Democracy in America Today

What a miserable prospect: a presidential election between a lackluster incumbent unable any longer to conjure up even an illusion of hope and the foremost chameleon in national politics who happens also to be by far the least colorful candidate in the Republican circus.  Not all the propaganda money can buy – and we’re talking about quite a lot of money — can make a race between those two rise even to the level of boring.

Add to that the nauseating spectacle, already underway, of liberals rallying to defend President Drone, continuator of the Bush-Cheney assault on civil liberties and the rule of law and champion of a Grand Compromise with the Tea Party.  Under his leadership, had the other side not been so sublimely (and stupidly) obstinate, we might already be living though the undoing of Social Security and Medicare.

It could still happen in a second term: making the man whom liberals once thought of as the Second Coming of FDR the most successful Reaganite president of all.  Because only a Democrat can bring Democrats along, neither of the Bushes nor the Gipper himself could do much to put the New Deal and Great Society to rest.  Obama’s only serious rival in that regard was Bill Clinton.  In his zeal to do Wall Street’s bidding, that irrepressible rascal might well have done in the last remnants of what we still have in the way of an affirmative state had not certain distracting peccadillos of a prurient nature gotten in his way.

Were there not still a chance that real politics will break out again this spring, as it did last fall, this would be a fine time for anyone wanting to maintain a semblance of sanity to hop onto a slow boat to China – except that all the boats to China these days operate at full speed both ways, exporting wherewithal for super-exploited workers to turn into crap that we can import for Wal-Mart to sell.  For this sad state of affairs, we have the machinations of neo-liberal globalists and vulture capitalists to thank.  We have one of each to choose from this November.

Does anything ride on the choice?   Probably not, if Mitt Romney can still etch-a-sketch his way back to his former Governor of Massachusetts persona.  Then it will take a keen eye to discern light between his politics and Barack Obama’s.  Most likely, though, after this primary season, he won’t be able to pull it off; Tea Partiers and other theocrats don’t forget quickly enough.   And so Obama will be up against someone whose public face is that of a Rick Santorum – neocon wannabe, but without Santorum’s surreal risibility and without the neocon’s unflinching conviction.

In that scenario, the empire’s current steward will cakewalk his way back into a second term.  This will give new meaning to talk about “no drama Obama.”  No drama; and therefore an electoral contest of no interest at all.

How did it come to this?  How did democracy in America degenerate into a mind-numbing absurdity?

The answer, in a word, is money.  It has transformed what has always been a profound dissociation between what democratic theory promises and the real world of American democracy into a yawning divide.

* * *

Despite what students are told in civics classes (where they still exist) and what normative theories of democracy propose, democracy in America today has almost nothing to do with rational deliberation and debate, and very little to do with aggregating preferences or reconciling conflicting interests.  It is about legitimating government of, by and for the corporate malefactors and Wall Street banksters who own Congress and the White House along with an obscenely large chunk of the nation’s wealth.

The Occupy movement has driven this point home, but it was widely appreciated long before Zuccotti Park entered the national consciousness.  Why then is there no legitimation crisis here in the Land of the Free?  The answer, in short, is that we hold competitive elections and, for the most part, abide by their results.  Evidently, that suffices.

Thanks to centuries of struggle, we are all today at some level democrats, no matter how removed our political system is from anything like real democracy – rule by the demos, the popular masses (as distinct from economic and social elites).  Democratic commitments run so deep that almost anything that smacks of real democracy becomes invested with extraordinary powers of legitimation.

This is why competitive elections have the power to legitimate even regimes like ours in which elites plainly do rule a disempowered ninety-nine percent plus of the population.  Competitive elections embody a shard of what real democracy is supposed to be, and that evidently is good enough for us.

Let pass the class content that defined “democracy” from the time of Greek antiquity, and say, along with the major political theorists of recent centuries, that a democracy is a form of government in which the (undifferentiated) people are sovereign; in other words, in which the people who comprise a state and are subject to its authority are the supreme authority within that state.

