By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
As it became clear that Hillary Clinton was bound to be the Democratic Party’s nominee, because the Party had rigged the nomination process in her favor, and then when the Commission on Presidential debates, a creature of the Democratic and Republican Parties, adopted rules that assured that only Democrats and Republicans would participate in their debates, and then when Donald Trump won more Electoral College, but fewer popular, votes than Clinton did – thereby becoming the President-elect — there was a lot of talk about electoral reform.
That is all on the back burner now; and, unless a determined effort is made, this is not likely to change until the next electoral season is upon us.
For democracy’s sake, this is unfortunate. Electoral reform ought to be at the top of every pro-democrat’s to-do list.
Don’t count on it, though; not anytime soon. Once the Donald and his gaggle of racist, nativist, Islamophobic, reactionary, incompetent and filthy rich cabinet and cabinet level appointees start calling the shots, there will be many more urgent concerns staring decent people of all political hues, and “identities,” in the face.
Nevertheless, letting concerns about our elections slide would be a mistake of monumental proportions.
Inasmuch as there is no reason to think that the downward spiral in which our politics is enmeshed has bottomed out, and hard as it may be to imagine, the electoral system that just now presented voters with a choice between the two most dangerous and god awful candidates in living memory could do even worse next time.
The remedy, the only one imaginable, is more democracy; and the time to agitate in favor of democratization is now – not in the heat of the moment, in two or four years time, when new anti-democratic outrages occur.
Strictly speaking, democracy means “rule of the demos,” the people, the popular masses, as distinct from social or economic elites. That was the idea in Greek antiquity, and also at the dawn of the modern era in the West.
The consensus view, back then, was that while democracy might be a theoretical possibility, perhaps even an appealing one, that it cannot work in practice; and therefore that advocates of (small-d) democracy are, at best, idealistic fools whose ideas would only do harm.
In other words, people thought about democracy centuries ago in much the way that people think about anarchy. It is agreed that the idea can be useful to political theorists because of the ways it contrasts with forms of political organization that they consider justifiable, but it is worthless, or worse, as a practical political ideal.
That understanding began to falter in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during the Dutch Revolt, the English Revolutions, and the Enlightenment. By the time of the American and French Revolutions, and in their aftermath, it no longer seemed obvious at all.
By the early nineteenth century, it was generally believed in Western Europe and North America that democracy was as viable a political ideal as any other. Some might favor it, others might oppose it, but no one any longer doubted the feasibility of government “of, by, and for the people.”
Support for democracy then waxed and waned for the next century and a half — until, following the defeat in World War II of states and political movements that endorsed fascism, the last expressly anti-democratic ideology of political significance, all the major players in world politics called themselves “democrats.”
However, there was less consensus than might appear. Democracy was what philosophers call an “essentially contested” concept; everyone was for it, but there were substantial disagreements about what everyone was for.
This was the case for roughly the next half century. In economically developed capitalist countries, “democracy” meant something different from what it meant in the “peoples’ democracies” of the Communist world or in the “democracies” established in the Third World that followed their lead in many, but not all, respects.
The only common denominator was that, in all cases, the people supposedly ruled.
The so-called Western democracies – not all of them located in the West – made no distinction between demotic and elite social strata; “the people” designated undifferentiated citizenries. Ironically, the original meaning of the term survived better in the Second and Third Worlds.
Everywhere, though, the gap between theory and practice was immense. In theory, the people — conceived as an undifferentiated citizenry or in a way that reflects class differences — ruled everywhere. In practice, the people ruled nowhere — neither in the West nor the East nor in the global South.
With the demise of Communism, the peoples’ democracies and the forms of Third World democracy they influenced passed from the scene; only Western democracy remained. No longer, therefore, did democrats claim, even if only in theory, that the demos ought to rule. That task fell to all the citizens of the state.
In the three decades long post-World War II era, the difference could seem important. But in the real world conditions that now obtain — with inequality increasing, the middle classes shrinking, and the ranks of the least well off swelling, the difference might seem minor.
Perhaps it is insofar as anywhere from ninety to ninety-nine percent of persons living in the United States and other Western democracies could truthfully say that: “we are all demotic now.”
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the term has become so disconnected from its original meaning that systems of elite rule nowadays count as “democratic” provided only that they implement some notion of equal citizenship and institutionalize competitive elections.
