By the end of the nineteenth century, after decades of struggle, socialists and other proponents of “change we can believe in” (to use an expression Barack Obama has forever befouled) gained the right to operate freely and to contest elections nearly everywhere that governments were elected.
For them, the question then became: is an electoral route to socialism (or whatever the desired end might be) feasible? Many thought not; they thought that capitalists and their political and ideological retainers would block the way.
Before long, however, the opposite view came to predominate.
There were some on the far left who thought, for any of a variety of reasons, that, even if state power could be gained by electoral means, a revolutionary route is preferable.
But the majority view among proponents of fundamental social change, including some who thought that the changes they envisioned would only be possible if the old regime and its ruling class were overthrown, was that if power could be attained electorally, that would be best.
As recently as the 1960s, Malcolm X seemed to agree: “ballots or bullets,” he famously proclaimed — implying that insofar as an electoral route is available, ballots are the way to go.
The rationale is plain: revolutions — the kinds the Left had in mind, the kinds that involve bullets — are inherently bad for all the reasons that violence is bad. They are also precarious because the old regime is bound to fight back with all the means at its disposal – as the revolution unfolds and afterwards, should revolutionaries be victorious. Ballots are therefore better – unless there is no other way.
That argument may have logic and morality on its side, but it prevailed for reasons that had mainly to do with historical circumstances.
As the prospects for revolution receded – first, in the most developed capitalist countries and eventually everywhere (including, by now, even agrarian peasant societies) – the electoral route was all that remained.
There were and still are sectarian holdouts, and revolutionary romanticism has never gone away. But even in their circles, it is the received view that engagement in the electoral arena must be at least part of any plausible strategy for change.
This remains the view on the Left, insofar as a real Left, true to its historical convictions, still exists in the centers of modern capitalism.
It is obviously also the view on the left end of the mainstream left-right political spectrum in the United States – where the leftmost point, the left of the Democratic Party, would barely count as centrist even by local historical, much less world, standards.
Unfortunately, in this respect as in many others, the rest of the world is following the American lead.
It is broadly understood, of course, that non-electoral forms of political activity are indispensable too. On the Left, they have always been considered more important. The accepted wisdom is that elections only ratify changes that have already been secured outside the electoral arena.
Still, the idea that elections matter in more or less the way democratic theorists claim – that the majority rules not just procedurally but also substantively, that public policy reflects the peoples’ will – was never seriously questioned.
But that was then. As the effects of neoliberal globalization became increasingly apparent in the waning years of the twentieth century, the idea that the majority rules has become difficult to sustain.
This was only to be expected because in real world democracies the majority plainly does not rule, at least not in the way that it did a few decades ago. That fact was bound eventually to register in public consciousness.
The problem is not only that radicalism has become relegated to the margins of political life. This is the case, but it is more an aspect of the larger problem than a root cause of it.
It should be added that the marginalization of radical dissidence did not happen because public opinion has shifted towards the right. If the best polling data is on track, the public is more left leaning than the political class that represents it, and the part of the public that favors radical change is as large as ever.
It is the politicians, not the people, who have veered rightward; and it is they, along with a media subservient to the powers that be, that marginalize dissident views.
But the ultimate culprit is capitalism itself – at this stage of its evolution.
In a world where financial speculation only tenuously connected with the real (productive) economy has become the main generator of wealth, and where financial institutions and corporations have become so large and so global that states, especially small states, cannot control them, public opinion has ceased to matter – except on issues of no concern to capitalists or to the logic of capitalist development.
The result is a radical disconnect between electoral politics and the actual governance of so-called democratic states.
Elections are held, as they were in the past, and democratic procedures are generally respected. If elections produce the right results, their outcomes stand.
But if they do not – if the people are “wrong” — the interests of capital, not the will of the people, prevail.
Elections remain important because they convey the impression that the people do indeed rule. This helps assure the legitimacy of the regime. Democratic values, born out of centuries of struggle, are not easily cast aside.
But when the people are “wrong” – wrong in the eyes of the rulers – the rulers will put legitimacy in jeopardy before letting the people have their way. They will see to it that electoral outcomes are effectively nullified.
Electoral nullification is seldom expressly acknowledged. But at the limit, when the voters choose very wrongly and there is no denying the fact or getting around it, nullification happens by any means necessary.
We Americans are comparatively lucky in this respect – ironically because our electoral system is less democratic than most. We can cast protest votes for independent or “third party” candidates, but for all practical purposes, we have only two choices – a Democrat or a Republican.
In the primaries, we sometimes do have a say over who those candidates will be. But primary elections, like general elections, are nowadays so overrun with corporate money that they seldom amount to more than popularity contests between well-vetted candidates acceptable to the corporate paymasters.
Our system is therefore incapable of producing outcomes that would merit nullification. The majority still rules, but only because it is neutered beforehand, guaranteeing that no matter what “we, the people” think or want, we cannot challenge the interests of the fraction of the one percent who run the show.
