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
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
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
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"
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.