I thought the great readers of this blog, however small that number is, might be interested in reading an essay I did for my American Government class. The assignment was to read an extended essay by Howard Zinn, the famed American Socialist, on how America was undemocratic, and then refute that statement. Enjoy!
Zinn’s “definition” of democracy is inherently flawed, for a few reasons. His view of democracy is an absolute, Marxist equality, which is never what democracy was intended to be. All men should not be made equal in all respects simply because they were created with certain unalienable rights. Also, because of this view of absolute equality, Zinn has a tendency to equate any kind of real or perceived economic inequality with class warfare. Disregarding the inherent flaws in Zinn’s article, his views can be disproven specifically on the three major points of participation of the populace in government, access to information, and wealth distribution.
Zinn’s first major point, that America is undemocratic because of a lack of participation by the populace in government, has three main sub points. The first is that the United States is not democratic because it has a republican form of government, which necessarily puts governmental power, derived from the masses, in the hands of a relative few. Winston Churchill’s quote that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” would seem to apply here, substituting “a republic” for “democracy.” Zinn’s criticism is a non-starter, because there is no viable solution for his criticism. While a true democracy would be the purest form of government, it is unrealistic in dealing with a population of hundreds of millions. Zinn’s second sub point, that the influence in the political process is concentrated in a wealthy minority of the population, is linked with the first. This sub point descends into class warfare rhetoric when Zinn explains, in speaking of the powerful wealthy minority and the repressed poor majority, that there is “a gulf so wide between the haves and have-nots that there was no ground on which to dispute.” This statement is shown to be false by the countless cases of rags to riches stories throughout American history. Zinn also discounts the large middle class that is present in the population. The third sub point is that the two main parties are so similar that neither presents a clear difference. One only needs to look at the recent election to realize that the two main parties present a clear difference in political philosophy and issues. Even in areas in which they fundamentally agree, such as the need to stay the course in Iraq, they have extremely different ways of going about that course.
Zinn’s second major point is that America is undemocratic because only the wealthy have lobbying clout with the government because of their superior access to information, and the information that the general population does get has been heavily censored and processed, by both the government and the wealthy elite that control the media. While it is true that lobbying groups in Washington often have quite a bit of money and influence, one should consider where that money and influence comes from. Often, in the case of such organizations as the NRA or NOW, that money and influence comes from the organization’s large membership. The majority of these organizations’ budget comes from relatively small donations spread across a membership of millions of people. This same large membership is what gives the organization clout in Washington. In addition, representatives are still accountable to the people they represent. The writer has personally written letters to Senator Hagel on a few issues, and has always received an original, non-form letter in return. While it may appear possible to brush off a few letters from constituents, consider the recent uproar over Sen. Arlen Specter being given the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. One conservative blog, The Corner, made the suggestion that its readers call or e-mail Sen. Frist and their own state’s Senators, expressing their displeasure with the decision. Because of this one post, Specter was almost denied the chairmanship and has been forced to make public statements renouncing his previous positions. Zinn’s second point, the censorship of information by the government and media, is easily disproven by the recent war in Iraq, and by the power of the internet. Reporters were embedded with the troops and gave live reports from the battle field during Operation Iraqi Freedom, in stark contrast to Zinn’s day, when HQ in Saigon gave the same overly-optimistic briefing every day to the press. In addition, if the government is somehow managing the media, they are doing a very poor job. The only news out of Iraq on the three main networks seems to be overwhelmingly negative, while the country is currently having a debate on how far captured terrorists should be interrogated. Neither of these seems like things the government would have allowed in Zinn’s day. As for the media having total control of information, one only needs to look at the recent scandal involving CBS and some faked memos to see that the media is not capable of putting forth a lie as news. They tried, and it was foiled, thanks to a large network of bloggers, connected by the internet.
Zinn’s fifth major point is that America is undemocratic because it has great wealth disparity. Setting aside the fact that America was also founded on capitalism, and that setting aside a capitalist economy would be just as bad as setting aside a democratic form of government (as Zinn alleges the country to have done), this point has very little to do with actual democracy. As stated in the introduction, men should not be made equal simply because they were created alike, with certain unalienable rights. This is not, as Zinn alleges, “an inexcusable breach of the democratic principle.” The citizens of this country have a right to life and liberty, in the most literal sense of the words, and the right to PURSUE happiness, not the right to have it provided for them. If Zinn wishes to advocate a socialist style economy, with more severe income redistribution than under the current income tax system, he is free to advocate that. But the lack of income redistribution is not cause to accuse the United States of being undemocratic. As long as its citizens are ruled by a government of their choosing, and have the right of life and liberty, they are living in a democracy. Economic disparity has nothing to do with it.
Setting aside the fact that Zinn’s definition of democracy is inherently flawed, his views on the specific areas of the participation of the populace in government, control of information by the government and the media, and economic disparity have been disproven above, showing that his assertion that America is undemocratic is false.