Europeans are less fortunate — because most European Union countries have more democratic electoral systems. Ballot access is easier, and parties that promote counter-systemic policies are not as marginalized as “third parties” are in the United States.
Moreover, for institutional and historical reasons, elections in European countries are not as corrupted by corporate money as our elections are, and they are run less like corporate marketing campaigns. On the whole, they better approximate the precepts of normative democratic theory.
But the governing institutions of the EU, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, are always at the ready to nullify the consequences of votes that go wrong in the eyes of EU bureaucrats and European and world financiers.
The most notorious instances of electoral nullification have occurred in the economically weaker countries of Europe’s southern fringe: in Greece and Cyprus most flagrantly, but also in Portugal, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, and elsewhere. Even French and Dutch voters have had their collective decisions cast aside.
There would doubtless be even more electoral nullification throughout the EU if the citizens of EU countries had more opportunities to express their views on the austerity politics of their leaders, and on other features of the currency bloc’s economic model.
And Europeans have it good in comparison with the peoples of many developing countries, where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in alliance with First World, mainly American, banks and local grandees in league with Western interests might as well just govern directly, without giving the people a voice at all.
Then there is northern Africa and the nearby Middle East, where the outlook for majority rule is worst of all. Witness the bloody fate of Islamist electoral victors in Algeria in 1992 and in Egypt today, or of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip when they had the temerity to vote Hamas into office in a free and fair election.
Plainly, in this era of neoliberal globalization, government “of, by, and for the people” is finished — wherever and whenever electoral outcomes conflict with the exigencies of global capitalism or, not unrelatedly, the geopolitical interests of the world’s remaining “superpower.”
In a democracy, the people rule; we citizens of so-called democratic states therefore do not live in democracies, even to the extent that we did a few decades ago.
We live in states that respect democratic forms whenever they can – whenever the popular will is more or less in accord with the interests of the real rulers.
But these are also states whose leaders will do whatever they think they must to make the world of those rulers as safe as can be – safe, that is, from the ninety-nine percent or more of us who would be better off with a different kind of capitalism, or without capitalism at all.
Those leaders seldom need to do anything very egregious because most people, most of the time, believe, for one reason or another, that they have no choice but to go along with the system in place.
This is why, so far, Egypt is not the norm; America is. The American way of democratic nullification is epitomized in the Obama presidency – where “hope” and “change” morphed into drones and state surveillance in the blink of an eye.
Democratic politics nowadays is stuck in a cul-de-sac. Revolutions, with or without bullets, are off the agenda, and, where it counts, ballots are off the agenda too –because, for “change we can believe in,” the electoral route is a snare and a delusion.
But sitting elections out is not an option, especially not in the United States — not when our government spreads terror, murder and mayhem over large swathes of the planet. With longstanding rights and liberties under attack, inequality intensifying, and environmental catastrophes in progress, something must be done.
If nothing else, we can do our best to shake things up — in the hope that a way forward will come into view. If there is any truth in the idea that “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” this is bound to happen eventually.
Meanwhile, there is no avoiding the electoral circus. For Americans, this is especially unfortunate because our presidential elections suck up resources and energies that would be better expended on more productive, counter-systemic efforts. But presidential elections are like a force of nature; there is no willing them away. And they do offer opportunities that would be foolish to waste.
* * *
The 2016 presidential election is still a long way off; we have hardly even begun to slog our way through the midterm elections of 2014.
Already, though, the specter of another Clinton presidency haunts the political landscape.
This is a dreadful prospect because this time around the offending Clinton will not be that old horndog, Bill. His politics were hideous, but his antics were diverting, and his Eddie Haskell personality had a certain appeal. Nobody could “feel your pain” like Slick Willy.
Now it is the Slickster’s wife, and there is no redeeming comic value in that. Worse still, her politics, unlike his in 1992, has been marinating in the foul waters of post-9/11 Washington for years.
With the inmates running the asylum that the GOP has become, the Democratic candidate, whoever she or he is, will almost certainly prevail in the general election. Therefore, unless Hillary is stopped, expect the Clintons to be moving back into the White House in January 2017.
Why should anybody care if elections no longer matter? Why indeed — especially in the American case where we now know not only that the majority doesn’t rule, but also that we cannot infer anything about what a candidate will do in office from what that person was like before coming onto the national scene.
Before he ran for the legislature in Illinois, Barack Obama had been a community organizer in Chicago. Early on, his speeches and writings suggested that he knew which end is up, and there was every reason to think that his instincts were sound.
But, by the time he decided to run for the Senate from Illinois, he had transformed himself enough to win over corporate support.
Passing muster in corporate circles is crucial in American politics today. It almost as obligatory for a politician who aspires to high office as obtaining clerical approval is for politicians in contemporary Iran.
