Can the US become a democracy that governs in the public interest?

At some point there is no longer any point in pretending that the US is a democracy. Yes, it has elections and institutions which take democratic forms, but for all practical purposes, the state no longer functions as a democracy, in the sense that elected officials and bureaucrats no longer create public policy which corresponds to the public interest.

Only 6% of Americans supported a bill passed by the US congress that allows internet service providers to sell people’s internet usage information to third parties without their consent. Basically, the US government ignored public opinion entirely when giving away the people’s right to internet privacy. Michael O’Rielly, Brendan Carr and Ajit Pai on the FCC just took away net neutrality, despite polls finding that 83% of Americans want to keep net neutrality. The FCC received 22 million comments from the public which were overwhelmingly against repealing net neutrality and the FCC commissioners decided to basically ignore the comments. A tax bill is currently being passed that raises taxes on households making less than $75,000 in order to give a $4.5 trillion tax cut to the wealthy and increase the national deficit by $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years. 62% of the proposed tax cuts will go to the top 1%.

None of these recent policy changes are surprising, because the US government has been governing on behalf of the economic elites for a long time. Gilens and Page (2014) examined 1779 federal government policy decisions between 1981 and 2002, where there was public opinion polling conducted broken down by the economic class of the respondents. Gilens and Page created a predictor of the probability that a policy change would be enacted within 4 years, based on a 0 if not enacted and 1 if enacted.
They found:
Average citizen’s preferences: 0.05,
Economic elites’ preferences: 0.78,
Mass-based interest groups: 0.24,
business interest groups: 0.43

In other words, the strongest predictor of whether a policy will be enacted is whether the economic elites want it, whereas majority public support has almost zero influence over policy decisions in the US.

Gilens and Page conclude that US democracy best fits the theory of “economic-elite domination”. Many the political theorists still call the system “democracy”, but it would be better termed an oligarchy, because the majority will of the people has a statistically insignificant influence on public policy decisions.

I have witnessed what happens to governments in Latin America that repeated make public policy decisions in the 1980s and 1990s which are opposed by overwhelming majorities of the population. The IMF, WTO, World Bank, the US government, and a number of European countries like Britain insisted on implemented neoliberal economic policies that gutted public services, sold off public utilities and resources to international investors, reduced tariffs and eliminated protection of domestic industries in Latin American countries with large debts. The elected governments in these countries were unable to refuse for fear that the economy would implode if they didn’t get the next loan to roll over the debt. There was a segment of the economic elite who benefited from neoliberalism in each country, but the overwhelming majority of the people were against these policies. Political parties knew that they could never get elected with a neoliberal platform, so they campaigned on a different agenda, but then they implemented the IMF’s policies once they got into office, because they felt there was no alternative.

The voters would vote for change, throwing first one party out of power, and then the next, until there were no more parties to throw out of power, but the same economic policies were always implemented, regardless of who was in power. In the end, all the traditional parties were discredited and the countries became ungovernable. I witnessed this phenomenon in Bolivia. The MNR, PIR and POR became hollowed out shells, totally discredited by being forced to implement neoliberal economic policy. In the end, mass protests shut down the highways by throwing rocks, cutting down trees and burning tires so that there was no transport of food into the cities. For two months in 2000, the highways were blocked due to mass protests, so people in the large cities couldn’t get meat or vegetables. The same year the city of Cochabamba went on strike when its water was privatized and sold off to Bechtel. After that, sitting presidents were twice thrown out of office by mass protests. The neighborhood associations in El Alto blocked the highway going into La Paz. The Aymara communities blocked the highways around La Paz. The coca farmers blocked the highway between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

In the end, populist parties on the left arose out of the ashes in many countries, which were able to resist the demands of the IMF. Whatever you may think of Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Ollanta in Peru, Correa in Ecuador, Evo in Bolivia, Mujica in Uruguay and Lugo in Paraguay, Bachelet in Chile, Ortega in Nicaragua, Zelaya in Honduras or Aristide in Haiti, they were products of the popular revolt against economic policies which were undemocratically implemented and opposed by large majorities of the population. Some Latin American democracies function better today than they did in the late 1990s when economic policy was not being determined democratically, but other countries are still facing deep crises in governance. When governments were not allowed to implement a popular agenda as happened in Honduras and Haiti, they have become failed states, filled with violence and repression. In Venezuela and Bolivia, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales were able to implement their agendas, but they often rode rough shod over the legal niceties and people now wonder about the fairness of the elections.

