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Rule By Interest Groups

The Emperor’s New Clothes

by ANDREW LEVINE

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s better known fables tells of an emperor who is promised a magnificent suit of clothes by swindlers who claim that the garment they will weave will be invisible to stupid people unfit for the positions they hold.

Andersen recounts how the emperor fell for the swindle and how, when his clothes were ready, he paraded before his assembled subjects.  The crowd applauded the splendor of his regalia until a small child cried out: “…but he isn’t wearing anything at all,” and the illusion was shattered.

There is a lesson here for anyone interested in bringing democracy to the USA – because emperor’s new clothes situations are sometimes obstacles in democracy’s way.  When this is the case, the thing to do is what the child in the story did.

This is an important lesson, though a limited one, because emperor’s new clothes situations seldom arise in as clear a way as in Andersen’s fable, and because there are so many other, often more intractable, obstacles to overcome.

But in an age when no one any longer ventures to take on the system as a whole, and when even small improvements seem hopelessly out of reach, any and all democratic advances are welcome.

Too bad therefore that hardly anyone in Congress, much less the White House, is willing to be like the child in the Anderson fable.  They are too busy being, or trying to be, “players.”

This is unfortunate because there are times when even one naïf who refuses to deny the obvious could do more good than a score of “progressive” legislators who think that, to make a difference – to “remain viable within the system,” as Bill Clinton famously put it – they too must join the cheering throng.

* * *

Emperor’s new clothes situations are especially salient in national politics where highly motivated, well-financed and well-organized interest groups hold Congress and the White House in thrall, majority opinion notwithstanding.

This can happen whenever an interest group’s constituency cares more intensely than the majority about the issues around which the group is organized, and when the political class fears its power to affect electoral outcomes.

The Israel lobby’s control over US-Israel and US-Palestine relations is a case in point.  No one dares defy it because everyone believes that its power is overwhelming.

Is it?  Its resources are considerable and there is no doubting its operatives’ political skills.  But the lobby’s concerns are important only to a diminishing number of Jewish ethnocrats, most of them elderly, and to Protestant dispensationalists awaiting the End Time.

Most people are either indifferent to the lobby’s concerns or in varying degrees opposed to them.  This would include many, probably most, American Jews, and the vast majority of self-identified Protestants.

These people vote and, in the final analysis, it is the votes that count.

One can only wonder therefore what would happen if just a few legislators, maybe even only one, brazenly defied the lobby’s demands.

Surely, someone, like the child in Andersen’s story, could refuse to be cowed.  Would the lobby’s grip over Washington then collapse?

It is not impossible.  The minority, or rather its organized “leadership,” gets its way because everyone fears it; and everyone fears it because it gets its way.  There is nothing more to its power than that.

And so it is that, virtually without opposition, Israel receives the diplomatic equivalent of a blank check from the United States government, and ample amounts of “foreign aid” to boot.

This is not the result of a rational consensus.  Neither is it, as some claim, an expression of guilt for not having done more to stop the Nazi Judeocide seven decades ago.

To be sure, Europe has much to answer for, though one would suppose that the statute of limitations ran out long ago.  But even if it has not, what sense does it make to shift the burden from the descendants of the perpetrators onto the descendants of a people that was not even remotely involved?

Because it could have done more to defend European Jewry and because it could have admitted many more refugees, the United States too has much to answer for.   But this concern hardly registers in the political consciousness of most Americans.

That is how Zionists have always wanted it.  Their aim was to get the United States to collude with them in settling European Jews in Palestine, not North America.  The Roosevelt and Truman Administrations were not hard to persuade; anti-Jewish attitudes were rife at the time and no one wanted to pour oil on the fire.

Even non-Zionist Jews, the vast majority at the time, went along.

And, of course, our media and our schools have always been first in line to proclaim American rectitude.  The result is that, according to common perceptions, America’s hands are clean.

Therefore while guilt may be a factor still in European, especially German, Middle Eastern diplomacy, it hardly affects American policy towards Israel today.

No doubt, geo-political considerations matter, though with the Cold War over, it is no longer clear what purpose a U.S.-Israel “special relationship” serves.

This is why it is fair to say that the main, though not the only, factor governing that relationship is domestic electoral politics.  This does not reflect well on American democracy. And that is the least of it.

