Term Paper: Robert Dahl and Democracy's Demise

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Robert Dahl and Democracy's Demise

There is no question that Robert Alan Dahl is considered by scholars as among the most celebrated and referenced social scientists of the 20th century. And a careful review of his writing and thinking does, however, lead an alert reader to raise thoughtful questions as to whether or not the United States can truly be considered a democracy today. This paper utilizes Dahl's theories and narratives on what makes up the "ideal democracy" as a scholarly juxtaposition vis-a-vis the undemocratic realities of the American political landscape in 2013. Those undemocratic realities include widespread voter suppression and voter intimidation. This paper documents many instances of one party in particular -- the Republican Party -- successfully enacting policies and strategies designed to deliberately suppress votes that might go against Republican candidates.

Dahl's Ideal Democracy

In a 1995 essay ("Justifying Democracy") Dahl asserted that "No democratic country -- and certainly no nondemocratic country -- has created a set of social, economic, and political arrangements that achieve a satisfactory standard of liberty, justice, democracy, security and decency" (Dahl, 1995, 47). He added on page 48 that a modern "…privately-own market economy…will generate inequalities: in incomes, wealth, status, skills, information, and access to communications, and this in power, influence, and authority."

In his book, On Democracy, Dahl offers five standards which a democratic nation can use as a way to measure whether "…all the members are equally entitled to participate" in decisions that affect policy. A good question to ask when critiquing those five standards is -- how do they stack up when observing the American democratic society in 2013? The five Dahl standards include: a) "effective participation" (this paper will point out that effective participation is not universally evident among the electorate in America); b) "voting equality" (there is strong evidence that some states have suppressed voters' rights to participate); c) "enlightened understanding" (Dahl explains that voters must have "equal and effective opportunities for learning about relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences" but in fact the media during national elections is flooded with attack ads and distortions funded by shadowy corporate sources); d) "control of the agenda" (the powers that be in Washington tend to have full control over the national agenda); and e) "inclusion of adults" (this point assumes that all adult citizens will be included in the democratic process which is not the case in the U.S.) (Dahl, 2000, 37-38).

Having outlined those particulars, Dahl asserts that "…no state" has ever "…fully measured up to the criteria of a democratic process"; and "None is likely to," he adds (38). He admits his ideas may be viewed as "utopian" or "pie-in-the-sky," but as an idealist he believes that are "…as useful as ideal standards can ever be" (38). Moreover, Dahl offers the standards as a way to "measure the performance" of actual democracies that claim they are democratic.

Voter Suppression in Presidential Elections

When Dahl mentions "effective participation" and "voting equality" one could assume that he is referring to the kind of democracy in which every citizen (no matter his or her socioeconomic situation, ethnicity or party affiliation) has an equal chance to participate in the process of choosing candidates through primary elections, and a fair opportunity to cast ballots in support of a candidate. However what has taken place over the last three or four presidential election cycles is what appears to be a deliberate suppression of voters in states where Republican governors and Republican legislators are in control.

Writing in the U.S. News & World Report Teresa Welsh explains that in Florida, a key swing state, some "…thousands of voters…received automated calls telling them their polling sites would be open until 7 p.m." The week prior to the 2012 election (Welsh, 2012). In fact the polls closed on Tuesday of that week, and Florida voting officials simply explained that there was "a glitch" in their robocall project. There have been instances in which voter machines have seemed to favor the Republican ticket rather than the Democrat ticket. In Pennsylvania a voter took a video of a voting machine "…repeatedly placing a check mark by Romney's name despite [the voter's] repeatedly selecting Obama," Welsh reports (p. 1).

The Push for Voter IDs

"…campaigns have used targeted voter suppression campaigns to exploit feelings of distrust in historically disadvantages communities…" (Stringer, 2008, p. 1017).

