Sooner or later, any progressive activist trying to make headway on the interrelated causes of democracy, social justice, and peace in the United States comes up against six barriers that I recently confronted within three minutes at the Iowa City Public Library.
“You Can’t Complain if You Don’t Vote”
Outside my local library last week, I walked past two college students holding up big red, white, and blue signs saying VOTE TODAY. They were both telling passers-by to vote so as to “participate in your democracy.” I said very nicely (I thought) to one of them, “look, I voted yesterday but I’m curious about something: what’s so great about voting? The spectrum is very narrow and it seems like it is all pretty much about the money. It seems to me it’s more like a democracy for the rich, a plutocracy.” (I confess I didn’t relate that I only voted on a ballot measure, against a local jail expansion proposal).
“Sir,” one of the students responded, “Voting is how we the people make decisions in this country. It’s our voice. You can’t complain about politics if you don’t vote,” this student added, relaying a catchphrase I’ve heard for years.”
“And please stop attacking me personally. You are making me uncomfortable.”
Taken aback, I assured the student that I meant nothing personal. I asked her if she had ever read anything by Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky on the limits of voting as an avenue for popular input under the reigning big money-big-media US elections and party systems, and on the role that popular movements have played in bringing about change in American history.
“Of course I have,” she said, “I’m a political science major.”
“Awesome,” I said, and moved towards my destination, the newspaper section on the library’s second flow.
The two students were with the Democratic Party. They were part of a last-minute “get-out-the-vote effort” to prevent the inevitable election of the right wing Republican Joni Ernst to the open US Senate seat formerly held of the liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the uninspiring Democratic candidate for that seat (Bruce Braley) and dozens of other Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates were headed for defeat in no small part because their party is hopelessly captive to the corporate and financial interests that drive the economic inequality that roils so many voters (and perhaps more non-voters). In the absence of any serious grassroots social movement to push the dismal, demobilizing, and dollar-drenched neoliberal Democrats towards remotely progressive action (aligned with technically irrelevant majority opinion) and without any viable Left parties to provide an alternative to the Democrats other than the radically regressive Republicans, it would not matter that “nearly half of all registered voters view the GOP negatively, versus just 29% who view it positively” (Wall Street Journal /NBC poll October 30-Nov 1, 2014). The even more plutocratic Republicans would be the only “protest vote” on offer. Millions of non-Republican voters would simply stay home.
That is precisely how the 2014 mid-terms played out, of course.
“I Don’t Believe That”
Thirty feet into the building, I was confronted by a big display honoring all “Our Fallen” soldiers who have died “fighting for freedom after 9/11.” The exhibit included photographs of soldiers in full uniform who had died “in service to their country” in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years.
I asked the middle-aged lady in charge of the display if all the soldiers were from Iowa. “Yes,” she said, “there are all fallen heroes from Iowa.”
“Not one of yours, I hope.”
“No. My son made it back safe and sound from Iraq.”
“That’s good to know,” I said.
“We’ve got a niece in the Army. We’re very proud of them both.”
But I was not through causing discomfort at the library, it turned out. I asked the lady in charge of the “Our Fallen” display if she’d heard about the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died because of the blatantly illegal US invasion of their country. I told her the Pentagon’s internal programming term for collaterally killed Iraqis: “bug-splat.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that,” she said, adding that “we’re not that kind of a country. Our military and our wonderful troops are about making the world a better place.”
“I prefer to remember these fallen,” she said, pointing to photographs of the dead US soldiers on her display. She walked away, visibly upset.
The first barrier to “homeland” democracy and justice that I glean from this five-minute stretch of discomfort in a bright blue (“liberal” Democratic) university town is the almost religious faith that many Americans still retain (even through the current New Gilded Age of abject bipartisan oligarchy) in the democratic power and relevance of voting in the nation’s staggered, candidate-centered major party elections. As the late and great radical American historian Howard Zinn noted six and half years ago, an “election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” Already chosen, that is, by the major party insiders and big campaign donors, who make sure that nobody gets nominated who would seriously and honestly represent the progressive values of the nation’s working class majority. “It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious,” Zinn observed, “that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.”
