A Pro-Democracy Movement in the USA

democracyU.S. officials like to prattle on about pro-democracy movements in countries like Iran or China, but election season is a good time to assess the state of our own “democratic system.”

Set aside claims to establishment of “democracy” at the point of a gun overseas, and ask, instead, whether American elections truly are “free and fair.” In truth, I think we are overdue for a pro-democracy movement in the U.S.A. (Let’s leave out the distractive argument that the U.S. is a “republic” not a “democracy” shall we? )

The 2010 midterms are giving us the first tsunami of corporate cash. Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, corporations are flooding campaigns from coast to coast. It is commonly estimated that as much as $4 billion will go to the Republican and Democratic parties — six to one for Republicans, as corporations do their biannual side-switching. Too-easily hacked electronic voting machines remain a problem, as Nevada computer science students recently demonstrated. Corporate media treats elections like a hybrid of Super Bowl and circus.

But American democracy has deeper problems than even those.

Two-Party Monopoly
Think of the Republican-Democratic two-party monopoly as a parallel to how corporate monopolies work. When a transnational company like Wal-Mart gets government subsides (infrastructure paid for by local government), free or cheap land, and tax breaks, locally-owned small businesses — which don’t get all that corporate welfare — are driven out. The Democratic and Republican parties’ political monopoly works just like Wal-Mart does in small towns across the country: competition is crushed and an already powerful, wealthy minority is furthered emboldened to act against the public interest; it faces neither accountability nor electoral opposition.

In Haiti, President Jean-Baptist Aristide was overthrown in a U.S.-backed kidnapping and coup; his Lavalas Party members are banned from the ballot and murdered.

In the U.S., parties that might provide alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats face more subtle and structural exclusion.

With a D or R by one’s name, a candidates gets automatic ballot access. Everyone else must go through an often expensive and challenging process just to get on the ballot.

Each state makes its own rules. Some states, like Texas, demand as many as 200,000 petition signatures gathered within a tight time-frame, usually only two weeks. Third party candidates’ petitions are closely checked for accuracy, so that a candidate must gather considerably more than the allotted number of signatures ensure ballot access. The higher the political office the more difficult it is to get on the ballot.

The Democratic Party ratcheted up the obstacles for ballot access by harassing presidential candidate Ralph Nader with expensive law suits in a number of states in presidential years since 2000. In 2010 Pennsylvania races, the same tactic is being used against Green Party candidates, some of whom have had to pay as much as $80,000 for Democratic Party legal fees.

Public opinion polls are used to reinforce the pre-selected “choice” of candidates. Democrats, Republicans and an occasional Independence Party candidate – or, on rare occasions, an extremely wealthy independent candidate such Ross Perot – are listed by pollsters, but candidates of the Green Party, Libertarian Party or other political parties on both the right and the left usually are ignored. For the poll takers, and thus for the people who answer their questions, those small party candidates don’t exist.

Sponsors of public debates — even the League of Women Voters, a 503c tax-exempt non-profit that is supposed to be non-partisan — determine who will be included in debates based on percentages in those same polls. It’s a Catch 22 . If a party or candidate is omitted from public opinion polls, they will not gain the 5 percent or more support required by the sponsors to be part of debates.

The undeniable result of ballot access laws and rigged public opinion polls is that the grip of the two “major” politicial parties on the electoral is strengthened and efforts toward a truly free and fair election process are undermined.

Mediated ‘Debate’
Media–both corporate-owned and independent/alternative, even progressive media–almost always completely censor third party candidates. I’ll give examples from my state of Minnesota:

  • In its Minnesota gubernatorial candidate debate, Twin Cities public television excluded Ecology Democracy Party (formerly Green) candidate Ken Pentel and the Green Party’s, Farheem Hakim. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, a slightly more moderate ex-Republican counter to right-wing Republican Tom Emmer and Democratic former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton have been heard in multiple debates. Third party candidates were interviewed on a segment of the public TV station’s low-viewer “Almanac” show; they were treated like political popcorn available during to the main meal of major party candidates.
  • Minnesota Public Radio, one of the major financial powerhouses among National Public Radio affiliates, echoed TPT’s format: real debate coverage and in-depth interviews for Democrat, Republican and Independence (traditional Republican) candidates. All third party candidates were crammed into a single one-hour segment. None were interviewed in depth.
  • Even in a story called “David-Goliath challengers,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the region’s biggest newspaper, mentioned only Democrat or Republican challengers to Congressional incumbents. Ken Pentel, got a short story in the Star Tribune, announcing his run for Minnesota Governor. Progressive challenger Cavlan is omitted from stories about Democratic incumbent Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in his first re-election campaign.

In this tumultuous Year of the Tea Party (a “third party” that isn’t a party but which gets massive media coverage), some Democratic supporters may be all for excluding third party progressives because they see that as crucial to beating back the extreme right-wing. In their view, small parties should be shut out so that those who opposed to the election of TP crazies have no alternatives but Democrats.

But, what such liberal partisans don’t recognize is that when you censor candidates you also censor issues.

