Strong democracy and its base

In his most recent truthdig article, "Do Not Pity the Democrats," Chris Hedges speaks the truth about power in the United States today:

There are no longer any major institutions in American society, including the press, the educational system, the financial sector, labor unions, the arts, religious institutions and our dysfunctional political parties, which can be considered democratic. The intent, design and function of these institutions, controlled by corporate money, are to bolster the hierarchical and anti-democratic power of the corporate state. These institutions, often mouthing liberal values, abet and perpetuate mounting inequality. They operate increasingly in secrecy. They ignore suffering or sacrifice human lives for profit. They control and manipulate all levers of power and mass communication. They have muzzled the voices and concerns of citizens. They use entertainment, celebrity gossip and emotionally laden public-relations lies to seduce us into believing in a Disneyworld fantasy of democracy.

Who, according to Hedges, should we not fear and who actually threatens us?

The menace we face does not come from the insane wing of the Republican Party, which may make huge inroads in the coming elections, but the institutions tasked with protecting democratic participation. Do not fear Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. Do not fear the tea party movement, the birthers, the legions of conspiracy theorists or the militias. Fear the underlying corporate power structure, which no one, from Barack Obama to the right-wing nut cases who pollute the airwaves, can alter. If the hegemony of the corporate state is not soon broken we will descend into a technologically enhanced age of barbarism.

We should fear, Hedges claims, the American system itself, as it now exists and as it likely will exist tomorrow and the day after. Fear, that is, America's version of Democratic Capitalism. We should fear it because the American system includes as a necessary component a compromised democratic political system. By compromised democracy I mean to refer to the institutions and mechanisms which make the holders of political and socio-economic power unaccountable to the citizens who suffer elite decisions and which insulates the elite from democratic control from below. This is system with a diminished civil society and public sphere. It is a system with a phantom citizenry. And it is a system in which the elite need not perform to the satisfaction of its citizens or, perhaps, subjects. This makes it an unresponsive system, for "A government is 'responsive' if it adopts policies that are signaled as preferred by citizens" (Manin, Przeworski, Stokes, p. 9). It is natural to believe an unresponsive and irresponsible government would be voted out of office by those citizens whom it betrayed. But in America's compromised system, voting out one unresponsive and irresponsible party entails opting for another unresponsive and irresponsible party. This "damned if you do, damned if you don't" electoral mechanism makes immediate and long-term systemic reform an unfeasible goal.

Hedges's solution to America's democracy deficit: Viable political work can occur only when it rejects America's compromised democracy:

Hope is a word that is applicable only to those who grasp reality, however bleak, and do something meaningful to fight back—which does not include the farce of elections and involvement in mainstream political parties. Hope is about fighting against the real forces of destruction, not chanting "Yes We Can!" in rallies orchestrated by marketing experts, television crews, pollsters and propagandists or begging Obama to be Obama. Hope, in the hands of realists, spreads fear into the black heart of the corporate elite. But hope, real hope, remains thwarted by our collective self-delusion.


A few caveats to consider before November

An earlier version of this article appeared on Firedoglake.

Might Barack Obama and the Democratic Party he leads feel more comfortable working with the Republican politicians who regularly and savagely oppose his programs? Do powerful Democrats and Republicans have common interests which draw them together? Might they have a common enemy? If the work of Walter Karp has any value today, if it provides the framework within which we may productively assess the politics of the moment, then we may wish to answer yes to each of these questions. They work together, have common interests and have a common enemy.

The common enemy of the two major parties: It is the citizens of the United States.

Years ago Walter Karp wrote:

Both the apologist and the Marxist agree in this, that the parties are political servants; of the people in the view of the former, of "economic power" in the view of the latter.

Such, in brief, is the prevailing doctrine about the political parties, minus the many qualifications called in to keep it plausible — the effects of "public apathy," of "straight-ticket voting" and the like. That doctrine whose essential principle is that parties are powerless rests entirely on the axiom that parties have but one principle of action: to win election victories at all costs. That has always been assumed in advance. What happens, however, if we do not assume it in advance, if we simply look at what political parties actually do? We will discover, quickly enough, that the realities of party politics and the prevailing doctrine about parties bear no resemblance whatever, that the reality and the doctrine are exactly opposite (p. 9).