Had Obama not been up to par, his race with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008 would not have been the popularity contest it became; it would not have been a contest at all.
From that point on, it made no difference that while she was enabling her husband’s predations and fashioning a kick-ass neoliberal, pro-military, imperialist persona of her own, he was “paling around” with good, thoughtful people.
With either one of them in the White House, a Clintonite Restoration was a virtual certainty.
For a while, it was possible to hope that, if Obama won, he would install an Administration that was not just an up-dated version of husband Bill’s. But that didn’t happen. Obama reempowered every old Clinton hand he could find; he even made Hillary Secretary-of-State.
If that was how it turned out when the winner was someone whose past suggested better, why should we expect that it would be different this time around with yet another more promising Democrat than Clinton?
Why not, then, just let Clinton happen and get on with other things?
One reason is that nobody has a good idea of what those other things might be. It is also relevant that no matter how plain it is that our elections are useless, they inevitably draw everyone in. The Occupy movement petered out for many reasons but the impending presidential election was surely high on the list.
A Clinton victory would be awful, but is it worth getting exercised over the prospect – especially this far out, when we have so much on our plate already?
I think there are at least two reasons why an ounce of prevention now might not be a waste of effort and time.
The first is that if Clinton just glides into the nomination without being seriously challenged, the “liberal” commentariat, the MSNBC variety, will have no reason to discuss any position that falls outside the purview of the Bush-Obama-Clinton consensus.
They will therefore continue to do what they have been doing for as long as it has been impossible to say anything good about their own standard-bearer: they will make fun of Republicans and go on endlessly about how scary they are.
That has become increasingly tiresome because Republicans are such easy prey. Skewering them is like shooting fish in a barrel.
The other reason is more idiosyncratic.
Was it a good thing that Obama won in 2012? Probably. Unrepentant lesser evilists have many reasons for thinking so; some of them have merit.
But, on the other side, there is the fact that had Mitt Romney won, opposition to the post-9/11 consensus would be more mainstream than it now is because Democrats would be on board.
I would venture that this consideration cancels out the reasons lesser evilists proffer. But there is a tie breaker: Obama’s victory put Romney and everything Romneyish out to pasture.
That consideration may be more “aesthetic” than political, but it is not to be despised. Having Romney in the public eye for four or eight years would be too much to bear, too cruel and “unusual” — even by degraded, contemporary standards.
Getting rid of him, therefore, is an achievement almost on a par with what it would be to rid the body politic of the House of Bush. John Kerry had a chance to pull that off in 2004, and he failed miserably.
The Bush family’s departure from the political scene could therefore still be reversed. Fortunately, though, brother Jeb is probably not crazy enough for today’s GOP.
That Romney is finished is more certain. Obama had less to do with this than Romney himself or the way “undecided” voters reacted to Republican craziness. But Obama does deserve some of the credit. It is among the few good things he has done.
And if someone would similarly vanquish Hillary, ridding us of those irksome Clintons, that person too would merit praise. By 2016, they will have been in the public eye for more than three decades. Enough is enough.
Trying to stop her by backing a new Obama-like figure would be a waste of time. Obama taught us that.
But ridicule can’t hurt.
In the 2008 primary season, I dreamed of Gennifer Flowers — Monica Lewinsky Democratic Clubs springing up across the land. But it was probably too late for that even then; and, in any case, a more decorous strategy would be more apt for rallying high-minded Democratic voters.
Fortunately, there are vastly more enlightening functional equivalents available.
Thanks to two heroic whistleblowers, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the truth is now out – the truth about how clueless the Clinton State Department was, and about how wrong-headed and self-defeating American foreign and military policy has been in the post-9/11 era.
The embarrassment already and the potential for more is limitless. We must do all we can to put it to maximum advantage.
How topsy-turvy our world has become when our whistle blowers are tortured and then handed out thirty-five year prison sentences, or when they are forced into exile, while the real criminals prosper!
It isn’t just banksters who are too-big-to-be-punished or Bush-era war criminals who must get off scot free, our President and Attorney General tell us, so that we can “look forward” – in other words, so that they can continue with more of the same while adding a few flourishes of their own.
It is also the Clintons and the scores of lesser malefactors whose follies and gross stupidities Manning’s and Snowden’s revelations expose. What they get, for all the harm they have caused, are astronomical speaker’s fees and, in Hillary’s case, corporate backing for 2016.
This is the world late capitalism has built. It is a world that the Clintons have done much to fashion.
In the struggle against all things Clintonite – against neoliberalism and militarism, and against imperialist policies as clueless as they are deadly — we can never do too much, and it is never too soon to start.
We may not be able to do as much as we could if our political system was less undemocratic, even if it was only more like it used to be, but, as lesser evilists remind us, even shades of difference can have important consequences.
To the extent that they are right, an ounce of prevention now could save everyone a lot of grief later on.
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).