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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Smith: America is not a democracy

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First, let’s define the term. “Democracy” is derived from two Greek words, one meaning “the people” and the other meaning “rule” or “power.” Thus, as children we’re taught that democracy means “the people rule.” The Black Panthers remixed the democratic ethos by coining the aphorism, “All Power to the People.” That siren call to action has been adopted by freedom fighters from the Philippines, to Pakistan, to South Africa. But the question remains: Do the people truly rule in “the world’s oldest continuous democracy”?

I don’t claim that America is not a democracy to make a political point; I say it because the founders did not intend for America to be a true democracy. Understandably, they were afraid of mob rule. Thus, they fashioned a constitutional republic that was to be custodially governed by the people’s “representatives.” They believed that the government’s power ultimately derives from the people, who ostensibly speak through said representatives. Crucially, our elected leader controls the military.

The founders embraced the notion that “all men are created equal,” but they quite transparently meant white men — only white men. Three groups of people were explicitly excluded from citizenship: women, Native Americans and African Americans. All three groups became full citizens — sort of — in 1920, 1924 and 1965, respectively. (By “full citizens” I’m referring to the right to vote.) To be sure, this nation has made substantial strides toward expanding rights, mainly through bloody conflict, during the last 250 years. Yet, we are witnessing the steady erosion of those gains, aided and abetted by an ideologically driven Supreme Court that cares nothing about precedent. Any “democracy” that puts its citizens’ rights up for grabs based upon the whims and prejudices of politicians and judges is not worthy of the name.

While the founders feared the tyranny of the majority, today we are suffering through the tyranny of the minority. For example, we had minority rule during the last two Republican presidential administrations because both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote. Yet, they appointed a total of five justices on the Supreme Court. Millions of Americans view the three most recent appointees as illegitimate based upon the machinations of the Republican-led Senate. (Clarence Thomas was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, who actually won the popular vote.)

Overall, our political system is replete with anachronisms. For example, every state has two senators irrespective of population. That wasn’t a very big deal when the Constitution was ratified in 1788. Today, however, the population of “Blue” states substantially outnumbers the population of “Red” states. This means that, when Republicans control the Senate and/or the House, we have minority rule. And, of course, voting rights — especially for people of color — are under constant assault in Republican-led states. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”

(I should note that internal migration to those states could bring substantial political changes in the future.)

What solutions are available? First and foremost, we should convene a constitutional convention to add the right to vote to the list of Amendments. Speaking of which, we should reform the process to amend the Constitution; it is far too burdensome. Further, we should abolish, or at least substantially reform, the anti-democratic Electoral College. We should also consider putting a cap on how many years a federal judge can serve, including on the Supreme Court. Along with that, Congress should pass a law requiring the justices to be subject to a code of ethics.

To be absolutely clear, I am a proud American, which is why I frequently quote the inimitable words of James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Equally as important are the words that Teddy Pendergrass used, I believe, as a polite rebuke to the Beatles: “The world won’t get no better if we just let it be.”

Finally, as much as I admire the original Black Panthers, I believe that a stronger affirmation is “All Power from the People.” Government power, even under dictatorships, ultimately comes from the consent of the governed. This principle comes from natural, or God-given, law. Our current government leaders would be wise to remember that our nation was forged in the crucible of a revolution made up of people who were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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