Remember When We Had Elections?
by Richard Heinberg
November 9, 2002
“If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
– George W. Bush (12/18/2000)
November 5, 2002: In a closely watched off-year election, amid near record-low voter turnout, Republicans gained control of the United States Senate. Today the party of George W. Bush, the current resident of the White House, presides over all three branches of the federal government.
Most Americans appear to believe that this was just another election. But there are reasons to fear that it may actually represent one of the final nails in the coffin of American democracy.
This extraordinary assertion is not merely an expression of partisan bitterness over the rightward drift of American politics. What is happening now is of far more historical and structural significance than a temporary shift in the relative power of the parties. As I propose to show, disturbing signs point toward the ongoing emergence of a fascist-style dictatorship in the US.
Is American democracy really dead, or merely a little under the weather? In exploring that question, it may be helpful to start by defining our terms: What, exactly, is democracy?
Conventionally, democracy—from the Greek demokratia, meaning “rule by the people”— is regarded as an artifact of Greek civilization and of the Enlightenment. But from a larger historical and anthropological perspective, it can be seen as the result of an attempt on the part of people living in modern complex societies to regain some of the autonomy and egalitarianism that characterized life in the hunter-gatherer bands of our distant ancestors. Indeed, as many writers have documented, the structure of the US Federal government, with its elections and separations of powers, probably owes more to early explorers’ contacts with Native American tribes—especially the Iroquois Confederacy—than to the ideas of any European or Euro-American philosopher. (1) True, the Athenians had a form of democracy, though women and slaves were excluded from the demos—the enfranchised citizenry—and thus denied participation. For the Athenians and for later Europeans, the democratic ideal represented a reaction against concentrations of power that arose in the development of stratified agricultural states and that burdened successive generations with slavery, serfdom, colonialism, and every other imaginable form of domination and exploitation. For people who had come to see the social pyramid as inescapable, the idea that ordinary people should have a say in making the decisions that affected their lives was not just attractive, it was positively intoxicating.
In most instances, democracy has been more an ideal than a realized achievement. Democracy appears to require:
· citizen involvement in every level and phase of decision making,
· a free flow of accurate information,
· the complete transparency of all decisions and decision-making processes,
· systems of accountability and citizen review, and
· mechanisms for representing and incorporating minority views in
decisions, in proportion to their appearance among the population as a
In addition, experience has shown that a healthy democracy requires minimization of wealth inequalities within a society: if some citizens have vastly greater control over resources than others, they will inevitably be able to buy political influence in a variety of ways.
Much progress has been made during the past two centuries of global democratic revolution, in that many nations now have democratically elected governments. However, most military, financial, corporate, and religious organizations are still characterized by the exercise of authoritarian power. And with the growth in influence over elected governments of corporations, banks, and armies, democracy is as much threatened today in actual practice as it is lauded in the self-congratulatory rhetoric of politicians.
The democratic process is seldom a simple, transparent affair. It is, after all, a contest for power—a contest not just between or among competing individuals and groups for control of resources, but a contest over the breadth of distribution of decision-making power within society, and over the nature of the process by which power may legitimately be wielded.
For democracy to exist, mechanisms of information sharing, negotiation, review, checks, and balances must be built into the social system. But those mechanisms must themselves routinely be monitored and periodically reinvented. Wherever a citizenry becomes lulled into thinking that its institutions perfectly embody the democratic ideal and need not be reassessed, true democracy will sooner or later become endangered.
Unfortunately, that appears to be precisely what has happened in the United States of America over the course of the past few decades.
Today in the US, democracy of a sort still exists within local communities. Citizens can still elect city council members or county boards of supervisors and vote on local school-bond initiatives. But at the higher levels of government—the state and federal levels—democracy has become little more than a slogan.
For practical purposes, American democracy was already comatose long before the most recent election. It was an imperfect project from the outset: many of the “founding fathers” distrusted the citizenry and believed, as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, once put it, that “the people who own the country should govern it.” Women were excluded from the electoral process altogether at first, as were African Americans in the South, and Native Americans and non-landowners everywhere. The rights guaranteed in the first five amendments to the Constitution—including freedoms of speech, religion, press, and assembly—were won only as concessions by the governing class to popular protest. But those rights have periodically been eroded or suspended. During the Civil War and the two World Wars, the Bill of Rights was put largely in abeyance and the executive branch of the federal government assumed almost total power. But these measures were understood to be temporary.
