Monday, November 2, 2020

Some thoughts on the state of American ‘democracy’

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Swearing in of Justice Barrett. 

by Frank Brenner


The prime motivation of the ‘vote Biden’ radical leftists is to ‘save’ democracy, or at least its rudiments, from Trumpist authoritarianism, so I think it’s worth considering the state of American democracy, especially as the day I started writing this was also when Amy Coney Barrett was being elevated to the Supreme Court.




We now have a justice with a mindset more from the Middle Ages than the 21st century consolidating a right-wing super majority on SCOTUS. Abortion rights are going to be overturned or at the very least reduced to an empty shell, same for Obamacare, voting rights, separation of church and state, government action on climate change, the rights of unions, of gays and lesbians, to say nothing of backstopping a possible Trump coup to defy the election results. I think it’s safe to assume that this is the most reactionary Supreme Court since Chief Justice Roger Taney handed down the Dred Scott decision in 1857, although ‘most reactionary’ is a hard sell when it comes to an institution that gutted Reconstruction, gave us Plessy v. Ferguson and sanctioned the legal murder of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs, to say nothing of more recent outrages like Citizens United.


It’s not just Barrett though but the whole spectacle of her appointment that is notable. First there is the flagrant hypocrisy of the Republicans in ramming through this nomination 8 days before the election, after having refused to approve an Obama appointment to the court 8 months before the previous election. This is about as blatant a ‘fuck you’ to any semblance of democracy as is possible in mainstream politics. But that hypocrisy is only matched by the Democrats who pretend to be outraged, especially as such outrage has been very lucrative in raking in millions in campaign contributions. Yet they have managed to do absolutely zip to hold up the approval process in the Senate, even though, had they used procedural motions to slow it down by even a week, they could have potentially scuttled the nomination in the event of a Biden landslide. The only reasonable conclusion is that the corporate Democrats are not really that upset by Barrett’s appointment – and that’s because a ‘Dred Scott’ Supreme Court will be useful for them in stymieing the demands of their party’s progressive wing. Hey, they will say to the progressives, we want to do the right thing but our hands are tied.


Still I have to say that if there is any silver lining here, it is the delicious irony to be had from eventually watching the pious Barrett, who seems nothing so much as an emanation from The Handmaid’s Tale, joining Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, two men with a proclivity for hitting on defenseless women, in striking down Roe v. Wade. And of course, we shouldn’t forget that Barrett and Kavanaugh, judicial zealots for that foul abuse of language, the so-called ‘right to life’, owe their positions to a man widely accused of being a rapist.




American democracy is composed of two parties that are fundamentally opposed to democracy. The Republicans engage in voter suppression (through means legal and illegal) while the Democrats engage in voter shaming. If you dare to oppose the Democrats from the left, you are an outcast because you are ‘splitting’ the vote and thereby helping the reactionaries. The liberal media still can’t forgive Jill Stein for running against Hillary Clinton in 2016 or even for that matter Ralph Nader for running against Al Gore in 2000. And this year’s Green party candidate, Howie Hawkins, is facing a similar torrent of reproach and abuse, including from members of his own party and even his old high school teacher! Every election it’s the same story: a heavy-handed campaign of political guilt-tripping, a drumbeat amplified by mainstream media, overbearing pundits and academics and Hollywood celebrities (and now, sadly, a goodly number of radical leftists). You cannot stray a step beyond the Democratic Party fold, otherwise you are anathema and your voice has to be silenced.


The two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders are an object lesson in how the Democrats suppress democracy. Twice he was denied the nomination, in 2016 by illegal DNC machinations and this year by a gang-up of so-called ‘centrist’ candidates lining up behind Biden. There has never been any question that his signature policies - Medicare for all, free college tuition, tax the billionaire class – are hugely popular. And yet both times Sanders has submitted to the fiat of the corporate Democrats and chosen not to run an independent campaign, giving as his reason (according to Chris Hedges) that he didn’t want to be a Ralph Nader. Sanders personally has a lot to answer for in this regard but this isn’t just a story of a politician’s shortcomings. It’s also a story of how the Democrats suppress democracy, how their ‘soft suppression’ can be just as effective, sometimes more so, than the gangsterism of the Republicans. If running a presidential campaign on issues that tens of millions of Americans support is beyond the pale of American democracy – where the political and media establishment will do everything possible to denigrate, marginalize and ultimately squash such a campaign – then what sort of democracy is that? It means that almost nothing is now left of Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people” except the words themselves.