There is some irony in this: in ancient Athens, only free (non-slave) native born males were accorded citizenship rights, and, for the most part, officials were chosen by lot, not by elections. Even in Western democracies, where voting is ubiquitous, many citizens have been, and still are denied voting rights.
For example, in the United States before the 1960s and, to a lesser extent in recent years, only privileged sectors of the citizenry had the right to vote. At first, it was only white male property holders, then the franchise was extended to white males generally, and, after the abolition of slavery, to all males (though, in practice, hardly anyone who was not white could vote, especially in the South). Finally, in 1920, women won the right to vote at the national level.
But it was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all adult citizens – with the exception of inmates in prisons and, in many states, of convicted felons who have served their time – actually secured the right to vote. Republican led voter suppression efforts in recent years show how precarious this victory still is.
Nowadays, most Western democracies do better than we do in these regards: they are more forgiving of convicted criminals, and they make more of an effort to facilitate citizen participation in elections. But none of them have unblemished historical records – especially regarding women’s suffrage.
But even in the days when more than half the citizenry was denied the right to vote, the consensus view was that free and fair competitive elections, held at regular intervals or without too much time elapsed between them, was necessary for counting as a democracy. It still is.
Add on some other conditions – such as the extension of the franchise to most, if not literally all, adult citizens, a decent level of respect for basic political liberties like free speech and freedom of assembly, and the absence of overtly coercive interferences in the transfer of power and in the normal operations of the political system, and we have a full-fledged definition of the term.
On this understanding, “democracy” is denuded of the class inflection that had formerly been essential to the concept, but at least a semblance of the idea of government “of, by, and for the people” remains.
Or, rather, it would remain if real world elections were more like the ones imagined by democratic theorists – that is, if they combined individuals’ choices into social choices in ways that implement one or another plausible notion of popular sovereignty.
The problem is that popular sovereignty is diminished or, in extreme cases, undone altogether when outside forces intrude into the political sphere – as they all too often do.
At least since the end of World War II, American meddling has helped undermine popular sovereignty around the world whenever the empire’s leaders feared that the outcomes of elections might not be to their liking. This is why the recent hand wringing and outrage over still unsubstantiated reports of Russian hackers interfering in this year’s Presidential election is so stunningly hypocritical.
With the emergence of a neoliberal world order in recent decades, global capital has played an even more decisive role than the machinations of American and other Western intelligence services. The effective nullification of the results of the 2014 – 2015 elections in Greece by EU and German financiers is an example. Anti-austerity forces “won” handily in elections as free and fair as any in the world; and the Greek people ended up getting what they had voted against.
Neoliberal capitalism also dilutes democratic governance within the United States. As everybody could see — and as emails published by Wikileaks (damn those Russian hackers!) confirmed – the Bernie Sanders campaign, by far the most significant electoral challenge to Wall Street’s power in living memory, was shot down by the grandees of the Democratic Party, acting on Wall Street’s behalf.
The Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and their media flacks rigged the nomination process. Nevertheless, the forces that the Sanders campaign unleashed frightened America’s “economic royalists” – and with good reason. Had Sanders been less civil in pressing his case – had he spoken of his opponent with a tiny fraction of Trump’s vehemence — he might well have handily defeated Hillary and her “super-delegates.”
Had that happened, the forces they represent would surely have pulled out all the stops – if not before the election, then when President Sanders tried to govern; and instead of the horrors that the billionaire buffoon in our future will level down upon us, we would now be dreading the onset of yet another tragedy of the Greek kind – not, this time, at the empire’s peripheries but in the belly of the monster itself.
The American case is special in other ways too. Anybody who pays any attention at all to American politics can rattle off the main reasons why – many of them have to do with the several ways that inequalities of wealth spill over into inequalities of political influence. This has been going on seemingly from time immemorial, but it is now worse than ever thanks to rightwing Supreme Court Justices for whom campaign contributions (bribes, by another name) are Constitutionally protected free speech.
And, of course, in presidential elections, there is the Electoral College, which, as everyone now knows, permits candidates who lose the popular vote to be elected nevertheless.
There is also gerrymandering. In recent years, gerrymandered Congressional districting has kept the composition of the House of Representatives effectively frozen throughout the ten year period between censuses.
And there is the de facto establishment of two political parties – the one harder right than the other, but both representing the interests of economic elites at the expense of nearly everyone else.
In short, democracy – or rather what counts as democracy in a world that long ago rid the idea of all but its most attenuated connections to “the rule of the demos” — is in a sorry state everywhere, but the situation is worse in the United States than nearly anywhere else.
