Remember When We Had Elections?
by Richard Heinberg
Dissident Voice, November
"If this were a dictatorship, it'd
be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
--George W. Bush (12/18/2000)
November 5, 2002: In a closely watched
off-year election, amid near record-low voter turnout, Republicans
gained control of the United States Senate. Today the party of
George W. Bush, the current resident of the White House, presides
over all three branches of the federal government.
Most Americans appear to believe that
this was just another election. But there are reasons to fear
that it may actually represent one of the final nails in the coffin
of American democracy.
This extraordinary assertion is not merely
an expression of partisan bitterness over the rightward drift
of American politics. What is happening now is of far more historical
and structural significance than a temporary shift in the relative
power of the parties. As I propose to show, disturbing signs point
toward the ongoing emergence of a fascist-style dictatorship in
Government By the People
Is American democracy really dead, or
merely a little under the weather? In exploring that question,
it may be helpful to start by defining our terms: What, exactly,
Conventionally, democracy-from the Greek
demokratia, meaning "rule by the people"- is regarded
as an artifact of Greek civilization and of the Enlightenment.
But from a larger historical and anthropological perspective,
it can be seen as the result of an attempt on the part of people
living in modern complex societies to regain some of the autonomy
and egalitarianism that characterized life in the hunter-gatherer
bands of our distant ancestors. Indeed, as many writers have documented,
the structure of the US Federal government, with its elections
and separations of powers, probably owes more to early explorers'
contacts with Native American tribes-especially the Iroquois Confederacy-than
to the ideas of any European or Euro-American philosopher. (1)
True, the Athenians had a form of democracy, though women and
slaves were excluded from the demos-the enfranchised citizenry-and
thus denied participation. For the Athenians and for later Europeans,
the democratic ideal represented a reaction against concentrations
of power that arose in the development of stratified agricultural
states and that burdened successive generations with slavery,
serfdom, colonialism, and every other imaginable form of domination
and exploitation. For people who had come to see the social pyramid
as inescapable, the idea that ordinary people should have a say
in making the decisions that affected their lives was not just
attractive, it was positively intoxicating.
In most instances, democracy has been
more an ideal than a realized achievement. Democracy appears to
* citizen involvement in every level and
phase of decision making,
* a free flow of accurate information,
* the complete transparency of all decisions
and decision-making processes,
* systems of accountability and citizen
* mechanisms for representing and incorporating
minority views in decisions, in proportion to their appearance
among the population as a whole.
In addition, experience has shown that
a healthy democracy requires minimization of wealth inequalities
within a society: if some citizens have vastly greater control
over resources than others, they will inevitably be able to buy
political influence in a variety of ways.
Much progress has been made during the
past two centuries of global democratic revolution, in that many
nations now have democratically elected governments. However,
most military, financial, corporate, and religious organizations
are still characterized by the exercise of authoritarian power.
And with the growth in influence over elected governments of corporations,
banks, and armies, democracy is as much threatened today in actual
practice as it is lauded in the self-congratulatory rhetoric of
The democratic process is seldom a simple,
transparent affair. It is, after all, a contest for power-a contest
not just between or among competing individuals and groups for
control of resources, but a contest over the breadth of distribution
of decision-making power within society, and over the nature of
the process by which power may legitimately be wielded.
For democracy to exist, mechanisms of
information sharing, negotiation, review, checks, and balances
must be built into the social system. But those mechanisms must
themselves routinely be monitored and periodically reinvented.
Wherever a citizenry becomes lulled into thinking that its institutions
perfectly embody the democratic ideal and need not be reassessed,
true democracy will sooner or later become endangered.
Unfortunately, that appears to be precisely
what has happened in the United States of America over the course
of the past few decades.