3. Whites No College: WNC. This is a relatively new sociological label imported from the polling industry and it now appears routinely in election coverage. What it means is blue collar white workers, but since mainstream American culture has always been phobic about any open acknowledgement of class, especially the working class, we now have this new rhetorical subterfuge – WNC. It’s also typical of that political culture to define everything in terms of race, and yet one never sees stats citing BNC or LNC (Blacks No College, Latinx No College). The presumption must be that the African-American and Latin communities are somehow homogeneous so that the NC suffix would have little bearing, but of course this is utter nonsense. What it does do is help normalize racial divisions in the working class by making them appear as a self-evident artifact of demography rather than a deliberately chosen political distinction. Or to put this another way, its political spin passed off as pseudo social science – and the upshot is to turn blue collar white workers into a political ‘other’, a bogeyman of everything backward or, as Hillary Clinton famously put it, “a basket of deplorables”.


Two factors are at work here. The Democratic Party has long since abandoned the base it had in the working class from the New Deal to the Great Society. Having bought into neo-liberalism through the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations, it has become a party which caters primarily to the upper middle classes as well as some of the Big Money in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and on Wall Street. It is a party of the rich.  By contrast, the Republicans are a party of the super-rich, but one which has embraced right-wing populism to exploit the working-class base cut loose by the Democrats. This Republican coalition of cold hard cash and emotional frenzy over guns, racist dog-whistles, abortions and born-again religion can seem head-spinning but has precedents in American politics, notably Huey Long and George Wallace. But crucial to the Republicans being able to pivot in this way has been the decline of labor unions to the point of near total social irrelevance. So, the American two-party system is a choice between a party of the rich and a party of the super-rich. The party of the rich is heavily invested in identity politics (which I’m about to get to) while the party of the super-rich is heavily invested in right-wing populism. They operate as a division of labor for the purpose of disenfranchising the overwhelming majority of the people.


The second factor is the dominant role that identity politics has come to play among liberals and radicals, especially anyone connected to academia. From the point of view of identity politics, blue collar white workers are indeed a mass of “deplorables”, a cesspool of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. Hence the ‘whitelash’ explanation for why Trump won in 2016, though advocates for this theory downplay or deny outright the inconvenient truth that there were millions of so-called Obama-Trump voters in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – white workers whose supposed racism hadn’t prevented them from voting for Obama, not just once but twice. So far as identity politics is concerned, the only remedy for dealing with WNC is demography: the more they shrink as a percentage of the population, the less important they’ll become politically. In the meantime, everything possible should be done to contain them, like some rabid horde, by minimizing their political influence and keeping them as far removed as possible from civilized folks with college degrees and the deserving poor among minorities.


Identity politics is a disaster for the left, and for that reason also a disaster for American democracy. It not only accepts but positively embraces the splitting of the American working class along racial lines – and down that road lies a dark future of reaction. The only way to save political democracy is to expand it into social and economic democracy, but that will never happen without the working class, including blue collar white workers. So long as the left remains shackled to the Democratic party, it will never be able to win these workers away from right-wing populism, and so long as it remains under the sway of identity politics, it will never even want to try. And one sees that in the attitudes of many on the radical left for whom the very notion that one should try to appeal to the millions of workers in Trump’s base is unthinkable.




