The Myth of Democracy

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Maine lawmakers’ open contempt for the will of the people is further evidence that true democracy in America is severely lacking.

Democracy in America has always been something of a joke.

As Vladimir Lenin wrote in his 1917 classic, State and Revolution, “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for the slave-owners.”

But the Maine Legislature’s blatant rejection of four citizen-initiated referendum questions passed in November brings the abject hollowness of America’s vaunted “democracy” painfully to light. Measures passed through Maine’s century-old referendum process—designed to give voters a voice on issues or legislation ignored by lawmakers—are supposed to be state laws.

Yet, both Republican and Democratic legislators have effectively decided these laws are merely suggestions to be enacted at their discretion. They have arrogantly dismissed the referendum process as a glorified opinion poll. And both parties have openly defied the will of the voters.

No wonder large portions of voters in Maine and the rest of the country do not even bother to vote. When politicians are free to flagrantly disregard the results, what is the point?

For background, Maine voters approved four out of five referendum questions on last November’s ballot. The referendums ranged on issues from legalizing recreational marijuana for adults (Question 1); taxing residents with incomes of $200,000 or more to fund public education (Question 2); gradually raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour and eliminating the “tip credit” for restaurant workers, which effectively allows employers to pay them an insulting sub-minimum wage as low as $2.13 an hour (Question 4); and establishing a ranked-choice or instant run-off voting system for all Maine elections (Question 5).

(Question 3, which called for strengthening the state’s background-checks for gun purchases, was overwhelmingly defeated.)

But, rather than honoring the will of the voters and implementing the new laws as the Maine Constitution requires, the Legislature has instead undermined the measures, re-written them, or repealed them entirely.

Here is where the referendums stand as of mid-July:

Question 1 (Marijuana legalization): Implementation has been delayed for “further review.”

Question 2 (Tax the rich to pay for schools): Perhaps the most contentious of the lot, Question 2 was at the heart of a protracted battle over the state budget, which led to Republicans and wing-nut Gov. Paul LePage shutting down the state government for three days during the Independence Day weekend. Maine Senate Republicans refused to accept any budget that included the three percent surcharge tax on wealthy Mainers intended to fund the state’s constantly underfunded public education system. And Democrats, naturally, caved with barely a fight.

Question 4 (Minimum wage): Re-written and watered-down. While the state’s minimum wage will still increase to $12 by 2020 (still not a living wage, but it’s something, I guess…), legislators voted to restore the tip credit under intense pressure from the restaurant industry.

Question 5 (Ranked-choice voting): Declared “unconstitutional” by the Maine Supreme Court. Its future remains uncertain, though repeal seems likely. As the Portland Press Herald editors opine in a recent editorial, “It’s safe to say that the least likely option will be for the Legislature to follow the will of the majority of voters, and make sure the new system is in place before next year’s election.”

Maine is the first state in the nation to pass a ranked-choice voting law—a bittersweet accomplishment, given that it is apparently meaningless.

Legislators have justified their attempts to undermine the will of the people by claiming voters were simply “confused” about what, exactly, they were voting for—particularly with regard to Question 4.

“Mainers did not understand the specifics of the referendum,” Gov. LePage wrote in a Nov. 29, 2016 press release announcing his intent to block and delay the new minimum wage law.

This claim—that voters are essentially too stupid to even understand the ballot questions they are voting on—has been echoed by Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau. It is in keeping with longstanding elite views–which date back to the United States’ founding–of the public as an “unruly herd,” that is incapable of managing its own affairs.

World renowned public intellectual and dissident, Noam Chomsky, in summing up the views of Walter Lippmann, an early pioneer in manipulating public opinion (or “manufacturing consent,” as Chomsky terms the practice), writes:

The public must “be put in its place”: its “function” in a democracy is to be “spectators of action,” not participants, acting “only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively,” in periodic electoral exercises.

Other legislators, meanwhile, have justified their blatant disregard for the voters by quibbling that the constituents of their specific legislative district did not, in fact, vote for a particular referendum—and that their sole obligation is to those voters.

