By John Weeks. This article was first published on http://jweeks.org
There is a famous jingle about the attempt to blow up the British parliament in 1605 that begins, “Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot.” All sensible people must hope that in the United States we shall not have our own variation on this warning, “Remember, remember the sixth of November, money elected a fascist future”.
If this seems excessively alarmist and vulgar apologetics for a vacillating Obama government under the thumb of Finance (which it is), reflect on the possible road ahead. Were the Republican presidential ticket merely conservative, one might consider not voting because of the illiberal policies of the Obama administration on human rights, its unqualified support for the far right Israel government, and its craven subservience to financial interests. The re-election of Obama will not bring improvement. On each of these issues, torture and assassination, reckless policies in West Asia, and pandering to financial capital, the disagreement between the two major candidates is minor. Their differences lie elsewhere, bourgeois democracy versus bourgeois authoritarianism. As illiberal and subservient to financial capital as the Obama administration may be, it serves interests of its major backers to maintain formal democratic processes, and risible but real social protection, such as the miserably inadequate unemployment compensation and much better social security system. As we defend this system we should have no illusions about it. It is quite likely that in terms of formal institutions and procedures, the United States has the most limited form of democratic representation among the developed countries. First, and much commented upon, the election of presidents is indirect, a fact brought home with a vengeance by the election of George Bush in 2000 with a minority of the popular vote, and repeated instances of plurality presidents (Bill Clinton 1992 and Richard Nixon in 1968 being obvious cases).
Second, and little commented upon, the US Senate is perhaps the least representative legislative institution among developed countries, with the exception of the British House of Lords. The 38 million residents of California equal that of the 22 least populated states. As a result, the former have two Senators and the latter 44 (for Texas the equivalent is 17 of the least populated states, 16 for New York and 15 for Florida). With half the Senators, the 25 smallest states boast less than 17 percent of the US population. “Rotten borough” is hardly the word. It is unlikely that any country in the world with democratic pretensions would allow, much less ignore such a gross violation of the one person, one vote principle.
Third, the much-praised “separation of powers” at the federal level implies in practice that even were congressmen elected on democratic principles, the legislation passed by these representatives of the majority are subject to veto by an unelected judicial elite. To make this elitist veto even more anti-democratic, taking cases to the Supreme Court is an extremely expensive endeavor not accessible to the vast majority except through ad hoc processes.
These anti-popular institutions represent the conscious intend and long run success of the “founding fathers” to restrict democracy in America. Given these
reactionary institutions and constitutional constrains it is hardly surprising that US voters could elect only one truly progressive president, Franklin D Roosevelt, during the 150 years since a four-way split in the Electoral College took Lincoln to the White House (re- elected through the exclusion of the eleven states of the Confederacy). For the Romney- Ryan ticket and those billionaires that support it, this limited democracy is far too much, threatening, however remote, the possibility of a future Roosevelt. Not even the Supreme Court legalizing the purchase of elections in the 2008, Citizens United versus the Federal Election Board, gives the far right sufficient guarantee of its long run dominance.
At the state level Republican governors and legislatures have introduced profoundly anti-democratic measures to limit the electorate. These restrictions include prohibition on voting by people in prison (all but two states), and permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons (thirteen states). The racist intent of disenfranchising felons should be obvious, as would be many other state level measures implemented to limit access to voting.
Should anyone think I exaggerate the danger of wide spread disenfranchisement under a Romney-Ryan administration, reflect on the insufficiently appreciated fact that the US constitution does not guarantee the right to vote as such, only the prohibition against discrimination by religion, ethnicity and sex. The legal possibilities for discrimination on other grounds would not go unappreciated by either a Republican administration, a House and Senate dominated by the far right, or the judges the first would add to the already reactionary Supreme Court and be eagerly endorsed by the second.
Though funded to the gills by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, the far right has a serious electoral problem. Its formally democratic route to power lies with white, mostly male voters. In long decline, white or European Americans account for 72 percent of the population, implying that white males are about thirty-six percent. To achieve and maintain a reactionary electoral plurality, the far right must manufacture an artificial electoral majority from that thirty-six percent. The purpose of voting restrictions presently and in the future under a Republican administration would be to enhance the share of white male voters in defiance of demographic trends. The demographic trend cannot be reversed, but the access to elections can be restricted. The primary vehicle to retain the white majority would be through amendment and non-enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, provisions of which must be renewed by Congress. The act mandates the federal government to monitor the right to vote and intervene when it is violated. In May of this year the House of Representative voted by a majority of over forty, all but a few being Republicans, to prohibit such intervention (rejected by the Senate). Among those voting in favor was Paul Ryan. The short run strategy of the far right is to buy the 2012 presidential election. That purchase would be facilitated by ad hoc application of voting restrictions in states where the right controls the legislature and executive. The long run strategy is to make that victory permanent by permanently limiting the right to vote. Many reasons have been offered for supporting Obama despite his abject failures. Among the most compelling is the certain reduction of the rights of women under a Romney-Ryan government. This would include the de facto legalization of categories of sexual assault, evidenced by Ryan’s negative vote on the Violence against
Women Act (also in May 2012, a busy month for him). The certainty of more Supreme Court appointments would guarantee that such measures receive judicial endorsement if challenged.
A great danger looms, within which the others are subsumed: the end of bourgeois democracy, placed by a formalized oligarchic authoritarianism. We near the worst of political worlds when a weak and indecisive president represents our frontline bulwark against this authoritarian, anti-democratic tide. But that is not the worst of worlds. The worst would come with his defeat and the election of Mitt Romney and his familiar, Paul Ryan.