Democratic Elections in Historical Perspective

In April 1848, the French held a national election based upon universal adult male suffrage. This seems unremarkable today, but at the time, it was a bold innovation. Neither Britain nor the United States had ever held such an election; in even the most enlightened western countries, property requirements limited the franchise. In France, a country of 30 million people, only 170,000 had been eligible to vote under the constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe. In this election, nine million voted.

The petite bourgeoisie and wage-workers of Paris had rebelled in February, toppling Louis, and brought to power a provisional government, influenced by socialist thought. It took a series of measures quite radical for the time. It abolished the death penalty, banned slavery in the French colonies, limited the workday to 10 hours, lifted restrictions on the press, promulgated the “right to work” and established “national workshops” to support the unemployed. Tens of thousands of Frenchmen trekked to Paris to find work in these establishments. Universal male suffrage was only one component of an ambitious program of social change, which resonated in radical circles throughout Europe and helped trigger uprisings in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. These were heady times; a month before the rebellion in France, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had authored the Communist Manifesto.

The April election was unprecedented in its democratic legitimacy. Unfortunately the wrong side won. The victors rejected rather than embraced social reform. The French peasantry voted on Easter Sunday, after attending mass. Given the Church’s role in primary education and village life in general, it played a crucial role in creating public opinion—and the Church was profoundly reactionary. Influenced by sermons hostile to the reforms, the masses of peasants brought to power political parties that were determined to check the emerging power of the Parisian proletariat. These parties wanted to retain the democratic gains of the French Revolution of 1789, and prevent the return of absolute monarchy, but they feared the consequences of empowering the working class. The new regime thus excluded significant worker participation, and eliminated the national workshops, ordering workers who had applied for jobs in these to instead enlist in the army. This prompted a worker uprising that Alexis de Tocqueville called “the most extensive and most singular insurrection that has occurred in our history…”

In the “June Days” tens of thousands of workers rose up to reject the results of the “democratic” election. The conservative National Assembly in response awarded dictatorial powers to General Eugène Cavaignac, commissioned to suppress them. (His forces killed about 3,000 of the insurgents, and deported 4,000 to the French colony of Algeria.) The Assembly revoked the universal suffrage which had brought itself to power, and paved the way for the nephew of Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to win the presidency in December. Three years later, the president seized dictatorial powers, and as Napoleon III restored the Empire. But after his capture in battle in 1870, and the announcement that the Prussians would march on Paris to accept the French defeat, the workers of Paris again rose up, repudiating empire and monarchy and calling for a republic rooted in the toiling classes. This time they actually held power for two months before their Commune was drowned in blood.

“Parliamentary Cretinism”

The moral of the story is this: elections (even the freest) do not necessarily have anything to do with freedom. The freely cast vote of an individual whose opinions themselves are shaped by an oppressive social structure may easily become a vote for more oppression. The Weimar Republic in Germany (1919-1933) was from a constitutional standpoint among the most democratic the world had known, but it morphed into the Third Reich through the legal electoral process. Good decent people, not knowing what they do, can vote in the worst sort of leaders, including fascists. In November 1932, Adolph Hitler’s Nazis won 30% of the vote in Germany, more than any other party. Hitler was soon appointed Chancellor.

The promotion of “democratic elections” as an end in itself can mask support for highly repressive social systems. The U.S. State Department routinely validates as “democratic” polls held throughout Latin America, while always singling out Cuba as an antiquated tyranny. So long as a nation conducts polls involving more than one party, resulting in a leadership acceptable to Washington, it’s either a democracy or making strides to become such. It doesn’t matter how undemocratically wealth is divided. It doesn’t matter if some parties are banned, or targeted for legal or extra-legal attack, or if a handful of media moguls and corporate sponsors shape the vote. Perhaps people are required by law to vote, even if they find the balloting a farce; this allows one to boast of “record turnouts” validating whatever outcome.

Marx, among the most astute commentators on the French election of 1848, dismissed faith in “democratic elections” in class-divided societies as “parliamentary cretinism, which holds its victims spellbound in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, and all understanding of the rough external world.” He called it “a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body that has the honor to count them among its members” He certainly supported workers’ demand for universal suffrage, suggesting (somewhat too optimistically) that in England, since the proletariat (as of 1852) formed “the large majority of the population,” the “inevitable result” of suffrage would be “the political supremacy of the working class.” But he emphasized that the voter’s views are themselves produced by a surrounding power structure that constrains the “freedom” of any ballot.

Herbert Marcuse, the doyen of New Left scholars in the 1960s, examined the U.S. as a “one-dimensional” society, in which citizens seduced by a consumer culture possible only in an advanced capitalist society could rest content with the delusion that they were truly free, and that their political choices (pro-capitalist Democrat versus pro-capitalist Republican) were adequately diverse. “Under the rule of a repressive whole,” he wrote, “liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation.”

