In recent posts, I have spoken of Trump as leading America into fascism. Rather than continue in that dramatic rhetorical fashion, I thought today I would say something of a general nature about the structure of American politics. My conclusion, to get very much ahead of myself, will be that what is wrong with American politics, and what can be fixed, starts at the bottom, not at the top. My characterization, I hope, will also illuminate the ways in which current trends in America do and do not resemble those that brought Hitler and Mussolini to power. [The fasces, the symbol of power that gives us the word “fascism,” is ancient Roman in origin, and has been adopted by many political movements since.]
The drafters of the U. S. Constitution gave to the political structure of the new Republic three structural characteristics that, taken together, form the distinctively American political system. First, they adopted a federal structure that left autonomy and power to the several states. Originally, the federal government was strikingly weak, making seniority in the Senate, for example, almost as important as the presidency. The modern imperial presidency that we have come to take for granted is really a product first of the Great Depression and then of World War II and the ensuing Cold War.
Second, the Constitution was deliberately designed, in accordance with political theories current in the 17th and 18th centuries, to make the Senators and Representatives dependent on and answerable to their territorially defined constituents. The expectation was that the private career self-interest of the representative would make him or her [it was originally always him] sensitively attuned to constituents’ interests and desires. It is not a corruption of American democracy that Senators and Representatives conform their votes in the Legislature to the prejudices of their constituents rather than to the national interest or the ideals of democracy. It is a feature, not a bug, as folks like to say these days. Nor should we imagine that the moral character of Republicans is necessarily inferior to that of Democrats. There is really nothing to choose, from a transcendental perspective, between Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Each represents his constituents quite effectively and sensitively.
Third, the election of the president was to be determined by each state’s electors rather than by the popular vote. We are all painfully conscious of this feature of American democracy because the last two Republican presidencies have come to that office after losing the popular vote.
These structural characteristics, particularly the first and third, are in no way integral to democracy per se. In South Africa, for example, voters choose political parties, not candidates. Each party nominates an entire slate, in order of party preference, long enough in theory to fill the legislature. The party’s national share of the popular vote determines which segment of the list, counting from the top, goes into the government. Thus, no person in South Africa can identify his or her representative, and members of the legislature do not have a defined body of constituents. The third characteristic, the Electoral College, is of course unique to America.
With this as the fundamental structure of American democracy, there are two features of the contemporary operation of the political system that, more than any other, deserve our attention. One of these is vastly more important than the other.
The first feature is the role of money in elections. Although this feature routinely gets enormous attention by progressive critics of the system, particularly in the aftermath of the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, it is in fact relative to other factors not terribly important. America is a very large and very wealthy country, and elections are not very expensive. In a full-scale presidential campaign these days, the two parties together spend about as much in total as Americans will spend that year on peanut butter, namely ~2.5 billion dollars. There are more than enough super-rich lefties to fill the coffers of the Democratic Party, and if a candidate wishes to go the Bernie Sanders route, well, ten million supporters donating $25 each will provide 250 million dollars. What is more, whereas television is expensive, social media are virtually free. A lack of money on the left does not explain why America is teetering on the edge of fascism.
The second feature, which is the key to everything that is currently politically wrong with America, is that vast numbers of Americans eligible to vote do not bother to do so. This has nothing to do with voter suppression efforts, by the way, which operate at the margins. The simple fact is that in presidential elections, only 55-60% of the eligible voters vote, and in mid-term elections, only 35-40% vote. Once again, this is not inevitable. Currently, there are about ten democracies around the world that actually require all citizens to vote.
So, as I have often observed on this blog, in the American political system as it currently operates, the secret to success is mobilizing and motivating one’s supporters. [Gerrymandering, which currently favors Republicans, is entirely a consequence of the success of the Republicans in bringing their supporters to the polls in mid-term and off-year state elections.] The Democrats actually have a majority share of the electorate in their support, and for a variety of demographic reasons, their advantage is over time improving.
Why then are we not having fun?
There are many reasons, but one stands out, in my view, above all the others. A large part of the White majority is affronted, offended, frightened, angered, and bewildered by the patent fact that America is moving inexorably toward majority non-white status. These emotions dominate and even put into eclipse economic interest, with two consequences: First, enabling Republicans to successfully serve the interests of big business by playing on the racial fears of Whites whom they are economically screwing; and Second, enabling an opportunist like Trump to drop the dog whistles and go full frontal fascist.
What can we do? Sigh. It is such a letdown to follow this highfalutin analysis with a banal punch line, but the answer is simple. Vote.