Beyond the offense to democracy, there is also the grave injustice to the Palestinian people.

And by not treating Israel as a country like any other, the United States harms itself by making itself a target of widespread animosity.

It is as if the American political class has taken it upon itself to stir up the forces of bloodshed and war in key strategic areas of the planet, and to assure that there will always be a supply of individuals eager to undertake terrorist operations that put Americans at risk.

Or that they want to be sure of always having pretexts for undoing the rule of law domestically and internationally, and for undermining privacy rights and Fourth Amendment protections from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Unlimited American support for Israel is not good for Israel either – not just because oppression degrades the oppressor, but because, without a semblance of justice for Palestinians and without real peace, the Israeli population too is put at unnecessary risk.

The Israel lobby’s grip over American politics is just one example, an extreme one, of a more general phenomenon – of de facto minority rule in an ostensibly democratic regime.

The “tyranny of the majority” is a constant danger, of course; respecting minority rights is essential to democratic governance.  But upholding minority rights is not the same as minority rule.

Minority rule offends democracy, and would therefore be well done away with, even if it did not also make outcomes worse.

Proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes can be a means to ending minority rule, moving the body politic a tad closer to the goal true (small-d) democrats seek.

 * * *

The democracy of the ancients was, literally, rule by the demos (the ordinary people, as distinct from elites).  This class-conscious conception has barely survived into the modern era.  The “peoples’ democracies” of the twentieth century are partial – transparently hypocritical – exceptions; according to their self-representations, they were governments of, by, and for the laboring masses.

There is also the democracy of the philosophers; for example, the kind envisioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, or, to take a more recent and tepid example, by John Rawls.  On this understanding, democracy is about an active, undivided citizenry moving the body politic forward through rational deliberation and debate.

That kind of democracy requires more equality of condition, wealth and income than exists in America today; it requires a citizenry capable of influencing outcomes more or less equally.

It also requires a robust commitment to the public good, a (small-r) republican virtue that has been missing from our political scene for a very long time.

Inequality has become so outrageous, and self-interest so extreme, that to get from where we now are to any remote approximation of the democracy of the philosophers seems all but impossible – especially as long as we assume that the very idea of overthrowing an old regime and building a new world on the ashes of the old is a dangerous utopian fantasy.

Being less unrealistic than political philosophers, political scientists generally advance a different view of what democracy is.

For them, it is not about deliberation and debate or any other method for discovering the public good.   It is about procedures that produce social choices that reflect voters’ preferences for alternatives in contention.

This is why majority rule voting is the default decision procedure; of all methods for combining individuals’ choices into social choices, it is the least biased for or against a particular outcome.

When more than simple numerical majorities are required to enact changes, the decision process is weighted in favor of the status quo.  This is one reason why minority rule, the de facto norm in the Senate these days, offends democratic ideals.

At the limit, requiring unanimous consent would give veto power to every voter.  No voting procedure could be more conservative.

Procedural democracy operates at two levels: in selecting persons to fill elective offices and then, in legislative bodies, in deciding which laws or other measures to enact.

At both levels, the question is not what is the best outcome? but what is the fairest result?, where outcomes are fair if they result from fair procedures.  A procedure counts as fair, on this view, when each and every voter has an equal say and when there are no procedural biases for or against any outcome.

This is tantamount to saying that an outcome is fair if it wins a majority of votes in a free and equal election.

In presidential elections, citizens cast ballots for one or another candidate, but in fact they do not vote for those candidates directly.  Their votes are translated into votes for (usually unknown) electors.  The electors then choose the President.

Since electors are, in almost all cases, awarded on a winner-take-all basis state-by-state, presidential elections, unlike direct elections at the state and local level, can never be fair in the pertinent sense.

Their unfairness is compounded by the constitutionally mandated rule that each state gets as many electors as it has representatives in the House and Senate.  A consequence is that some votes count for more than others.  How much an individual’s vote counts depends on the size of the state in which the vote is cast.  The smaller the state, the more political influence a voter has.

These institutionalized violations of the “one person, one vote” principle seldom bother proponents of procedural democracy; they have learned not to expect an exact conformation between theory and reality.  They see a problem only in those rare instances when the results of the popular and Electoral College votes diverge.

But, no matter how inured one is to deviations from the ideal theory, it is hard to deny that other factors make a mockery of the procedural democratic model in its applications to the American scene.

