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Whatever Happened to Democracy in America?
What is the state of the union?
The empire, though led by bumblers, is still functioning, thanks mainly to a military that continues to hang on, along with the merchants of death it supports.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know too that our intelligence agencies are thriving, along with their counterparts in the UK and its former white dominions, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
With the help of compliant telecommunications giants and internet moguls, the work these denizens of the dark side do has metastasized throughout the body politic – to such an extent that our formerly robust private sphere is now all but gone.
It is remarkable how little indignation this arouses.
On the other hand, the state of our domestic politics is on every good citizen’s mind. Nothing worth doing is getting done. The government has become dysfunctional.
Inasmuch as paralysis at home is so widely bemoaned, and since it is key to the rest, it is well to reflect on the phenomenon and to examine its causes.
How did it come about?
Republicans blame Democrats – Barack Obama, most of all. This explanation is plainly ludicrous. Ideologically, Democrats today are what Republicans used to be. But like the liberals of old, they make a virtue of spinelessness. They call it “pragmatism.”
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine anyone in public life more inclined to compromise away everything he claims to stand for than Barack Obama. The man is pathologically “bipartisan.”
And, on this, his party stands behind him. As Robert Frost said of the more resolute liberals of his day, they won’t take their own side in an argument.
Whom do Democrats blame? That is not an easy question because, unlike Republicans, they are not, and never have been, of one mind.
But there are still alarmingly many of them who think that Obama would actually be a force for good if only national and state politicians were more cooperative and less uncivil. Those Democrats have no doubt where the fault lies: they blame Republicans.
They have an entire cable network, MSNBC, devoted to driving this point home by putting Republican obstinacy, stupidity and mean-spiritedness on display. Rachel Maddow and the others have an inexhaustible supply of examples.
Their take on Republicans is tiresome but unassailable: Republicans have moving the political center rightward and generally debasing our politics for decades.
However the Republican Party is not a force of nature. It only seems that way thanks to the peculiarities of our political culture.
Competition between Republicans and Democrats is its be-all and end-all. These two like-minded electoral operations are joined “dialectically” and, for all practical purposes, inextricably. They are what they are and do what they do in virtue of the ways they interact with each other.
Therefore, to account for the awfulness of our domestic politics, those of us who are not deluded about Obama and the party he leads might just as well blame Democrats.
Indeed, that might be the wiser course since, unlike their rivals, Democrats are, for the most part, somewhat susceptible to reason. Perhaps a few of them could be persuaded to change their ways for the better or at least to mitigate the harm that they do.
If enough of them would, it would make it easier for genuine progressives to break free from the Republican-Democratic dialectic, making everyone who is not wedded to one or the other party better off.
However, as matters now stand, our politics is about seeing to it that one or the other party wins; that is what Republican and Democratic politicians do. How they govern and how they operate when they are in the opposition only makes sense in light of their focus on up-coming electoral contests.
Their “ideological” commitments, such as they are, operate more like electoral props than guiding visions of a better world. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between.
Electoral competition even shapes the American style of political corruption. Republicans and Democrats need money to run their campaigns, and public money is scarce and insufficient. It is therefore no surprise that politicians put themselves up for sale.
But except for a few unusually mercenary specimens, their focus still remains the next election.
In poorer countries, where levels of economic inequality are similar to or worse than our own, political officials typically turn their offices into cash cows. This is rare in the United States, just as it is in most countries with relatively free media and mature political systems.
Our politicians want and need money to buy votes; that comes first. Of course, they also want money for themselves, and they do take their share. But, for the most part, they wait to cash in later — after their stint in “public service” is over.
Politicians seek votes, and to get them, they go where the money is; not where the voters are. This is one reason why public opinion only barely registers in public policy, and why the disinterested deliberations democratic theorists envision almost never actually take place. It is also why no one even speaks about the public interest – except as an accompaniment to electoral posturing.
However the sorry state of the political scene in the United States today is not the fault of America’s duopoly party system alone. To think that would be to mistake an effect for a cause.
To arrive at a deeper understanding of why our domestic politics is as awful as it has become, we have to look beneath the surface – to the structure of the political system itself and to the economic order it superintends.
When we do, it becomes apparent that part of the problem is the U.S. Constitution itself, the justly venerated basic law of the land. The irony is staggering.
On the one hand, our Constitution guarantees our basic rights and liberties; it is what keeps police state tyranny at bay. Without it, all semblance of democracy would probably have vanished long ago; and, on the off chance that anything worth preserving remained, post-9/11Washington would surely have done it in.
But our Constitution also keeps democracy in bounds, enabling economic elites to turn the institutions of representative government into instruments for advancing their own ends.
How can it be so two-sided? The answer lies with its history.
