Can Progressives Bring Democracy to the USA?
Whether or not progressives should support Obama in 2012 is not only a matter of whether Obama would be better as president than his Republican opponent, but also a question of what are the other strategic choices that progressives have when confronted with the ballot and with the presidential campaign more generally. Obvious other possible courses of action would be to abstain or to vote for a third party candidate. In addition to the decision on how to vote, progressives should always keep in mind that far more important than voting is organizing. The big question for those who are not already actively involved in progressive organizing around a particular issue, is to figure out around what issue to organize and what strategy to use, and whether and how this could be combined with the presidential election in some way.
In order to understand the range of strategic choices that are available to progressives, however, we must first make sure we understand the U.S. political system and what its limitations and possibilities are. This second part of my reflections on whether to support Obama in 2012 and what a strategy for U.S. progressives might look like thus examines the U.S. political system and the options that individuals and movements have within this system at this particular juncture in U.S. history.
The U.S. Political System: A Polyarchic Plutocracy
The first thing we need to be clear about, and most progressives probably are, is that the U.S. political system is not particularly democratic. As a matter of fact, an argument can be made that U.S. democracy has more in common with Iranian democracy than with the democracies of most of Western Europe. That is, while in Iran a theocratic council approves or vetoes candidates for political office, in the U.S. it is major campaign funders, the leadership of the two main political parties, and the private mass media that approve or veto candidates for political office. In other words, while Iranian democracy can be called a polyarchic theocracy, U.S. democracy ought to be called a polyarchic plutocracy. It is polyarchic in that it is “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites.” Also, it is plutocratic in the sense that the wealthy essentially govern the functioning of U.S. democracy (from ploutos, meaning “wealth,” and kratos, meaning “power, rule”).
How is it possible that a political system that regularly holds free and mostly transparent multi-party elections is a polyarchic plutocracy? There are four main factors that twist the U.S. political system into a minimally democratic democracy: private capital, private mass media, the party elite, and the U.S. constitution. Let us briefly examine the role of each of these in turn.
As anyone who follows U.S. politics knows, the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision of 2010 had a profound impact on U.S. electoral politics. That decision struck down important campaign finance regulations and allowed corporations and unions to spend without limitation on political campaigns as long as they do not coordinate with the affected candidates who are running for office. As a result, the floodgates were opened even further than they already had been for corporate spending on political campaigns. According to research conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2010 campaign season:
* The percentage of spending coming from groups that do not disclose their donors has risen from 1 * percent to 47 percent since the 2006 midterm elections
* 501c non-profit spending increased from zero percent of total spending by outside groups in 2006 to 42 percent in 2010.
* Outside interest groups spent more on election season political advertising than party committees for the first time in at least two decades, besting party committees by about $105 million.
* The amount of independent expenditure and electioneering communication spending by outside groups has quadrupled since 2006.
* Seventy-two percent of political advertising spending by outside groups in 2010 came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006
The “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision was made possible, of course, by the majority of conservative justices on the court, which, in turn, was made possible by Ronald Reagan’s appointment of four of the five conservative justices and George H.W. Bush’s nomination of justice Clarence Thomas. In short, the campaign spending of corporations and the rich enable an ever-stronger rightward drift in U.S. politics as they continue to buy influence and shape political discourse with the aim of continuing and expanding their influence. Even though the Supreme Court decision also allowed labor unions to donate more money, business has historically outspent labor on elections campaigns by a factor of 15 to 1, and this factor is bound to increase in coming years.
This expansion of campaign spending is particularly clear if we look at the numbers, according to which campaign spending has accelerated in the past few years. For example, between the 1992 and 1996 presidential election campaigns, spending grew by 25%, from $192 million to $240 million. It then jumped by 43% between the 1996 and 2000 campaigns, from $240 million to $343 million. For the 2004 campaign it more than doubled, increasing by 109%, from $343 million to $718 million. It nearly doubled again in 2008, increasing by 85%, to $1,325 million. Altogether, presidential campaign spending increased by a whopping factor of six between 1992 and 2008. And for 2012 it is expected to rise to at least $2 billion. This figure, however, reflects merely the official campaign spending. One now needs to add to this the hundreds of millions that unregulated “super-PACs” will spend on the presidential campaign, which they could not do before the “Citizens United” decision, such as during the 2008 election.
