April 18, 2014 by Richard Furstein
The concept of democracy has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems that we Americans are mighty proud of our unique brand of democracy, without actually understanding what it means. I say this because while we wave starred and striped flags, sing anthems to our greatness and pompously boast that we have God’s endorsement, we’re missing something. We’re watching democracy slip through our fingers, and the only people able to change it are too busy washing their hands of bribes.
I firmly believe that democracy, as any reasonably sound person would understand it, is under attack in this country. Our constitutional right to be represented in the halls of government is being taken from us and sold to the highest bidder. With the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling and their follow-up 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision, a new equivalency is being written into law. Rather than an agenda requiring a majority of people to support it, now it just needs a majority of dollars.
Recently, I’ve noticed a trend in articles I read about upcoming elections. While many will still cite popularity polls to compare candidates, writers always mention if the candidate has built up their “war chest.” This metaphoric chest is, of course, the amount of money they have to invest in the election. When we conflate fundraising dollars with likelihood of success, we start down a dark path of political influence. Regardless of politicians’ policy positions relative to their constituents, we are acknowledging that it is really their bank accounts that influence their electability.
While the Roberts Court’s assault on campaign finance law is a very visible assault on our democracy, it is hardly the only one. With the 2013 castration of the Voting Rights Act, state legislatures and county governments have been handed a blank check to restrict suffrage to social groups of which they approve. The elimination of early voting and evening voting across the U.S., as well as a slew of new identification protocols threaten to disenfranchise voters in much the way that Jim Crow era voting laws did. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to rationalize its Voter ID Law, it argued that such laws protect against voter fraud. It is a noble cause, and notably a nonexistent one in Pennsylvania.
In an age of diminishing returns on our civic investment into democracy, to what can we look as a new way? What is democracy, and how can we attain it? A few weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed about the Mural Arts Project in which I defended its role as a community builder. Later that same week, I saw a performance of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater. The stage show featured a collection of music from Germany’s Weimar Republic Era. What do the two have in common? They represent democratic expressions in art.
When I describe art as “democratic,” I’m not suggesting that it supports the American left-wing, or even the concept of government. Art is democratic when it reflects the beliefs of the people who make it. While all art reflects the ideas of its maker, mural projects and Weimar music go a bit further. They capture the feelings of the politically and socially marginalized and share them with the world. The Mural Arts Project employs young, local artists who may not otherwise be able to express themselves for an audience. Music of the Weimar Republic was frequently written by Jews and members of the LGBTQ community, two severely marginalized groups in Germany.
But why is it important to promote minority artists? Because when you allow marginalized artists to express themselves, they offer us a glimpse into something deeper, the effect of marginalization on their lives. The murals of Philadelphia do not reflect the opulent lives of the city’s wealthiest and whitest, and the music of the Weimar did not celebrate the virtues of Christian sexual purity. They opened the eyes of a silent and apathetic majority to the realities of their multicultural societies.
So what can we take away from so-called “democratic art movements”? What do they actually teach us about democracy? Perhaps that there are better ways to judge a person (whether an artist or a politician) than by their bank account? That the expression of one’s ideas tells us more about their leadership style than their net financial worth? Or that maybe, the people best qualified to reform our society are not the ones who benefit the most from it.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.