U.S. Elections: A Poor Substitute For Democracy

| Strategize!

Above Photo: African-American children gather near a voter registration booth in the early 1960s. (Kheel Center, Cornell University / Wikimedia)

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The passivity of the American populace in the face of the endlessly outrageous presidency of Donald Trump is chilling to behold. There were some meaningful outbursts of mass anger over and against his patently discriminatory travel ban and against early Trump-led Republican efforts to throw millions of Americans off health insurance. Beyond those early protests, however, it’s been abject surrender for the most part.

There were no mass protests when President Trump embraced and advanced the greenhouse gassing-to-death of life on earth by pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord or when Trump approved the ecocidal, planet-cooking Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

No mass marches rocked the nation when Trump advance-pardoned a convicted racist and fascist county sheriff (Joe Arpaio) who created deadly open-air “concentration camps” (Arpaio’s own proud term) to detain suspected undocumented immigrants of Latino background.

The streets stayed silent when Trump defended neo-Nazis and other vicious white nationalists, offering them dog-whistle encouragement after they marched and killed in defense of Confederate (slave power) war statues.

Nobody marched on the White House when Trump threatened genocidal and thermonuclear war (“fire and fury”) on North Korea, putting millions of lives at risk on and around the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s remaking of the federal bench in the image of the hard-right Federalist Society has yet to elicit significant mass protest. The same goes for Trump’s brazen killing of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Syria, his support for Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-equipped devastation of Yemen, his epic bungling of Puerto Rican disaster relief, and the numerous insults he hurled at Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Trump’s moronic and arch-nativist wall to be built on the southern U.S. border has failed to spark mass resistance. Neither has his push for an openly plutocratic tax cut that will make the already obscenely hyper-opulent U.S. superrich even more grotesquely wealthy—this even as the top 10th of the upper 1 percent in the U.S. already possesses as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and half the U.S. population is poor or near poor.

The passivity of the citizenry in the face of all this and more is particularly chilling when seen against the progressive, social-democratic and left-leaning profile of majority U.S. public opinion. As the left-liberal magazine In These Times reported three days before Trump’s inauguration, a “broad consensus … has emerged in the United States around progressive policies.” The progressive consensus, author Theo Anderson noted, “cuts across economic and social issues and includes even traditional culture-war flashpoints. On most policy questions, polling shows that about three-fifths or more of the public prefers progressive positions.” The nation’s all-too-silent progressive majority supports federally funded universal national health insurance, progressive taxation, collective bargaining rights, campaign finance reform, a higher minimum wage, free child care, legalized marijuana, abortion rights, LGBT rights, and a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

An October CNN poll showed that just a third (34 percent) of Americans support Trump’s tax cuts, whereas 52 percent oppose them and 14 percent are unsure. Only 24 percent agree with Trump and his Republican allies that the cuts will make families “better off if they are passed.” An October CBS pollfound that 58 percent of Americans believe the Trump tax “reform” favors the wealthy, with just 19 percent believing it “treats everyone equally” and a mere 18 percent agreeing that it “favors the middle-class.”

Surely, this graphic chasm between majority citizen wishes and government policy is the stuff revolutions, or at least great social protest and resistance movements, are made of in nations claiming to be democracies, yes? Not in the contemporary U.S., where the populace is staying off the streets and out of social movements for the most part.

“We the people” have other, supposedly more urgent and meaningful things to do with our lives than joining together to confront a corrupt and sociopathic right-wing government that brazenly defies majority sentiment by pushing for an ever-increasing concentration of wealth, for more racist mass incarceration, for a deepening decimation of the public sector, for the removal of millions of poor and sick people from health coverage, for the right-wing takeover of the judiciary, for the shift of yet more taxpayer money to the nation’s giant war machine, and for the accelerated ruination of livable ecology.

What gives? Part of the problem is that the disconnect between majority opinion and policy is anything but novel. It’s hardly restricted to the Trump era. It’s a long-standing and richly bipartisan phenomenon. As the distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) and Marin Gilens (Princeton) show in their important new volume “Democracy in America?”:

[T]he best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves. …

This is equally true regardless of which of the two dominant political organizations hold nominal power in the executive and/or legislative branches, as Page and Gilens show.

It’s been going on for decades, and it has conditioned millions of Americans to give up on politics altogether. “Voters feel, rightly,” Anderson wrote, “that their voices don’t count. They become more cynical and disengage.” It’s nothing new.

