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The slow but inexorable dissolution of feudal society that began centuries ago in England and Western Europe made two historical transformations possible: the rise of capitalism, an economic system based on market relations and private ownership; and the entrance into the political arena of the demos, the people in contrast to social, economic and religious elites.
These great transformations sometimes reinforced each other. But democracy – rule of, by and for the demos – and capitalism stand opposed. The problem is not just that capitalism effectively excludes the economic sphere from democratic governance. It is also that an economic structure that creates and empowers a class that owns the means of production and therefore the wealth that workers produce with it threatens democratic governance directly inasmuch as unequal economic power is bound to spill over into unequal political power. To the extent it does, core democratic values, like equality of political influence and substantive (as distinct from merely formal) equality of citizenship, are undermined.
In the centuries following the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the demos, capitalism has thrived; democracy not so much. This is hardly surprising in view of the forces arrayed against it, both capitalist and pre-capitalist. However, thanks to the vagaries of real world politics, there have been “demotic moments,” as Sheldon Wolin calls them, times when a semblance of real democracy actually did take hold.
Thus the American Revolution empowered popular elements in colonial society and culminated in a variety of somewhat democratic political regimes in the newly independent states. However, in 1787 in Philadelphia, the slaveholders and merchants who initiated and then led the Revolutionary War put an end to all that – replacing the old Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution, the one that conservatives, along with many liberals, nowadays regard as a sacred text, in much the way that mainstream Protestants used to regard the Bible, and that evangelicals still do.
The Constitution mandates that the President be elected indirectly by Electors who are under no obligation to respect the popular vote in their respective states, that Senators be elected by their state legislatures, and that federal judges be appointed by the executive branch (and ratified in the Senate). The only democratic institution it allows is the lower legislative body, the House of Representatives; but even there, it leaves it up to the states to determine who among its citizens has the right to elect representatives.
Over time, some of the undemocratic aspects of these provisions have been partially mitigated. The Electoral College is still with us, but electors are now bound, by tradition and in many instances by state laws, to follow the popular vote in their several states — though, almost without exception, on an (undemocratic) winner-take-all basis. Thanks to a constitutional amendment, Senators are now elected directly. And, though it took the better part of two centuries, virtually all citizens over the age of eighteen are now eligible to vote. These victories are diminished, of course, by the rising influence of corporate money in our elections and, more recently, by Republican efforts at voter suppression.
It should be noted too that, for the most part, the judicial system in the United States has aided and abetted elites in their efforts to suppress democracy. The Supreme Court today is extreme in its anti-democratic zeal, but it is closer to the norm than those of us who remember its glory days in the 1960s and 70s often assume.
The demos seldom rules, even approximately, but, throughout the modern era, it has always been a factor. It is telling that our founders recognized the need for a semblance of democratic governance, if only to establish the legitimacy of the regime they established. This is why capitalists and their political representatives have always been reluctant to quash democracy altogether.
The democratic character of the regime under which we live has waxed and waned over the past two and a third centuries. Today, it is at an especially low ebb; and unless current trends are reversed, the situation is sure to become even worse – now that corporate “persons,” as our Supreme Court defines them, are, thanks to that Court, less constrained than they used to be in their pursuit of political influence.
Of course, we still have elections that are bitterly contested. But however polarized the electoral scene has become, there is little genuine political contestation in it. Our Tweedle Dums and Tweedle Dees despise one another and display their contempt profusely, but their politics is of a piece; they are all, in their own ways, faithful servants of the capitalist order. It is remarkable that such a pale semblance of democratic governance suffices to establish the legitimacy of the regime. That it does attests to the extent to which the shapers of opinion have succeeded in making all of the demos some of the time and some (indeed, most) of the demos all of the time supinely acquiescent.
Institutional design can and has done a great deal to make the (elite) world safe from democracy. But so has a related phenomenon: the rise and consolidation of the party system. In America, this happened after the basic institutional structures were in place; this is why political parties have no official constitutional role. There were anticipations, of course, and proto-party organizations of various kinds in the late eighteenth century. But political parties in the modern sense, here and abroad, are creatures of the early 1800s. Since their inception, they have become indispensable everywhere for operating within the political sphere.
