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Only in America

Selection by Debate

by ANDREW LEVINE

The pundits’ verdict is in: Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Debate Number Two.

Because they have a more than plausible case, and because the target audience, the voting public, is easily sold, the impression has registered.  No matter what happens in the third and final debate, the idea that Obama is a winner is unlikely to fall back into the memory hole.

How did it come to this – selection by debate, “democracy” turned into a TV reality show?

Needless to say, ours has never been much of a democracy, especially at the national level.  The Founding Fathers – there wasn’t a mother among them, not in the literal sense – saw to that; of all the institutions they concocted, only the House of Representatives had democratic pretensions.

And even the House fell short of any robust democratic ideal.  At first, representatives were elected by white, male property holders only, and state by state extensions of the franchise were slow in coming.

Property restrictions were the first to go.  Then, much later, we got direct elections of Senators (1912) and female suffrage (1920).  It wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), that African Americans finally got the vote – not just in theory (where they had that right since the end of the Civil War), but in practice as well.

Of course, we still have the Electoral College.  Presidential elections are therefore, at best, only indirectly democratic.   Worse, they are only nominally contested — except in the dozen or so “battleground” states where, thanks to demographic realities, the electoral votes are not already effectively assigned.

Then, as if our institutional arrangements weren’t undemocratic enough, we have a political system corrupted by money at every level.

This situation has become palpably worse thanks to the ruling of five reactionary Supreme Court Justices in the Citizens United case (2010).  Corporate malefactors, banksters and other plutocrats can now buy political favors pretty much at their pleasure; according to the Supreme Court, it’s their constitutional right.

Bad as all this is, selection by debate carries what passes for democracy to a new level of absurdity.

The idea is preposterous on its face: what does being a better debater have to do with anything?  Presidents don’t debate.  The candidates might as well compete by jousting or pole vaulting.

But, of course, these are not really debates, and the winner therefore is not necessarily the better debater.  What is the winner then?

This is a question worth pondering, if only to enliven this dreary electoral season with a consciousness of the absurdity of our political scene.   We have almost three more weeks to get through, after all, and there’s no Sarah Palin to lighten the load; in comparison, “binders full of women” just doesn’t cut it.

The better to grasp the absurdity, to appreciate its scope and its mettle, it is worth reflecting on just how undemocratic our democracy has become, how vast the gap now is between its theory and its actual operation.

The decisive importance accorded presidential and vice-presidential debates epitomizes this sorry state of affairs.

*  *  *

“Democracy” means “rule of the demos,” the people, the popular masses as distinct from social or economic elites.  From Greek antiquity until well into the modern period, democracy, like anarchy today, was a theoretical possibility that right thinking people seldom endorsed.  It was not until the French and American revolutions that the word began to take on positive connotations.

Following the defeat of fascism, the last officially anti-democratic ideology in the modern world, in World War II, all significant political tendencies have sought to enlist the word in their behalf.  It therefore came to denote very different institutional structures and practices.

The peoples’ democracies of the Soviet era and their counterparts in Third World countries differed substantially from so-called Western democracies.  Nowhere, though, did the demos rule, except in the most attenuated of senses.

In the peoples’ democracies, there was at least a verbal commitment to the term’s original meaning.  Western democracy doesn’t do even that.  The idea is not that the demos rule, but that the undifferentiated people do.  Class no longer figures at all.

Now that Western democracy is all that remains, its purchase on the concept has won the day, superseding the term’s original meaning.

And so, the consensus view now is that a regime is democratic if its leaders are selected through competitive elections that are at least tolerably free and fair.

So conceived, we are all democrats now.  Free and fair elections have become indispensable for political legitimacy.  Even theocracies depend on them for that.

Ironically, the universality of a basically classless conception of democratic institutions, one that includes the most subaltern groups of earlier class configurations, attests to the fact that the entry of the demos into the political arena is a profound, and probably irreversible, triumph of modernity.

So too, however, is the development of means for neutralizing demotic (or even just generically democratic) aspirations.

Western democracies are therefore neutered regimes in which ostensibly democratic institutions, like periodic elections, function more to legitimate elite ruling structures than to implement anything resembling Abraham Lincoln’s “government of, by and for the people.”

Lately, the situation has become so egregious that no matter who or what we vote for, we end up getting more or less the same thing. This is true in all Western democracies, but nowhere more than in our own.  Witness the Obama victory in 2008.

It is, by now, the rule that de facto electoral nullification is the norm, at least in situations where social and economic elites feel threatened by any hint, no matter how slight, of popular self-assertion.  Voters still select candidates or parties; appearances are maintained.  But the outcomes of elections don’t matter in the way that they formerly did.

If theory more honestly reflected practice, democratic theory would by now be as little heard of as it was when “democracy” was still just a theoretical possibility that no one took seriously, much less endorsed.   But our intellectual and political culture is too mired in self-deception for that.

And so we inhabit a political universe in which the gap between theory and practice is oceanic.  Not incidentally, it is also seldom noticed.

