Not A Democracy
by Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 11/9/06
Let’s not fool ourselves. This is not a functioning democracy. Sure, we get to pull levers, poke at screens or pencil in bubbles once a year. But massaging a voting machine does not a democracy make. So let’s look at the issues.
First, there are built-in mechanisms designed to limit public debate and more or less keep the population ignorant or misinformed. Yes, our TV screens have been somewhat commandeered by prognosticating pundits this week, but are they really giving us the honest, accurate, uncensored balance of information that we need to make an informed decision as voters? A pundocracy that obediently stays on message does more to limit debate then it does to stimulate it. And then there are the ads. Must politicians treat us like morons? Must they disgust us so much that we stay home on Election Day? More on all of this later.
Second, the system is gamed. Over the last generation, a compliant judiciary allowed politicians to gerrymander electoral districts with the intention of making them noncompetitive. Take, for example, the congressional districts currently represented by Democrat Louise Slaughter and Republican Tom Reynolds. The Reynolds seat sits between Rochester and Buffalo, snatching up the affluent Republican suburbs from both Democratic cities, making for a safe Republican seat. Slaughter is left with an odd district that encompasses a big chunk of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, then slithers up the Lake Ontario coast, widening out to grab up the Democratic core of Rochester, making for a safe Democratic seat. On a national level, this sort of gerrymandering all but insures that very few House seats will ever be in play between parties. This contributes to the fact that in 2004, congressional incumbents won reelection in 98 percent of the races where they ran—despite polls showing widespread voter dissatisfaction with Congress. The old Soviet Politburo had a higher turnover rate than our supposed democracy’s Congress.
Third, large groups of potential voters are locked out of the electoral process through intentional voter disenfranchisement. Well documented, scholarly studies clearly demonstrate how this disenfranchisement, which primarily targeted poor and African-American voters, was responsible for flipping both the 2000 and 2004 elections to George W. Bush. In both cases Republican officials in various states with tight presidential races contracted out to Republican-controlled companies to manage voter databases.
And—oops, wouldn’t ya know it—during both presidential races they “accidentally” unregistered mostly Democratic voters, knocking out tens of thousands, for example, in the pivotal state of Ohio (up to one in four voters in heavily Democratic areas)—easily enough to tip the 2004 election in Bush’s favor. It turns out they pulled a similar stunt in Florida in 2000. And this is just the tip of an iceberg that also includes shredding Democratic voter registration forms, disqualifying registrations printed on the wrong paper stock, sending out absentee ballots late and so on. It sort of puts a new twist on democracy. Not only does the media cover electoral contests as if they were NASCAR races (minus the honesty displayed by NASCAR drivers who wear the names of their corporate sponsors on their jackets), but we now play as if the World Wrestling Federation were writing the rules.
Fourth, once on the voter rolls, it seems certain voters still have a more difficult time getting their votes counted. This comes in the form of either a shortage of voting machines in Democratic-leaning areas—where Ohioans in 2004 had to wait as many as eight hours to vote—or an abundance of “defective” and “malfunctioning” machines that failed to count votes—what we technically call, “vote spoilage.” During the 2004 race, it seems 106,000 presidential votes in Ohio alone were spoiled, again, with machine malfunctions occurring primarily in heavily Democratic districts. Combine spoilage with dropped registration, and studies show 357,000 Ohioans lost their right to vote in an election where George W. Bush won by and official count of 118,601 votes. But I guess, since nobody broke this story the night the results were coming in, it’s all old news—sort of like the Constitution we now keep rolled up on spindles hanging near the White House toilets.
According to a joint study conducted by Caltech and MIT, we “lost” as many as six million votes in the 2000 presidential election—an election in which Bush lost the popular vote by around a half million votes while winning the White House due to an official lead of less than 600 votes in Florida (a lead that was later reversed in a press-sponsored recount made public during the week of September 10, 2001). Nationally, almost every anomaly in both the 2000, 2002 midterm and 2004 races favored Republican candidates. Perhaps this is all explicable as simply the wrath of the angry, vengeful, partisan Republican god they so much like to invoke around wartime and when indictments are in the air.