A narrow choice sold by marketers, pollsters, and public relations professionals, so that, as Noam Chomsky once observed, “voters end up endorsing an image, not a platform.” A narrow choice that is sold to us as “politics,” the only politics that matters. “But it isn’t,” as Chomsky observed: “It’s only a small part of politics.” As Chomsky noted ten years ago, writing on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, “Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena” by forming grassroots movements too powerful to be “ignored by centers of power.”
Reflections on an Aphorism and a Rant
An aside: I don’t know who invented the phrase “you can’t complain if you don’t vote” or when that expression became a part of the national political language, but I am quite certain that it is one of the most idiotic aphorisms ever coined. It simply deletes the understandable complaint that the “choices” offered in the US ballot box are not democratic and diverse enough to merit partaking in the process. It equates meaningful participation in politics with voting for generally second-rate candidates already selected by elites determined to weed out aspirants who might threaten concentrated wealth and power. It also seems to equate popular political engagement with complaining about what policymakers do instead of with the quest for actual popular governance and participatory self-rule – the real meaning of democracy.
It’s true that there’s an opposite argument true complainers’ privileges goes to non-voters. As the legendary contrarian US comic George Carlin Carlin once ranted:
“People like to say, ‘if you don’t vote, you don’t have any right to complain.’ But where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent people and they get into office and screw everything up, well then you are responsible for what they have done. You caused the problem, you voted them in. You have no right to complain! I, on the other hand… (uproarious laughter), who did not vote, who, in fact, did not even leave the house on election day (laughter) am in no way responsible for what these people have done and have every right to complain as loudly as I want to about the mess you created that I had nothing to do with.”
Carlin’s argument is entertaining but it is deeply flawed, too. It deletes the much bigger responsibility of those conducting the prior behind-the-scenes selection of flawed, power-serving candidates before ordinary citizens get to supposedly “cause the problem” and “create the mess” by voting for one of Zinn’s “two mediocrities.” Carlin forgot or disregarded the fact that some citizens do vote for a small number of candidates who are actually honest and competent (e.g., Seattle’s socialist city council member Kshama Sawant). He discounted the possibility that some who vote do so with full knowledge that all the available candidates are bad but with a tactical and/or strategic calculation that some candidates are less terrible than others or that prospects for popular movements might be better with one candidate or set of candidates in office then another candidate or set of candidates. Like pro-voting activists, Carling ironically also exaggerated the power and relevance of voting and deleted the greater significance of popular grassroots organization and movements, something that encouraged him to wrongly conclude that a non-voter is any less responsible than a voter for what elected officials do.
The notion that anyone who participates (for whatever reason) in the nation’s highly flawed, frankly plutocratic elections system is any less privileged to “complain” about US politics is of course absurd. My own critique of the US elections and party systems as a plutocratic mess that serves to marginalize the populace and advance elite interests stands whether I enter the voting booth or not.
Orthodoxy Still Rules
The second barrier I came up against at my local public library is the notion that people know anything of civic and democratic value because they have attended college and perhaps even taken humanities and/or social science courses (“Of course…I’m a political science major”). Quite the opposite is generally the case. As the brilliant Left political commentator and former academician Michael Parenti noted seven years ago, “By purchase and persuasion, our institutions of higher learning are wedded to institutions of higher earning. Most universities hardly qualify as hotbeds of dissident thought. The product is a mild but pervasive ideological orthodoxy. College is a place where fundamental criticisms are in scarce supply. The predominant intellectual product in academia remains largely bereft of critical engagements with society’s compelling issues. Orthodoxy still rules.”
Parenti’s observation is richly consistent with my own experience over many years in and around the nation’s deeply conservative “higher education” system, I doubt very much that the student who told me I could experience meaningful democratic participation by going into a voting booth has ever had any serious engagement with the writings of such great dissident thinkers as Chomsky, Zinn, or Parenti. She certainly has not encountered such thinkers through course work in the thoroughly mainstream political science department at the University of Iowa.
“How Dare You Say That in My Proximity?”
The third barrier I confronted at the library is the belief that one has been personally attacked because someone else raises a discordant, dissenting political note. I have run across this same sort of response, conveying a sense of personal injury after I have said and written things like the following: “capitalism and democracy are two very different and fundamentally opposed things;” “labor unions have made many positive contributions to the lives of ordinary Americans;” “racism is still a major barrier to Black advancement and equality in the US today;” “global warming is caused by human beings and poses grave risks to our prospects for a decent future;” “the reigning US political organizations today both serve corporate interests.” Outraged listeners or readers are moved to say, essentially, the following: “How dare you say [or write] something that makes me uncomfortable because it is different from what I think?”
