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Tuesday, July 10, 2018


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.


howard b said...

Professor Wolff:

As betting the house on an age old Republican strategy, do you suppose Trump tapped into a latent racism among white voters, especially given the fear of growing into an obsolete minority. Trump was pretty explicit in employing this tactic, and anxiety usually provokes a regression and rears up our uglier insides

David Palmeter said...

I pretty much agree with your analysis, although I believe you down-play the importance of money, especially at the House and Senate level and at the State level. Bernie captured the imaginations of millions and thus was able to run a full-fledged presidential campaign from a lot of $27 donors. But that kind of emotional capture doesn’t exist below the presidential level. Not many people get excited about candidates for the state legislature. You can see this right now in Florida where Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, is being greatly outspent by Rick Scott, the Republican challenger. Scott is personally very wealthy, but the big Republican donors are doing their part. Nelson doesn’t excite many people, except, perhaps, Mrs. Nelson.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I agree with that, but think what it means. You are not saying there is a structural impediment to progressive change. You are saying people for the most part can't be bothered. I do not know any set of political arrangements that is proof against indifference.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Recall Oscar Wilde's bitter witticism about socialism: "It will never work. Too many meetings."

Anonymous said...

"I do not know any set of political arrangements that is proof against indifference."

What about the status quo?

It is both the glory and the misery of democracy that the people get the government they deserved.

David Palmeter said...

“I do not know any set of political arrangements that is proof against indifference.”

Nor do I. The fact remains that the whiter you are, the older you are, and the richer you are the more likely you are to vote. So it shouldn’t surprise any of us that most government programs favor wealthy older white people.

On a thread last week that touched on this problem, I commented that young and minority voters feel ignored so they don’t vote, and because they don’t vote, they are ignored. How to convince them not only that they have a stake in election outcomes, but that their vote matters is the so-far insoluble problem.

So long as the left has to rely primarily on inspirational candidates, the longer it will be in the wilderness.

s. wallerstein said...

Speaking from personal experience, I haven't always voted, but I vote when there is a candidate who speaks to me and when I feel that there is something at stake. I'm a bit out of touch with the Democratic Party, but with the exception of Sanders and Alexandria Ocaso-Cortez the Democrats generally don't speak to me at all.

Of course I'm now older and bit richer (although not rich by U.S. standards) and I've always been white and so maybe that has some influence.

s. wallerstein said...

Nietzsche somewhere speaks of people who are right, but their form of being right convinces you to be wrong. (Not an exact quote by any means)

Consequentialists are like that. There are evident consequentialist arguments in favor of voting for the lesser evil, in this case, the mainstream Democrats, but they have almost never led me to vote.

Obviously, on the level of consequential argumentation, voting for the lesser evil makes good sense, but not all of us always are moved by good sense.

I'm not claiming that all people who don't vote are like me, but some are, so maybe if you want to motivate more people to vote, you should pay attention to what moves some of us not to vote.

I feel as little represented, as a human being, by mainstream Democrats as I do by Republicans. It's not a question of issues, but of not identifying with either of them. In U.S. politics (I repeat that I don't live in the U.S.), I identify with Sanders, with Jill Stein, with Chomsky, now with Alexandria Ocaso-Cortez, but Hillary Clinton is as alien to me as Trump is, although I share more positions with Hillary. However, for many people, identifying with the candidate, feeling represented by them is more important as the issues.

Before exiting the U.S.A. in 1977, I voted in one presidential election, for McGovern in 1972. I didn't vote for LBJ in 1964 nor for Humphrey in 1968 nor for Carter in 1976.
I just did not feel represented by LBJ, Humphrey or Carter.

Finally, taking a morally superior tone and preaching to non-voters may be counter-productive. It is with me at least, since if someone preaches at me, I prefer to live in sin. In general, sermons are the best argument in favor of being sinful.

Sorry, I'm trying to be helpful.

LFC said...

The quote attributed to Wilde is that socialism would take up too many evenings (which sounds like something he might have said, rather than "too many meetings," which is the same point but put slightly less wittily). I thought he'd actually written it somewhere but the search engine suggests that it's only "attributed."

Dean said...

"[T]he 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."

This does not compute. It's non sequitur. How does the fact that America is very wealthy have anything to do with money's influence in elections? You're dealing in counter-factuals.

Hey Man said...

Is it true that senators and representatives conform their *votes* to the prejudices of their constituents? They certainly play to those prejudices, but this seems to be largely a matter of rhetoric and appearance. Most constituents will remain ignorant of how their representatives vote on almost all issues. It seems to me that elected representatives will say what a certain proportion of their constituents want to hear, but actually vote as the relevant donors wish. Unlike the broader constituency, the donors are fully aware of how the votes they care about go. Consider the recent tax scam. As I recall, the bill was very unpopular even among Republican constituencies, but their representatives overwhelmingly supported it. Whatever they were serving, it wasn't the prejudices of their constituents. This is one reason why I think the money spent on political campaigns is an enormous problem. I do agree that the solution, for now at least, is to vote in great numbers.

Jerry Fresia said...

Your comment that "voter suppression efforts, by the way, which operate at the margins" compels me to respond. Let us recall that the rush to Philadelphia in 1787 was first and foremost an effort to suppress the democratic uprising unfolding in all 13 states (militarily in most). Charged with amending the Articles of Confederation, the Framers took it upon themselves to disregard that charge and fashion an entirely new, centralized government, with a "real military suppress rebellions." Not surprisingly, according to most estimates, only 5% of the population approved of what was taking place. And not surprisingly, the Framers, would keep secret for 50 years, notes taken during the convention.

The notes today, of course, are available. On day one, Edmund Randolph of VA began the proceedings by declaring that "Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our [state] constitutions." The "father" of what would become the US Constitution, James Madison, had this to say about the document (from memory, so words to the effect): 1) "Our task is to insure that the opulent few be protected from the interested and overbearing majority:" 2) that "checks and balances" will encourage the "private interest of every individual... to be a sentinel over the public rights," and 3) the beauty of the document arrived at is that "it gives the appearance of public participation" without actually providing it. In the early 1970s, a parallel fear of popular uprisings (aka "the 60s") again frightened elites. Aghast at the level of citizen involvement that erupted during the 60s ("state overload"), not unlike Framer's panic over the "wicked projects" that were developing wihin many of the states legislatures in the 1780s, the 1970s elites pointed to a "crisis of democracy." This fear of non-properted types by the "more responsible" "men" of great property marks every age, the glorification of the Founding period notwithstanding.

I would argue that the entire Constitutional structure functions as a voting suppression mechanism. But let us take a look at one effort, more recent and more modest. At the top of the list in 2016 was the "interstate crosscheck" ( which suppressed millions of voters. In North Carolina, where Trump's margin of victory was 177,008, the NC Crosscheck purge list contained 589,393 names. (Similar purging took place in those rustbelt states where Hillary lost by only tens of thousands of votes. Interestingly, when the Stein campaign was unearthing much of this in a post-election lawsuit, Hillary withheld legal support. With more than half of Americans (57 percent) having less than $1,000 in their savings accounts (2017 GOBankingRates survey), better to play the Russian card than have an interested majority pushing for wicked projects.

Jerry Fresia said...

ps The source of into on Trump's margin of victory and the number of voters on a Crosscheck purge list can be found here:

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein,

I couldn’t disagree more.

Politics, it seems to me, is all about consequences. The consequences of elections determine how we shall live for years to come in the only life we’re ever going to have.

In 2000, Ralph Nader justified his running as a third party candidate, likely to take votes only from the Democrat, by saying that the lesser of two evils is still evil. Perhaps, but it is also “lesser” and that’s important.

In 2000, this attitude led directly to the Iraq War and to the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. We’re living with the consequences to this day. We’re also living with the consequences of people not being inspired by or identifying with Hilary. Currently it’s the addition Neil Gorsuch and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh the Court that will all but insure a right-wing majority for decades, to say nothing of the damage Trump is doing on a daily basis in just about every other area of public policy.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

I agree that politics is all about consequences, but my point is that not everyone thinks that way and you have to convince those who don't think that way to vote.

How do you do that?

I'm 72, older, richer (although not rich) and white, and as you point out above, I now vote regularly. However, let me play the devil's advocate and let me imagine that I'm my 22 year old self, who didn't vote because he didn't identify with the bourgeois mainstream candidates. Can you convince him?