Electoral Politics Versus Democracy

The 1885 inauguration of Grover Cleveland – Public Domain

Party Politics for Party People

American Party politics would be a complete farce if the consequences weren’t so grave. Were either of the dominant Parties to achieve 100% consensus on any issue, it would represent the views of about 18%* of eligible voters. And while a diversity of views would represent social vitality in a functioning democracy, in the winner-take-all American system, it represents continued rule by the oligarchs.

This matters because there is majority support, if not outright consensus, around some of the larger issues confronting the collective ‘us’ of the planet. Something akin to a Green New Deal would in theory— unadulterated and uncorrupted by those who make it necessary, 1) address climate change + mass extinction, 2) employ a lot of people in jobs that pay a living wage and 3) demonstrate that government has a role in useful social endeavors.

However, collective self-interest must first wind its way through an architecture of aggravated taking, the circumstance where some— those with the power to do so, have organized society for their own benefit. As both Marx and Gramsci put it, the existing distribution of buildings, bank accounts and baubles is the starting point for social explanations of their possession. The explanatory process is to start with who ‘owns’ what, and then work backwards.

Graph. Beginning around the time that the American war against Iraq became a certifiable catastrophe, eligible voters began fleeing the dominant political Parties to declare themselves ‘Independents.’ The dominant Parties currently have a 30% / 31% split in favor of Democrats. Successfully expanding their voter base would give either Party nominal control of the political system. But they choose instead to fight over as small number of politically retrograde bourgeois voters. Source: Gallup.

This wasn’t precisely the argument. It was over capitalist production. Ownership is an imperial claim, the imposition and arithmetic of taking from the taken from. This comes to bear politically when what is consumed is necessary to physical existence— the air, water, land and means of sustenance. For instance, here is the IPCC (UN) saying that resolving climate change is urgent. Here is the IPBES (UN) saying that resolving mass extinction is urgent.

More fundamentally, neoliberal governance exists to benefit grim oligarchs who use it to build monuments to themselves. Donald Trump is iconic in this regard, born a lord of the land into an empire of taking; a righteous braggart, thief and wastrel, elevated through circumstances not of his making to monarch and high priest of social pornography. As with co-inheritance colleague George W. Bush, stumbling upward was a birthright, never evidence of capability.

The technologies for managing the polity learned in the twentieth century— that go back millennia in one form or another: the personalization of systemic tendencies and the use of manufactured fear of an ‘external’ enemy, function through psychology and social mythology that are onerous, if not impossible, to disentangle. Gramsci grappled with how to get around the generating mechanisms of social mythology prior to the ever-presence of coercive technologies.

The political impetus, if not the idea, for a Green New Deal arose in 2018 from activists who were both 1) horrified by the personage of Donald Trump and 2) cognizant of the reactionary role of the Democratic Party establishment. Since their (minor) political victory, the political establishment has been downplaying the activist critique and watering down its policy proposals. The role of the political establishment here is to ‘manage’ activist tendencies out of existence.

The (AOC, etc.) insight that Mr. Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of current political travails is being transformed by time and retrograde political forces into a cult of personal loathing. The longer that Mr. Trump is in office, the greater becomes his role in perpetuating the neoliberal order that brought him to power. This is different from describing his policies as neoliberal— the division that has him on the outs with liberal Democrats. The realm of the American critique remains bounded by neoliberal ideology.

Why this matters is that ‘defeating Trump’ leaves the world that created him intact and largely untouched. As metaphor, the insight regarding class and the ‘right’ to abortion is an entre to the logic. Poor women have less access to legal abortion than rich women do. The ‘right,’ while necessary, isn’t enough if getting an abortion means losing a job and / or incurring expenses that the poor can’t afford. Political rights are a conceit of the bourgeois. Economic democracy (power) is needed to make them enforceable.

Breaking down political barriers by erecting economic barriers is the method of neoliberalism— people are ‘free’ to do as they wish if they can afford to. A class of people— Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney etc., was born free to do as they wish through inheritance. And another class of people, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, etc., was made rich through government fiat (see Dean Baker here). And yet other classes were born unfree, impoverished through their poor choice of parents and the circumstances of their birth.

