism is a round-the-clock exercise not a little like fundamentalists professing Christ give them an inordinate degree of power and authority.

Some readers will at first regard that as an exaggerated claim, but if they will consider just some of the real-world examples of which we are aware, there undoubtedly being many of which we are not, they will likely convince themselves.

After all, what are the main day-in, day-out tasks of the “operations side” of intelligence agencies? In all major countries, they include disrupting other governments or organizations whose views or policies are unwelcome, influencing the rise of selected leaders in many countries, influencing the outcomes of elections, and, in the extreme, limit, overthrowing governments and assassinating leaders.

Even in a “nice,” largely congenial country like Canada, we see such things from what are essentially authoritarian agencies: our fabled RCMP – subject of countless pleasant myths from “always getting their man” to Dudley Do-Right or Sergeant Preston of the Yukon - a few years back, directly interfered in a national election with the announcement that it was investigating certain matters touching one of the political parties. Nothing came of it, but the well-timed public announcement had its effect, much like a well disguised road-side bomb in Afghanistan.

The RCMP had a not well understood role in the days of extremism in Quebec, being caught red-handed in some kind of minor agent provocateur act involving burning a building. Again in the wake of 9/11, the RCMP appears to have been instrumental in America’s disgraceful treatment of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian of Syrian origin whom American authorities deliberately deported to Syria for a long bout of torture after his plane merely made a stop-over in the United States.

One of Britain’s intelligence services, MI5, almost certainly played a role in discrediting Prime Minister Harold Wilson during his second time in office during the 1970s. MI5 had many materials to manipulate: Wilson was generally regarded as a highly intelligent and crafty man, which indeed he was, but one dedicated to changing many aspects of British society in a progressive direction.

Wilson also had been secretly accused by a Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, in 1963 of being a KGB spy. It was the kind of accusation, unsubstantiated to this day, that was a gift to political opponents during the Cold War. The then-influential James Angleton of the C.I.A., among others, accepted the accusation as true and undoubtedly worked towards pressuring British intelligence to act, British intelligence then being highly vulnerable to pressure after the highly successful exploits of the Cambridge circle of spies. Wilson resignation in 1976 surprised the world, and it most likely reflected inappropriate activities by MI5 putting pressure on him.

The creepy, quiet little political terror imposed on America for decades by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, while the subject of several excellent books, remains unappreciated by the average American. Hoover used his privileged position to spy on anyone who had political power, any public figure who either threatened his hold on power or represented values he personally deemed un-American, or indeed to influence the outcomes of elections.

Members of Congress for decades lived in genuine fear of his secret files on their private lives – both real and imagined. Hoover only had to make the most indirect and glancing reference in a private talk to achieve remarkable changes in a politician’s public stance. Hoover unquestionably effectively blackmailed several American presidents – notoriously including John Kennedy – presidents who on paper controlled his appointment. He typically ignored the various Attorneys General, cabinet officials, appointed as his direct bosses.

With the CIA having participated in many coups d’etat abroad – and importantly, coups including a number against democratically elected governments, as those in IranGuatemala, and Chile – who is naïve enough to believe to believe that that agency never touches the internal affairs of the United States? I don’t mean violent activity like coups, but the CIA has a huge repertoire of techniques and games that it can play. The CIA regularly works in other countries to influence elections by putting favored figures on secret pensions, by working to discredit politicians not favored, by subsidizing organizations or parties, and by creating with its boundless resources propaganda and disinformation of every description.

Who can trace a secret verbal suggestion from an agency official to an important reporter or editor which serves to give life to a noxious story? And who knows how many reporters or editors are actually closet agency personnel? Only fairly recently we had the notorious case of Judith Miller working at the much-vaunted New York Times, effectively helping to discredit those who worked against the invasion of Iraq.

During the Kennedy years, the CIA was so deeply involved in anti-Cuban activity, it ran a giant, secret terrorist operation with camps in places like Florida which made Osama bin Laden’s redoubt in the mountains of Afghanistan resemble a boy scout camp. Thousands were trained, millions spent, warehouses of weapons and explosives supplied, assassinations and terrorists acts planned – all on American soil, all paid for by American taxpayers.