For one, political parties stand between voters and candidates.   In the American case, this obstacle is especially disabling because ours is a semi-established duopoly party system.  In theory, anybody can run for office.  In reality, only persons nominated by the Democratic or Republican parties can.

The candidates these parties offer used to be chosen by party bosses in smoke filled rooms.  Nowadays, primary elections do much of that work; this is supposed to be a great advance.

But it is far from clear that the results are any closer to what the model mandates because the model does not represent the most pertinent causes at work in the selection process.

This is why, even when primaries replace smoke filled rooms, voters have little effective say over who the candidates will be.

And if they do not, it can hardly be said that the social choice represents their preferences, even if it does combine their preferences for the alternatives in contention in a way that seems fair.

But the problem runs deeper.

Holding that fairness requires that social choices reflect individuals’ preferences for alternatives in contention is reasonable only if preferences are worth satisfying.

For the philosophers, they are worth satisfying if and only if they are rationally formed.   Procedural democrats are less insistent on this point, but the difference is more apparent than real.

They would certainly agree with the philosophers that there is little, if any, justification for satisfying preferences that are instilled by swindlers and hucksters, like the ones who convinced the emperor of the magnificence of his new clothes.

But swindling and huckstering are what our politics is about, especially at the national level.

Voters do make the final choice.  But only after handlers, party functionaries, and public relations flacks of all descriptions have sold their target audience on one candidate or another.

The preferences that are then more or less fairly combined in elections are not so much owned as instilled.

This has always been the case to some extent, but the problem has grown exponentially in recent years as inequality has increased, and as moneyed interests, indifferent to the public good, have corrupted the system to an unprecedented degree.

A Supreme Court that construes corporations as persons and political “contributions” as constitutionally protected free speech has made the problem worse by orders of magnitude.

Everybody knows this, but nobody does anything about it – because there are no piece-meal reforms adequate to the task and because the public has been sold on the idea that radical transformations are out of the question.

This is why, in this instance too, pointing out that the emperor has no clothes – that what passes for democracy is a sham — is all but useless.

This goes without saying for the robust conceptions of democracy advanced in the philosophical tradition.  The procedural model, the position to which more realistic theorists retreat, fares no better.

Indeed, the sorts of changes that would give the procedural model a purchase on fairness are just those that would accord some verisimilitude to the deliberative model: a severe reduction of inequality and an enhanced concern for the public good.

This is because for the procedural model to do what it purports, for it to combine individuals’ preferences for alternatives in contention in a fair way, we would have to be more than passive consumers of those alternatives; we would have to be active citizens, authors of the decisions that govern our lives.

In short, in practice if not in theory, deliberative and procedural democracy converge.  The remedy for the failure of one is the remedy for the failure of the other; and that remedy can only be a radical one.

But this is not always the case within the legislative process itself.  In that arena, in at least a few instances, some semblance of real democracy is achievable.  And sometimes all it takes is for someone in a position to be heard to make others realize that indeed the emperor has no clothes.

In selecting legislators, voters vote as individuals; legislators too vote individually.  But when it comes to setting the agenda and even to shaping legislation, it is interest groups that affect outcomes most.

This is because, for the most part, legislators think that their interests are best served by letting this happen.

This is the case even when all they want is reelection.  It is all the more the case when their goal is to feather their nests – while they remain in office and when their days in “public service” are done.

The Israel lobby takes full advantage of these vulnerabilities.  So too do the countless other lobbies that befoul our political landscape.

But unlike the Israel lobby, most of them need not worry that someone will point out that the emperor has no clothes.

They are immune from that concern because their issues mostly fall outside the purview of public awareness.  Those issues may be enormously consequential for peoples’ lives.  But if people know nothing about them and care less, lobbyists can work their mischief in complete disregard of pesky democratic impedances.

It is only when the public does take an interest that the preferences of the majority register in the way that democratic theories, from the most stringent to the most lax, say they should.

One way to make this happen, in circumstances that are conducive, is for someone, like the child in Andersen’s story, to utter the obvious: that, although the conventional wisdom holds otherwise, the emperor’s new clothes are nothing more than a snare and a delusion.

In the larger morass of American politics, that may not seem like much.  But it can be an important step forward for justice.

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).