Real democracy comes from waking up!

by Howard Zinn and Gary Krane


The political culture of the United States is obsessed with and dominated by voting. Every election year is accompanied by the media's and the politicians' obsession with persuading Americans that voting for one candidate or another (and only if they are Democrat or Republican, of course) is the most important act of citizenship.

We get high on voting and forget that whether presidents have been Republican or Democrat, impotent or oversexed, they have followed the same basic policies. Whether crooks or Boy Scouts, handsome or homely, agile or clumsy, they have taxed the poor; subsidized the rich; squandered the nation's commonwealth (our minerals, airwaves, water and forests); wasted our taxes on bombers, missiles, ships and other corporate welfare; ignored the decay of the cities; and done so little for poor minority kids that for every Afro-American in college, five are now in prison, and for every Latino in college, three are in prison.

Harry Truman was blunt, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were wily. And Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were charming. But the first three spent billions and sent armies to Asia to defend dictators and massacre more than 2 million of the people we claimed to be helping, and the latter three again spent billions of our taxes to also arm and prop up dictators and oligarchies, and to subvert democratic movements against those governments in places like Indonesia, El Salvador and Guatemala, ending in murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. John F. Kennedy was witty; Carter was "caring"; George Bush, the elder, was firm; and Reagan said he was against big government. But all expanded our federal budgets enormously by spending hundreds of billions building up grotesquely huge nuclear weapons systems (we continue building B-2 bombers at $2 billion apiece) at the expense of providing a great public education system, health care for all Americans regardless of income, jobs that pay a living wage and mass transit for all of our cities.

Despite the decimation of the former Soviet Union, Al Gore and George W. Bush both want to continue this military spending madness, which year after year consumes more than 50 percent of our discretionary federal budget (the budget that the president and Congress determine). And Bush has the gall to claim he is against big government.

Nixon was corrupt and Gerald Ford straightforward, Reagan endearing and Clinton someone who claimed to feel the pain of the poor. But all coldly cut essential benefits for the poor and gave hundreds of billions of dollars of favors instead to rich corporations and billionaires.

This obsession with voting is made all the worse by corporate media's obsession with "fine distinctions." The more the media can keep us distracted by this tweedledum-tweedledee horse race, the more they (and therefore the major candidates themselves) can avoid dealing with the huge issues and solutions being purposely ignored by both major party candidates: Issues like who in fact owns and controls both houses, universal health care, full public funding of elections, seriously cutting the defense budget, decriminalizing drugs, returning to labor their rights to organize, and the frightening concentration of media ownership itself.

Why else did they both make sure Ralph Nader was kept out of the debates? The tragedy of all this is that this cult of voting and fine distinctions (and often "personality" as well) takes the energy of ordinary citizens, which, combined, can be a powerful force, and depletes it in the spectator sport of voting.

Today, sadly, our most cherished moment of democratic citizenship comes when we leave the house once in four years to choose between two mediocre Anglo-Saxon males who have been trundled out by big corporate and billionaire-run political caucuses, million-dollar primaries and managed conventions for the rigged presidential debate and multiple choice test we call a "democratic" election.

Presidents come and go, but the 200 top corporations keep increasing their almost complete control over our elections and the two major parties' candidates (with big corporations and billionaires funding 90 percent to 98 percent of both parties' budgets), over our work lives by weakening labor's rights, over our health care rights (43 million uninsured now compared to 32 million when Clinton took office), over our airwaves, and over our legal and court system, even determining how easily any of us can be sent to prison for victimless "crimes."

To further prove greed knows no boundaries, they now want to take over public education and social security. No president in this century has stopped the trend. Not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Only when mass movements have galvanized the country have presidents made important reforms, as when strikes and turmoil throughout the nation in the 1930s pushed FDR into his New Deal measures. Sure, Roosevelt was a sensitive man. But it took mass protests to sharpen that sensitivity and make it take action. Then and only then did he take huge steps to help the poor, establish the minimum wage and create Social Security (which had been the Socialist Party's most popular demand).

But that didn't change the basic nature of an unfettered capitalist system, whose highest priority has always been profits and power and to hell with the rest.

Voting Day 2000 has again come and gone. Sure, one of the presidential candidates is better than the other. But we will go a long way from spectator democracy to real democracy when we understand that the future of this country doesn't depend, mainly, on who is our next president. It depends on whether the American citizen, fed up with the buying off of our Congress and president by the billionaires; fed up with the murderous greed of our health care system and the pharmaceutical companies; fed up with the planetary self-destructive path of our energy, auto, lumber, agribusiness and chemical companies; will organize all over the country a clamor for change even greater than the labor uprisings of the '30s or the black rebellion of the '60s and shake this country out of old paths and falsehood into new paths and the truth.


Howard Zinn, emeritus professor of history at Boston University, is the author of "People's History of the United States" and "The Twentieth Century." Gary Krane is the president of David v Goliath Communications, an organizing and communications firm in Van Nuys. For more information, contact the authors by e-mail at

Index of Website

Home Page