Two weeks ago in reaction to the McCutcheon decision we touched on an issue that will become central to our movement: Has the democratic legitimacy of the US government been lost?
We raised this issue by quoting a Supreme Court Justice, former US president and a sitting US Senator:
“The legitimacy of the US government is now in question. By illegitimate we mean it is ruled by the 1%, not a democracy ‘of, by and for the people.’ The US has become a carefully designed plutocracy that creates laws to favor the few. As Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion, American law is now ‘incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy.’ Or, as former president, Jimmy Carter said on July 16, 2013 “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.”
“Even members of Congress admit there is a problem. Long before the McCutcheon decision Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) described the impact of the big banks on the government saying: ‘They own the place.’ We have moved into an era of a predatory form of capitalism rooted in big finance where profits are more important than people’s needs or protection of the planet.”
The legitimacy of the US government derives from rule by the people. If the US government has lost its democratic legitimacy, what does that mean? What is the impact? And, what is our responsibility in these circumstances?
We can go back to the founding document of this nation, the Declaration of Independence for guidance. This revolutionary document begins by noting all humans are born with “inalienable rights” and explains “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted” and that government derives its “powers from the consent of the governed.” Further, when the government “becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government….”
After we wrote about the lost democratic legitimacy of the United States, this new academic study, which will be published in Perspectives on Politics, revealed that a review of a unique data set of 1,779 policy issues found:
“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
And, this was not the only study to reach this conclusion this week. Another study published in the Political Research Quarterly found that only the rich get represented in the US senate. The researchers studied the voting records of senators in five Congresses and found the Senators were consistently aligned with their wealthiest constituents and lower-class constituents never appeared to influence the Senators’ voting behavior. This oligarchic tendency was even truer when the senate was controlled by Democrats.
Large Majorities of Americans Do Not Rule
Let the enormity of the finding sink in – “the majority does not rule” and “even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
Now, for many of us this is not news, but to have an academic study document it by looking at 1,779 policy issues and empirically proving the lack of democratic legitimacy, is a major step forward for people understanding what is really happening in the United States and what we must do.
Before the occupy movement began we published an article, We Stand With the Majority, that showed super majorities of the American people consistently support the following agenda:
– Tax the rich and corporations
– End the wars, bring the troops home, cut military spending
– Protect the social safety net, strengthen Social Security and provide improved Medicare to everyone in the United States
– End corporate welfare for oil companies and other big business interests
– Transition to a clean energy economy, reverse environmental degradation
– Protect worker rights including collective bargaining, create jobs and raise wages
– Get money out of politics
While there was over 60% support for each item on this agenda, the supposed ‘representatives’ of the people were taking the opposite approach on each issue. On September 18, the day after OWS began we followed up with a second article dealing with additional issues that showed, the American people would rule better than the political and economic elites.
While many Americans think that the government representing wealthy interests is new, in fact it goes back to the founding of the country. Historian Charles Beard wrote in the early 1900’s that the chief aim of the authors of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private property, favoring the economic interests of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than the interests of the majority of Americans who were small farmers, laborers, and craft workers.
The person who is credited with being the primary author of the Constitution, James Madison, believed that the primary goal of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He recognized that “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure.” As a result of these oligarchic views, only 6% of the US population was originally given the right to vote. And, the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court, John Jay believed that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”
This resulted in the wealth of the nation being concentrated among a small percentage of the population and their wealth being created by slaves and other low-paid workers who had no political participation in government. The many creating wealth for the few has continued throughout US history through sweat shops, child labor and now, poverty workers, like those at the nation’s largest employer, Walmart. By putting property ahead of human rights, the Constitution put in place a predatory economic system of wealth creation.
In fact, Sheldon Wolin describes the Constitutional Convention as blocking the colonists desire for democracy, as economic elites “organize[d] a counter-revolution aimed at institutionalizing a counterforce to challenge the prevailing decentralized system of thirteen sovereign states in which some state legislatures were controlled by 'popular' forces.” The Constitution was written “to minimize the direct expression of a popular will” and block the “American demos.” For more see our article, Lifting the Veil of Mirage Democracy in the United States.
In many respects, since the founding, the people of the United States have been working to democratize the United States. Gradually, the right to vote expanded to include all adults, direct election of US Senators was added as a constitutional amendment but these changes do not mean we have a real democracy. The work is not done. The legitimacy of people ruling has not been achieved.
While we have the right to vote, our carefully managed elections consistently give Americans a choice of candidates approved by the wealthiest; and through campaign financing, media coverage, ballot access, managing who participates in debates and other means, the ruling elite ensure an outcome that will not challenge the power of the wealthiest Americans and the country’s biggest businesses.
