The Sunday Edition

How democratic is the United States these days really? — Michael's essay

"The comforting myth is that the Congress and the White House act on the wishes of ordinary Americans. If that were the case, gun ownership would be sharply restricted and there would be a single-payer health system, both issues which Americans overwhelmingly support. And of course it will never happen."
Congressional Democratic women including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey react during U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 5, 2019. (Jim Young/Reuters)

There are 21 months until the U.S. general election in 2020, and already the field of potential nominees is more crowded than a Washington tour bus.

Money — tons of it — is being begged and borrowed, rallies are choked with cheering supporters, and the media hounds have been set loose to predict and pontificate.

The 2020 campaign is fully underway.

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a rally to launch her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., February 9, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Republicans, of course, hope to hold onto their Senate majority and keep the current White House occupant in the White House.

The Democrats, of course, want to keep the House and unhorse the current occupant of the White House. They also spend a good deal of time worrying about the health of American liberal democracy. 

Part of their mission, Democrats avow, is to restore, preserve and protect the country's constitutional democracy. They give voice to very real concerns that U.S. democracy is under all kinds of threats, foreign and domestic. Which calls into question: just how democratic is the democracy they want to defend? 

Let's examine the forensics. 

In most liberal democracies, a candidate for office who wins the majority of votes against an opponent, is elected. But not necessarily in the United States. 

Trump is the fifth person in U.S. history to become president while losing the nationwide popular vote. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Democratic presidential candidate beat her Republican opponent in 2016 by three million votes. But that doesn't count. The only number that counts is 270, the number of votes to win in the absurd institution called the Electoral College. 

Another mark of a liberal democracy is that every citizen gets to vote, and every vote is counted. In the U.S., this is not necessarily true.

In the 2000 election with Al Gore ahead of George W. Bush in Florida, the Supreme Court stopped the vote count. Bush went to the White House. On top of which, voter suppression is widespread, especially in the states of the Old Confederacy. Hugely complicated voting rules are designed to deny the franchise to certain groups of voters, particularly minorities. 

Americans take comfort in the myth that the Congress and the White House act on the wishes of ordinary people. If that were the case, gun ownership would be sharply restricted and there would be a single-payer healthcare system, issues which Americans overwhelmingly support.

The Constitutional drafters established a tricameral system of government; the Congress, the Judiciary and the Executive. I would argue that those three bodies have been replaced by a troika of Big Pharma/Big Medicine, Big Energy and the National Rifle Association. Once these groups decide what the country needs, the scriveners in the House of Representatives and the Senate craft the pertinent legislation.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. April 28, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters )

In the end, every element in American liberal democracy depends on money.

The day after Congressional elections, the scrounging for dollars begins and continues until the next election. 

Donor interests rank high in any administration. The mega-wealth of donors like the Koch brothers can determine the outcome of many local and state elections.

With the money comes power, but what is its impact on the democratic health of the great Republic? 

In 1940, Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest Supreme Court justices ever, wrote to a friend: "We may have democracy, or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we can't have both."

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.