‘Markets’ are a transfer mechanism; they aren’t ‘free.’ The imbalance of market power behind trade agreements is instructive. One group of capitalists owns thousands of acres of farmland and has access to the infrastructure needed to move millions of bushels of corn to Central America. Another has the land they live on and a few pesos if times are good. ‘Free’ competition between these two groups is an exercise in imperial taking by the powerful from the powerless.

The complaint / critique that Donald Trump is using government to make himself and his family rich is true. However, only through an ideological, and wholly implausible, reading of American history was it ever not true. The Marx / Lenin theory of the state explained this process accurately a century ago. Neoliberal ‘freedom’ is for the oligarchs to have their way with the rest of us. America was ‘founded’ in oligarchy.

The liberal critique of Mr. Trump’s corruption amounts to: he cut out the political middlemen through direct self-enrichment. Barack Obama’s policies boosted the fortunes of the American oligarchs— through stock prices and real estate holdings, as surely as Mr. Trump has enriched himself. This isn’t a slam against Mr. Obama, it is a recitation of history. And there were / are workable alternatives to service to oligarchs.

The overwhelming circumstance at present is that unless giant, huge, very large changes are made to Western political economy right away, both the current ‘costs,’ in terms of irreversible environmental decline, and the future costs of environmental resolution, will rise at an increasing rate. This environmental dysfunction is both fact and metaphor for the broader social ills that neoliberalism is wreaking.

The rise of the global political right is tied to the interests of capital. The American John Bolton wants to steal Venezuela’s oil just as Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil wants to bulldoze indigenous lands for industrial agriculture. The impeachment movement has it perfectly backwards. Get rid of capitalism if you want to get rid of Donald Trump. Because otherwise, there is an infinite supply of future Trumps that will support the interests of capital.

As onerous as doing so may be— particularly for the already vulnerable, there is no configuration of existing political economy that will facilitate a shift toward a livable future. Donald Trump and the Republicans will do everything they can to perpetuate the system that has made them rich and ‘successful.’ The Democrats will talk a better game, but they too worship at the altar of this same ‘success’ and answer to the oligarchs.

Expand the Electorate

Tacticians for the political establishment(s) understand that electoral politics is antithetical to democracy, which is why they use strategies of exclusion to maintain their lock on power. This unity through exclusion is what makes the pretense that they— Democrats versus Republicans, are ideological combatants so self-serving and implausible. Either Party could expand the electorate by bringing in unaffiliated and disaffected voters, and in-so-doing dominate American politics. But to do so, they would have to offer a political program that voters want.

The U.S. has a very low electoral turnout rate compared with other so-called democracies. The question then is why Democrats would focus their efforts on luring a small number of suburban Republicans to vote for Democrats rather than on the large number of eligible voters from urban, suburban and rural working class and poor neighborhoods? The answer is class. The oligarchs + the richest 9.9% won’t support policies that benefit poor and working-class voters. They might oppose racism, but not poverty.

One easy way to expand the electorate is to stop excluding it. Old news here— voter suppression is rampant in the U.S. While this is a favorite tactic of Republicans, Democrats have passed up every opportunity to 1) force Republicans to stop doing it and 2) enact universal suffrage. Here’s the rub— even if Democrats accepted 20% voter suppression as a background level, they could still craft policies that support the poor and working class and bring in tens of millions of voters by doing so. But they apparently don’t want ‘those people’ voting.

In 2018 in my poor and working class, 98% Democrat, neighborhood, the Democrats left door tags with two messages: property tax ‘relief’ that has little appeal in a 90%+ renter neighborhood and ‘stopping Trump.’ This neighborhood suffered horribly in the Bush / Obama years from the twin catastrophes of de-industrialization and financialization. De-industrialization took away the jobs and then financialization made housing unaffordable while growing a below living-wage chain-store economy that bankrupted local businesses.

When Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush based on a dubious vote count in the state in which Mr. Bush’s brother was Governor (Florida), the working premise was that once the Democrats regained the power to do so, they would put every effort into 1) shoring up the voting system to assure a fair count, 2) stopping Republicans from using dubious means to exclude voters 3) expanding the voter base by bringing in eligible voters who don’t vote.

That election was consequential. Oligarch George W. Bush launched a war that killed a million Iraqis and destabilized the wider Middle East. He did so with support from the Democratic Party establishment and a coterie of liberal hawks. From his office as Vice President, Dick Cheney actively solicited business proposals from oil and gas executives, munitions dealers and infrastructure rebuilders. That was corrupt.

Outside of a few legal challenges put forward by the Obama administration, very little effort has been put into maintaining the fiction that electoral politics have democracy as their goal. Again, were either of the dominant Parties to bring in a substantial portion of unregistered and / or unaffiliated voters, they would control American politics. But once impediments to voting were gotten out of the way, these Parties would have to put forward political programs that voters would vote for. And this is what they won’t do.

Where to Take This

The political intuition exists on the left to take the fight to the people. Bernie Sanders went on Fox News and made his case to an audience trained to hate Democrats. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accepted an offer to go to West Virginia to make her political case to coal miners before the offer was withdrawn. I speak with right-wingers— about half who describe themselves as liberals, all the time and here’s the problem— they have never heard ideas from the left. Professional-class caricatures have no bearing on who these people are.

Irrespective of the political establishment’s lock on the electoral process, it is only targeting a sliver of Independents + eligible voters who don’t vote. The class relations that define American electoral politics have left a huge majority of potentially politically engaged people without a Party to represent them. The people who are represented by the Democrats + Republicans have class interests that are 1) closely aligned with one another and 2) antithetical to those of the unrepresented majority.

This is why Bernie Sanders should have 1) called the Democrats publicly on their machinations against him in 2016, 2) refused to endorse their candidate and 3) stayed in the race. It is understood that doing so would have been beyond the pale in the respectable circles the people who screwed him run in. Ralph Nader is lucky to have survived the 2000 electoral debacle. But 1) the Democrats screwed him and his supporters and 2) they went on to lose to Donald Trump.

The existing Party system exists to exclude both voters and candidates. Much has been written since 2016 about the Democrat’s ongoing efforts to prevent party-line-challenged candidates from running as Democrats. And they are preventing them from running as independents. By providing evidence of the Democrats’ bad faith, the broader system of electoral politics might have been pried open. That Mr. Sanders chose not to take this route suggests the broader limitations of electoral politics as a route to democratic participation.

That the Democrats have invested little energy in expanding the voter base is evidence of their satisfaction with representing the oligarchs + the 9.9%. This begins to explain the paradox of working-class voters ‘voting against their own economic interests’ that Thomas Frank identified in the 1990s. The premise that urban liberals— the professional class, represent the interests of anyone but themselves reframes the conundrum as a self-legitimating conceit. Phrased differently, if neither Party represents your economic interests, what is the conundrum?

Neoliberalism hasn’t benefited the politically unrepresented. This was understood by Paul Krugman and his allies in globalization early on. Their premise was that the benefits would be redistributed to compensate those whose circumstances were diminished by it. Surprise! The Donald Trumps of the world chalked up their success to their own brilliance and called it a day. The premise was never, as Democrats and the American left have more recently insisted, that large swaths of the working class wouldn’t be harmed.

An unrepresented majority exists to be brought into a left political movement. Such a movement showed signs of awakening in 2018 before being sidelined by the Democratic establishment. The urban bourgeois who brought AOC to congress are nevertheless class allies of the Democrats. Their lease buyouts and stock market gains are polluting cities around the country with real estate speculation. Resentment is building with every tick higher that stock market and house prices move.

The stakes are: organize or perish. The astro-turf and greenwashing groups, Democrats and Republicans, will absorb the organizing energy unless political clarity around competing class interests is brought to the fore.

*Ds and Rs each have 30% of registered voters. Total registered voters are 60% of eligible voters. 30% * 60% = 18% of eligible voters.


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