Elections or Democracy?

We are told that we had to go to Haiti to restore democracy there. It would be more accurate to say that we went to restore an elected government.

There is a huge difference between elections and democracy. An election is a one-time act; democracy is continuous participation in public affairs. Elections are based on manipulated television pictures and 30-second sound bites; the essence of democracy is information and concern for the public good.

There have been regular elections in the most undemocratic countries of the world, like the communist German Democratic Republic. On the other hand, Confucian China was practicing almost equal access to public offices for 2500 years without ever holding any elections.

Democracy is much more than elections. It is the self-government of informed and concerned citizens. Democracy is impossible without continuous, active participation at all levels. Democracy is only possible in highly cultured free societies where people respect each other, the public institutions, and the rule of law. It is based on peaceful negotiations, cooperation, and compromise. It also includes wide-range consultations and public criticism of both elected and appointed officials.

Public policies should be determined by reason and argument, not by counting noses. The number of votes for or against an idea or a person has nothing to do with the merits of that idea or person. Elections in their present form are as if two foxes and one rabbit were to vote on what to have for breakfast.

We all know that only those candidates have a chance to be elected who have the support of the powerful special interest groups and the media. As a result, we do not have a real choice at elections. No matter whom we elect, the interests of the country will never be as important as the special interests of those who select and support the representatives. The common interest is not represented at all. As the country becomes increasingly fragmented, it will be increasingly difficult even to define this common interest.

When everybody is somebody, then nobody is anybody: the right to vote has lost its value. A narrower suffrage meant a certain prestige that is lost now. Universal suffrage that exists today includes an unduly large segment of the population who have little idea either about the issues or about the candidates. According to a 1986 Hearst Corporation poll, 45% of Americans believe that the communist slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is part of our own Constitution. Such people are incapable of a rational choice; they become tools in the hands of manipulators who try to control public opinion. The universal suffrage would make better sense in case of an informed and educated citizenry. Therefore, political reform should start with a reformed educational system.

The present system of choosing office holders is unfair, and it is not accessible for most people. It is virtually impossible to be elected unless the candidate is supported by one of the two big parties or some powerful special interest group. Ideas do not count, money does.

Campaign costs are growing like a cancer. To be elected to the House of Representatives one has to raise about $300,000. A Senate seat costs about $4 million. There are only two ways to raise that much money. Either you are so rich that you can afford to pay it from your own pocket, or you rely on the special interest groups. Political campaigns are not about ideas or issues but about visual images that can be manipulated at the will of the media. The money is mostly used for polling people's sentiments, fitting the politicians' images to the results of the polls, and for senseless negative television commercials.

The big campaign providers argue that by contributing money they exercise their fundamental right to participate in the political process. This is a hypocritical and false statement. Manipulating public opinion is coercion; buying politicians is immoral.

Money should be eliminated from the political process and replaced with an independent information system to provide a broad range of political choices. This information system should be provided free of charge to express the views of anyone who has the qualifications necessary to run for office. Government would have no control over the ideas transmitted.

Paid political advertisements and financial campaign contributions from individuals, political action committees, or corporations should be prohibited as clear examples of coercion and manipulation. The costs of all political campaigns should be financed by the public. All qualified candidates must be put on equal budgets. False campaign statements should be punished by law as any other false advertising.

All political offices should be accessible to every citizen who meets the constitutional requirements. Participation should be open to any qualified person. To become a candidate for elected office, one should meet only some elementary standards, e.g., collecting a small number of nominating signatures, and passing a simple examination on basic historical, cultural, and political issues.

As an additional step, the 'None of the Above' option should be included in the election procedure. If more people vote for this option than for any of the candidates, new elections should be held where none of the rejected candidates could participate. This would be a powerful and simple way to remove unfit people from political office.

If none of the above proposals can be accepted, then even selection of office-holders by a lottery would be a better system than the existing one.

We need a national commitment to political reform. When Americans perceive the alarming extent of the system's failure and the destructive threat it poses to the society, we must start to work to bring about the necessary changes. This effort will require traditional American idealism, energy, persistence, and practicality.

Excerpted from How to Save Our Country, Copyright (c) 1993 by Miklos N. Szilagyi.

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