[Note: this article was first written for MetroWest Left in August 2020; I updated it with endnotes in August 22. Unfortunately, two years of Democratic Party leadership has not moved American politics closer to the Democracy this article hopes for.]
With under two weeks before the 2020 US election, American voters on the progressive-Left were again beset by handwringing, admonition, and fear about the abject evil awaiting us if we don’t vote for the lesser one. Our Democracy, we are told, is at stake. The choice, they say, could not be more obvious for anyone who seeks equity, fairness, and justice for all Americans—however incrementally—and to avert the growing influence of open far-right white nationalism Trumpism represents.
Yes, Trumpism needs to be soundly defeated and turned back. And yet, if the essence of politics is to build a future, it’s hard not to feel that politics—and with it a livable future—has been canceled, and that US voters remain hamsters on a slow repetitive Habitrail offering the same choice every four years, yielding no fundamental change to declining wages, skyrocketing inequality, ever-more-virulent forms of racism, and ever-more-dire warnings from scientists about the nearness of climate collapse and an early end to the voting species.
Back to No Future
When the Democratic Party converged on Joe Biden to block Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Party’s nomination, it reduced the election to competing visions of the past: Trumpian pre-Civil Rights white nationalism versus Biden’s don’t worry be happy reproduction of Neoliberal Normalcy, with its veneer of 2008 faux post-racialism.
And as COVID-19 cases surge in the wake of a deathwish-herd-immunity government response; as the expiration date on humanity nears; as the numbers of the healthcare un- and under-insured blossom; as that barometer of the increasing wealth of the few, the S&P 500, soars while unemployment soars higher; as Black Americans continue to be murdered and jailed by the US criminal justice system at alarming rates; as the emboldened legion of the racist, xenophobic, White nationalist, hate-filled, gun-happy Trumpenproletariat gins up its pre-election violence and intimidation; and as we are ever more aware (with the stalemate in Congress over desperately needed pandemic relief) that US institutions will and can do nothing about these problems—we are urged, implored, as we are every four years, to do the only thing Our Democracy lets us do:
Vote. Vote like your life depends upon it, go the cliché tweets, because it does. Along with the tweets that shame the ones of us who question the thing at all, want to vote for something, and someone, with principled and concrete plans for a truly equitable, fair, and livable future, or who don’t see the point anymore in participating in a clearly rigged system.
There is no question that a Biden Presidency—assuming it repudiates white fascism, dismantles the border concentration camps, begins the long overdue process of criminalizing and prosecuting white terrorism, and makes good on its platform promises to be better for labor, communities of color, LBGTQ folks, immigrants, and the poor, and to provide measures to address climate change—will be much better than a second Trump regime, especially for non-white, non-binary, immigrant, non-Christian and other non-normal folks tyrannically targeted, harassed, demonized, and killed by the first Trump administration and its vigilante thugs operating in and outside the walls of government. That is worth a vote.
But one look at Biden’s resume—his Iraq war and ’94 crime bill cheerleading, his affection for the “very fine people” on the segregationist side of the aisle, his support for police in the midst of a crisis of police violence against Black Americans, his attacks on Medicare for All as COVID-19 cases surge, and his open courting of conservative supporters—affirms a candidacy that, it seems, would be just as comfortable calling itself Republican as Democratic. In fact his candidacy has drawn unprecedented Republican endorsement, as he considers many from the Trump-led right-wing party for possible cabinet posts. What we have, it seems, is old-school Conservatism versus virulent Authoritarianism. Is that worth a vote?
Indeed, the anxious urgency and loud shaming marking the runup to the 2020 election all have precedent in my lifetime. I remember clearly the sense of apocalyptic doom about the prospect of a Ronald Reagan Presidency, and recall those around me promising to move to Canada if George W. Bush were elected. Both men were, as Trump is, considered unique and existential threats to Our Democracy.
There was good reason for the fear: Reagan, for his part, destroyed labor, dismantled social services, led murderous secret wars in Central America that replaced elected Democracies with US puppet dictatorships, stoked racist fear and anti-LBGTQ hate, and unleashed Wall Street and the rich in an unending war on the poor he called ‘Trickle Down Economics’. And we know what Bush did after murdering millions of Iraqis on a lying pretext for a phony war: he suspended the privacy rights of you and me, normalized mass 24/7 surveillance of everyone and everything, and illegally held, tortured, and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of those its racist anti-Muslim rhetoric called ‘enemy combatants.’
