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When your vote counts for nothing

The heroic narrative of modern society has always been that democracy would prevail in the end. We believe that democracy somehow has an infinite resilience, that it is a bottomless reserve capable of being tapped whenever necessary, that in times of crisis not only will great men be recognized, called forth, and elected to office but that we, the people, will rise to the occasion when required to do so. We have long counted on democracy to be the safety brake on our worst impulses, to be the countervailing force against fanatical ideologies, to serve as a check on the routine excesses of capitalism. But we can no longer count on democracy as some sort of natural force or secret weapon, for today it has been turned against us, its very institutions now reinforcing the triumph of money and fueling the growth of nihilistic and antidemocratic movements.

To understand why this is happening, it is necessary to remember that democracy, very much like capitalism, is, at its heart, an exchange. For it to be of any consequence to people, it must respond to them. Citizens must have some assurance that they will get at least something of what they vote for—that the entire process is not just a notional spectacle.

Our early democracy was openly, even crudely transactional. Voters expected to get some very real material benefit in exchange for their support. They were rewarded with hard cider and whiskey at polling places, where they were usually required, in turn, to declare whom they were voting for. New York’s Tammany Hall and other nineteenth-century political machines expanded this system by handing out “walking-around money” and commonly paying $2 a vote at polling places in broad daylight. Year-round, politicians maintained control of their districts by providing shoes, summer picnics, holiday turkeys, no-show jobs, and other favors for their constituents. The people most susceptible to this sort of institutionalized enticement were the poor, especially new immigrants; to them the political machines served as extended mutual-aid societies—a way to enter American society at a time when the social-welfare state did not exist and when wealthier, more established Americans wanted nothing to do with the poor.

The trouble with this setup was that machine politicians likely had little inherent interest in permanently bettering the lives of most people—in providing good, affordable education or promoting labor rights or a minimum wage or workplace safety. If people had a right to such things, what would they need with a political machine? At the same time, the system granted sweetheart public contracts and franchises—the right to run the next trolley line or build the new courthouse—to favored corporations, generally in exchange for lavish kickbacks and with slight regard for whether the companies were up to the job. Politicians tipped off friendly businesses about where new municipal projects—for example, Central Park—were to be situated, giving them a chance to snap up valuable plots of neighboring real estate. These politicians also kept the peace, which included lending the state’s police muscle to crush strikes and union-organizing drives.

Eventually, these machines could no longer go on perpetuating mass poverty and survive popular outrage. The leaders of Tammany Hall, men such as New York governor Al Smith, U.S. senator Robert Wagner, and Tammany chieftain “Big Tim” Sullivan—men who had experienced or witnessed firsthand severe hardship and want—made common cause with progressive and populist reformers to help break up the old transactional politics and build modern, liberal democracies. In the early twentieth century, they helped create a society that benefited not only the politically well-connected but everyone, in which citizens were no longer compelled by immediate need to make their choices but could develop a broader and more enlightened idea of self-interest.

These societies were built here and in Western Europe only after many long years of struggle. Their foundations were equality before the law, a chance at upward mobility through ready access to education and fairness in the workplace, progressive taxation to prevent a monopoly of wealth, and entitlements—a social safety net—that would provide at least some basic succor to the aged, the infirm, and the destitute. The breadth and depth of these rights, these guarantees, has varied from place to place—from the United States to Europe to the new democracies in parts of Asia and Latin America. But the basic principles were everywhere the same, and they produced what the writer John Lanchester has aptly called “the most admirable societies that the world has ever seen.” These expanded democracies set the benchmark for what it means to be a free citizen in a free society and became the civil equivalent of an almost sacred covenant between people and their rulers.

No more. Our new depression years have provided the opportunity to peremptorily roll back the social covenants of the past century. Throughout the United States, economic hardship has been used to advance a direct and lethal form of what might be called “election nullification.” From coast to coast, towns—and even cities as large as Detroit and Stockton, California—have been allowed to slide into complete or near bankruptcy. Many of their municipal workers are fired and have their pensions severely reduced. The public assets of these local governments are often sold at bargain prices, and their elected officials are superseded—either tossed out of office or reduced to carrying out the commands of unelected officials appointed by the states.

