Is there no limit to the lethal and authoritarian absurdity of America, land of mass gun massacres like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, and now El Paso and Dayton among other pockmarked sites?
Here is a society that claims to be the beacon to the world of civilized decency and democracy yet permits its lurking army of faceless, anomie-afflicted sociopathic killers to join countless deranged others in readily purchasing military-style assault weapons.
The permission stands in defiance of majority public opinion since most U.S. citizens have the natural intelligence and common sense to oppose such barbarian insanity.
The spectacular mass shootings are a distinctively U.S.-American problem due above all to the simple fact that military-style weapons of mass destruction are so insanely/widely available in this country.
The public opinion numbers on behalf of banning military-style weaponry and passing other strict gun control measures are extremely high.
In any functioning democracy, such measures would be easily passed in accord with the elementary democratic principle of majority rule.
But that’s the rub. The United States is not a functioning democracy. It’s not a democracy at all. Not on guns. Not on health insurance. Not on mental health policy. Not on union organizing rights. Not on social welfare. Not on taxation. Not on wages. Not on climate. Not on school funding. Not on “border security” and immigration. Not on criminal justice. Not on “defense” (military empire) spending. Not on the distribution of wealth and income. Not on anything, really.
Don’t take it just from a supposed “radical extremist” like me. Take it from distinguished mainstream political scientists like Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Marin Gilens (Princeton). As Page and Gilens showed in their exhaustive 2017 study Democracy in America?:
“[T]he best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans…have…little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have…much more political clout … the general public [is] … virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is … thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves. … Majorities of Americans favor specific policies designed to deal with such problems as climate change, gun violence, an untenable immigration system, inadequate public schools, and crumbling bridges and highways. …Large majorities of America favor various programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs] (emphasis added).”
Mammon reigns in the United States, where, Page and Gilens observed, “government policy … reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the pre-approved, money-vetted candidates for federal office” (emphasis added).
Conventional wisdom holds that regular elections that generate competitive contests for citizens’ votes are all that is required for a nation to be a democracy. The conventional wisdom is wrong. The mere holding of such elections does not remotely ensure popular self-rule. Majority progressive public opinion is regularly trumped (no pun intended) by a deadly complex of interrelated and mutually reinforcing culprits in the U.S., the self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy: the campaign finance, candidate-selection, lobbying, and policy agenda-setting power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups; the special primary election influence of extreme right party activists; the disproportionately affluent, white, and older composition of the active (voting) electorate; the regular manipulation of voter turnout; the widespread dissemination of diversionary, baffling, deceptive, and inaccurate information, images, and narratives; woefully unrepresentative and explicitly anti-democratic political institutions including the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the extreme over-representation of the predominantly white rural population in the U.S. Senate, and the severe partisan gerrymandering of the House of Representatives’ electoral districts; constitutional and related partisan government gridlock and the fragmentation of authority in government.
The most important decisions aren’t made by “We the People.” They are made by an insular elite of rich and powerful societal owners and directors, “with elections,” as the astute Left analyst Carl Boggs writes, “reduced to a set of rituals and spectacles geared more to legitimation than actual decision-making.” It’s nothing new. C.B. Macpherson noted four decades ago that the nation’s so-called democratic politics was about subordinate citizens “choosing,” in Boggs’ words, “among competing elites…offering an illusion of democracy…an elite-legitimizing function.”
One month after Page and Gilens’ book came out, in late December of 2017, Donald Trump signed a massive plutocratic tax cut that distributed more riches to the super-prosperous Few in a nation where the upper thousandth already possessed more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The measure was opposed by three in four U.S. citizens. The White House, Congress, and their bankrollers laughed and said, “So what? What are all you losers, chumps, and punks going to do about it?”
Three months later, Trump proclaimed that “there’s not much political support” for increasing the minimum age for purchasing an assault rifle. It was an absurd statement. Polls taken after the February 14, 2018 assault weapon massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida showed that 82 percent of U.S.-Americans backed precisely such a mild reform. A Quinnipiac poll found that fully two-thirds, 67 percent, of U.S. Americans even supported a national ban on assault weapons.
