Commentary - August 16-25, 2006

Democracy in Iraq and America

NOTE: The following commentary was published in the Eagle Tribune of August 29, 2006 





President Bush has managed a bait and switch on Iraq. The bait: Two reasons why we should invade Iraq: (1) The Administration’s claim of a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, and (2) the danger of WMDs in Iraq falling into the hands of terrorists. Now that these reasons are known to be false, The switch: The U.S. is in Iraq to plant democracy there. If the spread of democracy to other countries is an important national goal, then we cannot avoid facing a critical question: How can we export democracy to another country if most of us don’t know what it takes even to maintain our own democracy here at home? This is the great divide we face: between the idealistic desire for Iraq to become a stable democratic republic, and the political challenge here at home -- to advance our own. What are the nature and consequences of this divide?

Did you notice? A red flag was just raised – that “most of us don’t know what it takes to cultivate our own democracy here at home.” The degree to which this statement did not cause the reader to jump up with a start and swear is an initial indication of weakness in our own Republic. Another weakness was highlighted by the high voter turnout rates of Iraqis. Their 58-70% rates were significantly higher than rates below 50% that typically characterize most American elections at all levels. The Iraqis put us to shame. Did you feel it?

Voting turnout is just the tip of the iceberg of what it takes to maintain a democratic system. There are all sorts of activities involved, including voter registration, voter canvassing, distribution of political information; making, staking and holding signs, political mailings, rallies, meetings, letters to editors and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. The slight degree to which Americans are so involved is shameful, indicated by low single-digit percentages. Yet, isn’t our involvement in politics essential? How are we to have a government that is for us if politics is not of and by us – if politics is a game played by a small political class of “them,” not “us”! We’ve forgotten our revolutionary history -- how Sam Adams and other colonial insurgents struggled so we could become citizens of a new, American democratic Republic. 


Members of U.S. Marine Civil units, Stryker Brigades and other battalions in Iraq have learned a lot of what it takes, the risks to be endured and the sacrifices that must be made to really effect “regime change” and introduce democracy. If only one could ask Marine Lt. Hoes, shot by a sniper while distributing GOTV pamphlets. If one could hear from those killed for believing they had a responsibility to vote for the sake of a better future for their family and their country. How many think that voting is a responsibility, not just a right? The proportion is probably a minority. What do you think?

Given the very low level of political involvement by most American citizens, one can conclude that most of us do not know “what it takes” to even maintain our own Republic, let alone be in a position to judge what’s needed to plant and nurture seeds of democracy elsewhere. The “divide” here would seem to be crucial as we approach an election in which the question of “staying the course” in Iraq is the #1 issue. Yet, is it fair to put the burden of understanding what’s at stake on workaday Americans? What about our

Representatives in Congress, the media or others with responsibility? 

Media? Haven’t we also been subjected to something of a “bait and switch” by them? Early on, they tended largely to serve as cheerleaders for the President’s war policy. Now they are mostly leading critics, emphasizing negatives and overlooking most of the positives. More important in this election year, the mainstream media (MSM) are doing a poor job of explaining likely consequences of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Most MSM haven’t followed up troubling leads suggesting that our forces are hunkering down for a long stay in Iraq. Other media like the so-called “blogosphere” are a cacophony of attention-seeking scribblers. The main point here is that the American public is ill-served by the 4th estate – a media sector that has nearly given up on investigative reporting.

Then there’s the Congress. According to Constitutional theory, this is the body of government that is supposed to be serving us, We, the People. Reality, however, has badly diverged from theory – another great divide. Congress has defaulted on the two major roles of those we elect – leadership and representation. Leadership has been ceded to an Executive who shows no respect for democracy in our own country even while touting it abroad. Both representation and leadership have come to depend on polls and media. Members of Congress act out of a love/hate relationship with the media. They lust after media attention but run fearful of reporters and editorial writers.

The common denominator here is information. “Knowledge is power.” Serving in Washington, D.C., the center of power and information, and served by staff and agencies devoted to information gathering, Members of Congress have the ability to share a good deal of what we need to know on the major issues of the day. Do they? No. Members’ newsletters to constituents are primarily vehicles for their self-promotion. Members seldom convene forums on major issues as, really, they should be doing on Iraq. Members soft-soap us. Very few use the “bully pulpit” of their position to take controversial positions on anything. P.C. speech regulators reign. We, the voters, are left to gather, sift and sort snippets of information as we may. Members are engines for re-election rather than resources for us. We demand too little of those we send to Washington.      

Is it any wonder that the three major parts of our Republic noted here – the President, the Congress and the media -- have all earned low approval ratings from the American public? With all the attention paid to President Bush’s historically low ratings, most people don’t realize that the ratings of the Congress and the media are significantly lower. Our Republic is not healthy. Leadership is lacking. Without it, “the people perish.” We need a new kind of Congress. Without new models of representation and leadership, congressional turnover will mean a new set of people arriving in Washington to join the club and get co-opted or corrupted. There’ll be no meat in the turnover. The “divide” that yawned as this article opened will remain. Voting is not enough. If you’re not involved, you don’t count. What’s to be done? – Look here again and join the question via e-mail.


         Peter Bearse, Ph.D., political activist and author,

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