Challenges to Democracy

President Obama was in Chile on 3/21/2011. A very challenging question was put to him by a reporter during a Q&A session in the presence of the current Chilean President. He was essentially asked, what would he do to improve the strained relationship between the US and Chile due to the American support for a former ruthless dictator, Pinochet? The implication was, would the U.S. now be forthright about what the U.S. did to help keep him in power.
Think about the implications of what was being asked. All through history every major world power had to make choices on how it would act with regard to its own people and people in other countries. Matter of fact the President of the United States takes an oath to defend the Constitution. It is the Constitution that provides the guidelines as to how democracy will be administered by our politicians and citizens. When we look at the performance of the past presidents they have used all kinds of rationalizations in the name of defending democracy. The truth of the matter is that the motivating factor for how politicians act is not always to protect democracy. They may use that rationale to cover their self interests or belief they are protecting U.S. interests which at the extreme may be threats to U.S. national security.
The easy way out is always to say you are acting to protect national security then you can get away with anything. This, my friends, is in direct contradiction to defending democracy. Unless the actions our leaders take adhere to the principles of democracy then they undermine our value system. An even greater stretch is when we attack another country such as what we have done in Iraq and now Libya. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the rest of the world has to be democratic. What is the justification for going to war? I really do not want to pursue this question in this article but the topic we are discussing now has profound implications. Wars are started and fought over our principles. We better understand what those principles are before we kill people over them.


There is no statute of limitation on genocide and murder. The question posed by the reporter demanded an explanation for killing of political rivals that were routinely killed so that Pinochet could stay in power. The U.S. provided aid and had diplomatic relationships with this dictator until we was finally over thrown by Chile’s people. Now an American president is being challenged to come clean with what role did we play in helping him maintain power.

Reagan during his administration supported the drug trade to raise money in the Iran Contra Affair to spend in other clandestine actions that were being taken in other parts of the world. We can find cases during every administration when our presidents have supported actions in violation of our own laws and principles. However, if they did it as a lesser of two evils then it was alright in their minds. The larger question is can we hold former presidents accountable for actions in the past? At least, can we eventually get the truth about how they acted? Is there some unwritten rule that all presidents must be protected, right or wrong?

If it hurts the credibility of current presidents to divulge the sorted past of previous administrations, then it opens the door for us to hide all our actions that might be embarrassing. Further, a leader never acts alone. The people under them always have to be complicit with their actions. Then when they do something that is in violation to ethics, laws or our principles they are partners in crime and will be reluctant to rat on each other.

The Supreme Court even weighed in on the use of torture and found that we exceeded our laws in how we were acting. The people responsible were never prosecuted for their actions simply because it was done in the name of national security. The bottom-line is that we are in a very bad position now in claiming the high road while we take the low road so often.

Nixon was pardoned for his actions. The Nixon era was the poster child for an administration that acted to undermine the democratic principles that he was sworn to defend, almost from every perspective. The next major systemic assault on our democratic principles occurred during the George W Bush era. There wasn’t even an investigation into the lies that were told about the weapons of mass destruction and other justifications to attacking Iraq. Why then are we not at war with Iran, North Korea and China? All have acted in provocative ways, China against Tibet; Iran in their support of terrorist groups that have actually acted against us and our allies; and North Korea against ships in international waters and missile launches.   The answer is probably just a matter of magnitude.

If we are attacked then it is clear we need to defend ourselves. If we keep getting involved in military actions in every part of the world then we lose our credibility, like crying wolf. Worse yet we invite the attitude that we are no better than the other countries that are a threat to world stability. Are we police, judge and jury for how other countries act? Granted there does need to be system for dealing with rogue leaders that act grotesquely against both their citizens and other counties. This is exactly where we are at.

The truth is we need a world court and a policing body that deals with leaders that create a threat to world stability. The unfortunate corollary to that truth is numerous examples illustrate that the United Nations and World Court are highly political and virtually ineffective in acting as a policing body. The U.S. is very reluctant to providing more power to the World Court because of past actions by our past presidents and that they could be subjected to international law. Unless you believe in the principles and believe that the principles will be the guiding factors in how you will be treated then there is no hope that we will get what we need. The best thing that could happen is that there was a massive effort to hold past and present political, business and banking leaders accountable for their actions in a truly democratic way.

There is one more criminal element I should mention. That is when a politician supports more spending without actuarially ensuring that there is sufficient income to support the cost. Accountability has to include people that destroy a country through fiscal incompetence. This is as much a threat to our national security as Al Qaeda. This destroys our ability to support our infrastructure, education and healthcare. Every citizen will be impacted by this irresponsibility. Lives will be lost if this is not brought under control. Further, when others own our debt then they get to make the rules and your choice of democracy means nothing to them. This is a real and present danger to us and our leaders who should be working together to fix it. Taking sides and partisanship are counter-productive and may be the single most daunting obstacle to our ability to develop a balanced budget for the country.


