Monday, 3 November 2008

US Democracy

The other week, I was watching the CNN coverage of the vote, in Congress, over the bailout package. Let us remember that this institution lies at the heart of US democracy, a democracy which over the last few years has asserted its right, on the world stage, to upbraid other states for their lack of democracy, and even its right to bring about "democracy" in other countries at the end of the barrel of a gun. At the time, I was also reading Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield". Dickens, who had been a court reporter, in many of his novels, used his experience to ridicule the workings of the courts, and of the British political system, of which they were a part. Watching the antics in the Congress made me wonder how Dickens would have utilised the bizarre goings-on for one of his novels.

For our enlightenment, the proceeedings were explained by a CNN correspondent. Firstly, at the bottom of the screen, there appeared the time remaining for all Congressmen/women to vote. In another panel, we had a breakdown of the number of Democrats and Republicans voting "Aye", or "Nay", as well as the number still who had not voted. The voting proceeded very slowly, and this began to raise questions, which, our interlocutor explained, for our enlightenment. The reason the voting proceeded slowly was that the bailout package was not very popular. For some strange reason, millions of Americans, constantly told, by their Government, that there is no money for healthcare, or other social programmes, were not keen on handing over billions of dollars to billionaire bankers. Consequently, many Congressmen/women, looking to their election chances, were not keen to be seen voting FOR the package. They wanted it to pass - US Capitalism and the bankers that have a vital role within it depended on it - but only wanted to vote FOR it, if it was absolutely necessary, to ensure that it did! So many held out voting for as long as they could, hoping that it would get a majority, leaving them free to vote against so that they could proclaim this to their electors.

As the time for voting ticked away, there was still no majority either way, and a large number still hadn't voted. Eventually, the time ticked away completely, but the voting continued! Why was that? Well, we were informed, the voting only stops when the Speaker drops the gavel to decide that it has stopped. This really was like one of those ludicrous instances that Dickens used to ridicule so well. What then was the point of the time limit? There didn't seem to be one.

Another strange occurrence was manifested. Sometimes, the number of "Aye" or "Nay" votes would actually go down! Was the computer on the blink? No. It appears that even after the Congressmen have thoroughly discussed and considered the issues, and have cast their votes accordingly, they can change their minds, and vote in completely the opposite way! Why might they do this our interlocutor was asked. One would, of course, expect that in this bastion of democracy, in the hallowed ground of the free world that it was due to some new piece of information, some new crushing argument being put to them. Well no. The reason is that every Congressman has important projects that they want in their State, some Bill they would like support for, some pet project they are pushing. They are persuaded to change their vote simply on the back of promises of support for these. And for all I know, given the amount of money that sloshes around in US politics, even more direct monetary reasons for changing their vote.

In fact, it reminded me of how British democracy used to work back in the 18th and early 19th Century, when people got into Parliament simply by buying more votes than their opponent, and when votes in Parliament were lost or carried on the basis of a similar principle. The similarity, is perhaps even more striking when you consider that Barack Obama has raised $650 million for his election Campaign alone, enough to have built and staffed a number of hospitals.

The vote was lost, but never mind, you can always hold another one, until you get the result you want. That was what happened with the Bailout Bill. A number of those that had voted against were collared and offered what in the US is called "Pork" or Pork Barrel deals - Federal Government money for projects in a particular State. Lo and behold the venerable ladies and gentlemen saw the light and the vote was passed.

Why should anyone in the world take lessons from this banana republic on how to run an economy or a democracy? Well, they shouldn't, but as a number of states have found they get those lessons whether they want them or not - of course, the US politicians are most offended if anyone criticises the inadequacies of what passes for democracy in their own country - because the US operates on the basis not of the principles of some great democratic ideologue, but the principles of one of the worst dictators, tyrants and murderers of the 20th Century - Mao Zedung. They operate under his dictum that "Power stems from the barrel of a gun."

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