One of the justifications that Republicans have used as a basis to push for voter IDs is their contention that "voter fraud" is widespread, and hence, IDs should be mandatory. In fact, "…no credible evidence suggests a voter fraud epidemic" (Hudson, 2012). There is no "documented wave or trend of individuals voting multiple times, voting as someone else, or voting despite knowing that they are ineligible" (Hudson, p. 1).

In Ohio the conservative media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications -- a subsidiary of Bain Capital, originated by Mitt Romney -- erected multiple billboards with the words, "Voter Fraud is a Felony" prior to the 2012 presidential election (Welsh). These billboards "…peppered several poor and minority neighborhoods in Columbus and Cleveland" where, according to Welsh, no allegations of voter fraud had been launched. Obviously a tactic to scare likely Democrat voters, the billboards were removed when protests were lodged in the media and elsewhere.

Waymon Hudson asserts that "At least 180 restrictive bills have been introduced in 41 states since the beginning of 2011" (p. 1). And since the beginning of 2011, Hudson continues, 25 laws and a pair of executive actions have passed in 19 states. Moreover, on the subject of voter suppression, Republican officials have engaged in efforts to: limit voter registration drives, pass new ID laws, and closing early voting opportunities for voters (Hudson, p. 1). That said, the U.S. Department of Justice has struck down voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Texas, Florida and South Carolina, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Hudson explains.

What demographics are likely to be most affected by voter ID laws? Hudson claims that this tactic "…disproportionately burdens the same voters: youth, students, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, seniors, low-income voters, and Americans with disabilities" (p. 2). If the Republicans would have been able to put all the ID laws in place that they had hoped to prior to the 2012, they may have disenfranchised up to five million voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice (Hudson, p. 2).

Hudson notes that in Texas voters are eligible if they have a gun license but having a student ID doesn't qualify. And in Wisconsin, under the present Republican administration, some students can use their IDs to vote but officials have put "…strict qualifications" in place that "no university ID in the state currently meets" (Hudson, p. 2). The implications when it comes to suppressing "young, progressive voters" go deeper than simply changing the outcome of any given election; in fact, Hudson asserts that such draconian strategies "…shape social policy by removing their voices from the process and disenfranchising them for years to come" (p. 2).

Returning to Dahl's concept of an "ideal democracy" and his five standards, when a state puts restrictive policies in place intended to deliberately suppress certain likely democrat voters, it flies in the face of four of the five. It certainly reduces "effective participation"; it boldly attacks "equality in voting"; and as for "enlightened understanding" of the issues, how can a voter indicate any understanding if they are cut off from expressing their views? Reviewing Dahl's number four ("exercising final control over the agenda"), one can easily see that Republicans in states where they control the legislative bodies actually intend to exercise their ideology as a way to have "final control" over their right wing agendas.

Suppressing the Vote in Florida in 2000

Hanes Walton writes in The Black Scholar that in Gadsden County, Florida -- the "…only Black-Belt county left…" in Florida -- is 60% African-American. And on November 7, 2000, Election Day, voting machines "…failed to count the ballots of 2,085 of its citizens" in that county, which is germane because George W. Bush won Florida by less than 600 ballots (Walton, p. 21). Moreover, the punch-card voting machines in Jefferson County, Florida, "failed to count 571 ballots of its citizens" (Walton, p. 21).

In addition, when the U.S. Civil Rights Commission conducted hearings on the Florida election fiasco, witnesses testified that "…Florida state politicos and highway patrolmen set up road blocks in African-American neighborhoods on election day" (Walton, 23). The roadblocks allowed law enforcement to "…conduct license checks, car checks," and basically were intended to intimidate African-American voters (Walton, 23). Other voices in those hearings stated that a Caucasian public relations firm had been hired by Republican officials in Florida to research voter fraud; that firm "…erroneously" identified "many African-Americans as felons" and hence those unfortunate folks were denied their Constitutional right to vote Walton, 23).

Is it Okay to Deliberately Disenfranchise Voters in the U.S.

Based on the literature available, the answer is apparently yes; states can get away with deliberately… [END OF PREVIEW]

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