When policy is lost in politics

The United States presidential campaign points to the severe democratic deficit in the world’s most powerful state.

Americans can choose between major-party candidates who were born to wealth and political power, attended the same elite university, joined the same secret society that instructs members in the style and manners of the rulers, and are able to run because they are funded by the same corporate powers.

The inescapable irony is that the US, long involved in “democracy-building” adventures around the world, desperately needs to revitalise the democratic process at home.

Consider health care, a leading domestic issue. Costs are exploding in the mostly privatised US system, far higher than in comparable societies and with relatively poor outcomes. Polls regularly show that the majority of Americans favour some form of national health insurance.
But the prospect is held to be politically impossible. The health insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry oppose it. With the effective erosion of a democratic culture, it doesn’t matter what the population wants.

Iraq is the main international issue for the US. In Spain, when voters demanded their troops be removed unless placed under United Nations authority, they were denounced for “appeasing terrorism”. In essence that has been the position of the majority of Americans since shortly after the invasion. The difference is that in Spain people know what popular opinion is and are able to vote on the issue.

The US electorate feels disenchanted, according to the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy school of government. During the 2000 campaign project director Thomas Patterson reported: “Americans’ feeling of powerlessness has reached an alarming high,” with 53% responding “only a little” or “none” to the question: “How much influence do you think people like you have on what the government does?” The previous peak, 30 years ago, was 41%.

Disaffection is understandable, the research shows, given most voters’ view that politicians will say anything to get elected, and that rich contributors exert too much influence.

In 2004 more seems to be at stake and interest is greater, according to the project, but there is a continuation of the disengagement mainly on the part of the poor and working-class Americans, who simply do not feel they are represented.

“The turnout gap between the top and bottom fourth by income is by far the largest among Western democracies and has been widening,” Patterson writes.

The genius of the current political system is to render policy irrelevant, with advertising and the media concentrating not on “issues” but on “qualities” such as the candidates’ style, personality and other irrelevancies. The political parties devolve into election machines.

In dramatic contrast Brazil, the second-largest country in the Americas, held an authentic democratic election in 2002. The organised voters elected Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, a person from the ranks of the working class and the poor — the overwhelming majority of the population.

The campaign overcame barriers far higher than in the US: a repressive state, tremendous inequality, concentration of wealth and media power, and extreme hostility of international capital and its institutions. The election was won by mass-popular organisations that don’t show up once every four years to push a lever but are working every day, at grassroots level, on local, regional government and major policy issues.

In the US the Green Party is concerned with long-term development of an electoral alternative of a kind that has succeeded in countries with a more functional democracy. But the party — perhaps in proportion to its potential as an independent political organisation — gets little attention.

Ralph Nader has used the rather artificial glare of electoral politics to raise important issues not on the corporate agenda of either major party. But he is seen as a spoiler, fronting for President George W Bush (hardly Nader’s intention), which discredits him and the excellent organisations he has founded.

Beyond the alternative candidates is the immediate, real-world issue of Bush versus John Kerry. Not surprisingly, Bush has a substantial funding advantage over Kerry, thanks to the extraordinary gifts he lavishes on the super-rich and the corporate sector, and his stellar record in demolishing the progressive legislation that has resulted from intense popular struggle over many years. And Bush will probably win unless a very powerful, popular mobilisation overcomes these enormous and usually decisive advantages.

The people around Bush are likely to cause serious (perhaps irreparable) harm if given another term in office. The prospect of a government that serves popular interests is being dismantled here.

Those who act to renew the Bush agenda are, in effect, telling people: “We don’t care whether you have a better chance to receive health care or to support your elderly mother, or whether there will be a physical environment in which your children might have a decent life, or a world in which we may escape destruction as a result of the violence that is inspired by the Bush-Dick Cheney-Donald Rumsfeld-Paul Wolfowitz crowd, and so on.”

Revitalisation of a functioning democratic culture in the US matters a great deal to sensible people — and surely to potential victims at home and abroad. And the same is true of the much narrower question that arises in the voting booths in November.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance”

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