In between these two existential and unique threats, we had a stealth threat, in a Bill Clinton presidency that borrowed liberally from Reagan. Eschewing serious consideration of working class demands, Clinton went all in for the Neoliberal project’s main planks—deregulation, dismantling of social services, destruction of labor power, championing ‘free-trade’, and privatization—while taking over the race-baiting tough on crime stance to please his friends at the Democratic Leadership Council.
Barack Obama surfed to his 2008 victory on the anti-Bush tsunami following GWB’s Iraq War lies and manipulations, and the extreme violence of the Iraq war. It’s ironic, then, that by 2019 the Bush family legacy as anti-Trump resistance heroes was cemented by a shared Werther’s candy between W and Michelle Obama at John McCain’s funeral. Reagan, as well, was repeatedly invoked as inspiration by Obama during his time on office—an effort, seemingly, to solidify the mythical middle from which Obama sought to govern, and upon which the ruthless US Republican right stamped out and liquidated his program in his second term. Since both existential threats to Our Democracy have not only been absolved of their many crimes, but have also been absorbed into the same centrist coalition that once viewed them with horror, is it so hard to imagine that this strange rightward-tilting center—said to be guarding the last vestiges of Our Democracy against the unique and existential threat of Trump—would, in time, adopt Trump too into the 2024 Resistance Against Tucker Carlson?
The ‘New Democrats’, from Clinton to Obama to Biden, in reducing the daylight between themselves and their supposed rivals across the aisle, further narrowed the political horizon in mainstream US politics, establishing a hegemonic Neoliberal consensus. But in doing so, they opened the door to far-right populism and the progressive-Left as alternatives to Neoliberal austerity. Enter Trump, and Sanders, and also daylight between the moderate right and far right—one reason Biden seems so ‘progressive’ when compared to Trump. When Democrats stamped out Sanders, they also stamped out any credibility they had with multi-racial working class Americans suffering under Neoliberal austerity, and who would immediately benefit from programs like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, raising the minimum wage, providing tuition-free college, and, most dire, enacting a Just Green Stimulus to address the COVID-19 crisis. When Biden declared flatly that he would veto Medicare for All—which 88% of Democrats and 70% of all Americans say they want—he signaled he would tow the New Democrat line and continue the Neoliberal project.
With the most conservative Democratic candidate in generations squaring off against the proto-fascist Trump for a job made too powerful by the post-9/11 expansion and consolidation of Executive Branch power under GWB, it’s impossible to deny the drastic rightward shift in US politics under 40 years of Neoliberal austerity, privatization, and deregulation supported by both parties. While mainstream punditry assigns the steep slide from Reagan to Bush to Trump (and from Clinton to Obama to Biden) to the naturally shifting will of the demos, we should ask if the system and practice of Our Democracy itself—a system and practice rooted in maintaining and enhancing oligarchic, aristocratic rule—is just as much to blame for the emergence of Trumpian authoritarianism as the rapacious, accelerationist Neoliberal ideology that has joined itself to that system.
Many gasps were heard and much ink was spilled when, in 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the US in its ratings from a “full” to a “flawed” Democracy. Most assumed the election of Trump caused the downgrade. And, although the report did not go deeply into Our Democracy’s many flaws, it did note: “By tapping a deep strain of political disaffection with the functioning of democracy, Mr. Trump became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which US voters hold their government, elected representatives, and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation." And yet, in subordinating issues of economic inequality and election manipulation, the report avoided detailed structural analysis of a corrupt system. Plus, this ‘downgrading’ was quickly absorbed into the conservative talking point that insists it doesn’t matter because the US was never a Democracy in the first place.
Led by the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, this view quickly gained normalcy in the rightwing mediasphere. But this reactionary belief that the US is a ‘Republic’ and not a ‘Democracy’ eventually mellowed into a softer, gentler form on the Liberal pages of the Atlantic in Yascha Mouck’s 2018 America is Not a Democracy. In it Mauck cites a 2014 study by the political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern, analyzing whether average people, interest groups, businesses, or the economic elite have the most influence on US policy and law. Mauck summarizes the findings this way: “The results were shocking. Economic elites and narrow interest groups were very influential: They succeeded in getting their favored policies adopted about half of the time, and in stopping legislation to which they were opposed nearly all of the time. Mass-based interest groups, meanwhile, had little effect on public policy. As for the views of ordinary citizens, they had virtually no independent effect at all. ‘When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,’ Gilens and Page wrote.”