Another changing factor in recent elections has been the impact of federal campaign funding, which presumably would give presidential candidates more political independence. However, ever since the 1980’s, when such funding made up about half of a candidate’s campaign costs, the proportion has been declining. During the 2008 campaign it made up only 23% of John McCain’s funding sources. Obama, however, because he raised far more money than is allowed under the public campaign financing rules, declined all public financing. For 2012 both main presidential candidates are declining public financing, thereby increasing the influence of private contributions to 100%.
The very fact that U.S. politics has moved continuously towards the right ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, suggests that there is a strong relationship between the escalating expense of running for office and the country’s rightward drift. Anyone who claims that campaign donations do not have an effect on political decision-making or on election outcomes is either hopelessly deluded or intentionally misleading. For example, recently the New York Times showed how even minor and mild comments by Obama that the wealthy and the financial sector are garnering too large a share of national income has caused wealthy Obama donors to decrease their donations to Obama, such that Obama will probably be the first incumbent presidential candidate who raises less money for his campaign than his challenger. This fact alone will place tremendous pressure on Obama to further tone down his perfunctory criticism of the financial sector and of the rich, lest he fall even further behind in the fundraising game.
The Mass Media
The most obvious impact of the private mass media on the U.S. electoral system is that they only report on “front-runner” candidates from the Democratic or Republican parties. Third party candidates, unless they manage to buy their way into the political process with their own money, the way Ross Perot did in 1992 and in 1996, have no chance of being covered in national or even local election campaigns. The most blatant recent example of how the mass media systematically try to exclude a grassroots candidate (that is, who is not a billionaire) from a third party was Ralph Nader’s presidential run in 2000. As the media watchdog group FAIR reported in 2000, the mainstream mass media systematically tried to discredit and belittle Nader’s campaign on those few occasions where it did not just ignore it. Similarly, according to an analysis of the treatment of third party candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign, such candidates are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or barely mentioned in the context of a discussion of their impact on the two major party candidacies. However, they are practically never discussed in terms of the actual issues that these “third” candidates espouse.
Aside from the mainstream media’s suppression of third party candidates, it also does an atrocious job of covering the main party candidates, by focusing mainly on the “horse-race” aspect of who is ahead and who is behind in the polls, in gaffes, and in fundraising, but rarely on the actual issues that the campaign is supposed to be about. For example, a FAIR analysis of television news coverage during the 2008 primary season showed that only in 5% of their coverage were issues the dominant story and in 41% they were merely mentioned. In contrast, campaign strategy was the focus of 65% of the stories and was mentioned in 85% of them. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens clearly say in opinion polls that they would like to see far more coverage of issues. According to a 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center, “More than three-quarters of the public (78 percent) would like to see more coverage of the candidates’ positions on domestic issues and 74 percent would like to see more coverage of foreign policy positions.”
A third problem with the private mainstream media’s role in elections is that structurally it has become just as dependent on campaign advertising dollars as politicians have become dependent on large-scale fundraising to get elected. Media analyst Robert McChesney has pointed out that campaign advertising has become such a large part of private broadcast media’s income that it has come to depend on it to a large extent.
As McChesney and John Nichols explain, “This year , according to a fresh report to investors from Needham and Company’s industry analysts, television stations will reap as much as $5 billion—up from $2.8 billion in 2008.” Just as with campaign spending as a whole, spending on TV advertising has been growing by leaps and bounds, so that, “The total number of TV political ads for House, Senate, and Gubernatorial candidates in 2010 was 2,870,000. This was a 250 percent increase in the number of TV ads as there were for the same category of races in 2002,” state McChesney and Nichols. This, of course, means ever-increasing revenues for the TV stations. “Back in the 1960s and ‘70s TV candidate advertising constituted an almost imperceptible part of total TV advertising revenues. By the early 1990s the figure nudged up to around 2 percent—the National Association of Broadcasters put it at 1.2 percent for 1996—and a decade later TV political advertising was between 5 and 8 percent of total TV ad revenues. In 2012, political advertising will account for over 20 percent of TV station ad revenues.”
Not only are broadcast media losing any interest in being critical towards political candidates, on whom 20% of their revenue stream now depends, but they also inevitably lose all interest in reporting about efforts to control the cost of campaign advertising and of fundraising. Also, as their revenues keep increasing with every major election year, these media outlets further concentrate and become a more powerful lobbying force against campaign finance reform and against free airtime for political candidates. The impact of campaign advertising on TV is also reflected in stations’ unwillingness to even report on candidates in general. McChesney and Nichols write, “The average commercial television station provides far more political advertising during a political campaign than it does news coverage of the campaigns. This is not only true when one looks at the broadcast day as a whole, but it is even true when one looks strictly at TV news programs.” They conclude, “commercial broadcasters have little incentive to give away for free what has become a major profit center for them.”
The Party Elite
The third factor that distorts U.S. democracy is the fact that the two main political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are not particularly democratic internally. For progressives this has particular ramifications with regard to the Democratic Party every time progressives imagine and strategize how they could move the Democratic Party towards the left. This is important because the Democratic National Committee (DNC) decides which candidates to support with campaign funds and, as a general rule, the DNC prefers to support candidates who tow the line and who share the DNC’s moderate political outlook. More than that, the party leadership not only makes decisions about which candidates to support, but it also handles endorsements and contacts to wealthy donors, all of which further contribute to making sure that only officially approved candidates get to run for office on the Democratic Party ticket. How, then, is the DNC composed?
The DNC is made up of state party chairs and vice-chairs, who themselves are chosen in a variety of ways, mostly by the elected leaders in the state, who themselves were hoisted into their position with the help of generous campaign contributions from wealthy donors that the DNC channeled. Similarly, by tradition, the president or the presidential nominee nominates the chair of the DNC and the DNC then generally rubber-stamps this nomination. In short, wealthy campaign donors influence the composition of the party leadership just as strongly as they shape the outcome of general elections.
Not only does the party leadership exert a significant amount of control over who from their own party should be supported, but parties also actively try to limit competition from candidates who do not belong to the Democratic or Republican parties. That is, legislation that the parties clearly pass in their own self-interest makes it relatively easy for candidates from the two well-established parties to be on the ballot, but non-established parties have to comply with a variety of onerous requirements to list their candidates on the ballot. The rules vary greatly from state by state, since there is no federal law to regulate ballot access on a national level. For example, in Alabama, which is typical for many states, a party needs to attain 20% of the vote in order to maintain its statewide ballot access in the next election, which is something that third parties rarely achieve. To get onto the ballot in the first place, a third party needs to collect signatures from 3% of votes cast in the last election for that office. This means that for statewide office a candidate had to collect at least 41,000 valid signatures, which is a very difficult task for a small party or independent candidate.
The party leadership of both main parties manage to further restrict opportunities of third party candidates by setting up the rules for who gets to participate in televised debates. For example, for presidential debates the Commission on Presidential Debates, which the DNC and the RNC control jointly, only allows third party candidates to participate if they enjoy at least 15% support in opinion polls. Meanwhile, the debates themselves have become a “charade devoid of substance,” according to the former sponsors of presidential debates, the League of Women Voters.
The U.S. Constitution
Critiques of the U.S. political system are fairly common knowledge among students of U.S. politics and have been in existence since the founding of the Republic. These critiques are worth summarizing, though, because there is a tendency to forget just how sclerotic, conservative, and undemocratic the U.S. political system was designed to be from the start. There are three main problems with the U.S. constitution, with regard to its hindering of progressive change. These have to do with the lack of proportional representation, the lack of equal representation, and the practical impossibility of changing either of these fundamental problems via constitutional amendments.