Another and related factor is the dogged hold in U.S. political culture of the notion that the time for meaningful popular say on matters of policy is during the biennial elections that are sold to the populace as the only and real politics that matter. Again and again, people are told that going into a two-(capitalist-)ballot box for two minutes once every two or four years is a great and glorious exercise in popular self-rule. “Rejoice, citizens,” the U.S. wealth and power elite, its ubiquitous commercial media and its many highly indoctrinated intellectuals tell the people, “you get/had your participation on Election Day. Thank a military veteran.”

Nine years ago, then-Vice President Dick Cheney had an interesting response when ABC News’ Martha Raddatz told him recent polls showed that two-thirds of the U.S. populace thought the war in (on) Iraq was “not worth fighting.”

Cheney smiled as he replied, “So?”

“So … you don’t care what the American people think?” Raddatz pressed.

“No,” Cheney elaborated. “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in public opinion polls.”

Justifying Cheney’s blunt remarks shortly afterward, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was asked if the citizenry should have input on U.S. policy. “You had your input,” Perino proclaimed. “The American people have input every four years, and that’s the way our system is set up.”

The great majority of Americans technically disagreed. Fully 94 percent of U.S. citizens at the time said that government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections.

But so what? Telling pollsters you think something should be done is one thing. Acting to bring it about is something else. After some early and giant anti-war marches, the U.S. populace launched no serious great rebellion against the Bush-Cheney regime and its monumentally illegal, mass murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq. It fell back into the standard time-staggered position of electoralist default. The citizenry qua electorate tolerated the mind-boggling Iraq crime and many other Bush administration transgressions, falling prey twice in a row to the docility-inducing illusion of progressive change through presidential elections. The spectacular, multicolor 2008 election pageant delivered a culturally rebranded corporate state and empire, with Wall Street’s privileges intact and America’s vast global military machine still set on “Kill” under the “imperial grandmaster” and surveillance champion Barack Obama.

Some political scientists argue that regular elections that generate competitive contests for citizen votes are all that is required for a nation to be a democracy. They are dead wrong. “Elections alone,” Page and Gilens note, “do not guarantee democracy.” That is an understatement.

“Democracy in America?” shows that majority opinion is trumped by a deadly complex of forces in the U.S.: campaign finance, candidate selection, lobbying and policy. Powerful and wealthy individuals, corporations and interest groups set the agenda for the special primary-election influence of extreme party activists. We also have the disproportionately affluent, white and older composition of the active (voting) electorate, the manipulation of voter turnout, the widespread dissemination of “distracting, confusing, misleading, and just plain false information,” unrepresentative political institutions (the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the over-representation of the predominantly white rural population in the U.S. Senate, and one-party rule in the House), constitutional and related partisan gridlock, and the fragmentation of authority in government.

Mammon reigns. American “public” policy, Page and Gilens write, “reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”

Page and Gilens leave out much that is central to the problem of how the rich rule America. They say nothing about the rise of a lethal and ubiquitous police, prison and surveillance state inside the U.S. (The story of government repression of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and of earlier left and anti-plutocratic movements, is missing from their volume.) The intimately related problem of the giant U.S. military state and global empire (great forms of upward wealth distribution and authoritarian power) is glaringly absent. The critical and ongoing historical roles of racial and ethnic division and “divide and rule” are barely touched upon. Also omitted are the critical ideological and propagandistic, consent-manufacturing roles of the corporate media and the capture of the nation’s educational system by the corporate and financial elite.

Another key omission in “Democracy in America?” is the workplace. As the radical economist Richard Wolff reminds us, ordinary working-class and working-age Americans spend most of their waking lives on the job, under the authoritarian and often despotic supervision of employers. Until its workers own, direct and structure their own workplaces as “associated producers,” democratically determining the purpose and nature of their productive activities and appropriating the surplus generated for themselves and the broader common good, it is difficult to think of a society as meaningfully democratic.

Capitalism and democracy have long stood in fundamental opposition to each other—a problem that does not engage Page and Gilens.

Still, their book is a devastating indictment of the inner plutocratic workings of an elections system that is falsely trumpeted as an unmatched model of popular self-rule. If the book’s findings were properly appreciated, disseminated and discussed, Americans might focus less on elections and candidates and more on building the kinds of great grass-roots, sociopolitical movements that have shaken the nation to its foundations and shifted its direction in the past. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the anti-Vietnam War movement hardly waited for election dates and the sympathy of politicians to change things. They undertook powerful non-electoral direct actions like the sit-down strike wave of 1936-37, the courageous lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of 1960-62, and the many mass mobilizations for peace that occurred in the 1960s and early ’70s. Slaves and abolitionists didn’t wait for the 1864 presidential election to force President Lincoln’s hand (along with the Confederacy’s early military victories in the Civil War) on emancipation.