Karp augmented his critique by asserting that:

The desire to win elections is not the basic purpose of the political parties, it is not their overriding motive and interest. For the leaders of political parties, trying to win and trying to lose elections are equally useful means to a quite different political end (p. 18).

He elaborates this point thusly:

Mutual noninterference in their respective party bastions is the reason both parties retain bastions at all. It is not electoral competition which characterizes the relation between two state party organizations, but strict and pervasive collusion. That collusion does not necessarily require conspiratorial plotting in smoke-filled back rooms. It springs up automatically between two state party organizations by virtue of powerful bonds of common interest. Neither party organization could retain control of its party unless the two party organizations were in collusion. As Senator Robert La Follette rightly remarked in 1912: "Machine politics is always bipartisan." It is because it has to be (p. 31).

Finally, most importantly and obviously, Karp pointed out that: "…the two party organizations actually form a single ruling oligarchy" (p. 33). If he is right about this, overt competition masks covert oligarchic cooperation, what, then, would the political end pursued by this oligarchical contraption be? One plausible answer: Together the Democrat and Republican Parties seek to remain the coherent and nearly unique source of electable political power in the United States today and, of course, tomorrow as well. Thus considered, they are the evil to which reformers want to provide an alternative.

What conclusions might we draw from this analysis given the oligarchical, collusive and exclusive nature of America's party system, the system's deep roots in the federal and state governments along with the counter-majoritarian features of America's political institutions? On the one hand, for instance, it follows that some electoral victories will be not at all wanted by the supposed winners of these elections (p. 41). On the other hand, it is clear that some electoral results will never be taken at face value by those who hold political power. Some elections are unwanted and denied by the powerful because they threaten entrenched political power, the two-party oligarchy. To my mind, Obama's 2008 triumph, an outcome that has already generated so much noise on the right, appears to be a victory of the latter kind.

We may consider it to be such because, as we know, Barack Obama appeared to the electorate as an agent of hope and change during his run for office. He not only ran as such, but he was elected by a comfortable margin to provide what amounts to a Thermidorian Reaction to the radical excesses of the Bush administration. He would govern the country as a mature adult and rational political agent of the people who elected him, not as a longtime bumbler and a political anomaly with a messianic complex and a taste for fame and money. Barack Obama — the humane technocrat who would provide Americans with the good government they crave. Yet, have the hopes Candidate Obama elicited in the electorate been met by his Presidency? No. Has he sought to realize goals that would affirm these hopes? Once again, no. As a matter of fact, President Obama has governed so far as an agent of the political system which nurtured him and which made him what he is today. Far from providing an antidote to Bush's extremist policies, Obama has worked hard to secure some of the Bush Era 'reforms' to America's institutions, to prosecute the irrational wars the Bush administration started and to implement the gist of Bush's reactionary economic agenda. And he gained his Bush-lite 'achievements' while his party controlled both Houses of Congress! He seemingly has led an administration that controlled its destiny. Nevertheless, by taking path he did, President Obama effectively threw away Candidate Obama's electoral victory. He has not used the power he acquired then to pursue a progressive reform agenda; he instead used this power to impose on the country a center-right political solution to its problems, a solution which will master no threat but those which entrenched economic and political power will confront in the near future.

Assuming my Karp-inspired analysis abstractly accurately depicts the electoral and political situation today, we may ask whether there was any reason to think long and hard about Obama's support for Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter in the recent primary elections?, the soft touch he has used when dealing with Joe Liebermann and Alan Simpson?, the concern he showed for the interests of the drug and insurance companies? and his fealty to the surveillance-security apparatus? I do not think so. Continuing to pose questions of this kind: Why, in general, has the Obama administration seemed unconcerned with the fate of the Democratic Party in November's elections? Walter Karp would have no trouble at all when evaluating the actions of Obama and the other leaders of his party with respect to these elections, especially their indifference to the composition of the Congress. He knew that each party considers the electorate at large to be the mortal enemy of the enduring Washington system. It will be this system which will be the true winner this November. And the two parties would not have it any other way.

The unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from this analysis: Barack Obama was and remains hope's enemy insofar as this hope is felt by the common man and woman in the United States today.