There is yet another factor that makes America special, one that is often overlooked. This would be the way that Presidential elections suck up nearly all the political energy there is for an inordinate period of time – engulfing what little serious politics we have into what are essentially advertising campaigns in which Democrats and Republicans compete in efforts to sell their respective brands.
Trump got as many popular votes as he did not on the strength of his ideas – the few he seemed to have were silly or odious or both, and attractive only to his most “deplorable” admirers – but because he put on a good show.
There are many reasons why, even running against him, Hillary didn’t get a lot more votes than she did. High on the list is the undeniable fact that many people find her irritating, boring, and disingenuous. It is also relevant that the political line she was peddling is one that, for good reason, many voters rejected long ago.
Even so, it took a stupendous degree of ineptitude to lose to a billionaire braggart and buffoon. Had Hillary been a less awful candidate, even her version of neoliberalism, liberal imperialism, warmongering and Russia-baiting might actually have prevailed over Trump’s showy, too-good-to-be-true promises to marks desperate enough to believe anything.
Politics always goes missing when Presidential elections come around, but this time it took off with unusual panache because, thanks to Trump, the Republican primaries and caucuses, and then the general election itself, turned into the moral equivalent of a professional wrestling match.
The absurdity did not end on Election Day; it just took a different, more alarming, turn. Coherence, it seems, will be the first casualty of the Trump era.
As matters now stand, the Donald and his minions, some of them anyway, will pursue good relations with Russia. If they do, then there will be at least one respect in which they are less awful than Hillary and her minions would have been – if indeed “deals” between oligarchs are more likely to keep the peace than the kinds of neocon provocations favored by the foreign policy establishment, and therefore by Clinton and most Democrats.
At the same time, though, it seems that Trump will do Israel’s bidding on Iran, even though Russia and Iran are on the same side in Middle Eastern politics. No doubt, the foul hand of son-in-law Jared and his Trump-like felonious papa are partly to blame. But this would only account for the incoherence; it does not make it make it go away.
Trump’s domestic programs, such as they are shaping up to be, now that we know who most of his choices for cabinet and cabinet-level positions are, look like a similarly contradictory hodgepodge of libertarian, oligarchic and Wall Street friendly, neoliberal policies.
Once the scales fall from Trump supporters’ eyes, they are in for a rude awakening. But it will be rough going for everyone as competing capitalist models, each one deleterious in its own way, are joined together into a toxic whole.
For a while, Trump may be able to create a few jobs and retain a few more – by offering fellow-capitalists even more tax incentives and write-offs than they already have, and by financing “deals” with public debt.
But this is a recipe for inflation which, accompanied by the relaxation of the regulations that currently keep financial institutions more or less (generally less) in line, is likely to precipitate a financial crisis even greater than the one the world muddled through eight years ago – leaving the chumps who voted for the Donald a lot worse off than they would otherwise be.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” No doubt, the Donald sees himself as a great mind who has no need to be consistent. In fact, his mind is little and empty, and he is a first-class fool.
How else to explain appointments so grotesquely wrong-headed that one can only marvel in disbelief: Jeff Sessions to head the Justice Department, Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry in charge of environmental and energy policies, Ben Carson at HUD, Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and on and on.
Each day’s morning news seems to have been concocted in the editorial offices of The Onion – or at Mad Magazine in its heyday. Mad wasn’t just funny; it had an eye for the preposterous, and a taste for the absurd.
In the December 22 Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty claimed that Trump’s choices for cabinet and other high level positions had a lot to do with how the people he was considering looked. On their account, Trump was acting like a casting director – searching for candidates who looked right for the jobs they would be assigned.
I would have thought that he was looking for the most incompetent and ridiculous people he could find. We could both be right.
And it keeps getting worse. Trump hasn’t yet nominated his horse for any senior position – but if someone would tell him about Caligula, and if had a horse to nominate, he probably would.
Trump’s choice of his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, to be the American Ambassador to Israel is a close approximation – unless the idea is to make Benjamin Netanyahu look good by appointing an Ambassador who is many times more vicious and reactionary than he.
Then the news broke that the Donald had asked Rambo, Sylvester Stallone, to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Stallone had the good sense to refuse. What next? How about putting Kim Kardashian in that post? But for the likelihood that Ivanka would be jealous, I’d bet on it.
We dodged a bullet; Hillary et. al. will not be starting World War III. Even so, we are plainly in for turbulent — and dangerous — times ahead.