How Democracy Died in the USA
Today in the US, democracy of a sort still
exists within local communities. Citizens can still elect city
council members or county boards of supervisors and vote on local
school-bond initiatives. But at the higher levels of government-the
state and federal levels-democracy has become little more than
For practical purposes, American democracy
was already comatose long before the most recent election. It
was an imperfect project from the outset: many of the "founding
fathers" distrusted the citizenry and believed, as the first
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, once put it, that
"the people who own the country should govern it." Women
were excluded from the electoral process altogether at first,
as were African Americans in the South, and Native Americans and
non-landowners everywhere. The rights guaranteed in the first
five amendments to the Constitution-including freedoms of speech,
religion, press, and assembly-were won only as concessions by
the governing class to popular protest. But those rights have
periodically been eroded or suspended. During the Civil War and
the two World Wars, the Bill of Rights was put largely in abeyance
and the executive branch of the federal government assumed almost
total power. But these measures were understood to be temporary.
It could be argued that, in some respects,
American democracy reached its zenith in the late 1960s and early
1970s, after women had gained voting rights (in 1921) and blacks
had overturned the Jim Crow laws with the Civil Rights movement
of the 1950s and '60s. But the seeds of democracy's undoing were
The two-party system gained a stranglehold
on American politics almost from the beginning and certainly after
the Civil War, and for many decades provided a certain corrupt
stability to the political regime. Each major party had both a
liberal wing and a conservative wing, though over all the Republicans
more faithfully represented the wealthy while the Democrats represented
working people. As the parties battled each other for power, factions
within parties fought for ideological control. With periodic exceptions,
most important political decisions came about through backroom
deals; leaders of the two parties, though adversaries, typically
related to one another in a spirit of collegial cordiality.
But with the Nixon Strategy of the early
1970s a fundamental change swept the nation's political landscape.
Nixon claimed to support equality, but his stated opposition to
"big government" actually translated as a promise to
backpedal on the enforcement of civil rights or integration laws.
Nixon also promoted black capitalism in an effort to drive a wedge
between middle-class and poor blacks. Republicans thus tied their
fortunes to an alliance between big business, southern whites,
and Christian fundamentalists. With southern white Democrats fleeing
to the GOP, the Democratic Party had no choice but to rely more
on its traditional liberal-wing base of unions and minorities,
meanwhile hoping to lure moderate Republicans to its side. The
Democrats continued to focus on bread-and-butter issues that working
people typically care about-education, Social Security, health
care, and good jobs; while Republicans campaigned for increased
military budgets, and against taxes and government bureaucracy.
Nixon's strategy-which, at its core, exploited racist sentiments-succeeded,
helping the GOP win five of the past eight presidential elections.
Both parties had long and deep ties to
wealthy individuals and corporations. Though Democrats nourished
those ties through their support for "free trade," Republicans
were able to serve their corporate benefactors more effectively
through the additional advocacy of tax cuts for the rich and restraint
of government regulation; they thus gained the lion's share of
campaign contributions in election after election.
As politics became more polarized, it
became uglier. Increasingly, Republicans played the elections
game not just to gain the upper hand, but to utterly destroy their
adversaries. They seemed to possess an assurance-perhaps traceable
to the increasingly fundamentalist religious bent of their membership-that
theirs was a righteous and patriotic cause; that they were the
only ones fit to assume the nation's mantle of leadership; and
that their liberal opponents were not only incompetent and wrongheaded,
but morally degenerate. The Democrats were not prepared for this
kind of self-righteous, take-no-prisoners confrontationalism,
and typically ended up looking wimpish and silly, their concerns
over environmental, women's, and racial issues dismissed by Republicans
as "political correctness." Even Clinton's canny co-opting
of the conservative agenda in 1992 and 1996 could not hold the
Right at bay. Though a majority of people in the country actually
identified with issues the Democrats historically championed,
Republicans often proved themselves the superior strategists.
