How the People Change History

The People Do Not Elect U.S. Presidents

United States Representative Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) lied on national television yesterday (Thursday, July 25th) morning. Now that impeachment is off the table in the wake of the final public Robert Mueller fiasco, Garcia told CNN, it’s “the people” who will remove Donald Trump from the presidency during the 2020 election.

The Democracy-Flunking Electoral College

The statement is false. As Garcia should know, U.S. presidents are not elected by majority popular vote under the American Electoral College system, explicitly crafted by the nation’s slave-owning and merchant capitalist founders to curb democracy. By giving each U.S. state an extra Electoral College tally for both Senators they send to Washington no matter how small or large each state’s populations, it triples the clout of the nation’s eight smallest states and doubles that of the next six smallest states relative to their populations.

For the fifth time in history and the second in this century, the Electoral College in 2017 installed a president who failed to win the national popular vote. Donald Trump, the biggest popular vote-loser to ever inhabit the White House, is a racist, sexist, authoritarian, and ecocidal climate change-denier who should not be allowed anywhere near the nation’s energy policy or nuclear codes. It’s not for nothing that even the depressing, highly unpopular “lying neoliberal warmonger” Hillary Clinton polled 2.8 million more votes than Trump did in November of 2016

The extensively despised orange monstrosity made it into the world’s most powerful and dangerous job thanks in no small part to the Electoral College. The democracy-flunking “college” renders presidential campaigning irrelevant (and close to nonexistent) in most of the nation. It gives absurdly outsized weight to disproportionately white and right-leaning rural states. It openly violates the core democratic principles of majority rule and one-person, one-vote. Trump’s chances of getting a second term after losing the popular vote yet again are pretty good.

We the People will not elect or un-elect Trump in 2020, undemocratic Electors will. Trump needs popular vote victories in just a few key battleground and contested states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to come back for a second term. The votes of millions of citizens in giant blue states like California and New York and in vast red regions like most of the South will be immaterial.

The Electoral College is a far greater obstacle to democracy in the United States than the laughably minor problem of “Russian interference in our [supposed great] democracy” – the matter that Democrats and their many media allies sadly chose to roil the nation about, dangling the threat of impeachment, for the last two and half years.

A Gentleman’s Agreement”

Also of much greater significance than the comparatively marginal matter of “Russian interference” is the problem of state-level racist voter suppression and disenfranchisement. This openly anti-democratic form of suffrage obstruction has contributed significantly to the Republicans winning the presidency in 20002004, and 2016. A “gentleman’s agreement” (as Glen Ford calls it) between the two reigning corporate-military political parties pushes this disturbing problem to the margins of public discussion. “The United States,” political scientist David Schutlz noted on Counterpunch last year, is incidentally “the only country in the world that still does not have in its Constitution an explicit clause  affirmatively granting a right to vote for all or some of its citizens.”

“The Shadow Cast by Big Business”

Even more significantly trumping democracy in the nation’s presidential and other elections is the potent oligarchic role of big corporate and financial sector political money. The leading mainstream political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens find through exhaustive research that “the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy.  Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups – especially business corporations – have had much more political clout.  When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless…Government policy,” Page and Gilens determined, “reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”

As the legendary veteran journalist Seymour Hersh recently commented, Trump will likely repeat in 2020 thanks largely to the transparently inauthentic establishment Democrats continuing practice of “going around saying, ‘We’re for the people, we’re for the little guy’” when “all they [really] do is run to Wall Street for money.” The “one guy that didn’t, Sanders,” Hersh rightly notes, “was sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee” in 2016. It’s happening again in the current cycle, Hersh might have added.

The controlling influence of corporate America and Wall Street isn’t just about campaign finance. As William Greider noted in his classic 1992 book Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy, the organized bribery called campaign finance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how big corporations and financial institutions dominate U.S. politics and policy. “The effects of [campaign] money are real enough” Greider determined, “but the debilitating impact [of corporate wealth and power] on democracy would endure, even if money were magically eliminated from politics.” The many-sided methods and modes of moneyed-class power include:

+ The flooding of the nation’s capital and the 50 state capitals and an untold number of municipal and county governments with a gigantic army of corporate lobbyists.

+Massive investment in public relations and propaganda to influence the beliefs and values of citizens, politicians, and other “opinion-shapers” on matters of interest to corporations.

+Capture of key positions in government regulatory agencies by people who reasonably expect to work at increased levels of compensation in the regulated (and not-so-regulated) industries in the future.

+ “Cognitive” (ideological) capture of state officials, politicians, media personnel, educators, nonprofit managers to minimize public actions and sentiments that might harm business profits.

+The use by businesses of the threat of disinvestment, capital flight, and capital strike – resulting in the loss of jobs and tax revenue – to get what they want (i.e., reduced wages, reduced taxes, reduced environmental regulations, increased public subsidies…the list goes on) from governments, unions, and communities.

+The systematic destruction and undermining of organizations (i.e., labor unions) that might offer some countervailing power to that of big business in the political and policy realms.

+The offer of jobs, corporate board memberships, internships, and other perks and payments to public officials and their families and to other “influentials” and their families.

+Control of education and publishing (a) to filter out, repress, and marginalize “populist” and “radical” (democratic) critiques of the profits system, corporations, and capitalist culture and (b) to identify the public interest and the common good with the business bottom line.

+Ownership, monitoring, and management of mass media (including “entertainment” as well as public affairs news and commentary) for the same purposes.

+The systematic advance ruling-class vetting of potentially viable candidates for top elected office before they are put up for “democratic” selection.

Eighty-eight years ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

“Ricky, te botamos!” (“Ricky, we threw you out!”) 