There are a lot of parallels between the crises of Latin American democracies in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the current state of American democracy. The two traditional political parties are being discredited and people are loosing faith in the system because they can see that the government is not making policy in the public interest, but rather for special interests and the benefit of the elites. Public disgust with the two parties is so high that large percentages of the American public don’t bother voting and there are more people who call themselves “independents” than Democrats or Republicans. Four decades of policy in favor of the elites has left most Americans angry at the system, so they are willing to vote for any candidate who promises to overturn the system, even it is a candidate like Donald Trump who has the highest disapproval rating of any presidential candidate since modern polling began in the 1940s. When Trump fails to keep his election promises, he will discredit the Republican party and destroy its public support, just like Latin American political parties were destroyed in the 1990s, after they campaigned on one economic agenda and implemented another.

Unfortunately, American democracy has a number of features which militate against reform, so the system has become unable to respond to popular demands and the will of the majority. Gerrymandering has created safe seats so politicians don’t fear being voted out for voting on deeply unpopular bills like latest tax bill. A number of Supreme Court decisions starting with Buckley v Valeo in 1976 have turned money into free speech in the US political system, so it can’t be effectively regulated. The winner take all voting system in the US makes it easier for elites to control the political system than proportional representation.

However, I would point to another factor that is generally not noticed. Unlike in Latin America, North Americans do not have a political tradition of mass protests that are capable of shutting down the public infrastructure. Without that tradition and a willingness to strike en masse, economic elites will not fear the long-term consequences of transferring more and more wealth to the top 0.1%. There are some of the superrich such as Warren Buffet who realize that their wealth depends on system that takes care of the majority and gives them spending power, but most economic elites are too short sighted to see that far into the future. They have to be convinced that the public might stop obeying the system and the consequences of mass revolt for them will be far worse than paying higher taxes and ceding some political control. FDR in the 1930s was able to convince a portion of the economic elite that they needed to pay higher taxes and help the unemployed if they wanted to avoid a popular revolt, but today’s elites are much less likely to respond in the same way.

Decades of anti-communist repression during the Cold War defanged the American left, so it was unable to offer a compelling counter-vision to the rise of neoliberalism. Only recently has class-consciousness started coming to the fore with the economic crash of 2008-9 and movements like Occupy in the US. There has been a remarkable change in attitudes among people who came of age seeing Capitalism fail during the 2008-9 crash and grew up getting their news off the internet, so they weren’t under the sway of media companies like NBC, CNN, Time and the New York Times that censor radical critiques of the system.

Americans generally fear and/or respect their government and the institutions of power more than people in other democracies. For all the talk about “freedom” and “liberty” in American political discourse, Americans are much more fearful of exercising their political freedoms than people in other democracies. Americans are trained to fear the power and violence of the police. I have frequently witnessed Latin Americans talking back to the police in ways that North Americans do not dare. Nationalism and militarism are certainly part of the system (especially in places like Chile), but most Latin Americans don’t grow up under the delusion that the military is fighting for their freedom or that they have a moral right to impose their will on other nations.

During my travels through 18 Latin American countries, I have observed people protesting in ways that North Americans could not imagine. In some Latin American countries like Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, people are more fearful of the police and the military, because of a history of disappearances and repression, but in most Latin American countries, people feel far freer to protest than in the US. I remember trying to organize students to protest against the illegal invasion of Iraq when I was in grad school and we didn’t even consider occupying a public street. The idea of blocking a street was beyond what we considered possible, yet the majority of Latin Americans have participated in a protest at some point in their lives where they block public streets and even shut down highways. Perhaps it is part of their tradition of group processions for religious and national holidays, but Latin Americans are accustomed to marching in the streets and group action in a way that is foreign to North Americans.

Latin Americans also aren’t raised conflating their interests with the interests of the elites. They don’t grow up believing in a Mexican or Brazilian Dream that they will one day be part of the upper class. They also don’t grow up believing that socialism is beyond the pale of polite conversation and they weren’t scarred by being called a “commie” on the playground at school. Thankfully, people under the age of 35 have a clearer view of how the world actually works, unlike my generation, which grew up imbibing an ideology of rugged individualism that had little basis in sociological reality.

