Can Progressives Bring Democracy to the USA?

Whether or not progressives should support Obama in 2012 is not only a matter of whether Obama would be better as president than his Republican opponent, but also a question of what are the other strategic choices that progressives have when confronted with the ballot and with the presidential campaign more generally. Obvious other possible courses of action would be to abstain or to vote for a third party candidate. In addition to the decision on how to vote, progressives should always keep in mind that far more important than voting is organizing. The big question for those who are not already actively involved in progressive organizing around a particular issue, is to figure out around what issue to organize and what strategy to use, and whether and how this could be combined with the presidential election in some way.


In order to understand the range of strategic choices that are available to progressives, however, we must first make sure we understand the U.S. political system and what its limitations and possibilities are. This second part of my reflections on whether to support Obama in 2012 and what a strategy for U.S. progressives might look like thus examines the U.S. political system and the options that individuals and movements have within this system at this particular juncture in U.S. history.


The U.S. Political System: A Polyarchic Plutocracy

The first thing we need to be clear about, and most progressives probably are, is that the U.S. political system is not particularly democratic. As a matter of fact, an argument can be made that U.S. democracy has more in common with Iranian democracy than with the democracies of most of Western Europe. That is, while in Iran a theocratic council approves or vetoes candidates for political office, in the U.S. it is major campaign funders, the leadership of the two main political parties, and the private mass media that approve or veto candidates for political office. In other words, while Iranian democracy can be called a polyarchic theocracy, U.S. democracy ought to be called a polyarchic plutocracy. It is polyarchic in that it is “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites.” Also, it is plutocratic in the sense that the wealthy essentially govern the functioning of U.S. democracy (from ploutos, meaning "wealth," and kratos, meaning "power, rule").


How is it possible that a political system that regularly holds free and mostly transparent multi-party elections is a polyarchic plutocracy? There are four main factors that twist the U.S. political system into a minimally democratic democracy: private capital, private mass media, the party elite, and the U.S. constitution. Let us briefly examine the role of each of these in turn.


Private Capital

As anyone who follows U.S. politics knows, the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision of 2010 had a profound impact on U.S. electoral politics. That decision struck down important campaign finance regulations and allowed corporations and unions to spend without limitation on political campaigns as long as they do not coordinate with the affected candidates who are running for office. As a result, the floodgates were opened even further than they already had been for corporate spending on political campaigns. According to research conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2010 campaign season:


  • The percentage of spending coming from groups that do not disclose their donors has risen from 1 percent to 47 percent since the 2006 midterm elections
  • 501c non-profit spending increased from zero percent of total spending by outside groups in 2006 to 42 percent in 2010.
  • Outside interest groups spent more on election season political advertising than party committees for the first time in at least two decades, besting party committees by about $105 million.
  • The amount of independent expenditure and electioneering communication spending by outside groups has quadrupled since 2006.
  • Seventy-two percent of political advertising spending by outside groups in 2010 came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006


The “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision was made possible, of course, by the majority of conservative justices on the court, which, in turn, was made possible by Ronald Reagan’s appointment of four of the five conservative justices and George H.W. Bush’s nomination of justice Clarence Thomas. In short, the campaign spending of corporations and the rich enable an ever-stronger rightward drift in U.S. politics as they continue to buy influence and shape political discourse with the aim of continuing and expanding their influence. Even though the Supreme Court decision also allowed labor unions to donate more money, business has historically outspent labor on elections campaigns by a factor of 15 to 1, a

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