Yes, that ghastly operation was approved by the highest levels of the American government, but who can possibly maintain tight control on such vast and secret operations and resources? Clearly, the American government then could not, because mysteries around those times were still being revealed more than a decade later by the Church Senate Committee, and the mystery around Kennedy’s assassination remains a mystery to this day. 

When you have a two-party system, it is unavoidable that you have what economists call bundling applying to politics. A vote for a candidate or party represents a vote for a bundle of policies and views. Most voters have one or a few policies for which they care deeply, and they accordingly vote on that basis. But that means that on many, or even most, other policies the voter’s views are not represented.

The effect of bundling in voting is that a national government may often speak with democratic legitimacy while in fact saying things which do not represent a majority of voters’ views. On minor issues, this essentially undemocratic result may not be regarded by most people as a difficult result, but on important issues, this result can be highly disturbing.   

Of course, what is important to American voters at any given time will itself reflect the impact of other democracy-distorting influences, including most notably the great impact of campaign contributions upon the size and reach of every candidate’s advertising and the impact of what is stressed day by day in the corporate media where most busy people obtain their sense of what is happening in the world.

These two influences are immensely important.

Where once in America, the press was somewhat competitive, today there can be no doubt that it is concentrated into relatively few hands, and this change towards great concentration is characteristic of the world’s press. Economists know that industries which often begin as fairly competitive – at least roughly approximating the theoretical concept of perfect competition which underlies all generalized predictions of the role of competitors in markets - over time tend to become imperfectly competitive or even quasi-monopolies.

This pattern has occurred in many industries from car manufacturing to candy-bar companies. There are a number of reasons for this common phenomenon, but it is closely related to the concentration of capital in the functioning of a business; huge plants for huge markets and huge distribution and marketing systems create advantages of economies of scale which gradually render smaller competitors impotent. The high capital costs of entering such an industry act effectively as what economists call barriers to entry against new competitors.

The effects of this process have been underway for decades in the press and broadcasting. Who could hope to compete with the cost structure of one of the world-scale “media” companies in any given market? Indeed, once this stage of concentration is reached in any industry, we have not only the natural barrier to entry of capital costs but others  which come into play.

Such a large company can do many things to hurt upstart competition, including dropping the rates of its local advertising – effectively subsidizing them with revenue from other markets – long enough to drive its small, far less flexible competitor out of business. It may also use advertising and marketing promotions, which it again is able effectively to subsidize from other operations, to help drive upstart companies out of business.

Clearly, the editorial judgements and views of gigantic national, and even international, corporations – themselves, we must remember, being anything but democratic institutions - are not likely to take an open and liberal (in the best sense of the word) view of issues, even in the rare case where they do not have close ties with a party. Moreover, what we increasingly find in such companies is a centralized direction of editorial material and news policy. In one large Canadian media company, editorials for its various local papers are actually largely the product of corporate headquarters, much the way the mix of ingredients in a Big Mac anywhere in the world are determined in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Such concentrated situations in a market do not last indefinitely, but they last long enough to serve defined interests extremely well for a considerable time. What Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the death of old industries displaced inevitably by new ones, comes into play, although not necessarily over any short time horizon.

What really is behind creative destruction is the constant flow of changing technology, and when the technology for doing something changes significantly, the costs of doing it also change. When you change the technology enough, you actually change the nature of the market itself. The automobile displaced horses and wagons, but it did more than displace them: the market for automobiles is different and more complicated than was the historical one for horses and wagons.  

Personal computers and the Internet clearly today are eroding the revenues of traditional newspapers – in such historically lucrative areas as classified advertising – while enjoying the much lower costs of electronic production and distribution. However, it is not at all clear that the new set of great changes underway are going to result in a more democratic press. Too many things are happening at the same time to safely predict the outcome, but there ultimately be the same pattern of development in Internet communication of information as has happened in the printed or broadcast versions.

The contemporary trend only more deeply entrenches A. J. Liebling’s clever aphorism about freedom of the press being guaranteed only to those who own one.