Even demotic forces have embraced this institutional form, adapting it to their own purposes. This has generally turned out poorly: parties that identify with the political left have seldom been able to resist incorporation into the prevailing system of elite power. Vanguardist parties have been more successful at avoiding this pitfall, but their actual functioning, in power and out, has done so much harm to the aspirations they are supposed to represent that, by now, the idea appeals only in narrowly sectarian circles.
From the time the United States reconstituted itself in the aftermath of the Civil War, Republicans and Democrats have been the main, and often the only, political parties of consequence on the American scene. Both are well sheltered from demotic influences; unlike what has become common elsewhere, they are essentially catch-all operations that market their respective brands to overlapping constituencies. Their self-presentations have differed in various ways over time, but there have never been fundamental ideological differences between them.
These days especially, Democrats in Congress cower before powerful lobbyists and cave in the face of Republican obduracy, while President Obama capitulates with reckless abandon. But, in the end, it doesn’t just come down to the fact that Democrats generally, and Obama especially, are unsuited to the task of leading a fractious and divided nation. Their cowardice and capitulations cannot be ascribed to character flaws alone. They are willing executors of the very non-demotic interests they serve, the interests of prevailing elites.
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This is why it is nonsense to think, as Obama himself has suggested, that there is a functional equivalence between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. The difference is not just that the Tea Party is a creature of reactionary plutocrats, and that, thanks to Rupert Murdoch and the talk radio industry, it has a ready-made propaganda apparatus at its disposal. It is not even that the Republican establishment has welcomed the Tea Party in, while their Democratic counterparts hold even conventional liberals in contempt. These differences help explain why Tea Partiers got so many of the candidates they favored elected in the 2010 elections. But the Tea Party caucus in Congress is of a piece with the Republican mainstream; just a little bit dumber and a little bit worse.
The Occupy movement is an altogether different phenomenon. It is not about electing candidates; quite the contrary, it rejects the very idea of a politics in which electoral machinations, underwritten by corporate interests, take pride of place. What it wants is not more of the same but what people who didn’t pay close attention thought Obama would deliver back in 2008 – real and fundamental change.
This is why there is no cause to worry that the Democratic Party will coopt it; by now, everybody connected with the movement knows how useless the Democrats are. And neither will the Occupy movement devolve into an organization dedicated to getting its own favored candidates into office; it is not a Tea Party in reverse. Perhaps the next claque of Democrats elected will be less onerous than most Democrats have been of late. If so, the existence of Occupy Wall Street and cognate protests elsewhere will doubtless figure in explanations of how this came about. But the movement is not about doing the same old thing better; it is about changing the framework within which politics works its effects. Although the Occupy movement has yet to come to full self-awareness, it is already plain to everyone involved with it that it is counter-systemic much more than it is or ever will be traditionally ameliorative.
And if there are any doubts about where the Democratic Party stands, count on police repression, unleashed by Democratic mayors, to put an end to that. Ask the demonstrators in Oakland, Nashville, Atlanta and countless other sites of resistance; it isn’t just Michael Bloomberg any more. As the movement grows and as the interests it threatens lash back, it will become clearer even than it already is that the Democratic Party is part of the problem, a major part, and that operating within it is hardly the way forward, even if in some cases some good does come from doing so.
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For good or ill, political parties are likely to be with us for a long time to come; and, in the American case, it is unlikely that our duopoly system will change fundamentally any time soon. Count on the upcoming electoral cycle to shore it up again, at least for a while. A challenge the Occupy movement will face over the next year is to advance despite this inevitability — and, so far as possible, to turn it to its advantage.
This time around, both Barack Obama, the sure Democratic nominee, and Mitt Romney, the likely Republican candidate (unless someone even more risible defeats the best efforts of the GOP establishment), are wildly unpopular. Still, expect liberals to rally around the Democrat again, if only because they despise the alternative even more.