* * *

Theories of democracy – of what it is and of what it ought to be — fall broadly into two categories: one identifies democracy with democratic procedures, emphasizing affinities between markets and democratic collective choice; the other, makes deliberation central, reviving the ideal of the Athenian forum and, along with it, the notion of a political community joined together in search of collective ends.

The former sees democracy as an arena in which individuals and “interest groups” compete.  Elections aggregate competing interests in ways that reflect the actual distribution of choices for alternatives in contention.

On this view, free and fair elections are justified to the extent that they represent all relevant interests.  When all sides compete, and when the outcomes are combined in a fair way (say, by the method of majority rule), justice is served.

The other strain of democratic theory justifies free and fair elections on the grounds that they produce correct results.  In the extreme case, epitomized in Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762), there is a “general will” that aims at what is best for the whole community.  When individuals seek to discover what the general will is – when they deliberate with this objective in mind — the majority, Rousseau claimed, will discover this matter of fact.

For Rousseau and others who hold similar, though less stark, positions, majority rule voting is a truth-discovery procedure – like jury voting.  The value the other strain of democratic theory serves is Justice; the value this strain serves is Truth.

Positions like Rousseau’s only make sense if there really is a collective interest that is not just a combination of the interests of the individuals who comprise the voting public.

Those of us who believe that real world societies are riddled by fundamental social divisions – class divisions, for example — deny that collective interests exist as long as those divisions persist.  If we are right, there are no facts for disinterested deliberators to discover, and the general will would be, at best, an aspiration, something to be realized only when, if ever, unity is achieved.

But even if we are wrong, since no one can seriously claim that our elections, at the presidential level especially, have anything to do with discovering a general will, the descriptive adequacy of such theories is nil.

Procedural accounts of democracy fare only a little better.  At the state and local levels, and on matters of national legislation where systemic interests are not directly involved, there may be some rough approximation to the interest-group model.  But, even then, it is seldom the case that outcomes directly reflect the distribution of interests within the voting public.

This is because systemic factors shape the framework within which these interests compete.  In actual decision-making, one side may prevail over another for the reasons the model claims.  But if the choices are structured in such a way that one side cannot lose, it hardly follows that the winning side has really gotten its way.

For example, suppose city council decisions favor tenants more often than landlords.    It might then seem that tenants have more sway over the decision-making process than landlords.   But if the issues that become matters of choice don’t fundamentally challenge the real property relations implicit in landlord-tenant relations, the landlords win even when they lose.  They have more power.

The democratic process envisioned in proceduralist theories of democracy is this situation writ large.  Competing interests may vie for one or another outcome, and the results will be more or less fair.  But if the underlying system benefits some sides more than others, and if fundamental power relations are off the agenda, the beneficiaries of the system win, no matter how actual decisions pan out.

This is especially true in the United States at the presidential level, where whoever wins, the outcome is more or less the same – not at the margins, where the differences can be consequential, but at the core.

In 2008, after eight years of Cheney-Bush incompetence and misrule, Americans voted for “change.” That didn’t exactly work out – we got a “change” and “hope” president who continued the Cheney-Bush era with only minor or cosmetic changes.  This wasn’t a fluke.  It’s the new norm.

This has become a problem for Western democracies generally.  The weight the American version accords to presidential debates is something else altogether, a case of “American exceptionalism” at its most absurd.

* * *

It wasn’t always so.  To be sure, “debater” has never been part of the job description for a President of the United States, but candidate debates can have their uses.   They can help focus voters’ minds and, if they are relatively open, they can be revealing.  That was the idea back when the League of Women Voters ran the show.

Back then too, the rule was that any candidate on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of prevailing in the Electoral College was included.  The gain for the quality of political discourse was incalculable.

Now, however, the debates are organized by a corporate-sponsored bi-partisan commission that effectively excludes anyone who is not running as a Democrat or a Republican, and therefore any idea that falls outside a preposterously narrow range of views.

Democrats and Republicans are of one mind on almost everything, but on nothing more than this: that to gain entry into the privileged circle, a candidate must be polling in the 15% range.

This is, of course, an impossibility for anyone who is not a Democrat or a Republican, so long as our political culture is degraded by a media comprised of Democratic and Republican cheerleaders and by a dead center comprised of the likes of debate moderators the two parties can agree on.

It is telling that those media flacks, ever on the lookout for a Romney gaffe or for a sign of Obama’s aloofness, doesn’t even bother to report on the arrest of Green Party candidates Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala for attempting to enter the debate site in Long Island.

And so, instead of a debate, we have a spectacle, a carefully staged and heavily rehearsed joint appearance, viewed by each side as integral to the marketing campaigns they have been waging since Day One.  That it has come to this has political consequences of the gravest kind.  But it is a practice that has almost nothing to do with politics itself.  It is instead a substitute for politics; one that offends all sound theories of democratic governance.

And so the fate of the world hinges on body language, “attitude” (combative or passive), and gaffes.  Could the absurdity be greater?  And could there be a more bizarre way to select the Commander-in-Chief of an overblown military empire in decline?

There is nothing to do but avert one’s gaze and cry out in despair: only in America.

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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).