Most glaringly, the U.S. occupations/wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — with bi-partisan supported funding — have been erased from the mid-term election. The hundreds of billions of dollars added to the national deficit by those wars don’t register on the Tea Party “debt rage” meter. Bipartisan assaults on civil liberties through continuation and expansion of Bush policies like the PATRIOT Act isn’t pointed out.

Democrats’ refusal to freeze home foreclosures — even as bank fraud is exposed — isn’t challenged. Bi-partisan tax-breaks for corporations outsourcing jobs and for highly profitable companies that continue to lay off workers while paying their chief executive officers an average of $12 million a year, are not part of debates even though the economy is supposedly is the central issue of this year’s campaigns.

What Real American Democracy Would Look Like

  • Public financing of political campaigns is critical, now that “corporate persons” can donate unlimited amounts of money and often do so without disclosure.
  • Broadcast media must make airtime available to ALL candidates, as a condition of using the public airwaves.
  • Right wing evangelical churches or the League of Woman Voters or any other 503(c)3 non-profit organization must be investigated and penalized when it violates its tax-exempt status with partisan participation in political campaigns.
  • Instant run-off voting (IRV) must be expanded so that people are not pressured into “lesser evil” voting that makes it impossible for true representation of voters’ views (often better articulated by third party candidates). Minneapolis now has IRV in local elections.
  • Obstacles to voting, whether ID laws or lifetime bans for ex-offenders, must be ended. A real democracy aims for more citizen participation not less. Too many state laws are designed to discourage voting by some segments of the public. With their myth of “voter fraud,” Republicans aim to limit voter participation further — especially participation by the poor and people of color who generally don’t support their party.

Every other Western democracy — and new democracies around the world — have multi-party, proportional representation in their legislative bodies. Only the US has this “winner take all” system. Americans might ask themselves why no new democracies have chosen our form of representation.

The U.S. Constitution did not establish the two political parties — nor outlaw third parties.

Ultimately, democracy is far more than voting every two to four years. It’s not about abdicating to elected officials — who all too often represent their corporate sponsors rather the people who cast votes. Plenty of excuses are made for why most Americans are disengaged from politics but, since Americans average four to six hours for daily television viewing, there’s time for civic engagement.

Want your local public school to remain open and be fully funded? Organize with fellow parents, students, teachers and community to challenge the school board’s decisions. Sick of corporate welfare sucking up local resources while public services whither? Get together with neighbors and co-workers and go to City Hall. Want to bring the troops home? Stop making excuses for President Obama and the Democrats and re-ignite the non-partisan anti-war movement.

It’s finally time to recognize that politicians only act in the public interest when there’s public pressure — backed up by the fear that they will lose elections. As long as progressives remain held totally hostage to the Democratic Party, all we’ll get is marginal change that’s impossible to believe in without self-delusion.

lydia howellThird parties have long been front-runners in strengthening American democracy with a legacy of slavery abolition, women’s voting rights, labor and civil rights. More recently, IRV and campaign finance reform are issues most forcefully supported by those outside the two major parties. The last two years of Democratic capitulation to corporations and the permanent state of war should be a wakeup call for progressives — with third party allies — to launch the pro-democracy movement our country so desperately needs.

Lydia Howell

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the  Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She hosts “Catalyst:  Politics & Culture” on KFAI Radio.


  1. says

    The topic is hugely important, but this article makes most of the usual timid wrong turns.

    Contra the early disclaimer, it is VITALLY important to distinguish ‘democracy’ from ‘republic’. In a Roman-style oligarchic republic – which is not only what we do have but which Howell’s reformed system would still be – a special few make all the real and potentially reasoned deliberative policy decisions. All the rest of us get to make not real policy decisions, but simply decisions about who gets to be in the oligarchy.

    It’s comforting (as well as utterly fallacious) to call the mass popularity contests ‘democracy’ – but in these elections even the participating voter is not doing anything to contribute to the content of the decision, or to reasoned deliberation, and moreover it is almost always a mathematical certainty that the individual voter will have no effect on the outcome.

    Yes, in order to make a reasoned deliberative decision, it is necessary to limit the numbers of participants to a few. But there is no reason – only mindless custom, and infatuation with the notion of having a superior ‘ruling class’ – to make these the SAME few, for decision after decision after decision. There is no reason to concentrate decision power in this way in a special ruling class or group.

    By the same oligarchic ‘logic’, instead of – as now – having a different court jury for each case, we should instead have expensive partisan elections in LA County every four years to choose a single jury, to decide all cases: and then we would call the whole exercise ‘democracy’ precisely because we had these needless mindless expensive oligarchy-choosing elections.

    Ancient Athenian democracy and modern court juries both give the lie to the notion that citizens who function as decision-making representatives need to be expensively and competitively elected: they can be randomly chosen.

    Howell is correct in one respect. If we MUST have needless expensive elections for an oligarchy of ‘representatives’, why should the result be winner-take-all, so that 49.9% of the voters (or even more, in case of three or more alternatives at issue) end up withOUT representation?

