Wayne O'Leary

Dysfunctional Democracy

Surprise! While most of us were watching our economy slowly implode over the last years and months, something far worse was simultaneously taking place. American democracy itself was in the process of disintegrating.

This may seem like an overstatement, but it’s really not; the evidence is widespread. Combining what’s happened at the federal level with developments in the states, it seems obvious that things are reaching a negative critical mass.

American democracy has never been perfect, of course. It’s fairly common knowledge, the imaginings of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin notwithstanding, that the early Republic was essentially a government of, by, and for wealthy, white, male landowners and merchants; those who doubt this are referred to the historical writings of Charles Beard, particularly his classic Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, penned a century ago, but still relevant to today.

It wasn’t until the late antebellum period of the 1830s and 1840s that the voting franchise was extended in most states to propertyless white males (“universal manhood suffrage”), not until the late 1860s that it was formally granted to former slaves (the three-fifths persons of the founding document), and not until 1920 that it included women. Vestigial impediments to voting, such as poll taxes, were not fully eradicated until the late 20th century, and unlikely as it seems, these are making an indirect comeback in our own time.

For most Americans of this generation, however, the unraveling of democratic government probably first became noticeable a decade ago, in 2000, when George W. Bush managed to reach the White House without the need to be elected – except by a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Even the most conservative of the Founders did not visualize selection of the nation’s chief executive by nine appointed judges with lifetime tenure. Nevertheless, that’s what happened; the votes of millions of citizens were summarily dismissed in what amounted to a judicial coup engineered by a rightist clique determined to vote its political preferences.

Fast forward nine years to the start of Barack Obama’s first term as president. Democratic dysfunction now took the form of minority rule in Congress — specifically, the sudden acceptance by all concerned of the need for 60-vote supermajorities to pass anything at all through the U.S. Senate, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” (and the worst manifestation of popular will found anywhere legislatures meet).

The election of Bush 43 demonstrated that headstrong minorities with friends in high places can seize power in America as easily as in a banana republic of the Southern Hemisphere. The filibuster-generated 60-vote Senate requirement demonstrated that, once in power, such minorities can rule in extra-democratic fashion, ignoring popular sentiment and frustrating popular desires. In 2009-11, Senate Republicans established that “just say no” was more than an anti-drug slogan; it was a way of instituting minority government and permanently protecting vested economic interests.

The GOP minority was helped in this instance by the unwillingness of the majority to seriously fight back, whether out of misplaced respect for the subverted institution and its traditions, out of institutional lethargy, or out of simple cowardice. Whatever the reason, the Obama administration, even if it wins reelection, will henceforth be unable to govern effectively and accomplish anything meaningful without bringing in historic, probably unattainable, congressional majorities of its own in 2012 – say, 70 filibuster-proof seats in the upper chamber. And no one has done that since FDR in the 1930s.

So the subversion of democracy in Washington has more or less guaranteed an impotent presidency through at least 2016. This leaves the 50 states, the much ballyhooed “laboratories of democracy.” But they have governing problems of their own.

As states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, among others, have shown, government closer to the people does not necessarily mean more democratic government. Quite the contrary. Moves are underway in states seized by the GOP in 2010 to suppress participation by restricting early or absentee voting, by closing polling places at unreasonable hours, by cracking down on imaginary voter fraud, by limiting registration drives and same-day registration, and by requiring more elaborate and expensive forms of voter identification, including special photo IDs that are difficult for some voters to obtain or afford. These roadblocks, aimed at disenfranchising racial minorities, students, new immigrants, the poor, and the elderly, are the new “poll taxes” of the 21st century.

The blatant and transparent offensive against citizen groups prone to vote Democratic is at the same time a direct attack on democracy itself. Republicans at the state level, like GOP senators in Washington, make no bones about their intentions; they want to limit political participation to the upper strata of society – property owners, those with money and investments, older and more established ethnic groups, and the business class in general.

There’s a reason why the Republican assault on democratic government happened when it did. The 2010 elections created the opening, giving many states veto-proof GOP legislative majorities for the first time in living memory. Numerous voters, lulled into complacency, forgot why they had stopped voting Republican in the first place. Many who thought the GOP couldn’t seriously mean what it was saying in terms of its intentions have had a rude awakening and a crash course in political reality. Things a majority of the public believed were part of an agreed-upon consensus about the rules of participatory democracy turned out to be part of no consensus whatever.

Above all, the coordinated, state-based attacks on democracy, which are proceeding in lockstep with tea-party Republican efforts to cripple representative government in Washington, have the ultimate backstop behind them. GOP politicians know that, regardless of their brazenly unconstitutional or quasi-legal behavior, they will ultimately be sustained by the most right-wing Supreme Court in a century. For a decade, beginning with Bush v. Gore in 2000 and culminating with Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in 2010, a totally politicized conservative Court has ignored precedent and made law by ideological 5-to-4 decisions, trending increasingly Republican with each new opinion.

Absolute power, judicially, has absolutely corrupted, and raw partisanship is receiving its unjust reward in the political arena. Failing a liberal appointment or two that changes the balance of the high court, it’s back to square one for democracy in America.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2011


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Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.