The Need for a Department of Homeland Democracy


...here they come
international loan sharks backed by the guns…
See the paid-off local bottom feeders
passing themselves off as leaders.
Kiss the ladies, shake hands with the fellows,
open for business like a cheap bordello.
And they call it democracy
-Bruce Cockburn
Call it Democracy


Introduction
This blog post is Part 3 in a series of recent posts on the US government’s history of democracy promotion in foreign countries since the 1970s, carried out through both overt propaganda and foreign aid programs funded primarily by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). (Part 1, Part 2) The obvious ironic observation which arises from this situation, one which so many American democracy promoters fail to understand, is that this great concern with nurturing democracy was never directed at the domestic population, in spite of the evident decline in American democracy. I suggest here that Americans, either from the top down or the bottom up, have to develop a domestic version of NED that they might want to call the Department of Homeland Democracy. This post enumerates all the varied ways the decline of democracy is apparent, then it discusses the possibility of redefining democracy with innovations that take it beyond the familiar, outdated structures of liberal democracy.  
Part 1            Liberal Democracy
One often hears sage, dispassionate thought leaders telling us they are champions of liberal democracy, as if it were the end product of political evolution which no society could ever surpass. They express their awareness of other types of governance, and they admit the flaws in liberal democracy with witty aphorisms such as “it is the worst form of government, except all others that have been tried.” They cite the social progress that came out of systems of government that include expanding enfranchisement, separation of powers (executive, legislative, judicial), civil rights, civil liberties, government action constrained by a constitution, and open to participation by multiple distinct parties. Yet they overlook the fatal flaw of the liberal democracies that were established in the 18th and 19th centuries: they favor the interests of the wealthy, generate inequality and eventually end up as oligarchies, or what some call the “dictatorship of money.” Even though American democracy has been improved since its founding, with constitutional amendments and expansion of the voter franchise, the fundamental flaws are still there, as Sean Gervasi pointed out in his brilliant lecture at the close of the Reagan-Bush era (1981-1991):
Now, what was obtained in that framing of the Constitution? What was obtained was a system of political science, a system of government which was so structured as to ensure the dominance of private property, the power of private property in any contention between the forces of democracy and the forces of private property, and the forces of inequality, so that the structure which constitutes, at the founding of this republic, which constitutes the framework within which we operate today, is one which ensures that predominance... So what happened then was that within this framework, which is the same framework conceived by the James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to further the purposes of property and to insure against what Madison called “the leveling attacks of democracy,” we have industrialization enhance the expansion of an enormous power, which is the power that controls the machinery and the resources of that productive system. That is to say large corporations. The largest 500 corporations in the United States today, plus the largest 500 banks and the largest 50 financial corporations control more resources than the Soviet planners ever dreamed of controlling. The control of those resources, which is made invisible by the clever workings of economists, inheres in the ability to make investment decisions. Investment decisions are the key decisions in any economic system. The power to make those decisions is the power to continuously transform and to determine the terms of everyday life among human beings in any society. That power is not only invisible in our system of thought, carefully hidden by the descendants of the 18th century philosophers, but it is also totally unaccountable. [1]
What Professor Gervasi pointed out here is the obvious and well-known need to democratize the economy (or democratize the enterprise) if we are to have any hope of solving our severe ecological and social problems. It wouldn’t require having a total command economy, but it would involve democratic, government control of the “commanding heights” of the economy—vital resources and services that can form the framework within which the private economy can operate. However, this issue is never discussed in the political or media mainstream, while the apparent progressives who go by the false monikers “liberal” or “the left” delude themselves into thinking that effective reform could be implemented within the existing capitalist-liberal democracy framework. Yet the problem has been well understood for a long time. Leo Panitch mentioned recently that socialists had recognized back in the 1970s that social programs had gone as far as they could, and they foresaw the rollback that came in the following decades:
... it was only in light of the social democratic parties’ failure to go beyond the reforms they had secured in welfare benefits and in health care by the 60s and 70s that one began to be aware that those reforms were increasingly running up against their limits within a continuing capitalist dynamic, that they were going to be constrained and maybe even undone unless you went beyond them to actually take the decisions about what’s invested, where it’s invested, and what it’s invested for away from capital—meaning the democratization of the economy, and I don’t think there was enough of an awareness until the 60s. My generation became very aware of… how bureaucratic social democratic governments were, how they had been brought into the structures of the state in a way that didn’t democratize the state... as Ralph Miliband put it in his famous book Parliamentary Socialism, “Of parties which take socialism as their goal, the Labour Party is the most dogmatic, not in the sense of socialism but in the sense of its commitment to parliamentarism,” and it was generally true that the Social Democratic parties became enveloped in the institutional structures of parliamentarism, electoralism, but above all the bureaucratic structures of the departments that they were ministers of… That’s really, I think, what the New Left was about. It was both a reaction against the Soviet bureaucratism and also a reaction against the reformist bureaucracies, whether it was the New Deal bureaucratism in the United States or the social-democratic ones in Europe, and to some extent in Canada. Women on welfare were most frightened of their welfare social workers, of the income maintenance workers. They were the people who would show up in their houses and see their whether there was an extra toothbrush in the glass, in which case they’d be thrown off welfare on the grounds that they happen to have a boyfriend, despite the fact they were single mothers. [2]
What follows is a description of all the ways American democracy has become dysfunctional. These two citations above are made to stress that fundamental change would still be necessary even if this dysfunction could be remedied. One can fix the walls, plumbing and wiring of an old house, but if the foundation is weak, superficial repairs won’t provide a lasting solution. 
Part 2            The Dysfunction
Restructuring of voting constituencies (gerrymandering)
The party with a legislative majority reconfigures geographical constituencies in ways that make their future success more likely. There are various ways this could be made illegal or that electoral reform could find ways to elect representatives based on other categories beside geographical boundaries.
Voter suppression
Prisoners and ex-convicts are not allowed to vote, which dis-enfranchises a large population in a society that imprisons large numbers of people. Voter identification requirements are enforced to excess, often with no provisional ballots made available. Investigative reporter Greg Palast exposed a scheme by 29 Republican state voting officials to remove voters who have the same name, under the pretense that they were one person allegedly registered to vote or intending to vote in two states. The scheme targeted minorities that were likely to vote Democrat. [3]
No time off work to vote
People need to have a day off to vote, on the day of election or at advance polls. In the last election, for people who could find the time to vote, there was a shortage of staffing at polling stations, and a shortage of polling stations, resulting in long lines and delays, or large numbers of people being dissuaded from voting. This occurred in an election in which roughly only 50% of eligible voters participated. How could the system handle a healthier 90% turnout? Perhaps the polls should be open for two or three days at least, rather than just one. Furthermore, people need more than just time to vote. They need time and opportunities to participate in political education, political organization and policy formation at the local level.
Poor record keeping
Voting machines and voting machine software are not secure and not transparent. With no paper ballot there is no way to confirm the results.
Lack of exit polls
In addition to the need of a paper record, exit polls need to be conducted at polling stations to see if the results align with the results claimed for that polling station.
Electoral College
The argument in favor of keeping the Electoral College has always been that it serves as geographical rebalancing to counter the most populous states and urban regions. Without this balance, the election result would always reflect the will of these areas, and people in rural states would feel dis-enfranchised. The Electoral College forces candidates to go to rural areas and offer policies that appeal to people there. The Electoral College is also a way for the system to use reserve power to deal with an incompetent or unqualified president-elect. It could prevent the common people from electing a populist demagogue—someone who would appeal to the masses yet be considered incompetent by the class that has habitually governed and managed the government bureaucracies. The masses might elect someone who is actually dangerous to the domestic and international population, or a danger to the interests of the elites. There is no way of protecting the system from one of these dangers and not the other because judgment would be left up to the sages selected by states to be their electors.
The great irony is that the Electoral College didn’t fulfill this role when it finally needed to. Donald Trump did not win the majority of the popular vote, and he was deemed by many to be unfit in terms of experience, mental health and his policy proposals. This was just the sort of circumstance the Electoral College was supposed to deal with, but when it came down to the moment to decide, none of the electors wanted to go against the choice made by their state’s voters. The electors don’t cast a secret ballot, so their cancellation of the voters’ preference would have been known. Out of fear of violent reprisals, they refused to reject Donald Trump as an unqualified president. Ever since this failure to reject the election result, various segments of elite society have been determined to push Donald Trump out of power by other means—domestic propaganda and endless attempts to uncover foreign intervention and criminal activities that can be turned into cases to prosecute.
