Undemocratic Democracy: The U.S. Political System

The claims of this essay, which was presented in June at the Socialism 2008 conference in Chicago, have only been confirmed by Obama’s retreat from the more progressive stances that he once claimed to hold. On the death penalty, the economy, war with Iran and Afghanistan, gay marriage and many other questions–he has revealed himself to be a conservative. See http://socialistworker.org/2008/06/27/candidate-makes-right-turns , http://socialistworker.org/2008/07/02/obama-war-room for recent details.

Meanwhile, here is my talk:

Undemocratic Democracy: The US Political System
Dana Cloud, Socialism 2008

We live in a country where Presidential candidates express hope at the possibility that their opponents will get whacked before the nominating convention; where the President freely ignores the law, both national and international, in condoning torture, imprisonment without due process, wire-tapping, and the massacre of civilians; and whose corporate enterprises dictate the standard of living at home and abroad through unelected and unaccountable economic organizations. We live in a country that imprisons more Black men than it sends to college, where 45 million people have no access to health care, and where poverty still thrives.
And my daughter’s high school US government textbook opens with the claim that democracy in the United States is a “work in progress.” (To say the least!) To his credit, the author uses the civil rights movement as a model struggle for the expansion of political equality, liberty and popular sovereignty. However, the American government was never intended to be a democracy, and if we hold it to the democracy standard, it falls woefully short. Real democracy, even according to an accredited high school text in Texas, should include the self-rule of ordinary people, the recognition of the intrinsic worth and equality of all human beings, and the freedom of each person to develop their natural capacities and talents. The benchmarks of popular sovereignty, majority rule, broad participation in the political process, availability of quality information, political equality, and political liberty are the measures that define what a democracy should be.
If we were to believe George Bush or anyone in his administration, the American political system possesses all of these characteristics. It is a shining example of democracy worth defending at incredible costs against terrorists allegedly threatening “our way of life.”

But by any criterion, the Bush administration has used the defense of our alleged democracy to undermine it, from the unprecedented use of signing statements—which basically say he will do whatever he wants regardless of the law—to the Patriot Act—not to mention stealing the 2000 Presidential election election. As Scott McClellan noted in his recent memoir What Happened, the administration has been one long propaganda campaign in defense of anything but democracy.  New York Times columnist Bob Herbert charged McClellan with coming too late to the table, but also wrote: “Forget that this is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, and that the truth is supposed to matter. Mr. McClellan is being denounced as a traitor by those who readily accept the culture of deception, and who believe that a government official’s primary loyalty is not to the people, but to power itself — in this case, to the president.”

And it’s not just the Republicans. In April, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said of her plans to draw down US troops in Iraq, “We have given [Iraqis] the precious gift of freedom,” she said, “And it is up to them to decide whether to use it. But we cannot fight their civil war for them.”  In an interview with Amy Goodman, independent journalist Nir Rosen commented, “I haven’t seen the ‘precious gift of freedom; in Iraq. I mean, she’s just utterly contemptible.”  For Clinton, freedom means freedom for the US to wash its hands of the disaster it has created in Iraq.

Lest you come to the conclusion that it was just Clinton, just Bush, or just wartime necessity that has muddied the pure, driven snow of our democracy, I’m going to talk today about how undemocratic practices were built into the US government from the beginning. From the crafting of the Constitution to Clinton’s attempt to get votes counted in Michigan and Florida where the rest of the field wasn’t running, American “democracy” has been a system carefully managed to prevent the breakout of real democracy and to protect the interests of economic elites and the capitalist system itself.
The Declaration of Independence echoes the philosophical principles of the English philosopher John Locke, who in the late 17th century called for a people’s government—but without addressing the stark differences in wealth that left most people out of the governing process. Indeed, a colonial governor named Richard Morris admitted that after the revolution, “Everywhere one finds inequality.” The “founding fathers,” including Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, feared (to different degrees) the power of the people and designed the US government to hold the masses in check. Recall that the early demands of the American Revolution were “no taxation without representation” and the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness (based on Locke: “property”). The problem was that the founders needed to get the masses on board with the revolution. Therefore, they couched their demands in terms of liberation.

