In democracies, the people, the demos, rule. But that’s in theory; in the real world in our time, to count as a democracy it is enough to be governed by politicians who come to power through competitive elections that are generally free and fair. No so-called democracy comes close to meeting the theoretical standard, though some are more democratic than others. The United States may not be off the charts, but it is certainly near the bottom of the heap.
Because real world democracies these days superintend capitalist economies, there are limits to how democratic they can be – not just because, under capitalism, the economy is largely impervious to political control, but also because public policy must be sensitive both to the requirements of capitalist economies in general and to what capitalists demand at particular times and places. If there is significant discord, economic disaster threatens, with dire consequences for everyone, but especially for the politicians in charge. This makes “moderation” on their part all but inevitable, no matter what the demos wants. The United States is subject to these constraints, as all real world democracies are. We are also encumbered with additional obstacles in democracy’s way.
For one thing, we have a deeply entrenched duopoly party system that makes it hard for “third parties” or independent candidates even to gain ballot access. We also have an electoral system that, at the national level, makes it all but impossible for third parties or independents to win, and harder still for them to govern. This is why much of the compromising that happens elsewhere after elections are held, happens beforehand here.
With so few outlets for political expression, American voters tend to vote more strategically than voters in other democracies; they compromise even before the electoral process gets underway. Thus in the 2004 primaries, Democrats gave John Kerry enough delegates to win the nomination, not because any significant number of them particularly liked him or his policies, but because they deemed him the most electable candidate running and therefore the one most likely to dispatch George W. Bush. Similarly, in the just concluded Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney won, by a whopping eight votes, not because Republican voters liked him – quite the contrary, they mostly despise him (sometimes even for the right reasons) – but because a (bare) plurality of caucus attendees had a John Kerry moment.
What makes it remotely plausible to call actually existing democracies “democracies” is the assumption that votes express peoples’ preferences for alternative outcomes or their considered judgments about the public good; in other words, that majority rule voting (or some semblance of it) reveals the peoples’ will. But if individuals strategize internally even before the electoral process begins, their votes don’t so much represent what they want but what they think others want. This further strains the already tenuous connection between what real world democracies are like and what democracies are supposed to be.
Fortunately, for (small-d) democrats, not all primary voters strategize from the get go. Therefore our primary elections can and sometimes do straightforwardly reflect the desires of at least some of the people who turn out to vote — provided, of course, that they have a way to register what their wants are.
Part of what makes the current round of Republican caucuses and primaries so surreal is the fact that, except for those who are willing to vote for Mitt Romney for “electability” reasons and except for Ron Paul’s supporters, Republican voters cannot settle on a candidate to rally around. The available choices are simply too risible even for them. This is why all it takes for the candidate of the hour to plummet is a little exposure to public scrutiny or an occasion to self-destruct. Rick Santorum, very likely the most execrable of the lot, was lucky to crest at just the right moment. A week more or less and he would have gone the way of all the others.
Still, the Republican caucuses and primaries, the early ones anyway, before winner-take-all rules kick in, are the only place we’re likely to see a glimmer of genuine democracy this electoral cycle.
Forget about democracy breaking out this time around in the Democratic fold. Despite having done everything in his power to merit another shellacking, Barack Obama is running unopposed; and, given the Republican field, he might as well be running unopposed in the general election as well. He will win in November, if not quite by default then by some close approximation. For this, he will have only the Republicans to thank.
Another reason why our democracy is less democratic than others is a jurisprudential tradition that puts the legislative process up for sale by conflating political corruption with constitutionally protected free speech. For this, we can’t blame Republicans alone. To be sure, it is mainly rightwing, pro-corporate judges, appointed by Reagan and the two Bushes, who have been moving the idea along. But it was the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo, decided in 1976, which turned it into a matter of legal principle. That was back when the Supreme Court was still considered liberal, and when Ronald Reagan, Obama’s idea of a “transformative president,” was still a boogeyman liberals would trot out to scare independents.
Since then, this unsavory line of thought has taken on new accretions. With the Citizens United case of 2010, five exceptionally retrograde Supreme Court justices advanced the idea to a new and unprecedented level, giving corporations free reign to buy and sell the political class. Ironically, the first victim of their “judicial activism” was Newt Gingrich in the Iowa caucuses. Back in the Clinton years, Gingrich did more than his share to increase the influence of money in our political scene. Expect to see many worthier victims before long.
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As if all this wasn’t already bad enough, the existing system of caucuses and primary elections makes it worse. This is deeply ironic. Primary elections began in the Progressive Era where the idea was to defeat the corruption inherent in a system that allowed professional politicians to select candidates in “smoke filled rooms.” The practice lapsed in the years that followed until it was revived in the late 60s, in response to the civil rights movement and the upheavals brought on by the Vietnam War, again with a view to democratizing our politics. What we have now is the result.
