Tuesday, July 10, 2012

America, Democracy, Elections

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

America’s national elections in the fall promise to be expensive and ugly. Expensive because a hyper-activist conservative Supreme Court majority opened the monetary floodgates in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission; ugly because the Republican party thinks it is the one and only political entity to rule the United States legitimately. This is one of many reasons it has sought to destroy the presidency of Barack Obama from the day he assumed office and will spare no expense to finish the job over the next four months.

For many citizens, the elections don’t amount to much. The differences between the parties, from one angle of vision, are slight. Each bears responsibility for the neo-depression which continues to inflict awesome suffering on tens of millions of Americans and each remains beholden to Wall Street bankers and financiers. One party would let neo-liberal capitalism run completely amok; the other would moderate it around the edges. Obama’s economic team (Timothy Geithner and Company) champions the very philosophies that led to disaster. As for national security affairs, Obama has extended and enhanced the executive self-aggrandizement practiced by the Bush-Cheney Gang, evidenced most notably, perhaps, in Obama’s claim that the president can play prosecutor, judge, and jury as he orders the assassinations of American citizens while waging personally the so-called war on terror.  Obama has also one-upped Bush-Cheney with unrivaled efforts to target and imprison those who leak, a valuable democratic act, details of government malfeasance and criminal conduct. The hope that Obama represented has come largely to naught. If people don’t feel betrayed, perhaps especially the much coveted American youth, they feel a profound sense of disappointment. Obama’s been a presidential loser.

For many citizens, on the other hand, significant differences between the parties remain—regarding gays, women, reproductive freedom, the environment, religious tolerance, and immigration, to name but a handful of issues. Despite Obama’s abysmal performance as president, a combination of foreign arrogance and bellicosity and domestic foolishness and passivity, a second term would be preferable to a manifest political hack such as Romney, who, when he’s not lying about Obama’s record, exhorts policies (tax cuts, deregulation) that promise more of the same economic destruction and radical redistribution of wealth the GOP has perpetrated for decades. A Romney presidency would do nothing but make matters worse—unless you belong to the same privileged world of Romney. His is a vision of the one-tenth of one percent for the one-tenth of one percent.

There might be another way to think about the election, national politics, and the economy, namely, in terms of democracy’s future. It’s not that the United States can claim to be much of a democracy these days no matter your party affiliation; it’s that the Republican Party envisions an America in which democracy is effectively eliminated and power is privatized. To better service its financial and corporate overlords, it seeks permanent one-party rule, which will further weaken electoral accountability, and give free rein to the fiction of an impersonal market that can only be harmed by state regulation but in reality relies on a great deal of state support to function. This GOP fantasy has been kept alive and nourished by Obama’s pathetic performance.

The ambition of one-party rule lies behind the GOP’s historic abuse of the filibuster, which converts majority rule into effective minority governance by blocking Senate action on legislation; the ambition of one-party rule lies behind the GOP’s multi-state effort to purge the electoral roles of legally registered voters (young, poor, ethnic) who might favor the Democrats in the name of a concern for widespread fraud that does not exist; the ambition of one-party rule lies behind the GOP campaign to destroy public sector unions in the name of fiscal responsibility while the party continues to push for tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans; this is but a prelude to planned assaults on private sector unions, with both entities assumed to be Democratic supporters; crush the unions, kill the Democratic Party; the ambition of one-party rule lies behind GOP redistricting efforts following the 2010 census to ensure their electoral success prior to any actual election; the ambition of one-party rule lies behind the blatantly partisan Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which threatens to render moot the always precarious notion of competitive or meaningful elections on behalf of the GOP; it even lies behind John Roberts probable change of mind in the health care decision, a brilliant tactical calculation (given the rapidly deteriorating respect in which the Court is held) to sacrifice a short-term goal better to guarantee long-term political victory.

It’s not that America’s democracy doesn’t routinely find itself, to some degree, under pressure, even downright assault. The “war on terror,” for example, like so many wars before it, has been accompanied by a retrenchment of various political rights, assembly, free speech, and habeas corpus among them. It’s that the Republican Party openly seeks to defeat, marginalize, silence, and ultimately destroy its political enemies so that it can rule (rightly, of course) untrammeled, indefinitely. In this context, it could be argued that citizens have an obligation to vote against the party of their choice, if that party is the Republican Party, because of a greater obligation they have to American democracy.

It’s not enough for Republicans to see their values and interests triumphant at the ballot box; they believe that their values and interests are one with America itself—properly articulated and understood, of course. It doesn’t matter that the people themselves would—do—disagree. Those who disagree are wrong at best, deviant and dangerous at worst. The Republicans have shown that they are ready, willing, and eager to inflict enormous damage on the country to see their one-world vision realized. Hence their opposition to meaningful economic stimulus to put people back to work and help balance the budget despite years of depression; hence their refusal to provide aid to state and local governments, despite record low interest rates, because it would have lowered unemployment rates and bolstered the gains in the private sector; hence their opposition to restoring tax rates to the Clinton era to help balance the budget despite the fiscal cataclysm they say awaits us; hence their opposition to health care insurance for tens of millions of Americans without it and a penalty for free riders, which would also contribute to fiscal responsibility; hence their opposition to even minimal regulatory action to prevent a restoration of the economic practices the damage from which the country still suffers, as J.P. Morgan reminds us; hence their opposition to consumer protection reform that might secure home buyers against destructive mortgages and put a dent in the profit margins of big banks that charge customers predatory interest rates for credit cards and outrageous fees for everyday transactions.

The Republican economic and political vision is incompatible with anything but a pretense of democracy. Democracy is not only unnecessary to this vision; it’s a threat to it. Is it any wonder that American police, taking their marching orders on behalf of private property and “public safety,” after a period of indulgence, acted swiftly and decisively to contain, control, and finally remove the Occupy Wall Street movement from city streets and public view? With democracy an increasingly endangered species and any kind of economic security increasingly beyond reach for most Americans, much more than one election may be on the line in the fall. The nature and future direction of the American economy—and thus the life prospects of the 99.9% percent—are at stake; the distribution of power and wealth both public and private are at stake; America’s democratic future may thus be at stake as well.



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