Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bedtime for Democracy

In the wake of 2010's disastrous Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and now this week's equally game-changing, McCutcheon v. FEC, which lifts the cap on campaign contributions from rich donors, it might be time to start asking the obvious question we are all too afraid to pose:

Do we even still live in a representative democracy, anymore? Or has the United States become a sort of oligarchic plutocracy where only the very wealthy have any ability to influence government?

(Let's put the broader question of whether the U.S. has ever truly been a democracy, aside for the time being. For the sake of argument, let's assume America was founded as a democratic nation. I'll let readers fight this one out in the "Comments" section.)

Many progressive pundits have lamented in recent years the state of our "beleaguered," or "weakened" democracy. But just how "weak" must a country's democratic institutions become before they finally gasp their last metaphorical breath? At what point is the transition from an open, free society, to a closed, totalitarian one complete? Have we, in fact, now reached that point? Does our democracy exist in name only?

Chilling questions, to be certain. Yet the Supreme Court's campaign-spending decision last week demands we treat them as more than academic hypotheticals.

Those Americans whose civic participation starts and ends in the voting booth once every four years might want to start paying more attention. And you might want to start contemplating alternative forms of action while you are at it, given how increasingly pointless those elections are becoming--unless that is, you happen to be rich.

Last week's McCutcheon decision--which raises the so-called aggregate limit on the amount of money an individual can directly contribute to a candidate, PAC (Political Action Committee), or political party from $2,600 to $3.5 million--maintains the Roberts-led court's trend of equating the spending of money with free speech.

While many conservatives have lauded the Justices' decision as a win for "freedom," it is a freedom only a very small, wealthy percentage of Americans can exercise. As Andy Kroll makes clear in his recent coverage of the McCutcheon decision in Mother Jones ("The Supreme Court Just Gutted Another Campaign Finance Law...", 04/02/2014), this will no doubt further the vastly disproportionate influence the extremely rich already yield in our elections.

"The decision is a boon for wealthy donors," Kroll writes, "a potential lifeline for the weakened Democratic and Republican parties, and the latest in a series of setbacks dealt by the Roberts court to supporters of tougher campaign [spending] laws." 

It is time to start thinking outside of the voting booth. Occupy Wall Street had the right idea, initially. Not only did the movement leave an indelible impact on our vocabulary, with phrases like "One percent," and "99 percent," still widely in use today. But it also made clear, to anyone who still did not understand, where the real centers of power are in this country: Not the White House, but Wall Street.

Unfortunately, the widespread emergence of "sister occupations" throughout the country (including here in Portland) kind of lost the plot. It is hard to occupy Wall Street--based in Manhattan--when you live in, you know... Maine. Had the Portland Occupiers set up camp in front of a local TD Bank or Bank of America (or even the Portland offices of Preti Flaherty, law firm of Harold Pachios, a longtime Democratic donor and strategist), that would have made sense. Instead they quixotically settled for about five months in Lincoln Park, where most of their anti-corporatist message was mistaken by passerby for "camping."

When Occupy re-emerges--and I believe it or something like it will--I hope it can move beyond these fledgling failings and coalesce a truly populist mass movement. Still, the Occupiers were on the right track. And this is why the movement was ultimately crushed by the corporate state. They knew it was a threat.

In his remarks shortly after forcibly evicting the Occupy protesters from Zuccotti Park, New York's "independent" Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed the group's grievances as "totally unfounded."

It is increasingly clear any substantive effort at restoring our democracy and the rule of law is going to come from outside the two-party system. Real progressive change will come, as it always has, through activists, socialists, and third-parties like the Green Party. (Full disclosure: I am the Secretary for the Portland Green Independent Committee, of the Maine Green Independent Party.)

Contrary to popular opinion, Greens can win elections. We have had particular success on the local and state levels where voters are more willing to look past the bogus "spoiler" argument. And even if Greens fail to win office we can still influence the election by bringing up issues--like raising the minimum wage, or instant run-off voting--the Democrats and Republicans would not otherwise discuss.

Our democracy has been hijacked by an unfettered corporate state. It has been sold to the highest bidder. Extremely wealthy capitalists like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Warren Buffett now own America. And the only hope we have of taking our country--and our democracy--back is by stepping outside of the system.

Do not "Keep Calm and Carry On," as the ubiquitous motivational slogan urges. It is time to get mad and f*&@ sh#! up. 

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