Democracy or War?

Attitude toward democracy and war seem critical factors in the evolution of the U.S., judging from four core trends currently evident: rising corporate control, rising corruption, rising elite preference for war over negotiation, and the strengthening of class divisions. (Part I of this series on the future prospects of the U.S. discussed the four trends.)


The four core trends in the socio-economic and political evolution of U.S.society suggest a pair of explanatory dimensions for evaluating the future course of society: attitude toward democracy and attitude toward war. “Democracy” refers not to sterile institutional forms (e.g., elections) but to a whole complex process of popular insistence on guiding and judging the behavior of those permittedto be national leaders. Democracy stands or falls on the dedication of the population to defend it, as illustrated by the Occupy Movement, Bolivia’s Cochabama campaign for drinking water free from corporate control, and Peru’s Cajamarca campaign to control the behavior of international mining corporations. “War” refers to the use of force—including economic sanctions, political coups, state terrorism, as well as outright military attack—to influence the rest of the world, as opposed to negotiating positive-sum solutions.
Defined more formally, the result is a “governance” dimension, going from “democratic” (bottom-up) to “centralized” (top-down) and a “foreign affairs” dimension, going from “negotiation” to “war.” Curiously, these two dimensions both can be viewed as trading off the degree of confusion in the initial decision-making process (with democracy and negotiations being the extremes of confusion) for what may be the hope of stability over the long-term. War, for example, is easy to start but a famously ineffective method of achieving the desired long-term solution (WWI provoking WWII, WWII provoking the Cold War, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon provoking the rise of Hezbollah, the U.S. invasion of Iraq pushing Iraq into Iran’s orbit, etc.). Perhaps the real underlying dimension of significance should thus be society’s attitude toward long-term solutions (i.e., how much effort a society is willing to make to achieve a solution acceptable to all sides over the long-term as opposed to a quick fix for the winner).
Sticking, for now, with the original dimensions, they generate an analytical landscape of four alternative scenarios. The green and red regions represent analytically clear alternatives: the green for a democracy that, while obviously negotiating domestic political solutions (by definition) logically does the same internationally and red a centralized regime that gives orders domestically to the repressed population and internationally seeks to do the same. The blue and grey regions represent intuitively illogical, albeit perhaps historically common (at least briefly), possibilities that seem likely to be unstable. The blue region would encompass dictatorships that work internationally for positive-sum solutions. The grey region would encompass aggressive democracies. To say that the green and red regions are analytically logical does not mean that they are in practice logical forms of governance. That is a more complicated issue–a function of leadership and circumstance. In general, however, one may hypothesize that the regimes in the green region will tend to generate policy slowly but reach relatively stable solutions: slow because they must be negotiated and stable precisely for the same reason, that the various parties freely agreed and therefore presumably saw some advantage in the agreement. Conversely, regimes in the red region see likely to make decisions efficiently but make policy that is relatively counter-productive over the long-term, provoking instability.

In addition to using this model to evaluate regimes, it can be applied to specific policies. It is obvious that democracies tend to become less democratic as a function of stress: with barbarians at the gate or cities leveled by earthquakes, decisions need to be made. More interesting are situations in which democratic regimes loudly proclaim their desire to do as the population wants even while carefully concealing what they are actually doing in order to implement micro-managed and highly dictatorial policy decisions. Graphically depicting a “green” state that happens to reach a “red” decision or implement a decision in a “red” manner  is likely to facilitate communication and comprehension by getting past trivialities such as, “Oh, but we live in a democracy!” Living in a democracy and behaving democratically at every step are two very different things.

American citizens have very little influence over Washington’s traditional tendency to support right-wing, militarist factions in Israel that talk peace while implementing anti-Palestinian repression. No referendum in the U.S. has ever asked which policy Americans would prefer, nor do decision-makers typically explain what they are actually doing; rather, they publicly proclaim an interest in resolving the situation while quietly blocking any effective steps to reach a positive-sum compromise, which would require historic transfers of land, water, and political power to Palestinians. Regardless of one’s opinion of the policy, the strategy pursued on this policy is relatively opaque to the U.S. public. The policy is implemented in a highly centralized manner and presented as even-handed while in fact relying on force rather than serious negotiations (either with the U.S. public to formulate the policy or with Palestinians to work out the terms of the solution). Using the model encourages stepping back from the substance of a policy to ask probing questions about the nature of the policy, the likely impact of making or implementing policy of a particular nature, whether or not a policy of a particular nature is appropriate, and how often a state can design or implement top-down policies and still legitimately call itself “democratic.”

