I once asked Hawaiian independence advocate Kawaipuna Prejean what he thought about the U.S. democratic system. Without pause he said U.S. democracy is “the hypocrisy of democracy.”

Accepting those words was difficult because I had learned that democracy was the bleach that cleanses all of the negative aspects of U.S. government and society, and makes it better. I later realized that democratic ideals are often deployed to hide the nation’s flaws and deny the truth rather than improve our social condition.

From elementary to high school we were taught that U.S. independence and democracy justified the seizure of American Indian lands and the desolation of their peoples. Indian pacification and annihilation was a necessary sacrifice for the birth of the United States. We learned that slavery was a bad thing but it fueled the economy. U.S. democracy eventually ended slavery though it took nearly 300 years to do so and ignores the historical trauma felt by many today.

People trickle into Farrington High School polling location to cast their vote.

People trickled into the Farrington High School polling location to cast their vote. Yet turnout was low.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We learned the Japanese-American citizen internments, motivated by racism, were later fixed because of democracy. Although, once released from internment, the Japanese-American citizens were never able to fully recover their lands and property. We were taught that women and African-Americans were legally denied the right to vote because of their gender and race but democracy eventually allowed voting for all. Except that the legacy of that discrimination is manifested in current voter suppression laws and district gerrymandering.

So much of what we learn in school focused on the blind acceptance of democracy but in doing so, we were denied the chance to challenge and question all of its elements. We were made numb to our political reality.

No matter how absurd or improper the actions, the U.S. could always rely on the lore of democracy to placate the people or at least keep them in line. The preservation of the national and local governments require continued citizen buy-in. Therefore, the political response is to peddle a patriotic obeisance to the democratic myth even if it means sacrificing individual freedoms and independence. Right or wrong that is the price Americans must pay to secure their democracy.

Suppressing Free Speech

Democracy has become so sacrosanct that any critique almost seems unpatriotic. The kind of patriotism that democracy creates shows an enduring love of country but also covers up the open sores that corrode the social fabric of the nation. When patriotism suppresses speech, denies justice, demonizes the free press, or shouts down native rights to self-governance, it serves as a tool of domination in the name of democracy. That kind of democracy, spurned by self-preservation and lacking healthy, open debate, appears very hypocritical.

In Hawaii, the hypocrisy of democracy is evident in so many aspects of our social and political lives. Last week we watched how a record number of people nationally went to the polls to cast votes in the midterm election.

Democrats in Hawaii take full advantage of the democracy myth by claiming that their form of governance supports sound Democratic ideals.

But, Hawaii voter turnout this year barely changed from the previous midterm cycle with a little more than 50 percent of registered voters actually casting votes earning Hawaii the dubious distinction of poor civil engagement. Still, recent Gallup and WalletHub polling showed that people in Hawaii ranked in the top 10 for most patriotic states, support of the military and other economic related measures. That form of patriotism and lack of civic engagement suggests that the myth of democracy steers Hawaii’s citizens toward a more passive, unengaged social membership.

Perhaps Hawaii’s passive social membership approach can help explain the quality of candidates that Hawaii has fielded over the years. The Democratic Party has all but blocked access to conscious candidates ready and willing to serve political office. Democrats in Hawaii take full advantage of the democracy myth by claiming that their form of governance supports sound Democratic ideals. True to form, the people capitulate.

In fact, the Hawaii Democratic majority creates oppressive economic policies, supports political patronage, tolerates corruption and conflicts of interest, ignores the needs of the poor and criminalizes homelessness, severely underfunds public education, dehumanizes and commodifies the incarcerated, fuels unsustainable industries like tourism and militarization, promotes destructive and irreversible land use, and erases Native Hawaiian voices and culture. In many ways, these policies are very similar to Republican ones.

So what kind of candidate do we really think will be recruited to fill government positions and political offices in Hawaii? Mostly weak ones who will follow the Democratic or Republican script rather than ones who will propose and champion intelligent options that address the unique needs of this island society.

The result: an inarticulate governor who consistently impugns anyone that does not support his policies even when those policies are poorly contrived. A Republican gubernatorial challenger whose charismatic speech is overshadowed by her negative views on LGBTQ issues and by her silence on the jingoistic vitriol of the national Republican Party and president.

Likewise Office of Hawaiian Affairs candidates run with very little knowledge of the Ceded Lands Trust or the Hawaiian community they must serve, or worse, the candidates don’t accept their role as advocates for Hawaiian traditional and customary practices.

Others elected in state and local government seem to follow suit with very few independent minded candidates running. Then again, who in Hawaii’s passive citizenry would support intelligent, independent minded candidates or encourage a more discerning approach to this democratic process?

An Unengaged Populace

It is no wonder that people in Hawaii are passive and unengaged in this version of democracy. The candidate options and policy proposals are awfully limiting and not in touch with the needs of the people. In fact, democracy in Hawaii has become self-serving, self-promoting, patronage fostering, elitist driven, poverty blaming and anti-native. No matter the party affiliation, the democratic process in Hawaii is the same as the U.S. national political identity. Both parties uphold deep racial and economic divisions for survival. Both parties seem to care less about the health of the democratic process and more about maintaining their power and control of government.

The hyper-partisan political tenor experienced nationally today is not an isolated incident or new political phenomenon in U.S. democracy. It is the normal operation of government. The only difference is that we now see the gadgets and whistles behind democracy’s wizardly curtain. And, it’s not pretty. But healthy governance should not depend on aesthetics. Healthy governance depends on a purposeful falsification of poor approaches so that better ones can be designed and implemented. Ultimately, a healthy government needs smart, humble leadership and a consciously involved citizenry, two elements that are sorely lacking nationally and locally.

Of course, that means those in power will be challenged to share the power or give it up in the name of democracy. Therein lie the rub and the downfall of this current democratic system. Hiding the flaws in the myth of democracy preserves the status quo. The myth creates a power vacuum that sucks the air out of a more healthy and participatory process, encourages less voting, and ultimately limits social advancement.

Therefore, the U.S. democratic experiment is failing because it presently lacks the courage to adapt and the willingness to mature. Kawaipuna may have been right; this current system looks like a hypocrisy of democracy and Hawaii’s passive, unengaged social participation approach is blindly leading the way.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author