Democracy and the Illusion of Choice

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The neoliberal logic of everything for the rich is now so deeply embedded in American political economy that its base assumptions appear untouchable, except in rare and extraordinary circumstances. With the Covid pandemic exacerbating the current crisis of capitalism, political and economic defense mechanisms make restoring the people and institutions that created the crisis appear to be the only alternative (once again) to solving it. And from the potential victory of a social democratic program five months ago, electoral choice is now between a right-wing demagogue and the chief architect of the carceral state, militarization of the police and liberal obeisance to capital.

There is a connection between the Democrats three-plus years spent pushing the un / disproven Russiagate story and Joe Biden’s miraculous ascent as the establishment candidate in 2020. The Russiagate allegations shifted attention away from rejection of the Democrat’s political program in 2016 so that they could run the same program again in 2020. Amongst the political variables open for ‘discussion,’ the choice of candidate is all there is. The political program is determined at the intersection of campaign contributions, the needs and desires of capital, and the ids of oligarchs freed from public accountability. Democracy has nothing to do with it.

Graph: the ‘racist backlash’ theory of Donald Trump’s election effectively divided the victims of neoliberal economic policies by race. The actual number of white racist and neo-Nazi groups has been declining since 2012. And before rococo explanations for this decline are sought, the rise and fall of hate groups tracks unemployment quite closely (graph below). Whatever the nature of Mr. Trump’s appeals, when Black Separatist groups are excluded from the ‘hate group’ data, the number of white racist and neo-Nazi hate groups followed the unemployment rate lower. Source: SPLC.

The ‘left’ argument for electing Joe Biden is as a placeholder, without precisely explaining how placeholding has supported the upward redistribution of political and economic power for four decades running. Donald Trump made himself known— seemingly to his political detriment, while five decades in public life left Joe Biden a political unknown who oversaw the writing of the 1994 Crime Bill and the Patriot Act, supported the misguided U.S. war against Iraq, and acted as collection agent for the credit card company MBNA. That both men represent the interests of capital and disjoint constituencies within the neoliberal order again suggests political guidance from outside of electoral politics.

This description is difficult for Democrats because they never took account of their loss in 2016. The stories they told themselves of foreign intrigue and racial backlash weren’t, and still aren’t, supported by the data. The Russiagate pillars have fallen one by one until nothing is left but tribal shorthand for aesthetic aversion to ‘Trump!’ Otherwise, the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) has been the gold standard of ‘ascendance of hate’ reporting since the 2000s. Outside of its made-for-the-establishment-press headlines, the number of racist and neo-Nazi hate groups is falling.

Graph: the liberal concept of ‘hate’ groups grants emotional character to social organization that tracks economic stress fairly well. Through the capitalist practice of racial scapegoating, periods of widespread economic stress, illustrated above through unemployment, are associated with rising social divisions. Likewise, when economic stresses abate, so do social divisions. Declining unemployment explains the failure of Donald Trump’s racial appeals to foster a growing political movement— to date. Source: SPLC; St. Louis Federal Reserve.

This latter point is worth making for a number of reasons. As the graph above suggests, the ebb and flow of racist and neo-Nazi groups ties closely to the unemployment rate, an indicator of economic stress. The ‘Strong Leader’ theory of fascist ascendance being put forward by mainstream Democrats and the American left was drawn from the European fascist movements of the twentieth century that arose from the ashes of capitalist crises. In an era of relatively low unemployment, Donald Trump has had little success growing a movement of the radical right. However, one would never know this listening to the heated rhetoric of Democrats.

With the Covid pandemic producing rising and likely intractable unemployment over the near to mid-term, the risk of re-electing an opportunistic demagogue like Mr. Trump is indeed great. This was why, in the heart of the Great Recession, so many on the left found the Democrat’s subservience to Wall Street followed by a quick pivot to austerity policies for unemployed workers disquieting. A more perfect formula for fascist ascendance is difficult to imagine. So, on the one hand, opportunistic demagoguery bears known relation to tragic political outcomes. On the other, without economic circumstances that produce a constituency for political demagoguery, there is no constituency for it. And solving economic problems serves a social purpose.

Furthermore, a social democratic alternative was offered by the left through the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. At the behest of capital, establishment Democrats sabotaged the Democratic primaries, thereby assuring that conditions conducive to the rise of an angry and determined political right would emerge from the next capitalist crisis—like the one that is now upon us. In this regard, dedicated austerian Joe Biden, who spent five decades making the ‘hard’ decisions to punish and demoralize vulnerable people, is exactly what global capital and the rich are hoping for. (Evidence: he is the establishment candidate.)

Much of the back and forth here hinges on the dubious distinction between economic and political power that has American politicians affecting political outcomes in contradiction to those their wealthy patrons support. In addition to contradicting capitalist economic logic, this distinction flies in the face of decades of careful research tying campaign contributions to political outcomes. Donald Trump’s abandonment of his populist economic program upon election was American electoral politics 101. Joe Biden speaks like he is from the shop floor— or a gig job locale, but he is straight from the boss’s office with check in hand.

