The Craving for Democracy

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The voter turnout in the recent US midterm elections was the lowest it had been in 72 years. With less than 29 percent of eligible voters casting votes, Indiana, Texas, Utah and New York were the states with the lowest totals. But with a turnout of 36.3 percent, the national average was not much higher. One has to go back to 1942 to find a lower percentage.

The trend toward lower voter turnout is a general one, present in many contemporary democracies. There are many explanations for this phenomenon, but an important factor is people’s disaffection toward the current political system. People’s trust in democratic institutions and in the electoral procedures for appointing those in charge of these institutions is constantly decreasing.

Even those who keep participating in the electoral game do not have much confidence in the system. According to the exit polls, only 10 percent of those who voted in the midterm elections on November 4 trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time.

People’s lack of trust is not difficult to explain. Contemporary democracies are not real democracies. To a large extent, they are just pseudo-democracies. Real democracy requires strong and equally shared popular control over decisions that affect people’s well-being and freedom. But in contemporary democracies, the decisions that affect people’s well-being and freedom are not taken (directly or indirectly) by ordinary people. Ordinary people have, at most, a superficial influence on such decisions.

Many of these decisions are taken by elected politicians, or by unelected officials selected and appointed by elected politicians. Most of the time, these politically powerful individuals are entirely unresponsive to the interests, needs and requests of ordinary people. These individuals are unresponsive to the interests of the 99% because they can advance their own interests by protecting and furthering the interests of the ultrarich. And furthering the interests of the ultrarich often requires ignoring or thwarting the interests of ordinary people.

Moreover, many decisions that significantly affect the well-being and freedom of ordinary people are not even under the control of elected politicians or their appointees. Instead, they are in the hands of multinational corporations and financial firms, or more precisely in the hands of those who control such organizations.

Multinational corporations and financial firms have enormous power. They exploit every profit-making opportunity they can find, and they give very little back to the national or local communities that are often responsible for the existence of such profit-making opportunities.

These organizations bypass and avoid restrictive national legislation by moving their operations from one country to another, or by aggressively lobbying elected politicians and regulators. They try to eliminate any barrier to the maximization of their profits – whatever its nature and irrespective of the fact that this elimination often imposes huge hidden costs on ordinary people. These costs manifest themselves, for example, in the form of pollution (and thereby poorer health), a worsening of working conditions, wage depression, cuts in public spending or a higher public debt.

Despite the myths disseminated by these organizations, the wealth that they extract from our communities, and from the natural and social resources that rightfully belong to our communities, does not trickle down. With the help of elected politicians, such wealth is never fairly redistributed.

People’s trust in democratic institutions is disappearing because there is hardly any democracy left in democratic regimes. People’s trust in democratic regimes is evaporating because democracy itself is evaporating.

Political power is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of a small group of individuals: the ultrarich and those – including politicians and bureaucrats – who work for them.

Many people crave real democracy, but they realize that participating in the electoral game is not a way for them to satisfy this craving. They realize that the electoral game is simply of way of selecting between competing elites, and that the competition is not a real competition. The competing elites are often extremely similar to each other in their backgrounds and in their plans, and they often end up doing similar things once in power.

This explains why some of those who crave real democracy often do not vote, or vote only when they have a feeling – often a short-lived and fleeting feeling – that their vote might, just for once, make some kind of difference, for example, in some presidential elections. And it also explains why some of those who crave real democracy do vote – but out of habit and not because they think voting is a way for them to exercise control over political decision making.

The craving for real democracy is an important component of human nature, both in its biological and in its social and cultural elements. Unfortunately, this does not mean that everyone has it, and it does not mean that it will always be there. But it means that many people crave real democracy because only with real democracy do they have a real chance to protect and advance all of their fundamental human interests.

These include the interest in finding a decent job with decent working conditions, the interest in being healthy and in living in social and natural environments that preserve and promote physical and mental health, the interest in not being exploited by rapacious oligarchies, and so on. But these fundamental interests also include the interest in living a life not determined by the will of others and the fundamental interest in being able to contribute to determining one’s own future, the future of one’s community and the future of humanity.

People who crave real democracy are increasingly rejecting the way current democratic regimes work and the standard way the electoral game is played. These people – and the movements that support and try to convey their ideas – are often labeled as being “anti-politics.” But, in truth, these people and these movements are not against politics as such. Rather they are against the (often perverse) form of political decision making that finds expression in contemporary democracies.

These people and these movements are in favor of another way of doing politics, one that embraces genuine popular control. They are against fake democracy and in favor of real democracy. Their “anti-political” attitude is itself a noble political stance.

The current prospects for real democracy are bleak. But the future of democracy will also depend on the way this attitude, and the democratic craving for real democracy that underpins it, will develop and find expression in our fast-evolving world.