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In democracies, the demos rules. According to the original meaning of the term, that means the popular masses, as distinct from social or economic elites. More usually nowadays, the term has no class content; “demos” denotes an undifferentiated citizenry.
Normative political philosophy deals with what ought to be. Democracy was a topic in the normative political philosophy of Greek antiquity. In the modern era, it has been Topic A since the eighteenth century.
Descriptive political science deals with what is, with existing political institutions, arrangements and practices. From the time that self-described democracies became established in North America and Western Europe, democracy has been a major concern of descriptive political science too.
Democratic theory is therefore a motley of diverse, and even contradictory, normative and descriptive theories. But there are unifying themes. Among these, the idea that elections play a paramount role in democratic governance is high on the list.
There are exceptions, of course. In ancient Athens, representatives were selected by lot. In the state envisioned in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762), popular assemblies decide everything; there are no representatives at all. But even in these cases, there are elections of a sort: representatives selected by lot and popular assemblies enact laws through majority-rule voting.
For the most part, though, democrats favor representative, not direct, democracy, and representatives are elected. It is through elections that the will of the demos is ascertained.
Therefore, of course, elections have consequences. They are how democracies determine what the demos wants, and how and by whom its will is executed.
This is not just a truism, taken for granted by proponents of all significant strains of democratic theory. It is something that politicians say too, and that people generally believe.
Indeed, it would be hard to find a major politician in the United States who did not utter those words, or something like them, after our two most recent national elections – the one in 2010 that brought a gaggle of Tea Partiers into Congress, and the one in 2012 that reelected Barack Obama.
But how true is this truism? Those recent elections bear on this question.
They show that there is a fear, no doubt a well-founded one, that elections can make things worse for the demos if they go the wrong way. They also show that, for the time being, elections are all but useless for making the kinds of changes that the demos would surely put in place if it ruled in practice and not in name only.
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Self-described democracies rarely hold plebiscites or referenda. In the United States, the practice is common only at local or city government levels. Only twenty-four of the fifty states provide for referenda and citizens’ initiatives, and they are not permitted at the federal level at all.
It is therefore difficult to know what the people, the demos, want on particular issues. There is evidence, but it is indirect. It comes down mainly to who won the last electoral contest. However, in nearly all imaginable cases, that information comes in a form that is vague or equivocal or both.
Nevertheless, in recent years, in the United States and throughout the rest of the so-called First World, it is a good bet that the vox populi calls out for peace, not perpetual and ever expanding war; for prosperity-enhancing social spending and ample provision of public services, not austerity politics; for public policies that diminish, rather than exacerbate, the likelihood of immanent environmental catastrophes; and for the restoration – indeed, the enhancement — of the rule of law.
This is only a guess, of course. In the United States, a semi-established duopoly party system makes it harder than in most other liberal democracies for voters even to express such desires. This problem has become markedly worse now that the institutions that govern “the commanding heights” of the state are effectively dysfunctional.
Partisan polarization has done those institutions in. With Republican obduracy unabated by electoral defeat, and Democratic fecklessness undiminished by victory, the situation only gets worse.
At the same time, at an ideological level, there is a remarkable degree of bipartisan agreement — in favor of all the wrong things.
For the demos, consensus is even worse than polarization. In effect, it disenfranchises many voters, including all the progressive ones. They don’t always realize it however; in 2008 and again in 2012 quite a few thought otherwise.
The right to vote remains intact of course, though Republican machinations have lately made voter suppression a problem. Worse still, right-wing Supreme Court Justices, not content with the harm they did in the 2010 Citizens United case, may soon overturn some of the key gains of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But there is a more pernicious problem than Republican assaults on what little democracy we have. It is that Democrats and Republicans are cut from the same neo-liberal, plutocrat-friendly cloth. Democrats are easier to bear; at least they are not out of their minds. But they represent the demos no better.
This is why in American elections there is almost never anyone to vote for; and why it is only thanks to the vileness of the GOP that there are even candidates to vote against.
The situation has become so awful that were the public less incapacitated, these would surely be revolutionary times. Our economic and political systems serve us poorly; the need to change them fundamentally is acute.
But radical sensibilities are as politically inert these days as at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. Even the “change” people thought Obama would bring after the 2008 election never amounted to much.
