In 1971, Howard Zinn measured our government against the harshest of all standards, the ideal of democracy. Against this, man’s achievements in 1971 or 2016, although worthy of praise, fall short of ideal. Zinn measured our shortages against 10 categories. As we close Election Day 2016, at least three of those deserve another measurement: ballot access, freedom of individuality and the opportunity to protest.
Zinn’s 1971 opinion found the ballot, or political activity in general, favored the wealthy as measured by health, social-economic status and education. Given the amount of money needed to place a name or issue on a ballot, our election process differs little from a dictatorship. The sick need not apply to democratic methods, as the Irish were told. The corporate person offers breakfast, lunch and dinner to willing political actors. And the least educated suffer under a crushing burden of misinformation and information overload without a trained mind.
Voters in Zinn’s time, like today, faced suppression efforts. The 1966 state poll taxes are similar to today’s purchase of a state-validated voter ID card or photo ID. White men under hoods, openly racist in the 1960s, resemble today’s open-carry thugs patrolling political rallies as self-appointed “candidate security.” I offer no equivalent to the 21st century closing of inner city polling sites for budgetary reasons. The U.S. electoral system denies a right to vote, freedom to vote and perhaps a place to vote. There is no democracy in that.
By measuring present versus past, freedom of individuality — measured by a woman’s access to birth control without a husband’s consent, availability of same-sex marriage or discrimination against minorities in housing and employment — grew larger since Zinn’s time. Yet some call to end immigration, shout for the building of walls and cry for mass expulsions based on religious beliefs. There is no democracy in that.
Prior to Zinn’s time, Chicago’s Democratic Convention protesters were beaten by police; four college students in Ohio were shot to death by the National Guard seeking to end campus protests; and the nation saw pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. dead on a Memphis balcony.
This week, pipeline protesters in at Standing Rock, N.D., were assaulted with noise cannons and rubber bullets by enforcers in riot gear supported by military vehicles. Miami, in preparation for Free Trade Area of the Americas protests, enacted a ban of eight people meeting in public, defined a parade as two or more people and banned weapons, a Second Amendment right. All are signs of a democracy under challenge or the actions of dictatorship.
We must choose between striving toward ideals and the path of pragmatism. Elections must have a time, a place and faithful rules for access. The route to individualism needs a Main Street, many side roads and the safety of reflective pastures. The protests of one against many or the many against one requires willingness and cooperation of more than one side without government-enforced passivity.
America fails my measurements and standards for democracy. The 2016 vote, in ways a referendum on emails and vulgarity, tests whether the willingness or ability exists to seek more than trivial issues in deciding a presidential election.
Michael W. Parker