As I was writing this post, I came across a column by Robert Reich in The Guardian titled “Trump assaulted American democracy – here’s how Democrats can save it”. Reich is a prominent liberal public intellectual and was Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton administration. He is very much in the mould of figures like Maynard Keynes – liberals who want to save capitalism from itself. (In fact, one of his books is called Saving Capitalism.) This column is in a similar vein, though its focus is on politics rather than economics. As someone with a long career as a public official in several US administrations, Reich’s approach is very practical: he lays out a series of steps that Biden and the Democrats should take (assuming of course that they win and are allowed to take office) to reverse the damage Trump has done. Reich adds that this “may be the last chance – both for the Democrats and, more importantly, for American democracy.” It’s an ominous warning from someone who isn’t usually given to hyperbole.


Here are the 3 steps Reich is proposing:


1. Increase the size of the Supreme Court to reduce the conservative super-majority to a minority.


2. Abolish the Senate filibuster so that a simple majority is enough to pass legislation, not the 60 votes presently needed. (Reich is assuming that the Democrats will have a majority in the Senate after the election.)


3. Rebalance the Senate so that small rural states like Wyoming don’t have outsized power compared to populous states like California. To effect this change, Reich proposes to create new states: Washington DC, which has long wanted statehood, and California, which has grown so large that Reich says it should be split into two states, North and South California.


The first thing that strikes me about this is the imbalance between the gravity of the problem and the trifling nature of the proposed solutions. Reich is tinkering with minor adjustments even as he recognizes that the fate of American democracy is at stake. And even for a liberal this is timid stuff: one glaring omission is any mention of the electoral college, an arcane leftover from the pre-Civil War era that was put in the Constitution at the behest of slaveholders and has been responsible for two of the last five elections where the ‘winning’ candidate actually lost the popular vote. Indeed, it’s electoral college calculations that determine the insanely lop-sided nature of presidential campaigns, where the focus is entirely on a half-dozen battleground states, and where the rest of the country is all but completely ignored by the candidates. Reich would probably say that his third proposal addresses this but there’s a much simpler solution: eliminate the electoral college. If this seems impractical to a good pragmatist like Reich, his own proposal is actually much more far-fetched. There is no way three quarters of the states, to say nothing of two-thirds of Congress, are going to approve splitting up California, let alone granting DC statehood. And even if this miracle were to transpire, it would only be a start: you’d have to turn NYC into a state, maybe Chicago, Miami, Houston, LA etc. etc.


As for the first proposal, Biden has already stated that he doesn’t want to stack the Court. This is after all a man who pledged that if he comes to power nothing fundamental will change. Visions of Biden as FDR redux are wishful thinking on steroids. He’s announced that he’ll set up a commission to study SCOTUS proposals, which is standard procedure for an old political hack to make difficult problems go away. As for the Senate filibuster, even if this happens, it will do nothing to change the reality that Democratic senators are as beholden to their donor class as Republican senators are to theirs.


Reich is no fool. He understands perfectly well that what is really undermining American democracy is social inequality. But he can’t see beyond the limits of ‘saving capitalism’. Back in the Thirties someone like Reich would have been part of the ‘brain trust’ FDR assembled to make the New Deal happen, but after four decades of supporting and/or accommodating themselves to neo-liberalism, there is little boldness left among liberal intellectuals for that kind of ground-breaking overhaul. Reich wants to patch up constitutional arrangements that are centuries old and decrepit, so decrepit in some cases (the Second Amendment for example) that they have morphed into monstrosities that promote and legitimize untold carnage. In the 19th century it took a revolutionary civil war to save democracy from the constitution. Patchwork solutions aren’t going to be any more successful in the 21st century.


Reich’s quandary is the quandary of anyone who believes in incremental change. You invariably end up with wholesale wishful thinking (what I would call a bad kind of utopianism) which amounts (whether one admits it or not) to hoping for the ruling elites to ‘come to their senses’, the sort of thinking that goes, ‘if only Jeff Bezos would settle for having $100 billion instead of $200 billion.’ But that’s not how the system works and elites never give up their power and privilege willingly. I think the ‘vote Biden’ radicals are engaging in a similar kind of wishful thinking. Though they may still adhere to the rhetoric of revolutionary politics, their succumbing to ‘lesser evil’ blackmail attests to a lingering hope for incremental change probably along with a deep despair about the possibilities for revolution.


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