Why this is more than everyday hypocrisy in the service of power makes the Democrats the more skilled demagogues. Through state-corporate bureaucrats, much of what Republicans say they will do in plain language is achieved in a more politically palatable manner by Democrats behind closed doors. Noam Chomsky has made the point that Donald Trump is an environmental terrorist. No one paying attention would disagree with this point. What Mr. Chomsky doesn’t say— and appears not to be aware of, is that environmental terrorism was moved off of the political books by Democrats through ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) clauses in U.S. trade deals.

Donald Trump set aside the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade deal shortly after entering office, earning the ire of the neoliberal left, the free-trade left and the market fundamentalist left, for daring to reconsider capitalist trade relations. In fact, the ISDS clauses in it and NAFTA, provided corporations with the ability to sue nations to be compensated for profits lost due to environmental regulations. Should this be less than evident, this is an extortion scheme designed to inflict economic penalties on states for passing environmental legislation. Had the TPP been ratified with the ISDS clause included, it would have been virtually impossible to reverse.

This isn’t to argue precise commensurability— rolling back environmental regulations isn’t precisely the same as preventing environmental legislation from being passed. The prior (Trump) is visible and matches his stated policies. The latter (Democrats) is kept out of the public eye and is intended to allow Democrats to pose as environmental stewards while assuring that legal agreements prevent them from passing viable environmental regulations. To be clear, this wasn’t, and isn’t, a bureaucratic mix up or mistake. ISDS lawsuits have been prevalent since a bit after NAFTA was passed (1993) for the express purpose of rendering environmental legislation unviable.

The Democrat’s efforts to undermine environmental regulations through the use of abstract legal structures didn’t remain abstract. It has been the basis of lawsuits that successfully reversed and precluded environmental regulations for decades (link above). The motivation for conceiving and engineering this legal dodge is the same for Democrats as it is for Republicans— to enhance corporate profits that make the rich richer. In addition, the Democrats promote the neoliberal view that capitalism is an extension of American political power abroad. Rank-and-file Democrats and the neoliberal left have been loath to reflect this view back on their domestic politics.

This formulation can be reversed to explain the Democrat’s domestic policies quite nicely. The Federal government is an extension of capital’s economic reach vis-à-vis citizens and the so-called electorate. The right-wingers understood this about Obamacare in a way that liberals never will. In the liberal view, we’re all in this healthcare system together, so we should all contribute to it. From the right, Obamacare is a government scheme to force citizens to buy a defective product from private corporations. Seven years after Obamacare was passed, the U.S. still has the most expensive healthcare system in the world with the worst, or close to the worst, outcomes by every public health measure.

The point here isn’t Obamacare per se, but to distinguish the class struggle model that captures ideological ground from left to right, versus the liberal model of unified national interests. If Democrats believed their own marketing, they wouldn’t hide behind Rube Goldberg devices like ISDS clauses and Obamacare to misrepresent the public interest. The purpose of these devices is to obscure their intent. The idea that Joe Biden will see the light on Medicare for All, a Job Guarantee and / or a robust Green New Deal is as ignorant of his, and the Democrat’s, history as it is of the establishment party’s reasons for existing. They exist as an impediment to democracy, not as its representatives.

The Democrat’s rehabilitation of George W. Bush is instructive here. By analogy, the comic movie Rat Race includes a visit to the (Klaus) Barbie Museum where visitors are regaled with the ‘Butcher of Lyon’s’ prowess at ballroom dancing and his love for his children. Having spent some time with competing counts of the Iraq war dead from Mr. Bush’s war, the most plausible was the Lancet’s 2006 report of 654,965 ‘excess’ Iraqi deaths several years before the war ended. Joe Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of that war and Nancy Pelosi was informed of illegal torture before most of it occurred— when she could have done something about it.

The point: senior Democrats, including Joe Biden, were and are complicit in War Crimes that have actually taken place. No debate over the political and economic factors that led to the rise of European fascism is necessary. Democrats may fear and loath the ‘Orange Hitler,’ but to date he has nowhere near the body count to his discredit that senior Democrats do. This distance between realized outcomes and speculation about future threats suggests that the liberal echo chamber is running on fear. It would be easier to grant innocence of intent here had the fraud of Russiagate and the slanders of racist and fascist ascendance matched the available evidence.

There is plenty fraught about the political and economic present. Only a fool would dismiss the risk of an ugly political reaction to widespread and persistent economic stress. Given that capitalist crises are increasing in scale and scope, the solution is to temper this economic frailty through the downward redistribution of political and economic power. However, Democrats just pulled out all the stops to prevent just such a social democratic political program from being realized. This is the political backdrop that makes Joe Biden anything but a temporary solution to aggregating crises. He, and the Democrats, are one-half of the problem with electoral politics.

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