#6 - The Myths that Blind Us

If there is universal agreement on anything in our country it is that our “democracy” is broken.  Most people understand that the expense of election campaigns has placed electoral offices and government policy on the auction block.  It is further well understood, and documented by empirical studies, that the general public is not the winner in this bidding match.  And finally, it is increasingly obvious, despite a well-funded and skillfully implemented propaganda program to the contrary, that the interests of the extremely wealthy and those of ordinary means are not one in the same.   As Warren Buffet says, “There is a class war going on and the rich are winning.”        

To understand how we got here requires pointing out that throughout history and around the world, governments have been, in one form or another, systems to keep a few people very wealthy and powerful and the majority of people poor and powerless.  Such arrangements, whatever form they take or values they tout, are the “ground” toward which political gravity tugs any government that deviates from that status.  And, from this point of view, democracy is the grandest deviant of them all.  It is designed precisely to disperse political power equally among all of its citizens. It is this feature alone that makes Democracy revolutionary.  A corollary of this is that it will result in policies that serve the majority of its citizens, not a rich and powerful elite.  And since there will inevitably be some differences in wealth among free citizens, an ongoing battle to keep individual wealth from overwhelming the political power of citizenship is an inherent part of Democracy.  

We are currently losing that battle largely because we are not thinking clearly.  Our behavior is directed by adherence to myths that are vastly untrue and dogma that blinds us to the obvious. It is no accident that widespread belief in these myths interferes with the practice of Democracy and works to the advantage of the ultra-wealthy.  Here are some of the important ones:

  1. Capitalism and Democracy are complimentary systems.  In fact, capitalism is all about inequality and serves to create it and amplify it while democracy is all about equality.  Capitalism deals only with economic activity and is value neutral with respect to justice, wisdom, love, honesty, or any of the values that define humanity.  Democracy is the vehicle through which human communities reflect these values including by creating economic rules that reflect those values. In fact, capitalism and democracy are in dynamic opposition to one another in many ways. They both have their pros and cons.  Balance is needed.  But if a country prioritizes its values over material consumption, democracy must control the economy.  The problems we face today are largely due to the triumph of capitalism over democracy.
  1. Capitalism guarantees freedom and there can be no freedom without Capitalism.

     a) China is a great example of capitalism functioning very well in a dictatorship and without civil rights.

     b) Sweden, Norway, Demark and others combine Socialism and freedom quite well

  1. More is better.  Capitalism thrives on consumption.  It is only when a product sells and/or someone borrows money that there is an opportunity for a capitalist to take part of the transaction for him or herself.  So we have been subject to a near ubiquitous campaign of encouragement to buy, utilize, and discard things. We are destroying our planet and ultimately ourselves by doing so.   But the destructiveness of the “more is better” assumption goes far beyond consumption of physical “goods.”   Here are some related cognitive problems that impact our effort to maintain a democracy:

     a) “If a little is good, then more is better”: This intellectual error makes it difficult to argue that there may be optimal levels of “good” things, beyond which those same “good” things become“bad” things.  Examples are: wealth accumulation by an individual; power accumulation by a corporation (e.g.monopolies); duration of copyrights (e.g. Mickey Mouse); and a particularly important and vexing one: spending money to influence elections.  It is this underlying and essentially unspoken assumption that more is better that makes actual implementation of anti-trust laws, reasonable copyright durations and a reasonable regulation of money spent in elections, so difficult to do. (The Laffer Curve, the aptly-named justification for tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy, is a great example of the recognition that there is an optimal level of taxation.  Unfortunately, our location on the curve is anyone’s guess).

     b) Because More is Better, people with more wealth are better than people with less wealth. This unspoken assumption makes it difficult to rationalize anything that limits the aggregation of wealth or the translation of that wealth into political power.

     c) The More Freedom the Better.  Certainly this is a difficult position to criticize.  We all love freedom.  And freedom is necessary for Democracy to function. But, as is the case with any medicine, too much of it is counter-productive and often fatal.  So, abject freedom to blast unlimited political ads and propaganda at the public isn’t necessarily good for democracy any more than it would be good for Congress to do away with limitations on speech on the floor [See “When Money Talks” by Derek Cressman].  The result of that “freedom” would be that many points of view would never be heard.  That is true in the campaign arena as well.  And strangely enough, this myth again advantages the wealthy over those of average means.

  1. A perfect “set it and forget it” Democracy that would run like a well-oiled clock CAN be created.

     a) Unfortunately, that is false. And it is important that we recognize this.  Changing the rules pertaining to the conduct of election campaigns, the way we vote, the relationship between bodies of government, tax laws, etc.  can temporarily correct obvious abuses of the previous rules but the forces of greed are relentless and will always ultimately find the shortcomings of the new rules and exploit them for personal advantage.  When a government body is restricted in its ability to correct the shortcomings of its rules and policies a phenomenon that Walter Lippman identified way back in 1919 occurs.  He called it “political drift.”  The result is that the existing rules come to favor the wealthy.  Why always the wealthy? It’s because they already have more resources and are typically much more motivated than average citizens to find and exploit these shortcomings of the law.  The takeaway from this is that no perfect design for a democracy can be found.  A democracy must always be maintained by the ongoing interest and involvement of its rank and file citizens and must continually adapt as its adversaries adapt to new rules.  Failure to do so inevitably results in it becoming a run of the mill system to keep a few people rich and powerful and the majority of people poor and powerless. As Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer write in their wonderful little book, “The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government,” democracy is a living, organic thing that must be tended like a garden. It is comprised of living organisms (humans) and is not built like a clock.  It cannot be perfected, but it can certainly be beautiful if we are willing to tend it.  If we do not incorporate this fact into our labors on behalf of democracy, we will be frustrated and become discouraged.