But in response, Mauck rehearses the oft-cited History that seems to excuse this power structure:
“To some degree, of course, the unresponsiveness of America’s political system is by design. The United States was founded as a republic, not a democracy. As Alexander Hamilton and James Madison made clear in the Federalist Papers, the essence of this republic would consist—their emphasis—“IN THE TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE PEOPLE, IN THEIR COLLECTIVE CAPACITY, from any share” in the government. Instead, popular views would be translated into public policy through the election of representatives “whose wisdom may,” in Madison’s words, “best discern the true interest of their country.” That this radically curtailed the degree to which the people could directly influence the government was no accident.”
The problem here, is that we never question the wisdom of the program described, nor the many structural entailments and oligarchic political uses of the words. Even when we acknowledge, as Mauck does, the abject inequality and unfairness and lack of democracy of this ‘Republic’, we, instead of examining the flaws of this founding itself, act the part of originalists and integrate it axiomatically into the horizon of the politically possible, and the feasibly practical:
“It is true that to recover its citizens’ loyalty, our democracy needs to curb the power of unelected elites who seek only to pad their influence and line their pockets,” Mauck continues. “But it is also true that to protect its citizens’ lives and promote their prosperity, our democracy needs institutions that are, by their nature, deeply elitist. This, to my mind, is the great dilemma that the United States—and other democracies around the world—will have to resolve if they wish to survive in the coming decades.
We don’t need to abolish all technocratic institutions or merely save the ones that exist. We need to build a new set of political institutions that are both more responsive to the views and interests of ordinary people, and better able to solve the immense problems that our society will face in the decades to come.”
But what new institutions, exactly? Liberal critiques of ‘Republicanism’ fall short of getting into the concrete, material nitty-gritty of institutional change, for, if they did, they would have to acknowledge the obsolescence and failure of the very institutions they rely on.
What Mauck and others don’t emphasize enough, when they say, correctly, that Our Democracy’s basic institutions are broken, is that these institutions are functioning exactly the way they are supposed to. And that neither major party has great incentive to alter the system that keeps them in power. Even Democrats, who always seem to lose in the deal, dither over incremental reforms designed to enhance the existing system, while the seemingly hegemonic Republican majority in the Senate yawns as it blocks even the most modest measure. Meanwhile, oligarchic corporate power has captured government, the horizon of political possibility is closing, and the extraordinary crisis represented by staggering inequality, a deadly pandemic, impending climate destruction, and growing white nationalist authoritarianism is deepening. Oh, and Trump.
Could it be that the aging oligarchs and wealthy politicians stalking the halls of Congress are untouched by this crisis, even as it continues to destroy communities of color, the poor, immigrants and the ‘frontline’ Americans they pretend to honor, as their do-nothing response to the disease forces these workers into the path of COVID-19 to save their jobs, healthcare, and families from ruin?
What can we do?
The US participation rate for national elections maxes out at just under 56%. This puts the US 28th on a list compiled by the Pew Research Center, just ahead of Luxembourg and behind Estonia. By comparison, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark all clock in above 80%. Just .1% more participation could’ve put Hillary Clinton or Al Gore over the top. The kneejerk accusation that non-voting Americans are lazy, mislead, uneducated, uncaring, or immune to the results of their Democratic duty misses the realities of systemic suppression of too many eligible voters (detailed below), and the undemocratic voting systems that supposedly safeguard their right to perform their sacred duty. Why Don’t Americans Vote?, a blogpost on the Sanders Institute website and a major source for the current post, answers these question with historical and material clarity.
What should be obvious is that the Republican Party maintains power by doing everything it can to suppress the growth of Democracy by strengthening the undemocratic institutions at the core of US governance. Lower voter turnout, greater voter suppression, and a tighter grip on key Statehouse power, all mean more power for the party. As it packs court appointments and controls the Supreme Court, we should remember how many decisions like Citizens United and Janus have further broken the grass roots and labor power the Progressive-Left depends upon. It should also be obvious that we cannot depend on the so-called Democratic Party—a party run and populated by the same monied interests and oligarchs who benefit from the corruption of Our Democracy—to build authentic Democracy in the US.
Al Gore and Hillary Clinton could have dramatically altered the history of the early 21st century without the reactionary Electoral College (EC). 2.4 million Iraqis may still be alive, and undocumented immigrants to the US neither separated from their children nor held in concentration camps, but for the EC. Of the many things that make the injunction to vote like your life depends on it so hollow, chief among them is when you explain—as I did recently to my baffled 10 and 11 year old daughters—that in fact when one votes for President one doesn’t vote for President at all but for your State’s delegates to the Electoral College, and that in fact those delegates (the sum of the number of House Reps plus Senators for each state) are awarded by 48 of the 50 states on a winner-take-all basis, rather than proportionate to vote totals in each state. Why?, they asked, Why do we have that?
Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar asks the same question in his book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, and in this interview with Chris Maisano in Jacobin he explains why abolishing it is long overdue.
In addition to making the every-four-year contest a math game, the Electoral College (EC) gives disproportionate and distorted power to large-population and small-population states alike. We talk breathlessly about the ‘big prizes’ of California, New York, and Florida, and award small states the two extra votes the disproportionate Senate affords them, which makes a vote in Wyoming 4 times as valuable as one in Michigan, and gives a Vermont voter 3 times as much power as a Missouri voter, according to a data set by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig. This in turn causes lower turnout in lower-Electoral-value states, as shown in this Washington Post article which correlated what it calls ‘Electoral integrity’ with turnout figures.
One of the more frightening realities of the archaic EC is its lack of clarity in case of an election dispute, described in this recent Atlantic article by Larry Diamond and Edward Foley—which gives the litigation-happy and power-hungry Trump every reason to contest the election, no matter what the outcome.
Maybe that’s why polls show 61% of voters favor deciding the Presidency by popular vote. In fact alarms about the anti-democratic nature of the EC, with calls to abolish it, have been ringing since 1968, when Richard Nixon’s slim victory in the popular vote was distorted as a landslide by the EC count. After a promising start, a measure put forward in 1970 by Emanuel Celler (D-NY) to end the EC was ultimately filibustered and killed by conservative small-states-rights advocates, reluctant to cede power. Similar amendment proposals put forward from 2005-2009 and again in 2016-2018 were killed by coalitions.
The current For the People Act of 2019, introduced by John Sarbanes (D-MD), would both abolish the EC and provide substantial campaign finance reform designed to reduce the influence of big money in politics. But, as with Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, raising the minimum wage, and a raft of other progressive-Left policy proposals brought in the 2018-19 congressional session, the measure, passed along party lines in the House, met doom in the McConnell-run Senate.
Speaking of which: those small states with outsized electoral influence are predominantly Republican. While their effect on the EC may be individually minimal, together they can form a significant EC bloc. Apportioned originally to give those small states more equitable power, the unrepresentative Senate has not just tilted the EC, but, especially since 2008, has served most effectively as a block to any progressive or even moderate legislation, court appointments, and policy. This includes the demise of the For the People Act mentioned above, the scuttling of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination by Barack Obama, and other legislation attempting campaign finance reform, corporate and lobbying regulation, and limiting other undemocratic sources of rightwing power. As Amy Coney Barrett is set to be installed on a 6-3 Republican Supreme Court by the Senate, she will be (at writing) the 220th judge appointed by Trump and approved by this undemocratic body.
“It is not just that the U.S. Senate represents a distorted version of the United States but also that it deprives the real United States—the people as they truly are—of acting in its best interests,” writes Thomas Geoghegan in his recent Baffler article ‘Abolish the Senate,’ “And in doing so, it deprives us of the full measure of our citizenship and leads many of us not to bother with being citizens at all.”
Failing abolition, the move to reapportion the Senate as a representative body similar to the House of Representatives has its adherents—and deep challenges. Eric Orts, in a detailed plan for a Senate Reform Act in his 2019 Atlantic article The Path to Give California 12 Senators, and Vermont just One, admits that the main obstacle to any plan to reapportion the Senate more democratically—and so to radically alter the balance of power not just in the EC but also in the Senate itself—is, simply, the current power structure of the Senate: Republicans and centrist Democrats alike, unsurprisingly, do not want to give up their Senate power, and would never vote for any such reform measures.
In addition to abolishing the Senate and the EC, Thomas Geoghegan, in the same Baffler piece, recommends, to bolster US Democracy, a third measure: “We have to invoke the power of Congress under Article I, Section 4 (the Elections Clause), to displace any state from using voter or election data to create districts for the U.S. House. This, in effect, would be a ban on gerrymandering. It may even be arguably constitutional to require the state legislature as well to be gerrymander-free as a condition for the right of that state legislature to draw the districts of the U.S. House.”
Gerrymandering, or the process by which states redraw U.S. House districts to boost the dominant party’s Federal power, is named after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry and the strange ‘salamander’ shaped Boston district he invented to maintain his state political power. The Redistricting Reform Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2019 to end this corrupt practice, has been stalled—where else?—in the reactionary Senate, specifically the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has so far refused to advance it.
The generational and well-funded Republican Party plan to capture State Houses across the US has earned the Republicans a 61-37 edge in controlled legislative bodies—down from 67-32 pre-2018, and given it enormous Federal power—not just to gerrymander House districts, but also to control elections and voting in those states.