Bias however is not new to the press: it has always been part of the fabric of newspapers going back to the beginnings of the American Republic. Each political party has its “own” newspapers, that is papers which favor the party’s views or policies, which may even be owned by people influential in the party.

Early on in America, parties showed little shame in controlling newspapers on their behalf. Indeed, the newspapers they controlled showed little shame in their often vicious and name-calling attacks on political opponents. Thomas Jefferson, for example, hired a couple of pretty unscrupulous fellows, Philip Freneau and James Callender to write attacks on the Federalist administration. Incidentally, Jefferson, no slouch himself at unscrupulous behaviour, had no qualms in his role of Secretary of State at putting Freneau on the government payroll as a translator while his important function was as attack dog of the Washington government under which Jefferson himself served.   

Churchill’s second remark is an extension of the first, but it is also something more: it brings us face-to-face with the age-old problem of who is qualified to vote in a democracy. For example, one of the oldest and most powerful objections to allowing large parts of a population vote is the question of how an uneducated electorate can vote about issues it does not understand?

All countries which are today democratic in one degree or another started down the historical path of development in the modern era from forms of authoritarian government with monarchs and great lords beginning to share some authority with members of the rising business class. The new wealth of businessmen, so different in nature to the wealth of an ancient landed aristocracy, was the ticket for a seat at the table where decisions of state were made. It was a long and drawn out process with more than a few instances of old landed aristocrats objecting to sharing any power or privileges with upstarts.

Gradually, the new men of substance, assumed greater and greater powers within government, and the mechanism for putting them there – the franchise for electing them to whatever parliament or congress had emerged in each country – also spread to a larger and larger pool of people. Quite simply, democracy derives from the emergence of a middle class, and the larger that middle class becomes – hence the importance of strong economic growth – the more widely is the franchise granted and the larger becomes the pool of people eligible to participate in government.

A large and growing middle class has many interests which cannot possibly be served by a king and great lords or, for that matter, any other form of authoritarian government over the long term. Some of these interests will not even be understood by authoritarian figures of an old regime, such as needs for laws governing business and trade or for special economic policies. The middle class, too, as it grows, assumes a greater and greater portion of the total wealth in a country, and, today no less than in the past, wealth always is accompanied with privileges and power. After all, the basis for the authority of kings and great lords of the past was the land which they had inherited and owned, the land being understood earlier as the only real source of wealth, so much so that those who owned the land often owned the people who worked it too.

The modern era – that is, roughly the time since the beginnings of the Renaissance – has seen this process repeated many times in many places, with variations in its pattern which reflect local conditions, wars, economic setbacks, and the degree of strength of the local old order. It may be taken as the general rule for the birth of democracy, and special claims to bringing democracy to the world, from whole cloth as it were, a not uncommon notion in the United States even among educated people - may be treated for what they are, chauvinistic claims to being something special apart from the experience of others.

At various stages of the evolution of modern democracies, there were powerful arguments by privileged groups against sharing the franchise with people in general, the arguments focusing at one time or another on the lack of education, the lack of a real stake in society (i.e. property), inherent inferiority (the American South right into the 1960s), religious preferences distorting votes (an idea which lingered still in the United States in 1960, and one that had played a major role in the onset of the American Revolution, or more accurately, revolt against British authority and the hated Quebec Act), or indeed a combination of such factors as with the resistance against granting the franchise to women well into the 20th century. 

Relatively few Americans appreciate that this was just as much the case in America as, say, in the United Kingdom. The early government of the United States called itself a republic, to distinguish itself from a kingdom, but the distinction was largely one without a meaning. Only a very small group of Americans could vote in the early republic. An estimate for the eligible voters of Virginia, for example, puts them at one percent of the population.

Except in the words used, the early American reality was little different to the reality in George III’s Britain. One European writer aptly characterized the American Revolution as an event which replaced a group of foreign-born aristocrats by local ones. Indeed, in modern China, the membership of the Communist party, the only people whose votes really do mean something, is roughly that same percent of the total population as those with the franchise in Virginia after the Revolution. Most of America’s chief founders not only were not democrats, they disliked the word “democracy” in very much the same way prominent American politicians regarded the word “communist” in 1955, indeed a repugnance in the latter case which remains to this day in subdued fashion.

