Was it Sir Winston Churchill, Cold Warrior, who quipped that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest? OK, it wasn’t really a quip, says Jeeves. Churchill said it in the House of Commons in 1907, when the Cold War was just a twinkle in his witty eye, ascribing the comment to some unknown predecessor wit:
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 for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…
The central conceit of democracy (dēmos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’) is that informed citizens vote for lawmakers to act in their interests, according to the wishes of these knowledgable citizens. This is the ‘consent of the governed’ part, from which elected legislators and executives ‘derive their just powers.’
The worst form of government, except for all those other forms. Better than a King, I’d wager, even if the king is a nice guy. The king’s son will as often as not be an entitled, unempathetic asshole. Ruling by Divine Right, God only knows what the motherfucker might do. Military dictators, as a rule even worse than fucking monarchs. You don’t like the way they do things? “Take this malcontent to the secret detention center and let him bitch there, with the electrodes on.”
Modern democracies are huge, which is one great modern weakness in the noble idea of rule by the will of the people. Elections are mediated, and decided, in the mass media. Voters, when they show up, cast their votes for the people who raised the most money by making promises to wealthy donors, who looked the best on TV and had the most convincing ads right before ballot time. We can see the problem with this.
Look no further than our bald headed commander-in-chief with that beautiful mane of carefully architected hair who flaunts every rule and norm of democracy. “I don’t do ethics, boner breath,” he smiles when the head of the government ethics office resigns in indignation after the new president gives a cheerful fuck you to the Office of Government Ethics.
Even Dick Cheney, famous for his smirking fuck yous, his contempt for critics, his no-bid contracts, his huge vault of top secret classified documents, his dark-side operations, his embrace of torture, his impatience with those who questioned his right to do whatever the fuck he needed to do to keep America safe, well, even Cheney finally conceded he had to go into a room, hand in hand with President George W. Bush, and testify secretly, and not under oath, to the 9/11 Commission he and Bush had fought for so long. Not to praise that evil fuck in any way, it’s only that even in comparison to Cheney, this new asshole is one very bad hombre, ethics-wise.
Taking potshots at Trump is easy, and I choose not to do that anymore (within reason and the limits of my restraint). He is a symptom anyway, a gigantic cancerous chicken coming home to roost. The scarier deal is that most Americans are now convinced of our utter powerlessness in a democratic society with one set of laws for the powerful and another for the powerless, where deals are made by the strong and must be tolerated by the weak, the great masses of us.
This works even on a neighborhood level where mass media coverage is not such an essential factor in who gets elected. A few weeks back I went to the Audiencia Publica in my local intermediate school, about the massive rezoning plan now on its way to action. The local politicians kept a low profile, most of them already committed to the massive development plan worth tens or hundreds of millions to wealthy developers and their cronies. Their representatives (several sent secretaries to speak) were booed, as was the one oily, double talking fuck who appeared in person, manipulated his way into speaking first (among 150 speakers) due to “prior commitments”, and reiterated he is fighting for the greater good. He was booed as he left right after speaking. I watched another local pol, who didn’t speak, eating a bowl of free rice and beans from a table in the back of the packed auditorium. I remembered that smiling asshole from the time I went to speak to him.
I dutifully wrote my statement for the “record” and realized, not long after, that while the Audiencia Publica gave local citizens a chance to vent, pump fists, raise signs, yell our approval or anger, that my words would not even be printed out for future use as scrap paper. Not a single ass would be wiped with my hours of composition. The locals have nothing to say on this issue. Fuck the locals. You don’t like the new plan? Get the fuck out, you homeless asshole!
Deriving their just powers from the consent of the… wait, the consent of those who pay for their expensive campaigns. It’s just a fact of modern democracy– it’s how much positive attention you get in the media, how well your team spins your personal ambitions as altruism, how nicely you clean up to be packaged and sold as “authentic”. The politician who spoke at the Public Hearing began his five minutes with two straight minutes of Spanish. This was to show his authenticity to those who had been booing him a moment earlier, and would boo him again when he concluded his mealy-mouthed English speech.
“We got nothing,” I realized, when I was done counting up all the arguments I had made. Loss of historical character of neighborhood– nada. Increased crowding, air pollution, additional subway headaches — nada. Closing and demolishing the neighborhood library as part of a gigantic rezoning plan– nada. All perfectly legal, as attested to by the permit application numbers and the entire semi-public process of making these decisions. “Above your fucking pay grades, you grousing cocksuckers,” the local Dominican city councilman might as well said, and to the hecklers “que tengas un buen dia, comemierda motherfuckers.”
Let us be brutally honest here (and what is honesty without just a whiff of brutality?) on the one side are people who want their quiet little neighborhood to remain as it is, pretty much. Enemies of progress. Not a penny to be made with that sort of attitude. On the other side, every possible argument and upwards of many, many millions of dollars, with plenty to go around to anyone with any power who might also have any qualms. A slam dunk. “Have a nice day, shiteater motherfuckers!” they all say in unison, although, without uttering a sound, the consent of the governed, of course, being the place from which all just power in a democracy is derived.