Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1600. A Word With the Reader: Searching for Democracy

By Kamran Nayeri, October 21, 2014

On November 4 the mid-term elections are held in the United States.  I vote by mail and am sitting down with my voting options before me.  A little personal history is in order. 

I was born in Iran under the dictatorship of the U.S. imposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Elections meant nothing then and I left Iran for a college education in the United States when I was 18 years old in January 1969. 

As a non-citizen, I was not able to vote in the United State for the next ten year. 

The first time I ever voted was in the aftermath of the February 1979 revolution in Iran. It was in the referendum imposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini with a simple two-way option: “Islamic Republic: yes or no.”  I voted “no” although the newly installed Islamic regime spread the word that a “no” vote was a vote for the old regime that we all had just overthrown!  Unsurprisingly, over 98% voted “yes” to Islamic Republic even though nobody knew what that was going to be like.  With such a “mandate” the Islamic regime held an election to an “assembly of experts” in Islamic jurisprudence in the summer of 1979 after it had unleashed a massive attack on democratic and political rights. The Islamic experts wrote a Constitution that essentially disenfranchised any critics of the clerical capitalist rule in Iran.

Thus, I took my right to vote seriously when I decided to become a U.S. citizen.  But let me share the dilemma of a good citizen.

I can vote for a number of California State offices, including the governor. But in each case I am given a choice between a Democrat and a Republican.  However, these parties are both openly supportive of the capitalist system that is the cause of our social and environmental problems.  We badly need candidates that openly propose alternative to the existing crisis generating system.  

Also, I can vote for a number of judicial offices.  Here the candidates are not (openly) partisan and the vote is for or against each individual instead of a choice between two or more candidates.  But I do not really know any of them. How could I vote for someone to be a judge if I do not know them to be just? 

Then there are candidates for the school governance bodies.  Here again the candidates do not declare party affiliations. But then again, I really do not know them to vote in favor or against them.   

Finally, they are “Measures” or “Propositions” put before voters. There are six state Measures on the ballot this year.  I voted in each case because these are easier to understand.  For example, Measure 48 would allow certain Indian tribes to use newly acquired land to build new casinos. In 2000, voters amended the state constitution to allow gaming on Indian land generally defined by federal law to have been titled before 1988.  Measure 48 supports a negotiated agreement between some Indian tribes and the California State officials to allow building additional casinos on the newly acquired land away from reservations expanding the range of casinos in the State. 

Gambling generally banned in California is allowed on land under the jurisdiction of Indian tribes. Using this legal advantage, Indian tribes have opened up casinos everywhere they could. It has been a lucrative business.  But it has also created mischief within and without Indian tribe territories.  Within the Indian community, it has caused certain competition for revenue from the casinos. In some cases, membership in the tribe has been questioned, denied or revoked to allow fewer hands in the money pot.  Gambling has brought undesirable consequences for the neighboring communities. In Santa Rose near where I live, there is bumper-to-bumper traffic on highway 101 close to weekends San Francisco Bay Area gamblers come to make their fortunes!  

From an emancipatory perspective, opening up casinos is neither a way forward to the Indians nor for the society as a whole. In fact, it erodes ancestral values of the Indians and visions of alternatives to the capitalism the largest gambling casino of all. 

Thus, even though it is easier to unpack the issues surrounding a Proposition or Measure, they are usually a reflection of social conflict and vying interests inherent in the class society. Voting simply offers a legal method of addressing these for the short term.  In a segmented and divided society, in particular a capitalist one, your vote simply hopes to keep the profiteers at bay for the time being.

Then there are County, District and local School elections and propositions.  Even though these are “closer to home” election decisions they are by no means simple choices.  Example: I am supposed to vote for two out of three candidates for the Palm Drive Health Care District board of governors.  Palm Drive is a local public hospital that is funded by bonds issued by the County. County homeowner pay for these bonds through our property taxes.  Palm Drive Hospital that offers important services for low-income residence has been closed down as it cannot pay its bills.  This is not a new phenomena. Palm Drive has been in financial crisis for decades due to mismanagement, everyone seems to agree on that. The question for me is who to vote for and why?  A friend has messaged me on Facebook to vote for two of these candidates although she did not explain why.  They are referred to as “the Doc and the Cop,” a family physician and a retired police officer. What distinguishes them from the “incumbent” who has been in office since July is their total support for the new plan for Palm Drive. The “incumbent” has some reservations about the proposed plan. To know more, I searched the web and found two two-hour-long video interviews with the two sides. I wonder how many people have four hours to listen to these three people to help them decide how to vote! I have talked to people who have gone to general assemblies to discuss the crisis and the plan. But they did not seem to know what the plan is about and how it can fix a decades old mismanagement problem.

The other two measures are easier to deal with. They are about issuing bonds to expand job training and education at Santa Rosa Junior College and expand library hours in the County both cut back in the past several years due to the Great Recession and cuts in social spending that dates back decades. 

I hope I have now explained with specific examples how American democratic system operates.  I have not talked about the role of corporate money in elections. Instead, I relied on the functionality of the system.  A voter does not have real options outside of the pro-capitalist two party system for the executive and legislative offices. The voter has little knowledge and ability to affect decisions on who is placed in judiciary positions of power.  Even on local and regional levels, the voter often does not know how to vote and who to elect. As for propositions/measures that matter a lot in California politics, what gets on the ballot is really a reflection of power struggle between interest groups almost all of which are beholden to the two-party system. 

In short, I feel I am not really empowered to direct the course of public policy at the national, regional or local levels.  This is the nuts-and-bolts of “representative democracy.”  It is true that some have passed laws to aid voters better understand some election issues. For example, California Secretary of State publishes two booklets that detail each proposition/measure and opinions of those for and against it.  There are interest groups that offer analysis of such issues, etc.  However, it is not practical for an average citizen to read all this and if they try they are often not helpful in reaching a decision.  

Democracy is the basis for transition to a better society. While many governments and ideologues proclaim they have the corner of democracy, the truth is that we are far from having a truly democratic system where public affairs are run for the people by the people as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. 

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There has been 99 posts since my last column.  Top topics included climate change (1 posts), Cuba (11 posts), Palestine/Zionism (11 posts) and energy (10 posts).  Posts on socialism, ecological socialism and other emancipatory movements followed 6 and 7 posts respectively). 

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