Whose Democracy Is This Anyway?

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St. John Tradewinds

Nowhere in the Constitution, its amendments including the Bill of Rights or the Federalist Papers, are political parties considered a part of the political organization of our democracy. Not being listed as an essential component of the American Republic, however, has not proven to be any impediment to the two major parties garnering the necessary clout to install themselves as the gatekeepers to political power and the purveyors of almost all the candidates for representative office, not to mention judicial nominations.

While the pending Constitutional Convention here in theVirgin Islands is now rescheduled well over a year away, it might seem timely of us to consider this matter. Looking over the Constitution of the United States, we find in Article II that the Electoral College was to be elected by each state. A formula is given for the number of electors, but no mention is made of the process taking place in the context of political parties. The changes that have been wrought since the framers of the Constitution drafted the document are really not in accordance with their original design.

The Electoral College was, in fact, a compromise among the delegates, and chief among their concerns was that the United States, being quite large even then, it would have been very difficult to provide enough factual information about candidates for voters to really make an informed decision. After a presidential election, deliberations over candidates are conducted by the appointees to the Electoral College and it is really that vote that ultimately determines the outcome. Since then, political parties have nominated their own slates of electors as well as candidates for office. As a consequence, unless extraordinary measures are taken to place an independent or third party candidate on the ballot, no representation of individuals in those categories occurs within the Electoral College.

Granted, that may be a flaw in a political process at the national level in which we, asVirgin Islands residents, cannot directly participate through the popular vote anyway, but the example does reveal much about the power of political parties. Given the scarcity of truthfulness in today’s campaign efforts, either up in the states or here in theVirgin Islands, it would be fair to say that concerns about an informed electorate yet again need to be effectively addressed. If the process of electing representatives is distorted by campaigning in manners which do not truthfully present the candidates, and if no organizational structure exists to instruct those candidates in the direction or will of the people (as opposed to that of political parties), then such a system fails as a democracy. In time, the manner in which such a government functions will more accurately be described as an oligarchy, and ultimately if unchecked, a tyranny.

If, in place of today’s political campaigns, candidates were limited strictly to government sponsored forums, either as individual presenters or in debates, then the public would be far better served. The need for campaign contributions as well as the allowable amounts could be greatly reduced as a consequence. Through that same process you would eliminate the misleading sound-bites that most political advertising employs, and more importantly, the equality of each vote would be reestablished in determining successful candidates. The argument inevitably put forward at such a suggestion is that money is a component of free speech, and such a proposal consequently infringes on it. An election is really won by whoever influences the winning candidate most, and no amount of verbal discourse, however eloquent or relevant to the needs of communities will ever trump the force and effect of large monetary contributions. It’s been proven time and again, that there are no restrictions possible which cannot be effectively circumvented to allow the so-called “soft money” to continue its flow and influence.

The founders of America saw the election process as the necessary means of instructing representatives about the peoples’ will and the needs of the communities. The inclusion of money in the definition of free speech [Supreme Court decision in Buckley vs. Valeo (1976)] has done nothing more than distance us from that goal and distort the principle of “one person, one vote.” Why is it that when a crime is committed involving the theft of money, that the laws address this as an issue of property and not free speech? That decision is arguably the single greatest erosion of rights and transfer of political power to an elite class of wealthy individuals and special interest groups to have occurred in the history of the United States.

Elections are the defining element of a representative democracy. They secure for the people that state of liberty on which the very founding of America was based. In a bicameral legislature, the frequency of those elections maintains the dependency of the representatives in the “House” on the will and needs of the people, while a longer duration in the “Senate” provides for a needed stability and a more effective separation of interests between those bodies. While there are some proponents here in the Virgin Islands of a smaller legislature, any cost savings such a measure might realize will come at the risk of greater expenses that such a concentration of power will make possible. The well-documented history of human nature should suffice to justify the inclusion of any measures already identified as necessary in the preservation of good government.

Our experience here in the Virgin Islands is a clear indication that, as elsewhere, political parties will strive for and maintain an hegemony of political power that fosters the establishment of “machine politics.” This comes at a great expense to the needs of communities, generates an unhealthy cynicism that reduces voter turnout, and ultimately promotes the idea of self-interest to the point where the lack of any tangible interest in the “common good” leads to a society’s collapse as it is bankrupted not only financially, but spiritually. If enough of us yet believe that “the people’s” democracy is still possible, then it will require us to join existing community organizations or form new ones where necessary, in order to reestablish an accountable and responsive government. Such associations will greatly leverage the power we all hold through our vote in a political process that ultimately is the only guarantor of our liberty.

Hugo Roller
A farmer and concerned citizen on St. John