Fifth, in the United States, there are few national standards for elections. Each state and, to a lesser degree, almost every county gets to regulate most aspects of their own electoral process. Hence, certain counties or cities prohibit uniformed police from patrolling at polls, since sociologists have documented how their presence deters voting by members of communities often victimized by police repression. Other counties or towns, probably for the same reasons, mandate the presence of armed officers at polling stations.
Likewise, some states permanently bar convicted felons who have been released from jail from voting while others encourage such voting as part of a convict’s reentry into society. Flaws in the criminal justice system make an African-American up to 20 times more likely to go to jail than a white person who commits a similar crime (see “Incarceration Nation” at www.mediastudy.com/articles for specific stats). Hence, voter disenfranchisement laws are in effect a legal means to disenfranchise black voters—and they are in use all over the former slave states. In Florida this disenfranchisement affects six percent of the state’s eligible voters overall, but a whopping 31 percent of its eligible African-American male voters. In the 2000 presidential election, this translated into more than 206,400 black men denied the right to vote—again, in an election “won” by an official total of less than 600 votes.
It Still Comes Down to Media Control
Okay. So the system is heavily gamed. Nonetheless, it can still be overwhelmed by a massive popular landslide—if only people would vote in their own self-interest instead of voting for whatever agenda best suits the short-term profit goals of corporate America, the future be damned.
This all brings us back to point number one. We can’t have democracy without debate. And we can’t have a free and open debate when six corporations act as information gatekeepers and moderators of the public zeitgeist. No, they can’t tell us how to think—but they certainly can tell us what to think about. And that means Brad Pitt’s new baby, not the loss of habeas corpus.
Democracies like Nicaragua provide free access to state-owned media for all political candidates, giving each candidate, no matter how small their party, equal time to broadcast their views. In the US, by contrast, the corporate media, which now for all intents and purposes includes NPR and PBS, gives very little in-depth coverage of election or public issues, preferring fluff and entertainment that supports hedonistic consumerism over depressing and disturbing environmental and political stories.
What little coverage there is, according to watchdog groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), tends to support a corporate political agenda. Take, for instance, PBS’ Newshour with Jim Lehrer—probably the best respected benchmark news program on TV. According to a study commissioned by FAIR, during the six-month period ending in March 2006, public interest group representatives made up four percent of the guests, while current and former government and military officials made up 50 percent of the guests. Not one single peace activist was cited on the Newshour. Likewise, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by a margin of two to one. Still, the Newshour is as good as it gets, with the rest of the media either ignoring political issues as too hot to handle or shamelessly spinning them corporate-friendly, as in Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN.
Newspapers provide more in-depth coverage, particularly of local political races, but their coverage proves to be equally biased, with their editorial boards wielding profuse power during election cycles. In Buffalo, the Buffalo News went as far as to omit entire political parties and slates of candidates from their supposedly nonpartisan election guide.
Politicians On The Auction Block
This all leaves candidates having to buy their own media time—which is the only way they can have control over their own messages. The problem is, media time is expensive. This year candidates spent over $3.1 billion on media, almost doubling what they spent in the 2002 midterm election cycle.
For politicians, advertising is an expensive addiction. To go cold turkey is to die. In the 2004 congressional races, the candidates who raised the most campaign money won in 426 out of 435 races—that’s 98 percent. In only nine races, including Buffalo’s own Higgins-Naples race, did the lesser-funded candidate win. The situation in the Senate wasn’t much better. Out of the 34 seats contested in 2004, the candidate with the most money won in 30 of those races—88 percent.
What this essentially means is that the real contest is not the actual election in November—it’s the money race, where politicians jockey to see who can prostitute themselves to the biggest circle of moneyed interests. The rest of us, in essence, don’t count, other than to play our roles as obedient media consumers and voter drones. Sure, we ultimately have the power of the vote, but without honest and accurate information, it’s impossible for the average American to competently wield that power. We are only as healthy as our diet allows us to be, and in this case the nation’s political intellect is nourished only on junk food bought for us by an elite plutocracy.
