This week, after over a year of pundit driven obsession and hysteria, the U.S. 2016 election came to an end. Donald Trump, a semi-sentient, spray-tanned, bag of dog cum, and Hillary Clinton, a politicking android designed to defend and perfect neoliberalism, were two of the least popular candidates in U.S. history.
Behind the reality television aesthetic of the 2016 election something genuinely unique is happening. People are becoming fed up with the system. This frustration is embryonic but important. It is evident in the worker duped by Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and the semi-fanaticism of Bernie Sanders voters. People are tired of the “status quo”,”money in politics”, “bad deals”, and “the 1%”.
Most significantly, it can be seen in the incredibly low voter turnout. People simply refusing to take part in the presidential election indicates the realization that we were not offered a real choice.
Presidential elections are touted as the height of democratic participation and presented as the crown jewel of liberal democracy, but we are seeing now more than ever that America’s democracy is a factional dispute between billionaires and their respective political parties. The masses of people are beginning to realize what, in their subconscious, they already knew- that there is nothing democratic about liberal democracy, that your voice does not matter, and that the system is actually designed to work this way.
What follows is a brief overview of this system.
The United States has a long history of systemic voter suppression. A significant portion of the population, based on the color of their skin, were enslaved as chattel until the mid 19th century and then openly terrorized, disenfranchised, and segregated until the mid 20th century (this continues today, only less overtly). Additionally women did not have the right to vote until 1920, and up to the mid 19th century individuals had to own a certain amount of property in order to vote. But to believe that voter suppression is a thing of the past would be a mistake.
Let’s start with the most obvious: Election day is not a national holiday, it is a regular work day. If you have to work on election day it can be incredibly difficult to find the time to vote. Richer, whiter, voters may be able to take time off, but the poorest workers cannot; and with polling places closing between 6pm and 8pm in every state it is impossible for some people to get to the voting booth. Early voting is seen by liberals as an acceptable solution to this problem. Even this is under attack though, as some states have enacted laws restricting early voting.
But voter suppression goes deeper than just having the time to vote on election day. Conservatives, in a cynical ploy to suppress the votes of the poor and working class, have concocted the myth of widespread voter fraud. This myth has been used to enact repressive voter identification laws in many states. These laws restrict the types of identification polling stations will accept- work, college, and public assistance i.ds are among the types of identification that cannot be accepted. Of course, this disproportionately effects minorities, immigrants, the poor, the elderly, the young, and the disabled from voting in elections. Individuals from these populations may not have the money, transportation, or time required to obtain appropriate identification. In some places their is simply no where to get the proper identification. A good example is Alabama, where 28 counties in the state’s black-belt have nowhere to obtain a driver’s license.
Voter i.d. laws are an obstacle only if you are already registered to vote, which is another way African Americans in particular are disenfranchised. In some states, like North Carolina, or Florida, state officials have purged the voter roles of registered black voters.
Finally, up to 51 million eligible voters in the United States aren’t registered to vote. Which begs the question…if voting is supposed to be a citizen’s right, why do we have to register to vote at all?
The next roadblock to actual democracy is a process called “gerrymandering”. Gerrymandering can be difficult to describe. It is essentially the redrawing of congressional districts by a political party that gives said political party an advantage during congressional elections. It is a concept easier to understand with a visual:
You see, the party in charge of drawing congressional districts can draw the lines anyway they want- cutting up known progressive population areas into little pieces and then grouping those pieces together with larger conservative districts. This essentially dissolves the progressive vote. Here is an example of how absurd the shapes of these districts can get:
In the last congressional election gerrymandering allowed the Republicans to retain control of the House, despite being outvoted. Mother Jones provides a good visualization here:
The Electoral College
If you can actually get to the polls to cast your vote on election day it may seem like you are casting your ballot for president, but in reality it is more complicated. When the founders drew up the Constitution one of the areas of disagreement was whether or not to have congress elect the president, or have white land owning males elect the president. They compromised and created the Electoral College.
The Electoral College works like this: Before the presidential election a slate of “electors” are nominated by each political party. When you cast your ballot you are not voting for a candidate but for a political party’s electors.
The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, with 270 forming a majority. All but two states have a winner take all system. For example: the state of New Jersey has 14 elector spots to fill, or 14 “electoral votes”. If a majority of the population votes for the Democratic Party, then all 14 elector slots go to the Democratic Party electors, who vote for the Democratic nominee at a later date. This occurs in each state until one party has 270 electoral votes. Everyone who voted Republican in New Jersey? Their votes never make it to the Republican candidate. Everyone who voted Democrat in Texas? Their votes are effectively useless.
To simplify- each state has a certain number of points. NJ 14, Utah 3, California 55, etc. Whichever party gains the most votes in California then gets 55 points for their candidate. Your individual vote does not actually count towards your preferred candidate. Instead it decides which candidate is going to get the points your state has to offer. The President of the United States is not chosen by popular vote. In fact, there have been Presidents who have lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote. Meaning more people voted for the other candidate and it didn’t matter. A disastrous example of this phenomenon occurred last week.
The Merger of Capitalists and the State
Let’s take a step back from the individual roadblocks to democracy and examine the broader cause, namely, capitalist control of the state apparatus.
A simplified explanation of Marxism can help us to understand this major barrier to democracy. There are the capitalists, those who own the factories, supply chains, transportation, and distribution of commodities i.e. the means of production. Then there is the rest of us, the workers. We work in the factories, we drive the trucks, we punch in the numbers, we assemble the parts, build the bridges, serve the food, pack the packages, etc. Society is divided into two opposing classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the owners and the workers.
In Marxist theory the state is a tool used by one class to suppress the other. During feudalism the state was used to exploit the serfs for the benefit of the lords. In modern society the state is used by capitalists to maintain their power and exploit the workers. Evidence for this is not hard to find.
Many of us are conscious of this when we speak of “money in politics“. It is well documented that our elections, presidential or otherwise, are primarily funded by wealthy individuals and corporations. Getting this point across was arguably Bernie Sanders’ entire campaign message. The Senator routinely railed against the most infamous example of money corrupting politics, “Citizens United”. The Supreme Court decision allowed corporations to funnel an unheard of amount of money into political campaigns via “super pacs”. Unfortunately, this is just scratching the surface.
Individual capitalists bankroll entire political campaigns. The most famous of these capitalists include the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, but there are many, many, more. Besides paying for individual politician’s campaigns, these billionaires own the media that cover the elections, coordinate with and fund influential think-tanks that shape policy, draft legislation, and bankroll legislative campaign.
Lobbying is another way that capitalists stunt authentic democracy. Each lobby is organized by industry with the sole purpose of gaining favorable legislation for their industry and stopping unfavorable legislation from harming their profits. The pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, defense manufacturers- every capitalist industry, has lobbyists in Washington. These lobbyists take congressman or congresswoman out to dinner, to sports games, or on expensive vacations, where they can have one on one time to plead the case for their industry. What’s more, many politicians retire and become lobbyists, calling in favors from old friends to influence policy. Of course, they get a massive pay raise when they switch from politician to lobbyist. Any good lobbying firm knows that offering a well paying job to a key congressman will yield excellent results. This system of patronage to capitalist industries is called the “revolving door” and it permeates through all levels of government from high ranking officials to congressional staffers and bureaucrats.
This last bit is hinting at the main point- the capitalists and the politicians are one in the same. Congressman and congresswomen, senators, top administration officials, and cabinet members all slide effortlessly between the role of public official and Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobile, Lockheed Martin, or corporate law firms. Eric Holder, who failed to charge any of the big banks after the 2008 financial meltdown, recently rejoined his former employer Covington & Burling, a law firm which represents the biggest banks on Wall Street. One of his coworkers is Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security from 2005–2009. Chertoff is also co-founder of the “Chertoff Group”, a risk-management and security consulting company that also employs former members of the U.S. government including Mike Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA. This is a man responsible for Guantanamo Bay, CIA black sites and torture, government surveillance, and a literal countless number of extrajudicial killings abroad. I highly recommend the Chertoff Group’s “team” page, if only to see how banal the face of evil is and how many of them worked in the White House. Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA from 2009-2013 now works for Apple. The former director of the Domestic Policy Council, Melody Barnes, is now on the board of directors for the defense contracting giant Booz Allen Hamilton. Obama’s former deputy chief of staff went on to work for UBS, a global financial services company. She is currently a partner for Macro Advisory Partners, which, even by it own attempt at a sterile description, is clearly a vampiric entity whose sole existence is to extract profit from the global poor: “We work with senior management and the boards of global companies to provide them with the macroeconomic and geopolitical judgments necessary to ensure effective strategies for global expansion”. Rich Armitage, deputy director of the Bush administration’s State Department, sits on the board of directors for ManTech International– a defense and national security company whose board members include a former CIA official who helped assess intelligence information during the lead up to the Iraq war, the head of an investment management firm, and a retired Lieutenant General. Samuel Bodman, deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce from 2001-2004, deputy Secretary of the Treasury from 2004-2005, and Secretary of Energy from 2005-2009, joined the board of directors for the chemical giant Dupont shortly after leaving the White House.
The list goes on and on. Every administration official, Senator, representative, and congressional staffer comes from or moves onto a position at some nefarious capitalist organization.
This class of people seamlessly weave in and out of government bureaucracy, Wall Street, corporate law firms, lobbying firms, defense contractors, oil companies etc. When socialists talk about the ruling class, the elites, the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, these are the people we are speaking about.
If a congressman is voted out of office he merely becomes a lobbyist and gains even more influence. If the term limit of an administration ends, the individual functionaries and bureaucrats join institutions that hold enormous power over the state. There is no election that can rid the state of capitalist interests, which means their is no election that will force the state to work in the interest of the workers.
The Two Party System: A One Party State
In 1956 W.E.B. Dubois explained why he would not be voting:
I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.
His words are still pertinent sixty-four years later. The two party system is, in actuality, a one party state. The Democrats and Republicans are factions of the same party- the capitalist party. Each faction plays the role of defending, maintaining, and expanding capitalism- which as demonstrated above, is not surprising considering the individuals who hold state power. The only difference between Republicans and Democrats is a relatively minor one: strategy. Each party has its preferred ways of maintaining capitalism and imperialism.
Each party has “represented” different bases throughout history. At certain times the Democrats have looked like Republicans and vice versa. In recent decades the Republicans have appealed more and more to the racism and misogyny that lies at the heart of the United States. They attack civil rights and planned parenthood, immigrants and people of color, make religious appeals to their base, and promise voters that they all can one day become small business owners. Their strategy shows capital as it really is- brutal, violent, and uncompromising. The Democrats pretend to be more progressive. For example, they (recently) came around to the idea of gay marriage, they sometimes pay lip service to the welfare state, and, depending on the area of the country, they support abortion rights. But the ruthless nature of capital remains, just in disguise. In certain ways this allows the Democrats to enact the policies of capital with less resistance from the masses. In fact, Democrats often accomplish what Republicans are too incompetent to accomplish. A few examples include: mass deportations, expanding the war on terror, prosecuting whistle blowers, expanding mass surveillance, increasing fracking, escalating tensions with Russia, and regime change. While Democrats represent a lesser evil than the Republicans, they still represent an evil. The most significant change between party administrations is rhetoric and strategy; Republicans appeal to the darkest impulses of the United States and use those impulses to hack away at social programs and attack minority groups, while the Democrats- acting carefully and less overtly brutal- hide their anti-worker and racist policies behind faux progressive-ism.
If voters wish to vote for a party that represents something other than capital and the racism and misogyny that supports it then they are free to do so. Parties of this sort are not outright banned, but systematically prevented from obtaining power.
Third party disfranchisement is a result of various anti-democratic measures. The first being the Electoral College. Even if an alternative candidate gains 49% of the vote in a state they will receive no electoral votes, which are the only votes that matter. First past the post voting extends downwards to congressional and state elections, which means everyone who did not vote for the winning candidate receives no representation in the Executive or Legislative branches. Third party candidates often can’t be voted for at all. In the 2016 presidential election cycle the Libertarian Party was the only alternative party with ballot access in all 50 states. The Green Party had access in 45. Both were able to do this because they had the money and full-time organizers to petition for ballot access. The plethora of other alternative parties do not have the resources to navigate the complexities of gaining access to the ballot.
