Redefining Democracy – and getting the monkey off Turkey’s back

I’ve spent several years trying to define and or describe Turkey and its people on this blog – and now I feel I’m ready to tackle one of the world’s really big questions. What is this ‘democracy’ thing that people keep talking about?
William J Clinton to the contrary, it was the USA’s 16th President Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, who asserted that 750,000 of his citizens would die in the Civil War ‘that government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ Well, he didn’t know the exact figure at that stage, of course, but he must have known it would be a lot. He was, we assume, expressing his support for a democratic system of government, despite the fact that the vast bulk of the US population in those days was not eligible to cast a vote.
Lambs to the slaughter – so what’s changed?
The word ‘democracy’ has a long history, yet as a concept, it has only relatively recently become widely accepted as a desirable goal, and among political leaders, tends to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. Encyclopedia entries and tourist brochures describing the modern nation of Greece often refer to that land as the cradle of democracy. In truth, however, the much vaunted Athenian system of Cleisthenes lasted a mere two hundred years, more than two and a half millennia ago – and at best allowed for the participation of perhaps twenty percent of the population.
Subsequently, there was not even self-government in that small corner of the Mediterranean until the 19th century when the Great Powers of Europe wrested it from the Ottoman Empire. Even then, self-government is a misleading term, given that said Great Powers installed, first a German, then a Danish Prince on the throne of the kingdom they had created. The foreign-imposed monarchy lasted, on and off, until 1967 when it was finally deposed by a military coup, whose generals ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974. So it seems democracy as a political system has an uncertain, questionable pedigree at best.
Still, it’s a worthy aim, for all that. However, you can understand that some might view it with cynicism. Check any collection of quotationson the subject: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.(Winston Churchill);The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.’ (Charles Bukowski).
Apart from the cynics, much of the other wisdom has to do with the fragility of the concept when put into practice, and its vulnerability to abuse and manipulation: ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt);A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful.’ (Charles W. Pickering).   Education of the masses is seen as an indispensable component, as is constant vigilance, by which we may understand, an effective system of checks and balances – not to mention a need for honest folks in high places, and probably compulsory polygraph testing for lying and hypocrisy, especially in the case of high court judges.
The big problem is that in any country or institution, the ruling elite is always understandably reluctant to surrender its grasp on power. As they are forced to give up concessions to populist reformers – abolition of slavery, universal suffrage (especially for the non-wealthy, and for women), an open press, the secret ballot, objective supervision of vote-counting and so on – they are obliged to find more subtle ways of ensuring that votes cast do not unduly hamper their pursuit of riches and power.
One such method is the sophisticated, expensive and lucrative system of political lobbying. According to Wikipedia: ‘Wall Street lobbyists and the financial industry spent upwards of $100 million in one year to “court regulators and lawmakers”, particularly since they were “finalizing new regulations for lending, trading and debit card fees.” . . . Big banks were “prolific spenders” on lobbying; JPMorgan Chase has an in-house team of lobbyists who spent $3.3 million in 2010; the American Bankers Associationspent $4.6 million on lobbying; an organization representing 100 of the nation’s largest financial firms called the Financial Services Roundtable spent heavily as well. A trade group representing Hedge Funds spent more than $1 million in one quarter trying to influence the government about financial regulations, including an effort to try to change a rule that might demand greater disclosure requirements for funds.’ Given this level of expenditure, what would you say are the chances of persuading Congress that Wall St needs a little more regulating?
Another method of circumventing the democratic process is the creation of ‘flexible’ labour markets – which essentially means the removal of manufacturing and service industries from countries with high labour costs (read ‘a reasonable standard of living for all’) to poor countries where workers can be exploited for wretchedly low wages and conditions. A useful side benefit of this ‘flexibility’ is a level of ‘structural’ unemployment in the original country such that those who do have jobs can be frightened into accepting lower pay and reduced conditions.
Parallel to this ‘flexible labour market’ runs the establishment of a senior management elite with the power to remunerate themselves beyond King Croesus’s wildest dreams for their achievements in reducing costs and maximizing profits for their companies. Since most of their work force is either employed for slave-labour wages in distant third world lands, or too frightened and de-unionised to complain, and the unemployed, on the whole, don’t have a voice, we don’t hear a lot of criticism. There have, admittedly, been protests in France over the salary package of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, though even the French government couldn’t convince him it was excessive. Reutersreported recently that, Ghosn earned 2.79 million euros from Renault in 2011 and 9.92 million from Nissan in its corresponding financial year, making him one of the highest-paid CEOs in France or Japan.’ In the same article, it was noted that, ‘Renault is cutting 7,500 jobs over three years . . . and is demanding union concessions on pay, flexibility and working hours in return for guarantees to keep French plants open.’ Interestingly, my Turkish dailyreported the other day that Mr Ghosn had agreed to a 30% cut in salary if workers in Turkey’s Renault plant accepted the company’s new contract. Nice to see the developing world fighting back! Still, it must be comforting to know that you can take a 30% cut and still make 9.6 million euros for a year’s work, if work is what the gentleman in question actually does.