Still, Trump’s comment was oligarchically correct. The policy in question may have been widely approved by the citizenry. But ordinary Americans don’t make policy; they get shepherded into voting booths to make marks or poke holes next to the names of “competing elites” (Boggs) who are “preapproved” and “money-vetted” (Page and Gilens) by the nation’s state-capitalist owners and managers. The dollar-drenched federal legislature was cowed by the fearsome, constitutionally distorted lobbying, campaign finance, and public relations power of the corporate gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which wanted to keep the nation’s gun violence machine set on kill.
Fast forward to the red summer of 2019. Listen to the tangerine-tinted, white nationalist Neofascist-in-Chief speaking to reporters beneath the whir of presidential helicopter blades as he prepared last Wednesday to visit El Paso and Dayton, two cities recently hit by grisly assault weapon massacres, one (El Paso) inflicted by a psychotic racist inspired by Trump’s recurrent hateful statements about Latinx immigrants. “There is no political appetite” in Congress for restrictions on the sale of assault rifles “at this moment,” Trump said.
Let’s assume that Trump is correct that Congress has no political will to ban assault weapons. A Morning Consult/Politco poll taken between August 5th and 7th finds that 7 in 10 U.S. voters, including 54% of Republicans, back a national assault weapon ban.
Why does Congress lack “appetite” for banning assault weapons when most of the population supports such a policy? The top two reasons: (i) the extreme political power of the NRA, exercised via campaign finance, lobbying, and public relations; (ii) the constitutionally exaggerated and gerrymandered political power of rural red states and regions where guns are supremely prized possessions and where any restrictions of any kind on firearm sales are viewed as threats to American white-male identity.
Among other factors we might include the legislators’ calculation that popular support for the policy change is soft – low-priority and likely to fade as the El Paso and Dayton shootings inevitably fade from the top of the news cycle – and even the fear of being shot. Recall the National Rifle Association’s chilling 2018 video where the menacing Dana Loesch turned over an hourglass and told “liberal” politicians, activists, and celebrities that “Your Time is Running Out.” Let me be candid: that video was a neofascistic threat of assassination aimed at those who might oppose the NRA’s terrorist agenda within the political and media establishment.
The American political-economic order is deeply authoritarian. It is childish and preposterous to call it a “democracy.” But that’s precisely what the Inauthentic Opposition Democratic Party regularly does (hardly alone in that regard, of course). Its leaders have spent the last two and half years attributing the “authentic” neofascist Trump’s victory over the excruciatingly dismal, widely disliked neoliberal corporatist Hillary Clinton to Russia’s efforts to “undermine our great democracy.”
What great U.S.-American democracy? What remotely functioning democracy? They don’t exist.
This is so not new. Democracy, it is worth recalling, was the Founding Fathers’ ultimate nightmare. They designed a constitutional order meant precisely to keep popular sovereignty at bay, advancing a definition of “liberty” that revolved around the protection of property rights (the propertied elite) against the property-less and property-poor majority.
Nearly a century and a half later, the great American philosopher John Dewey wrote that American “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”
The progressive triumphs of the Second New Deal only briefly and partially qualified the longue durée accuracy of Dewey’s prediction, which has been born out in spades in the prolonged “neoliberal” era.
We are all supposed to play along with this system and dutifully wait for our little once-every 1,460 day two-minute moment to go into voting booths to choose between ruling class-vetted members of the elect oligarchic political class under a scheme that drastically exaggerates the electoral power of the nation’s most reactionary swamps of gun-addicted white nationalism. Beto O’Rourke can run around and curse about Trump and the media as much as he wants but he and his fellow twenty-three or so Democratic candidates and the outraged liberal cable news talking heads are all about sheep-dogging us all into the narrow confines of that great “coffin of class consciousness” (Alan Dawley) and engaged citizen action – that endless graveyard of social movements – that is the U.S. ballot box and the giant “Election Madness” (Howard Zinn) built up around the official national religion of voting (many appear to be non-believers given the nation’s high rate of non-voting).
“This [madness] seizes the country,” Zinn wrote in March of 2008, “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. It is a multiple-choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students” (emphasis added).