In Stockton, a private security force now unofficially augments a police department too reduced to respond to all crimes. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, the police and fire departments have been combined, and the largest public park has been leased for 105 years to a private golf-resort developer. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, all city workers, including policemen and firemen, temporarily had their pay cut to the minimum wage. Again and again, workers who long ago made the choice to forgo attempts at greater riches in order to serve their communities are now being informed that the retirement benefits they had counted on will not be fully paid out—the supposed touchstone of capitalism, the contract, negated in the dash of a bureaucrat’s pen.

The use of a crisis—particularly a man-made or manufactured crisis, such as the current downturn—to roll back democracy is not a new event. Such opportunism has been on the rise for the past forty years, as documented by Naomi Klein in her groundbreaking book The Shock Doctrine. What is new, however, is how populist attempts to challenge these reactionary coups have been effectively used to cancel our basic civil rights.

Try to imagine, if you can, candidate Barack Obama in 2008 running on a platform of balancing the budget and appeasing Wall Street by reducing Social Security benefits, restricting Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, increasing the retirement age, and never challenging the established hierarchy of the Democratic Party but rather returning members of the old Clinton regime to positions of power in his administration, especially those advocates of unregulated capitalism who did so much to bring on the economic crisis in the first place. This candidate Obama would not have been elected, which is of course why you did not see him. Yet President Obama has pursued these policies throughout his administration—and they appear to be exactly what he had in mind all along.

It will be observed here that politicians have lied before, as often as the birds tweet in the morning dew, and—outright lying aside—circumstances change, no president can deliver everything he proposes, and all politicians must compromise. But what we are witnessing just now in America, and throughout the Western world, is not compromise with the political opposition but something else altogether: the use of democratic institutions to degrade and disassemble democracy itself. On the eve of what both major parties are telling us is (yet another) critical election here in America, we are forced to question whether it is worth our while to vote at all—whether if, by voting for Barack Obama or for Mitt Romney, we will once again get almost the complete opposite of what we have been promised.

For more than a generation, this has been the central truth of American politics: How you cast your vote has almost no relation to what any candidate actually intends to do. This is not simply a liberal complaint. Conservative voters (sort of) elected George W. Bush president in 2000 because he promised fiscal prudence, limited government, and an end to “nation building” in foreign lands. What they got was a president who, almost from day one, busied himself running up record budget deficits, passed an enormous new prescription-drug entitlement, and attempted to build a model laissez-faire democracy in Iraq.

Before Bush, Bill Clinton ran on a pledge to “put people first,” promising tax cuts for the middle class and welfare reform that would supplement benefits with job-training programs. Mr. Clinton had barely taken the oath of office before the tax cuts were deep-sixed in favor of reassuring the bond markets and a balanced budget became one of the administration’s important goals. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, Glass–Steagall and many of the other safeguards that had served to protect us from financial chicanery since the Great Depression had been removed, and welfare had been largely turned over to the states to do with as they saw fit—a major part of the safety net thereby whisked away.

As with all the most pernicious trends in recent American politics, the move to uncouple campaigns from any true intentions came into its own during the Reagan years. After decades of echoing the catchphrase of his economic adviser Milton Friedman that “there is no free lunch” and advocating a smaller government, President Reagan tripled the national debt—once again, exactly the opposite of what nearly all his voters were counting on him to do.

Since at least 1980, Americans have been unable to prevail on their leaders to do much of anything they promised. For all the masses of volunteers who worked to get out the vote for their candidates, for all those who gave what money they could to the campaigns and came out to hear stump speeches—in numbers, during the last presidential election, that had not been seen for more than a generation—the payoff was nothing.

In fact, it was often worse than nothing. In almost every case, taking part in our democracy proved to be not only disappointing but disastrous. Vote to save your house, bail out a bank. Vote for smaller government, get an empire. Vote to balance the budget, lose your retirement. It’s all good. Or bad. And it has nothing to do with you or the choices you made at the voting booth.