The U.S. Constitution was a compromise reached by the economic elites of the thirteen colonies that, having won independence from Great Britain, became loosely confederated, quasi-independent states.
In the period leading up to its adoption, these states were roughly equal in most relevant respects, including population size; and while there was plainly a need to regulate inter-state commerce and other affairs, and to advance American interests abroad, there was not much for a federal government to do. Politics back then was indeed local.
However there was one monumental exception: slavery.
Opposition to slavery was mounting in all the northern states and also in the European countries involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
The practice was still legal in all the states. But it was economically important only in the planter economies of the South. The abolitionist sentiments emerging in the North were morally driven of course, but economic considerations mattered too.
Southern elites were therefore worried about what their counterparts in the North would do to their “peculiar institution.”
Had a malicious Divinity caused an incarnation of Benjamin Netanyahu to be born into, say, a great Christian family in Virginia in time for him to become a presence at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, “existential threat” might have entered the political lexicon some two and a half centuries before it did.
That is precisely what southerners thought northerners were – even before the international slave trade officially ended early in the nineteenth century, forcing some of the great merchants of New England and the Middle Atlantic states to find new sources of income.
The South therefore made “states’ rights” its cause from the outset, and the Constitution they helped negotiate reflected their concern. It did establish a stronger federal government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation, but it also vested considerable power in the states themselves.
This accounts for the system of representative government it established. It was democratic for its time. But, though it did mandate periodic competitive elections, it was not democratic at all by today’s standards or by the more exacting standards of late eighteenth-century Enlightened political theory.
It allowed for the franchise to be severely restricted – at first, just to property-owning free men. It also permitted slavery and even proposed a way for slaves to be counted in determining the size of a state’s Congressional delegation; a slave was to count for 3/5 of a full-fledged (white) person.
It took a Civil War for slavery to be abolished. That advance is registered in the Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, enacted and ratified in 1865.
Most restrictions on the franchise are long gone too. Nowadays convicted felons are the only American citizens without a federally guaranteed right to vote; whether they vote or not depends on the state in which they reside.
But the not very democratic system the founders established still bears the mark of its origins.
The Senate is perhaps the clearest case in point.
Before the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, U.S. Senators were selected by state legislatures; now they are elected directly. But each state still gets the same number of Senators – two.
Therefore a voter in California, with a population of more than thirty-eight million people, has the same level of representation in the upper house as a voter in Wyoming, which has little more than half a million. So much for one person, one vote!
And because the shape of Congressional districts within states is left to the states themselves, gerrymandering makes yet more of a mockery of the idea of representative government – especially when the same party controls both the legislature and the Governorship.
Our Constitution was never more than minimally democratic in intent, and it was fashioned to accommodate exigencies that no longer exist or that have become transformed beyond recognition. Therefore one could hardly expect it to accommodate twenty-first century democratic aspirations. It is therefore no surprise that it does not.
Almost anyone who gives the matter a little thought could easily come up with ways to make governance more responsive to the peoples’ will. An obvious way would be to revise the idea of united states – with a view to overcoming the consequences of population disparities and diminishing the power of state governments to determine the party coloration of electoral districts.
We have, in effect, a system of weighted voting, according to which some votes count more than others. Unequal political influence is therefore built into our system of representative government, even before inequalities in income and wealth take their toll.
It would probably not be feasible to address this problem by redrawing state boundaries, though there is no longer any reason why these boundaries should continue to matter in the way they did in the 1780s.
But it plainly would make sense to superimpose a more equitable map of electoral districts over the map of states. It might even make sense to do away with some or all winner-take-all elections, and perhaps with the idea of geographical districting altogether.
Were serious consideration now being given to fundamental institutional arrangements –were Federalist Papers for the twenty-first century being devised – many aspects of our system of representative government would doubtless fail to pass muster.
But no one wants to rewrite the Constitution. The fear is that, if anything like that were attempted, the rights and liberties the Constitution protects would be put in jeopardy. This is a legitimate concern; those rights and liberties are even now hanging by a thread.
However it is not hard to imagine improvements even to the Bill of Rights and to the Reconstruction Amendments instituted after the Civil War. For example, an equal rights amendment, like the one that failed three decades ago, would be welcome. And would we not be better off if the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” were indeed “infringed?”
But the prospect of realizing these and other improvements is probably not worth taking on the risks inherent in casting the Constitution off its pedestal, opening up a Pandora’s box of possible changes.
It is therefore, on balance, probably a good thing that more is involved in the widespread reluctance to do so than simple caution.
The way many Americans view their Constitution reflects America’s Protestant origins. The document’s word are treated like inerrant holy Writ. This is silly on its face, and it makes changing the problems the Constitution underwrites more difficult. But it also makes its positive achievements easier to secure.
