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Democracy in America: Where Hucksters Rule

by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

In less than two weeks, this year’s midterm elections will be history; hardly anyone cares.

Why would they?  There are some state and local elections in the offing where the outcomes matter.   But at the national level, it is a wasteland.

The results are already in too – ninety-nine percent of us lose.  We have no one to vote for, and no good way to vote against anyone either.

There is not even a good way to express contempt for what the duopoly party system has put on offer.  Not voting is an ambiguous gesture at best.

If control of the Senate weren’t at stake, even inveterate liberals would have a hard time finding reasons to care what the outcome will be.

They ought to have a hard time anyway.  In view of the abundance of evidence accumulated in recent years when Democrats controlled the Senate, it is hard to see how it could be worse were Republicans to wrest control away from them.

And, as President Obama starts a third Iraq War – or revives Number Two, depending on how you count – it is hard to enthuse over the candidates of his feckless party.

Still, elections focus the mind.  This election season is therefore as good a time as any to reflect on what (small-d) democrats ought to make of elections nowadays – the one about to happen and in general.

Thinking about them, it is hard not to despair.  So far from implementing defensible democratic ideals, they neuter democratic aspirations by disempowering the people, and then making them think that elections, the kind we are about to suffer through and others like it, are what democracy is about.

* * *

Until about two hundred years ago, “democracy,” rule by the demos, the people as distinct from social or economic elites, was widely regarded in much the way that “anarchy” now is.

The prevailing view was that while it could be enlightening to reflect upon democracy as a theoretical possibility, no reasonable person would actually endorse it as a political ideal.

This understanding dates back to the beginnings of Western philosophy; the reasoning behind it is already evident in Aristotle’s Politics. For most of the past two and a half millennia, Aristotle’s position – not the details, but the general idea — seldom encountered serious dissent.

For both the ancients and the moderns, the prevailing view was that, except in very small communities, democracy cannot work; that effective governance is possible only when the few rule the many.  Monarchies and various forms of aristocratic governance pass the test; democracy does not.

But times change.  As the modern  — capitalist — era took shape, the demos, once an inchoate agglomeration of no political consequence, became a lively and potent presence on the political scene.  Rulers could no longer ignore its interests, except at their own peril.

And so, they and those who think for them changed their view one hundred eighty degrees.  The case against democracy was no longer that it couldn’t work, but that it would likely work too well.

The fear was that an empowered demos, without property or privileges, would put the property and privileges of social and economic elites in jeopardy.  What the ruling classes feared most, for just this reason, were free and fair elections.

But, for the peoples’ interests to be taken into account, there has to be a way to ascertain what they want.  This is what voting does.  Elections are indispensable.

Nevertheless, the two are not the same.  Elections are held in all kinds of circumstances for all kinds of reasons, not just to ascertain the peoples’ will.  And, in principle, statistical polling, or some functional equivalent, can work as well or better than voting for discovering what the people want.

This point was understood in Greek antiquity; in fourth century BCE Athens, for example, magistrates were sometimes chosen by lot.

The connection between voting and democracy is therefore more practical and historical than conceptual.  But there is a conceptual connection as well, and the association runs deep.  This is why it is natural to think of democracy and elections together.

Because elites feared the popular masses, the first elections in the modern era were modest in scope.   Voters could not decide very much, and voting rights were severely restricted – typically, to male, white property holders.

In time, though, it became apparent that, with well-constructed representative institutions and with political parties mediating between the people and the state, voting rights could be extended broadly without endangering the interests of ruling elites.  The demos, tamed, was no longer feared – not, anyway, in the voting booth.

And so, as if by common consent, democracy’s standing in the political culture changed; formerly despised when taken seriously at all, it became honored and esteemed.

The transformation was so far-reaching that, before long, no regime could count as legitimate without the consent of the governed, the people.

Of all the ways to indicate consent, political theorists came to focus mainly on participation in electoral processes.  From there, it was just a small step to the view that prevails today: that for a country to count as a democracy, it is both necessary and sufficient that its rulers be chosen in free and fair competitive elections.

Because views about what counts as free and fair are, almost without exception, undemanding, the requirement that elections be competitive is the one that, in practice, does most of the work.

In the United States, for example, if there is a Democrat running against a Republican, the election is ipso facto free and fair, so long as there are no unusually egregious shenanigans involved in getting out or suppressing the vote, and so long as the votes are tallied more or less honestly.

The election that put George W. Bush in office in 2000 is a case in point.  It was stolen, but, by prevailing norms, it was stolen fair and square.

Al Gore said as much when he conceded – after Republicans on the Supreme Court stopped Florida from recounting the votes.  It is now generally conceded that had the recount continued, Gore would have won the state’s electoral votes and therefore the Presidency.  However, nobody, Gore included, seemed at the time or later to care all that much.