People never get everything they vote for, of course. Yet the distinguishing characteristic of our democracy today is not, as the media would have it, how bold initiatives are stymied by political deadlock. It is how often these ideas are immediately abandoned by the very people who propose them and replaced with radical new initiatives that no one got to vote for or even hear about during an election campaign.

The trope both Republicans and Democrats have continued to latch on to is that we must, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, “stand at Armageddon and . . . battle for the Lord.” But the political battle being waged is considerably more constrained.

Those of us nervous over the erosion of our civil liberties since 9/11 got to witness President Obama ring in 2012 by signing into law this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which leaves room for the potential indefinite military detention without trial of any American citizen whom the president deems to have been “a part of or [to have] substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” The president himself gets to decide just what “substantially supported” and “associated forces” mean. For all the sound and the fury over “Obamacare,” a major point of the president’s health plan originated at the right-wing Heritage Foundation and is a “market-based” idea that for the first time in our history forces American citizens to buy a costly product—health insurance—from a private cartel. In a highly publicized move last fall, the Obama Administration enraged conservatives by delaying construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but there is no indication that this delay will continue for long after the November election, since Obama and his advisers have never evinced much interest in even discussing climate change and what to do about it.

On and on it goes—these much-ballyhooed non-disputes and non-debates over issues on which the leaders of both major parties differ little, if at all. But to truly appreciate how narrow a space exists between the priorities of these individuals on “either side,” one must examine the idea that has come to all but obsess America’s policy elite, one that is taking precedence over climate change, ending the economic crisis, or any other issue, no matter how pressing. That is the notion that our entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the backbone of the welfare state begun during the Great Depression—have become “unsustainable” and must be significantly reduced or altered beyond recognition. The prevailing belief is that this should be done as part of a “grand bargain,” one that will also stimulate investment in education and infrastructure.

The mania for the grand bargain is what led President Obama to appoint a bipartisan commission, chaired by former Clinton chief of staff (and current Morgan Stanley board member) Erskine Bowles and retired Republican senator Alan Simpson, to examine just how we are to balance our budget in the years ahead—a task that, both men agreed, must consist mostly of massive federal spending cuts, a less progressive tax code that would also have fewer loopholes, and Social Security “reform” that would force Americans to keep working to age sixty-nine, for benefits that would no longer be tied to the actual cost of living.

The preordained conclusion to the Bowles–Simpson Commission’s supposed investigation was largely confirmed during the months-long stalemate over raising the federal debt ceiling in 2011. The debate, if you’ll recall, destabilized world financial markets and sent the credit rating of the United States downward. Much like the presidential campaign today, it was festooned with apocalyptic language and was supposed to define the parties’ dramatically different visions of the American future. Yet out of camera and sound-bite range, there was hardly any disagreement at all. There was, in fact, a stunning consensus.

As the reporter Matt Bai confirmed in an investigative piece for The New York Times Magazine, an agreement to reduce the debt was all but a done deal by mid-July of 2011: President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had almost agreed to “more than $450 billion in combined cuts to Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade alone, as well as a series of changes to Social Security, including a new formula for calculating benefits and a higher retirement age.” In return for this proposed Democratic concession, Republicans would find “$800 billion in additional revenue” over that same decade. But where was this additional revenue to come from, since the Republicans, almost to a man, had signed Grover Norquist’s famous pledge never to vote for any new taxes? Well, the $800 billion in revenue would be gained by closing loopholes and cutting taxes. In other words, President Obama agreed to accept the Republicans’ fundamental economic idea—that a budget deficit can be reduced by cutting taxes, because the wondrous increase in business activity that will be generated will in turn generate huge new tax revenues.

In exchange for ravaging the most popular and successful programs Democrats have ever produced, and for a vital chunk of nearly every American’s retirement savings, Barack Obama’s grand bargain would have meant accepting an entire economic philosophy diametrically opposed to the one he had run on. For the most basic principles of public life to be so readily malleable, even for a president, is to strip any meaning from democracy.

