Democracy? Oligarchy? Democratic Republic?

Amelia Nebenzahl, Global Thinking Teacher
Thursday, May 19, 2016

What kind of governance system do we actually have? This was our guiding question for one of the last units of the semester in Global Thinking class. The common narrative of today's society often purports that the US is one of the world's leaders in democracy. In the spirit of critical analysis, students questioned this rhetoric and upon deeper examination discovered that in fact our government is far from a pure democracy. True democracy involves each person within the governed community having one vote to participate in decisions that will affect them, and each of those votes being held with equal weight. While we may vote for specific measures or ballot questions within our local district each November, in general in the US we vote to elect representatives, which makes this country a democratic republic, meaning we pick somebody else to make decisions for us.

Ok, so we're not exactly a pure democracy, even though we rarely acknowledege this publicly. But our goverment functions pretty effectively right? Well, that depends on how we measure effectiveness. If we're aiming for a government where everyone who will be affected by a decision has agency in having their voice heard in that decision, then our "democracy" (or even democratic republic) falls quite short of effective. Having studied the Prison Industrial Complex, the enormous wealth gap, and immigration justice earlier in the semester, we know that far too many people in the US do not have agency in contributing to our government. You can't vote if you're in jail, you can't vote if you don't have full citizenship, in many states you can't vote if you don't have the right kind of ID, heck if your boss doesn't give you the day off on the Tuesday of voting day or your designated polling place is so far from your house or work that you'd lose wages just to go vote, you might not have access to our "democracy".

If so many people are marginalized from voting, then who's making all the decisions? Those who can vote definitely have influence in choosing elected officials, but our current political and legal systems give some people more influence than others. Supreme Court cases like the one that supported Citizens United granted giant corporations the ability to dump endless amounts of money into political campaigns. Not only does this provide extensive resources for a particular candidate to increase their advertising and outreach to attract voters, but if elected that candidate often has to answer to the desires of the corporation(s) that sponsor them. Thus our elected officials are not necessarily representing us in the way we desire. Our continued research in class revealed that the US is in fact more of an oligarchy than even a democratic republic. An oligarchy is a system where very few elites actually hold most of the influence and power. If you'd like to know more about it, check this out:

Rather than simply being outside bystanders learning about the ways people can engage with our political system, students took action and contacted one of their representatives to make sure their voices were heard as constituents from their district. We researched our elected officials to see how we felt about their platform and determine whether we felt that they actually represented us well, offering both gratitude for policies that were in line with our values and also offering critique and suggestions of what we wanted them to do differently. Check out a few students' letters to their elected officials:

After this somewhat shocking reality check (although I must say given what we'd learned about the growth of corporate power these days it wasn't completely surprising to hear that the US is actually an oligarchy) the universal powers at be provided us with a fabulous opportunity to see politics in action! Smack dab in the middle of our unit on governance, who rolls into town but Bernie Sanders himself! We took a field trip to Sacramento to be part of an exciting rally to support Bernie and hear from him how he plans to not only bring our government back towards a legitimate democracy, but also decrease the wealth gap, increase access to education and healthcare, and fight for racial justice among other progressive initiatives. Check out the photos!

And above all, regardless of who you support, if you have the agency and ability: don't forget to vote!!!

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