    But we don’t really need such elections, nor fixed parties (whether two or a lot more than two) of any kind. The actual productive business of government – legislation, policy – is to make all kinds of public decisions, preferably in a reasoned deliberative way, on a multi-dimensional space of issues. – not to choose and annoint a privileged group of long-term ruling folks.

  2. Mike Field says

    Don’t buy the idea that the accusations of vote fraud and vote manipulation are not valid.

    In the 2000 presidential elections, the national margin of illegal votes probably was about equal to the Gore-Lieberman ticket’s popular vote margin, most of these concentrated in California and New York. Never mind that you might believe that the many of the illegal voters deserved to vote. The point is, they did not have the legal right to do so. And no one has the right to vote twice. For one thing, news organizations found more than 10,000 people who were registered in both New York and Florida in the year 2000. Without that vote, Florida would not have been close enough to have the kind of recount issues that occurred.

    The bottom line is, in the 2000 presidential election, the electoral college brought the election back to its proper statistical balance, which mean that it was as close as it, well, was.

    Then there is the issue of manipulating the turnout and deterring opposition voters. The Republican are notorious for this, but the issue is not exclusive to them. In the 2000 election, the now-disbanded Voter News Service very early in the evening reported that Al Gore had won Florida. This was before the polls had closed in some parts of the state – heavily Republican parts. Estimates are, at least 15,000 Floridian did not vote in 2000 because of this report.

    Another issue is recounts in very close elections. How come mystery ballot boxes are always discovered in Democratic precincts? Frank-en-ly, I am beginning to think that these mystery ballots are prepositioned, waiting to be discovered when and as needed.

    I am in favor of the right to vote, for everyone who has the legal right to walk (or roll) up and down the street. But on your own and only once, please.

  3. says

    RIGHT ON, Alan8 !!!
    I am So weary of progressives being held hostaeg by the Democratic Party (who act more & more the same as the Republithugs). As long as they can take our votes for granted, thre’s no reason for them to change a all. Only the fefar of losing elections can possibly move them to progressive policies. DON’T WASTE YOUR VOTE–Vote Third party in 2010!

  4. Alan8 says

    I support democracy by voting for the Green Party.

    1. The Democrats and Republicans stand united against universal health care.
    2. More generally, they both have protecting and increasing corporate profits as their first priority. (Even the public option would have cut into corporate profits, so it was of course “off the table.”
    3. They both think the wars are great for corporate profits, so must be continued, wasting OUR tax dollars killing people.
    4. They both think there’s nothing to worry about from the easily-hackable unverifiable touch-screen voting machines, from companies owned by Republicans.
    5. They both think NAFTA and the WTO, which increase corporate profits by exporting jobs to low-wage countries are just dandy.
    6. They both think there’s no reason to investigate the neocons’ involvement in staging the 9/11 attacks, despite OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE that this is the case.
    7. They both think the Bush-Administration torturers (and other criminals) shouldn’t be prosecuted for their crimes, because, after all, highly-placed Republicans are above the law.
    8. They both support the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which undermines the Constitution by allowing the president to declare anyone an “enemy combatant”, and strip them of their Constitutional protections. Ditto for the “Patriot” Acts.
    9. They both support mass government wiretapping of law-abiding citizens, in the greatest invasion of privacy in history.
    10 They both support fascist “justices” (I use this term lightly) on the Supreme Court, which brought us the “Citizens United” decision and other outrages. (The fascist, Scalia, was confirmed by ALL (as in 100%) of the Senate).
    11. They both support corporations feeding us genetically-modified, inadequately tested “frankenfoods”, without even requiring a warning label.

    If the Democrats won’t give us instant-runoff voting, LET’S USE IT AGAINST THEM BY MAKING THEM LOSE CLOSE ELECTIONS TO THE REPUBLICANS!

    Your Green-Party vote sends a message to the Democrats that we’re fed up with their business-first agenda!



    • garry walsh says

      Take heart.
      “An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.” Arthur Miller

      Before Busch2 people who held your point of view were rare as a principled politician. Today u speak for millions. Obama lack of action has amplfied most of your points . America is 50th here, 21st there etc. Folks dont bleat”We are #1″ anymore-they know better
      Wikiliks has shown u good folks a taste of the evil done in your name.
      Decent people have seized power all over South America (with the exception of Columbia) If they can defeat their military u folks can defeat yours

      Germany has shown the world how to handle a financial crisis where people matter (no lay-offs there). Politicians with brains can happen.
      Like Shellly sez
      “Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number -Shake your chains to earth like dew. Which in sleep had fallen on you Ye are many – they are few”.


  1. […] http://www.laprogressive.com/prodemocracy-movement-usa/  comes up #1.  Some quotes:  ”Set aside claims to establishment of “democracy” at the point of a gun overseas, and ask, instead, whether American elections truly are “free and fair.” In truth, I think we are overdue for a pro-democracy movement in the U.S.A. ”  Sounds like they are “contact worthy”, eh?  This is a nice, all around overview of some of the major reasons we need a major Re-assertion of American Democracy (RAD) sooner rather than when it’s already to much later.  Another quote suggesting some of what such a movement should pusue: […]

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