While the election of Donald Trump demonstrated the failure of the Electoral College to serve its purpose as reserve power or a reserve of sober judgment, the people are left with a deeply flawed and undemocratic system. CGP Grey (youtube channel) has illustrated how it is technically possible to win the necessary 270 electoral votes while winning only 22% of the overall popular vote. This could be done by winning the majority of electoral college support with only the 39 smallest states and the District of Columbia. Although this is an unlikely result, obviously it shouldn’t be possible in any system that calls itself democratic.
In any case, the American system vests too much energy in electing the head of state by popular vote. It’s just one person, and his or her individual beliefs, character and policy preferences should be in line with a party that holds legislative power. Again, Donald Trump illustrated this weakness in the system. Not only did he lack support from legislators. There was widespread disdain for him expressed by members of both major parties and by former presidents.
Participation by multiple distinct parties
One of the key appeals of liberal democracy is an openness to participation by multiple distinct parties, with “multiple” and “distinct” being a key words. But it is quite clear that the American system has devolved into an oligarchic duopoly, with only two indistinct parties participating in what is a de facto one-party system, especially when it comes to foreign policy and warmongering. The United States dismantled the Soviet Union but over the following decades adopted the worst of it and left the best of it—neglecting to adopt full employment, mandated vacation time, free health care and free education.
Smaller parties and independents participated in the 2016 election, but they were shut out by the media and the televised debates. The justification for their exclusion was that they didn’t have enough popular support, but of course the only way to get popular support is through exposure in the mass media. Critics of new parties like to say that they are a distraction and pull support away from one of the major parties that could be bent toward “making a difference” (whatever that may be), but this line of thinking discounts what a new party could achieve with as little as 15 to 20% of the popular vote. It would be enough of a shock to the mainstream parties to change public discourse and shift policies radically because the new party would now be seen as a vanguard of the future, threatening to become an insurgency in the next election.
Intra-party democracy
As if the de facto one-party system were not bad enough, the parties themselves are not democratic in their internal operations. The insiders of the Democratic Party have been rigging nominations for a long time, most famously and consequentially with the selection of Harry Truman for vice president at the 1944 convention. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton was “the chosen one” who scooped up all the party resources, and party bosses would not allow anyone to challenge her. Bernie Sanders built his surprise insurgency out of contributions from small donors, but the party rigged the primaries against him and in the end he was too much of a timid sheepdog for the party to seize the moment and do something really radical for American politics. He could have joined the Green Party ticket and it is conceivable they would have got 20% of the popular vote. And yes, that could have resulted in something really terrible—like Donald Trump becoming president! Heaven forbid.
Rank choice voting and other reforms in the selection of winners
Multi-party participation wouldn’t be a problem if other democratic reforms occurred. With rank choice voting or election runoffs, the will of the people would be more clearly expressed, and stale old parties would die quickly and peacefully in their sleep before such spectacles as what was seen in the Republic Party candidate debates. A field of seventeen candidates represented the walking dead of a dead party with nothing to offer. All of them received dismally low public support, and a rank outsider won the nomination by a huge (yuuuge!) margin.
No emergency measures for postponing the election
With all of the evident problems in the American democratic process in 2016, I wondered at one point if President Obama would just declare an emergency and say basically, “We’re not ready for this. Let’s step back and have a constituent assembly, amend the constitution and our election laws, and do this again in two years’ time.” But the US has no such mechanism for re-inventing itself or even delaying its rigidly scheduled elections by even a few weeks. The show must go on.
