Peter d'Errico

Can Democracy Be Workable?

Phillip Deere described the indigenous government of his people as “workable for us,” having lasted from time immemorial. (Watch a video of Deere discussing this and other matters at a 1979 Mashpee Wampanoag sovereignty conference.) He criticized the elected council system imposed on Native peoples by the United States. As he put it, “the majority can be wrong.”

This is provocative thinking, during a U.S. presidential campaign, which has been criticized on all sides for misstatements, lies and demagoguery. If the world’s problems weren’t so serious, we could laugh at the whole thing as if it were a comedy. But it’s not.

The marketing of candidates by powerful interests is not new. Jill Lepore, wrote “The Lie Factory,” an essay on the history of political marketing—how politics became a business.

When we remember the elected council system was established as a corporate business model for reservations, the reasons for Phillip Deere’s criticism become clearer. Indigenous governments are “workable” for peoples whose social relations are not simply commercial. The question for people in non-indigenous societies built around commerce is whether there is anything workable about a democratic system that is captured by commerce. If democracy is an imposition on traditional societies, is it not an imposition on the rest of us?

Indigenous governments are often referred to as “tribal,” with pejorative implications. The claim that U.S. federal Indian law brought democracy to Native nations is echoed in the claim today that the U.S. is bringing democracy to the Middle East. In both contexts, a self-congratulatory attitude presumes to speak from a position of enlightenment. But what is enlightened about U.S. democracy?

People laud the U.S. Constitution for protecting minorities. If we remember that the Constitution was drafted when slavery was legal and neither women nor men without property could vote, we get a better sense of the “minority” the document was designed to protect. As Charles Beard argued in his 1935 Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, the framers were primarily interested in protecting their system of wealth. White male property owners were the real minority.

Beard’s view is reinforced by the fact that the Constitutional Convention was galvanized by two property-oriented circumstances. One was the rebellion of farmers and merchants in Western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion, against banks and courts enforcing mortgages. The other was the lure of Indian lands to be taken for colonization. This combination of threats to the wealthy on one hand and the hope of more wealth on the other was motivation for the framers to propose a central government with power to deal with rebels and Indians.

Today’s campaign “super-pacs,” emboldened by the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations and other institutions to spend unlimited amounts of money without any public accountability, are flooding the media with whatever they want to say, regardless of its relation to facts and with an eye only toward controlling voters’ opinions. Once in office, elected officials are surrounded by moneyed lobbyists, who carry out their agendas on a daily basis, in contrast to the occasional actions of voters. U.S. democracy is a business.

Disruption of traditional societies is a major feature of the rise of modern civilization. Imposed governments have replaced workable governments around the world. Viewed in this context, the rise of democracy may be seen as a social response to governmental imposition—people demanding self-government—or, more insidious, as government concealing itself behind a façade of participation.

Some say social media will empower people and renew democracy. Events of the Arab Spring and elsewhere seem to support this. But social media is vulnerable in at least two directions. One is technological: the entities that control communication networks, both governmental and corporate, control the vehicle for social media; they can shut down or censor the Internet. The other vulnerability is social: limitations produced by lack of education and miseducation; social media can create and spread hatred and paranoia as quickly as they can spread knowledge.

All around the world, indigenous societies and state societies are engaged with issues of self-government. Indigenous societies have the advantage of knowing alternatives presented by their own ways of life. Populations in state societies are hampered by the fact that their alternatives are often set in ideas without practical working knowledge. Rebels may take down a government, but do they know how to build one?

If democracy is going to be workable in anything like the sense Phillip Deere meant, it will have to be unhitched from money and it will have to reflect people’s real life experience, not just their ideas and opinions. This is a tall order.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.


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Can Democracy Be Workable?