This week, Nomi Prins, a former managing partner at Goldman Sachs wrote about the long history of how the nation’s biggest bankers have controlled presidents throughout the last century. She writes: “With so much power in the hands of an elite few, America operates more as a plutocracy on behalf of the upper caste than a democracy or a republic. Voters are caught in the crossfire of two political parties vying to run Washington in a manner that benefits the banking caste, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is sitting in the Oval.”
In many respects, our task is to complete the American Revolution and create a real democracy where the people rule through fair elections of representatives and there is increased direct and participatory democracy.
The Impact: The Status Quo Reigns
The actions of the illegitimate, corrupt government adversely impact every aspect of our lives. In order to protect the status quo the government takes extreme anti-democratic measures to keep the public uninformed about what they are doing so they can push the agenda of transnational corporations and the wealthiest.
A current example is the Trans Pacific Partnership, this trade agreement has been negotiated in secret for more than four years except for 600 corporate advisers who help write the agreement. The media and public have only seen leaked portions and Congress has to jump through hoops to see it and because the TPP is classified as a secret, they cannot discuss it with their staff or constituents. Now, Obama is pushing to fast track it through Congress with little congressional oversight and while stalled because of citizen pressure, both parties want to find a way to pass fast track. Can anything be more anti-democratic than a secret negotiation, with virtually no congressional review on an agreement that will affect every aspect of our lives and change numerous domestic laws? European nations may not even be able to protect themselves from NSA spying because of trade agreements.
On issue after issue, the American people want change but they get the status quo. There are so many examples. The choreographed political battle over healthcare is one; the US did not end up with change, we ended up with a healthcare system dominated by the insurance industry expanding the neoliberal model of healthcare designed for investors not patients. Despite the industry being among the most hated by Americans, the Affordable Care Act further entrenched its domination of healthcare. Americans were even forced to buy this hated product.
On energy, polls have shown people want a clean energy economy, want subsidies to big oil and nuclear energy ended, but instead they get the opposite. When people protest against pipelines, fracking, coal, off-shore oil and nuclear energy what do they get? They get more pipelines, fracking, coal, off-shore oil and nuclear energy and they get infiltrated and arrested for trying to get the government to respond to their demands.
And, this extreme extraction is directly tied to climate change. The most recent IPCC report shows that if we act now, we can minimize the impact of climate and do so inexpensively – but will the status quo powers that profit from climate change-causing energy allow the government to do what is necessary?
On banking, when the people want bankers to be held accountable, oppose bailing out the big banks when their derivative gambles fail and want transparency in the private corporation known as the Federal Reserve, we get minimal regulation, no criminal prosecutions, expansion of the big banks and minimal audit of the Fed.
And, the lack of legitimacy is also highlighted by the lawlessness of the government. The soon-to-be-released (at least in part) CIA torture report is already showing through leaks that, among other things, the CIA had black-site torture centers around the world, lied to the Congress and American people about what they were doing and continued torturing despite its failure to protect the country. Despite the seriousness of the crime of torture under both domestic and international law, the only person to go to jail for torture was John Kiriakou who exposed it. Is this how a legitimate government behaves?
We also see the lawlessness approach to government in the dragnet surveillance program of the NSA. Does the Fourth Amendment mean nothing to the illegitimate government? Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, after being threatened by politicians and pundits with arrest, refused to be cowered by threats and returned to the United States this week and were not arrested. Instead, they came back to receive multiple awards, including the Pulitizer. All of these journalism awards show how out of step the US security state is with the thinking of journalists and is a vindication for Edward Snowden.
But, journalism is threatened. As Chelsea Manning’s appellate lawyers pointed out this week, the fact that Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act without being shown to have any intent to commit espionage puts all journalism at risk. The media better join in helping Manning challenge this issue on appeal or critical reporting will risk an espionage conviction.
Control of the government by big business and the wealthy means we get policies designed to enrich the already wealthy at the expense of the poor, working and middle classes. It means an expanding wealth divide and increasing poverty; a smaller share of profit going to workers while corporations make record profits; and destruction of the planet while a few profit from fracked gas, tar sands, nuclear energy and oil.
How Do We End Plutocracy?
Now that we know we live in a plutocracy – a government ruled by the richest people – with only a false veneer of democracy, not a legitimate government where the people rule, what do we do about it?
The reality that the government has no democratic legitimacy is liberating. Our civil resistance, sit-ins, marches, protests and disobedience of their authority should escalate. At the same time, our efforts to build alternative democratic institutions where we can participate in decision making should also increase. From the community level up we now know we need to build institutions that are legitimate, i.e. that ensure our participation in deciding our future.