It’s difficult to have the free-flowing exchange of perspectives and information that a functioning democracy requires when people react in this personalized and defensive way to views and facts that they find cognitively and ideologically dissonant.
“We Lead the World in Battling Evils”
Back to my second encounter in the public library. The fourth barrier that I contended with in a stretch of three minutes last week is the widespread national belief that the US is a great force for good in the world – one that would never commit terrible, criminal, and indeed evil transgressions against other people. “The United States is good,” US Secretary of State Madeline Albright proclaimed in 1998. “We try to do our best everywhere.” As Barack Obama explained seven years ago, voicing standard US rhetoric on Washington’s grand noble global role, “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good…. America is the last, best hope of Earth.” Obama elaborated in his first Inaugural Address. “Our security,” the president said, “emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” These are fascinating reflections on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (unnecessary for the completion of the United States’ victory over a clearly defeated Japan at the end of WWII), on the US “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (with a death toll of 2-3 million Indochinese between 1962 and 1975), on the “Highway of Death” (when US air forces engaged in the “turkey shoot” slaughter of many thousands of surrendered and retreating Iraqi conscripts), on the death of more than 500,000 children thanks to US-led “economic sanctions” during the 1990s, on the Battles of Fallujah (when the US Marines practically levelled an entire Iraqi city that it attacked with radioactive ordnance than left a legacy of epidemic child cancers and birth defects), and on much more that is terrible to mention,
It isn’t just presidents and top diplomats who accept the notion of US goodness in the world. Listen to the following recent reflection on ZNet from the eloquent US Iraq War veteran and antiwar and social justice activist Vincent Emanuele:
“Throughout the course of my second deployment, I became increasingly opposed to the war. This happened for many reasons, but primarily because of the insane brutality inflicted on the Iraqi people by my fellow Marines. They took it upon themselves to shoot at innocents, torture civilians and enemy combatants, steal goods from the local populations, mutilate dead bodies, take pictures with corpses and cover-up any evidence of said actions. According to MSNBC, CNN and FoxNews, we were the good guys. Hell, many veterans didn’t even believe such nonsense. But most Americans did. They bought the hype.”
Mass misplaced belief in the basic and inherent virtuousness and decency of the US Empire and its military is nothing new, of course. On March 18, 1968, for example, a US Army company entered My Lai 4, a small village in South Vietnam, and systematically massacred between 450 and 500 unarmed civilian inhabitants, including a large number of children and infants. After this atrocity (one of many committed by US forces during the aforementioned crucifixion) was finally reported in major US media eighteen months later, replete with graphic photographs of slaughtered and defenseless women and children, the Pulitzer Prize-winning US reporter Seymour Hersh noted that the Wall Street Journal published an informal poll undertaken by its reporters in US cities. “Many of those interviewed refused to believe that mass killings had taken place,” Hersh observed. “A teletype inspector in Philadelphia …said…’I can’t believe our boys hearts are that rotten’…Much of America’s anger at the disclosures was directed towards the newspapers and television stations publicizing them…A statewide poll published shortly before Christmas by the Minneapolis Tribune showed that 49 percent of 600 persons interviewed there believed that the reports of mass murder at My Lai 4 were false…A later Time magazine poll of 1,600 households found that 65 percent of the American public believed such incidents were bound to happen in any war…”
Worthy and Unworthy Victims
A fifth barrier is the standard Orwellian distinction made in mainstream US media and politics culture between “worthy” and “unworthy victims” of global violence. People really or allegedly harmed by forces who stand in the way of Washington’s global ambitions (by, say, Putin’s Russia, the socialist government of Venezuela, or Islamist “insurgents” in Iraq or Palestine) are officially “worthy victims.” Their real and alleged suffering matters. It must be acknowledged, redressed, and even avenged as far as dominant US corporate media and major party politicians are concerned.