Because they are entrusted with managing elections, voting, and voters, these Republican-dominated State legislatures have enormous power to suppress votes and disenfranchise voters, and so to meddle in national elections. Draconian voter ID laws, felon disenfranchisement, complex or confusing voter registration procedures, limited or remote polling places, confusing voting technologies, and punitive laws that refuse or throw out votes for technical reasons, all suppress the ability to express the basic Democratic right.
Voter ID laws in 34 States eliminate from voter rolls right away 21 million Americans with no government identification. The Sanders Institute notes that these laws, which purport to reduce voter fraud, instead “…disproportionately disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, and minorities. A quarter (25%) of African American voting age citizens do not have a government-issued ID, compared to only 8% of white Americans. In fact, a number of voter ID laws across the country have been ruled discriminatory and are ‘now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention,’ according to Judge Richard A. Posner, a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.”
Another 6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement, a practice the Sanders Institute notes also “..disproportionately affects African Americans. According to the Sentencing Project ‘1 of every 13 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement laws, vs. 1 in every 56 non-black voters.’” Additionally, the 4.4 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, North Mariana Islands, Guam and the District of Columbia, have insignificant representation in Congress, and therefore almost no voice in governance.
Complex and varying state voter registration laws can mean disenfranchisement-in-effect for populations—again, mainly older and poorer folks—who have little or no access to online information or the time to research what to do.
The Sanders Institute report notes that “…this convoluted registration system is decreasing turnout in many areas in the United States. We know this because same-day voter registration has a history of increasing voter turnout and therefore voter participation in our democracy,” and continues, “A report by Nonprofit Vote looked at voter turnout by state in 2016 and highlighted the states with same-day registration. The report found a high correlation between voter turnout and states with same-day registration in 2016.”
One piece of good news for the Progressive-Left is that 37 states now offer early, at-home, absentee and other voting methods which mitigate suppression of voters who for work, family, transportation, or other reasons (yes, predominantly older and poorer Americans) cannot vote on the magic first Tuesday in November, the appointed Day of Democracy and day-off for most folks way back in 1845, when it was established. This Brennan Center for Justice Report makes clear just how important early voting is to voter participation and confidence.
One answer is, of course, to institute a National Election Holiday. But Democracy would get a huge boost if the US exerted greater control over states’ broad powers to suppress votes and disenfranchise voters by expanding Federal voting rights to include: guaranteed access to polling locations; guaranteed access to uniform and universal voting technologies; mandated extended voting periods to guarantee family, job, and other contingencies won’t prevent voting; and establishment of an independent Federal body with discretion and power to oversee National elections and enforce these rights.
When the Supreme Court decided, in Citizens United v FEC (which originated in arguments over corporate production of explicitly political media prior to an election), that restrictions on corporate money in politics violated the First Amendment, it reversed a century of precedent and enshrined the twin doctrines that corporations are people and money is speech. In other words, corporations enjoy every right and protection a US citizen enjoys, while using its ‘speech’ to spend as much cash as it wants in any way it wants to—including, and especially, supporting political candidates, lobbyists, and the production of other political projects (like production of the partisan films at issue when Citizens United (CU) was first considered).
It is impossible to overstate the profoundly negative effect CU has had on US Politics. Studies have shown how much power, in particular, the Republican Party has accrued as a result of the decision. But it also has pushed the Democratic Party—which since 1970 has grown increasingly corporate-friendly and hostile to labor in an attempt to match the rival party dollar for dollar in corporate enrichment—further away from its traditional working class base and values, and into its current ‘suburban strategy’, through which it launders its panting pursuit of those dollars.
A 2019 OpenSecrets.org analysis by Karl Evers-Hillstrom, Raymond Arke, and Luke Robinson described the seismic shift this way: “In the election cycles following Citizens United, the balance of power has shifted more and more toward outside spending groups such as super PACs and “dark money” political nonprofits, unleashing unprecedented amounts of money toward political advertisements meant to influence voters…In the years following Citizens United, prominent party leaders helped establish super PACs, effectively funneling money to a small handful of well-connected outside groups and blurring the lines between super PACs and candidates…”
The CU decision, intended to free corporations and unions from spending restrictions, has more disastrously opened to door to massive individual contributions. “In the last three election cycles, corporations have accounted for about 7 percent of the total money given to super PACs and labor for about 8 percent,” according to research by Colby College’s Anthony Corrado, cited in this Hill article by Reid Wilson. “In 2018, corporate contributions to super PACs amounted to $71 million. By contrast, the top 100 individual donors accounted for more than $662 million in super PAC contributions. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, two billionaires running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, each gave more to political causes than all publicly disclosed corporate spending.”