  1. In a country with a deep cultural history of Democracy, e.g. the United States, everyone at least agrees that Democracy itself is the best form of government.

     a) Well, that would be nice.   And despite considerable evidence to the contrary, we really want to believe it.  But, in fact, there are powerful forces in US politics working actively to subvert Democracy because they know their goals would never be approved by a majority of citizens. You might think this is obvious and wonder why it is included as a myth that must be dispelled. This is because all of us, no matter how intellectual and objective we try to be, cling to comforting assumptions.  And one of the assumptions of Democracy is that a basic decency and sense of community is shared by the majority of citizens.  This is at the heart of our support for Democracy.  It is the reason we believe that a properly functioning Democracy will enact policies that concord with the values of justice, fairness, etc.  This belief makes it very difficult to truly believe that there are those who are utterly devoid of such concerns.  Unfortunately, we have to keep that reality in mind as we tend the garden of our Democracy. There are weeds. And they’re tough and successful unless carefully tended.

     b) People understand and support the idea of “government of, by and for the People.” Again, this is not entirely true. Let’s take that phrase apart:

     “Of the people.”  Well, of course, every government, be it a dictatorship or a democracy, governs people.  

     “By.”  This is the word that is least understood in the above famous phrase.  “By” is a huge word.  Government by the people means that “the people,” all of them, must actively participate in the job of governing.  And governing is time consuming and hard work.  It is much more than simply voting now and then.  Democracy is “do it yourself” government.  And, like physical exercise, no one else can do it for you.  If your let someone else “do” your democracy for you, they usually do it “to” you. (We are seeing the way a “do it yourself” form of government fairs in a “service oriented” culture.  – Answer: Not well)

     “For.”  By this, we mean that a democratic government will necessarily produce policies that are supported by the majority of its citizens.  It will certainly not produce results that focus massive benefits on an extremely small fraction of the citizenry or that are punitive or repressive to the majority of citizens.  But this is exactly what a certain small fraction of citizens want and is, therefore, the reason they need to defeat Democracy:  They know their goals would never be approved by a majority of citizens. And they are succeeding.

  1. Citizens are free to vote for the candidate they feel best represents their values and desires for the country.

     a) Well, wouldn’t that be nice? But it is, unfortunately, not generally true. First, the method we use to select the candidates that appear on the ballots greatly restricts the range of candidates that voters can ultimately choose among. Before any votes are registered, candidates must gain the approval of the moneyed class.  The “green primary,” as Lawrence Lessig calls it, filters out any candidates that cannot appeal to some significant source of campaign funds. Many potentially popular candidates simply choose not to participate in the “green primary.”

After the green primary, candidates must run the gamut of partisan purity imposed by their party.  Those who are not sufficiently compliant with Party dictums are often “primaried” out of existence. Moderate candidates often get washed out.

Primary elections and/or party caucuses always over-represent the extremes of the Party.  Those who vote in primaries tend to be more polarized than rank and file voters within the Party.  Again, moderate candidates tend to be washed out.  (See Lawrence Lessig’s book, “They Don’t Represent Us”.)

And finally, even within the already unrepresentative array of candidates appearing on the ballot,  the single winner voting model often places voters in the position of selecting a candidate who can win, as opposed to the candidate whom they would actually like to represent them.  

     1.    This forces us to guess what our fellow voters are going to do.  

     a.    We base these decisions on very questionable polls, slanted news coverage and our own personal prejudices.

     b.    Voters very often vote against their true preference in order to prevent a more objectionable candidate from winning.

     2.    Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) eliminates the "spoiler" problem.

     a.    RCV is up and running in many places around the world and in the United States.

Visit FairVoteWA to help bring this improvement to Washington State.

  1. “The business of Government is Business”

     a) This is a quote inaccurately attributed to President Calvin Coolidge.  What he actually said was, “The chief business of the American people is business.”  Just as is the case today, the conservative Coolidge meant that government’s involvement with business should be minimal, including low taxes and few regulations.  But his view of business was quite different than that held by corporations today.  In a speech to the New York Chamber of Commerce he stated, “True business represents the mutual organized effort of society to minister to the economic requirements of civilization. It is an effort by which men provide for the material needs of each other.”  While he opposed unions, he also spoke out against efforts by big business to control government and use it to advantage.

    b) Unfortunately, business’ efforts to dominate and co-opt government have not gone away.  And the benevolent role Coolidge attributed to business has been replaced by a single-minded focus on producing profit for shareholders.

     c) As for the quote above, it is not, as the quote would imply, the business of government to assure that businesses are profitable.  This is a very powerful myth that greatly influences our government today. It is, however, the business of government to assure that the power of incorporation is used for the benefit of the community and that businesses behave responsibly toward their workers, their customers and the environment.

8. There are many more myths that influence our world views and our participation in our government.  But recognizing those listed above is a start toward creating a more accurate conception of the problems facing us as we work to keep our experiment in Democracy from lapsing into an ordinary system for containing the masses and enriching an elite.  Keep these in mind as you view the specific problems of our Democracy.  


See “Democracy Journey # 7: “Corporations and Democracy” for an explanation of the role of big business and the corporate form in corrupting our republic.

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