Accountability and transparency are complimentary principles to each other and may in fact be inseparable. However, there may be instances that people can be protected from accountability while still being transparent. The act of transparency should be held to an even higher standard than accountability especially in a democratic society. If you are going to ask people to vote and make an informed decision, then how can citizens be informed when critical information is hidden? Voting without transparency is a farce, at best a feel good exercise. It is easy to extrapolate that politicians are very inclined to hide their actions more often than not so they can protect their political careers.

Accountability is about justice and a deterrent to others from acting in ways that further jeopardize our democracy. The point is each principle has different goals and justifications as to why they are important to protect. Transparency has many levels to it from low significance to enormous consequences. The consequences may not be immediately apparent. It also begs the question as to who decides. As hard as it is for politicians to be transparent about what they do, democracy would only be stronger if we can find a way to structurally build it into our system. However, the threat of terrorism provides even greater cover for the politicians to hide what they don’t want us to know.

Free Expression

Protection for freedom of speech has always been a difficult task because people can say pretty crazy things and worse yet others will readily believe it regardless of how crazy it might be. Look at what I am doing right now! I have been given a means and a mechanism to express my opinions about the state of the human condition and reach literally around the world in a matter of seconds. The value of freedom of speech to a healthy democracy cannot be understated.

Everyone likes it when they are given the opportunity to say what is on their mind. That process breaks down very quickly when someone wants to express an opposing view. Now it seems like we are fighting the laws of nature but it has to be remembered that we need to overcome our instincts in this case and respect the rights of others as if we are expressing our own rights. I still vividly remember Nazis matching in Waukegan, IL decades ago, thinking about their rights. I still struggle with that today. Clearly we detest the notion of what it leads to, hatred and violence. However, can there be some truth in what they say that others need to hear. Should they say it in a more acceptable way?


Trick #1 – Limit Freedom of Speech: Let’s pursue a line of thinking to see if we can come out the other side with some reasonable limits on Freedom of Speech. We could believe that Freedom of Speech should be limited to not arguing against Freedom of Speech. The opponents would use their Freedom to eventually remove that Freedom for others except themselves. This is the classic pattern by despots, dictators and oligarchies around the world. The noblest causes are often used to overthrow a government then they are replaced by either a single person or a small group that controls the wealth and management of the country. It may seem that the more difficult task is the overthrow of a government but I would argue the putting in place the safe guards against a one-for-one replacement is more daunting. One of the greatest safe guards against dictatorship is Freedom of Speech. Therefore you should not be able to object to Freedom of Speech.

This makes a very strong argument for limiting Freedom of Speech, in this case. Let’s call it exception #1. Now we continue the logic. Once we elect to put one limit on that Freedom we feel good about it and start putting more on it. Exception #2 – You cannot say anything that causes violence in others. Hmm. Can you be held responsible for when someone else gets violent? Children often get very angry when we tell them that they cannot do something. Therefore the parents are responsible for the child’s anger. The child may, in turn, react in very violent ways and some children never grow up. You get the idea. It would be very difficult to draw a connection between responsible & irresponsible comments that people make. Our desire to limit Speech is starting to look weaker.

Surely we can limit pornography as Exception #3. The problem is – who decides again? Writing has been considered pornography if it was the slightest bit sexually oriented. There are so many shades of grey to this topic that it is best left alone. But I can’t completely. Pornography has been used as a causal argument. The argument is Pornography causes violence against women. Excuse me! Religion has caused violence against women. Should all or certain religions be banned because of their attitudes against women? The argument can also be made that overly zealot Puritanical attitudes cause violence against women.  You can see how utterly confused this area is within the Freedom of Speech discussion.

There is one reality to the desire to limit Freedom of Speech – if you make it too confusing then you lose the principle and the value of having it in the first place.


Trick #2 – It is only temporary. Temporary my ass! We are living under a pseudo-police state in the U.S. for the last ten years since 9/11. No one is arguing that the TSA is no longer needed or that the government should not have the ability to monitor every form of communication that is made by citizens or foreigners. The notion of a perceived threat can be kept alive forever. Therefore the suspension of Freedom of Speech can go the way of the Dodo bird just as easily and permanently. What happened to unreasonable Search and Seizure? The TSA completely circumvents that. I would find profiling to be less objectionable.