Every four years – and for many of the days and nights in-between! To see the official voting religion in operation, watch MSDNC (MSNBC) or CNN. The next presidential election is more than 450 days in the future but the “liberal” cable news talking heads are already now obsessed with the Democratic presidential candidates as well as with every vicious tweet, utterance, and inane action of the unmentionably fascist president. The quadrennial extravaganza supplanted RussiaGate as their primary (no pun intended) mania months ago.
Politics in general is so badly over-identified with specifically electoral and candidate-centered politics in the U.S. as to become practically suicidal for the America populace. The nation’s oligarchic electoral, candidate-selection, political media, and party systems are gravely and irreversibly compromised by business and military power, making them lethally and pathetically inadequate as avenues of popular self-rule.
We will not achieve any serious gains through electoral-political business(-rule)-as-usual. Even if they win in 2020, the Inauthentic Opposition Democrats can be counted on to be so captive to the global corporate, financial, and imperial powers as to guarantee a right-wing white nationalist return to the White House in 2025 or 2029.
As nobody in the nation’s political class has the courage or desire to acknowledge, the problem is (to use the wonderful phrase of anti-racist-policing activists) “the whole damn system” (WDS), Democrats included. The whole damn Trump-Pence-McConnell-Pelosi-Schumer-Goldman-Citigroup-NRA-Council on Foreign Relations-Koch Brothers-Tom Steyer-Sheldon Adelson-Donald Sussman-Richard Uhlein-Michael Bloomberg-Kenneth Griffin-George Soros-Stephen Schwarzman-Heritage Foundation-Center for American Progress-ALEC-Brookings-American Enterprise Institute-Rockefeller Foundation-FOX-MSDNC-CNN-Scaife-MacArthur-DeVoss-Pritzker-Pentagon-American Petroleum Institute-Tides Foundation-Obama-Bush-Clinton-Kissinger-Kasich-Cubs-Sox-MLB regime has to go.
Do what you want in the now seemingly endless quadrennial extravaganza. Unless a widening circle of the American people develop an appetite for a people’s politics beyond the masters’ savagely narrow and time-staggered election cycle, and indeed for revolution, they are doomed to common ruin. No serious change, no remotely substantive popular sovereignty, no protection and advance of the common good will be forthcoming without prolonged, organized, and massive nonviolent civil disruption – genuine popular resistance. The WDS is rotten to the core, as much of the ruling class knows. Taking it down will be no walk in the park. Many will die, sadly; vicious regimes of class rule like ours don’t just disappear without a bloody fight. But there is no way to a decent future without a protracted and massive, death-defying popular uprising. The masters’ soulless profits system is pushing livable ecology over the cliff with startling velocity (the exterminist process is well underway and we have a decade at most to stop it), making gun violence and other terrible problems secondary by comparison.
1. It doesn’t take much to get called such things in neo-McCarthyite America today. Last Wednesday a CNN morning anchor described the Dayton shooter as “a leftist extremist, a supporter of Elizabeth Warren.” Unlike the centrist social democrat Bernie Sanders, Senator Warren stood and applauded when Donald Trump called on Congress to pledge that the United States would “never be a socialist nation” during his 2019 State of the Union Address.
2. Thanks to this “oligarchy,” as Page and Gilens call it, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social health: economic disparity, inter-generational social mobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, literacy/numeracy, and environmental sustainability and resilience. Economic globalization and labor-displacing technology are part of what plagues the U.S., Page and Gilens note, but “all other advanced countries have faced [those] same pressures” and “nearly all of them have done much better than we have at” limiting inequality.” Those countries have used “a range of egalitarian public policies to spread the gains from trade and technology more widely, allowing many more of their citizens to benefit.” Plutocracy negates such policies in the U.S. It’s a vicious circle. As Page and Gilens note, “When citizens are relatively equal [economically], politics has tended to be fairly democratic. When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers.” Gee, you don’t say. Savage inequality and abject plutocracy are two sides of the same class-rule coin in New Gilded Age America, as in previous eras.
3. Please see my discussion in Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Routledge, 2014), 202-205.
Previously published on Counter Punch, Aug. 9, 2019
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Paul writes regularly for Truthdig, Telesur English, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine and Dandelion Salad.
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