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How We Reinvent Democracy in America

Holding leaders accountable is one way the American people can ensure their interests are represented by political power. (The Prophet / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Voting is supposed to be a constitutional right in the United States. But the sad truth is that voting is a privilege. This reality has been made colder since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

Steps have been taken to curtail the impact of that decision—Shelby County v. Holder—on the 2016 general election, but voter discrimination still exists. Some Americans have fewer rights than others. Compare minorities, the poor, immigrants, felons, ex-convicts and the elderly with well-off whites, the educated and so-called 1 percenters. Whose voices do you think are heard more? The current system has been designed to maintain the status quo and keep the disenfranchised from changing their status. Discriminatory voting laws compound the problem.

READ: The Political Forces Behind the Attack on the Voting Rights Act

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, new voting restrictions are in place in 14 states this year: “The new laws range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions. Those 14 states are: Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.”

Voter suppression is nothing new. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Caleb Crain provides a history lesson in “The Case Against Democracy”:

In the United States, élites who feared the ignorance of poor immigrants tried to restrict ballots. In 1855, Connecticut introduced the first literacy test for American voters. Although a New York Democrat protested, in 1868, that “if a man is ignorant, he needs the ballot for his protection all the more,” in the next half century the tests spread to almost all parts of the country. They helped racists in the South circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment and disenfranchise blacks, and even in immigrant-rich New York a 1921 law required new voters to take a test if they couldn’t prove that they had an eighth-grade education. About fifteen per cent flunked. Voter literacy tests weren’t permanently outlawed by Congress until 1975, years after the civil-rights movement had discredited them.

The article reviews a new book called “Against Democracy,” by Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University who argues for “epistocracy,” a word (coined by another political philosopher, David Estlund of Brown) that means “government by the knowledgeable.” Brennan believes that uninformed voters do more damage than good, so decision-making should be left to the informed. In other words, voting should not be a duty for all.

That’s a radical idea. But in a way, such thinking aligns with how the Founding Fathers viewed the electorate, Crain acknowledges. He cites a warning from James Madison: “There are particular moments in public affairs, when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

Madison wrote those words (under the pseudonym Publius) for Federalist No. 63—an essay that was part of The Federalist Papers—to explain the concept of the United States Senate. He went on to say:

The people can never willfully betray their own interests; but they may possibly be betrayed by the representatives of the people; and the danger will be evidently greater where the whole legislative trust is lodged in the hands of one body of men, than where the concurrence of separate and dissimilar bodies is required in every public act.

The difference most relied on, between the American and other republics, consists in the principle of representation; which is the pivot on which the former move, and which is supposed to have been unknown to the latter, or at least to the ancient part of them. …

In the most pure democracies … many of the executive functions were performed, not by the people themselves, but by officers elected by the people, and representing the people in their executive capacity. …

Besides the conclusive evidence resulting from this assemblage of facts, that the federal Senate will never be able to transform itself, by gradual usurpations, into an independent and aristocratic body, we are warranted in believing, that if such a revolution should ever happen from causes which the foresight of man cannot guard against, the House of Representatives, with the people on their side, will at all times be able to bring back the Constitution to its primitive form and principles. Against the force of the immediate representatives of the people, nothing will be able to maintain even the constitutional authority of the Senate, but such a display of enlightened policy, and attachment to the public good, as will divide with that branch of the legislature the affections and support of the entire body of the people themselves.

Here’s another radical idea: Instead of having only a few informed people make decisions for everyone, how about we make everyone informed by providing the same, free educational opportunities for every U.S. citizen?

Over the 240 years of the American experiment, the nation has moved away from its early ideals. Democracy has been corrupted, becoming the perverted form of corporatocracy and plutocracy we now have. The only way we can fix the defects in our system is by voting in principled leaders, then insisting they follow through on what they promise. If they do not, we must vote them out and put people in power who do.

Create the government we want to see. Start in our own communities. It will require some sacrifice.

Lee Ellis knows about all about sacrifice. He spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He has written two books on honor, “Engaging With Honor” and “Leading With Honor.” He has not lost faith in the United States and believes voting is a key to restoring honor to America.

“When you become indifferent and refuse to stand up for your ideas, you forfeit and must live by the ideas of others,” Ellis told Truthdig in a telephone interview. “You are making a choice to let someone else make your choice for you. And I think that is a terrible way to live. We cannot afford to be indifferent about these key decisions. Evaluate the risk of the candidates. There are no risk-free choices. We’re always taking a risk. Which is the most likely to pursue the principles that you feel are important?”

READ: Mainstream Presidential Polls Fuel Illusion That Voters Are Stuck With Only Two Choices

Apathy is no longer an option in America. Now is no time to be timid.

Look at the water protectors in Standing Rock in North Dakota. They are putting their lives on the line for us, our planet, the fate of generations. If you are a responsible U.S. citizen who cares about the future of our world, you have a role in our survival. That starts by voting. To be a responsible voter requires being informed. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in political science or be the political equivalent of Ralph Nader. Anyone can do something.

Research the candidates. Read up on ballot initiatives. Learn about down-ticket races. Check your sources—make sure they are trustworthy. Share what you know (in a respectful way) with friends and family and on social media. Encourage others to do the same. Accountability starts with the individual. Accountability means that you vote and use your influence to get others to vote. The lack of accountability is clear in today’s culture. We see it every day in our political candidates and leaders. Fear, laziness, negativity and misguided pride—all of these have been on display this election cycle. They are dangerous impediments to accountability.

“Accountability is a fairly serious problem,” Ellis said. “It’s hard for several reasons. A lot of leaders and people are reluctant to hold people accountable because they are afraid they won’t like me if I mention the fact that they didn’t do what they promised they would do. A lot of leaders have a concern that if I hold you accountable, that means I have to be accountable. And I’m not capable of being accountable on everything that I talk about and say that I’ll do. Therefore, I may have to let it slide through, here and there, because I don’t want to be held accountable myself.

“So it’s a lack of courage, a lack of commitment, sometimes a lack of character on the part of the leaders that are just not willing to do what it takes to hold people accountable.”

Courage, Ellis has written, is “doing what’s right even when it doesn’t feel natural and doesn’t feel safe. Overcoming fears to do what we know is right—that’s leading with honor.”

America could benefit from some more honorable leaders, but they aren’t easy to find.

“It is hard to run for public office, especially the higher up you go,” Ellis explained. “It costs a lot of money. It’s a hard, grueling thing. Somebody’s going to come after you, and make you look bad. You have to have thick skin. That discourages a lot of good people. So we are left with people that are less than the best.

“There are no perfect leaders. There are no perfect people. We have to decide which one’s principles most align with ours, and then take our chances with that one.”

Decisions and choices always have consequences. Don’t rely on someone else to make your choices. Don’t assume you don’t have a voice. Don’t assume your vote doesn’t matter.

“If you feel like you have no power, then you are going to act like you have no power,” Ellis said. “If you feel like you have power, then you are going to vote and make your vote count.

“Some of these races [for the Nov. 8 elections] are going to be very close. Think about the Senate, the House. There are some very important races that are going to be happening. You could change the course of this country. The course of this country has been changed by one vote in Congress and the Senate a number of times over the last 200 years. Believe, you have to believe, you have to believe that your vote counts, and go do it. Then you can gripe and moan about things. But if you don’t vote, you don’t have much right to complain about anything.”

Ellis recognizes that the people of the United States are not very happy now. “We don’t see a lot of honor. We don’t see people keeping their word. We see people talking one way and doing another thing. People are tired of that. They want somebody that looks after the country first and themselves down the line.

“I am hopeful. I am trying to help people see the value of being honorable, of doing the right thing, of being accountable and holding others accountable. That would solve so many of our problems very quickly. If we have enough people doing that—and demanding that—it will change the course of this country.”

Ellis has a nonpartisan voter evaluation guide that covers three areas: character, courage and competence. “Competence as a leader, having demonstrated some leadership competencies. Courage to do the right thing, to do the hard thing. And character to be ethical, to keep your word, to be honest. Somebody you can trust, to be straightforward, to keep their promises. And to serve in their duty. A person with character does their duty and takes care of their duty.”

Our leaders are elected to serve us, not to serve Wall Street, big businesses or corporations. We, the people, are responsible for the predicament we face. We have let the foxes guard the henhouse. But just as we got ourselves into this mess, we can extricate ourselves by being accountable and demanding accountability from our representatives. Call it an accountability movement.

This year, America could have more decision-makers than ever before. According to Politico, 200 million people have registered to vote. That’s 88 percent of the 227 million in the voting-eligible population (citizens 18 years and older). How many of us will vote? In 2008, 131 million people voted. That was the biggest turnout in presidential election history, but it was only 57 percent of the voting-age population. The last time 60 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls was 1968. We can do better.

Do not accept mediocrity, inhumanity or injustice.

Do not be fooled by false leaders and propaganda.

Do not be afraid.

Remember these words of Winston Churchill:

We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.

Or as Thomas Paine once said, “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

Every voter in the United States has important choices to make on Election Day.

Make sure they are responsible ones.

The world is watching.

Eric Ortiz
Managing Editor
Eric Ortiz is the managing editor of Truthdig. A journalist and innovator with two decades in digital media, Ortiz founded the mobile app startup Evrybit, a live storytelling and reporting tool, as a 2014 John…
Eric Ortiz

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