In 1994 the Southern Strategy helped the GOP end Democrats' 40-year
rule in Congress; and the '94 Gingrich revolution in turn led
to the Clinton impeachment hearings. While Democrats persevered
under the old assumption that politics was the art of compromise,
Republicans played hardball, lunging for the jugular, equating
even the smallest concession with total defeat. Increasingly,
the Democrats' strategic response was simply to ape Republican
policies, thus alienating their own traditional power base.
Part of the Republican strategy centered
on the judiciary. Many civil-rights gains had come about through
rulings by liberal New Deal-era federal judges. The Republicans
saw that their long-term success would require replacing these
judges with their own judicial activists who would roll back affirmative
action, environmental and labor protections, and abortion rights
(the last to placate the religious Right). As more conservatives
were appointed to the federal bench during the Reagan-Bush years,
the entire legal system swerved rightward.
Meanwhile, the very machinery of democracy-in
the most literal sense-became increasingly tainted. Increasingly,
voting was being accomplished with machines, and disturbing signs
appeared that the companies that designed, built, and controlled
voting machines had interests at heart other than the determination
of the will of the electorate. As Lynn Landes notes in her article,
"Voting Machines: A High Tech Ambush," "Voting
machine companies [nationwide] are privately held and extremely
secretive. They form a web of overlapping ownership, financing,
staff, and equipment that makes it difficult, if not impossible,
to separate one from the other. ES&S, the largest voting machine
company, claims to have counted 56% of the vote in the last four
presidential elections." The Voting Rights Division of the
Department of Justice is empowered to oversee voting machine companies,
but actually engages in virtually no direct supervision. Landes
concludes that "We have a voting system that appears to be
in a constant state of name change and rotating management, but
always under the private control of the rich and infamous. Meanwhile,
Congress has just passed a law that effectively throws hundreds
of millions of dollars at voting machine companies that have a
record that includes partisanship, bribery, secrecy, and rampant
technical 'malfunctions.'" (2)
The necessary infrastructure of democracy
does not stop with the institutions and technology of governance;
a functional democracy also depends upon free flow of accurate
information. Thus in a real though informal sense, the media could
be said constitute a fourth branch of the US government. Here
again, events of the past few decades can be seen to have cut
democracy off at the knees. Starting in the 1980s, conservatives
adopted the spectacularly effective tactic of accusing the media
of liberal bias. The media's only defense was to move to the right.
But this was not a difficult or uncomfortable maneuver: the owners
of the media were themselves members of the wealthy ruling class
and tended already to be politically conservative. The rightward
drift of the US media has been apparent to those with historical
Comparative research by media watch-groups
consistently documents the increasing degree to which television
and radio talk shows are dominated by conservative commentators.
(3) Further, a recent study by Reporters Without Borders on press
freedom within nations ranked the US seventeenth in degree of
press freedom, behind Costa Rica and Slovenia. (4) But this study
didn't tell the whole story: it examined independence of media
from direct government controls, as well as instances of reporters
being harassed or jailed. It did not examine subtler forms of
information manipulation, such as the planting of covert intelligence
agents in news organizations. As was documented by the Church
Commission in the 1970s, the CIA has infiltrated virtually every
major news outlet in the US and routinely shapes coverage of the
news, plants false news stories, and tailors the public debate
through its links with prominent commentators.
Once one is alert to these influences
on the media, the daily news reveals itself as often being carefully
tailored to confuse and distort. A recent example: anti-war demonstrations
on Saturday, Oct. 27 drew between 100,000 and 200,000 people to
Washington, DC. This was the largest such rally since the Vietnam
War. A similar rally in San Francisco that day drew roughly 80,000.
The next day, in a buried story, the New York Times reported that
"thousands" protested and that organizers were "disappointed."