It could be argued that, in some respects, American democracy reached its zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after women had gained voting rights (in 1921) and blacks had overturned the Jim Crow laws with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But the seeds of democracy’s undoing were already present.
The two-party system gained a stranglehold on American politics almost from the beginning and certainly after the Civil War, and for many decades provided a certain corrupt stability to the political regime. Each major party had both a liberal wing and a conservative wing, though over all the Republicans more faithfully represented the wealthy while the Democrats represented working people. As the parties battled each other for power, factions within parties fought for ideological control. With periodic exceptions, most important political decisions came about through backroom deals; leaders of the two parties, though adversaries, typically related to one another in a spirit of collegial cordiality.
But with the Nixon Strategy of the early 1970s a fundamental change swept the nation’s political landscape. Nixon claimed to support equality, but his stated opposition to “big government” actually translated as a promise to backpedal on the enforcement of civil rights or integration laws. Nixon also promoted black capitalism in an effort to drive a wedge between middle-class and poor blacks. Republicans thus tied their fortunes to an alliance between big business, southern whites, and Christian fundamentalists. With southern white Democrats fleeing to the GOP, the Democratic Party had no choice but to rely more on its traditional liberal-wing base of unions and minorities, meanwhile hoping to lure moderate Republicans to its side. The Democrats continued to focus on bread-and-butter issues that working people typically care about—education, Social Security, health care, and good jobs; while Republicans campaigned for increased military budgets, and against taxes and government bureaucracy. Nixon’s strategy—which, at its core, exploited racist sentiments—succeeded, helping the GOP win five of the past eight presidential elections.
Both parties had long and deep ties to wealthy individuals and corporations. Though Democrats nourished those ties through their support for “free trade,” Republicans were able to serve their corporate benefactors more effectively through the additional advocacy of tax cuts for the rich and restraint of government regulation; they thus gained the lion’s share of campaign contributions in election after election.
As politics became more polarized, it became uglier. Increasingly, Republicans played the elections game not just to gain the upper hand, but to utterly destroy their adversaries. They seemed to possess an assurance—perhaps traceable to the increasingly fundamentalist religious bent of their membership—that theirs was a righteous and patriotic cause; that they were the only ones fit to assume the nation’s mantle of leadership; and that their liberal opponents were not only incompetent and wrongheaded, but morally degenerate. The Democrats were not prepared for this kind of self-righteous, take-no-prisoners confrontationalism, and typically ended up looking wimpish and silly, their concerns over environmental, women’s, and racial issues dismissed by Republicans as “political correctness.” Even Clinton’s canny co-opting of the conservative agenda in 1992 and 1996 could not hold the Right at bay. Though a majority of people in the country actually identified with issues the Democrats historically championed, Republicans often proved themselves the superior strategists. In 1994 the Southern Strategy helped the GOP end Democrats’ 40-year rule in Congress; and the ’94 Gingrich revolution in turn led to the Clinton impeachment hearings. While Democrats persevered under the old assumption that politics was the art of compromise, Republicans played hardball, lunging for the jugular, equating even the smallest concession with total defeat. Increasingly, the Democrats’ strategic response was simply to ape Republican policies, thus alienating their own traditional power base.
Part of the Republican strategy centered on the judiciary. Many civil-rights gains had come about through rulings by liberal New Deal-era federal judges. The Republicans saw that their long-term success would require replacing these judges with their own judicial activists who would roll back affirmative action, environmental and labor protections, and abortion rights (the last to placate the religious Right). As more conservatives were appointed to the federal bench during the Reagan-Bush years, the entire legal system swerved rightward.
Meanwhile, the very machinery of democracy—in the most literal sense—became increasingly tainted. Increasingly, voting was being accomplished with machines, and disturbing signs appeared that the companies that designed, built, and controlled voting machines had interests at heart other than the determination of the will of the electorate. As Lynn Landes notes in her article, “Voting Machines: A High Tech Ambush,” “Voting machine companies [nationwide] are privately held and extremely secretive. They form a web of overlapping ownership, financing, staff, and equipment that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to separate one from the other. ES&S, the largest voting machine company, claims to have counted 56% of the vote in the last four presidential elections.” The Voting Rights Division of the Department of Justice is empowered to oversee voting machine companies, but actually engages in virtually no direct supervision. Landes concludes that “We have a voting system that appears to be in a constant state of name change and rotating management, but always under the private control of the rich and infamous. Meanwhile, Congress has just passed a law that effectively throws hundreds of millions of dollars at voting machine companies that have a record that includes partisanship, bribery, secrecy, and rampant technical ‘malfunctions.’” (2)
The necessary infrastructure of democracy does not stop with the institutions and technology of governance; a functional democracy also depends upon free flow of accurate information. Thus in a real though informal sense, the media could be said constitute a fourth branch of the US government. Here again, events of the past few decades can be seen to have cut democracy off at the knees.