So who is calling the shots in our democracy and what are they getting for their money? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 20 industries or interest groups who primarily fund the Republican Party are:
1) Republican/Conservative Political Interest Committees; 2) the Gun Lobby (giving us the gun section of Bass Pro); 3) the Trucking Industry (as in highway spending and delaying the implementation of clean diesel fuel); 4) the Mining Industry (as in strip-mining West Virginia’s hilltops into desert wastelands); 5) Business Associations (as in corporate welfare, free rather than fair trade, anti-union laws, weakened workplace protections, lower minimum wage, weakened environmental protections); 6) Building Materials Manufacturers (as in tariff protections); 7) Oil and Gas Industry (as in Exxon/Mobil being the most profitable corporation in history and still getting taxpayer-funded corporate welfare); 8) the Forest Products Industry (as in clear-cutting the last old growth forests), 9) the Automotive Industry (as in forget about fuel-efficiency standards and smart cars); 10) the Chemical Industry (as in let’s keep producing unnecessary environmental toxins); 11) the Waste Management Industry (as in burying those toxic chemicals); 12) the Food Processing Industry (as in let’s keep spraying those toxins on our crops); 13) Home Builders (as in using toxic materials banned in other countries); 14) the Food and Beverage Industry (as in let’s keep feeding kids junk food); 15) the Poultry Industry (as in salmonella was always a normal part of processed chicken and eggs); 16) the Livestock Industry (as in E. coli was always a normal part of beef); 17) General Contractors and 18) Subcontractors (sounds like war profiteering); 19) the Tobacco Industry (‘nuff said); and 20) the Railroad Industry (as in tax breaks and financial bailouts).
On the other side of the isle, the Democrats are funded by:
1) Liberal Political Action Committees; 2) Industrial Unions; 3) Women’s Rights Groups; 4) Misc. Unions; 5) Environmental Groups; 6) Building Trade Unions; 7) Pro-Choice Groups; 8) Human Rights Groups; 9) Public Employee Unions; 10) Transportation Unions; 11) Non-Profit Group Advocates; 12) Education Unions and Educators; 13) Law Firms; 14) Candidate Committees; 15) the Entertainment Industry; 16) the Publishing Industry; 17) Pro Israel Groups; 18) the Casino Industry; 19) the Business Services Industry; and 20) Civil Servant Unions (with groups 15-20 also giving generously to the Republicans, but not making their Top 20 list).
Looking at these two lists, it becomes obvious why the Republicans always win the money game. They dump billions of government dollars into the pockets of war profiteers and give sweetheart deals for energy companies to get rich raping public lands. These interests return the favor by giving a few cents on each taxpayer dollar stolen to Republican campaign coffers. The Republicans are essentially using the public till to fund their own campaigns through this process. It’s one of the perks of having no morals and being in charge. Those with power can sell that power to the highest bidder. It’s another reason why incumbents raise the most money and win 98 percent of their congressional races.
This year was a bit different. Apocalypse, it seems, is bad for business. A combination Republican arrogance, corruption and incompetence exposed by a growing blog-driven alternative media network allowed for a wave of underfunded candidates to buck historic trends, grab victories and take over the House of Representatives. The power of the alternative media is evidenced in the Reynolds-Davis race, with Davis winning within the broadcast footprint of WHLD radio, despite a Republican plurality, but losing in the Rochester area where there is no alternative radio voice. Democrats, for their part, are still a pretty pliant bunch of whores in need of cash, so we need to keep them honest lest they go the Brian Higgins route of turning Republican on us.If we’re to take back our democracy the revolution has to begin with the media. This is something we can do! We need to find, consume, support and help proliferate alternative media. And if our election process falls apart again, when the vote counts don’t add up, when people are disenfranchised en masse, we need to peaceably exercise our legal rights to take to the streets and scream in rage. Maintaining a democracy isn’t easy – but it is our obligation as Americans.
Michael I. Niman’s previous articles are archived at www.mediastudy.com. To read more about irregularities in the 2004 election results, see www.mediastudy.com/election.html.
Return to mediastudy.com