A critique of a recent blog entry by Juan Cole

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Professor of History Juan Cole has written “10 Ways Arab Democracies Can Avoid American Mistakes“, in reference to the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.  Let’s look at each of his suggestions, which will be in red, and my responses will be in blue.

1. Contemporary political campaigns in the US depend heavily on television commercials. In the UK these ads are restricted, and in Norway they are banned. Consider banning them. But whatever you do, do not let your private television channels charge money for campaign advertisements. Television advertisements account for 80-90 percent of the cost of a senate or presidential campaign in the US, and the next presidential campaign will cost each candidate $1 billion. The only way a candidate can win is to fall captive to the billionaires and their corporations, leaving the people powerless and victimized by the ultra-wealthy. Consider putting a ban on paid radio and television political ads in the constitution, because otherwise if it is only a statute, the wealthy will try to buy the legislature so as to overturn it.

This is actually very dangerous, because restricting and banning free speech is actually the first step in most societies to losing your freedoms.

2. Do not hold your elections on work days. America’s robber barons put elections on Tuesdays in order to discourage workers, including the working poor, from voting. In many democracies, the poor do vote, as in India, but in the US they have been largely successfully discouraged from doing so. Policies are therefore mainly made for the wealthy few, ruining the lives of millions of workers. France, in contrast, holds its elections on Sundays. In the first round of the 2007 French presidential election, 84% of the electorate turned out. In contrast, in the hotly contested and epochal 2008 presidential election in the US, the turnout was only 64%.

In mostly Muslim countries, the traditional day of rest and worship is Friday. Having elections on that day would only allow Islamists to take advantage of them. And is Professor Cole not aware that in most cases in America, voters can vote several days early rather than just on election day? I would recommend that we have instead an actual Election WEEK rather than an Election Day, and that several days be allowed to pass after the polls are finally closed before the election results are announced. 

3. Have compulsory, government-run voter registration at age 18 or whatever the voting age is. Voluntary voter registration, especially when it must be undertaken months before the polls, is just a way of discouraging citizens from voting. This voluntary system is favored by the wealthy and the racists in the United States, who consistently oppose efforts to make it easier to register. Compulsory voter registration is correlated with high electoral turnout.

4. About 32 countries in the world have enforced compulsory voting. In Australia, for instance, you have to pay a small fine if you do not vote in certain elections. Although the sum is small, apparently people don’t want to pay it, and Australia has turnouts as high as 95%. It is important not only to make voting compulsory, but to have some enforcement mechanism such as a fine. It is desirable that as many people vote as possible, and for voting to be compulsory is no more coercive than for military service to be.

ABSOLUTELY NOT! The whole point of freedom includes the right NOT to vote or even to register to vote. Having the state enforce such draconian rules in turn results in Big Government.

5. Make a bill of rights central to your new constitutions, and be specific about what rights people have and what actions infringe against those rights. Include electronic rights to privacy, such as freedom from snooping in private emails or warrantless GPS tracking. You have suffered from intensive secret police spying on your populations, and should know that rights to freedom of speech, worship, press and publication, privacy, a fair and speedy trial, and protection from torture are hallmarks of any democratic system. We have given up most of these essential rights to our secret police, without admitting we have done so and without calling them secret police. But you have lived through domestic surveillance and would easily recognized the violations of individual rights that have become routine in the United States and which are defended by our increasingly corrupt judicial authorities, including a whole series of attorneys-general. Abolish your secret police where they still exist and consider abolishing your intelligence agencies. It is not clear that government intelligence agencies even are very good at gathering intelligence beyond what an intelligent person could conclude from reading the newspapers and maybe doing some site visits. Intelligence agencies have a strong motivation to spy on your own citizens and to violate individual rights to privacy. You’re better off without them, but keep them small and poorly funded if you have to have them.

Of course we need intelligence agencies. What is needed is to make sure they ONLY engage in intelligence and counter-intelligence activities and NEVER get directly or indirectly involved in overthrowing a foreign government, like the American CIA did in nations like Iran in 1953 or Chile in 1973. 

6. Put separation of religion and state in your national constitutions and make it hard to amend the constitution. I know this piece of advice will probably fall on deaf ears in the Muslim world, but really, you’d be doing yourselves a big favor. If we did not have our First Amendment, our fundamentalists would long since have passed blasphemy and other laws and deprived us of freedom of speech (which they consider a ‘provocation’ just as your fundamentalists do). One of the reasons that Algeria went into civil war from 1992 was that the fundamentalists won a 2/3s majority in that country’s unicameral legislature, which would have been enough to amend the constitution in a theocratic direction. That prospect caused the secular generals to intervene to cancel the election results, which provoked long-term violence. Have elected provincial legislatures and governors, and require that super-majorities of them approve constitutional changes along with supermajorities of the national legislature. Your constituent assemblies have a unique opportunity to fashion new constitutions. Avoid pandering to the fundamentalists, and just make it so the state is neutral on religion and all laws must have a secular purpose. Tunisia, you have the best opportunity here. You only have one chance to put this principle in the foundational document, and to make it as hard as possible to overturn.