Starting in the 1980s, conservatives adopted the spectacularly effective tactic of accusing the media of liberal bias. The media’s only defense was to move to the right. But this was not a difficult or uncomfortable maneuver: the owners of the media were themselves members of the wealthy ruling class and tended already to be politically conservative. The rightward drift of the US media has been apparent to those with historical perspective.
Comparative research by media watch-groups consistently documents the increasing degree to which television and radio talk shows are dominated by conservative commentators. (3) Further, a recent study by Reporters Without Borders on press freedom within nations ranked the US seventeenth in degree of press freedom, behind Costa Rica and Slovenia. (4) But this study didn’t tell the whole story: it examined independence of media from direct government controls, as well as instances of reporters being harassed or jailed. It did not examine subtler forms of information manipulation, such as the planting of covert intelligence agents in news organizations. As was documented by the Church Commission in the 1970s, the CIA has infiltrated virtually every major news outlet in the US and routinely shapes coverage of the news, plants false news stories, and tailors the public debate through its links with prominent commentators.
Once one is alert to these influences on the media, the daily news reveals itself as often being carefully tailored to confuse and distort. A recent example: anti-war demonstrations on Saturday, Oct. 27 drew between 100,000 and 200,000 people to Washington, DC. This was the largest such rally since the Vietnam War. A similar rally in San Francisco that day drew roughly 80,000. The next day, in a buried story, the New York Times reported that “thousands” protested and that organizers were “disappointed.” In fact, far from being disappointed, march organizers said they were ecstatic with the turnout. Similarly, on the day of the protests, National Public Radio noted that “ten thousand” showed up in Washington—one tenth the number cited by the Washington police, whose crowd estimates are always low. Apparently it is now possible for hundreds of thousands of citizens to appear in the streets of US cities in broad daylight, holding signs and marching, and yet remain invisible to the media. This fact in itself should be newsworthy.
Politicians, the military, and the corporations have all learned to use mind-control tactics pioneered throughout the last century by the advertising and PR industries. Norman Livergood, head of an artificial intelligence program at the US Army War College between 1993 and 1995, notes in his web-published essay “Brainwashing America” that, in his former career, he
"conducted studies on profiling, psychological programming, and brainwashing. I explored and developed personality simulation systems, an advanced technology used in military war games, FBI profiling, political campaigning, and advertising. Part of my discovery was that unenlightened human minds are combinations of infantile beliefs and emotional patterns; these patterns can be simulated in profiling systems; and these profiling systems can be used to program and control people. Personality simulation systems are being used to create political campaigns that apply voter profiles to control their voting behavior. TV commercials and programs use personality simulation to profile viewers to control their purchasing and viewing behaviors." (6)
The Southern Strategy. Corporate control of both political parties. Collusion between the Military, the CIA, and rightist political forces. Dubious election procedures. Even with all of these at work, the American political system managed for decades to maintain a semblance of fairness and openness. But the groundwork was gradually being laid for a fundamental reorganization of the US government, foreign policy, and system of democracy.
Many of the elements of this groundwork coalesced in the 2000 presidential election. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, won over a half-million more votes than his rival, George W. Bush. But, because of America’s arcane system for electing presidents, this fact alone did not automatically give Democrats the White House. The decision turned on Florida’s electoral votes, and in Florida the rolls of eligible voters had been purged—by Republican officials—of 94,000 names of possible felons (in Florida, felons may not vote). As it turned out, only 3,000 of these were the names of actual felons; the rest were mostly of African Americans and others likely to vote Democratic. Other irregularities abounded, with, for example, many blacks being harassed or turned away from polling places. With vote tallies for both sides nearly identical, the process of counting became more contentious. Bush, temporarily ahead by a scant few hundred votes, petitioned the Supreme Court, whose five-member Republican majority called a halt to the vote count, effectively declaring Bush the winner.
The election was stolen, plain and simple, and the theft occurred in a way such that anyone who was interested could see exactly what was happening. But the American people, rather than rising up and demanding that all of the Florida votes be counted, simply went about their business and forgot the entire episode. If one were to pinpoint the moment of death of American Democracy, it would likely be at that failure, in December 2000, of the American citizenry to respond to the most egregious public example of political larceny in the nation’s history. As long as there are elections, someone will try to rig them. But when people stop caring if elections are rigged or stolen, then elections themselves cease to have any meaning.
