Working the Democratic System

Democracy is supposed to express the will of the majority but what it really does is serve the interests of the people who take the trouble to work the system. I’m not just talking about taking the trouble to vote. It goes without saying that voting is essential if you hope to influence your government.

What I’m on about this morning is the squeaky-wheel syndrome.

Long, long ago, there was a slightly crazy guy in Jamaica. His name was William Alexander Clarke but he changed it to Alexander Bustamante and came up with some wild explanation about being adopted by a Spanish nobleman (at least that’s what I was told when I was a child).

Bustamante (pictured above) was a character. He grew his bushy hair long and swept it back in a unique style that gave Gleaner cartoonist Leandro a striking way to identify him. And he carried out various and sundry theatrical stunts that kept his name in the news. Once he led a riot in downtown Kingston and when soldiers ordered him to stop, he bared his chest and told them to “shoot me but spare my people.”

How’s that for a headline grabber?

But that’s not what kick started Bustamante’s political career. His first platform was the Gleaner’s “letters-to-the-editor” column. “Busta” took the trouble to write letters to the editor – lots and lots of letters – and the resulting notoriety helped him become one of Jamaica’s first trade union leaders and founder of a powerful political party.

Busta did a lot of good for Jamaica and was instrumental in winning the island’s independence from Britain. He was elected Jamaica’s first prime minister, the Queen made him a knight, and he was named a Jamaican National Hero. I’m sure he would never have been able to accomplish all that if he hadn’t been so adept at manipulating the media.

Busta came to mind this morning when I read a news story about Fox News staffers being ordered to post “pro-Fox rants” in the comments sections of their site.

Of course, letters to the editor are dwindling as the print media fades into irrelevance. It’s TV and the internet that mainly gets used to promote political causes today. And it’s not just the high-priced pundits and by-lined blogs that do the job. It’s also the “comments” section, or as the Yahoo story describes it, “that dark ether of nameless people with a seemingly endless stock of time for flame wars, petty diatribes and opinions stated as fact – often in ALL CAPS.”

I’m sure you’ve noticed those comments – especially on political issues. They are often abusive and even obscene. But did you know a lot of them are written by pros? Back during the US presidential campaign, I read that right-wing organizations pay people to write comments attacking political opponents, for example.

So I’m not surprised to read that a new book on Rupert Murdoch’s media empire reveals that his minions engage in anonymous comments writing.

America’s conservatives are so much better at faking populism than their liberal opponents. They not only take the trouble to hire comments writers but also recruit “protesters” to carry placards and pack town hall meetings. And they bus crowds in from one region to another to provide photo opportunities for the media.

That kind of thing takes money, of course. And the American far right has access to deep pockets. Billionaires who fear their financial interests would be threatened by policies designed to help the poor and middle class in America don’t mind investing whatever it takes to block those policies.

So they hire professionals to create “astroturf” movements (like the Tea Party) that seize the interest of the media and give the appearance of populist engagement in the issue du jour.

America’s liberals don’t have the money to hire comments writers or recruit professional protesters. Apparently, in this “free market” society, the bad guys grab the bulk of the loot. And the richer they get the more they have to spend on defending their interests (making them even richer).

We liberals could fight back by taking the trouble to write comments ourselves. Wecould even get out and pack political meetings – and otherwise stage theatrical events to get the media’s attention. But it seems so … distasteful.

Sadly, it seems to work.

Click for the Fox News story.

Click for more on Busta.