Historian Howard Zinn described this process: “All this, the language of popular control over governments, the right of rebellion and revolution, indignation at political tyranny, economic burdens, and military attacks, was language well suited to unite large numbers of colonists, and persuade even those who had grievances against one another to turn against England.” The rebellion against England served to unite colonists across class lines, and the fledgling state excluded women, slaves, and Indians from both the illusion of democracy and the reality of class rule. Howard Zinn described the meaning of the Revolution to Native Americans: “Now, with the British out of the way, the Americas could begin the inexorable process of pushing the Indians off their lands, killing them if they resisted.”

The class character of “democracy” in the United States was engineered into the system at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The supreme law of our land was crafted by wealthy men who gave lip service to popular rule while arguing that, as Hamilton wrote, a “well-constructed Senate [is] necessary as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”  Thus was a constitution crafted with the paramount objective aim of keeping order.

Ratified by the states in 1789 and amended to include what we now call the Bill of Rights in 1791), the Constitution was and remains a mixed bag of democratic ideals and ruling class fear of what they might unleash. In it, the more progressive ideas of the Enlightenment fight with the elitism of neoclassical ideas like Plato’s idea of the philosopher king. Against the strong executive branch and federal judiciary, The Bill of Rights pushes the document in more democratic direction by guaranteeing the right to due process (ignored by the Bush administration) and the requirement—ignored by segregationists, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—that states recognize rights granted in other states. It intentionally allowed slavery to continue up until the Civil War. It established the United States not as a direct democracy but as a federal republic. Described by the historian JGA Pockock as fundamentally Machiavellian, US “democracy” has been concerned most with control of the masses and the prevention of instability.  It was a government inspired by neoclassical elitism and crafted by a remarkably homogeneous group of wealthy men. Thus, the system of government inaugurated in the 18th century was and remains one ruled by monied elities in the name of democratic ideals.

However, the promises of liberty and equality inspired ordinary people who believed in the stated ideals of the Revolution. They continually struggled to realize the ideals that the revolutionaries put forward. These movements are familiar to us: the movement and then the war to end slavery, the movement for the enfranchisement of Blacks and women, the demands in the 1960s for the expansion of civil rights, and the protests against unjust wars. Protests against the shortcomings of the American Revolution came early. In 1780, Massachusetts farmer Daniel Shays instigated a rebellion against military service in an army that couldn’t pay him but expected him to lay down his life for the Revolution. In opposition to a war that he could see benefiting only the ruling class, Shays and eleven others were the first famous war resisters in the United States. When the state cracked down on them, Shays organized hundreds of veterans and farmers against the persecution of the rebels. One of Washington’s generals, veteran Henry Knox complained about the rebels and their ideals: “They see the weakness of government; they feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former. Their creed is ‘That the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all.’” For Knox, this creed was a bad thing.

Before the declaration of the war, Tom Paine produced what could be regarded as the liberal manifesto: the pamphlet Common Sense.  This document rallied workers and the poor behind the revolution; Paine took very seriously the idea that the people should govern themselves and argued against a system of elite electors and limited popular involvement. As Annie Zirin wrote in the International Socialist Review at the time of the 2000 “selection” fiasco: “The American Revolution was the first fully secular, fully successful bourgeois revolution. Its leaders advanced a vision of human liberty that unleashed powerful democratic aspirations around the world. As Thomas Paine, the great pamphleteer of the revolution, wrote in Common Sense, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again…. [T]he birthday of a new world is at hand.’”

