The challenge of real democracy

Posted on November 14, 2020


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There are two crucial lessons to be learned from the political and electoral shambles in the United States: the first about what democracy really means and, the second, why nationalism in all its forms is a serious threat to all.

Democracy is clearly defined in the opening line of an old liberation movement song: “The people, the people, the people shall rule…..” It sums up the essence of the concept: that the majority of people in this modern, industrial world should have the power, collectively, to decide their fate.

This is a dream that this global majority, women and men who have to sell their labour in order to survive, have fought for, and all too often died for, over centuries of struggle. It has been a saga of defeats and small gains; often a case of two steps forward, one step back.

But democracy is now widely trumpeted as having been established. And, perhaps until the latest focus on the USA, a majority of citizens everywhere may have believed the frequently voiced claim that the USA, with its Republican and Democratic parties, is “the greatest democracy on earth”. Yet the fundamental tenet of democracy, that the majority should decide, has never been part of the USA’s state-based electoral college system.

It is now widely — if belatedly — known that Donald Trump became president in 2016, having garnered 3 million votes fewer than his challenger, Hillary Clinton. This makes the US system even more of a farce than many other proclaimed “democracies” where the majority vote of citizens elect governments at local, provincial, state or national level.

What the events in the USA have clearly shown is that the vote in itself does not constitute democracy. Universal adult suffrage — every adult citizen having an equal vote — is certainly an advance on various forms of qualified franchise. And the fight to achieve this was — and remains in any parts of the world — a bitter struggle.

Yet today, no nation state — many basing their parliamentary systems on the “Westminster model” of the United Kingdom — is truly democratic. All operate on the basis of allowing the working class majority the right to hand over their collective power to a political elite that is largely unaccountable to the bulk of the electorate.

But such elected representatives are not unaccountable to those who fund politicians and political parties. Here the USA provides a classic example: to contest the US presidency takes money — a lot of money. The campaigns by Donald Trump and Joe Biden cost an estimated $2.4 billion (R39 billion).

Most of such campaigning money does not usually come from the pockets of wealthy candidates: it is donated by other wealthy individuals and their corporations who bankroll candidates they feel will best suit their interests.

The political elite elected ostensibly to represent the majority, is effectively — and often all too obviously — under the influence, if not direct control, of elements of the monied minority. It is a classic case of who pays the piper invariably calling the tune.

If the “tune” — the policies and decisions affecting the majority —is not under the control of the majority, then the system is not democratic. At best it should be regarded as a flawed form of of democracy.

So how did this come about? South Africa’s colonial history, linked and influenced in large part by avaricious British imperialism and the so-called “Mother of Parliaments” in Westminster, provides an ethnically distorted example that is as good as any. As in Britain, all literate men of property initially qualified for the vote on a common voters’ roll, subsequently skewed on an ethnic/racial basis.

In 1930, in the wake of an international women’s suffrage movement, women classified “white” were granted the vote and in 1931, this was granted to all adults classified “white”. Five years later, the more than 10,000 black African voters who still qualified to be on the common roll were removed, and, in 1956, “coloured” voters followed suit, giving rise to the Black Sash human rights group. South Africa then became a fully racially exclusive parliamentary “democracy”.

We should all be aware of this history as we consider the system we have adopted and why, in common with so many other countries, including the USA, there is such social polarisation. In this regard it would be worth thinking about how more than 70 million, mainly working class citizens, voted for the misogynist billionaire, Donald Trump, a serial liar.

What Trump did, politically, was to play on the fears of a confused, disempowered, frightened and not well educated section of the population. His rhetoric, that conflated factual with fake news and was peppered with conspiracy theories, promoted forms of ethnic and religious nationalism. He it was who let loose the dogs of division to further the cause of a section of the existing and emerging elite.

Many of the votes that carried Joe Biden, a real estate multi-millionaire to victory by some 4 million votes, were almost certainly cast against Trump, rather than for Biden. While Trump watered the seeds of that militant authoritarian creed of fascism imbedded in all nationalism, Biden promoted the gentler “we are all in it together” approach to nationalism.

But, for the electors of the USA, there was no other choice, which is the sort of race the beneficiaries of the system appreciate. The official labour movement, that has traditionally backed the Democratic Party, continued to do so even as many union members defected to Trump and the Republicans.

And so there is unlikely to be any real democratic change in the USA; it will be business as usual as “the world’s greatest democracy” moves to repair the international public relations damage done by Trump. But lessons have been learned and may, in time, be acted on.

In the meantime, South Africa, better placed in programmatic and electoral terms, should certainly take heed — and act. We have a Bill of Rights that is an excellent political programme. And we have — at least at municipal level — an electoral system that allows for elected representatives to be wholly accountable to — and recallable by — their constituencies.

Courtesy of a recent Constitutional Court decision on independent candidates, this prospect has also been made easier at the national level. What this requires is organisation. And here we again have history as an example: in the 1980s, workers, with the experience of trade union organisation, managed to establish democratic yard, street and area committees.

South Africa may never be able to lay claim to being the world’s greatest democracy, but we do have a chance to be the first real democracy in a modern nation state.

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