By Brian Magee
America likes to think itself as a “beacon of democracy,” a phrase that came into prominence following the country’s entry into World War II. Our victory helped solidify the self-impression of superiority, tying it to having a society powered by “We the People,” something our recently defeated enemies lacked. The powerful phrase gained enough traction that it is still being used and employed to describe countries as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, and Senegal.
For the United States, the drive to spread democracy can be traced at least as far back as the 19th century’s concept of Manifest Destiny which was used to try and justify the country’s growth across the hemisphere, grabbing land while killing and displacing people with little, if any, remorse. Even the United Nations tells the world that “democracy is a universally recognized ideal” and is one of its “core values.” In the wake of World War II, the UN adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 which stated “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” Driven by the example and the power of the United States, democratic forms of government naturally grew in popularity and have continued to be seen by some as so virtuous that we will use it as a justification for war.
Whether or not someone thinks a government by “We the People” should be implanted by violent means, for any observer with a limited bias the version of democracy now practiced in the United States can no longer be seen as a beacon for anyone to follow. The way “we the people” behave toward the democratic process is disgraceful, offering little respect for what we loudly and violently claim should be the world’s ideal.
A look at the recent election season provides enough evidence for discussion.
Perhaps the best example is voter suppression efforts. We have people throwing out voter registrations and dumping ballots among all kinds practices when it comes to voting fraud. This doesn’t include typical voter intimidation tactics. The problem is so bad that each major party sends monitors to polling places, with some groups even inviting representatives from the UN to watch. Citizen and non-profit groups have formed to try and stop elections from being stolen.
We also have a political family buying into the commercialized voting process itself, leading to the ironic observation that they could be taking a tip from communist dictator Joseph Stalin: “The people who vote decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”
Voter turnout is usually between 50-60 percent in presidential election years, dropping to the 30-40 percent range for elections in between.
It is a given that politicians lie, but the level of deception has become so bad that Politifact.com has become the Snopes of the political world, having won a Pulitzer Prize for its work.
It should be no surprise that Wikileaks revelations resulted in leaders from around the world criticizing us for not practicing what we preach when it comes to “democratic ideals,” and the NAACP has asked the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate our “beacon of democracy.”
Teachers are bringing blatant political propaganda to school classrooms. Businesses are threatening their employees if they don’t vote the way owners demand they should. Pastors openly violate their church’s IRS tax-exempt status by endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Political conventions and debates are nothing more than highly scripted TV shows where an uninformed electorate is fed carefully researched words and phrases meant to tap emotions, not intellect.
Given our behavior, it is hard to imagine a plausible case being made that America actually respects a democratic “we the people” system we claim to cherish. If we did, an all-out effort would be made to truly educate as many people as possible and get everyone to the polls, encouraging them to vote for whatever candidates they choose to support. What we are doing now is an embarrassment and is clearly disrespectful of the very idea of a government by “We the People.”
Brian Magee is the communications associate for the American Humanist Association.