The war against British tyranny gave colonists the idea that they had the power to make such a new world. Zirin describes how they organized armed people’s militias and carried out violent resistance to British occupation. “These committees burned British property, sank British ships, and led boycotts against British goods. . . . In the revolution, the masses got a taste of what it was like to play a decisive role in shaping their own society. Tens of thousands took part in the political discussions of the day. What kind of society are we fighting for? they asked. How can a government ensuring equality of all people be built? The lower classes, which had played such a decisive role in the victory, were not going to quietly accept a new set of tyrannical masters.”

But the constitution drafted by the Philadelphia convention was a far cry from the ideals of 1776. It set up a powerful executive branch, a bicameral legislature, an unelected Supreme Court, and the appointment of judges—all steps away from direct rule by the people. In the legislative branch, senators were not directly elected by the people but chosen by state governments to serve six-year terms to insulate them from popular pressure, a method that lasted until 1912! Only members of the small and weak House of Representatives were to be directly elected.

Not only did the Constitution foster a caste of politicians separated from their constituents, but it also set out to block the popular will in matters of government. The Constitution’s system of “checks and balances” and the separation of powers between the three branches of government–executive, legislative, and judicial–accomplished this aim. As described in high school civics textbooks, these elements brilliantly preserve government and social stability. They are said to prevent any one “interest” or “faction” in society from being able to push its agenda at the expense of everybody else. Alexander Hamilton defended the rule of the rich and well-born over the mass of the people, even going so far as suggesting that the President and Senate be appointed for life. “The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. . . Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.”

In his famous Federalist Paper #10 (titled “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”), James Madison argued that the greatest danger to the democracy was not the tyranny of the minority in government, but the tyranny of the majority.  As Madison wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is danger of oppression. In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehending, not from the acts of Government…but from the…major number of the constituents.” And then, getting straight to the point: “Only a minority can be interested in preserving the rights of property.”

Most significantly, the US Constitution was a compromise that benefited slaveholders by protecting smaller and less populous states (when one doesn’t count the slaves) against federal intervention against slavery. Again, however, it was struggle and eventually war against slavery that forced the system to change, leading historian Eric Foner to conclude that the Civil War and Reconstruction were another—and still unfinished—step of the American Revolution.

Thus, although the US system of government was truly revolutionary in its defeat of the British Empire, the virtuous ideals of Republicanism contradicted the reality of a federal system designed to protect and defend the interests of people who owned property. The fundamental split between Jefferson and Madison on the one hand and Hamilton on the other put in place the basic two-party, winner-takes-all system that evolved into the contest between the Democrats and Republicans in the modern United States. This system discourages the development of third parties, as does the institution of the Electoral College, a source of mass confusion and electoral manipulation still today.

The Electoral College setup exposes the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the U.S. constitutional system. The Electoral College, an institution established at the behest of slaveholders to protect their interests, could foist on the country a president who received fewer votes than his opponent, as happened in 2000. Arguing that the masses could not be trusted to select the best candidate for President, the founders created a system in which each state got a certain number of electors based on population who then would be in charge of deciding who would rule. Most states currently have a winner-takes-all election method, in which the winner of the popular vote gets all the state’s electors, but there is no necessary correspondence between winning the popular vote and winning the election (to the delight of Presidents Adams, Hayes, Harrison, and George W. Bush).

The nomination process is equally designed to circumscribe popular influence on the selection of candidates. Both the Democratic and the Republican Parties may seat party officials and other appointees as unelected delegates at the national party conventions at which Presidential candidates are chosen. There are 823 such delegates in the Democratic Party, most of them politicians or DNC officials. Even if they have pledged to support a particular candidate, they can change their minds at any time, bringing to mind visions of smoky back rooms, bribes, and secret handshakes. The net effect of the arcane nomination process can be to discourage individuals from voting, especially in states with large numbers of delegates at stake. It is remarkable in this context that Obama’s campaign has galvanized voters in ways not seen since 1968, in spite of the daily CNN reminders—complete with elaborate charts and maps— that at some point, the choice is not in our hands. “It’s not the most democratic way of doing things,” admitted Maine superdelegate Sam Spencer.