Primaries and caucuses wouldn’t be bad ideas if they were fashioned with a view to enhancing popular control of the electoral system, and if corporate money were kept out of the process. But this is America — a land, Mitt Romney tells us, of opportunities (for capitalists, like him), not “entitlements” (like those necessary for insuring real democratic citizenship). And so, a good idea turned bad.
In the system that evolved we have corporations and one per centers exercising their free speech rights by test-marketing candidates to target audiences. This too wouldn’t be so bad if the target audiences were more representative of the general population. On the Democratic side, they generally are because Democrats who vote in early caucuses and primaries are somewhat representative of Democrats nationally, notwithstanding the fact that not one of the early contests is held in a so-called blue state.
[There has never been anything remotely red about the Democratic Party. But after decades of being red baited, Democrats, if they thought about it at all, must have been pleased when the networks assigned them the color blue. What defies comprehension is that Republicans don’t object to having been given red. Such is life in what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia.]
It helps too that the Democratic Party is more given over than the Republicans to selecting delegates on a proportional basis. This mitigates the effect of relying on non-representative samples.
Whether by design of happenstance, the target audiences Republicans use for test marketing their candidates are as sorry a lot as America can offer up – or nearly so. New Hampshire Republicans are a partial exception inasmuch as New Englanders pretty much got theocracy out of their system centuries ago. But Iowa’s right-wingers are still a godly bunch and South Carolina’s are even worse. And, for sheer backwardness, neither New England nor the mid-west have anything to compare with South Carolina Republicans who miss Jim Crow and hope that the Confederacy will rise again, or with the bevies of retired Republican military officers and contractors who find life in the palmetto state congenial.
In light of this, the GOP establishment surely felt relieved when the only candidate in the running whom they would dare trust to manage their affairs squeaked through in Iowa. He should have smooth sailing in New Hampshire as well. His fortunes could still go awry, but it does look like Romney will indeed be the one whom Obama will defeat.
If that prospect is too unpalatable for some Republican voters to come on board, count on the potentates of the Grand Old Party to put them in their place. If they can’t, it would show that the inmates have taken full control of the asylum. But the Iowa caucuses seem to have demonstrated that this is not now the case; that plutocratic money still talks too loud. We’ll know for sure after South Carolina. Barring an irrepressible Santorum surge there [anyone who hasn’t already should immediately google the s-word], Romney will get the nod.
For the Republican establishment, it would probably make more sense just to let their (formerly) useful idiots nominate one of their own than to force someone they can’t abide down their throats. Then they could surreptitiously throw their support behind Barack Obama. For those of them for whom the Republican Party is a family tradition, this would go against the grain. But, when it comes down to delivering the goods, Obama would be no worse than Romney; and there is no percentage in antagonizing people who will likely become useful again. But the pillars of the GOP aren’t that clever; and so, with their help, expect Romney to put on a well-funded fight. However, Obama will have lots of corporate money too, maybe even more than the Republican establishment will muster. And, so, without the enthusiastic support of the Republican base, Romney won’t stand a chance.
No doubt, the November election will be bitterly contested. But it will be even less consequential than presidential elections usually are, and except for those who take voyeuristic pleasure in watching the truly dreadful act out, it will be virtually without interest.
There is a silver lining, however. In a knockdown, money driven race between two devils we know, no one will be disappointed when “change” doesn’t happen. More importantly, this time around there will be less temptation than in the past for people in motion to become distracted by electoral antics.
For those who still hasn’t gotten the news about how meretricious and undemocratic our electoral politics has become, a robust offensive by a reinvigorated OWS movement this spring will demonstrate the point better than dozens of lackluster primaries and caucuses. But consciousness raising is only part of the OWS mission, and the next part is now coming due.
If the 2008 election proved anything more than the fecklessness of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, it was that our hardly democratic political system has crossed a threshold where it can no longer repair itself. This realization led, at first, to passivity and acquiescence on the left, at the same time that it fueled theocratic, libertarian and neoconservative enthusiasms on the right. But OWS changed all that.
Thanks to the events of last fall, people are thinking again about how things can and should be, and developing ideas about how to get from here to there. What they are thinking about has little, if anything, to do with the elections ahead. This is as it should be because, at most, elections only ratify changes already achieved outside the electoral arena.
People are coming to realize not just that Obama has been a great disappointment – that has been clear for some time – but that Obamamania was a great waste of time and effort. Even without OWS, there’s no chance that anyone anymore would enthuse over the prospect of four more years of an Obama presidency. But thanks to OWS, even were a different, still credible, Savior to come along, there is no chance of anything similar happening again – not now and not in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, as the primary season unfolds and the November election approaches, expect the whole electoral circus to seem increasingly irrelevant to ever larger swathes of the population. And as that understanding takes hold and deepens, expect changes to follow that cannot now be foreseen, but that could well be momentous.
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, forthcoming from AK Press