Money in politics
Everyone says they want to find a way to “get money out of politics,” but few people want to follow the logic to where it leads. The constitution would have to include restrictions on private wealth playing a role in elections. In essence, a socialist democratic “one-party” state would be necessary, in the sense that there would have to be consensus that parties supported by private wealth would be excluded. For people accustomed to liberal democracy this consensus would create the appearance of there being only a single party. The term “one-party state” is a red flag (pun intended) for people conditioned to believe multi-party liberal democracy is the terminal point of human progress, but it is long past time for people in liberal democracies to admit that their systems with multiple mainstream parties have evolved into a singular blob with no distinct differences between them. They might as well be factions of a single party. The socialist one-party state has the advantage of having a ban on private financing of elections—a ban which is a taboo, embedded in the constitution. It wouldn’t be possible for a group of elected officials, backed by sponsors foreign or domestic, to change the rules with new legislation and open the floodgates to moneyed multi-party elections. Corruption and favoritism would still be possible, but the exclusion of private wealth would be a significant leap forward. With this clarification about the semantics of “one-party state” out of the way, we can look at socialist democracies without bias to see whether any have taken democracy beyond the two-hundred-year-old model of liberal democracy.
Democratic “Dictatorships”
At this point, the reader should just go directly to Maximilian Forte’s review of Arnold August’s Cuba and Its Neighbors: Democracy in Motion, [4] but I put some excerpts here as a way to get to the main points, with page numbers referring to the book reviewed:
“Cuba has a rich, homegrown experience and custom regarding constitutions, elections, the state and the battle for democracy that originates in the nineteenth century. There are two common threads: first, the participation of the people, and second, the value of social justice over and above private property as the sole consideration. These motifs have necessarily meant the defense of Cuban sovereignty, at first against the Spanish colonizers, and then U.S. neo-colonial and imperialist interests”. (p. 77)...

August substantiates his point that much of US scholarship on Cuba suffers from a blind spot when it comes to participatory democracy in the country. If multi-party elections were rejected it was because they symbolized the old order when a minority ruled in the interests of a minority—such a system not only coexists happily with oligarchy (as we ought to know), it serves it. Even the US State Department had to admit in 1960 that “the majority of Cubans support Castro”. In building up the participatory feature of the new Cuban political system, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) were established at the neighborhood level. Just one year after their founding in 1960, more than 800,000 Cubans voluntarily participated in these associations. A counterpart of the CDR are the National Revolutionary Militias (MNR), that were first established in the autumn of 1959. The Literacy Campaign was also built on grass-roots participation, and one of the key organizations behind it was the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Local government was also redeveloped from 1961 onwards, with elections for municipal delegates organized in neighborhoods and places of work from 1966. This was known then as “Local Power,” and as August explains, was the first systematic attempt to create government institutions that were directly accountable to the public. At the party level, multiple leftist organizations and movements developed a new Cuban Communist Party (PCC) by 1965, the passage of years reflecting the critical degree of work required to bring together multiple factions. By 1970, the PCC launched an effort to further democratize the revolution by suggesting the creation of Organs of Popular Power (OPP). A new Constitution was also drafted. This was not some party dictate—the draft was taken to the public, and discussed in schools, workplaces, in rural areas, and by the end of the months of discussions there had been 70,812 neighborhood meetings with 2,064,755 participants (p. 114). In 1976, by universal, secret ballot, the Constitution was approved by 97.7% of voters, with a voter turnout of 98%. After that, municipal, provincial and national elections took place that resulted in the formation of the National Assembly of Popular Power (ANPP). The PCC, meanwhile, never functioned as an electoral party...
August is essentially challenging the idea that Cuba can be accurately described as a “one-party state”. It is a state that has one party, but that one party does not represent the sum total of either the locus or method of Cuban political participation. The PCC, as August shows, was not “imported” from the Soviet Union nor developed to be a copy. Instead, understanding that the revolution could only thrive and reproduce itself if the majority of Cubans supported it and felt they had a stake in it, the PCC’s main role has been to open up new paths of popular participation, in what August calls “democracy in motion”. The other significant facet of this chapter is its discussion of “free press” in Cuba. The interesting thing that August points out is that Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution stipulates that “citizens have freedom of…the press,” but it must be “in keeping with the objectives of socialist society,” and “can never be private property” (p. 132)...
