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How Democracy Works


According to the New York Times of April 5, President Obama is about to present his budget proposal, which includes cuts in social security and medicare as part of an effort to reach a compromise with the Republicans. The story is followed by comments from readers, nearly all expressing anger and outrage at what they call Obama’s betrayal, many saying they wished they had not voted for him.

I am not a regular reader of the Times comments sections, but I do not recall ever seeing such unanimity on any issue. Here is the link:  (My own comment: “The usual courtship ritual: the Republicans make outrageous proposals, the Democratic president virtuously refuses before coyly surrendering.”)

This small episode refutes the contention that, notwithstanding various imperfections, public opinion expressed through the electoral system influences the actions of public officials, because they want to stay in office. In fact, public opinion will make no difference in this case, just as it made no difference in 2008 when departing President Bush, with Obama’s agreement, gave away trillions to banks and insurance companies in spite of overwhelming opposition from the “public.” At that time one congressman reported that his mail was running nine-to-one against the giveaway, and urged Congress to hurry up and get it done before his constituents marched on Washington and burned it down.

As a student of history I am not surprised by political officials lying and manipulating public opinion to get people to go along with what the rulers want (example: Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”), but I admit to some awe at how brazenly they do things that run openly counter to the declared wishes of those they designate as their constituents, and get away with it. The key can be found in the Federalist Paper No. 10, in which James Madison explained why a republican form of government is useful in preventing the “interested and overbearing majority” from imposing “abolition of debts, an equal division of property, or any other improper or wicked project.”

As C.L.R. James said, the capitalists will only be defeated when they are running for their lives.

Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996). He can be reached at He blogs at

Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996).  He blogs here. He can be reached at

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