So far, George W. Bush was our worst President in modern times; maybe our worst ever. But at least he knew when he was in beyond his depth, and he was willing to cede leadership to others. Trump considers himself too godlike for that; and instead of Bush family fixers at the ready, all the Donald has is a feckless family and the worst cabinet ever concocted.
In these circumstances, it will not be easy to focus on fixing an electoral system that makes a mockery of the very idea of government of, by, and for the people.
But this has to happen; otherwise, if we get through the next four years, the problem will only recur – perhaps in ways that we will not be able to get through.
In addition to reforms that are already part of the public conversation – like the abolition of the Electoral College and overturning judicial opposition to campaign finance reform –we should also be talking now about reforms that are seldom discussed in the public arena except when it is too late – instant runoff voting, for example, and proportional representation.
And we should be talking about ways to break down our disabling duopoly party system and to insure the integrity of the voting process.
On these issues especially, there are lessons to be drawn from the now concluded electoral fiasco we just lived through. They involve the Green Party and their candidate for President, Jill Stein.
I voted for her – yet again. I also voted for every Green Party candidate I could, even though their candidacies were often more notional than real. In short, I cast protest votes.
Of course, I did try to convince myself and others, as I have before, that this time, there was a chance that the Greens would break out of the margins, and therefore that voting for their candidates could serve a more useful purpose than merely indicating disgust. Of course, this didn’t happen; it never does.
Stein was an outstanding candidate, and she did an excellent job on a shoestring budget.
But, predictably, the media froze her out; her campaign might as well have been waged in another universe. Mention her name to all but a handful of intensely interested voters and the response always is: Jill who?
Ironically, it was only after the election was over that she finally got serious media attention, albeit only briefly. She got it for demanding, with only partial success and with only lukewarm support from Democrats, that there be recounts in three battleground states.
This caused some consternation in Green Party circles – Stein was accused of acting high handedly by not consulting the Party membership, and of being soft on Clinton and Clintonism by challenging the process in a way that could only help Hillary.
These charges plainly have merit. At the same time, though, it can hardly be denied that Stein’s call for recounts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin did more to bring the Green Party into the awareness of the general public than any of her speeches or rallies or anything else that the Green Party has done.
To the best of my knowledge, Stein has never said that she called for recounts in order to raise the profile of the Green Party; she said she did it out of concern for the integrity of the voting process. Was she being disingenuous? I have no idea.
But I do know that raising this issue is important, especially at a time when most Democrats and many Republicans and nearly all of their media flacks are working overtime to stir up anti-Putin and anti-Russian animosity, by getting every gullible soul in their sway hot and bothered over alleged Russian hacking.
There really is a problem with the integrity of our elections, but it does not come from the Kremlin. It comes from the Secretaries of State, in states with Republican administrations; and from the companies, many of them led by Republicans, that provide the software for voting machines.
There is a simple remedy: demand a return to paper ballots. The Greens, and others who genuinely do care about the integrity of voting in American elections, ought to be pushing for that.
If political science were a real science with genuine scientific laws, one of them might be that new parties that don’t break through into the mainstream in a flash stagnate for years at whatever plateau they have reached.
This is why I, for one, doubt that much good will ever come from the Green Party. If it couldn’t get a lease on life with all the bitterly disappointed Sanders supporters about, it is probably a hopeless case. Nevertheless, I expect that in the future I will be voting for their candidates again, for want of any better alternative.
Hopeless or not, however, the Green Party’s experience this time around is relevant for thinking about how electoral politics outside the duopoly party system could be pursued – either under the Green Party’s aegis or in some other, less tarnished way.
What is needed, above all, is imagination, and the will to succeed by changing course.
Lesson One: think outside the box with a view to getting mainstream media to take notice, even if it means deviating from the familiar straight and narrow path – to nowhere. Whether or not it was her intention, Stein’s call for recounts in three states shows the way.
Lesson Two: make the integrity of the voting system an issue by insisting, at every opportunity, that the problem is not in Russia, halfway around the world, but right here at home. Fair-minded persons should not require much convincing to reach the conclusion that there are more than enough well documented voting irregularities and discrepancies between exit polls and official vote counts to merit serious investigation.
It will not be easy to keep these concerns front and center, as the horrors of the Trump era start to unfold. But it is crucial.
The Trump phenomenon is a product of the decline of democracy in our time. Resisting its consequences is crucial, or course; but so is attending to the underlying disease – the evisce
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).