Additional content presented here involves the work of the Council of Ministers, and the Council of State, in passing decrees, but also how the ANPP and the mass organizations themselves can and do initiate legislation. What is not clear is how certain individuals retain a nearly constant presence at the executive level such as Fidel and then later Raúl Castro. The answer to this came about thanks to a perceptive student’s question in class when August visited us the second time, in October 2014. The fact is that certain heroes of the revolution, as they are described, retain positions of leadership on that basis. That fact, however, is not sufficient to account for the entire character of the Cuban political system because, contrary to stereotypes, misconceptions, and falsehoods regularly peddled in the Western media and by Western leaders, the system is not one man at a desk issuing orders. Indeed, most of what are called “dictatorships” in the West are not that, and are significantly more complex, which if we tried to engage with their complexity we might also understand why after many decades they retain markedly high levels of public support.
This last point about understanding the complexity of “dictatorships” and “one-party states” relates to other countries the liberal democracies consider despotic regimes. The media interprets the recent elimination of term limits in China as Xi Jinping having made himself “president for life,” but this view fails to consider that extension of his power would still depend on approval of the National People’s Congress, the Communist Party and public approval in general. Similarly, Iran has changed since the early days of the 1979 revolution, and North Korea’s “dictator” governs with broad support, especially during times when the country is being threatened. A simple American regime-change operation, counting on there being a pro-American faction to install in power, is a fantasy. It would not happen because the ideals of socialism, juche (self-sufficiency) and independence are deeply instilled. They would still exist if the supposed tyrant were removed.
I have wanted to write on these topics ever since Fidel Castro died late in 2016. In the days that followed I saw Dr. Helen Yaffe, professor of economic history at the London School of Economics, interviewed on British television. A segment of that interview sums up and completes everything written above:
Helen Yaffe: ...if you read Che Guevara’s book, a sort of guidebook to guerrilla struggle, guerrilla warfare... one of the things he says is armed struggle should be undertaken when all the democratic channels have been exhausted, and that was certainly the case as far as they were concerned in Cuba. Fidel Castro himself had been a candidate in the elections which were ultimately got rid of by the coup that Batista carried out, so Fidel Castro had tried the democratic or electoral road to changing the system in Cuba, and that had failed because of the dictatorship which they were very conscious was supported by the United States.
Interviewer: And you say democratic channels, and yet then after they win this victory in 1959, they enter Havana and they establish, or Fidel does, the first one-party communist state in the Western Hemisphere. That’s not democratic.
Helen Yaffe: Well, it’s certainly true that they didn’t have elections in Cuba until 1976, but they did introduce a new constitution, and new elections, but not the kind of elections that we recognize, where we come from a party political system. And part of the problem of perception and why you can hear—I’m sure you’re interviewing people who have completely different perspectives—is this question of “What do we define as democracy?” So in Cuba elections take place, but people don’t stand as members of parties. They stand either as representatives of local communities, or their workplace, or social or cultural societies and institutions, and they are represented in parliament. So, for example, you have eight seats in parliament put aside for university students. Now for those people who regard what we’ve just seen in the United States [the reality TV spectacle/US election campaign won by Donald Trump] as the model of democracy, of course, we find that missing in Cuba, and then, therefore, we would conclude that democracy is missing in Cuba. But they have a different system, and I think that the failure of people to really understand what’s going on in Cuba is because they fail to make this immanent critique, where they are trying to understand what are the actual challenges that Cuba has faced, but [they need to ask] what has been their strategic objective? Fidel Castro laid out a program in the Moncada Program. He said we want to bring housing, healthcare, education, and so on for our people, and on the whole, what has happened under the revolution has been consistent with the pursuance of those strategic objectives. Now for some people that is what freedom is, and democracy is. It is access to healthcare and education. For others it’s not. For others it’s the freedom to have a small business, to have political associations, and establish yourself, and so on. So this is why we have such a contradictory reflection on Fidel’s legacy, Fidel’s contribution, or whether he was destructive or, in fact, a gift to humanity, and so on, and that’s why there’s also equally divergent views on the Cuban Revolution and what it has achieved... The Cuban people are a revolutionary population. They fought against the Spanish. They had the 10-year war. They had an independence movement. They had a revolution in 1933. If they had really been oppressed to the level that we're expected to believe, they also know where the guns are. They are all militarily trained. You're not helping yourself to explain what really happens in Cuba if you take those kinds of simplistic notions which are ideologically charged. [5]
Notes



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