The real issue of Freedom of Speech is concentration of Power. The ability of an individual to remain anonymous is part of Freedom of Speech. Once the government knows who expresses a view point they can shut them down in a minute.  The current level of technology enables individuals, private companies and the government to invade us in the most intimate ways, undetected. The level of complacency to this invasion is scary. The worse part about it is that it may be beyond control or regulation at this point already.

It may seem abstract but Freedom of Speech and Privacy is vitally important to a solid functioning Democracy.

Functioning Electoral Process

Democracy implies that citizens get to vote for their representatives to the government. There is a war being waged to stack the deck, limiting voting rights. Either we have faith in the principles of how representatives are elected or we don’t. Our strength as a country comes from a sense of belonging and that we are part of the process. If we let one group control that process then the rest of us will no longer belong or be able to affect the outcome of an election.

The John Roberts Supreme Court has taken a broken process and made it irreparable. Money enabled by control of the media can make people believe anything they want. The Decision to allow unlimited, undisclosed contributions by corporations to campaigns enables enormous affect on the outcomes of political races. Corporations by design are amorphous entities that do not have any national affiliation. The number of corporations that have readily moved their operations to foreign countries is proof positive of this contention. Think about it. Foreign companies with a small presence in the U.S. or just sales in the U.S. can now contribute to campaigns in the U.S.

A corporation’s primary motivation is to maximize profits, period. It follows that if they can develop, source products or materials from a cheaper place then they will move their supply to that cheaper source. We do not have to demonize the process but we can prevent it from funding our political process. Their interests are not aligned with the interests of local people. Decades of experience show that profits will trump environmental, labor and health abuses when presented with the choice.

Global supply chains are now as amorphous and routine as the global corporations. They could give a damn about your standard of living or your health. That is someone else’s problem.  This is a direct contradiction and attack on our democracy. Left to their own devises corporations would not be accountable to how they accomplish their singular goal, profits. Enhancing corporation’s ability to influence the political process in this country or any country for that matter only minimizes the citizens’ ability to protect their own interests.

Concentration of Wealth

Corollaries to Democracy are capitalism, self responsibility and competition.  The heart of all these attributes is motivation by the general population to want to work, succeed and innovate. Some people are better than others. I sincerely believe that everyone has a capacity. You can live up to your personal capacity; however, your capacity may not be as great as another. This is an inherent trait we all have. The ability to develop your capacity is a matter of opportunity and environment.

All animals fight and struggle to survive, providing for their young. If we were merely animals then all we would care about it our immediate family and the law of the jungle would apply – survival of the fittest. What sets us apart are compassion and the knowledge that by working together we can be more than a collection of individual efforts.

A political process must factor in our nature, abilities and an objective. A well functioning Democracy would actually provide a framework for a content happy population. The problem with Socialism, in whatever form, is that people are not motivated by sharing equally.

E.g. At one extreme we have ultimate socialism. Imagine a ball game of any type with all the players having exactly the same skills and training. At the end of the day we all share the same prize money regardless of how well the teams played. Motivation to succeed is lost.

Now take the other extreme. One team acts without controls where unlimited funds buys up every good player and now there aren’t any teams to play with that can put up a decent challenge. The whole point of a competition is lost.

The conclusion is that there needs to be a happy medium between the extremes for Democracy to function properly and provide the attributes described earlier.

We are seeing the greatest concentration of wealth in the U.S. since the days of the robber barons. The difference between the top executive and the workers pay has accelerated. The middle class has been gutted of its greatest asset, real estate which was decimated after the collapse of the market after 2008.  Now real estate is more of a liability than an asset. Further, the stock market plunged along with the real estate market where the banks got bailed-out but Main Street didn’t. The net result is the distribution of wealth curve looks more like Mount Everest than a normal distribution curve.

Consider what happens when too much wealth and power gets concentrated. The benefits of democracy get more curtailed the steeper the wealth curve. When it gets too steep people will believe democracy is to blame when in fact it was the destruction of democracy by the concentration of wealth and abuse of the process by the influence of money.

Opportunity for Improvement in Standard of Living

People need hope even if they don’t currently have a decent standard of living today. The system has to provide the opportunity to improve their standard of living. The brilliant phrase in the Bill of Rights is – “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.  There is never a guarantee of achieving a particular state of happiness or success. However, every American (and every person worldwide) should be afforded the opportunity to pursue it. In fact, the writing of this blog seemed to be very appropriate for Americans today and many parts of the world that are struggling to rid themselves of corrupt regimes and dictators (regardless of what they call themselves). There is no doubt that democracy itself is being threatened in the U.S. by the various assaults discussed in this blog. These assaults also serve as lessons for others that aspire to establish an enduring system that will serve the majority of people in helping create wealth for its people.


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