In fact, far from being disappointed, march organizers said they
were ecstatic with the turnout. Similarly, on the day of the protests,
National Public Radio noted that "ten thousand" showed
up in Washington-one tenth the number cited by the Washington
police, whose crowd estimates are always low. Apparently it is
now possible for hundreds of thousands of citizens to appear in
the streets of US cities in broad daylight, holding signs and
marching, and yet remain invisible to the media. This fact in
itself should be newsworthy. Politicians, the military, and the
corporations have all learned to use mind-control tactics pioneered
throughout the last century by the advertising and PR industries.
Norman Livergood, head of an artificial intelligence program at
the US Army War College between 1993 and 1995, notes in his web-published
essay "Brainwashing America" that, in his former career,
"conducted studies on profiling,
psychological programming, and brainwashing. I explored and developed
personality simulation systems, an advanced technology used in
military war games, FBI profiling, political campaigning, and
advertising. Part of my discovery was that unenlightened human
minds are combinations of infantile beliefs and emotional patterns;
these patterns can be simulated in profiling systems; and these
profiling systems can be used to program and control people. Personality
simulation systems are being used to create political campaigns
that apply voter profiles to control their voting behavior. TV
commercials and programs use personality simulation to profile
viewers to control their purchasing and viewing behaviors."
The Southern Strategy. Corporate control
of both political parties. Collusion between the Military, the
CIA, and rightist political forces. Dubious election procedures.
Even with all of these at work, the American political system
managed for decades to maintain a semblance of fairness and openness.
But the groundwork was gradually being laid for a fundamental
reorganization of the US government, foreign policy, and system
Florida, 9/11, and Aftermath
Many of the elements of this groundwork
coalesced in the 2000 presidential election. The Democratic candidate,
Al Gore, won over a half-million more votes than his rival, George
W. Bush. But, because of America's arcane system for electing
presidents, this fact alone did not automatically give Democrats
the White House. The decision turned on Florida's electoral votes,
and in Florida the rolls of eligible voters had been purged-by
Republican officials-of 94,000 names of possible felons (in Florida,
felons may not vote). As it turned out, only 3,000 of these were
the names of actual felons; the rest were mostly of African Americans
and others likely to vote Democratic. Other irregularities abounded,
with, for example, many blacks being harassed or turned away from
polling places. With vote tallies for both sides nearly identical,
the process of counting became more contentious. Bush, temporarily
ahead by a scant few hundred votes, petitioned the Supreme Court,
whose five-member Republican majority called a halt to the vote
count, effectively declaring Bush the winner.
The election was stolen, plain and simple,
and the theft occurred in a way such that anyone who was interested
could see exactly what was happening. But the American people,
rather than rising up and demanding that all of the Florida votes
be counted, simply went about their business and forgot the entire
episode. If one were to pinpoint the moment of death of American
Democracy, it would likely be at that failure, in December 2002,
of the American citizenry to respond to the most egregious public
example of political larceny in the nation's history. As long
as there are elections, someone will try to rig them. But when
people stop caring if elections are rigged or stolen, then elections
themselves cease to have any meaning.
Afterward the Democrats seemed, if anything,
to lose whatever sense of direction they still retained, participating
half-heartedly in the passage of Bush's huge tax cut designed
overwhelmingly to benefit the super-rich.
Then came the horrific events of 9/11.
