Two-faced democracy

21 February 2008

Daniel Heap

School shootings are becoming increasingly prevalent across the US: The murder of six students at Northern Illinois University on Friday followed the deaths of more than 30 people at Virginia Tech University last year, and a further 320 deaths since 1992. In 2005 an estimated 3000 people died from gunshot wounds.

Yet US politicians, even moderates like John McCain, seem unwilling to do anything about it. A relatively small number of gun fanatics use the antiquated second amendment to sink plans which would save thousands of lives. The bill of rights, which enshrines some of the fundamental liberties we cherish today, such as the right to freedom of speech, religion and assembly, is also used to guarantee the basic and inalienable right of citizens to hunt with armour-piercing bullets (I was woefully unaware that deer have a layer of Kevlar under their skin, meaning that normal bullets simply won’t suffice).

Such is the tragic ambivalence of American Democracy.

The Presidential elections are another case in point. Candidates who may in a few months time be in charge of the world’s most devastating nuclear arsenal and sit behind the most powerful desk on the planet, have to first trek through the tiny backwater hamlets of Iowa and New Hampshire, and meet practically every voter individually in order to have any hope of winning. This gloriously pure form of democracy is woefully lacking in our own country. In the primaries, voter turnout has been smashing records and polling stations have started to run out of ballot papers.

On the other hand, the size of the country makes campaigns extremely expensive; it is no coincidence that most modern presidential contenders have been millionaires.

Once in office, big business and other special interest groups have a tremendous hold over the resident and can so take the opportunity to exact policy concessions which are not in the interests of the nation. Bush rode into the White House on a wave of oil and big business money, and concomitant clouds of pollution spew forth.

In the disputed 2000 election, five members of the Supreme Court overruled the 51,003,926 people who chose the rightful winner, Al Gore. Yet in the 1950s and 60s, five unelected elderly white men struck huge blows for racial equality, desegregating schools and transport and guaranteeing voting rights and making more progress in 10 years than had been made in the previous 150. The same body which helped Bush steal that election has also been America’s most progressive institution, helping to secure rights for not only black people, but women, gays and the disabled, when progress in the elected branches of government stalled.

The Constitution and The Federalist Papers (the collection of arguments which were written advocating its adoption) are immortal classics of political philosophy. 200 years later, there is no better articulation of the value of democracy, and modern political scientists have yet to come up with a superior way of protecting it from tyranny than did the Founding Fathers.

Having said that, the very same constitution also values a “negro'”as two thirds of a white man and produces elections in which almost everyone gets re-elected (in the 2000 elections to the House of Representatives, 98% of sitting members were returned to Capitol Hill).

And, of course, there’s the fact that the country which was founded on the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” spent $439.3 billion on its military last year, but left 37 million people in poverty and 47 million without healthcare.

A brief overview of history reveals the same pattern: America started off life as a small group of colonies huddled together on the edge of the known world, standing, despite the odds, against the tyranny of monarchy, insisting on their right to basic freedoms. Two hundred years later it puts the whole world in peril by refusing to agree to international pollution standards, has propped-up numerous dictatorships and helped topple elected governments, but also serves as an inspiration for those wishing for a better life.

America is not the glittering utopian democracy its politicians portray it to be, but just as inaccurate is the picture of the monolithic, destructive evil of its critics. US politics is, in various ways, both a disgusting sham and a shining light, both an example to aspire to and to avoid at all costs.

Daniel Heap is TCS Comment Editor, Vice President of Fitzwilliam College JCR and an SPS student.