Competitive elections give institutional expression to that idea.  So long as they are free and fair, the outcome, the social choice, is a function of individuals’ choices for the alternatives in contention.  The social choice is then the peoples’ choice.  The sovereign “speaks” through their votes.

In principle, therefore, the method of majority rule is the ideal voting procedure in a democracy, the one that is most responsive to individuals’ choices.  To require more than a bare majority of voters is to invest a minority with the power to veto the popular will.  Super-majority rule voting is therefore less than ideal because it accords a kind of dictatorial power to voters in the minority.  If, for example, it takes two-thirds of the voters to enact a law, one-third plus one can block its passage.

This would introduce a bias in favor of the status quo that detracts from the idea that social choices are functions of individuals’ choices only.

It may be wise to introduce conservative biases, especially on matters of grave import where individuals’ rights or the basic structure of the political system are involved.  The writers of the American Constitution thought so.   They concocted all sorts of obstacles in the way of direct popular rule.   What they contrived was not a democracy at all, except in a very attenuated sense; instead, it was, as they emphasized, a “republic.”

They had reasons for wanting to limit democracy by making positive change difficult or, in the case of basic rights and liberties, impossible.   But it could be argued that these reasons ultimately have to do with the deeper interests of the sovereign people — that they allow the people to achieve by indirection what they cannot reliably be counted on to accomplish directly – and therefore that the founders were democrats after all.  This kind of indirection has many precedents in our philosophical tradition.

Aristotle thought that mercy was a necessary corrective for justice.  In much the same way, defenders of our constitutional system argued that introducing biases that favor the status quo, conservative biases, are a corrective to the untrammeled operations of majority rule voting.  Justice, for Aristotle, remained the core virtue of public institutions.  In much the same spirit, our founders saw democracy as the ultimate legitimating principle underlying even the deviations from direct democratic rule that they contrived.

They therefore made regular competitive elections mandatory – and so we ultimately have them to thank for the dreary contest ahead.  Although it was hardly what the founders had in mind, the fraction of the one percent that are sure to win in November, the fraction that always wins, therefore have them to thank as well.

Of course, as mentioned, it is not enough just that there be elections — elections must also at least seem to be free and fair.  That is the theory.  In practice, we have always cut our institutions a great deal of slack.

Slaves were not citizens, and neither were the indigenous peoples who survived the European conquest.  Arguably, therefore, their exclusion from the republic’s electoral processes still left elections free and fair.  Not so, the way full-fledged citizens were treated.

From the beginning, there were severe restrictions on the franchise; before 1920, women were even forbidden by law to vote.  This was only the most egregious offense; there were others.  Indeed, it has only been since 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that de facto restrictions on the rights of descendants of emancipated slaves and other persons of color to have their say in our elections were finally abolished.

There is some danger now that the pendulum will swing back as Republicans launch voter suppression efforts aimed at categories of persons likely to vote for Democrats.  Their efforts are widely berated and it remains to be seen how successful they will be. It is telling, though, that the idea that voter suppression might undo the legitimacy of electoral outcomes is rarely even suggested.

Perhaps this is because we Americans have grown inured to elections that are unfree and unfair.  After all, our founders did see to it that our institutions block expressions of popular sovereignty, especially at the national level.

The Electoral College system and the idea that every state, regardless of size, gets two and only two Senators undoes any pretense of “one person, one vote.”  Until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, we didn’t even have direct elections for Senators; they were appointed instead by their state legislatures.  Add to this the power of states to gerrymander Congressional districts and there is, in the end, not much for voters to decide.

Gerrymandering Congressional districts is only one of the many ways that our two semi-established parties see to it that it is difficult to break their duopoly hold.  This would not be so bad if the Republicans and Democrats were still “catch all” parties – ecumenical enough to incorporate a wide range of views within their respective folds.

This was never really the case.  But not long ago, the description was at least approximately apt.  Arguably, it still holds for the Democrats, though, after Clinton and Obama, the party’s leftwing, such as it is, has been much reduced and effectively marginalized.  The situation is worse in the GOP where ideological uniformity reigns.