We essentially have to remake society, or as President Lincoln said in Gettysburg in 1863 we need “a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln thought we needed to ensure that a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” did “not perish from the earth.” In fact, our task is different – we need to create a government that is of, by and for the people; and we need to do so from the ground up, requiring transformation of the role of people in the economy and government.
Jerome Roos writes in ROAR Magazine that finding the US is not a real democracy is not the real issue. The real issue is “an even thornier question: what if oligarchy, as opposed to democracy, is actually the natural political form in capitalist society? What if the capitalist state is by its very definition an oligarchic form of government? If that’s the case, the authors have merely proved the obvious: that the United States is a thoroughly capitalist society.”
This question is not just the opinion of a European radical, Thomas Edsall writing in The New York Times in reviewing Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, points out that this powerful book makes the point that an expanding wealth divide is the inevitable result of capitalism, and that this creates a conflict with democracy. The book is being described as a watershed for economics, because it demonstrates how the profit of capital exceeds the rate of economic growth. This means a forever expanding wealth divide, unless we do something to change course.
What kind of economy would be consistent with a democracy where the people ruled? In our view, economic democracy where people have ownership of their workplaces, participate in the management of land and resources, as well as share the wealth created more equitably, would be consistent with a government that is of, by and for the people. As we’ve reported in previous articles we see signs of a new economy based on economic democracy growing in the nation. See our website, It’s Our Economy, for more on this issue.
In fact, the history of the United States shows that cooperatives and communal workplaces have been a consistent part of our economy from before our founding. It has always been tied to other movements like the American Revolution, abolition of slavery, women’s rights, worker rights and civil rights – even if the history books do not tell this narrative. You could say it is part of our genetic make-up. Now, we are seeing economic democratic institutions being formed as people share knowledge about how to create them.
Rootstrikers, puts forward a view held by many of us, “the corrupting influence of money in politics is the most fundamental threat to our civil rights this century.” Their view is that “people must recognize that corruption is not just one among many important problems. Corruption is the root problem that makes solving the others so difficult.” It is only the “people who can force lasting change on this broken system.”
And, what kinds of changes in government are needed to end the rule of the richest and empower the people? There are constitutional changes that are needed, whether this is done by amendments or by redrafting the constitution is too soon to say. An essential starting point is the agenda of Move To Amend. They call for a constitutional amendment to establish that: (1) money is not speech and (2) human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights. These changes would reverse a string of Supreme Court decisions ending with Citizens United and McCutcheon and allow the people to demand that Congress change the way elections are financed, limit or even ban electoral donations and keep corporations out of politics. After-all the Constitution says ‘we the people’ not ‘we the corporations.’
But, there are other shortcomings in the 227 year old US Constitution. For example there is no right to vote in the Constitution, there are no equal rights recognized for all people, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not recognized, nor are the rights of nature.
And, rights which are recognized are being weakened. For example, our Freedom of Speech and Press, as well as Assembly have been weakened by court decisions minimizing them and police practices abusing them. They can be strengthened by recognizing our right to information and right to communicate with others. People need the right to express themselves publicly on a broad range of politically relevant subjects without fear of punishment. This will protect access to the Internet, or whatever communication tools are developed, as well as protect whistleblowers providing the information we need in order to participate in self-rule.
These changes can only be made by a mass movement that builds from the bottom up. It requires us to work in our own communities to put in place economic institutions that are democratic as well as political institutions like community assembles that are participatory in their exercise of democracy. It requires us to build an independent citizen’s media so people do not have to rely on concentrated corporate media’s propagandistic reporting. It requires us to say out loud that the US government has lost its democratic legitimacy.
This week, CBS News demonstrated once again that a top priority must be to build our own citizen media. CBS hired a former CIA director, Mike Morell as their senior security analyst, even though Morell has already made false, inaccurate and inflammatory statements on the air. Similarly, the new Washington Post owner garnered a contract with the CIA larger than the amount he paid to buy the Post.
A lot of this is already happening but none of it has matured or reached the critical mass needed. As more people awaken to the reality of the depth of corruption in our government and economy, and the mirage of US democracy, the movement will grow and the demands will get stronger.
The Roman philosopher and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero said “Freedom is participation in power.” It is time for the American awakening that ensures we achieve the participation in power that is consistent with our inalienable rights as human beings. That is the task we face. Building the movement to achieve it will be one of the great transformations in human history.
This article is produced by Popular Resistance in conjunction with AlterNet. It is a weekly review of the activities of the resistance movement. Sign up for the daily news digest of Popular Resistance, here.
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