In lieu of a movement—or, much better if possible, in conjunction with a movement—the left needs to win elections. One big problem of the Obama years was the down-ballot devastation of the Democrats, in Congress, in state legislatures, and in governorships.
Elections, of course, are the heart and soul of democratic politics, the privileged means by which democracies avoid violence by allowing for the non-violent transfer of power. But it has become increasingly difficult to call the US democratic. So it seems naïve to place one’s faith in elections. And that’s even before we consider all the inadequacies of the Democratic Party as the left’s representative in the electoral sweepstakes.
There is no reason for me to do more here than list the features that make the US non-democratic: voter suppression, gerrymandering, the role of money in politics, the Electoral College and the Senate (both of which give minorities from small states disproportionate power.) The work of Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has made it clear we live in a plutocracy. The health care bill (more like a health destruction bill) the Republicans are about to pass demonstrates quite clearly just how plutocratic our system is.
I just want to mention my three deepest fears about non-democracy.
- Senate nullification. When the Senate refused to even consider Merrick Garland for a Supreme Court seat, it assumed its right to simply block presidential prerogatives. The right has stacked the judiciary by refusing to ratify Democratic nominations for the federal bench.
- Supreme Court nullification. Hope for any Supreme Court action to curb voter suppression and gerrymandering is most likely misplaced. Andrew Kennedy is a slim reed on which to place such high hopes. Democracy, unfortunately, is not a constitutional value. Nothing in that document makes a law or practice invalid by virtue of its being undemocratic.
- The Electoral College. The Democrats have now won the popular vote twice in 20 years and still lost the presidency. If this pattern holds, we are going to have both a president and a Senate elected by the minority time and again. How long can that be sustained? How long do California and New York have to tolerate being governed by Wyoming and Idaho and Kansas and Texas?
The process of amending the Constitution (as was done in the progressive era) is now so far beyond the reach of possibility as to be off the table. Yet several Constitutional amendments are desperately needed: a right to vote (those showing up to vote should be presumed innocent until proven guilty; multiple days to vote; Election Day a national holiday; equal distribution of polling places—i.e. one for every 75,000 citizens—to avoid the long lines in urban areas compared to voting taking 10 minutes in rural areas and the suburbs; same day registration etc. etc.); popular election of the president; ten year terms for Supreme Court justices, with one possible renewal (i.e. 20 years on the court at most); the filibuster abolished, but also the various ways in which the Senate can block presidential nominations through inaction and other inanities; some kind of system like the Brits have for “first” and “second” reading of legislative bills to avoid the skullduggery of the current legislative process; creation of independent districting commissions for legislative and Congressional districts; some solution—either strict spending limits or public financing or limiting contributions to in-district contributors—to the money in politics swamp, including strict disclosure rules about who is giving money, with a ban on all corporate contributions another possibility; the prohibition of outside groups from writing legislation, i.e. laws are to be written by legislators not lobbyists.
I am sure there are more reforms needed. But that list is daunting enough.
The system is currently so corrupt and so dysfunctional and so blatantly gives power to a small minority that a) it makes counting on elections seem absurd, suggesting that more direct and disruptive tactics are required and b) making me (at least) wonder how long it can stagger along. A system so broken and so unresponsive must (it would seem) generate massive unrest. Yet, yet, yet . . . Its stability is both astounding and rock solid.
That solidity is, in part, the unthinkability of violence coupled with the despairing realization that anything short of violence won’t do the trick. But, also in part, people’s lives are not intolerable enough. They have just enough to not want to risk what they have. There is plenty of fear (insecurity about employment and the costs of medical care, education, and old age is rampant) and outrage (although that outrage spills off into two very different directions, either against the shameless privileged or against the maligned poor and immigrants) out there, but not enough (apparently) to spur a mass movement—and certainly well short of creating sustained violence.
Those are my dark thoughts. We live in a deeply undemocratic society in which the plutocrats have consolidated their power over the past forty years—and yet their abuses have not stirred anything like a sustained counter-movement while they have rendered electoral politics almost completely irrelevant, no serious threat to their agenda.