The Presidential primaries offer a friendly reminder every four years that American democracy is a joke. As corporate media offers free propaganda for the corporate candidate, as debates between more than ten Republican candidates reveal practically zero differences in policy, as campaign financing becomes a billion dollar industry, as most states have enacted voter ID requirements that block those living in poverty (especially the urban poor who are predominantly black and Latino) from voting, as Americans learn that a perfectly legal process in Iowa allows (a non-critical mass of) delegates to be determined by a coin toss, it is becoming harder and harder for the establishment to argue that it exemplifies any tradition of government by the people. Americans rightly criticize the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 to legalize unlimited corporate bribery, the bizarre conversion of political processes into reality television to fund the candidates’ propaganda machines, or the concentration of wealth in post-industrial capitalism that any mid-century economist would have considered impossible. But the American plutocracy is not attacking a democratic or humanist establishment new twenty-first century dystopia, they are merely perfecting the vision of our founding oligarchs.
Since the Iowa caucus this weekend, the question that I’ve heard the most (and been the most frustrated by my own lack of understanding) is “How does this work?” But the answer is less important than the subtext of the question. While the United States heralds itself as the defender and epitome of liberal democracy, the majority of its population can not pass a multiple-choice quiz about how its government is formed or operates. The electoral college which allows candidates to bypass popular vote, the rigid two-party system which blocks any political radicalism, and the extended primary elections for party nominees all set America apart from virtually every other so-called democratic republic on Earth. But even before discussing the intricacies and peculiarities of the American system in depth, advocates of democracy can safely assert that it distances those elected from the will of the people. It is far more useful for our understanding to pursue the question “Why?” than “How?” The electoral process in the United States was designed to obscure the will of the people and protect the status quo.
Regardless of what nostalgists in the mainstream left suggest, the fabled Founding Fathers had no interest in a populist revolution or a true democracy. The majority at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (like the genocide enthusiast George Washington) owned human beings as property, and the Convention explicitly stated that the only Americans who would be eligible to participate in elections were white men who owned property. Contrary to nationalist mythology, the American revolution was not a war against authoritarianism, it was a divorce between the ruling merchants of two continents that left life for the working people who fought and died for the cause unchanged. Washington’s government did not lower taxes for any Americans except for those (like the first president himself, whose worth adjusted for inflation would today be over half a billion dollars) who owned major sectors of industry. This so infuriated the Americans who had just followed him into war under the pretenses of ending taxation without representation that they once again took up arms against their unfair government in 1791’s “Whiskey Rebellion.” This insurrection was crushed by Washington’s army, which established martial law in Pennsylvania and arrested hundreds of farmers without trial, marching them across the frontier to prison camps where an unknown number died. The founding fathers were not just non-democratic, they were militantly opposed to populism.
This is reflected in the legal framework they established that remains the structure for electoral politics. In the Federalist Papers, Wall Street godfather and future hip-hop legend Alexander Hamilton argued against a direct election for the presidency, saying that public was not intelligent enough to vote beyond their regional loyalties. He proposed countering the influence of large and heavily populated states in the south (who at the time were more likely to support decentralized economic power which benefitted their plantation agriculture models than his proposed conglomeration of federal government and private banking) with an Electoral College. The Electoral College gave small northern states (who were incidentally loyal to Hamilton’s Federalists) as many votes for president as southern states with substantially larger populations. Completely to protect the capital of Hamilton’s Federalists and the banks that they literally owned, the framers of the constitution codified the Electoral College in our country’s founding document, permanently distorting the illusion of American democracy (it was this distortion that allowed George W. Bush to become President with 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore in 2001).
By the end of Washington’s presidency, the United States had taken another structural stride away from democracy: it cemented a two-party system. Presidential candidates since Thomas Jefferson have been nominated by their parties, and are therefore reliant on the financial and public support of one of two similar political machines. By forcing voters to choose between only two executive candidates (through eliminating other feasible options), the establishment eliminates the possibility of radical political change. Though the platforms of the major platforms are as malleable as their sources of income, there has never been an anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist party with any structural political power in the United States. While some candidates (usually either southern nationalists or socialists) have gained millions of votes outside of major parties, there has never been a third party president, and there have been just over 100 Representatives and fewer than 20 Senators to have success outside of a major political party.
Aside from eliminating any radical choice and forcing voters to tacitly endorse violent imperialism no matter who they support, the two-party system also extends the process of selecting presidential nominees into the eleven-month primary election process, vastly increasing the cost of a presidential campaign and opening the floodgates for funding from the supercapitalist elite. Since 1968, every state has held a primary election or caucus for the Republican and Democratic Parties to determine the parties’ ultimate candidate. States that hold their primaries earlier (including New Hampshire, one of the smallest and whitest states in the country) have almost complete control over the ultimate nominees; almost every recent nominee won one or both of the first two primaries. The state that opens the primary season, then, has tremendous power.
In 1972, the Democratic Party selected mid-western corn capital Iowa to host the election cycle’s first presidential caucus (the Republicans followed in ’76). This was perhaps because of the unique requirements of Iowa’s caucus procedure, as the party maintains, but could very feasibly have been somewhat related to the recent explosion of corporate agriculture and its choice commodity, corn. Whatever their reasoning, the result of their decision was clear; future candidates would need to invest a grossly disproportionate amount of their time and money winning over voters in Iowa. And the consequences were major. The Iowa Caucuses have produced a remarkable bipartisan consensus that the government should spend billions of dollars funding the production of corn in Iowa by massive corporations, the largest agricultural subsidies in American history. Democratic candidates justify the corn subsidies with misleading suggestions that corn-based ethanol produces an alternative to fossil fuels (ignoring the fact that the process of producing ethanol leaves the world with 60% more greenhouse gas emissions per joule than crude oil). Even the so-called socialist Bernie Sanders, now running as a Democrat, ignored the claims of many lower-income Iowans that the corn industry has devastated their state’s water supply and wholeheartedly endorsed further corn subsidies. Republicans blatantly lie with their claims that the corn industry will improve the job market. While power has changed hands between the two parties many times in the past forty years, America has developed a crippling addiction to corn (it is now used as feed for mass-produced meat despite its negative effect on livestock and consumers and as a sweetener linked to obesity and diabetes, and is by far the most-produced crop of all time). The Iowa Caucus, the opening point of our electoral democracy, is nothing but a farce that binds presidential hopefuls inextricably to agro-business.
The corn industry is nowhere near the largest corporate enemy of American democracy, but its influence on the entire system of electoral politics is a clear illustration of the fundamental truth of American politics: the established system is not in any way designed to enact a government for the people, it exists and has always existed purely to protect the capital of the ruling class. Despite the circular argument by those in power that endorsing the state through voting is a prerequisite for protesting it, despite the latest push for a “political revolution” to satiate a public well aware of its own disenfranchisement, despite the ridiculous neoliberal claim that our republic at least protects us from totalitarianism, American revolutionaries must accept the following reality: we do not live in a democracy that will bend to the will of the ballot box.