I shall return later to that aspect of democracy in America. For now, we’ll continue with general limits to democracy.


One does not usually think immediately of honesty playing a role in democratic government, but it does indeed play a great role. The most elementary example of its importance is in vote fraud, the honesty in counting the votes. People associate vote fraud with third-world countries or totalitarian regimes, but the practice has played an important role in American political history and continues to do so today.

When I was a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, it was widely accepted that the Democratic machine controlling city politics used vote fraud. There were regular newspaper stories and personal tales about names from cemeteries being registered as voters, of ballot counters with pieces of lead stuck under fingernails to invalidate ballots by surreptitiously placing an extra mark on them, and about party men accompanying voters into early voting machines to “help” them vote. In general, there was a sense of humorous acceptance instead of anger at an attack on the very legitimacy of an election.

These practices and others were certainly not exclusive to Chicago politics. By all accounts, they have been common in many parts of the country for a long time: other big-city machines run much as the Chicago one plus many rural places where influential landowners or the owner of the only local industry or corrupt officials went unchallenged in much the same way as the patron or godfather went unchallenged by peasants in a third-world place. Every now and then, a new critical biography or history brings to light specific instances. We know, for example, Lyndon Johnson’s first win for Congress in Texas was owing to vote fraud by the local machine. The case of Kennedy’s victory in 1960 is well known, the Democratic machines in Chicago and Texas delivering the required votes in a close election. Vote fraud in Florida played a role in Bush’s victory in 2000, and vote fraud in Florida and Ohio played a role in his 2004 victory.

Vote fraud takes many forms. In Florida, one form it took was the closing of polling places while long lines of voters still had not cast a ballot. In a number of states, vote fraud included deliberately misinforming voters about registration or location of a poll.
The very fact that most Americans are not outraged by such tales tells us a good deal about the state of democratic political culture in the United States.

One of the fundamental problems with election honesty in the United States is that the administration of elections, including the elections for federal offices, is a local responsibility. Of course, the opportunity and incentive to cheat are greatest at precisely the local level where fewer critical eyes are involved and where local attitudes determine election ethics. Local administration of elections also explains why there is no uniformity across the country in the nature of ballots, the rules for registration, and the way polling places are run. Ballots include everything from paper ballots requiring the traditional “x” to voting machines with switches to the infamous stiff paper forms, used in Florida in 2000, that require punching out perforated circles called “chads” next to the names. Apart from dishonest registration and counting, ballots in all forms can be manipulated to some extent just by the way candidates are identified and ordered. Today there is increasing use of computer voting by touch screen, but the systems used have been shown to be subject to manipulation, and in any case, the need for valid registration can still be gamed.

The immense number of barriers to entry, created over many decades, by the two major parties in their respective comfortable fiefdoms. These barriers work to keep American politics running as a duopoly, making it very difficult for new parties to break into the political market, as it were. But they also serve in many cases locally as unfair weights against the opposing major party. There are a great many of these, but one example will serve to highlight   

I don’t want to catalogue all the possible ways of cheating at an election, just to make clear that there are many, and with every advance in the technology of voting, new methods of fraud will be devised.

In general, when there is a very large gap in the popularity of two national candidates, vote fraud doesn’t play a role, but most modern Presidential elections tend to be fairly close, in which case, vote fraud can be decisive. With both major parties having absorbed the lesson of “moving to the center” as an election strategy, close elections are likely to be the rule in future.

Another kind of dishonesty is that involved in just getting a candidate’s name on the ballot. America’s neat division into Republican and Democrat is not quite the natural thing it is sometimes made to seem in the popular press, and here again the local administration of elections plays still another role. There is an immense variety of what economists call “barriers to entry” across the fifty states, all carefully crafted over time by local politicians wishing to maintain either their own advantageous position or at least securing the duopoly of power enjoyed by the two parties. The requirements for every state are different, some more complicated than others.
Getting a third party on all the ballots for a national election is a complicated and expensive thing to achieve even for an extremely rich man like Ross Perot who ran as a third-party candidate. The fact that is so again provides insight into the spirit of the democratic political culture in America.