CNN.com recounted some justifications for the present system: “The superdelegate setup was established in 1982 to bring more moderate Democrats back to conventions, where their attendance had been dropping since the 1950s, and to reflect the party’s mainstream more accurately. ‘[Superdelegates] are the keepers of the faith,’ said former San Francisco, California, Mayor Willie Brown. “You have superdelegates because this is the Democratic Party. You don’t want the bleed-over from the Green Party, the independents and others in deciding who your nominee will be.’”  The irony is incredible: Because it is the democratic party the gates must be closed to the broader left. The ghost of Alexander Hamilton and his fear of the imprudent masses still rise.

And just who counts as the “mainstream” of the Democratic Party? According to Public Citizen’s report on campaign finance of candidates in the current election, all candidates in both parties use lobbyist-“bundlers” to raise big money for their campaigns. Bundling describes the activity of fundraisers who pool a large number of campaign contributions from political action committees (PACs) and individuals. Bundlers, who are often corporate CEOs, lobbyists for corporate interests, hedge fund managers, or independently wealthy people, are able to funnel far more money to campaigns than they could personally give under campaign finance laws. Campaign funds are, in essence, laundered through this process. According to Public Citizen, bundlers play an enormous role in determining the success of political campaigns and are apt to receive preferential treatment if their candidate wins. Obama has about 360 of them, venture capital lenders and wealthy spouses of corporate executives (so that he can claim not to be taking money from corporate interests), each of whom has contributed a minimum of $50,000.

Not surprisingly, McCain’s campaign is unapologetic about accepting money from lobbyists. Clinton is well known as the leader in the Senate in receiving corporate funds, including those from pharmaceutical giants and insurance companies, all the while promising health care reform. Obama has claimed to be more principled: “Washington lobbyists haven’t funded my campaign,” said Obama in January, “they won’t run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of working Americans when I am president.” According to files held by the Center for Responsive Politics, the top five contributors to the Obama campaign are registered corporate lobbyists.

Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer, put the contradictions in the Obama campaign this way:
” Big capital would have no problem with an Obama presidency. They like him because they’re socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he’s the man to do their work. They’re also confident he wouldn’t undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth.”
Last week the leader of Obama’s VP search team (and the ex-Attorney General of my home state of Texas) Jim Johnson resigned (from both posts) when it came out that as a senior executive of Fannie Mae, he received millions of dollars in home loans below market rates from Countrywide, even as poor Americans of color who took out sub-prime loans as being between $164 billion and $213 billion, the greatest loss of wealth ever recorded for people of color in the United States.

About Obama, Republican strategist Kevin Madden commented,“The pressure once again is to prove that he’s a different politician.” Backing out [of the public campaign finance system] would have “all the elements of hypocrisy and expediency that could hurt this pristine brand that he tries to promote.”  So it is widely acknowledged that politicians, like other commodities, are “brands” and the mainstream of the Democratic party is the mainstream from which the money flows.

In February, Fortune Magazine provided an accounting of the Democrats’ donors: Here are the details. Clinton (the largest beneficiary of corporate money) raised $26.6 million in the fourth quarter and nearly $117.7 million through year-end 2007. Top contributors so far: DLA Piper ($470,150); Goldman Sachs ($407,561); Morgan Stanley ($362,700); Citigroup ($350,895); and Lehman Brothers ($237,270). Obama raised $22.8 million in the fourth quarter and nearly $102.2 million by the end of 2007. Top contributors so far: Goldman Sachs ($421,763); UBS ($296,670); Lehman Brothers ($250,630); National Amusements ($245,843); and JP Morgan Chase ($240,788). Billionaire CEO of the hedge fund Citadel Investment Group Kenneth Griffin is one of Obama’s biggest fan and a large contributor. Griffin also happens to oppose increasing taxes on the wealthy and regulating international trade. After noting these figures, Fortune commented that “Corporate America likes to bet on winners.”  Obama just hired conservative economist and Wal-Mart apologist Jason Furman as his economic policy director, declaring “Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market.”