Easier, but not easy. There is, first of all, the imperial presidency. For most of the last century, the executive branch has been hell bent on usurping much of the authority the Constitution assigns to Congress. The power to lead the country into war is only the most conspicuous example.
And since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations have set their sights on diminishing the Constitutional protections established by the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. National security has been their excuse; social control is their objective.
The Supreme Court is guilty too; indeed, it has done grave harm to the Constitution it is supposed only to interpret.
Since the 1970s, but with particular vehemence in recent years, right-wing Supreme Court Justices have used the protections the founders accorded free expression through the First Amendment as a basis for expanding the already prodigious ability of corporate “persons” and wealthy meddlers to buy the political outcomes they desire.
This is especially ironic inasmuch as the First Amendment is perhaps the founders’ crowning achievement. How strange therefore that it is now being used to justify channeling money, virtually without limit, into the political process.
Rightwing legal theorists call this “free speech.” The Supreme Court now accords it Constitutional protection.
When the President, backed by his legal advisors’ sophistry, assumes the role of prosecutor, judge and executioner – killing American citizens as well as foreigners without even a semblance of due process — he is ignoring the Constitution. But when the Supreme Court interprets the First Amendment in a way that facilitates political corruption, it is not just ignoring the document’s intent; it is changing its provisions.
Thanks to their machinations, the only way now to stop the insanity they defend is by amending the Constitution itself – deploying language that not even they could misconstrue.
But amending the Constitution has never been easy: it requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate, and ratification by two-thirds of the state legislatures. Efforts to do this are currently underway. But for just the reason why a Constitutional amendment is needed, the hurdles are now especially difficult to overcome.
Capitalism is no friend of democracy either, if only because it contracts the political sphere; where markets rule, democratic collective choice has no place. And, of course, the inequalities in income and wealth that capitalist markets generate are profoundly detrimental to democracy.
But there is no need for these inequalities, awful as they are, to spill over into the political realm to the extent that they do. In principle, popular aspirations can be realized, not entirely but to some extent, without doing away with capitalism itself.
The world is full of capitalist societies that do better than we now do; we used to do better ourselves.
In short, we labor under a political system that suffers from fundamental flaws and that operates against the background of an economic structure that militates against the system’s democratic potential. This makes radical transformation an urgent need.
But unlike in the late eighteenth century, the prospects for building a new, more rational world on the ashes of the old nowadays seem nil. The prevailing situation is not experienced as dire enough; and “we, the people” have become accustomed to letting it be.
Nevertheless our condition is far from hopeless because there is ample space to democratize within the constraints we face. We already have democratic forms; the task is to supply them with content.
Along with most of the rest of the world, but to an extent that is unprecedented in our history, we suffer from a democracy deficit; no matter what happens or fails to happen in the electoral realm, the outcome remains more or less the same.
This – not legislative gridlock or other symptoms of dysfunctionality – is the basic problem with our politics today.
It is only by identifying this problem that we will have any chance of getting beyond it.
For a democracy deficit, the solution is democratization, the more radical the better. This is not an arcane theoretical point; it is perfectly obvious.
But how can we democratize? This would once have been called “the sixty-four dollar question.” Lets call it “the sixty-four trillion dollar question” now. That amount is big enough to impress even the billionaires who are leading us to ruin.
There is no question more urgent, but, astonishingly, it is seldom addressed – even on the left, where the question now just is how to find Democrats less noxious than the usual bunch.
With the 2016 primary season already beginning to focus liberal minds, that question becomes how to block Hillary Clinton or at least how to move her leftward.
Hastening the fall of the House of Clinton, like consigning the ignominious Bush family to oblivion, is a worthy objective. But it will not do much to democratize the regime. Clinton was blocked in 2008; and we all know how that worked out.
Democrats, even Democrats far better than Clinton or Obama, are not the answer; democracy is.
With that thought in mind, I would venture the following suggestion: that since the primaries cannot be avoided – indeed, since even the Democratic Party cannot be avoided — the idea this time around should be to form organizations run democratically from the bottom up.
Let those organizations coalesce around a candidate, but in a way where activists, not the candidate or the candidate’s operatives, call the shots.
The Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were run top-down. The first one especially aroused enthusiasm, but it did nothing to empower those who participated in it. Quite the contrary, it used people as foot soldiers who, when Obama finally showed his colors, realized that they had been duped.
It is remarkable that more people weren’t turned off politics altogether.
The alternative is for the candidate to be accountable to his or her committed supporters; and for them to be calling the shots.
Something like this has worked in social movements in Latin America and other less developed countries. Also, party systems in parliamentary democracies sometimes approximate the idea.
The way forward is therefore not entirely uncharted; and it is fair to say that, even in our system, in some form or other, it is doable. It is a way, among others, to bring as much power to the people as circumstances allow. It is certainly worth trying.
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).