The reengineering of democracy to attack itself is already a good deal more advanced throughout much of the Western world, particularly in the slow dissolution of the European Union. Once again, the nullification of democracy is being sold as the only possible means of holding off complete economic collapse—a rationale that is closely analogous to the arguments made by European fascist and communist parties in the 1930s and now easily swallowed whole by the traditional media. Major news organizations here and in Europe accepted largely without question the idea that Greece’s sudden, and now ongoing, fiscal crisis has been due to corruption, out-of-control public spending, and grave moral failings on the part of the Greeks themselves, who were almost universally depicted as lazy scofflaws—though in fact they work longer hours than most anybody else in Europe, including the Germans, their primary creditors. Measured as a percentage of GDP, too, the Greek welfare state, even before the crisis, was smaller than that of many other European countries, including Germany’s.

Ignoring all such facts, the “troika” of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank—the faceless, bureaucratic, unelected financial entity that has assumed control of Greece’s destiny for the moment—imposed a program of relentless austerity on that nation. This has, unsurprisingly, “profoundly damaged the [Greek] economy,” as the New York Times reported and as the most cursory glance at the historical record would have predicted.

Greece’s economy shrank by 3.5 percent in 2010, 6.9 percent in 2011, and is on track to deflate by another 7 percent this year—rates of contraction not seen since the Great Depression. Retail sales are projected to drop by 53 percent this year alone. The unemployment rate is 23.1 percent as of this writing—including more than half of all young people—and this downturn has plunged the birthplace of democracy into despair over the future and brought it close to social disintegration.

The Greeks, far from being feckless spendthrifts, reduced government spending by 18 percent between 2009 and 2011 and had planned to cut the number of civil servants by almost one fifth. This has proved to be insufficient for the troika, which is now demanding an additional €11.5 billion in cuts through 2014—the equivalent of 5.5 percent of the country’s GDP—since the previous austerity measures have not come close to producing the rigid new budget that Greece’s implacable financial overseers insist on.

And yet the demands for still more pain for the Greek people keep coming. The German press, driven to heights of hysteria by a government loath to acknowledge that its “bailout” of Greece has actually bailed out little but foreign banks and their investors, now demands, only half jokingly, that Greece sell off the Parthenon and other national treasures. The demands of both Germany and the troika have proved so intrusive and picayune as to be fantastical. These include, among many other measures, the suspension of collective labor contracts, supposedly a basic human right under the European Union’s charter; a 22 percent reduction of Greece’s minimum monthly wage (previously €751, or $924); and the requirement that Greece open up business to free-market competition, right down to its taxicabs. We are being asked to believe that the fate of Europe, and maybe even the world, hangs on the question of whether any Greek is allowed to become a cabdriver.

Yet still more fantastical—and dangerous—for the prospect of democracy is what this has meant for the electoral process. There is, to be sure, corruption in Greece. It contributed to the nation’s and the continent’s crisis when the ruling center-right New Democracy party, riddled by corruption scandals, expanded an investment bubble by blatantly lying about the country’s budget deficit.

The reaction of the Greek electorate was exactly what is to be hoped for from a democratic citizenry. The people threw the bums out, putting back in power a socialist government that dutifully and responsibly reported the true, much greater national budget deficit. The socialists then buckled under the impossible demands of the Germans and the troika and gave up power.

After a seemingly interminable series of debilitating strikes, riots, and elections that saw the rise of radical parties on the left and the right, the troika and Greece’s German tormentors—supposedly leading a campaign to reform every part of Greek society—indicated that they were satisfied with a new, shaky coalition government with which they could now negotiate further austerity measures. Heading this now responsible government is New Democracy, the same party that caused the crisis in the first place, just three years ago.