The first problem, the lack of proportional representation, is probably a far more profound problem than most observers of U.S. politics realize. The fact is that the only way to be represented almost anywhere in the U.S. political system, from city council, to state legislature, to the U.S. Congress, is by voting for a candidate who wins a majority of the votes cast (also known as “first past the post”). This simple majority system for individual candidates ensures that only the majority of any given voting district or geographical area is represented in the respective assembly (city council, state legislature, or Congress). The only way minorities (ideological, ethnic, or of any other kind) are represented in a city, state, or the nation is if they agglomerate in sufficiently large numbers in a particular voting district so that they constitute the majority in that geographic area.
The consequence of such a system is twofold. First, it makes the representation of minority views exceedingly difficult. True, often ethnic or political minorities will live in a particular geographic area, which might correspond to a particular voting district, and then they will be represented in the corresponding legislative body. However, this does not mean that minority political views will be represented in the body in a similar proportion to their presence in the larger society, since all too often it is pure chance that people with minority views live in the same area. Also, the practice of “gerrymandering,” whereby the party that is in control of a particular state legislative body draws voting districts so that its constituents are more likely to be represented (i.e., the ones who constitute the majority at the time), makes the representation of minority views even more difficult.
Second, the fact that only the majority in any given district is represented means that voting for anyone who is unlikely to gain a majority of the votes, is a wasted vote. Rationally, it makes more sense to vote for a second-choice candidate who might get elected, than it does for a first-choice candidate who has no chance of getting elected. The result is a limitation of political options to the two most likely vote-getters and a further erosion of minority views.
The problems with simple majority representation—of limited two-party choice and of minority underrepresentation—are largely invisible to most U.S. citizens because they are so accustomed to the U.S. system, which textbooks and popular culture often refer to as “the most democratic in the world,” and are unaware of the experiences of organizing a political system differently. However, with few exceptions, most democratic systems around the world in one way or another incorporate proportional representation, whereby voters don’t just choose individual candidates, but vote for political parties that then represent them in proportion to the votes they achieved in the election. This makes a tremendous difference for the breadth of the political spectrum that is represented in the political system and for the ability of the legislative bodies to actually represent the diversity of views in the larger society. In short, the U.S. “first past the post” system virtually guarantees a two-party political system and systematically underrepresents minority views that are not represented in the two parties.
The second problem with the U.S. constitution is that it institutionalizes unequal representation on a national level, above and beyond the consequences of the simple majority voting system. That is, although the House of Representatives has more or less equal representation, with 700,000 citizens per representative, the Senate is profoundly unequal in representation, since each state, no matter what its population, has exactly two senators. Since the population ratio between the smallest state (Wyoming) and the largest state (California) is a whopping 70:1, this means that a vote for senator in Wyoming is worth 70 times the vote for a senator in California.
The practical consequence of this disparity is that small states are grossly over-represented in the U.S. Senate, relative to large states. This over-representation was intentional when the U.S. constitution was written, since smaller states were afraid that they would be out-voted in Congress if they did not have an equal voice. This is a common provision in federal bi-cameral republics. The idea is that the interests of minorities, in the form of small states, would be protected in this way. However, as Robert Dahl, one of the U.S.’s most prominent political scientists, puts it, “Unequal representation in the Senate has unquestionably failed to protect the fundamental interests of the least privileged minorities. On the contrary, unequal representation has sometimes served to protect the interests of the most privileged minorities.” Dahl goes on to point out that this unequal representation in the U.S. political system is the largest out of 22 similar federal democracies. This disparity in representation is so egregious that in the course of U.S. history it has provoked over 700 legislative proposals in the House to change it, many with up to 80% support, but all have failed when voted upon in the Senate.
The political consequence of unequal representation in the Senate is that small mostly rural and conservative states, such as Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, and West Virginia (all with a population of less than two million each), control 20% of the vote in the Senate, but have only 3.7% of the country’s population (11.7 million inhabitants out of 313 million total population).
