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Within the theories of self-determination that lie at the heart of democracy and capitalism the idea of a political ‘center’ is paradoxical. Individually determined views and wants would bear no necessary relation to one another to be aggregated toward a common set of views without some unifying device. And any such device would render the idea of individual determination improbable. Propaganda was invented by (American) Edward Bernays in the early twentieth-century as just such an ‘external’ unifying device with public opinion being the views of an authoritarian elite who use psychology and social coercion to tell the public what opinions to hold. Bill Clinton was a master of ‘Political Coercion for the Hell of It’ through his use of micro polling with little apparent understanding of its limitations.
The idea of a political center as consensus around a set of premises and guidelines that determine collective action— like those that facilitate individual determination of views and wants, brings this paradox full circle. Over the last half-century or so the American political establishment has convinced a majority of voters that it represents this political center while it has governed against the premises and guidelines (like facilitating self-determination) that are its alleged content. As political scientist Thomas Ferguson has detailed, this establishment governs for monied interests alone— any relation between ‘centrist’ premises and guidelines and actual policies is coincidental. The question then is how have fringe interests— those of a tiny political and economic elite, been so successfully portrayed as democratic choice when they are anything but?
The dominant political Parties are anything but dominant in terms of representing the people they claim to represent. The largest category of eligible voters are those that don’t vote followed by political Independents. Data Sources: Gallup, Pew.
Here the term sleight-of-hand is brought to bear through the presentation of local choices as global— through the choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for President as the realm of political possibility rather than the limitation on possibility that they represent. The illusion of putting Hillary Clinton, who is a full-time employee of Wall Street and Exxon-Mobil and has the paychecks to prove it, or Donald Trump, who inherited a real-estate empire worth millions (billions in today’s dollars) and who is friends with the rich and powerful (including Hillary Clinton), forward as representatives of ‘the people’s’ interests requires radically misrepresenting those interests. By posing Clinton and Trump as oppositional a realm of difference is created that limits political choice to one or the other. Left unsaid is that registered Democrats plus registered Republicans constitute less than one third of the electorate— both candidates are ‘fringe’ in terms of public support for their Party’s programs.
This is to argue that the political center as presented is a grift, a device of political ‘normalization’ around an elite view through the application of social pressure. Hillary Clinton is a self-described ‘centrist.’ And her supporters often describe their views as moderate or center-left. The intended inference is that these views and policies are majoritarian or left-majoritarian in the mathematical sense of having the largest number of adherents. But of those eligible to vote, Mrs. Clinton has actual support of about 8% (eight percent). So does Donald Trump. It is by counting only votes for the two-Party system that this sleight-of-hand ‘works.’ When registered Independent voters are combined with eligible non-voters the majority view is that this system is a hindrance to and / or irrelevant to political representation.
The idea being promoted that the dominant Party candidates represent majority political views is contradicted by their combined support of around 16% of the eligible electorate. Hillary Clinton’s claim of ‘centrism’ is belied by her miniscule political support. Calculation: 31% of Registered Voters are Democrats, 54% of Eligible Voters voted in 2012, 50% of Registered Democrats support Hillary Clinton: .31 X .54 X .50 = .0837. 1-.0837 = .9163. Data sources: Gallup, Pew.
The practice of the American political establishment has for decades been to marginalize dissenting views as a means of silencing them. The dominant Parties have long contended that eligible voters who don’t vote don’t care, and therefore don’t matter. However, a more plausible explanation for their abstention (in addition to institutional impediments to voting) is that the great majority of voters want neither of the dominant Parties in power. In other words, the American system of political and economic representation neither includes nor represents true democratic participation. The growth of registered Independent voters (graph below) at the expense of the dominant Parties adds credence to this view. So does that fact that other alleged democracies have much higher voter participation rates than the U.S.
Beginning around 2006 the number of eligible voters self-identifying as Independent began to grow at the expense of the dominant political Parties. When added to eligible non-voters, the ‘none-of-the-above’ vote became the overwhelming majority view. Data sources: 1972 – 2006 Washington Post; 2008 – 2016 Gallup. (Pre-2006 Gallup data ≈ matches overlapping WP data).
