Democracy

COMMENTARY: Power Elites Are Waging War on the Foundations of Democracy

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

The two most critical requirements for democracy are freedom of the press and an educated citizenry.

The one informs the people and brings government and power into the open. The other enables people to comprehend information and to discuss opinions without resorting to panic and violence.

Power elites have declared war on both requirements.

These include “big money” oligarchs, such as the people who gather around the Koch brothers, politicians who cater to the wealthy in exchange for campaign contributions and government officials who have come to identify with the corporate and financial interests they regulate.

Through acquisitions of newspapers and television outlets and intimidation of reporters, these power elites seek to turn the press into propaganda vehicles and to distort information.

Exporting Democracy...

Illustration by Ken Davis

FOR MORE THAN two centuries, the United States has been the proudest example of democracy in the world. Maybe not the best, but definitely the proudest. Oh sure, we’ve hit some rough patches over the decades, mainly in dealing with our native peoples and other ethnic minorities. Also with women, the poor, the falsely accused, the unemployed, and people who aren’t bankers. But let’s just call those growing pains.

For the most part, America has been that shining city on a hill, and by America, of course, I don’t mean Canada or Mexico, or the other countries whose names I forget, most of which don’t have many good hills to shine from anyway.

But I’m not talking about geography, I’m talking about pride. The pride that comes from being number one in democracy, despite being number 55th in infant mortality and 35th in math. Okay, so we don’t test well. But we’re proud anyway. And we’re still number one in Bible science! [High five!]

But lately, because of continued dysfunction on Capitol Hill, people are starting to whisper that democracy in the United States may have lost some of its shine, like we’re “hiding it under a bushel,” as it says in the old Christian campfire song of my youth. (We also sang “With Jesus in My Boat I Can Ride Out the Current Economic Downturn,” and “Children, Go Where I Text Thee.”)

But if America’s “little light” is no longer shining, at least a few other nations are providing good examples of self-government.

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Moneyed Speech

IN ITS SEEMINGLY endless quest to attack the few remaining pillars of our campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court issued a brazen ruling in McCutcheon vs. FEC, striking down the aggregate contribution limits that capped the overall amount individuals could give to candidates and political parties each election cycle. As it was with Citizens United—the 2010 decision that said corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts—the court’s April ruling was striking not only in its naiveté about the effect of money in politics, but in its naiveté about the nature of the American experiment itself.

Whereas Citizens United focused on the nature of corporate spending in elections, this decision cuts straight to the chase. Should wealthy people have a greater ability to fund political parties and candidates—and benefit from the greater access and influence that awards them? The court sent a clear message about where it stands: Yes, they should. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, even cloaked the decision in pious language, stating, “if the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades ... it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Traditionally the court has asserted that the government has an interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, the latter in order to sustain public faith in the democratic process. However, the McCutcheon decision defines “corruption” so narrowly that the original statute is essentially useless. The government can no longer prevent the appearance of corruption, and it would have a difficult time proving “quid-pro-quo corruption” occurred in the first place

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Lessons for Our Democracy from the Not-so-distant Past

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

As latter-day partisans fling terms like “dictator” and “Nazi,” I decided to read William Shirer’s classic book about the real thing.

In “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man — a layabout and chronic failure — who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany’s woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.

Mocked as clownish at first and imprisoned for a foolhardy putsch, Hitler kept honing his message, created a strong organizational structure, unleashed a cadre of brown-shirted bullies to attack dissenting voices and waited patiently for collapsing national fortunes to make his vision of national purpose appealing.

The Supreme Court's Assault on Democracy

y3s0rn0 and Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock.com
y3s0rn0 and Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock.com

It started when the United States Supreme Court determined that corporations were people and, as such, had similar rights and protections as us oxygen-breathing types. And now, in another recent decision, the court has decided that people (individual human beings or corporations) have the right to donate to an unlimited number of political candidates — therefore removing the aggregate cap on total donation amounts — as such gifts should be protected as an exercising of free speech, as defined in the constitution.

So much for representative democracy.

It’s my understanding that the founders of our nation and the framers of our constitution held the notion of representative democracy fairly sacred.

A Parched Patch of Prejudice

The U.S. Constitution with an American flag. Photo courtesy of Mark Hayes via Shutterstock

Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.

That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.

The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.

'A Man Who Has Done His Duty'

Jaxons/Shutterstock
The author was in Mandela Square on the night Nelson Mandela died. Jaxons/Shutterstock

When he was asked how he would like to be remembered, former president Nelson Mandela was very clear: “I would like it to be said that, ‘Here lies a man who has done his duty on earth.’ That is all.”

It so happened that I had dinner on Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg, on the night that he died. At the time I was unaware of his death — like most of South Africa I woke up with the news the next morning. The huge statue in the square and the nearby shop selling memorabilia would probably be the furthest removed from how Madiba himself would like to be remembered, but I suppose he realized that this was inevitable for someone who had become a global icon of freedom and justice.

In the famous Rivonia trial where he received a life sentence for his role in fighting the apartheid system, he said the following of democracy: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” 

Democracy is a Marketplace of (Sometimes Obnoxious) Ideas

Demonstration against racism and police brutality held in Philadelphia, Pa. on Feb. 15, 1986. RNS file photo by Bruce Williams

Time was when a determined minority vowed to change the nation’s collective mind about racial integration and the Vietnam War.

I was in that minority. We considered our cause just. We called our tactics “civil disobedience,” “grass-roots organizing,” “protest,” “civil rights,” “saving America.”

It’s a bit disingenuous now for us to lambaste a conservative minority for wanting the same leverage and for using the same tactics. “Civil disobedience” can’t be relabeled “obstructionism” just because the other side is using it.

Four Questions for Khaipi

Photo by Dawn Araujo

Bio: "Khaipi" (real name withheld) is a peace studies professor in Thailand and a Chin religious freedom activist who served as researcher for the Chin Human Rights Organization's 2012 report detailing abuses against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma.
Website: chro.ca

1. What is at the root of the persecution of Christians in Burma?
There is an unwritten policy called “Burmanization,” which means that to be Burmese you have to be a Buddhist and you have to speak Burmese. The Chin people are not allowed to practice Christianity, and we are not allowed to study our own ethnic languages. But it’s not all about religion: They are attacking our ethnic identity because Christianity has become our identity.

Before Christianity came to the Chin people, they practiced an indigenous religion. In this religion, they believed in an Almighty One who created the world. In 1899, the very first American Baptist missionaries came to Chin state, and when they talked about the Christian God, our forefathers could adopt it very easily because it was very close to that indigenous belief. Today, when the Burmese military junta persecutes us, they say, “Okay, we want to take out this kind of Western religion.” But for us, once we believed in God, it became our religion, not a Western religion anymore.

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Why I Love My Country

Margaret M Stewart / Shutterstock.com
Constitution with American flag and Statue of Liberty, Margaret M Stewart / Shutterstock.com

What do I love about America? I love the land, one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the world (and I’ve visited many of them). I love walking our long stretches of beaches, hiking our majestic mountains, seeing the desert skies, walking beside the rivers, sailing along the coasts, and visiting hundreds of lakes in my home state of Michigan, where I camped as a kid. I even love some of our big cities! “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.” I love our many diverse cultures, including their music, their food, their art, their sports, and their particular stories and histories.

I especially love our best national values: freedom, opportunity, community, justice, human rights, and equality under the law for all of our citizens of every race, creed, culture, and gender, not just for the rich and powerful. In particular, I love our tradition and history of democracy, its steady expansion here, and how it has inspired the same all over the world. We take legitimate pride in seeing how our founding documents have been the models for many new nations.

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