In the wake of the Greek collapse, “market attacks” on one E.U. country after another are rapidly reducing many of their economies in much the same fashion. Spain’s unemployment rate is currently 24.6 percent and rising. Ireland has suffered a double-digit drop in economic output, and now acres of abandoned housing developments lie rotting across the green fields of its countryside. Portugal and Italy teeter on the precipice. We are no longer talking about a small country on the fringes of Europe, but about some of the largest economies in the world.

Ireland—a good, pale-skinned, Northern European country (no monopolistic cabdrivers here)—readily imposed its own austerity program several years ago. Its economy collapsed anyway, and its dominant political party, the almost painfully non-ideological, centrist Fianna Fail, was swept out of power for the first time in a quarter century. So were Portugal and Spain’s socialist governments. So was Italy’s center-right alliance, the prime minister replaced by an appointed, colorless bureaucrat.

No one is going to really miss Silvio Berlusconi. But taken together, all these developments mean that in much of Europe today, it no longer matters what you say or do as a free citizen. Vote out the right, vote in the socialists. Vote out the lying rascals, vote in the conscientious budget balancers. It doesn’t matter. You can vote for whomever you please, demonstrate as long as you like. In the end, you will still be forced into the semicolonial status that the citizens of Stockton and Detroit currently enjoy over here.

The almost inevitable collapse of the European Union, though it will cause chaos in the short term, will ultimately prove liberating to many European peoples. They will be able once again to set the values of their own currencies, and thus regain a measure of autonomy. But the crisis of democracy in Europe can no more be attributed solely to the dysfunction of the nightmarish financial superstructure imposed on it by “Union” than the crisis of democracy in the United States can be attributed merely to the stalemate in the federal government.

The perennial halfway point between America and Europe, the United Kingdom, began its own experiment in democracy nullification with its 2010 national elections. In that three-way race, David Cameron’s Conservatives, promising their own version of “compassionate Conservatism,” finished first but drew just over a third of the vote, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats taking most of the rest. It might have been expected that these left-liberal parties would have formed the next government, but instead the head of the Liberal Democrats, Nicholas Clegg, led his party into a coalition with the Tories. Whereupon Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, abandoned any pretense of moderation, pushing through the steepest public-spending cuts Britain had seen in more than sixty years. Though the country was still struggling to emerge from a recession, government departments were slashed by an average of 19 percent, welfare benefits were severely reduced, and the retirement age was raised. Clegg and his party had campaigned on the promise of making tuition at Britain’s universities free again, but instead, tuition costs have nearly tripled, up to $14,100 a year.

The result of all this morally bracing austerity was much as expected—here and everywhere else. Sales and output fell, and the United Kingdom plunged into a “double-dip” recession that was heralded by terrifying riots. London burned. Real household disposable income fell by 1.2 percent in 2011, which was the biggest decline in more than three decades.

Like politics everywhere, the coalition in Great Britain was never about fulfilling election promises or the traditional folkways of democracy. It was, instead, all about class solidarity—the solidarity of the new class, of political elites who now stand shoulder to shoulder throughout the Western world in favor of still further increasing their wealth and power even if it means essentially disenfranchising and impoverishing everyone else.

Much like Clegg and Cameron, both Obama and Romney picked and chose what it was they would be, where they would live, what they would identify with. They claim to speak in the best interests of the country as a whole, yet, sadly, they are as self-interested as anyone else—even more so. Products of the social-welfare state, such leaders are everything that American liberalism was supposed to deliver: splendidly accomplished and educated, paragons of a new meritocracy formed regardless of race, creed, or color. And yet it is as if they are missing a gene of some kind—for compassion, for socialization, for any real regard for the future. Like so many butterflies, the leaders of the new ruling class view the society they emerged from as a used-up chrysalis.

Hence Barack Obama, on a trip to England, could stand next to David Cameron and proclaim with him: “We can honestly say that despite being two leaders from two different political traditions, we see eye to eye. We look at the world in a similar way, share the same concerns, and see the same strategic possibilities.”