This system of unequal representation also affects the presidential election process, due to the Electoral College system of electing a president. The disparity in voting weights is by far not as great as it is for the U.S. Senate, but it is significant in that a vote for president in the smallest state is worth about three times as much as a vote in the largest state. That is, since each state has a minimum of three Electoral College votes for the president, a small state such as Wyoming has about 200,000 citizens per Electoral College vote, while a state such as California has about 690,000 citizens per Electoral College vote. The practical effect is that smaller and traditionally more conservative states weigh more heavily in the presidential election process than larger traditionally more progressive states, such as California or New York. (Texas, the second-largest state is still an exception, due to its conservatism, but this could change in the near future as the Latino population continues to grow in this state.)
Finally, the third problem with the U.S. constitution is that it is exceedingly difficult to change, which makes fixing any of the above-mentioned problems nearly impossible. The procedure for passing an amendment is extremely onerous because it requires that two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate and three-quarters of all state legislatures approve the amendment. In the history of the U.S. over 10,000 amendment proposals have been introduced into the U.S. Congress, but so far only 27 have been approved and only 17 of these in the past 200 years. What makes the constitutional amendment process even more difficult is the previously mentioned unequal representation due to the different sizes of the states. According to Dahl, a mere 4% of the U.S. population in small states could thus block any amendment, which they would almost certainly do if the amendment aims to lessen their power in Congress or in presidential elections.
These three elements, of “first past the post” voting system, unequal representation in favor of small states, and the practical impossibility to change the constitution except when there is a consensus, are what structures the U.S. political system into a conservative two-party system. When these elements are further combined with the influence of private campaign financing, the restrictive practices of party elites, and the practices of the private mass media, then it should be no wonder that the U.S. political system has much more in common with Iran’s political system than the impression that social studies schoolbooks give of the U.S. being a liberal representative democracy, instead of a polyarchic plutocracy.
There is an on-going debate among progressives with regard to left strategy in the U.S. On the one side are progressives who argue that the political system is hopelessly corrupt and so undemocratic that it makes no sense to run for office or to support nominally progressive candidates. Either these candidates have no chance of being elected or, if they do get elected, they cannot achieve anything once in office or they become so corrupted by the system that they don’t even try to work for progressive change. The conclusion of this position is that progressives ought to forget about electoral politics altogether and focus on working on specific issues outside of the political system, either by pressuring the government through protest and civil disobedience or by creating alternatives outside of the existing political and economic system. Many people involved in Occupy Wall Street or in the U.S. Social Forum often take this position.
Given the undemocratic and plutocratic-polyarchic nature of U.S. politics, participating in the electoral process does seem to merely feed the beast because voting gives the system a legitimacy that it otherwise would not have, no matter for whom a person votes. In other words, if we see the electoral process for what it is, as a process of legitimizing a political system that we actually profoundly object to, then perhaps it is our moral duty to withdraw this legitimacy by boycotting the electoral system. This could be a form of civil disobedience and not just an apolitical abstention. As a matter of fact, it would seem that U.S. politics already enjoys the legitimacy of only a tiny minority of the U.S. population. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 17% of the population believes that the U.S. government has the consent of the governed.
On the other side of the argument are those progressives—mostly people involved in more “mainstream” groups, such as MoveOn.org and Dennis Kucinich supporters—who argue that no matter how corrupt or undemocratic the political system is, voters still have a choice and can still make a difference in the outcome of elections by supporting the “lesser of two evils” (for a more leftist version of this view, see Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Carl Davidson’s recent article or Tom Hayden’s position). More than that, this argument often goes, citizens have a moral obligation to prevent the worse candidate from being elected, since despite the relatively small differences between parties and their candidates, who gets elected still makes a real difference for people’s lives (especially for those who are more disadvantaged). Abstaining from the electoral process just abandons the political terrain in favor of an even worse rightward drift in U.S. politics.
A variant of this second position argues that progressives ought to try to take over the Democratic party through an “inside-outside” strategy by both pressuring Democratic candidates through protest and activism and by at the same time running truly progressive candidates within the party so as to change the party from the inside. Historically, there have been at least three attempts to implement such a strategy, first in the 1960’s with parts of the New Left and of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Then, in the 1980’s, this strategy was tried under the leadership of Michael Harrington and his Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as under the leadership of Jesse Jackson and his National Rainbow Coalition (NRC). Most recently, in the early 2000’s, with the support of Dennis Kucinich and Tom Hayden, the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) tried this strategy again.
