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U.S. Politics and Minstrel Shows

If an important step in beating addiction is admitting one is an addict, then perhaps we should accept that the United States political system is wholly undemocratic.  The evidence is overwhelming.

Take one recent event as a small distasteful example.  The press discussed the long lines in the Arizona primary as an unfortunate fact.  Maricopa County officials projected lower voter turnout and, as a cost effective measure, reduced the number of polling sites from 200 to 60.  One would expect that officials, for the sheer sake of appearance, would have guessed that in a democracy one-hundred precinct voter turnout or something close to that as the minimum standard.  The Clinton campaign and the Republican governor claimed this as unacceptable because their role in this theatrical play of democracy called for them to recite such a line with aghast emotion.

The tragic character was, of course, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell who defended her administration of the election in technocratic language: she relied on the statistical history of these “types of elections” for projected voter turnout.  She did not anticipate the energy of this election.  This was her error which she and her team will avoid in the future.  Excellent and good to hear.

The painfully obvious fact is that the closed primary, voter ID laws, and other arbitrary, restrictive, and disabling voting and election rules are rightful heirs of racial segregation and class hierarchy.  Try as some will to justify the system as a function of the party system, parties as private clubs is a horrible justification of the existing system. That explanation is simply inserting free market logic into the political system.  Social Darwinism as an underlying principle driving the U.S. political system is just as unacceptable as it is for Purcell to plead lame technocratic reasons for her “error.”

Perhaps the best analogy to describe U.S. politics is the grand ole minstrel show.  Imagine the burnt cork painted faces, tattered clothes, and pronounced lips.  Is that an appalling image?  Consider how appropriate it is as an embodiment of what passes as U.S. democracy.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century minstrel show audiences yearned for humor and the playful handling of social hierarchies.  The objectification of the other (the poor, blacks, women, etc.) reinforced the nature of power, mocked it, but, in the end, never quite challenged the status quo.  In other words, the injustices and general inadequacies in the social order were lampooned and justified—or in Gilberto Perez’s apt phrase about the limits of humor, such cultural expressions ultimately represented a “reconciliation with injustice.”

I can’t think of a more fitting connection. The majority of the press, pundits, and especially party machine surrogates have mocked the criticism of the election process while celebrating the greatness of American democracy.  Remember the paeans directed at the Iowa caucuses and the near teary eyed testimonies of Americana goodness?

So many frown on threats to the democratic process but ultimately reconcile with it by such tepid justifications that the rules of the system were readily available. The only clear thing about these rules is that they were certainly based on a statistical gamble: most people would never be aware of them thereby assuring low voter turnout and hence improving the chances of better controlling the outcomes.

Now that’s surely equivalent to painting one’s face and stereotyping Blacks as buffoons and then forcing us to believe that racist caricature as an accurate representation of a human being.  How are we to believe that these antidemocratic election laws and closed primaries are really a fair means to attain a democratic society when even a fifth grader would grade adults with a D- for such a poor effort in promoting and safeguarding democracy?

Same day registration, open primaries, and enough polling places, election-day volunteers, and materials would remove any doubt about the commitment to attaining a democracy.  In some respects, it is no surprise that Arizona’s antidemocratic practices may be repeated in New York. Indeed, it was the home of Daddy Rice (Thomas Dartmouth Rice) the 1800s minstrel show actor associated with the Jim Crow character.

I hope that the joke does not go over and an upset occurs so that the best wishes of the Democratic machine are not granted by the people, but did the rules already rig the outcome?

Bernie Sanders’ insurgency has done yeoman work in educating the electorate about issues of class, gender, race, and power and their connection to inequality.  The consistent Bernie stump speech, the courageous and unprecedented stances (such as the recognition of Palestinian human dignity), his support of striking workers, and his refusal to take corporate money, challenge the neoliberal model of how to get things done.  My hope is that the majority of New Yorkers vote for authenticity and not be fooled into believing they are members of a job hiring committee selecting a president based on an empty notion of “experience.”

More articles by:

Thomas Castillo, Lecturer in United States History, University of Maryland and a full time academic advisor.  He is currently completing a book manuscript entitled, “The Right to Work: Class Struggle in Magic City Miami, 1914-1946″, a social history of class and power in Florida that critically analyzes how conservatives co-opted the term “right to work” distorting its original positive and progressive connotation. 

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