Things are very different for those killed, crippled, maimed, starved, sickened, displaced, and traumatized by US forces and/or by other forces allied with the US. These injured and murdered people are “unworthy,” anonymous, and invisible victims in US doctrine and media. Their suffering does not merit significant attention or redress.
The ultimate “worthy victims” in US political culture are the US civilians who died on 9/11/2001 and US troops who have been killed in US operations ostensibly directed at battling evil and promoting good. No US victims since those who died at Pearl Harbor have been more frequently invoked than those who perished on 9/11 – a tragedy US citizens are instructed to “Never Forget” even as Uncle Sam’s mass-murderous transgressions are routinely sent down Orwell’s memory hole. It is close to unthinkable that anyone would be permitted to set up a display in a local US public library showing the names and faces of any significant number from among the millions of Iraqis who have been killed by US policy over the last two-plus decades.
Loving the Military
A sixth barrier to justice, peace, and democracy in the US is the remarkable high esteem in which the US military is held in the “homeland” (a revealingly militarized and imperial term). According to Pew, the nation’s leading polling outfit, 78 percent of US-Americans say that members of the armed services “contribute a lot to society’s well-being.” By contrast, just 37 percent of poll respondents said that “the clergy” make a big contribution to society. Just 30 percent gave such praise to artists. The military “tops the list of ten occupational groups, followed by doctors, scientists, and engineers,” when it comes to honoring positive contribution. “On balance,” Pew noted, “the military is viewed [very] positively by all major social and demographic groups.”
Pew’s findings are consistent with a Gallup poll earlier this year showing that the military is by far and away the institution in which US citizens hold the most confidence. Seventy-four percent of (US of) Americans told Gallup that they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “the military.” The next highest confidence scores went to “small business” as 62 percent and “the police” at 53 percent (the US Congress came in last at 7 percent).
Some “Homeland” Prices of Empire
Why are these last three and heavily overlapping barriers – faith in Uncle Sam’s noble role in the world, the ubiquitous distinction between worthy and unworthy victims, and widespread popular approval of the US military – a problem for the causes of justice and democracy? Beyond the support they grant to Washington’s deadly imperial projects abroad, they help sustain a massive drain of resources away from potential investment in domestic healing. Accounting for nearly half the world’s military spending, the Pentagon budget each year sweeps up hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars required to tackle the giant list of unmet social and environmental needs in the savagely unequal “homeland,” where the richest 400 Americans own more wealth between them than the bottom half of the population while 16 million children live beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. The Pentagon system is a gargantuan “cost-plus” profits machine for wealthy “defense” (empire) contractors – a mechanism for the upward concentration of wealth and power. Currently facing prosecution by the Obama administration for refusing to divulge an inside government source for his earlier reporting on warrantless federal wiretapping, the former New York Times reporter James Risen shows in his latest book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (October 2014) that “The…global war on terror has become essentially an endless war [and]…a hunt for cash.” The main driving force behind the new “endless war” is a large corporate “military and homeland security complex” that rakes in lucrative profits – attained largely in secret and with significant levels of fraud – that are fed by the relentless selling of fear.
At the same time, the military is an openly authoritarian, rigidly hierarchical, and command-based institution, hostile by its very nature to popular governance and self-rule. For it to be the most revered institution (by far) in US society does not bode well for democracy’s “homeland” prospects.
The last three barriers have some curious overlaps with the first three barriers mentioned above. The US elections fetish is often projected by US media and elites onto other nations in which the US has intervened. The holding of US-approved and US-managed elections (exercises that commonly certify the rule of US-sponsored elites) is often said by Washington its compliant media servants to show that Uncle Sam is advancing “democracy” and “freedom” abroad.
The nation’s ever more corporatized and conservative colleges and universities generally side with US imperial policy. Serious and dedicated critics of US foreign policy are not wholly absent there, but they are all too rare and marginalized in US “higher education,” which grants elite professorships, “research” positions, and the occasional top administrative post to numerous former US military and foreign policy officials. (No wonder there was no real campus-based antiwar movement even when George W. Bush undertook his monumentally criminal and brazenly imperial invasion of Iraq.) Guardians of academic convention like Stanley Fish rail against the supposed vast army of liberal arts and social science professors who purportedly use their teaching positions to advance a left political agenda. Fish and his moronic ilk have nothing to say about the significant number of corporate and imperial agents and ideologues who hold academic and administrative positions – or, of course, about the pervasive capitalist, nationalist, and imperial ideological biases that color what passes for “neutral,” “value-free”, and “objective” discourse in “higher education.