First past the post voting and ballot access aside, it is still an uphill battle for alternative political parties. Campaign funding reimbursement is only available to parties who receive 5% of the popular vote during federal elections. Any prospect of obtaining this is hindered by the 15% poll requirement to gain entry into the national debates (the organization in charge of setting up the debates, known as the Commission on Presidential Debates, is run by the Democratic and Republican Party), ballot access, and poor media coverage.
Capitalists are able to retain control of the state in part because of the monopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. These two factions were created by and for capital and its interests. The two may bicker among one another but these arguments are fraternal. The end goal remains the same: maintenance and strengthening of the status quo, of exploitation, of war, of capitalism. Only one party is permitted to have power- the Capitalist Party
The Executive, the Senate, the Supreme Court
The United States government-as it’s taught in schools around the country- is a government of checks and balances: the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive branches of government all share power and keep the other in check. But in practice every check and balance, whether built into the system or having evolved over time, is concentrated on combating the will of the people.
The Executive Branch
The Executive branch is a sprawling bureaucracy (headed by a president placed there through the undemocratic election process) that gains more power every decade. Each federal agency and commission unfolds into smaller bureaucracies. The Department of Defense alone encompasses the office of Secretary of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of the Navy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, and accounts for 21% of the federal budget. On election day voters elect one candidate, and that one candidate appoints and oversees this entire military bureaucracy.
Here is what the entire DoD looks like:
It’s no wonder that the Executive controls almost all aspects of foreign policy. Which is made clear by the numerous “conflicts” it has initiated over the heads of Congress since the invasion of Vietnam. Congress, who ostensibly has the sole power to declare war, hasn’t done so since World War Two. Under Obama the executive branch has improved and formalized it’s ability to kill anyone around the world at will. There are no checks, no balance, when it comes to the United States military. ***
Of course, the above is a brief summary of only one section of the Executive. This is the Department of Energy:
Here is the Department of Justice:
And this is the Department of Commerce:
Additionally the President appoints “czars” to coordinate between different parts of the executive. In this way the executive is able to unify its bureaucracy around different issues in an attempt to bypass congress. Writing for Dissent magazine, Mark Tushnet explains:
Then there are the czars. Presidents appoint czars to deal with new policy problems that cut across regulatory areas, like managing the recent automobile bailout. In a different political environment, presidents might send legislation to Congress. Believing that to be pointless, however, most presidents have decided to appoint czars to pull together everyone who has existing statutory authority in a particular field of policymaking. The czars have no power to develop new regulations, but their prominence and White House credentials give them enormous influence over those who do the regulatory work—and this helps enact presidential policies without congressional oversight.
How is it possible to hold this vast, powerful, bureaucracy accountable to the masses of people? Supposedly this is the purpose of the Legislative and Judicial branches of government.
But the Executive has checks on the Legislative and Judicial branches too. Popular legislation passed by Congress can be vetoed by the president. One person can end the democratic will of the people with a single signature. Of course, the legislative branch can overturn the veto with a two thirds majority, but this is rare. Additionally the president nominates which judges sit on the Supreme Court. The justices sit on the court for life. Which means presidents can have a disproportionately dramatic effect on policy decades after their term is over.
The Legislative branch is supposedly the most democratic institution in the United States, but unfortunately this means nothing. The Executive branch is constantly finding ways to bypass Congress, which is evident in the creation of policy czars, the top down bureaucracy, and the deep state that it represents. It is further compromised by the two party system and the revolving door, and is subject to the same voting restrictions and voter suppression mentioned earlier.
Even beyond this, the Legislative branch is undemocratic at its very core. The blame for this falls at the feet of the Senate. The Senate is the most reactionary, undemocratic, elitist institution of any modern liberal democracy. It’s existence is based exclusively on suppressing the more democratic House of Representatives.
The democratic principle of “one person, one vote” does not exist in the Senate. Instead it is morphed into the principle of “one state, one vote”. While states send representatives to the House proportionate to their population, the Senate is selected on the premise of equal representation of all states. The state of Wyoming, population 584,000, has the same number of votes in the Senate as New York’s almost 20 million people. This allows Senators representing a small minority of the country to block the will of the majority. In fact, 84% of the population can be outvoted by 16% living in the least populated states. The process of filibustering allows 41 Senators representing less than 11% of the population to block any legislation from being voted on in the Senate.