Writing recently in Jacobin, David Sirota goes deeper, saying CU “…effectively sanctioned certain forms of obvious corruption that have come to dominate American politics.”
Sirota quotes the CU decision itself, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy: “Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the court declared. “The fact that (spenders) may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt … independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate…. Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.” [italics mine]
“This fantastical and deranged logic — which somehow pretends corruption isn’t corruption, “ writes Sirota, “is totally disconnected from any constitutional text, and yet was supported by the court’s alleged textualists.” Sirota goes on to detail related cases enshrining ‘legal’ corruption, such as McDonnell v US, in which the court upheld then Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s right to take $175,000 from a supplement corporation CEO, and then openly promote the company’s interests. When you consider the vast sums the oil and gas industries are pouring into US elections to ensure that nothing gets done about climate catastrophe, and that their subsidies don’t dry up, you can begin to measure how the Supreme Court’s reckless CU decision has directly supported corporate profiteering and willingly assisted in planetary destruction.
Even though principled progressive legislators like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have sworn off PAC and dark money for good, the pledge “comes with an asterisk” for the many Democrats who say they want to kick the PAC addiction but can’t, according to Brian Slodysko’s 2019 AP report. With a soon-to-be 6-3 reactionary Supreme Court unlikely to consider any case challenging CU—let alone overturn it; with Republican candidates gleefully raking in huge PAC and dark money; and with that money tied to increasingly influential online media markets; it’s no wonder reform-minded Democrats hedge their campaign bets.
That’s also why grassroots organizations like American Promise, Move to Amend and, on our state level, We The People Mass, are taking the extraordinary step of pushing for a Constitutional Amendment to overturn CU, enshrine that corporations are not people and money is not speech, and pave the way to ending the massive corruption of money in politics. It’s a long shot: the move to call a Constitutional Convention to consider the Amendment requires two-thirds of states to ratify it, and even then, critics say such a Convention could be hijacked by right-wing interests wanting to bargain for, for example, a reactionary balanced budget amendment.
Disclosing who gives, and how much they give, is the mission of FollowTheMoney.org, a vital interactive tool for correlating donations to lawmakers’ activity. As Duke Law researcher Lynda Powell points out in her 2013 study The Influence of Campaign Contributions on the Legislative Process, influence is much more than positive correspondence between contributions and direct support for bills benefitting the contributor; it is also felt, for example, in the legislator’s lack of support for bills the contributor opposes, or their committee activity to accelerate, delay, or stall legislation according to the contributor’s wishes.
According to FollowTheMoney.org, as of October 24, 2020, a whopping 5.9 billion dollars has been spent to influence Federal elections in this cycle, surpassing the 5.3 billion spent in 2016. This vast industry of influence has opened the door, in turn, to cyber-influence by sophisticated data-mining companies like Cambridge Analytica, and manipulations of ubiquitous social media platforms like Facebook.
The two came together when Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without Facebook’s consent (and certainly without the users’ consent), in order to identify the most influenceable types, so to target their pro-Trump ads with precision. While the post-election handwringing focused on the supposedly decisive influence of a Russian ‘meddling’ campaign that proved to be anything but influential, Cambridge Analytica’s influence went under the radar. But as the recent Netflix documentary The Great Hack makes clear, Cambridge Analytica’s targeted data-mining helped the Republican Party use its $1,000,000 a day (yes, $1,000,000 per day) Facebook ad buys with maximum potential influence.
The images of a forlorn Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg mumbling word salads of remorse and contrite promises of change to the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees investigating Facebook’s influence on the 2016 election, did not offer confidence that 2020 would be different. Facebook, dependent wholly on its massive ad revenue, did little of substance to change its policy or practices except banning ads on November 3rd, after the election—apparently to avoid the sowing of confusion about election results.
Obviously, Facebook’s profiteering impulse sits way above its ethical duty to Our Democracy, as November 3 coincides neatly with a drop off in its election ad revenue. Cambridge Analytica had disbanded after news of the Facebook scandal broke in 2018, but its billionaire backer and Trump enthusiast Robert Mercer has used his ability to sink unlimited amounts of cash into the 2020 Trump campaign to establish a funding beachhead for the white nationalist incumbent. Mercer a stakeholder in far-right firebrand Breitbart News and founder of hedgefund Renaissance Technologies—which has used sophisticated quantitative systemic trading technologies to establish the most successful fund in the world—has become the avatar of the deep connections among the ultrawealthy, the ultraright, and the US Republican Party, as well as the secret, data- and technology-driven networks of influence that maintain their power. It should be obvious that the anti-Democratic institutions and practices undergirding Our Democracy described above serve as an accelerant for the authoritarian goals of this rightist cabal. Is it any wonder, really, that we have Trump?