So much for a commitment to the grassroots.
In an interview on Democracy Now, Ralph Nader criticized the ways in which the abstract language of “change” and “hope” inspire people to get behind a candidate whose positions on many issues are indistinct from those of McCain, not just from Clinton.  About the war, Obama has said that he would draw down and redeploy US troops over a period of years. He has expressed interest in redeploying those troops not back to the US but to Iran, where he believes the real threat to US “democracy” lies. His stance in favor of massive US funding for Israel as a religious state and against the rights of Palestinians might shock some of his fans. After his speech to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, the largest Palestinian resistance group, condemned the speech, saying, “These statements slash any hope of any change in the American foreign policy.”  On gay marriage, he has come out, ironically, for states’ rights (although the topic does not even appear on his website’s list of issues). His appeal to states’ rights is cynical and opportunistic given that the states’ rights argument has been historically the rallying cry of pro-slavery and segregationist forces. It is especially ironic since the California court, in granting the right to marry for gays and lesbians, cited as precedent in this case the 60-year-old decision that opened the door for his own parents’ legal union. Obama’s health care plan leaves pharmaceutical and insurance companies in the picture. He has never mentioned the fight against the death penalty, and who knows where he stands on labor?

Many on the left think that Obama’s fundraising and concomitant ideological tack to the right are necessary tactics to win, and that once in office, Obama will keep his more democratic promises. Ralph Nader offered a different analysis in his appearance on Democracy Now, saying “You become a different person. If he resonated with public opinion about labor, criminal justice, corporate power, war, he’d enormously advance. . . . Why not full Medicare? We need preventive care. Why not end billing fraud? What about how a one-payer system will cut administrative costs? 1500 corporations run the government. Millions of people want something better.”

Just as corporate interests drive official politics in this country, they determine whether people live and die around the globe. Fundamental to the illusion of democracy is the equation throughout the history of our nation of democracy with the “free” market—in other words, ruthless corporate plunder of countries around the world under the direction unelected and unaccountable economic organizations like the World Trade Organization. The US has supported dictators in the name of democracy when they open up their countries’ resources and markets to US firms.

The press in this country is also free in name only. According to media scholars like Ben Bagdikian and Robert McChesney, fewer than ten—eight, in fact—media conglomerates command the vast majority of information and entertainment outlets (trade books, scholarly books and textbooks, movies, newspapers, television, cable, Internet sites, search engines, and blog spaces) around the globe.  In stark contrast to the conception of the mass media as “the fourth estate” and as a check on political power, the content of mainstream mass media is filtered through the screens of publishers, editors, advertisers, and the interests of elite social groups, making for vast uniformity in news style and content. The major news networks carry on the assumptions that the United States is a premier example of a democratic country doing good around the world, deposing dictators, saving brown women from brown men, and teaching personal responsibility and the ideals of free trade to impoverished populations everywhere. The “free” press, like a “free” people in the thinking of our rulers, is a press at liberty to make the most profit.

So far I have made the argument that the American government was founded on the defense of those with property and included several mechanisms to limit popular sovereignty. The two-party, winner take all system, the nominating process, electoral college, and campaign funding still reflect the aristocratic motives of Alexander Hamilton. Even so, the significance of the American Revolution cannot be reduced to bourgeois interests. Its ideology included the philosophy of the Enlightenment, whose thinkers heralded the ideal of a society in which people ruled themselves. The revolution made a number of radical promises that raised the hopes and expectations of ordinary people. When government could not follow through on these promises, they fought for the expansion of rights and liberties.

The same tension exists today between the hopes that a candidate like Obama has inspired and the impossibility of his following through on his promises. This tension offers a similar opportunity for activists today as it did for Shays, opponents of slavery, suffrage activists, and so on. People know it’s not a democracy when they have so little control over their jobs or the cost of food, health care, and gas, when the administration is spending two trillion dollars on a horrific war and cutting more than a trillion dollars from the tax bills of the wealthy. We know it’s not a democracy when pharmaceutical and insurance giants, alongside the ranks of Wall Street investors, have bought and paid for our politicians. In a society as fundamentally unequal as ours, talk about democracy is cheap. But working-class Americans want change, and if history is any indication, when the system is incapable of delivering real change, people will take the task into their own hands.

