Democracy is Dynamic, Not Static: Distinguishing between Government and The People

It seems to me that one of the greatest dangers to any society is to make the mistake of conflating a country’s people with its government – choosing to see the government and the people as one, especially when that government does not represent or act in the interests of the people.

For example, if people living in the U.S. and abroad attempted to look at the history of U.S. foreign policy as a reflection of the will of the people, one would be inclined to think that most people inhabiting our country are greedy, war-hungry sociopaths. This, of course, is untrue, as most people in the United States have a great amount of empathy for others despite the deplorable actions of their government. However, this curious fact begs the more important and disturbing question: Why is there a huge disconnect between the government and the people?

Sadly, one of the more pernicious fictions that people in the U.S. have been conditioned to accept from time immemorial – among many others – is that their own interests automatically align with that of the government’s, and that their government always acts – or at least strives to act – in accordance with those interests. While this, in theory, should be the case (we have the Constitution for a reason), it is often much different in practice, especially at the highest levels of governance in which money and power are most heavily concentrated.

And this brings us to the real problem. The real problem is that the U.S. government isn’t incentivized to serve the people for the same reasons that large corporations aren’t incentivized to give their workers living wages. Rather, both are institutions are, by their very nature, de-incentivized toward such goals. They are systems that inherently lend themselves to the wealthy and powerful, and which are driven by and dependent upon the accumulation of wealth and power at the expense of others.

Why should it really surprise us, then, that the highest court in the land has ruled that corporations are people, and by extension, that money is speech? Similarly, why should it surprise us when our government continues its terrible foreign policies which involve seeking to destabilize or invade foreign countries in order to “maintain our presence in the region,” or act as a “democratizing” force?

It isn’t as if our government and our corporations were once, during some golden age of history, great bastions of freedom and democracy that have somehow lost their moral bearings. It is that they never had any to begin with. In fact, history has shown time and time again that governments and corporations only respond to two major fears: the fear of losing power, and the fear of losing the resources needed to maintain that power. Therefore, the only moral consciousness a government or corporation can have is one that is persistently – and in some cases forcibly – injected into it by the people.

This means that not only is it necessary that our country have a functioning system of checks and balances within government, but it is imperative that we have an equally functioning system of checks and balances between the government and the people, especially when those internal mechanisms corrode and ultimately fail. This is where things like critical thinking, investigative journalism, whistle blowing, civil disobedience, and political protest come into play – things which one can, coincidentally, lose one’s job over (and in some cases, one’s life) by choosing to participate in. But participate we must, especially if we hope to preserve any semblance of freedom.

No matter how brilliantly our government was designed, and no matter how lofty our founding fathers’ aspirations were, we sign our country’s death warrant when we forget our place in it and and effectively hand our hard-earned liberties to others out of fear, apathy, or ignorance. When make the mistake of refusing to see ourselves as deeply relevant political agents which act as an important and necessary counterbalance to the corrosive elements of greed and power, we grow ever closer to oligarchy, and drift further from our democratic ideals. Like our economic system of free market capitalism, our democratic system of government is by no means a perfectly self-regulating body, and we must be willing to fight for it if we hope to survive and thrive within it.

There is a reason why child labor laws and the federal minimum wage exist, why women and blacks can vote, and why slavery is illegal. It was not because a series of powerful white men had sudden epiphanies or changes of heart. Rather, it was because of the persistent and vocal outcry of American citizens which threatened the wealth and status of the powerful, and which forced elected leaders to begrudgingly sign certain values into law.

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