To be heard questioning the supposed nobility and benevolence of Uncle Sam’s global mission, policies, and/or military or talking about the many crimes the US has committed abroad is to risk evoking a highly personalized sense of inappropriate behavior here in the US “homeland.” “How dare you!” I could feel the cold stares of the crowd around me once when I failed to leap to respectful attention when military veterans were suddenly paraded onto the ice and thanked for their service to “freedom” during a break in an NHL hockey game. What kind of “Anti-American” does not pay his respect for “our boys” and their grand “sacrifice” for liberty, justice and everything good in the world?
Some Silver Linings
There is a silver lining or two for left progressives in the Gallup and Pew surveys cited above – and even in the recent midterm elections. According to Pew, less than a fourth (24%) of the US populace thinks that business executives “contribute a lot to society’s well-being.” Only lawyers scored lower (18%).
Gallup reports that the percentage of US citizens who have a “great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in “the banks” and in “big business” are just 26% and 21%, respectively. The Congress, itself largely controlled (as is fairly well known) by the big financial institutions and corporations (leading contributors to the obscene, record-setting $4 billion price of this year’s Congressional elections) is viewed with a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence by a tiny 7 percent of the US populace. (The Republicans might want to temper their celebrations over the completion of their takeover of the US Congress. Already highly unpopular in the US, the GOP now rules both wings of the nation’s least popular national institution.)
There’s been no great move to the right either in the US populace or even in US government. Before the mid-terms and since 2010, the US federal government was already “gridlocked” between a center-right, conservative and neoliberal President and a more radically right wing neoliberal Congress on the other. The Supreme Court remains in GOP hands as before. The top US 1% already received 95% of the nation’s income gains during Obama’s presidency, even without a Republican-controlled US Senate.
Voters approved an increased minimum wage in each of the five states where proposals for such a hike were on the ballot. And turnout appears to have been quite low even by the usual low standards for mid-term (non-presidential) election years, reflecting (among other things) widespread popular antipathy with the nation’s recurrently noxious, money-soaked and mass-marketed election spectacles. According to Obama in his press conference the day after the mid-terms, just one-third of the eligible electorate bothered to vote. Unlike the minimum wage and other policy-specific measures on the ballots (I voted simply to reject a measure calling for an expensive jail expansion bond in my county), the candidate contests are, as Chomsky says, about images and public relations, not issues. The aversion many US non-voters feel for the major parties and their candidates, advertisements, and donors is highly understandable. The elections, after all, are mass-marketed, frankly sociopathic exercises in the marginalization and manipulation of the populace.
“US No Longer an Actual Democracy”
Beneath the highly identity-politicized marionette theater of partisan warfare in Washington and the state capitals across the country, both of the two reigning political organizations – once accurately described by Upton Sinclair as “two wings of the same bird of prey” – have moved well to the right of the majority working class populace on numerous key issues. In a study originally released last April, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) report that U.S. democracy no longer exists. Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”
A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bears an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” It reported Gilens and Page’s finding that “the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences” of Americans at the nation’s 90th income percentile than those at the 50th percentile. The story contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence…. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.” No wonder, as TPM reporter Sahil Kapur noted, “Polls show that many American voters feel on a gut level that the government isn’t looking out for them.” Kapur might have added “and non-voters,” along with the following concluding phrase: “but is looking out instead for the wealthy Few.”
Millions of properly disgusted Americans are too nauseated by the whole plutocratic charade to “participate” in the narrow-spectrum spectacle. Along with the stunning unpopularity of both Congress and the Republican Party, last Tuesday’s super-majoritarian shunning of the nation’s corporate-managed electoral fake-democracy mocks the mid-term election victors’ claim to be riding any kind genuine popular mandate for their vicious, right-wing agenda.
Real popular democracy will not be advanced through that current reigning party and elections system, except in a few isolated cases like Sawant’s victory in Seattle. It will come through struggle beyond and against the nation’s sham democracy, beneath and beyond the biennial and quadrennial extravaganzas.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy