Democrats and the Crisis of Legitimacy

Photo by Carlos Pacheco | CC BY 2.0

The American electoral system, and with it what passes for representative democracy, is facing a crisis of legitimacy reflected in continued fallout from the 2016 election. The duopoly political Parties—Democrats and Republicans, have both experienced mass exoduses for reasons specific to each. Because they have effective control over which candidates and programs get put forward in elections, they must be gotten out of the way for constructive political resolution to be possible.

The Republican Party saw a mass exodus of registered voters when George W. Bush’s war against Iraq became a conspicuous quagmire (graph below). By the time of the financial crisis that marked the onset of the Great Recession, some fair number had registered as Democrats while others dropped their duopoly Party affiliation to become what are implausibly called ‘independents.’

At the time it became apparent that the Obama administration was intent on restoring the forces of economic repression— Wall Street and corporate-state plutocracy, the Democrats saw their own mass exodus (graph below). Against the storyline of competing interests, registered voters fled both Parties. By implication, these mass exoduses suggest that neither duopoly Party represents the programs and candidates of interest to voters.

Graph: both of the American duopoly Parties are facing crises of legitimacy. Voters have been abandoning Party affiliation at times that have political explanations. Republicans abandoned the Republican Party as the calamity of George W. Bush’s war against Iraq became apparent. Democrats fled the Democratic Party when Barack Obama bailed out Wall Street and left the polity to its own devices in the Great Recession. Units are percent of registered voters. Source: Gallup.

These mass exoduses have several implications: (1) with voters fleeing both duopoly Parties, it is the political system that has lost credibility, (2) the back-and-forth of faux ‘opposition’ that provided the illusion of political difference has lost potency as a driver of domestic politics and (3) charges that foreign influence determined the 2016 electoral outcomes are wholly implausible when placed in the context of the scale of voter disaffection with the duopoly Party system.

For instance, 71% of eligible voters didn’t vote for the Democratic Party candidate. 73% didn’t vote for Donald Trump (Clinton won the popular vote). Ninety million eligible voters (40%) didn’t cast a ballot at all. Why it makes sense to present outcomes in terms of what voters didn’t do is (1) the duopoly Parties control which candidates and programs are put forward and (2) voters have fled the duopoly Party system rather than simply switching Parties.

The political problem for the national Democrats is that one can endorse the very worst that can be said about their alleged opposition, the Republicans, without raising their standing. Between 2009 and 2016 somewhere between eight and ten million registered voters— 20% of registered Democrats, fled the Democratic Party. In conjunction with the loss of over 1,000 legislative seats over this same period, the Democrats were in the midst of a full blown political crisis going into the 2016 election.

Graph: the simple answer to ‘Russian meddling’ is that the Democrats could try winning elections. Setting aside Trump voters, ninety million eligible voters sat out the 2016 election. Between 2009 and 2016 somewhere between eight and ten million registered voters left the Democratic Party. If the Party leadership didn’t know they had a problem, why not? The crises of legitimacy for the duopoly Parties mean a crisis of legitimacy for ‘American democracy’ because of the control they exert over the electoral process. Units are percent of eligible voters. Sources: FEC; electproject.org.

But here’s the punchline— the Republicans were also in the midst of a political crisis of their own. As disaffection with Barack Obama’s programs took hold, national Republicans saw little benefit (top graph). Voters didn’t simply switch Parties. They left both Parties. The implied motivation isn’t that the ‘opposition’ Party had better ideas. Had this been the case, total Party affiliation would have remained largely unchanged. But that isn’t the case. For a two-Party political system, such abandonment of the ‘center’ is a textbook definition of a crisis of legitimacy.

Over the prior century the duopoly Party strategy has been to maintain control of the political system by controlling the electoral process regardless of levels of political disaffection. The Democrats’ ‘crises’ of 1968 and 1972 were a result of systemic inflexibility in the face of widespread political disaffection. Phrased differently, tightly controlled electoral ‘choices’ are inadequate during crises of systemic legitimacy. Their ultimate response was to lead a right-wing coup against the political accommodations of the New Deal and the Great Society.

Back in the present, the strategic term for newly unaffiliated voters is ‘independent,’ as if the wholesale, willful abandonment of Party affiliation solved the problem of Party control over which candidates do and don’t get to run for office. By 2016 over 40% of registered voters, including those who had recently left the Democratic Party, were self-defined as unaffiliated with either duopoly Party (graph below). And this figure leaves aside thirty million eligible voters who aren’t registered to vote.

Graph: the flip side of the mass exodus from the duopoly Parties is the increase in unaffiliated voters. Because the duopoly Parties control which candidates and programs are put forward, there is no ‘independent’ Party to which so-called independents belong. The term is misleading. Because the rise in unaffiliated voters approximates those leaving the duopoly Parties, reasonable interpretation has it that they support neither the candidates nor programs of the duopoly Parties. Else they would have remained affiliated. Units are percent of registered voters. Source: Gallup.

In response, political pollsters created categories of ‘Democratic-leaning’ and ‘Republican-leaning’ as if (1) the mass exodus from Party affiliation were a fashion statement rather than one of political disaffection and (2) duopoly Party control over the electoral process doesn’t effectively preclude unaffiliated candidates and Parties from running for office. Including unaffiliated voters in duopoly Party tallies is a strategy of systemic legitimation in that it implies choices outside of the duopoly Party system that don’t exist.

The institutional response has been to re-conjure the ‘foreign influences’ that so well supported American imperial endeavors in the past. For those short on nostalgia for the days of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) and genocidal slaughters, what hasn’t yet been well explained is (1) how foreign meddling prevented one hundred and sixty five million eligible voters (71%) from voting for Hillary Clinton and (2) how this external meddling differs from internal meddling in the form voter disenfranchisement and the legalized bribery that ‘motivates’ American politics.

In 2016 the national Democrats demonstrated that they were utterly indifferent to the political disaffection plaguing both duopoly Parties. How could they lose 20% of their affiliated voters in the preceding years and not be in a panic over their electoral prospects? Their calculation appears to have been: (1) the Republicans were even less popular and (2) duopoly Party control assures that no matter how few people participate in the electoral process, one Party or the other will prevail.

Carried to its logical conclusion, as long as there are an odd number of votes cast to prevent a tie, the duopoly Party leaderships are indifferent to how few voters participate in the electoral process. The obverse implication is that campaign donors, a/k/a ‘the rich’ and corporate titans, are the real constituents of the duopoly Parties. Taken together, these aggregate to a scheme where the duopoly Parties are the faux-democratic façade on a system of state capitalism.

The numerous chides that followed the 2016 election— that perhaps there is ‘too much’ democracy (because the ‘wrong people’ voted), are ironic in the broader context of a plurality of liberal Democrats believing that foreign meddling determined the outcome. The top Democrats who led the charge (of ‘meddling’) either knew that they had lost 20% of their affiliated voters and over 1,000 state and local legislative seats in the preceding years or they didn’t. In either case, there has been no charge (to date) that foreign meddling caused these.

Over time the combination of thoughtfulness-lite and desperation that led to the foreign meddling canard is destined to be revisited for the same reasons that led to such widespread political disaffection in the first place. The Cold War ‘worked’ in part because the institutional frame of nation-state had theoretical coherence through the experience of serial World Wars. In this sense Donald Trump’s warped nationalism is the natural ally of the Russian meddling thesis, not the Democrats’ unrepentant economic globalism.

Institutional promotion of the foreign meddling theme reframes duopoly Party control as a choice between internal and external forces. In this sense it is similar to the pollsters ‘duopoly Party leaning’ role of voters who have fled the Parties. It’s therefore hardly incidental that micro-analyses have obscured the exoduses from Party affiliation that preceded recent elections. That Barack Obama’s tenure was a complete and well quantified political catastrophe for the Democrats before the 2016 election— and yet they aggressively promoted more of the same, partially illustrates the implausibility of reform efforts.

Hillary Clinton was the insiders’ candidate precisely because she, amongst the available murderers, thieves, rubes and hacks, put the best liberal face on programs that actual democratic choice would have tossed into the rubbish bin years ago. More domestic spying? More trade deals that benefit connected insiders? More looting by corporate titans? More privatization of the public realm? Hadn’t the 20% of affiliated Democrats who left the Party by 2016 already rejected this program? Institutional stasis may explain why the program remained despite widespread political opposition, but not how it came to be the only possible program of the duopoly Party system in the first place.

The Intercept has done excellent reporting on the business of Democratic Party politics— the webs of consultants, advisors and fixers who earn their livelihoods from electoral politics, with the implication being that much the same applies to the Republicans. What hasn’t been fully explored is why political operatives would assume that the corporate model would produce ‘political’ results? As actual experience might suggest, the result has been corporate outcomes in the realm of the political.

It can’t be completely unknown by the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and the DNC (Democratic National Committee) that voters have been fleeing the Democratic Party. As a political entity, this is a catastrophe. But as a corporation that derives its revenues from duopoly control of the electoral process, it is selling access to those who have the means and desire to pay for it, and not political outcomes. In other words, even if Democrats keep losing elections, they still have access to the electoral process as their ‘product.’

This is part of what makes the ‘Russian meddling’ storyline so insidious. It is an institutional end-run around the likely impact of this widespread political disaffection. If disaffection is reframed from internal to external opposition, it becomes an external challenge to national interests as defined by those with the power to do so. That this is the desired outcome of national Democrats should end the seemingly eternal fraud that they are a less strident Left rather than the more effective friends of the reactionary right.

A quick bet is that many, if not most, on the Left who view the ‘meddling’ thesis as a sideshow would be happy to see Donald Trump and his minions brought down in flames by the charges. However, the follow-on would be that de facto control over the electoral process would from that point forward belong to profoundly anti-democratic forces in the U.S. intelligence agencies and military. Furthermore, Democrats who see the likelihood of progressive change in prospective national Democratic Party candidates deserve exactly what they have coming. Too bad for the rest of us.

The problem for reformers is that bottom-up electoral wins are utopian in the sense that they leave the globalist networks of that serve existing power in place. The corporate models of control that the duopoly Parties use mirror those of multinational corporations because they evolved together around levers of social power. Conversely, why did the national Democrats believe going into the 2016 election, against all of the contradictory evidence, that Barack Obama’s tenure had been a raging success? Because for a few people at the top, it had been.


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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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