Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Does Democracy Still Matter

Many Americans are still basking in the glow of Barack Obama’s victory in the Presidential election. It’s hard to blame them – after 8 years of an administration that has made a mess of two wars, oversaw the ruination of the economy, threatened our civil liberties, allowed 9-11 on their watch, reduced our stature in the eyes of the world, neglected the Mid-East peace process, and failed its citizens after hurricane Katrina, change is something that many Americans are eagerly anticipating.

But before we congratulate ourselves too heartily, we should look at some details. The electoral process itself has changed little since the debacle of 2000. We still have the ridiculous electoral college. “Black box” voting machines still exist and the fact that you may have liked the results this time around does not mean you should be happy with a voting system that is difficult if not impossible to verify.

Money still makes the major difference in elections and just because the winning candidate is hopefully a champion of the less affluent, it does not change the regrettable fact that the ability to spend in a campaign is too all-important. Obama supporters should instead realize that this year’s election was an anomaly in fundraising.

Even worse is the fact that the voting public remains ignorant and irrational. We are the same voting public that believed Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11 and collaborated with Al Qaeda and that WMDs were found in Iraq. Many voters, this time around, believed Obama was a Muslim, for example.

Although America now seems to be pleased with the election results, we should not be happy with the electoral process and the attitudes of many voters:

News Item: (9/20/08 Associated Press) (Excerpts) Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them "lazy," "violent" or responsible for their own troubles...

Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice…

The AP-Yahoo poll used the unique methodology of Knowledge Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that interviews people online after randomly selecting and screening them over telephone…
Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word "violent" strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with "boastful," 29 percent "complaining," 13 percent "lazy" and 11 percent "irresponsible." When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.

Among white Democrats, one-third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.

The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree that "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites." Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn't…

Researchers used mathematical modeling to sort out the relative impact of a huge swath of variables that might have an impact on people's votes — including race, ideology, party identification, the hunger for change and the sentiments of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's backers.

Just 59 percent of her white Democratic supporters said they wanted Obama to be president. Nearly 17 percent of Clinton's white backers plan to vote for McCain.

Among white Democrats, Clinton supporters were nearly twice as likely as Obama backers to say at least one negative adjective described blacks well, a finding that suggests many of her supporters in the primaries — particularly whites with high school education or less — were motivated in part by racial attitudes. (Go to http://news.aol.com/article/racial-views-may-cost-obama-election/181935?icid=200100397x1209949002x1200587996 .)

Polls after the election indirectly confirmed much of the above. A majority of white voters voted for McCain (55%); the only segment of white voters (other than white Democrats) to go for Obama were those under 29 years of age. Wealth and education did not matter for overall white voters. (Go to http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#val=USP00p1.)

For those who read the INQUIRER, the poll’s conclusions are not surprising. The September 2008 INQUIRER suggested that Obama would indeed have a disadvantage on account of prejudice.

At the same time, ignorance, superstition and an aversion to reason and logic are also at work in the election; all of these handicaps to good decision making will be at play.

For example, it was many of Obama’s African–American supporters as well as organized religious institutions that helped to pass California’s Proposition 8 which eliminated the right of that state’s gay couples to marry. It would be hard to argue that these Obama supporters were informed freedom lovers who were interested in social justice.

All of this is not to say that those who vote irrationally were not voting in a manner that will be best for our country. Maybe they are. But it is safe to say that voting irrationally is probably not the best way to go to obtain the best results in the long run!

This is also not to say that a President Obama will not serve to “educate” many American voters. It may be that President Obama’s presidency will deal a severe blow to racism, particularly if it’s a successful presidency. In January 2009, Obama’s positive rating was over 75% which would seem to guarantee that a majority of white voters supported him now.

A recent Free Inquiry magazine asked the question “Does Democracy Still Matter?” The simple answer is, “no, not if the voting public is irrational or uninformed; yes, of course, if the voting public is rational and informed.”

What attributes do you think describes various voters? Does Democracy still matter? Just because your preferred candidate won does not mean that the way we pick our leaders is not severely compromised.

Democracy requires reason, free inquiry, concern for others, responsibility and fairness – in other words, a humanistic outlook; for tyranny you need faith, certainty, greed, and ignorance. Not surprisingly, faith, certainty, self-interest (to the exclusion of interest in others) and a rejection of the scientific enterprise are often seen as virtues by many in this society.

Until the American voting public becomes well versed in civics, becomes less bigoted, less ignorant and less dogmatic in all matters relevant to governance, and we improve the actual system of elections, our democracy remains in peril, current results aside.
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