It seems, for the most part, that corporate CEOs can pretty much do what they like, especially those in the financial sector, who don’t have to worry about uppity union representatives from the factory floor. Nevertheless, you can’t be absolutely sure some bleeding heart President isn’t going to get nervous about the effect all this is having on the morale of the nation as a whole, and start trying to change things. Lobbying alone may not be sufficient. Political campaign funding is a tried and tested means of buying the support of the people’s elected representatives. A recent phenomenon, or at least one that has recently been brought to light, is known as “dark money”[1]. What we have here is wealthy individuals hiding behind seemingly public-spirited organizations donating large sums to politicians’ election campaigns.  Huffington Post gives some examples: The Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the shadowy American Future Fund, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent $295 million since the beginning of 2011, targeting candidates from President Barack Obama on down to the most contested House and Senate races, all without disclosing the names of their donors to the public.
‘These groups are organized as either social welfare nonprofits under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code or, in the case of the Chamber of Commerce, as a trade association under section 501(c)(6). Since these groups qualify for tax-exempt status, they are also exempt from disclosing their donors, which political committees are required to do.
‘In total, these “dark money” groups have combined to spend $416 million on the 2012 election.’
Once you have these systems in place, you can pretty much guarantee that things will go the way of big business. On the other hand, there remains the problem of investigative news media that may probe and embarrass your tame politicians. It’s not a major problem, since your big business probably owns most of the media anyway – but still you may get the occasional maverick. What you really need to do is ensure that your system is so deeply entrenched and unresponsive to uncontrolled influence and change that most of the citizens who might want reform have been effectively disenfranchised. A post-election article in Time Magazinenoted that large numbers of reporters slaved throughout the presidential campaign to ferret out lies and contradictions perpetrated by candidates:
‘Clear examples of deception fill websites, appear on nightly newscasts and run on the front pages of newspapers. But the truth squads have had only marginal success in changing the behavior of the campaigns and almost no impact on the outside groups that peddle unvarnished falsehoods with even less accountability. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” explained Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, echoing his industry’s conventional wisdom.’ Clearly both political party machines are happy to play fast and loose with the truth, secure in the knowledge that the system is stacked against accountability.
In consequence, voter turnout in US Presidential elections seems to reflect a lack of belief in the electoral system. It is estimated that 57.5% of eligible voters turned out at the polls in 2012. Mitt Romney was ridiculed and lambasted for stating that 47% of voters would vote for Obama no matter what, so he didn’t have to worry about them. In fact, 43% of US voters, approximately 93 million citizens, have been so effectively cut out of the democratic process that neither party needs to think about them.
Which brings me to my next point in the sorry tale of exemplary democracy. Does anyone really understand how representatives are sent to the US Congress and Senate, and how a President is elected? And if they do, can they explain to what extent the results actually reflect the wishes of US voters? The current system for electing a US President was designed by the founding fathers at the birth of the Republic, allegedly to guard against potential evils, one of which was the dominance of party politics. In fact, the same two parties have been taking turns to screw the country for the past 160 years, the ‘Democrats’ since 1832, and the Republicans since 1854. Interestingly, at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War, the Democrats were actually the pro-slavery party – another bend sinister on the ancestral escutcheon of democracy.
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton is said to have told the European Parliament in 2009, ‘I never understood multi-party democracy. It’s hard enough with two parties.’ If Madame Clinton actually did utter those words, and if they truly reflect her opinion, you’d have to wonder whether she has the mental equipment to cast a responsible vote, never mind carry out the duties of Secretary of State or, God forbid, President of the most powerful nation on Earth! For Mrs Clinton’s information, the majority of the world’s democratic states employ a proportional representation electoral system which allows for the presence in their legislative assemblies of several political parties – and most of those countries have a higher turnout at the polls than the USA. Not surprising when you remember that the media were telling us prior to the 2012 election that, if you didn’t live in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada or New Hampshire, you might as well stay home for all the difference your vote would make to the final result.