There are other kinds of dishonesty which play an important role in American elections. Since the Supreme Court decided that corporations are not to be limited in their giving, the expense of elections has nowhere to go but up. The mid-term Congressional election just finished at this writing was the most expensive in history. In this way too, an effective barrier to entry is created. Just as very large corporations spending huge amounts on advertising make it close to impossible for new competitors to emerge, so this lavish spending by two parties serves the same purpose in the political sphere.

Of course, the vast spending has many more implications than serving as a barrier to entry. Large contributions buy access, and candidates are reduced to what should be embarrassing activities in seeking large contributions. Bill Clinton set a new level of crassness in seeking contributors by selling things like a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

First, I would cite the ever-increasing role of advertising and marketing. American elections today are run pretty much exactly the way two companies manage the sales of soda pop or hamburgers. A great deal of money is spent on market research - polls, focus groups, etc – so that the “message” of a campaign can be fine-tuned. 

 There is the role of promises being made during election which are not kept. This practice has become so common that it is the subject of cynical humor, but not all instances of it are the same. Some promises are made carelessly before a candidate appreciates from the perspective of office how difficult or impossible the promise is. In this case, the broken promise is usually credited to inexperience. Another form of an increasingly serious problem with politicians who want to grab voters’ attention and voters who have limited time to inform themselves and question issues and positions.


George Bush’s term as president taught us one remarkable new lesson: that the president, if ignorant enough, lacking in energy, and open to manipulation from powerful people behind him, actually does not matter a very great deal. Few astute observers can doubt that Bush served mainly as a kind of figurehead while the direction of policy was largely determined by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and a few others. He wasn’t in any way forced to be a figurehead: it was the nature of his personality and character that he chose to run understanding his inadequacies after a lifetime of stumbling performance and comfortable with the idea he could go to bed each night at nine o’clock. In effect, America had an unelected government.

You could argue that Cheney was elected, but that would be a purely technical argument because candidates for the virtually meaningless office of vice-president are picked by politicians, bundled with the candidate with whom people actually are concerned, serve with little sense of answering to the electorate, have no defined duties in the Constitution beyond breaking ties in the Senate, and if unsatisfactory may be jettisoned with no recourse to the people for the next election.

Sarah Palin is even a more extreme case of the same thing. The woman is plainly stupid, having demonstrated it dozens of times. Of course, there is no law against stupid or ignorant people running for office, but most people surely have an innate belief that people of no skill or talent will never reach high office. You could say that the nuclear “button” - not really a button but a device which always accompanies the president - is almost a public symbol of faith in this belief.

Of course, money plays just a huge role in Palin’s promotion, as it does in all American politics now, America approaching in many ways something pretty close to a plutocracy.
All Palin has done, since quitting her fairly humble job as governor of a state with about the population of greater Cleveland half-way through its term, is collect millions of dollars for cheerleading, waving her arms and shouting words that never go beyond clichés, slogans, and the odd ghost-written joke. You might dismiss her as the comic relief on the political rubber-chicken circuit, but the phenomenon truly is more serious than that: she is being guided from behind the scenes into being another even more grotesque Bush-like presidential candidate.

Had she an ounce of sense, she'd know she is completely unqualified for high office, but she is as ambitious and egotistical as she is stupid, a dangerous combination indeed.

For the powers that be - the big-money and establishment people behind her - her kind of candidate, gullible and easily manipulated while keeping the public stirred up with empty slogans and dumb rhetoric, is desirable.

Bush was her forerunner, a remarkably mediocre man who let the Cheneys and Rumsfelds actually run things without being elected.

It is a dangerous new development in an American society whose democratic credentials are badly worn.

The world's only hope is that this woman is so overwhelmingly stupid she will not succeed beyond collecting millions from a minority of people who have more money than they know what to do with.