November 5, 2006
My favorite quote from a founding father comes from Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Jefferson didn’t trust entrenched power. He knew that the ruling elite would inevitably move to limit the civil liberties of a free people, and he was right.Kicking out the bums by spilling the blood of patriots and tyrants is a drastic measure. The more peaceful approach is democracy, where dutiful voters march off to the polls and cast ballots instead of bombs.Technically, America is not a pure democracy. On the national level we have an oligarchy that pretends to be a republic that masquerades as a democracy. With millionaires comprising one-third of the House and the Senate, America is governed by the rich and the few, and only indirectly by the people who elect them.Still, Americans are proud to vote. We will not wear the purple finger voters conspicuously sported in Iraq, but will paste American flag stickers on our lapels with the same national pride. The act of voting, however, is not enough.Political savant Noam Chomsky states that elections are a pacifying act. “Essentially,” he writes, “the election is a method of marginalising the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalised quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t.”Chomsky claims that voters are largely ignorant of the myriad details that figure into complex national policy. Voters have heard the ads, seen the endorsements, watched a debate or two, but they “end up endorsing an image, not a platform.”Plato didn’t trust democracy, either. He thought the masses were susceptible to dangerous swings of emotion under the influence of disingenuous politicians. He said that the average citizen is ill-equipped to make decisions because they aren’t qualified intellectually and lack the proper virtue for clear judgment.”Only if the best minds of a society are in charge, minds that are inspired by other goals than ever more money and triumphs over ‘enemies,’ will there be a commonwealth in which people can live peaceful and worthwhile lives,” said Plato, who favored “philosopher kings” over mob complacency.Jefferson agreed: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”How can the mind of the average American voter be improved enough to comprehend the staggering challenges of contemporary life? It won’t come from passive entertainment on TV, but requires a hunger for knowledge, a thirst for inquiry.Sadly, that’s not part of our national character. As issues grow ever more complex, the vast American TV audience retreats further into a virtual world. Wearing the blinders of corporate media is not a healthy prescription for participatory democracy.James Madison stipulated: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”Madison accurately forecast the current stasis in Washington – where farce and tragedy emanate from the White House and resonate through Congress, where polarization, hypocrisy, smug self-interest and power brokering are the laws of the land.Barak Obama, in his new book “The Audacity of Hope,” states that just governance in America must be based on “deliberative democracy, in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality.”Is that external reality made clear by today’s media? No. The prescription for a strong democratic government lies in Madison’s power of knowledge, Jefferson’s enlightened electorate and Plato’s “best minds of our society.” Now that’s audacity!Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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