“The really critical thing,” the great American radical historian Howard Zinn noted after George W. Bush was first installed in the White House, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.”

As Zinn elaborated in an essay on and against the “Election Madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” in the year of Obama’s ascendancy, an “election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls. …” Zinn acknowledged that he probably would support one major-party candidate over another “for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.”

But then he said the same thing as Dick Cheney, but with a very different meaning: So what? “Before and after those two minutes,” Zinn wrote:

[O]ur time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice. … We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism. … Before [elections] … and after … we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

This is why I resisted the temptation to be awestruck by the remarkable outpouring of Americans who protested the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. Cable news talking heads marveled at the marches, calling them the “biggest social movement since the 1960s.” But what were those massive but polite, pink-hatted marches all about? While many of the chants and signs heard and seen at the historic marches indicated policy concerns, the clear and simple thing that had put millions in the streets was the awful man who is now sitting in the White House. It was about an election outcome. The new president hadn’t even made any policy yet. What he’s actually done as president has yet to generate protests remotely on the scale of the ones sparked by the Awful One’s entrance into the Oval Office.

Most of the millions who hit the streets to voice outrage against the election of Trump would have stayed home if it had been the dismal arch-corporatist and “lying neoliberal warmonger” Hillary Clinton being inaugurated. And that is very telling. As Chris Hedges noted in the summer of 2016:

The predatory financial institutions on Wall Street will trash the economy and loot the U.S. Treasury on the way to another economic collapse whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is president. Poor, unarmed people of color will be gunned down in the streets of our cities whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is president. The system of neo-slavery in our prisons, where we keep poor men and poor women of color in cages because we have taken from them the possibility of employment, education and dignity, will be maintained whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is president. Millions of undocumented people will be deported whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is president. Austerity programs will cut or abolish public services, further decay the infrastructure and curtail social programs whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is president. Money will replace the vote whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is president. And half the country, which now lives in poverty, will remain in misery whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton becomes president. This is not speculation. We know this because there has been total continuity on every issue, from trade agreements to war to mass deportations, between the Bush administration and the administration of Barack Obama. … The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is capitalism. And this is the beast we are called to fight and slay. Until that is done, nothing of substance will change. … To reduce the political debate, as [Bernie] Sanders and others are doing, to political personalities is political infantilism. We have undergone a corporate coup. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will not reverse this coup. They, like Barack Obama, know where the centers of power lie. They serve these centers of power.

The dysfunctional overfocus on who’s sitting in the White House—yes, the horrific Boss Tweet—is sustained between the quadrennial election spectacles by the cable news talking heads and the late-night comedians, for whom Trump is a gift that keeps on giving. It is fed by hopes for impeachment on grounds of collusion with Russia in the subversion of our supposed great democratic electoral process.

All the evils that Hedges mentions would survive the impeachment and removal of Trump. Nothing of substance would change.

Zinn and Hedges’ wise words belong in the front of the minds of all citizens and workers who want to see democracy break out and take hold at long last in the oligarchic United States. They help us keep our eyes on the real prize: changing policy in a progressive direction and radically restructuring society beneath and beyond the biennial and quadrennial big-money, major-media, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) that are sold to us as politics, “the only politics that matters.”

Zinn and Hedges’ counsel also help keep us on guard against the parasitic army of Democratic Party politicos who are constantly working to stick their poisonous claws into social movements. Beneath their deceptive language of “resistance,” the “progressive” politicos’ underlying agenda is always to channel genuine popular resistance into narrow get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic candidates. Their mission is to drown social movements in the icy waters of major-party political calculation and the endless dollar-drenched and candidate-focused “Election Madness.” (See anti-war activist and attorney Phillip Crawford’s remarkable account titled “Whatever Happened to the Trump Resistance?” on how the Democratic Party front-group Indivisible played this role earlier this year in Monterey County, Calif.). They are snake oil salesmen hawking the false belief that we can win progressive change by “turning out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates” (Page and Gilens).

The sooner we develop a different and more Zinnian politics—one concerned less with who’s sitting in the White House (and Congress and state government) than with who’s sitting in the streets, shop floors, offices, halls of government—the sooner we’ll have a chance of getting on the path to a decent and democratic future.