A third perspective on this debate, which comes from supporters of third parties, argues that indeed, the Democratic and Republican parties are hopelessly corrupt and should therefore not be supported, but abandoning electoral politics to these parties is not a solution either and that one should instead support progressive independent candidates or third parties, such as the Green Party. Here the argument is that even if third parties and independents have little to no chance of winning, at least not for major elected office, they would help move political discourse towards the left by forcing Democratic candidates to not take the progressive vote for granted.
In short, we could call these three positions about electoral politics, non-participation (or boycott), lesser evil voting (with or without Democratic party takeover), and third party voting. Each of these three positions makes important points that are convincing and difficult to refute. How can one counter the main argument of lesser-evil voting, that we have a moral obligation to prevent the worst from happening to the most oppressed? On the other hand, if that lesser evil is also involved in atrocities, as is all too often the case with the foreign policy of Democratic presidents, then wouldn’t lesser-evil voting perpetuate evil? But doesn’t the solution of voting for a third party seems equally hopeless, since the third party candidate might just take votes from the marginally better candidate and enable the election of the even worse candidate? There seems to be no easy solution to this debate. One possible compromise solution has been to urge people to vote for the lesser evil in state where the races is close, but to vote for third party candidates in races where progressives are unlikely to make a difference in the outcome (a position that very many prominent U.S. progressives advocated in 2004 and in 2000).
Also, given that each side has convincing arguments, this helps explain why the progressive movement is so weak in the U.S.: the diversity and depth of conviction of attitudes towards electoral politics makes unity within the left nearly impossible.
What this strategy debate points to is precisely the undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system. This is the kind of debate you would expect to see in countries with profoundly dysfunctional democracies. If the U.S. had a more democratic system, there would be a general consensus among progressives to participate in the democratic process. The reason you do not see this kind of debate in the democracies of Western Europe or of Latin America (at least not since the 1970’s in Western Europe and since the 1990’s in Latin America) is that these countries, by and large, have far more democratic political systems than the U.S. does.
A New Strategy? Calling for a Second Independence
At the heart of the problem is that U.S. progressives are hopelessly divided not only over strategy but also over what it is they hope to achieve. Perhaps if there were more unity among progressives on either strategy or on goals, they might be more effective in shaping U.S. politics. The debate on participation in the U.S. electoral system is even more perverted because it seems to be a debate about strategy without a consensus or at least a debate about what the goals of this strategy should be. However, in order to have consensus about goals and strategy, we first need a more or less shared analysis. Luckily, at the most basic level, we do tend to agree: progressives by and large agree that the U.S. political system is corrupt and profoundly undemocratic. Unfortunately, they then proceed to ignore that fact and pursue their favored political issues—despite this system—adjusting and adapting their strategy to the undemocratic political system.
It is high time, though, for progressives to realize that unless they also fight for a new political (or, rather, politico-economic) system, they will suffer ever more setbacks in their pursuit of their favored issues (whether these are environmental protection, women’s rights, anti-discrimination, immigrants’ rights, labor rights, social justice, etc.). That is, what the U.S. needs, from a progressive perspective, is a second declaration of independence. We need to call for a new political system (and economic system, but there is less agreement of analysis here), in effect, a new constitution that makes U.S. citizens independent not from a colonial power, but from corporate and financial power. Calling this a campaign for a second independence taps into U.S. history and U.S. mythology and at the same time calls attention to the degree to which corporate and financial power increasingly control and dominate U.S. politics.
However, no individual or organization can ask other individuals or organizations to give up their particular cause or issue in favor of some other, supposedly better or more strategic cause or issue. If they did, it would just contribute to a free-for-all, where everyone tries to convince the other to adopt their particular cause. Rather, hopefully our shared analysis that the U.S. political system is hopelessly corrupt and undemocratic would lead to a realization that if ANY group wishes to advance on its goals it will ALSO have to fight to change the political system, since this system has come to represent the number one obstacle to the achievement of ALL progressive causes.