Immediately afterward, Bush declared a war without end on enemies
that would include not only the "terrorists" responsible
for the actual hijackings and killings, but any nation that might
be suspected of harboring "evil-doers." Congress quickly
passed the USA Patriot Act, which set aside numerous civil liberties;
meanwhile, executive orders mandated extra-judicial mass imprisonments
and summary executions. Congress also gave the Executive the power
to attack first Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Disturbing questions soon surfaced about
the events of September 11, 2001: several commentators, including
respected writer Gore Vidal, noted suspicious indications of government
foreknowledge of, and involvement with the attacks, and drew parallels
with the Reichstag fire incident which, in 1933, provided a pretext
for Hitler to assume dictatorial powers in Germany. (6)
Early in his term, Bush had selected for
prominent administration positions some of the most hawkish members
of his father's entourage-men like Richard Armitage (the current
Deputy Secretary of State), who had been deeply involved in the
Iran-Contra scandal and was more recently alleged to be linked
to "terrorist" and criminal networks in the Middle East
and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union; and
John Negroponte (the current Ambassador to the UN), who played
a significant role in the planning and carrying out of CIA-sponsored
war crimes against Hondurans and Nicaraguans-including mass torture,
disappearances, and assassinations-during the 1980s. Many prominent
figures in the administration (including Bush himself) were also
implicated in instances of egregious corporate fraud. Taken together,
the Cheneys, Perles, Rumsfelds, Armitages, and Negropontes of
the new administration appeared to stand for a foreign policy
of world domination, and a domestic policy of embezzlement and
One gets the impression that these are
people who do not care much about democracy; nor do they have
much interest in fair play. Nor are they likely again to relinquish
power peacefully, as they did in 1992.
This perception has led many to speculate
about the tragic death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of
Minnesota just two weeks prior to the recent mid-term elections.
While there is as yet no specific evidence of foul play, weather
does not seem to have been a factor in Wellstone's plane crash.
The plane itself, a Beech King Air, has an outstanding safety
record, was equipped with de-icers, and had two highly experienced
pilots at the controls. Veteran pilot Everett Long has commented,
"There was one brief story after
the crash of a local pilot at that airport knowing the senator's
plane didn't make it-and his question was, "what happened?"
That pilot immediately took off in a small airplane-much like
my own-doubtful it had deicing equipment. The pilot flew outbound
on the approach track of the King Air and found the smoking crash
site. Please note: If the weather was so bad that the senator's
plane was having problems with the approach-that other pilot in
a smaller airplane could not have taken off and found the crashed
King Air!" (7)
In the opinion of Long, other than inexplicable
pilot error only a "catastrophic failure" aboard the
plane could have caused the crash. The death of Wellstone called
to mind the oddly similar plane crash that killed Missouri Democratic
senatorial candidate Mel Carnahan just weeks prior to the 2000
election. Historically, according to investigative journalist
Mike Ruppert, roughly twice as many Democratic politicians have
died in plane crashes as Republicans. (8)
Following the November 5 election the
Republicans were understandably jubilant. Bush read the poll results
as a mandate for war, another round of tax cuts, and the appointment
of scores of rightist federal judges.
And so here we are. Soon the war with
Iraq will commence; and, if all goes as planned, the US will extend
its military empire around the globe, seizing control of the world's
remaining oil resources while using the well-tested tactics of
economic globalization and forced "structural adjustment"
to undermine the economy of one nation after another. As James
K. Galbraith writes in "The Unbearable Costs of Empire,"
"It will be a policy, in short, of beggar-all-of-our-neighbors
while we live alone, in increasing idleness and inside the dollar
bubble." However it is a policy that can succeed only in
the short run, if at all. In the long run, according to Galbraith,
"It will make lives miserable elsewhere,
generating ever more resistance, terrorism and military engagement.
Meanwhile, we will not experience even gradual exposure to the
changing energy balance; we will therefore never make the investments
required to adjust, even eventually, to a world of scarce and
expensive oil. In the end, therefore, that world will arrive much
more abruptly than it otherwise would, shaking the fragile edifice
of our oil economy to its foundations. And we will someday face
a double explosion: of anger against our arrogance and of actual
shortage and collapsing living standards. . . ." (9)
Domestic resistance to perpetual war must
be expected. What to do about the hundreds of thousands, perhaps
millions, who will take to the streets?