U.S.-Americans who want to know how the people might remove a viciously racist, sexist, and corrupt sociopath from office would have done well Thursday to turn their attention from the depressing live broadcast all-network and cable news fiasco of Robert Mueller trying to remember his own findings on RussiaGate in front of the House Judiciary Committee to the hundreds of thousands of everyday Puerto Ricans who took to the streets for days to force out the island’s governor Ricardo Rosali. Impeachment was on the table in the background of Rosali’s Thursday night resignation, but the real pressure came from the popular masses who came out essentially in a general political strike to shut the island colony down, bringing with them a host of issues beyond just the (now ex-)governor’s terrible character.

People power in the streets can be a remarkable thing. Through prolonged and militant outdoor disruption, the remarkable Gilets Jaunes forced the French government to humbly cancel a regressive fuel tax ordered by its vapid neoliberal present Emanuel Macron last winter. The populace in Hong Kong has engaged protracted mass street action to force the powerful and arch-authoritarian Chinese state to suspend a controversial extradition law.

If We Were Serious

Adding to his long list of insane autocratic outrages, the aspiring fascist strongman Donald Trump recently and absurdly told a crowd of right-wing teenagers that the Constitution allows “me to do anything I want as president.” (Anything he wants, like, …wipe Iran off the map with nuclear weapons “if I have to,” deport “the squad” to some “shit hole nation” in Africa, or send New York Times reporters to internment camps?) Trump’s idiotic hyperbole might be less disturbing if hadn’t shown so much fascist-style disdain for democratic and constitutional norms over his two-and-a-half years in the world’s most powerful office.

What should the populace do about the presence atop its “democratic” government of a soulless despot who thinks he’s above the law? Malignantly narcissistic tyrants who would rule like kings are supposed to face popular upheavals, aren’t they? You won’t hear word one about the need for disruptive mass U.S. action of the kind liberal talking heads and pundits support inside such officially designated enemy and “adversary” states as Venezuela, Russia and Iran. The implicit and sometimes explicit counsel here in the supposedly civilized homeland is to play by the rules: Be good citizens and let the supposedly democratic Constitution and he supposed “adults in the room” (the Democrats) do their purported good works.

The guidance is to chill and the let the business and professional class “experts” handle things. Keep calm and let the system work. Wait for the congressional investigations to reach fruition. Wait for the next quadrennial presidential electoral extravaganza to play itself out. Wait for the Democrats to nominate the right-wing, arch-corporatist-imperialist Joe Biden, adding the right-wing Kamala Harris to his ticket for some deceptive, fake-progressive race and gender identity ballast. Spend our time between now and then learning about all the interesting and wonderfully “diverse” Democratic presidential candidates as they fly around the country this year.

If we, the people, are serious about stopping the Trumpenstein and (more importantly) the system that hatched it, we’ll take to the streets en masse to engage in extensive and unrelenting civil disobedience. If we are serious about democracy beyond just the removal of a single noxious ogre, we won’t go home just because a narrow-spectrum, big money, major media candidate-centered election is being held on its regular, absurdly time-staggered, once-every-1,460-days schedule. We won’t go home even if Trump loses and agrees to leave without incident. If we’re serious about popular sovereignty, we’ll stick around to “dismantle the corporate state” (Chris Hedges) that birthed both Trump and the inauthentic opposition party (the neoliberal era Democrats), along with so much else that has long outlived its expiration date (i.e., the fossil fuel industry and the Pentagon system).

Russian collusion and interference would be very low on our list of issues if we ever got serious about democracy and took to the streets. Where to begin in listing things that matter so much more? I won’t attempt that here given space limits, but anyone who is inclined to read more on this score is invited to consult my February 2019 Counterpunch essay “31 Actual National Emergencies.” (One of the crises I discuss there is the American constitutional set-up, designed to keep popular sovereignty at bay by wealthy 18th century aristo-republicans for whom democracy was the ultimate nightmare.)

None of these emergencies is more dire and urgently in need of massive institutional action than the climate-led environmental crisis. A global Green New Deal must be implemented in the next decade if homo sapiens wishes to avoid epic ecological catastrophe – the signs of which are already apparent. If there is any single issue on which Trump should first and foremost be removed from power, it is his determination to escalate Big Carbon’s eco-exterminist campaign to turn the entire planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber.

“Once You Put People in the Streets”…

Don’t hold your breath waiting for liberal talking heads or politicos to tell the people the truth about how they need to take to the streets to fight Trump. As the historian and journalist Terry Thomas told me last May:

“There are now legal scholars making the case on national television that the president must be judged by an entirely different standard than the rest of us lowly citizens. That’s how this works: Trump types keep pushing the envelope, and by doing so push the terrain of discourse ever closer to fascism. And if he has sufficiently captured the federal court system, Trump could win. I would say the proper response is for House Democrats to call for mass demonstrations to give evidence that people oppose this authoritarian shit. But they will never do it, in part because they are afraid of the people in the streets. It’s the centuries-old dilemma faced by the likes of John Adams in the American Revolution. Once you put the people in the streets, you run the risk of losing control of them.”

The elites run the risk of losing control not just of crowds’ immediate behaviors but of the issues that We the People bring to the table of public deliberation when they meet in public space on a massive and prolonged scale. People who come out into the invigorating air of mass resistance by marching and otherwise protesting in the streets – and in the workplaces, town halls, schools, and offices – have a knack of raising issues that go far beyond the immediate ones that initially brought them out of their private spaces. They have a way of raising questions about a “whole damn system” (to use the language of anti-racist police violence activists) that now puts the entire species at risk of extinction under “the shadow cast by Big Business” in a society based on “private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

Help Street keep writing here.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).