That far-right Trump found his way to the Republican Party is not surprising. Socialist Bernie Sanders, in launching a serious bid for the Presidency, also found an easier path in a Democratic Party that turned out to be a bigger nemesis to him than Republicans. US two-party hegemony simply doesn’t allow anything else. With unlimited amounts of money attached to the two parties as major vehicles of influence, less funded and visible parties, including well-known parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, stand no chance in a corrupt system where cash equals influence. Until that cash flow comes under control, there’s little hope any third or fourth, let alone tenth, party can compete.
Two-party hegemony isn’t bad because, as Lee Drutman argued in the Atlantic earlier this year, it causes violent polarization between the two anointed political entities, but because it narrows the field of choice and the horizon of political possibility. In fact, the lack of political choice in the US may be the reason for the frustration and polarization.
Many of us on the Left wonder if a mass Socialist Party in the US—with the power and influence of the Socialist Party of 1912—is possible in 2020. European Socialist parties have had durability and influence in popular as well as political discourse and imagination, largely because the legacy of social democracy has been wildly successful creating working- and middle-class prosperity across Europe. But in the 1930s US, Socialism’s role as a temporary ‘compromise’ through which capitalism could launder its colossal failure in the Great Depression, was confirmed by the propaganda and purge of the Left during the Red Scare and McCarthyism—and buttressed by the Democratic Party’s hasty retreat from any progressive-Left politics, evidenced by its evisceration of Henry Wallace’s popular Progressive candidacy in 1944.
Another reason for the persistence of Socialism in Europe is, as in France, the fact that Democratic institutions are more just and equitable. In the French system, every party has to compete with 10-11 others, each of which gets an equal voice in French politics during national election cycles. France maintains strict controls on campaign financing and media use, and employs a two-tier system of voting that allows voters to choose the party and platform of their choice in the first round, and enter a coalition-building period of consolidating various party demands, in turn guaranteeing voter participation and support in the final run-off.
Unencumbered by too much money influencing elections and lawmaking, French politics and politicians can lead with and maintain the integrity of debated positions and concrete policy differences—instead of counting donated monies for Facebook ad buys—which in turns develops a much better informed and more engaged electorate.
Although some parties have greater history and visibility than others, the 2017 French Presidential Election demonstrated how unknown coalition parties like Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche! can do more than gain a foothold in the process: they can win.
Not so in the US, where principled Green Party voters are pilloried every four years for voting for a program and policy set they feel represents them, instead of voting for the lesser against the greater evil. However, support for Ranked Choice Voting—a two-tiered election process similar to the French model—is gaining momentum in the US, and is on the ballot November 3 in Massachusetts. With Ranked Choice Voting, even marginalized parties like the Socialist Party USA can get on the ballot and present its case, at the very least for coalition-building with other Left parties.
The age-old problem of building a mass Peoples’ party in the US gets time and again thwarted by the unlimited money the major parties have accrued to attract and influence voters, primarily by utterly dominating the media narrative. This year’s effort at independent party formation, the Movement for a Peoples’ Party, has accrued at writing 116,000+ supporters, and run several successful online events driving a populist progressive grassroots message of solidarity.
But such party formation continues to suffer from what organizer and theorist Sam Gindin identified in his 2016 Jacobin article Building a Mass Socialist Party: “We…face a seemingly irresolvable impasse: no party without a base, no base without a party. Is there a way out of this closed circle?” In spite of the enthusiasm generated by Bernie Sanders’ Presidential runs, the MMP, and the continued growth and organizational capacity of Democratic Socialists of America, Gindin’s analysis still holds: we don’t have the numbers to build power, and the systems undergirding Our Democracy bend not to truly democratizing society and freeing working people, but to the maintenance of oligarchic power.
Lamenting the dilemma, Gindin notes: “…any attempt to return to the policies of the welfare state would — given the institutional changes that have occurred since (globalization, financialization, industrial restructuring, regional shifts and so on) — now necessitate a much more sweeping set of state interventions in private property rights…And this, in turn, would only be conceivable alongside a radical transformation in social power and a party organized around developing the deep individual, collective, and institutional capacities to accomplish this. Railing against neoliberalism or even well-meaning policy pronouncements, on their own, can’t help but lead to the kind of disillusionments that in the past opened the door to the Right.” [my italics]
In addition to the challenge of building real political capacity in the context of reversing the neoliberal corruptions baked into Our Democracy, Gindin points to the deep challenges of navigating the vital and complex relationship between class and identity demands, the dilemmas about building coalition power with Progressives and Centrists to earn issue victories, and the contradiction of needing to build socialist knowledge and intellectual capacity to expand the horizon of the politically possible, while at the same time forging on-the-ground power driving actions and demands for concrete change.