  • Bob Beal

    The Democratic Party, liberals, and even the label “progressive” are worse than useless.

    Privatization of social security is no longer a non-starter as it was under Bush the Second’s first term. Now there is no “third rail” in U.S. national politics.

    The Top 20%–the buffer for the 0.01%–are unconcerned with the imminent shredding of the social safety net to pre-Johnson (War on Poverty) levels. Moreover, they are happy to ride whatever bubble Wall Street and its militarist guarantors care to blow.

    From: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/12/02/pers-d02.html :

    “The Democrats are not seeking to rally popular opposition to a brazen tax giveaway to the super-rich. Rather, they are appealing to the Republicans to let them participate in the grubby legislative horse-trading.”

  • AlanMacDonald

    This is my radical/Revolutionary comment that I made on the New York Times’ Editorial Board Opinion piece, “A Historic Tax Heist” this morning —
    and which they published:

    Alan MacDonald

    Wells, Maine

    5 hours ago

    “The only positive in this bill, which allows massive looting of average
    Americans to support the tiny 1%, is that this brutal abuse of power and
    facade of democracy by both Vichy parties will greatly advance we the
    American people’s understanding and efforts to work together for an
    essential Second American people’s peaceful patriotic
    “Political/economic and social Revolution Against Empire” —as our fore-fathers did only a dozen years after both the British and French Empires agreed to end the facade of contesting efforts [1763] and to allow the American ‘subjects’ to be ruled by the British Empire while the French Empire in a compromised position was allowed other colonial possessions (and ‘subjects’) to rule and loot.

    As Bernie should have rallied the majority of we Americans “Political Revolution Against Empire”

    And as Pat would have shouted if Tom had taken the Paine to edit his cry: “Give Me Liberty from EMPIRE or Give Me Death”

    NY Times link:


    Again, I must point out to the serious principled Left that the NYT as well as the Washington Post appear to be surprisingly open to serious criticism of our government being ‘called-out’ as an Empire if this truth is expressed clearly and honestly — Who Knew, eh??

  • DHFabian

    There’s a full range of reasons behind the fact that people aren’t coming together to “Rise Up,” and these involve issues that should have been openly discussed over the past 20-some years. The lack of people marching in the streets has nothing to do with apathy, as the bourgeoisie seem to think. Today, few can risk losing their jobs by “rising up,” knowing there’s nothing to fall back on.

    Although it’s now fading into the past, the fact that Occupy itself was
    identified as a “middle class movement” was a defining
    point that alienated millions. Our poverty crisis is so severe that the overall life expectancy of the US poor already fell below that of every developed nation, and yet today’s liberals (by any other name) have treated this as an issue of no importance.

    Years of work went into pitting us against each other by class and race. We’re now deluged with critically important issues, overwhelmed by crises to the degree that we can’t prioritize them.

  • Maybe they’re afraid of getting arrested and spending half their lives in jail. Maybe they’re afraid of being kettled and getting the shit kicked out of them by the cops. Maybe they’re afraid of losing their jobs and not having a way to do those inconsequential, bourgeois things like, oh, ya know, take care of their families. Put food on the table. Keep a roof over their heads. Pay the flipping bills.

    You realize, Paul Street, that dozens of people are facing felony charges in federal court as we speak for the crime of peaceful protest on Inauguration Day? Including journalists? Yes, of course you do. I know you know that. Yet you ask why we’re not all out there laying our asses on the line. Gee, can’t imagine why.

    As for a pox on both their houses, Dem and Repub, sure, yes, we get it. You’re right. There’s more to political change than walking into a polling booth. But staying home out of pique doesn’t help. It sure didn’t in 2016.

    I didn’t vote for Hillary. But then I don’t live in a swing state. If I had, I would’ve held my nose and pulled the lever for her. Now we have an unhinged, volatile, lying, frothing, sociopathic ignoramus in the White House, with his finger on the button, and a monumentally corrupt GOP Congress enabling him every step of the way. Some shit is worse than other shit. That’s a fact. And the shit-pile we’re steaming in now is worse than anything I could’ve imagined in my lifetime. And clamoring for a socialist paradise when we’re forced to work in this system, now, as it is, doesn’t help either.

    As much as I despise Hillary Clinton, at the very least she would’ve vetoed this obscenity of a tax bill. But to the “pure” faction of the left, that apparently isn’t worth anything. Well, good luck with your purity. Let’s see where it gets us in ten years when Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the entire social safety apparatus is gutted, and we’re all living under bridges. Maybe then we can have a party! (Then again, maybe the Orangegropenführer will nuke the world and put us all out of our misery.)

  • DHFabian

    Here’s the catch: During the years since Reagan, the “corporate state” has taken control over our politics and policies. We are dependent on them — our employers. We’ve seen that when employers get annoyed-enough, they simply pack up and move on. The US began shipping out jobs in the 1980s, lost over 5 million manufacturing jobs alone since 2000. Who is going to push back against their means of survival?

  • Exactly. I’ve already lost my means of support by pushing back. Thank god I’m married or I’d be lucky to be flipping burgers.

  • DHFabian

    Look back at what happened. The Reagan Democrats of the 1980s moved further to the right to merge with the neoliberal Clinton wing in the 1990s. They’ve implemented more of the hard right agenda than Republicans would have dared to try. Liberals became solid class elitists pandering to the middle class while sweeping our poverty crisis under the carpet.

    Understand that what came to be called AFDC (our primary former welfare program) was first included in FDR’s Social Security Act (big part of the New Deal). The Clinton administration got rid of that, and took the first steps to similarly “reform” Social Security, targeting the disabled. Liberals call on us to protect Social Security only for middle class retirees. Social Security was never about middle class retirees alone. It is collectively-funded, for the common good. (Millions of elderly women who were never in the workforce, paying into Social Security, have qualified for benefits in their senior years.) As Democrats continue dismantling Social Security, they rest assured that liberal media will put “bold progressive” buttons on the next batch of right wing Dems running for Congress in 2018.

  • WindyCity1949

    A cogent, clearly stated, and accurate summary of the political reality that exists in America today. Money rules, not We the People. The fundamental problem blocking enlightened and humane social progress is the Scylla and Charybdis of capitalism and empire. The people must rise and the slay the ravening beast of capitalism.

  • WindyCity1949

    I understand your opinion, and were the problems facing us not so dire, I would agree with you. However, we no longer have the luxury of supporting the least bad (or least worst).

    The reason that the masses revolted in Russia in 1917 were complex, but certainly the primary reasons were a shortage of food, harsh working conditions, and war-weariness. Most importantly, the people saw themselves as an oppressed class.

    While the proletariat and the peasants were not uniformly aligned in their demands, they understood that they shared a common enemy, the bourgeoisie and land-owners who together ruled Tsarist Russia. They wanted change, and the socialist program of the Bolsheviks was the only option that met all their needs.

    What is lacking in America is class-consciousness. Identity politics, which the capitalist mass media and the ruling class thrive upon, divides us into competing (and often warring) camps

  • Luxury? Well, perhaps you have the luxury of manning the barricades, getting beaten up, going to jail, and losing your job. I don’t.

  • WindyCity1949

    I hear you, Lisa, and understand you completely. You’re not alone, as you so passionately pointed out. Consider that the Russian insurrectionists of 1917 also had families and jobs and lives they wanted to live and enjoy. Material circumstances were such that they knew that they no longer had anything to lose by putting their bodies on the line and risking loss and death by taking up arms. Millions had already died on the battlefields of WWI or perished at the hands of their cruel masters.

    Such intolerable levels of oppression have already touched many common folk in America—but certainly not all. The day will come, I believe, when deteriorating material circumstances in our country will reach a critical point at which an event will occur, which in itself might seem inconsequential, that will spark a mighty uprising.

    Clearly, we’re not there yet. People haven’t been pushed so far that they’re willing to man the barricades, get beat up, go to jail, lose their jobs—or their lives. But if current trends continue, and there’s no reason to think they won’t, that day will come.

  • Jon

    Just like the fifties blacklists, Lisa. Reminds me of the great movie “The Way We Were” with Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand. Good to see your voice here again!

  • Jon

    The critique is fine, Paul, but instead of putting the blame on the public at large, note this critique you cited:

    “When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general
    public has been virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is often
    thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular
    policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves.” That’s just on the policy level. But more:

    Look what happened at the most militant resistance in the past year–Standing Rock. A huge and courageous resistance was met literally with military force. We need some new innovative approaches, like finding a way to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators (or one might say perp-traitors) with courageous prosecutors and judges, to start.

  • There’s no liberal force without anti-war rally.
    That’s why I think so-called American liberal forces are total phony.
    Swearing at Trump and not holding an anti war rally against “what he has done against his foreign policy”.