To those who have tried to relate theory to practice, capitalist democracy is neither capitalist nor democratic. Ironically, in the modern era it was Bill Clinton who used this paradox to (his own) best affect by joining politics with economics through ‘micro’ choice in the context of a fixed system of political economy. People are given a choice between capitalist products— Bank of America or Wells Fargo, Coke or Pepsi, and a choice between political products— Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump; Democrats or Republicans. This strategy serves to define the realm of choice in terms beneficial to the providers of these products as well as to give ‘democratic’ credence through the fact of choice, no matter how implausible it may be.
Lesser-evilism is the ‘negative’ choice that leaves this realm of choice intact. In recent polls a majority of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters gave stopping the other candidate as their main reason for supporting their chosen candidate. The problem for
‘consumer choice’ theories of electoral politics is that ‘consumers’ don’t buy Pepsi to limit Coke consumption— all choices are ‘positive’ in the sense that they are ‘for’ one product or another. When negative votes (votes against one candidate or the other) are added to voters who are registered Independents and eligible non-voters, rejection of the broad system of electoral politics is over 90%. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and their alleged majoritarian views are about as popular as dog feces and pedophilia when the votes, broadly considered, are counted.
What is gained politically from / for this system of electoral politics is the façade of popular consent without the burden of actually getting and keeping it. While the candidates can have profound impact on people’s lives— think George W. Bush’s war against Iraq or Bill Clinton’s deregulation of Wall Street and welfare ‘reform,’ recent decades have demonstrated a systemic continuity that transcends the candidates and their Parties. Transcendental politics with changeable candidates but fixed political economy illuminate the true political base that the candidates are vying to serve. (Hint: it isn’t ‘the people’). And Bernie Sanders’ stated willingness to support 8% dead-ender Hillary Clinton against the popular will is the stuff of right-wing fantasy— a pissed off populous with nowhere to go but authoritarian hard-right.
The broader tension between capitalist democracy as it is in theory and fact is likewise an opposition that limits the realm of political possibility. The reason why capitalist economists assume away political power is that power asymmetries render the idea of free-choice needed to legitimate capitalism, or at least to tie it to democracy, implausible. Bill Clinton’s ‘micro’ policies depended on the logical circle between the choices offered and those that were chosen. (Capitalist ‘choice’ doesn’t include ending capitalism because its concept of choice depends on the existence of capitalism for coherence). Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism is being sold as an innovation from within an electoral system that exists to maintain systemic continuity. This paradox explains why the Democratic Party is known as ‘the graveyard of social movements’ and why ‘change you can believe in’ is always just the same old shit.
The ultimate point here, the ‘takeaway’ in the parlance, is that electoral politics in America isn’t even the beginning of a real politics— it is its antithesis. Around half of the voting age population appears to understand this and stays home on Election Day. And around half of the eligible voters who do vote have moved away from the dominant Parties to declare themselves Independents. Self-appointed guardians of the status quo depend on narrow definitions of political participation to claim the support of a political center or majority. But given this very narrowness, eventually broader forces will assert themselves. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and their supporters are fringe groups under democratic notions of electoral politics. That ‘winning’ the Presidency confers great power points to who the candidates serve, not the consent of the governed.
It is this last point, the conflation of the consent of the governed with the conferment of great power that is most illuminating. Whomever is elected will claim to represent the people of the U.S. while in fact they represent the forces of institutional persistence— an economic and political elite whose interests are antithetical to those of most people through a system of capitalist predation. Ironically (or not), both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running as dealmakers-in-chief, as politicians who will negotiate better deals for the rest of us. That their paychecks (or inheritances) are signed by the bosses: capitalists and their agents, well determines who they work for. For those who are interested, there are other models of democratic participation that require the redistribution of political and economic power away from predatory elites. But you won’t find the American political establishment offering those models.