One of the things that have impressed me about Turkey in recent years is the capacity for change within the system. When I first came to this country in 1995, the AK Party currently in power did not exist. Now, none of the parties involved in government at that time can manage a single representative in parliament. Very likely, Mrs Clinton would struggle in such an environment. She wouldn’t know which lobbyists to listen to, or which unaffiliated public interest group to accept campaign funds from – or even which party to join. The Turkish system may be tough on politicians, financiers and retired army generals, but it does keep Turkish voters interested. And I suspect a good number of those 93 million non-voting Americans would make more effort if there were a little more choice on their voting papers.
Undoubtedly there are social and economic problems in Turkey. The education system is desperately in need of serious expert attention, for instance, and the gulf between rich and poor is unacceptably high. On the other hand, the nation has so far avoided the worst effects of the world financial crisis that has battered its European neighbours Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even the UK. The home of modern democracy seems to have silenced its discontented poor for the time being, but tens of thousands have been taking to the streets regularly in the PIIGS nations in recent months to protest their governments’ imposed ‘austerity’ measures.
‘Austerity’, needless to say, is generally understood to mean reducing pensions and social welfare benefits for the retired and unemployed, cutting back the public sector workforce, and reducing spending on education and public health. Little in the way of belt-tightening is required from the banking and finance sectors – Irish banks, for example, have reportedlyreceived 64 billion euros in government handouts to keep them solvent. Furthermore, those government handouts are funded from tax paid by the diminishing pool of wage and salary earners, or more likely, given their indebtedness, by government borrowing from banks. In the mean time, the UK parliament has published a report announcing plans to try and collect billions of pounds in tax from US multinational corporations such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon, who use a technique referred to as ‘profit-shifting’ to pretty much avoid paying any tax at all. The New York Times reported the other day that, Starbucks said . . . that it was reviewing its British tax practices after the company disclosed recently that it had paid no corporate tax in Britain last year despite generating £398 million in sales.’ Unfortunately, the article goes on to say, the British Government expects that their campaign to extract a little internal revenue from these sources will cost them at least £77 million.
Still, the British taxpayer has got it soft compared to his or her American counterpart. According to a recent article in Time, the Pentagon is splashing out $400 billion dollars to purchase 2,457 Lockheed F-35 fighters that are apparently starting to show many of the attributes of a white elephant. At approximately $160 million each, the single-seat warplane costs about the same as a 204-seater Boeing 767. I don’t remember seeing that voters were offered the opportunity to say yay or nay to this project in last year’s national presidential poll – but I suspect not. The same article quotes a Republican senator saying that US spending on ‘defense’ now accounts for 45% of the world’s total.
Well, so much for the power of a democratically exercised vote, and the fair spread of the tax burden over those able to pay. What about equality before the law, another foundation stone of a democratic system? A recent study carried out in New Zealand by an academic at Victoria University found that white-collar fraudsters are far less likely to spend time in jail than denizens of society’s lower echelons hauled into court for welfare benefit cheating – in spite of the fact that the sums of money involved are invariably much larger in the former group.
Like me, you may be following the case of Jesse Jackson Jr, former Chicago Democrat congressman once talked about as having the potential to become the first black president’, who has admitted charges of channelling campaign funds to his personal use. Apparently Jesse Jr delegated the responsibility for the family tax forms to his wife Sandi, a Chicago City Councillor – who is also facing charges for filing false returns. Let’s see what happens to them, bearing in mind that a blue-collar employee who steals from his or her employer is usually treated harshly by the justice system. And then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief with plans to run for President of France. His stellar career was derailed when a hotel maid accused him of sexual assault. Stauss-Kahn’s lawyers were able to discredit the woman and avoid criminal prosecution, but she subsequently brought a civil case against him. The latest news is that the case has been settled out of court for an undisclosed, but presumably large sum. Well, you’d have to wonder why the guy would want to do that if he was, in fact, innocent. You can’t help feeling that Big Abe’s famous words could be modified these days to: Government of the people by a small and privileged elite largely for the benefit of that latter group. Monsieur Dominique, incidentally, would have been standing as a Socialist candidate!
Anyway, where does all that leave us? I’m sure you knew or suspected most of the foregoing, even if you may not have known all the fine details. I fondly remember the days when my own name was on the ballot paper in New Zealand, which made casting a vote in national elections so much easier. These days it seems I don’t qualify to exercise democratic voting rights in New Zealand or Turkey, so for the most part, I just sit on the sidelines and offer helpful comments. Still, I do feel that the Western media should assist in getting their own national houses in order before criticising too harshly democracy in Turkey and elsewhere.


[1] coined by the Sunlight Foundation

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