The result is that our two parties are now more polarized than at any time in recent history.  Paradoxically, though, because they are each bought and paid for by more or less the same interests, their overall policy orientations are as uniform as ever.

Therefore anything that falls outside the “bipartisan” (really uni-partisan) consensus is marginalized – in ways that ought to make the claim that our elections are free and fair ring hollow.  Even to the extent that voting does generate a social choice out of individuals’ choices for the alternatives in contention, the paucity and uniformity of the alternatives disenfranchises many, perhaps most, voters.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, there is the additional obstacle of judicial review.  Constitutional courts are an American invention, and for a long time, it was only in the United States that courts had almost unlimited powers to “check and balance” legislatures.

In certain historical periods, this arrangement has had beneficial consequences; it was certainly instrumental for deepening and extending the scope of civil rights.  For the most part, though, throughout our history, the court’s rulings have not been beneficial.

But, even when they were, the idea that unelected and unaccountable judges can nullify democratically rendered laws plainly offends the idea of democratic governance.

It is no wonder, therefore, that elites in other countries have introduced similar institutional arrangements, and that constitutional courts have become a common feature of constitutions written since World War II.  Even to this day, however, the American case is extreme.

The offense to democracy would be mitigated if the courts restrained themselves  — intervening only rarely and then mainly to protect individuals’ rights.  This used to be the norm in our Supreme Court.  But decades of right-wing court packing are now working their deleterious effects.

The Supreme Court today is a highly politicized institution that reflects the asymmetrical character of our duopolistic party system: rightwing judges installed by Republicans are unabashedly obstinate and radical, while judges installed by Democrats are generally “reasonable” to a fault and insipidly liberal.

And so the Supreme Court made George W. Bush president in 2000, notwithstanding the popular vote and what would have been the vote of the Electoral College had the Justices allowed all the votes in Florida to be recounted fairly.

In violation of ample precedent and sane jurisprudential reasoning, the Supreme Court has since gone on to permit unrestricted campaign contributions by corporate “persons”, allegedly to protect their rights to free speech.  The American system of campaign finance has made a mockery of democratic governance from time immemorial.  But thanks to the Citizens’ United ruling of 2010, even the pretense that governance is not about what can be bought and paid for is now thoroughly shot.

* * *

So much for rational deliberation or combining autonomously formed choices; our politics is about buying votes – not directly, but through the techniques advertisers use to market their clients’ wares.  This involves dumbing down voters, not enlightening them through reasoned discourse; and instilling wants, not encouraging their self-directed development and combining them fairly.

In other words, our politics has no more to do with democracy than the public discourse registered in the media that report on it, on the “horse race” it has become, has to do with a marketplace of ideas.  There is only enough intimation of democratic procedures to give the system the de facto legitimacy economic elites need to keep everything working for benefit.  Our politics is about buying influence with politicians who then buy votes.  It has been reduced to hucksterism pure and simple.

Whether the election goes to Obama, as now seems likely, or to Romney, the real winner will, in either case, be the same: the fraction of the one percent that always wins.

And so, come November 6, Americans will be asked to choose a president from among two choices, neither of whom anybody wants except perhaps for lesser evil reasons.  This is what democracy in America today has come to.

A miserable prospect indeed, but there are silver clouds.

At least this time, no one will think that, if only the right candidate were on offer, the mess would somehow fix itself.  The best thing Obama did in his first term has been to shatter that illusion for a long time to come.

And perhaps too the plain irrelevance of the electoral process for the kinds of changes liberals thought they would get through Obama’s election will finally dawn on the national consciousness.

Electoral efforts, like Jill’s Stein’s in the Green Party, can be helpful for educating voters in ways that enhance democracy in America; and, at the state and local level, Democratic victories can be indispensable for fighting back against Republican overreach.  The impending recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a case in point.  But, in the end, elections that alter the course of business as usual – whether for good or ill — only ratify transformations in the political landscape forged outside the electoral arena.  For an engine of “change we can believe in” the voting booth is the last place to look.

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).

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).