They will have some difficulty justifying that stance however, inasmuch as it is becoming harder by the day to argue that Obama is in fact a lesser evil. At this point, there seem to be only two plausible, lesser evil arguments left: that Obama will do less long term harm through his Supreme Court nominations than Romney or any of the other Republicans will, and that having Romney or worse in our lives for at least the next four years amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.” But, then, after eight years of George W. Bush, it is plain that we Americans can take it.
What, then, is to be done? No one is challenging Obama for the nomination, and the idea that different slates of candidates should run in different primaries is almost certainly a non-starter. The idea behind that proposal was that it would force Obama to address the issues his base cares about in televised debates. But, of course, it wouldn’t force him to do anything; he could always decline. And, anyway, we already know that Obama can talk a good earful, and that he has the politician’s gift of tailoring his message to his audience. The problem is that what Obama says and what Obama does have almost nothing in common – except, of course, when he talks honestly with the elites he serves.
Obama is not likely either to decide, as LBJ did in 1968, that he has already done enough harm and therefore will not run again. If he did, the chances are that the nod would go to someone even more noxious – Joe Biden, perhaps, or worse still, Hillary Clinton.
Still, we need not despair, at least not so long as the Occupy movement is around. Thanks to that amazing and improbable development, the time is now more propitious than it has ever been to “crash the party.” The expression comes from the title of a book of Ralph Nader’s, and that’s precisely what Nader tried to do in 2000 and again in 2004 by running first as a Green candidate and then as an independent. He made a formidable effort, but it must be said that he failed to turn things around even to the extent that could have been reasonably expected.
Future historians may well look back on Nader’s 2000 run for the part it played in that bizarre series of events in Florida and Washington that demonstrated to all but the many who are willfully blind just how contemptuous our political class and our Supreme Court are of free and fair elections, the institution that, more than any other, helps establish their legitimacy. George Bush almost certainly lost the popular vote in Florida and therefore the electoral vote nationwide. But he became president anyway, thanks to the partisan intervention of five right-wing Supreme Court Justices, and the pusillanimity of the Democratic Party. The Democrats, true to form, didn’t fight back; they vilified Ralph Nader instead.
But that was before the Occupy movement gripped the imaginations of countless citizens struggling to revitalize the demos and perhaps even bring it closer to power. That movement is beyond the reach of liberal Democratic contempt. This is why the best and most original idea to arise lately, inasmuch as some involvement with electoral politics is unavoidable in the coming months, is the Occupy Obama movement described by John Stauber in Counter Punch on October 21.
This is a way to work within and without (and against!) the system. It is already underway in Iowa where the caucuses are now barely two months away. The idea is to run “uncommitted” delegates who represent the perspectives and values of the Occupy movement. There is no reason why something like this could not be imitated elsewhere, even in non-caucus states. The Democratic base is yearning for the chance to express itself, and this is a way.
As of now, Obama’s way of dealing with the Occupy movement is to ignore it as much as he can, and then, when this becomes impossible, to do what he does best – equivocate. But were the Occupy movement to assert itself boldly in the caucuses and primaries and then at the Democratic convention next summer in Charlotte, Obama and the others will not be able to ignore it or talk it away.
Is it not natural to treat the nomination process that is about to begin again as one of many venues to occupy? To crash that party in the way Occupiers do would strike a mighty blow against acquiescence in the awfulness of the status quo. And, in the face of corporate media condescension and obliviousness, it would clarify for all the world to see what has been perfectly obvious from Day One: that one of the main goals of the Occupy movement is to bring democracy, the genuine article, back into our otherwise desiccated political scene.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. His most recent book is “In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People” (Prometheus).
Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
One of the Greatest Descriptions of Farm Work Ever Written— Don’t miss Frank Bardacke’s marvelous account from the California fields. ALSO Linn Washington Jr. on the “Black Backlash Against Obama.”