There are signs of hope, however, which makes me think that the current state of American oligarchy might not last. Polls show that more Americans under the age of 35 have a negative view of Capitalism than Socialism. Most Americans hold leftist positions when polled on the individual issues, despite what they may call themselves politically, but younger generations poll more to the left than their parents and grandparents. Younger generations are also less respectful of institutions of power and they are less likely to believe the excuses of the police for why they have to routinely beat and shoot brown and black youth in the streets.

There are couple possible paths that the American political system might take going forward and only one of them can lead to a good outcome in my opinion. One path is to double down on the current policies which favor the wealthy and special interests at the expense of the rest of society. Like Alan Garcia in Peru and Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, Trump campaigned for leftist economic policies on the campaign trail, but he has implemented very unpopular right-wing economic measures once in office. These actions will discredit the Republican Party in the long term, just like Bill Clinton’s embrace of free trade and Wall Street deregulation discredited the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton probably would have never believed in 1993 when he signed NAFTA that he was going to cause the defeat of his wife’s bid for the presidency in 2016, but it was free trade more than any other issue that cost Hillary the vote in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Republican voters may not know how bad the Republican tax bill is today, but eventually they will figure it out. The problem is that the US political system makes it virtually impossible for a third party to come to the fore, so US voters have nowhere to turn to express their disgust with their two parties which have been deeply corrupted by money in politics.

The real test of whether the US political system will survive in the long term is whether it will allow serious reform movements to arise within one of the two major parties (as the populist reformers remade the Republican party in the 1900s and FDR remade the Democratic Party in the 1930s) or allow a third party to rise up and replace one of the existing parties (as the Republicans replaced the Whigs in the 1850s). The number of Republicans who voted for Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders shows just how deeply American voters want reform of the system, even when offered by a charlatan and huckster like Trump.

While Trump may offend some of the elites, they probably won’t move against him until he has finished slashing their taxes and destroying government regulation of agencies they don’t want like the EPA and the Interior Departments. The real question is what happens when a movement arises which seriously challenges their interests. The conniving of the DNC to sideline Bernie Sanders and prevent a fair primary in the Democratic Party is an indication of how corrupted the system has become by money in politics and elite interests working to manipulate democracy.

The real test will be the next election, if Bernie Sanders or someone of his ilk runs again in 2020. Today, Bernie is the most popular politician in the country according to several polls. In 2015, Bernie was virtually unknown among black voters, which destroyed him in the south, but today Bernie has a 73% approval rating among blacks and a 67% approval rating among Hispanics, according to a Harvard Harris poll in April 2017. With a 57% approval rating among registered voters and 80% approval rating among Democrats, Bernie now appears virtually unbeatable if he remains healthy and hale, but even if he isn’t, he will likely be replaced by a similar candidate like Elizabeth Warren.

The question is how will elite interests respond. Tilting the Democratic primary will be much harder this next time around, since the Democratic base is now mad as hell and won’t tolerate the kind of dirty shenanigans that the Clinton pulled in 2016. Economic elites will likely pour money into a candidate like Christine Gillibrand or Cory Booker, but the days of Obama-style candidates is over. The Democratic base wants a candidate who is serious about raising taxes on the rich and challenging elite interests. The general election will get very, very ugly with economic elites pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into ads to smear the reform candidate and frighten voters.

I don’t think the red-baiting will work. Looking at the public opinion polls, the average American voter agrees with Bernie and Elizabeth on the key issues and the desire for change is deep-rooted. Among Democrats, being tarred as a “socialist” helps as much as it hurts a candidate and red-baiting only works effectively when the candidate isn’t well known. When Richard Nixon tried to red-bait Pat Brown in the California governor’s race, most voters didn’t buy it because they knew Brown and trusted him. Trying to red-bait well-known politicians is unlikely to work.

What is far more likely is that a reform candidate like Sanders or Warren will get elected the next time around, but will be undermined by their own party. From day one, legislation coming from the reform president will be opposed by Democrats in the Senate and House, who still answer to elite interests. It will be a long and ugly civil war in the Democratic Party.

The question is whether the reform president will be able to activate a mobilized base that can put the fear of god into corporate Democrats in the congress. If not and no results are achieved, then the Democrats will be discredited and disgusted voters will turn to reform from the right. That is likely to take the form of another demagogue on the right who is smarter and more skillful than Trump. We have seen this tale before and it doesn’t end well.

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