As understandings of democracy were transformed and as the idea itself was revalued, democracy effectively dropped its connection to the demos; it lost its class content. The ideal became rule by the undifferentiated people, not the popular classes.

This made widespread acceptance easier, inasmuch as social and economic elites, though opposed as much as ever to demotic power, no longer found it useful to oppose democratic forms and procedures.

The institutions that shape opinion to accord with their interests naturally followed suit.

It is hardly surprising, therefore that, for some time, democratic theory has been a flourishing academic enterprise.

And with so much attention lavished on the topic, it is not surprising either that progress has been made in understanding what democracy is, and how it can be justified.

This too is hardly surprising.  Once the general line of inquiry was legitimated, denizens of ivory towers were more or less free to do as they pleased, blessed with means, motives and opportunities to follow the arguments, wherever they lead.

The downside of this freedom is, of course, political irrelevance.  Except when they have some pecuniary interest is this or that type of research, America’s social and economic elites seldom pay heed to what goes on in academic precincts; they neither know nor care much about it.

But the general drift does trickle out into the larger culture; and so, at least indirectly, sophisticated understandings of what democratic values and aspirations imply have taken hold.

This being the case, the political class has no choice but to get on board too, and at least pretend to follow.

It is therefore remarkable how attenuated the connection is between what democratic theorists envision and the real world of democracy.  There are few aspects of human life where the gap between theory and practice is wider.

* * *

In theory, elections combine the choices of individual voters, each counting equally, to produce a social choice that expresses the voters’ collective will.

When a simple numerical majority determines the outcome, the social choice is neither biased for nor against the status quo.   When larger majorities are required, the outcome is biased in favor of the status quo; numerical minorities have effective veto power.  This may be wise for some kinds of decisions – those that bear on constitutional arrangements, for example — and it is not necessarily undemocratic.  But it does introduce a limited form of minority rule.

It has been known for some time that there are significant conceptual problems involved in aggregating individuals’ choices in the ways democratic theorists suppose.  These problems have fueled important lines of research in economics, political science, and related fields.

But difficulties in generating social choices out of individuals’ choices seldom become manifest in actual electoral contests.  Those difficulties are therefore of more theoretical than practical importance.

And so, for all practical purposes, we can proceed as if majority rule voting does what it seems to do, and what the great democratic theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought it could do.

Those theorists, and their intellectual heirs, fall broadly into two categories: those that idealize the fora of Greek antiquity, the site of public deliberation and debate, and those that idealize markets.

The most prominent exponent of the former view was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  In his political philosophy, majority rule voting is part of a process in which citizens collectively discover what is best for the whole community.

What is best, as he conceived it, is logically independent of individual citizens’ opinions about what is best.   But, he argued, citizens collectively, in the right conditions, can discover what is best by combining their opinions through majority rule voting.

However, for majority rule voting to have this effect, citizens must vote disinterestedly; their votes must register their opinions about what is best, not their preferences for one or another outcome.

Rousseau held that citizens are well positioned to do this because, as citizens, what they want is what is best for the community of which they are integral parts.

In principle, therefore, they have privileged access to what is best for the whole community, in much the way that they have privileged access to their own preferences – not just their actual preferences (this is trivially true), but also to their ideal preferences, to what they would want given full knowledge and adequate reflection.  They know what they want – not infallibly, but well enough.

Like the political philosophers of Greek antiquity whose views anticipate modern democratic theory, Rousseau thought that public deliberation and debate are indispensable for shaping individuals’ judgments and therefore for getting the truth about what is best for the whole community to emerge in elections.

Philosophers who follow his lead today are, if anything, even more inclined to emphasize the deliberative side of democratic collective choice.

It is telling that a near contemporary of Rousseau’s, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) proved mathematically that if individual voters have a greater than 50% chance of getting the right answer on a matter of fact, the probability that a majority of voters will get the answer right rises exponentially, almost to certainty, as the size of the majority increases.

Condorcet was interested, in the first instance, in jury voting; that is, in cases where there is a matter of fact to be discovered because the defendant is either guilty or not.  Rousseau thought of voting in political communities in a similar way.  He thought that there is a right answer to the question: what ought we, the collective body of which are integral parts, to do?

The other model, more plainly a creature of emerging capitalism, trades on the structural similarity between consumer sovereignty in markets and democratic notions of popular sovereignty.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) famously conjectured that when economic agents do what is best for themselves, then, provided certain background conditions are met, the outcome at the societal level is, in a well-defined and pertinent sense, as good as can be.  This happy result comes about, Smith said, as if by the workings of an “invisible hand.”

In fact, it comes about because markets, like majority rule voting, aggregate individuals’ choices in ways that generate a social choice that reflects the preferences of individuals for alternative outcomes.