Designing a Peace Government

The U.S. and most other countries have political structures with a subtle and dangerous bias toward war, a design that counterintuitively encourages leaders to launch wars. Political systems so designed are irrational and urgently need reform.

The fog of war that clouds the state of the battle is nothing compared to the fog of causality that makes nearly impossible the distinction between a war launched for national security and a war launched for the personal profit of the leader who gave the order to attack. By the time a leader works up the nerve to risk all on war, even he likely cannot make the distinction. Recent wars are swamped with evidence that politicians and leaders of the broader military-industrial complex gained such massive personal profit from the wars that it begs credulity to imagine that the visions of that personal profit did not color their decision to support the decision to launch the war.

Illogically, the political system is designed to encourage war for personal gain. Leaders, during war, are almost guaranteed support, and later few will want to uncover old dirt by looking into the motivations of those who “defended” the nation, for even the most egregious aggression is always called “defense.” Voters, sick with war fever, can seldom differentiate between supporting the war leader and being patriotic, even though the two positions have no necessary relationship whatsoever. Making the argument that “harming the war effort” would be the patriotic course if the war were being fought for the benefit only of some corrupt political faction seems logical enough in an academic setting but gets nowhere in an angry crowd. Saying you love your country so much you want to make it admit that the ultimate decision (to start a war) was not correct and should be reversed is simply too much for most humans to contemplate (call that arrogance, cutting off your nose to spite your face, or–if you want to be polite about it–cognitive dissonance).

Leaders tend to benefit personally by committing the worst sin any leader can commit – launching an unnecessary war, but the argument over whether the leader’s motivation for starting a war was primarily to win reelection/line his pockets or primarily to protect society will never be decided in time to matter if it ever be decided at all. Therefore, logically, the political system should be designed to protect society from the disaster of an unnecessary war.

For the U.S., a “war amendment” to the Constitution might be considered, with provisions designed, first, to clarify what legally constitutes a “state of war” (something that has become utterly meaningless with the advent of mercenaries beyond the reach of Congress and drones) and, second, to implement reforms that would impose personal costs on any leader launching a war, with those costs not so onerous that a patriotic leader would not accept them as the price of doing his duty but sufficiently onerous so as to persuade most leaders not to start wars for career advancement.

To clarify the “state of war,” the following might be useful:

  • No military forces may be maintained under the direct command of the President without the oversight of Congress;
  • When forces representing the U.S. employ force overseas, whether uniformed or mercenary, “war” exists;
  • “War” is illegal without the express permission of Congress, with the automatic penalty that the President be immediately removed from power.

The following provisions might help ambitious or greedy leaders to think twice before launching a war:

  • Within 24 hours of launching a war, the President and Vice President shall both resign, with no right to hold elective office for five years and no right to work ever in their lifetimes for any firm that produces weapons or holds government contracts related to the war effort or engages in the financing of the war effort;
  • Members of Congress who vote for war shall be ineligible for reelection when their term ends and similarly prohibited from working for the military-industrial complex;
  • Presidents cannot be reelected without leaving power for one term;
  • Members of Congress can only be reelected twice;
  • CEOs of corporations that sell weapons or provide contractors and supplies for the war effort shall have their salaries cut to minimum wage levels for the duration of the war.
Finally, the electoral system must be reformed to prevent buying elections. The easiest step in this direction is to provide free TV time for campaigns. The real free speech issue in modern society is not the corrupt idea that dollars equal votes but the defense of the “communications commons:” TV stations should be required, as a condition of using the common airwaves, to offer free time to all candidates and prevented from offering any paid time. However society decides to allocate time to candidates on TV, money should have nothing to do with it.

The message of these reforms should be that holding office is a privilege and launching a war constitutes the failure of the leader to carry out his responsibilities to society: war may be necessary, but the mere fact that it became necessary demonstrates that the leader has failed to prevent the situation from becoming so dire. Firemen should not be placed in the tempting position of being invited to start fires so they can be rewarded for putting them out. Surely, these reforms would not, by themselves, make war obsolete, but they might remove some of the personal incentive, so blatantly obvious in recent years, to commit the nation to a course of aggression.