To the extent that the vox populi could be heard above the din of partisan politics in that election and in the one we just suffered through, all the people wanted was to give decency and common sense a chance.
That aspiration pales in comparison to past eruptions of demotic self-assertion. Even so, it is not to be despised. Because he quashed even that very minimal expectation, Obama has much to answer for.
Though far from adequate, superficial solutions that address the hopes Obama voters tried in vain to achieve in 2008 and 2012 are better than no solutions at all. They are far better than purported solutions that only make our problems worse.
In the long run, we need cures, not palliatives. Radical solutions are indispensable because the system itself is the problem. In the short run, though, any and all help would be welcome.
These days, however, our political class is not even up to delivering on obvious solutions with broad popular support. Surely, we should be able to elect our way to a greater semblance of decency and common sense. But even that very modest expectation keeps getting shot down.
Elections have consequences certainly; they offer a way to throw the bastards out and to keep the worst of them from coming to power. But nowadays they seem unable to produce anything like what voters want and expect.
The American case in the Age of Obama is unusual only because Obama offers an unusually meretricious promise of hope. But it isn’t really his fault; people see what they want to see.
In the last election, many voters, a majority in fact, thought that his reelection was the best way to vote for peace, against austerity, for serious environmental regulations, and against the wanton disregard of the rule of law that has become the norm since 9/11. This was not an unreasonable view, considering the alternative. But look where it led.
The Nobel laureate they reelected did wind down combat operations in Iraq – not immediately upon taking office in 2009, but by the end of his term, years after it was plain that America had long ago lost that war.
He did it by repackaging America’s continuing occupation of that decimated country, prettifying the situation enough for a gullible and complicit media to make most Americans think that all is now well there. Obviously, this is far from the truth, but no matter. Obama did his job well; he insured that, this time around, nothing like a Vietnam Syndrome would impede further imperial predations.
He is now attempting more of the same in Afghanistan, after having escalated America’s lost war there, making conditions in that unconquerable country and in nearby regions of Pakistan worse by far.
And although the Obama White House dropped George Bush’s talk of a “Global War on Terror,” it intensified the efforts the Bush-Cheney administration undertook in its name. Obama opened up new theaters of operations – in historically Muslim regions of Africa and in Muslim areas in Asia outside the Middle East and along the Pacific Rim.
Does anyone outside the small circle currently directing the empire’s fortunes even know how many dirty little wars Obama is now Commander-in-Chiefing? All we know for sure is that his drones keep sowing terror and that no one anywhere is safe from his assassins.
It is the same across the board.
Vote to reject austerity politics, and get a Grand Bargainer. If, for reasons so demented that they can scarcely be imagined, Republicans won’t concede an inch, lesser bargains that target “entitlements” will just have to do.
To be sure, when it comes to doing “entitlements” in and making the rich richer, Obama lacks the fervor of hard-core neo-liberal ideologues. Even Bill Clinton seemed more motivated. Obama would dismantle New Deal-Great Society institutions more slowly than most Republicans would like. But, like Clinton, his goal is the same as theirs.
And so, since the Tea Party rose up, is his commitment to austerity politics.
Marx had a name for ideologues who forsook the emerging science of political economy in order to defend capitalists’ interests with political economic arguments; he called them “vulgar economists.” Whether they were sincerely befuddled or merely venal, they were, in Marx’s view, obfuscators of reality and, for this reason, on the wrong side of the class struggle.
The free market theologians who currently dominate the policy end of the economics profession are the vulgar economists of our time. It isn’t just Republicans who hang on their every word; most Democrats do as well. And though one cannot help but think that he knows better, so does Barack Obama.
A political class in the thrall of free marketeers used to be mainly an American or Anglo-American phenomenon. No longer; the folly has spread to all the major capitalist states. It is most virulent of late in the Eurozone countries. The harm done to Europe’s southern tier has been palpable.
It will not be news to readers of CounterPunch or, indeed, to anyone with a flair for common sense reasoning that the austerity politics free marketeers favor is untenable even in theory, especially in times of economic crisis. And, if that isn’t enough, an abundance of empirical evidence weighs in against it.
Why, then, does Obama go along? Could he be a true believer, a devotee of free market theology? Who knows? What is clear is that the last thing people who voted for him wanted was more austerity. But that is exactly what he is primed to supply.