“There are no blueprints to pull off the shelf, no models to comfortably point to, no social base chomping at the bit for the long road to an uncertain somewhere else,” Gindin writes. “Even in the case of those unions that broke with their labor peers and supported Sanders, it is quite another thing to take the next step and completely break with the Democratic Party.”
The path to freedom, in other words, as anything but short, smooth and well-lit, and will require deep commitments to Socialism’s long game. As Trump continues to dominate media consciousness and glaze a patina of ridiculousness and abjection over US political discourse, it’s tempting to retreat into easy abstractions about the man and the moment, to sink into the miasma of Twitter culture wars, or to pick up a Biden-Harris sign and earnestly worry Our Democracy is at stake.
What Democracy? is what we should be asking our friends and neighbors.
We must continue to make concrete, historical, material analyses of the structural impediments to authentic Democracy that, if removed or reformed, can build truly Democratic practices designed to support the actual will of people—practices that, if won and made durable, can in turn become the platform on which to build a mass Democratic politics in the US.
One definition of Democratic Socialism I’ve grown fond of, is the one my comrade Paul Garver mentions in his presentation in MWL called What is Democratic Socialism?:
Democratic Socialism, at its core, is about deepening democracy where it exists, and introducing democracy where it is absent.
If we reset the ground for meaningful and Democratic electoral processes, for example, we can in turn reset the ground for the steady democratization of workplaces, schools, healthcare systems, and all civic and educational and social institutions in the US.
“The democratic revolution commands our political attention. Here the conflicts are most explicit, and the questions of power involved make it very uneven and confused. Yet in any general view it is impossible to mistake the rising determination, almost everywhere, that people should govern themselves, and make their own decisions, without concession of this right to any particular group, nationality or class.
In sixty years of this century the politics of the world have already been changed beyond recognition in any earlier terms. Whether in popular revolution, in the liberation movements of colonial peoples, or in the extension of parliamentary suffrage, the same basic demand is evident. Yet the demand has been and is being very powerfully resisted, not only by the weight of other traditions, but by violence and fraud. If we take the criterion that people should govern themselves (the methods by which they do so being less important than this central fact) it is evident that the democratic revolution is still at a very early stage.”As of August 2022, Biden’s record on these scores is at best mixed; as of this writing, Biden has kept in place Trump era immigration policies (including family separation), has allowed the building of Trump’s wall to proceed, has awarded more drilling permits on public lands at this point in his presidency than any former President (including Trump), and he and the Democratic Party have decided that, in order to win the vote, ‘Defund the Police’ is a non-starter, and increasing support for policing in the US is the way to win elections.
1 As of August 2022, Biden’s record on these scores is at best mixed; as of this writing, Biden has kept in place Trump era immigration policies (including family separation), has allowed the building of Trump’s wall to proceed, has awarded more drilling permits on public lands at this point in his presidency than any former President (including Trump), and he and the Democratic Party have decided that, in order to win the vote, ‘Defund the Police’ is a non-starter, and increasing support for policing in the US is the way to win elections.
2 As expected, Biden’s overtures to the Right and his support for policing, Trump-era immigration policy, ineffectual climate reform, and abjectly pro-business agenda have not attracted the right to the center, but have only allowed Trumpism to further normalize even farther Right ideologies and policies. The normalization of the attack on women’s bodies in the wake of the overturning of Roe v Wade is just one example.
3 Neither Trump nor Carlson show any signs of wanting to be absorbed into any centrist consensus, but count in Bill Kristol, David Frum, and other right-wing cheerleaders of the Forever Wars and a post-history Neoliberal consensus.
4 The 2020 election, it turns out, drew close to 75% participation, far larger than any US Presidential election in recent memory, and Biden and Trump both received more votes than any Presidential candidates in US history. This questions the received wisdom that Republicans depend on voter suppression for victories, while supporting the fact that, yes, they would have won in 2020 by expanding voter suppression techniques. As it turns out, many Republican controlled states have in earnest begun to pass severe voting restrictions.
5 See ‘January 6’
6 The MMP has suffered from lack of organization, tepid support, and scandal.