In a different part of the world, in scenes not entirely alien to us, there were ostensible republics controlled and dominated by well-placed manipulators of money. In the powerful Italian trading cities of some 500 years ago, for example, the banking families often decided, with some small say of other big business, who the one major candidate for office was. Then, they marched their chosen candidate (the only candidate) up to a podium where the amassed public was encouraged to agree that the bankers had indeed chosen the best head of state. In Rome, more than a thousand years before Venice and Florence became cities, the richest families who happened to be connected to the military and lending industries, also used similar methods to “elect” their leaders and impress that decision onto an apparent democracy. In the Roman case as the war republic shifted increasingly to indebted empire, the “vote” was limited to Roman soldiers, the trustworthy bastions of patriotism. This is the dictated plebiscite of aging democracy and middle-aged empire.
While a sort of voting is taking place in these examples, they are not cases of democracy. While surely some debate existed in the days of the ancient and medieval One Percent about precisely which candidate best represented their interests, it was ultimately in favor of their interests alone the populace “voted” on. With a choice of either showing up and approving, or not showing up (in which case, only those who approved would be counted) it was either vote for the One Percent, and possibly get a free meal at a feast, or don’t exist in the public accounting of that decision.
By way of comparison, a weak democracy entrusts its goals and the fulfillment of those goals to an elite elected from a very small pre-selected pool. Further along a spectrum of increasing freedoms and public service eventually comes a strong democracy, which is powered by a populace (or 99%) that achieves its shared goals through all manners of shared non-violent action, including participation in all possible elections.
In fact, the difference between a weak democracy and a strong democracy are so profound that many dictators, like former US-buddy Hosni Mubarak, don’t mind putting up with voting for the appearances of at least a weak democracy. Knowing they can control public assembly, the press, public speech, the requirements for running for office and even the entirety of publicly financed employees (the government and police apparatus), these “democracy-tolerant” dictators are assured the outcome of the election and the pretense of popular approval for their regimes.
In America we are somewhere between a weak democracy weighed down by corporate privilege and a moderate but increasingly functional popular democracy. Economics and the relevant politics have hit the bone for the average American as the Great Recession continues to bring home the cruel realities of unregulated business, constant war and the incessant privileges of the already-privileged.
Measured by the quantity and quality of public displays of democratic action, the 99 Percent in America has awoken and the democracy is re-invigorated, if still imperfect. For well past a year now, public squares and the public conversation are energized by uprisings from Madison to Bloombergville, from UnCut to Occupy, from the anti-Keystone XL uprising to anti-foreclosure direct actions. By other measures though, namely, government access to democratic mechanisms like public assembly and the free press, we are becoming weaker as a democracy. There can develop quite a distance between even a strong democracy and a democratic government. The public freedoms we enjoy beyond voting, such as free speech, a free press and the democratic exchange of public assembly, are meant to ensure that this gap doesn’t widen to dangerous and dysfunctional levels.
Democracy is not the monopoly of government. From petitions to occupations, from rallies to teach-ins, from researching to volunteering. from conversations to dinner with friends and family, to especially all publicly accessible meetings of our employees, the government, if we want a fairer society, we have to fight for it both in the ballot box and all other public spaces, in real life or online. It’s all democracy. Every day we don’t fight, we lose out on our shared interests. The days we fight smarter, like in the Komen and Keystone XL struggles, we move forward.
We do vote, but we should not allow the democracy to atrophy undeveloped at “just voting.”
As the 99 Percent, and the overwhelming majority of We the People, we’re going to have to look past a variety of factional differences to face up to the major political challenges of 2012, regulatory, electoral and legislative. Our solutions and our movement coalitions cannot be “one-offs” anymore, whether focused on one candidate or one ballot efforts.
If the dictated plebiscites of yesteryear’s empire seems more-than-vaguely familiar it may have something to do with the our limited political options, and the oligarchical financial backers of our major parties. Furthermore, in the elections of 2012, hedge funders have invested millions into long-time beta-Republican Willard “Mittens” Romney despite the fact that corporate taxes are at a 40-year low. Santorum’s campaign fund is greatly financed by eager war-maker and Islamophobe Foster Friess. Never one to stray too far from war money himself, Newt Gingrich received the majority of his funding from Sheldon Adelson (a sort of Middle Eastern Rupert Murdoch) who is a personal friend of Iran War-mongerer Benjamin Netanyahu and owner of the right-wing newspaper Israel HaYom, which at a quarter of the market is the country’s biggest newspaper. Ron Paul flies the banner of the One Percent in his promises to gut regulatory agencies and public services. The One Percent will certainly be well represented when it comes to choosing from likely winners in November 2012, no matter the major party.
In terms of numbers within the general democracy on the other hand, it is the 99 Percent that necessarily holds a weighty advantage in representation. It is through a permanent flexing of our democratic muscle, a habitual and personal engagement of the ideals in which we truly believe, that we can see the power of this democratic advantage. This flexing will help us first practice and then produce the kind of place we want to live in.
While we should educate ourselves and always pick the best obtainable democracy in the voting booth, we should never stop pushing for the best obtainable democracy in the rest of the public sphere. Whether we’re paying attention or not, from think tanks, to Super PAC’s to entire AstroTurf campaigns, the One Percent is constantly engaging the power-wielders of our democracy, namely us the citizens and our public employees, the government. The best interests of the One Percent are served by that well-funded engagement, however warping to our democracy, and they’ve recognized these basic mechanics produce the results they want to see.
As the 99 Percent we should invest in our own shared self interest while engaging and improving the power of democratic mechanisms. We are in our legitimate rights, and well within the scope of civic responsibility, to enter, engage and challenge our property, the government, on all available fronts. Democracy starts, not ends, at the ballot box. In 2012, seeking solidarity above factional supremacy, much stands to be gained by committing to lifetimes of persistent, increasingly intelligent and humane activism. To optimistically bastardize a lyric from an altogether different era, “they got the funds, but we got the numbers. Gonna win. Yeah, we’re taking over.”