One of the most inspiring instances of the call for real democracy was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964, Jim Crow segregation and campaigns of racist terror had resulted in a situation where less than seven percent of Black Mississippians were registered to vote. The governing Mississippi State Democratic Party openly celebrated segregation in its 1960 constitution as the “American Southern way of life.” As part of the “Freedom Summer” campaign, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)–a parallel party modeled on the Democrats but, unlike the official Democratic Party in Mississippi, open to Blacks. By the end of the summer, 63,000 Blacks had registered in the MFDP and elected 68 delegates to go to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. By contrast, only 1,600 Blacks were able to vote in Mississippi’s regular Democratic primaries.
In Atlantic City, the MFDP argued to the credentials committee that it should be given Mississippi’s seats at the convention. The highlight was the emotional testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who recalled how she had lost her job and was viciously beaten in jail when she tried to register to vote in Mississippi. Johnson interrupted her testimony with a hastily called press conference. But millions of TV viewers still saw Hamer’s famous declaration, “If the Freedom Party is not seated now, I question America.” Soon the convention was besieged with telegrams supporting the MFDP and supporters rallied outside the convention hall. Johnson did everything he could to thwart the efforts of the MFDP, finally offering them a bogus compromise: the seating of two at-large delegates alongside the entire official, all-white party delegation. The MFDP rejected the compromise, recognizing that the mainstream Democratic Party was not an institution that could be opened up to full inclusion. Fannie Lou Hamer summed it up: “We didn’t come all this way to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here…We didn’t come all this way for no two seats, ’cause all of us is tired.”

The story of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party reveals the undemocratic nature of the electoral system and the illusion of inclusion, but it also shows how struggle from below can hold a nation to its promises. The struggle for democracy has always been part of US history because of the contradiction between what our leaders say we are and the reality of what the US represents and what it does around the world. This struggle will always be unfinished so long as capitalist society holds the promise of democracy in its steely grasp. Capitalism thwarts the self-rule of ordinary people regardless of race or class, the recognition of the intrinsic worth and equality of all human beings, and the freedom of each person to develop their natural capacities and talents. In capitalism, we do not enjoy majority rule, and broad participation in the political process is not the determining factor in choosing our leaders. Moreover, the information available to most people via the commercial media is commercially driven to substitute propaganda and trivia for real political analysis.

How do we win real democracy? I think that Fannie Lou Hamer gave us a first step: to question America, to see the hypocrisy among its politicians and the limits of what they can offer us in a society dominated by corporate interests. It takes good information to see through the lie that “our way of life” is the freest of any in the world. It takes something besides CNN election maps to tell us whom the Democratic Party actually represents and where change has actually come from. Independent media like the revolutionary newspaper and websites like Counterpunch and socialistworker.org go a long way to meeting that need, but these are tools in a much bigger task. For human dignity to replace hunger, violence, slavery, racism, and prostitution; for working class people to decide not only their representatives but their work, their pay, and all the conditions of their daily lives; for workers as the majority to decide the priorities of the whole society; for everyone to attain the complete freedom to develop their natural capacities and talents—if we are to achieve the liberation of the human race, in other words—I believe that we must rebuild the left on the basis of an independent politics that sees the system for what it is and demands something else entirely.

3 thoughts on “Undemocratic Democracy: The U.S. Political System”

  1. The Founders anticipated the decline of American democracy and the loss of public confidence in the federal government; they creted the option in Article V for a convention of state delegated to consider proposals for constitutional amendments. But Congress has refused to sanction the first convention, despite the only specified requirement being long satisfied! Learn the facts at http://www.foavc.org and become a member.


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