“Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”Lucy Parsons, Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity – Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937
America has a democracy problem: we don’t have democracy
I’m not just talking about our voter turnout, which is shockingly low. Approximately 40% of eligible citizens have not bothered to register to vote, and a solid 40% of the people who are registered do not bother to vote in any given election. Of those who actually do vote, the split is consistently around 50/50 between the two major parties, and most people vote for a “lesser evil.”
In other words, the Democrats and Republicans each get votes from ~18% of potential voters, and most of those voters hate them and only turn out because they believe the other option is worse.
The cliched response to these figures is to rant about voter apathy and how we could have nice things if only people would participate, but that line of thinking utterly misses the point.
In fact, nonparticipation is completely rational. People don’t vote for the very simple reason that the vast majority does not believe either party represents them and has their best interests at heart. And they’re right. The federal government’s actions over the last 20 years have no discernable correlation with what the public actually wanted.
The US is not a Democracy, it is an Oligarchy. That’s not a statement of opinion, it’s a fact. And if voting does not impact policy, why do it? And so, with the exception of people for whom party affiliation is part of their tribal identity, most people don’t. Understanding that American elections are about tribal identity and personality – not policy – is critical. That’s why both parties can get away with taking money from the same corporations and having an almost identical economic agenda. The only real difference is management style and rhetoric.
Why are American elections so nonfunctional?
It’s not individual behavior, the problem is systematic and structural.
Yelling at people for not voting for your third party of choice in national elections misses the point. Of the people who do vote, very few vote third party because, in a first-past the post (FPTP) voting system like America’s, third parties cannot win national elections unless one of the two major parties collapses.* We’ve had exactly 1 third party candidate win the presidency in American history, Abraham Lincoln, and the result was a civil war.
In fact, every single country that uses FPTP ends up with 2 main parties. In political science, this is referred to as Duverger’s law. There are exceptions and edge cases for parliamentary systems and multi-national governments (the UK for example contains multiple ethnic nations), but none of those exceptions apply to the US. As long as we have FPTP, we will have a two party system.
At the same time, very few districts are actually in play in any given election. Politicians who play nice with the party machine can reasonably expect to hold their seats for decades at a time. Congress is set up to give power based on seniority, so the longest-serving members of Congress have all the power. Newly elected members get to vote, but without committee seats they are effectively shut out of the real levers of power unless they play nice with incumbents. That means anyone elected on reform finds themselves unable to actually enact any reform unless/until they reach an accommodation with the establishment. If they refuse to do so, the establishment can back primary challenges against them – or even eliminate their district via rezoning.
So your bold new reformers have to start making concessions. Bernie did it. AOC did it. They all do. They have to. It’s part of the structure of the institution itself. And it’s easy for them to justify to themselves because compromise here becomes the path to make a change there.
This is what the term “political capital” means. A politician’s political capital is basically the balance between the goodwill of the voters towards them vs the goodwill of the establishment, and these are always in conflict because congress fundamentally does not serve voters. And so a new representative who genuinely wants reform is forced to make concessions. Just a little bit at first and then bigger and bigger things. Vote for this bill that gives trillions to the military or your bill to fund rural hospitals will never see the light of day.
No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. And so people will find ways to justify those compromises to themselves. And each compromise makes the next one easier. It’s basically a gang initiation. This is basic psychology & is why joining a gangs (for example) often requires murder, rape, planting drugs on a suspect or something like that. Shared guilt bonds people & the justifications they invent form basis for justifying future crimes. The Democratic and Republican caucuses are literally just big gangs, and they both answer to the same corporations.
So electing someone to Congress is sending them to join that gang, undergo that initiation, and become part of that institution. They can compromise until they are compromised & get a little bit done, or they can refuse to compromise, get nothing done, and be replaced. Electing Progressives into government does not change the government. Instead, the process of governing changes them. And that’s by design. We need to change the structures, not just the people if we ever want to make real change.
Proportional Representation: An electoral reform that actually works!
There are solutions, of course. The most obvious of those within the bounds of electoral politics would be to swap FPTP voting for proportional representation (PR), like most democracies in the world already use. Australia made the switch in 1948 and New Zealand in 1998; and both had fully functioning multi-party democracies within a few years as a result. It won’t eliminate the congressional gangs of course, but it at least increases the number of gangs and forces them to be a bit more responsive since it’s easier to start a new party and make it viable.
Countries with PR have healthier and more democratic governments that more accurately reflect public opinion and (not coincidentally) have higher voter turnout rates. Within the bounds of electoral politics, PR is the only viable path for change.
In the US we could conceivably start that transition by getting local governments and States to switch over one at a time. In fact, there was a massive movement to do just that starting at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Democrats and Republicans worked shoulder to shoulder through the 1930’s and 40’s, using ballot initiatives driven by racism cold war hysteria (because Proportional representation meant socialists and people of color started getting elected) as well as court challenges to overturn those reforms.
Which means that the only remaining option to win democracy is to go outside the electoral system.
How can we actually get change?
One of the things that is truly remarkable about studying movements for social change around the world is that legal recognition and codification of social change is virtually always the last step for a movement that has already won the battle within civil society. Legislation can codify changes that the public is demanding, but governments are virtually always playing catch up – not leading the way.
So how do we make change? We build working class power by creating strong, autonomous, and diverse working class organizations and supporting efforts for real change – from basic things like PR to efforts to more radical efforts to abolish capitalism and break up the United States. The stronger civil society is, the weaker the State becomes; and the more power we have to force through the changes we need.
*Third parties can be viable and even powerful in local elections, but the focus on national politics is a suicide pill for them because it siphons resources and harms their credibility to run nonviable candidates. The big parties know this, and that’s why several states actually require third parties to run presidential candidates in order to have their other candidates appear on the ballot.