Afterward the Democrats seemed, if anything, to lose whatever sense of direction they still retained, participating half-heartedly in the passage of Bush’s huge tax cut designed overwhelmingly to benefit the super-rich.
Then came the horrific events of 9/11. Immediately afterward, Bush declared a war without end on enemies that would include not only the “terrorists” responsible for the actual hijackings and killings, but any nation that might be suspected of harboring “evil-doers.” Congress quickly passed the USA Patriot Act, which set aside numerous civil liberties; meanwhile, executive orders mandated extra-judicial mass imprisonments and summary executions. Congress also gave the Executive the power to attack first Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Disturbing questions soon surfaced about the events of September 11, 2001: several commentators, including respected writer Gore Vidal, noted suspicious indications of government foreknowledge of, and involvement with the attacks, and drew parallels with the Reichstag fire incident which, in 1933, provided a pretext for Hitler to assume dictatorial powers in Germany. (6)
Early in his term, Bush had selected for prominent administration positions some of the most hawkish members of his father’s entourage—men like Richard Armitage (the current Deputy Secretary of State), who had been deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and was more recently alleged to be linked to “terrorist” and criminal networks in the Middle East and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union; and John Negroponte (the current Ambassador to the UN), who played a significant role in the planning and carrying out of CIA-sponsored war crimes against Hondurans and Nicaraguans—including mass torture, disappearances, and assassinations—during the 1980s. Many prominent figures in the administration (including Bush himself) were also implicated in instances of egregious corporate fraud. Taken together, the Cheneys, Perles, Rumsfelds, Armitages, and Negropontes of the new administration appeared to stand for a foreign policy of world domination, and a domestic policy of embezzlement and political repression.
One gets the impression that these are people who do not care much about democracy; nor do they have much interest in fair play. Nor are they likely again to relinquish power peacefully, as they did in 1992.
This perception has led many to speculate about the tragic death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota just two weeks prior to the recent mid-term elections. While there is as yet no specific evidence of foul play, weather does not seem to have been a factor in Wellstone’s plane crash. The plane itself, a Beech King Air, has an outstanding safety record, was equipped with de-icers, and had two highly experienced pilots at the controls. Veteran pilot Everett Long has commented,
"There was one brief story after the crash of a local pilot at that airport knowing the senator’s plane didn’t make it—and his question was, “what happened?” That pilot immediately took off in a small airplane—much like my own—doubtful it had deicing equipment. The pilot flew outbound on the approach track of the King Air and found the smoking crash site. Please note: If the weather was so bad that the senator’s plane was having problems with the approach—that other pilot in a smaller airplane could not have taken off and found the crashed King Air!" (7)
In the opinion of Long, other than inexplicable pilot error only a “catastrophic failure” aboard the plane could have caused the crash. The death of Wellstone called to mind the oddly similar plane crash that killed Missouri Democratic senatorial candidate Mel Carnahan just weeks prior to the 2000 election. Historically, according to investigative journalist Mike Ruppert, roughly twice as many Democratic politicians have died in plane crashes as Republicans. (8)
Following the November 5 election the Republicans were understandably jubilant. Bush read the poll results as a mandate for war, another round of tax cuts, and the appointment of scores of rightist federal judges.
And so here we are. Soon the war with Iraq will commence; and, if all goes as planned, the US will extend its military empire around the globe, seizing control of the world’s remaining oil resources while using the well-tested tactics of economic globalization and forced “structural adjustment” to undermine the economy of one nation after another. As James K. Galbraith writes in The Unbearable Costs of Empire, “It will be a policy, in short, of beggar-all-of-our-neighbors while we live alone, in increasing idleness and inside the dollar bubble.” However it is a policy that can succeed only in the short run, if at all. In the long run, according to Galbraith,
"It will make lives miserable elsewhere, generating ever more resistance, terrorism and military engagement. Meanwhile, we will not experience even gradual exposure to the changing energy balance; we will therefore never make the investments required to adjust, even eventually, to a world of scarce and expensive oil. In the end, therefore, that world will arrive much more abruptly than it otherwise would, shaking the fragile edifice of our oil economy to its foundations. And we will someday face a double explosion: of anger against our arrogance and of actual shortage and collapsing living standards. . . ." (9)
Domestic resistance to perpetual war must be expected. What to do about the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who will take to the streets?
