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MASKED DEMOCRACY March 12, 2013

Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics, Democracy, US Politics.
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The case for the unrepresentative nature of  US democracy seems overwhelming. Could not the same observation be equally made in Australia?

In the US, for example, I would be confident that a significant majority of Americans were shocked and appalled by the carnage at the primary school in Connecticut. That was one episode of a persistent stream of gun deaths, with violence occurring in neighbourhoods with social distress. Congress is not disposed to do anything about the restricting both semi-automatic weapons and handguns. Why not take up the challenge of a constitutional amendment to change the Second Amendment, especially now slavery and Jim Crow have been dispatched to garbage bag of history?

That is one example. David Sirota, at Truthdig, reports on a survey of nearly 2000 politicians on there perceptions of their constituents views on hot button issues. These assessments were then compared to the actual views of the constituents – being a different category in the US from electors.

He reports:

The juxtaposition reveals a jarring truth: Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers hugely overestimate the conservatism of the very people they are supposed to represent. In all, the report finds that “conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by over 20 percentage points, while liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points.” Ultimately, that has resulted in a political system inherently hostile to mainstream proposals and utterly unrepresentative of public opinion.

Why, he asks, do politicians, whose job it is to understand their constituents, get it so wrong? There are a number of reasons that apply in the US, and some that are not as relevant to Australia.

David Sirota identifies the following as important factors:

  • The simultaneous promotion by certain media outlets, eg Fox News, that Americans are more conservative than they are. This fairy tale, according the study authors is believed by Conservative politicians.
  • In an age of money-dominated politics law makers – a good coinage, but perhaps not a job description – are drawn from select social class with little familiarity of the daily realities of people outside that class.
  • They and the media believe that the bubble world of Washington politics represents the political reality.
  • The electoral process is dominated by expensive paid advertising rather than town hall meeting or rabble rousing speeches in public  spaces.

The political game may be a public circus, performed in real terms on the mass media stage. The question left is divide that always tended to exist between politicians and public, without attributing blame to either group, good intentions might be assumed, the gap between them, has now become wider that ever.

There is more variables in play now than those this particular study or David Sirota has identified. I think it is interesting in this regard that we can see similarities here. One related common aspect is that public policies do not seem be based in the public sphere, and that the political leadership in both countries, both the holders and the aspirants, is indifferent. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are playing along with Barack Obama multidimensional chess, in a game in which the mass media has set the stage, and provided the range of commentary that sets the terms of the discourse.

And then in the US there is new media. For example, The David Pakman Show, which review the research mentioned above:

We do not have the Electoral College but we have  “the undemocratic swill” in the Senate. In Australia because of PR, the Senate even based on disproportional electoral boundaries of the States does not create the inequality in the distribution of public funds as evidence in the US.

Adam Liptak reports in The New York Times:

In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County. It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks, even a project to make sure fish could still swim down the river while a bridge was being rebuilt.

Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people — just as Rutland is — saw only a quarter as much money.

. . . Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states. The nation’s largest gap, between Wyoming and California, is more than double that.

The difference in the fortunes of Rutland and Washington Counties reflects the growing disparity in their citizens’ voting power, and it is not an anomaly. The Constitution has always given residents of states with small populations a lift, but the size and importance of the gap has grown markedly in recent decades, in ways the framers probably never anticipated. It affects the political dynamic of issues as varied as gun control, immigration and campaign finance.

As well written as the articles in The New York Times  tend to be, they represent a limited political imagination. You  need to refer to your commentator of preference to support insight into the broader ramifications. Noam Chomsky has recently observed, at AlterNet:

For those whom Adam Smith called the “Masters of Mankind,” it is important that we must become the stupid nation in the interests of their short-term gain, damn the consequences. These are essential properties of contemporary market fundamentalist doctrines. ALEC and its corporate sponsors understand the importance of ensuring that public education train children to belong to the stupid nation, and not be misled by science and rationality.

This is far from the only case of sharp divergence between public opinion and public policy. That tells us a lot about the current state of American democracy, and what that means for us and the world. The corporate assault on education and independent thought, of which this is only one striking illustration, tells us a good deal more.

Now that is putting the divide more starkly, even suggesting that it is not happenstance, but systemic and intentional.

One imagines this divide, much like the inherent and potential inequality in the Electoral College and the curious case of the determination of the Presidential race in 2000 cannot continue, and therefore will not. It is certain that any change to the composition of Senate will have direct ramifications in Australia.

These much like blogs, could be described as niche media directed to a narrow range of political opinion. I am concerned about the new media, especially people such as myself, who do not watch the mass media. We could lose the quality of democratic citizenship, which as I see it, is civil and productive discussion among people who often disagree.

David Kaiser, a historian, does not see the new information technology as an advance, rather the contrary.As he ends his academic career, reflecting on the decline of history and its impact on society He regrets the decline of the notion of the Common Good, and attributes blame to Left and Right (although I think the details differ in different political systems). He concludes:

The steady civic decline of the last half century–which it seems our current national crisis is NOT going to reverse, as Strauss and Howe hoped twenty years ago–is a gigantic historical event, connected to other equally big ones such as the decline of print media and the eclipse of much of the western intellectual tradition in universities. If circumstances are to force us to reverse the trend, they would have to be very bad indeed. History is not however at all likely to die out completely, and the example of the three centuries from the late 17th until the late 20th will remain, and eventually, perhaps, inspire those yet unborn to cultivate the virtues of that increasingly distant era.

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