The Homeland Security Bill has not yet
passed Congress, but it assuredly will in the days to come, creating
a vast executive-branch department for the purpose of policing
the citizenry and stamping out dissent. Again, while much is new
here, the groundwork was laid many years ago: Executive Order
11490, signed by Nixon on Oct. 28, 1969, outlined emergency functions
that are to be performed by some 28 executive departments and
agencies. Under the terms of the order, if the President declares
that a national emergency exists, the executive branch (via the
Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA) can take over all
communications media; seize all sources of power; take charge
of all food resources; control all highways and seaports; seize
all railroads, inland waterways, airports, and storage facilities;
commandeer all civilians to work under federal supervision; control
all activities relating to health, education, and welfare; shift
any segment of the population from one locality to another; take
over farms and ranches; and regulate the amount of money citizens
may withdraw from banks. Under later executive orders issued by
Reagan and Bush I, provisional concentration camps were set up
in military bases around the country in the event of domestic
disturbances. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and domestic law-enforcement
agencies are collaborating on the development of a new generation
of non-lethal crowd control weapons, including aerosolized incapacitating
mass drug-delivery systems and microwave "guns" that
can heat the skin of people in large crowds to painful or blistering
levels in seconds.
A Post-Democratic Era-or the Dawn of True
Repression will inevitably call forth
ever more resistance. And sooner or later the resistance movement
must come to a fundamental realization: the particular institutional
forms of democracy that Americans have known for over two centuries
have finally outlived their usefulness and can probably never
be truly revived, even if some of those familiar forms (courts,
Congress, elections, and parties) persist in some zombie-like
Instead of fighting to hang onto this
ersatz democracy of two-party elections, campaign commercials,
and corporate influence-buying, the resistance must pioneer new
forms. Democracy cannot go back; it must go forward if it is not
to perish altogether. Part of the current political dilemma in
the US is that Americans are taught that they have a democracy;
they think of democracy not as an evolving process, but as an
automatic birthright. They are not motivated to imagine and experiment.
Many countries, including most in Europe,
have incorporated proportional representation and instant run-off
voting into their electoral procedures. These simple mechanisms
make it far easier for third and fourth parties to succeed. They
are not foolproof mechanisms, but do ensure representation of
minority views far better than does the winner-take-all system
of American politics.
Much more radically democratic reforms
are possible. Since the 1980s, many grassroots social movements
have adopted decision-making strategies based on achieving consensus
within small, face-to-face affinity groups, which then choose
delegates to represent their consensus decisions within larger
regional, national, or global meetings. This is a model that has
long been advocated by anarchist philosophers; it is also set
forth in Muammar Gaddhafi's Green Book-a quirky piece of radical
literature widely distributed among resistance movements globally,
though it is virtually unknown in the US. This model differs fundamentally
from standard parliamentary or US congressional models in that,
in the latter, once representatives are elected, they may vote
or set policy as they like (or as they are threatened or bribed
to do). In the anarchist model, delegates may only convey the
will of the people on any given issue as determined in a face-to-face
process of mutual education, discussion, and negotiation. It has
been said that the difference between American democracy and overt
dictatorship is that, in America, we elect our rulers. In the
anarchist model, there are no rulers other than the people themselves.
Political power remains grounded at the local level and at the
human scale, even if broader levels of organization-regional,
continental, or even global-are deemed useful.
True democracy takes time and effort and
requires the learning of communication and negotiation skills.
The alternative, however, is authoritarianism in its myriad forms.
In our lives, all of us-Americans included-have to decide whether
we prefer the convenience of leaving the decisions that affect
us to others, or the bother of responsibility and involvement.
Democracy does not ensure that the right decisions will always
be made, but it does enlist the diverse perceptions and skills
of the entire populace in solving the endless variety of problems
with which every society is eventually confronted.
When and how will the American resistance
movement coalesce? What will be the degree of state repression
of political dissent in the new monolithic American Republican
Antiterrorist regime? Will resistance eventually overcome repression?
Stay tuned: it's going to be a long election night.
Richard Heinberg is a journalist and educator.
He has lectured widely, appearing on national radio and television
in five countries, and is the author of the forthcoming book,
The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies
(New Society, March 2003).