The Homeland Security Bill has not yet passed Congress, but it assuredly will in the days to come, creating a vast executive-branch department for the purpose of policing the citizenry and stamping out dissent. Again, while much is new here, the groundwork was laid many years ago: Executive Order 11490, signed by Nixon on Oct. 28, 1969, outlined emergency functions that are to be performed by some 28 executive departments and agencies. Under the terms of the order, if the President declares that a national emergency exists, the executive branch (via the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA) can take over all communications media; seize all sources of power; take charge of all food resources; control all highways and seaports; seize all railroads, inland waterways, airports, and storage facilities; commandeer all civilians to work under federal supervision; control all activities relating to health, education, and welfare; shift any segment of the population from one locality to another; take over farms and ranches; and regulate the amount of money citizens may withdraw from banks. Under later executive orders issued by Reagan and Bush I, provisional concentration camps were set up in military bases around the country in the event of domestic disturbances.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon and domestic law-enforcement agencies are collaborating on the development of a new generation of non-lethal crowd control weapons, including aerosolized incapacitating mass drug-delivery systems and microwave “guns” that can heat the skin of people in large crowds to painful or blistering levels in seconds.
A Post–Democratic Era—or the Dawn of True Democracy?
Repression will inevitably call forth ever more resistance. And sooner or later the resistance movement must come to a fundamental realization: the particular institutional forms of democracy that Americans have known for over two centuries have finally outlived their usefulness and can probably never be truly revived, even if some of those familiar forms (courts, Congress, elections, and parties) persist in some zombie-like state.
Instead of fighting to hang onto this ersatz democracy of two-party elections, campaign commercials, and corporate influence-buying, the resistance must pioneer new forms. Democracy cannot go back; it must go forward if it is not to perish altogether.
Part of the current political dilemma in the US is that Americans are taught that they have a democracy; they think of democracy not as an evolving process, but as an automatic birthright. They are not motivated to imagine and experiment.
Many countries, including most in Europe, have incorporated proportional representation and instant run-off voting into their electoral procedures. These simple mechanisms make it far easier for third and fourth parties to succeed. They are not foolproof mechanisms, but do ensure representation of minority views far better than does the winner-take-all system of American politics.
Much more radically democratic reforms are possible. Since the 1980s, many grassroots social movements have adopted decision-making strategies based on achieving consensus within small, face-to-face affinity groups, which then choose delegates to represent their consensus decisions within larger regional, national, or global meetings. This is a model that has long been advocated by anarchist philosophers; it is also set forth in Muammar Gaddhafi’s Green Book—a quirky piece of radical literature widely distributed among resistance movements globally, though it is virtually unknown in the US. This model differs fundamentally from standard parliamentary or US congressional models in that, in the latter, once representatives are elected, they may vote or set policy as they like (or as they are threatened or bribed to do). In the anarchist model, delegates may only convey the will of the people on any given issue as determined in a face-to-face process of mutual education, discussion, and negotiation. It has been said that the difference between American democracy and overt dictatorship is that, in America, we elect our rulers. In the anarchist model, there are no rulers other than the people themselves. Political power remains grounded at the local level and at the human scale, even if broader levels of organization—regional, continental, or even global—are deemed useful.
True democracy takes time and effort and requires the learning of communication and negotiation skills. The alternative, however, is authoritarianism in its myriad forms. In our lives, all of us—Americans included—have to decide whether we prefer the convenience of leaving the decisions that affect us to others, or the bother of responsibility and involvement. Democracy does not ensure that the right decisions will always be made, but it does enlist the diverse perceptions and skills of the entire populace in solving the endless variety of problems with which every society is eventually confronted.
When and how will the American resistance movement coalesce? What will be the degree of state repression of political dissent in the new monolithic American Republican Antiterrorist regime? Will resistance eventually overcome repression? Stay tuned: it’s going to be a long election night.
Richard Heinberg is a journalist and educator. He has lectured widely, appearing on national radio and television in five countries, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society, March 2003). Heinberg is a member of the Core Faculty of New College of California in Santa Rosa, where he teaches courses on “Energy and Society” and “Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Community.” Heinberg writes and publishes The MuseLetter, “a monthly exploration of cultural renewal,” where this essay first appeared. Dissident Voice very highly recommends and encourages folks to check out and support The MuseLetter. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. See, for example, Jack Weatherford’s classic book Indian Givers (Ballantine, 1988)
4. See www.rsf.fr/content.php3