Yet how can this possibly be, if democracy today is to have any meaning? How can two politicians from “two different political traditions”—one, Britain’s Tories, the oldest conservative political party in the world, protecting the dominance of privilege and wealth; the other, America’s Democrats, the oldest populist political party in the world, advocating the rights of man and progressive opportunity—possibly share the same worldview?

So far, opposition to the brave new world that liberalism’s wayward children would bring about has been encouragingly widespread and fervent, but inchoate. In France, attempts to raise the retirement age and curtail workers’ rights have been met with mass demonstrations and strikes. In Spain, tens of thousands of young people calling themselves indignados—the “angry ones”—occupied public plazas across the country, railing against all the leading political parties and warning, “If you take away our dreams, we won’t let you sleep.” In Germany, there has arisen a similar Wutbürger—literally, “enraged citizen”—leading protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, and meetings against what is seen as a detached ruling elite.

Here in the United States, of course, there has been the Occupy movement that last fall so infuriated Wall Street’s financiers—and eventually mayors, police officers, and college administrators around the country. Even some Tea Party rallies—if you look past their racist trappings and Fox News attachments—have reflected genuine rage against the entrenched elite.

These are rational reactions, for the people who now control most Western political parties have already isolated themselves from their constituents in order to enrich themselves and their class. Simply rejecting the constant lies and dissembling of these leaders is a fine first step on the road to democratic recovery. But it is not enough.

“You need a double legitimacy: the traditional parliamentary system of top down but also a parallel way, of bottom up, that will involve citizens,” urges Andrea Römmele, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, in an article in the New York Times. “The problem is that the parties are not structured to provide such discussions or deal with civil society. It is not part of their culture.”

Democracy is indeed no longer part of the culture of political parties in most Western democracies today. The process Professor Römmele describes—one in which mass movements push political leaders and parties, but in which there is also a leadership responsible and attuned enough to respond—is the process by which effective, democratic parties come into being in the first place.

It is a tricky business. Insisting that we should have no leaders—as such protest groups as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did in the 1960s, and as some of the Occupy movements do today—is simply not viable. A movement without a leadership structure will never have sufficient heft or direction to challenge established power. At the same time, how do we prevent charismatic leaders such as the Clintons and President Obama from turning mass movements into meaningless exercises in personal aggrandizement?

For much of the past century, the major American parties—and particularly the Democrats—were adept at bringing protest movements into the political mainstream and endowing them with electoral weight. But those days are long gone, and more politicians today specialize in sidelining popular movements—passing voter-suppression laws, shuttling protesters out of the arena, overwhelming small individual contributions of time and money with huge corporate donations. It is as if two parallel time machines have been set in motion, both running backward. Just as Western capitalism deindustrializes—offshoring industry, cutting wages and benefits, eliminating workers’ rights and protections—so Western democracy depoliticizes, its major parties expelling or silencing entire constituencies, scorning the participation of groups that once sustained them.

Right now in America, as in much of the Western world, a massive job of reconstructive surgery, of reattaching the ligaments and muscles of democracy itself, is necessary. This will take time—and to procure that time, it will probably be necessary to keep in power a little longer some of the failed politicians of the recent past, no matter how hypocritical or venal they have proved themselves to be.

So yes, go out and vote. Go vote for Barack Obama, and whatever other Democrats or progressives are running for office where you live. To vote for a Mitt Romney—to vote for the modern right anywhere in the West today—is an act of national suicide. The right is hollow to its core; it has no dreams, no vision, no plans to deal with any of the problems that confront us, only infantile fantasies of violence and consumption. But it is, at the moment, well funded, well organized, and feeling especially threatened. It is capable of anything.

We will have to build the new political parties from the dried-out husks of the old ones. We will have to raise up new political leaders from among us, instead of hoping they will emerge as if by magic. We will have to insist that we have interests, too, that our future well-being cannot simply be steamrollered by the claims of a few greedy people posing as the guardians of some amorphous society of the future. We will have to say, in terms that any ward heeler of the old political machine would understand, that if this democracy is to work, we must get what we were promised.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His essay “The Vanishing Liberal” appeared in the April 2010 issue.

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