The exact strategy for achieving this second independence cannot be determined a priori. Whatever strategy that works and that is consonant with our values should be legitimate, whether this means supporting a lesser-evil political candidate, supporting a third party, organizing protests, or mobilizing people in civil disobedience and in direct action.
There are probably three main initial objectives for such a campaign for a second independence that would change the U.S. political system:
* Take money out of politics. Public campaign financing and a prohibition above a relatively low limit to use private money for political purposes.
* Ensure equal access to the major mass media. A further-going future objective in this area would be to democratize control over the mass media itself.
* Enable minority representation that is not just geographically based. Steps in this direction would include: Instant runoff voting; Non-partisan redistricting procedures; Proportional representation.
Some of these objectives might require changing the constitution, which, as discussed earlier, is extremely difficult to do in the U.S. While such a change must be a long-term goal for U.S. progressives, if they hope to bring radical change to the U.S., there are many things that can be changed in the political system without a constitutional amendment or constitutional convention. For example, it is generally believed that taking money out of politics requires a constitutional amendment, especially in light of the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision that allowed even greater corporate involvement in U.S. politics. However, as some have pointed out, it is possible to take money out of politics even without a constitutional amendment, as long as the legislation makes use of the “Exceptions Clause” in the constitution, which exempts a piece of legislation from Supreme Court review.
Progressives need to carefully analyze and debate exactly which steps and strategies should be pursued first. The key in any strategy discussion, though, is that any changes that progressives pursue are systemic in that they actually change the way the system functions so that it becomes easier for future progressive changes (a key strategic consideration that André Gorz coined “revolutionary reform”). The steps could be relatively small, such as instant runoff voting, but as long as they empower ordinary people a little more than they were without the reform, this mobilizes people and makes it easier for them to push for further changes.
What About 2012?
Such strategic considerations of what to do of course also have to consider how to deal with on-going electoral cycles. The question in this context is then, what about Obama in 2012? Does it make sense for progressives to vote for Obama this year, given how negative his policies have been for most people in the U.S. and especially for people in countries where the U.S. has intervened in the last four years? The key, I believe, is that progressives (or any responsible individual) is obliged to minimize harm, even when they don’t have an opportunity to do good, which is precisely the situation when we enter the voting booth in some states. This means that even if Obama is only minimally better than Romney, progressives ought to support Obama in those states where there is a chance that Obama might lose the state. However, if he is either guaranteed to lose it or to win it, then it makes little sense to vote either for Obama or for a third candidate. As I discussed earlier in this article, a vote for a third candidate has no hope of making a real difference and merely represents a further legitimation of the undemocratic U.S. political system.
Despite the efforts of many progressives and supporters of the Democratic party to portray this election as a momentously stark choice between two very different candidates, Obama is actually only minimally different from Romney, mostly in the area of economic policy – and even there mostly only in the area of taxation and of how much he would cut social spending. We need to be clear: a vote for Obama is not a vote for a progressive or even “liberal” agenda, but merely a vote to stall or slow-down the country’s on-going rightward drift. However, if Romney wins the election, he will almost certainly renew and reinvigorate the country’s move to the right and probably even cause a serous economic downturn because of the Republicans’ austerity agenda. Even the New York Times recently recognized just how much further the Republicans—and by implication the rest of the country, including the Democrats—have moved to the right in the last thirty years. Preventing Romney’s election is thus better for working people, even if voting for Obama barely represents a more positive alternative.
Voting for the “lesser evil” in swing states, however, does not absolve us from having supported a candidate whose policies we consider “evil” or oppressive. More than that, as I stated earlier, the very act of voting legitimizes an increasingly undemocratic polyarchic plutocracy. We must be clear about this too: all voting, even for a radical third party candidate, legitimizes an undemocratic political system. As a result, everything we do between elections ought to counter this act of legitimization, by organizing against the existing political system for transformative change of the U.S. political system.
Gregory Wilpert is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College’s Graduate Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso Books, 2007) and a member of the recently launched International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS, www.iopsociety.org). For a collection of his writing, see www.gregwilpert.net.