This minority ruled institution is incredibly powerful. Any legislation that is passed by the House can be rejected or altered by the Senate. It has veto powers over executive appointments and treaties. Two-thirds of the Senate is required to pass a constitutional amendment. It is completely at odds with mass democracy.
This power is firmly in the hands of reactionaries. It has allowed the racist, sexist, elitist, forces of conservative America to strangle progressive reforms in their infancy. The Right has long dominated American politics and as long as the Senate exists this dominance will continue. Daniel Lazare, writing for Jacobin, explains:
Over the next decade or so, the white portion of the ten largest states is projected to continue ticking downward, while the opposite will occur in the ten smallest.
By 2030, the population ratio between the largest and smallest state is estimated to increase from sixty-five to one to nearly eighty-nine to one. The Senate will be more racist as a consequence, more unrepresentative, and more of a plaything in the hands of the militant right.
The Senate is antithetical to everything we are taught about democracy. It represents the interests of the few, not the people.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the final judge of all laws passed by Congress and the grand interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. It has the ability to over turn legislation passed by Congress through the power of judicial review Each justice is nominated by the Executive Branch and confirmed by the Senate. Every justice serves for life.
The Supreme Court was once looked upon by the Left as the primary vehicle for social change. Despite occasional progressive victories the Supreme Court remains wholly reactionary, it’s function is to serve power. For every Obergefell v. Hodges there is a Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and a Citizens United v. FEC.
The Court has the ability to obstruct and eliminate state intervention into the economy, especially when the justice’s lean conservative. Popular legislation passed by Congress can be overturned in part or in full by an un-elected body of nine people, serving a life term, tasked with upholding and interpreting an inherently undemocratic document.
An unfortunate effect of this power is that progressives focus their social justice efforts almost exclusively through the litigation process. The court system can be a useful tool, but it is no substitute for mass movements, direct struggle, and workers’ political organizations. The Supreme Court is not a vehicle for emancipatory politics. It is an undemocratic, unaccountable, institution that has the power to destroy mass movements and Left policies. It is the preserver of the systemic oligarchy that’s been describe here in this essay.
I highly recommend Rob Hunter’s piece in Jacobin for a more in depth analysis and history of the Supreme Court.
A major facet of capitalism is its economic tyranny. In the political realm we are given the illusion of democracy. In our economic lives we should have no illusions. Like the feudal lords who owned the land and the serfs who were forced to work it, today a few wealthy capitalists own the means of production that all of us need to survive. If the serfs were allowed, through a convoluted process stacked against them, to vote for their lords, would we call that democracy? No. True democracy is only possible when the mass of people have control over their lives, their communities, and the means of production.
As it stands today the worker works to create a profit for the owner and is rewarded with a wage that is just enough to live on. In many places around the world the wage is not enough to live on. The worker has no say on how companies are run, how resources are to be allocated, and how production is to be arranged. They have no voice when massive layoffs occur or wages are cut. The working class is the most numerous class on the planet and the average worker spends a majority of their life working- producing for society, making society function. But the working class has no control over the means of production. They have no control over the society that depends on them to survive. Socialists demand that the working class, i.e. the mass of people who do not own the means of production, have complete control of society.
What we are all living under today is the dictatorship of capital. It is the rule of the capitalists, who control the means of production and use the state to maintain that control. It is the tyranny of the CEO’s, Wall Street executives, corrupt politicians, and bureaucrats that decide the fate of our lives.
What we need is a dictatorship of the working class i.e. a dictatorship of the majority, where the mass of people are in control of their own lives. This can take the form of a real democracy- where the workers have wrested control of the state from the capitalists, where the workers control the means of production and plan the economy in a democratic manner. Democracy, freedom, liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness are all impossible while the majority of people are ruthlessly exploited and have no control over their own lives. Humanity’s potential is impossible to reach without the emancipation of the masses. Until that day comes democracy is a reality only for the ruling elite, and remains an illusion for the rest of us.