While I agree with the idea of separation of religion and the state, I also think those generals in Algeria were wrong to oppose the will of the people as expressed in that 1992 election. Military leaders are by nature authoritarian and it does not matter if they are secular if they also violate the rights of the people.

7. Keep your defense ministry spending as low as possible consistent with being able to defend your borders. Tunisia, you get this one right. The more you spend on “defense,” the more you create an military-industrial complex that lobbies the government to spend ever more on “defense,” creating a feed-back loop that is almost impossible to disrupt. The US has been at war most of the time since 1941 because it created a vast military-industrial complex from that point forward. We spend more on war-related things than the next 20 or so countries. Not only is that level of expenditure on weaponry wasteful and unnecessary, it is actively pernicious. If you have a lot of nice new shiny weapons, there is an incentive to use them before they become outmoded or before your neighbors catch up. Your militaries have often been dominant and dictatorial forces in your societies. Put them back in their place. Most of you do not even face a credible military threat, and the rest of you could easily make peace with your enemies, which your officer corps have often opposed for selfish reasons. Small armies are the way to go.

I agree totally with this. The military in ANY society is more likely to destroy freedom than to protect it, even in America. I flatly and loudly deny that we owe our freedom to our troops. The people need to defend freedom themselves.

8. Avoid allowing your judiciaries to become politicized. Having party-dominated executives and legislatures approve judicial appointments has real drawbacks. In India and now in Pakistan, justices are appointed by other justices. This way of doing things perhaps goes too far in the direction of judicial power, but give some thought to a way of protecting the appointment of judges from party interest. In the US, we now have a Republican-majority Supreme Court, and since the Republican Party mainly looks out for the interests of our 400 billionaires, our constitution is being profoundly distorted. They even declared the billionaires’ corporations to be persons under the law. Never, ever, ever recognize your corporations as persons under the law. You’ll be really sorry if you do.

What would help even more is eliminating life terms for Supreme Court Justices. Limit their terms to about 20 years instead. As soon as the 20th anniversary of their confirmation arrives, they must retire. Also,  no Justice can be appointed who is younger than age 40 or older than age 60. The resulting higher turnover will prevent Justices from a Presidency 30 or 40 years ago from using their conservative biases to impede progress.

9. Protect your workers’ unions. Make it illegal to fire workers for trying to unionize. Remove obstacles to unionization. Unions are key to a healthy democracy, and to ensuring that workers get their fair share of the nation’s economic progress. Since about 1970 our unions have gone into a tail-spin and I think only 9% of workers are now unionized in the US. This decline has come from Reagan’s and his successors’ having given implicit permission for corporations to de-unionize. Not coincidentally, since 1970 the average wage of the average American worker in real terms has been just about flat. That means that the super-wealthy have gobbled up all the economic increases in the American economy for the past 40 years. Having a high gini coefficient, that is to say, extremes of wealth and poverty, is highly undemocratic, and we have seen in the US a ratcheting motion whereby the wealthier the top one percent is, the more they are able to engineer further increases in the proportion they hold of the national wealth.

Protecting unions is not enough. Actually, unions wouldn’t even be necessary if all workers owned stock in their own companies and no outsiders were permitted to own stock in those companies. Then the workers would elect the corporate executives and also vote on initiatives regarding the policies and directions of the company at least once a year. Guess what that would be called? SOCIALISM, the very thing conservatives and Tea Party nuts scream about as destructive to freedom!

10. Find a way to fight monopoly practices with strong antitrust legislation and enforcement. If you can implement principle #1 above and keep big money out of political campaigns, you might have a chance at good antitrust practices. The US is now ruled by a small number of semi-monopolies, and the Justice Department almost never actually intervenes against monopolistic practices. Recently Comcast, a cable-provision company, was allowed to buy NBC Universal, which is a clear conflict of interest. One of the FCC commissioners who voted for it was only a little while later given a cushy job…at Comcast. Laws against legislators and regulators being hired by the companies they used to regulate would help tell against the entrenchment of the monopolies.

Ironically, it would take a powerful government of the people, by the people and for the people to tear down those monopolies. So next time some corporate funded conservative tells you he wants to reduce the size of government, consider exactly WHAT parts of government he seeks to reduce.


One thought on “A critique of a recent blog entry by Juan Cole

  1. Pingback: The Dangers of US Decay Within the Foundation of its Democracy. « We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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