The dominant paradigm in Marcuse’s heyday was “the Free World vs. Communism.” “Freedom” was shorthand for free markets and capitalism, and so the Free World could comfortably include Suharto’s Indonesia, Mobutu’s Zaire, Franco’s Spain and a host of brutal dictatorships. But political democracy (freedom in the exchange of ideas) was considered the optimal corollary for capitalism (freedom in the exchange of commodities, including labor-power). It is the same today. The often-repeated U.S. policy goal is to promote political democracy and free markets, although not necessarily in that order. Since capitalism (in China, for example) is held to inevitably lead towards American- style political institutions, the flourishing of markets receptive to foreign capital is itself reason for cordial diplomacy, businesslike relations, and the discreet handling of “human rights” issues. The freedom of U.S. capital almost always trumps the freedom of the Third World proletarian.

In this country, your location and economic status consign you to school systems where your thoughts and attitudes are largely formed. The needs of capital determine your job options and hours. Such factors shape how much attention you can pay to the news —the whole world outside your immediate circumstances—and how critically you digest what you consume. A handful of corporations feed you the news, accompanied by assurances that this transmission is “fair and balanced.” Meanwhile popular culture generally suggests you should be “proud to be an American, ’cause at least” you “know” you’re “free”—even if you’d be very hard-pressed to argue that you’re freer than a Swede, New Zealander or Japanese. Influential religious voices (in today’s America and the France of 1848) preach that God Himself opposes significant social change, and wants you to vote for His chosen candidate.

Over 40% of the American people describe themselves as fundamentalist or “born-again” Christians. Over 40% believe George W. Bush deserves a second term. Over 40% believe, because they have been misled or simply want to believe, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11. There is probably much overlap among these categories of believers, who receive much encouragement from sectors of the “free” press and powerful well-funded bodies who exercise their freedom to influence voters. So too, of course, do a comparable percentage of anyone-but-Bush voters. However deeply they differ about the issues, including the war, they have been persuaded by the system that the system is valid, and deserves the support that they provide it by voting. Any vote, after all, is a vote for the system.

The Hypocrisy of the System

But some of those best served by elections, and publicly staunch advocates of voting, have in fact worked to skew electoral results. The 2000 presidential fiasco is just one conspicuous instance. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove began his career with dirty tricks designed to affect the democratic process in favor of his candidate for state treasurer in Illinois. The very Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, strove to keep African-Americans from voting (Democratic) in Arizona in the 1960s. The loyalty of such people is not to Jeffersonian ideals of political participation, but to getting the right men serving their kind of people into power.

This surely applies overseas. Henry Kissinger, as Richard Nixon’s national security advisor and friend of Latin American juntas, treated the choice of the electorate in Chile, one of this hemisphere’s most longstanding bourgeois democracies, with contempt. As the Marxist politician Salvadore Allende rose to power in 1970, he snapped, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

Why indeed? A CIA-backed coup toppled the moderate socialist and produced a fascist alternative warmly embraced by the freedom-loving American leadership (as would an alternative to the democratically elected Hugo Chavez in Venezuela). U.S. pressure has sidelined the democratically elected Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In U.S.-occupied Iraq, last year, proconsul Paul Bremer III observed that, “Elections held too early can be destructive,” adding that while there was “no blanket rule” against democracy in Iraq, and he wasn’t “personally opposed to it,” it had to take place “in a way that takes care of our concerns” and is “done very carefully.” It’s obvious that the U.S.-prescribed path to democracy to date, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has nothing to do with empowering the masses but merely covering neocolonialism with a fig leaf of “free elections.”

One final example of this disparate phenomenon, “democracy.” Our word itself comes from Greek (democratia, rule by the people), and from the political system in ancient Athens, where any adult male citizen could vote in the agora. No fallible equipment cast doubt on the accuracy of the poll. Voting was direct and open. But this admirable form of “popular” rule excluded women and slaves. Two and a half millennia later, in most places, full adult suffrage is the norm; men and women of all classes perform the ritual of casting ballots for those who claim to represent them. Whether or not the vote is “fair” from a Carter Foundation or Human Rights Watch perspective, it is conditioned by a class structure limiting its legitimacy every bit as much as slavery limited Athenian democracy.

Who is party to the discussion, allowed to publicly debate? Who pays to ensure that a candidate’s voice is heard? Who markets the “facts” under discussion, decides what questions get asked? CNN routinely polls its viewers (democratically, you might say), posing questions like “Who do YOU think should be the next target in the War on Terrorism?” plainly indicating to the masses that the war by general consent is really a war on “terrorism” and really should continue and the informed viewer really ought to prefer one or the other war expansion choices. Such polls never give one the option of saying, “Your question is loaded; I reject all the options you give me.” Similarly the U.S. political system, harnessed to corporate power, provides options between which those questioning corporate power itself have little reason to choose. One might of course prefer slow poison to hanging, but why should one have to select between such alternatives? Humanity can do better.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: