America Is Not a Democracy: What Are We Going To Do About It?

by John Spritzler
July 5, 2004


(This article was originally published by at )

The United States is not a democracy. Sure, we have elections and all the trappings of a democracy. But if, by democracy, we mean a society shaped by the values of ordinary people rather than by the values of a wealthy and privileged elite, in which the popular vote actually determines the direction of the society, then no, we don't have a democracy. We have a plutocracy. Billionaires hold the real power because they own the media and the entire private sector and they use this leverage to control the politicians.

Billionaires ensure that every major public and private institution promotes their values of inequality, control from above and competition (for us, not for them). In many different ways they attack our efforts to create relations of solidarity and trust. They create resentment and mistrust between the generations by using two-tier wage scales that pay newly hired younger workers less for doing the same work for which older workers get paid more. They stress relations within working class families to the breaking point by paying so little that mothers and fathers between them have to work two or three jobs and have no time for their children or involvement in their communities. And they drill our children in public schools to compete with classmates (and others like themselves around the world) for grades and jobs in the grim "global economy."

On matters of huge importance to us, like whether we go to war, or have a decent job or receive health care when we need it most, the government makes decisions by consulting "important" people in the "business community," not working class Americans. Whenever the government decides to go to war, we're always kept in the dark about the true reasons why. All we get are the phony reasons and lies designed to make us go along with the war. LBJ used the lie about the Gulf of Tonkin to get support for the Vietnam war, and Bush, Jr. used the lie about WMD. These aren't exceptions. In every war it's the same story.

Likewise, the very rich, not "We, the People," determine the crucial domestic government policies that affect our lives. We -- the great majority of Americans according to poll after poll over the decades -- want universal health care, but government and corporate leaders refuse. We want better schools for all of our children with smaller class sizes in safe buildings with lots of books and an inspiring curriculum, and what do we get? Fancy private schools that teach the children of parents who can afford the steep tuition that they are smart and fit to be tomorrow's leaders. For working class children, boring standardized testing centers designed to make them feel insecure about whether they are good enough even to deserve a job that will pay a living wage. If there is not democracy in the public sector, forget about it in the private. We all know what it's like to work for any of the big or medium sized corporations that employ most of us. During work hours there is not even the pretense of a democracy -- orders come from above, from "Them, the Owners" not "We, the People." No, this is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship of the rich.

Furthermore, most of us know that we do not live in a democracy. I know this is true because I have made a habit of asking strangers if we have a democracy (as opposed to the trappings of one) and they invariably say No. At the grocery store checkout counter the other day the magazines on display included Boston Magazine with a cover featuring a young woman with a T-shirt that said, "Got Democracy?" I asked the woman next to me in line what she thought the answer was to the question? She laughed and said, No. A couple of days earlier someone on the street collecting signatures for a ballot referendum asked me to sign. I said I wasn't a registered voter. She asked me why in the world wasn't I. When I told her I'd be the first in line to register to vote on the day we had a democracy, she smiled and said, "How true."

So what are we going to do about it?

If we want to live in a democracy we need to overthrow the plutocracy. But how? They have all of the power. They have the government, the military, the media, the money. How can we overthrow them?

We have what it takes, at least potentially. We have nearly three hundred million people who want to live in a democracy. How many people do they have who want to live in a plutocracy? Their money comes from us working for them. Their military power comes from our sons and daughters fighting for them. When we stand together and refuse to do their bidding, their power vanishes and ours becomes enormous. They understand this very well, even if we don't. Everything they do is designed to prevent us from standing together against them.

But to stand together and succeed, we must transform ourselves, from several hundred million people who each feel all alone in wanting to defeat the plutocracy into several hundred million people who know they are not alone. People who know they are not alone have the confidence to make concrete plans that can win. Until then, it seems foolish to even think about challenging the power of the plutocracy.

How do we do that? The first step, at least, is quite simple. We start talking to each other and saying out loud, "We don't have a democracy. What are we going to do about it?" We say it to our relatives. We say it to our friends. Our neighbors. People we work with. Strangers at the checkout counter. The person on the street who wants us to vote for some politician. We say what most people already believe, so they know they are not alone in thinking it. We stop pretending to believe we have a democracy.

A very specific thing we can do about it, in this election campaign season, is ask our friends and neighbors to join us in refusing to vote in the presidential election and in telling the world (or at least a friend or two) why. This is what the MassRefusal/2004 ( campaign is all about. Everybody from 18 to 100 years old can take this easy step together. It's safe and legal. Yet it not only strikes a blow at the ideological foundation of the plutocracy, it also enables all who do it to see themselves in a new light, as people who know that they are not alone and that it is no longer foolish to think about carrying out more ambitious kinds of mass actions to challenge the rule of the plutocracy.

Simple words, spoken by millions of friends and neighbors and people at work can completely change the "political reality" in our nation because the words are so true. They can undercut the sham of elections that make people think their only option is to "hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil." They can give people the confidence to rely on each other to fight little battles at work or elsewhere, while aiming to win the big battle against the plutocracy's stranglehold on our society.

Speaking the truth is more revolutionary in its effect than anything else we can do presently. It creates the basis for a powerful mass movement that can eventually take the kind of actions required to win a real democracy. And it answers the question posed by the fact of our current plutocracy: "What are we going to do about it?"

John Spritzler is a co-editor of and the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda in World War II.

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