Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Is Democracy an Illusion?

My new documentary film  GARWIN, is about a remarkable individual named Richard Garwin. At age twenty three he was instrumental in developing and designing the Hydorgen Bomb. The H-Bomb was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and had the power to end humanity. Now at age eighty five he has spent a life time making sure something like that would never happen. By educating presidents and maneuvering the corridors of power he made sure politicians made good decisions, not just about nuclear weapons, but about a whole array of scientific matters. Garwin in a small but effective way made our world a little safer. In the several interviews we did for this film, it seemed like his greatest worry was not of a nuclear detonation today, but of democracy in the United States and elsewhere in the world failing to meet its obligations. He says "Really very important is the preservation of a democratic system. People should be interested and able in a democratic way to determine their future. And that is at risk."

This month researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, concluded in a scientific study that the United States was no longer a democracy, but was an oligarchy. To anyone following politics and current affairs over the past two decades, this should not come as a surprise. By studying roughly 1800 different policy initiatives, in the years between 1981 and 2002, they concluded that the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful in institutions like banking and finance or the military, basically set the agenda for the nation. The preferences of the average American had minuscule or near zero impact on public policy. On issues like the environment, gun control, drug laws, minimum wage, immigration and equal pay, there is overwhelming support in numbers in the population, but little legislation passes in Washington DC to reflect that.

It is no secret that corporations and wealthy individuals and groups wield and exert tremendous influence on the government via lobbies, think tanks and campaign contributions. In the last US presidential campaigns alone, the candidates spent more than six billion dollars combined and all of it was privately raised. In response Gilens and Page write "Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support. But we tend to doubt it". Come election time every candidate vows to change that status-quo for votes. And then they become the status-quo or are only able to make small changes on the margins.

While the Unites States successfully implements some aspects of democracy, like holding free and fair elections and awarding the press total freedom, even those have been compromised lately by gerrymandering districts, undermining voting rights and restricting press access to the White House and the president.

In Russia on the other hand, Vladimir Putin and his coterie have successfully established an oligarchy in the most quintessential sense. By dismantling any and all political opposition and suppressing all dissent in the media, they have engineered a quasi-dictatorship with significant public support. When the Soviet Union was dismantled by Michael Gorbachev, there was a glimmer of hope for democracy. Boris Yeltsin did attempt to establish democratic institutions and codes that would foster an open and fair society. But his successor saw to it that they would not last long. And now when its erstwhile Soviet Union neighbor Ukraine tries to reemerge from under its influence, Vladimir Putin is seeing to it that it does not happen threatening invasion.

America and the west have sought to foster democracy where ever they can as an ideal cherished by their founders visa vie free human beings. America has sometimes made it its mission to spread its version of democracy and in the process has incurred tremendous loss of life and treasure. Its latest experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought only destruction and disdain, and continue to prove problematic on every front. After a wasteful war, the Shia and Sunni divisions in Iraq as predicted are tearing the country apart. In Afghanistan an election proposes to bring a new leader to power but the Taliban barely diminished, lie in wait for the Americans to leave. America's selective support of brutal regimes in the past and present have only questioned its true motives. Their continuing support of the Saudis who defy every democratic value known to human kind, makes matters only worse.

The recent uprisings in the Arab world which were romantically labled as "The Arab Spring" by the west, were an expression of people power against people in power. It was a cry for democracy which the west rallied behind from a distance. Unfortunately not much amounted of it. It started in Tunisia, where things are still shaky. Egypt is still in turmoil as the army never really relinquished control. Libya is a broken nation and is having severe teething problems. In Bahrain, Yemen and Algeria the uprisings were quashed with brute force. In Syria the situation gets desperate by the hour as a proxy war between the west and Russia sees no end in sight. As the leader of his Alawite tribe, a genocidal leader Assad launches an election and files his nomination sure to be re-elected president of whatever is left of his nation. Peace talks between Israel and Palestine yet again are at an historic low. So democracy in this region seems to be a diminishing flame despite all those lives lost in its pursuit.

One cannot talk about democracy without mentioning the largest nation that follows some of its tenets and has done so with relative success considering its size and diversity. These past few weeks India has been taking part in one the most important aspect of a representative democracy, an election. 840 million people are choosing from 300 odd parties to form a government in a parliamentary system. A two month long election, with all its color, controversy and cacophony comes to an end in the middle of May. Then there will be a relatively peaceful transition of power as it has been so since India broke free from the British in 1947. Quite an accomplishment for a country that was predicted to tear apart by its sheer multiplicity of region, religion, ethnicity, caste, class and everything one can imagine that would define ones identity. India is truly a continent within a nation and somehow manages to stay as one.

With so much diversity of choice one would think India is truly democratic. When it comes to elections it is. With more than 70% voter turn out in most places, Indians from all walks of life are committed to the act of plebiscite. In America, if more than 50% of eligible voters take part in an election, it is considered an achievement. The nature of an Indian election maybe chaotic, irregular, violent and sometimes corrupt. But for the most part it is legitimate and the leader that emerges is accepted by all. When it comes to governance, India falls short of being a suitable democracy. Corruption is rampant and the oligarchs are at the center of it. Politicians are flawed and criminal and are openly in bed with the oligarchs. The system does not deliver equally to all, and many have little faith that it ever will. Yet they come out and vote with the hope that someday things might change. The press can be bought, coerced, censored and bullied by the state. But in the congested and noisy conglomerate cable news universe, it gets more and more challenging to curtail press freedom. But finding balanced news, proves ever more challenging. The boom fueled by American technology that transformed India in the last two decades, expanding its middle class like never before, has given hope to many that India can rise and will rise again. But it's weak democratic institutions need work for it to be able to rise as a nation for all and not just a few.

Democracy within a capitalist system can easily be undermined by money, if it is not shielded and protected from its influence. Capitalism is known to be a by product of democracy, but China has spawned a form of capitalism under Communism as well. What we see around the world today, is that under the force of money and greed democratic values that are meant to spread prosperity for all in a balanced way are being eroded. Which is essentially causing the degradation of our environment, the failure of our financial systems, conflict, hunger and famine in impoverished nations, terrorism and above all the suppression of our freedoms.

In America today, freedom is directly equated to the act of unfettered consumption. If one can drive a new car every few years, take a vacation, carry a gun, live in a big house, shop cheaply and eat to ones hearts content, one thinks one is free and living in a democratic society. While some acknowledge that this "American Dream" is fast becoming a "Pipe Dream", most refuse to accept it. And the people in power do not want people to accept change, as that would wake them from their slumber and tough decisions would have to be made. Change is a bad word as it disrupts the status-quo. So in America as long as I can carry my gun to Church (you can do that in Georgia now thanks to a new law) and the price of Quinoa and Kale stay stable, I think democracy is working. And elsewhere in the world, the struggle to make democracy work is a never ending battle. It is what it is.