That is how the 2008 and 2012 elections had consequences!
There is more. In 2012, voters did their best to vote to reform a financial and economic system that exacerbates inequalities and that allows banksters to make off, literally, like bandits. The candidate they elected had seen to it that not a single bankster has been brought to justice, and that policies that encourage capitalists to rob the public with impunity remained unchanged.
The 2012 election produced a winner with a proven record of inaction on issues of grave environmental concern. That is plainly not what the demos wanted.
At opportune moments, Obama does say things people want to hear. But talk is cheap, and the inaction of the past four years is bad enough. Our environmentalist President may soon make decisions that will set the world on an irreversible course for catastrophe. For a starter, it is not looking good on the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama won the election, but the moguls still call the shots.
Meanwhile, state terrorism at home and abroad has become a pressing problem, as precious rights and liberties are set aside, along with key provisions of international law and longstanding norms that used to govern relations between states.
Supposedly, the Bush and Obama administrations have done this for the sake of national security. But this is nonsense and, even with the media in tow, you can’t scare all of the people all of the time. This is why, to the extent that the vox populi is able to make itself heard, the cry is going out – enough!
Enough of stifling levels of social control that do nothing for national security but only for the security of the authorities and the fraction of the one percent who benefit from the irrationalities of the system in place.
In 2008, voters concerned about Bush era lawlessness elected a man they thought a civil libertarian and proponent of international law – he was, after all, a Constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. What they got was a President who flouts the Geneva Conventions as brazenly as Bush did, and who, even more than Bush, makes a mockery of legal protections as old as the Magna Carta.
Maybe his heart is not in it; maybe, if there were no political price to pay, he would be more like people thought he was. But an American President, a Democrat especially, dare not seem soft on terror. And so, Obama is deadly serious about fighting “Islamist militants” – in other words, extending the Bush-Cheney war on terror. Reasons of empire trump all.
Could the election have turned out worse? Probably. But that is not the point. That there seems to be no way elections can produce anything significantly less noxious is.
This is not just an American problem; it is a problem all capitalist states confront at this historic moment, as capitalism’s global reach and its control of the political sphere metastasize throughout every nation’s body politic.
In many European countries, ballot access is easier than here, and electoral rules allow for a wider range of policies to have voice. In this respect, the prospects are better for the demos getting its way.
Nevertheless, the devastation austerity has caused is, almost without exception, worse. Small states are less able than states that are “too big to fail” to stand up against capitalists’ power.
Last week’s election in Italy provides a perspicuous example. It is bad enough to have to vote for Barack Obama to express opposition to austerity; Italians, a lot of them anyway, thought that, to make that point, they had to vote for the party formed and led by comedian Beppe Grillo. Nobody knows what that party wants to do, least of all Grillo himself.
Because he was once convicted of a crime, Grillo is not even eligible to serve in parliament. But at least his instincts are sound, and his heart is in the right place. That is enough to make the ruling classes tremble.
And so their flacks are hard at work contriving ways for Italy to remain on the course they have chosen for it, notwithstanding the last election. That is how it is with elections these days; if the vox populi manages to make itself heard and if the grandees of world capitalism don’t like what it says, they find other ways to get what they want.
This is why elections hardly matter any more, why their consequences are superficial and cosmetic at best.
It is not hard to imagine ways to pursue peace, abandon austerity, protect the environment, and restore the rule of law while leaving basic economic and political structures intact. Palliatives abound.
But with capitalist power so overwhelming, even palliatives are unreachable in the usual way – through elections.
Three decades ago, at the dawn of the neoliberal era, Margaret Thatcher famously declared: “there is no alternative.” She meant no alternative to the economic system that goes by her name and Ronald Reagan’s. She was wrong of course; there are alternatives, plenty of them. Because they are obvious, everyone knows what they are.
But because capitalism has undermined democracy to such an extent that we cannot now get from here to there – indeed, from here to anywhere capitalist grandees don’t want to go — it is fast becoming true that the only solutions are radical ones.
When that thought finally takes hold, change will become possible again; not Obama’s change, but the genuine article. And, unlike now, elections will have consequences worthy of their place in democratic theory and practice.
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).