Inasmuch as we are disinclined these days to think that there is a right answer to such questions as, for example, should Barack Obama or Mitt Romney be President – or, worse, Hillary Clinton or any of a dozen certifiable Republican whackos – the market model has, by now, become overwhelmingly dominant.

The idea is that elections run on the principle of majority rule produce fair outcomes when everybody’s preferences are taken into account and accorded equal weight.  Nowadays, this seems only commonsensical.

What elections do not, and cannot, do, Rousseau notwithstanding, is discover what, as a matter of fact, is best, regardless of what people think.  The commonsense view is that elections cannot do that, even in theory, because there is no fact of the matter to discover.

But not all preferences are created equal.  Some truly are autonomous, freely formed by consumers and other economic agents, based on adequate knowledge and reflection.  Others are in one way or another induced.

In markets for consumer goods, most preferences are induced; advertisers and other hidden persuaders see to that.

Consumer sovereignty is therefore often a sham.  Consumers do determine outcomes by buying and selling, but the preferences they act on are not really their own.  The ideal is a theoretical possibility, but the practical reality is something else.

* * *

It is much the same in the real world of democracy, and for much the same reason.  Popular sovereignty too is often a shame.

In theory, the collective choice is the one most preferred by individual voters.  When elections are free and fair, this may be so.  But, even then, preferences are often shaped by circumstances and by outside forces to such an extent that the case for satisfying them is diluted beyond recognition.

In other words, the preferences votes register are often not preferences voters autonomously form.  They are preferences they are sold on, in just the way that they are sold on preferences for consumer goods and other objects of sales campaigns.

Because people understand this intuitively, it has become commonplace in practice to understand “democracy” in a way that has very little to do with traditional or even plausible theoretical understandings of democracy.

This is why the term is often used to designate practices that have more to do with liberalism, as traditionally conceived, than democracy.   For a regime to count as democratic in current parlance, it must, as liberalism requires, acknowledge and protect basic rights and liberties.

But only some of those rights and liberties, like the right to vote and otherwise participate in political processes, fall within the purview of democratic theory, strictly speaking.

This is obvious on a moment’s reflection: rights that accord liberal protections that have nothing to do with governance can be upheld, in principle, in regimes that no one would call democratic — in benevolent dictatorships, for example; and they can be denied in democratic regimes that fall prey to “the tyranny of the majority.”

Nevertheless, in the world today, countries that hold some semblance of free and fair competitive elections and that generally respect the individual rights that liberals have traditionally defended are deemed democratic.

This usage is widespread.  But the only real connection between it and any genuine strain of democratic theory is the endorsement it accords to democratic procedures in voting.

In the democracy envisioned by democratic theorists, people vote and their votes are counted fairly.  Allowing for inevitable imperfections and occasional shenanigans around the edges, this happens in our elections too.  But nearly all the action in democratic theory happens before this final procedural stage is reached.

And almost none of it happens anymore in American elections.

Where is the rational deliberation and debate?  The idea that there is any seems almost ludicrous.  For that matter, where is interest-driven electioneering?

The American party system used to have a place for that – in big city machine politics, in the labor movement, in rural areas, and so on.  The party system still fulfills some of its traditional functions; parties are instrumental for, among other things, recruiting candidates, staffing positions, and raising money.

But when elections come around, what they mainly do is sell their brand.   This has no more to do with discovering what is best for the whole community or for aggregating autonomously developed preferences than any other marketing campaign.

This is why the situation voters will face on November 4 in the election booth is very much like the situation they will face at the convenience store on the way there or back:  Coke or Pepsi.

Elections aren’t about doing what is best or maximizing collective preference satisfaction.  They are about persuading voters to choose Brand X over Brand Y;  they are about selling candidates to voters.   Hucksters run the show.

The affront to democracy would be more forgivable if the wares the hucksters were peddling were more responsive to peoples’ interests, particularly the interests of the popular classes, the demos.  With Big Money calling the shots, this is out of the question.

Why then care about the outcomes?   The question is mainly rhetorical because it is plain, nowadays, that the less local electoral politics is, the less reason there is to care.

Democrats could lose control of the Senate this year.  This is supposed to matter, but does it really?  Except to those who have a pecuniary interest in the outcome, it is not at all obvious how.

The outcome will determine who will serve America’s and the world’s social and economic elites.  There are no doubt differences among candidates and parties that matter to them; and, at the margins, the results could have broader consequences for others as well.  But the one sure thing is that whoever wins, the demos will lose.

Coke or Pepsi?  Neither is good for you and, for most people most of the time, neither is especially appealing; yet Coke or Pepsi choices are all that the system offers.  Even the lesser evil, these days, isn’t clearly lesser.

When the time comes to vote, voting for the lesser evil, if there is one; is as reasonable an option as any, though there are problems associated with the practice – like accelerating the race to the bottom.  But lesser evil voting hardly speaks to the real problems at hand.  The only way to do that is to change the system itself.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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