But this is nitpicky nonsense.

By this rubric, the people of southern Maine’s 1st Congressional District should not have to accept Donald Trump as their president, since his support came largely from the northern, 2nd District. First District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree should just say, “Sorry, but my constituents did not vote for Trump, so we’re just going to ignore the election results. Voters clearly did not understand what they were getting when they voted for this xenophobic, Twitter-addicted, sexual predator.”

In fact, while we are at it, there are a lot of other recent elections I would like to revisit…

The fact is both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have long expressed disdain for the referendum process. Republicans decry the outsized spending by out-of-state advocacy groups on various ballot questions.

But unlimited campaign spending by Political Action Committees (PACs), unions or advocacy groups is hardly a new phenomenon–nor is it limited to the referendum process. (Citizens United, anyone…?)

Indeed, the Koch Brothers do not live in Maine, yet they have been influencing LePage—who is a member of the Koch’s free-market-legislation-pushing, American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—since he rode the 2010 “Tea Party” wave to victory. Where is the outrage over the Koch’s undue influence over our elections?

Maine Democrats, likewise, gripe that the referendum process is “too divisive,” and make it difficult to “compromise” and find “common ground.”

But there is, by definition, no “compromising” in elections. They are (ostensibly) based on majority rule. The losing candidate or side in our “winner-take-all” system does not get to negotiate some sort of power-sharing deal or compromise after the vote. They are expected to honor the “integrity” of America’s enviable “democracy,” thank voters for their time, get the hell off of the stage and shut-up about the whole thing, already.

As bourgeois Trump supporters are so quick to snidely chastise liberals, “You lost. Get over it!”

Yet, when it comes to these referendums, it seems Maine legislators cannot “get over it.” Indeed, they preferred to shut down the government for three days, leaving hundreds of “nonessential” state workers without pay, to avoid implementing a measly three percent tax on Mainers who can most easily afford it to better fund education.

And there is more than a hint of elitism in both parties’ opposition to the referendum process. That is because, unlike traditional elections in which the candidates and issues are largely pre-selected by the capitalist parties, referendums allow citizens to bypass the state and place issues on the ballot that could actually improve their daily lives.

Furthermore, citizens typically go to referendum after becoming fed up with their state government’s inaction on issues like drug reform, raising the minimum wage, taxing the wealthy, school funding, etc. The increased use of ballot referendums speaks to Maine voters’ frustration with the lack of representation in government at both the state and federal level.

As such, the citizens’ referendum is the closest thing Maine voters have to an actual democratic process. And this is precisely why elite lawmakers on both sides of the aisle resent it. It is also why the Legislature is actively working to make the referendum process more difficult—increasing the number of voter signatures groups must collect before an issue can be placed on the ballot.

All of this should underscore the fact that we do not live in an actual democracy. We live under capitalism. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the two systems are not the same. Indeed, democracy is incompatible with a system based on wage slavery in which a tiny minority enjoys incredible wealth while the majority of working-class citizens live paycheck to paycheck. Not only is such an economic system inherently unequal and unjust. It is unfree.

The recent events in Maine merely highlight this sad reality.

George Carlin–still America’s greatest comedian, in my humble opinion–said it best: “The owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American Dream ’cause you’ve got to be asleep to believe in it.”

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

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Dickensian Days are Here Again

An homage to Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens, whose classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol is ubiquitous on television and local theater stages this time of year, is one of my favorite authors. The celebrated British novelist had a keen insight into the arrogant mindset of the bourgeoisie that remains unrivaled in literature to this day.

Consider, for instance, when Ebenezer Scrooge is approached by two social workers who solicit him for a charitable donation for the poor. Upon rebuking them (“Are there no prisons? …No workhouses?”), Scrooge admonishes the social workers:

“I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I mentioned. They cost enough. And those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

Fast-forward to president-elect Donald Trump. When asked if he was “sympathetic” to minimum wage workers’ demands for a $15 minimum wage during a Fox News “debate” last year, Trump seemed to channel his own inner-Scrooge.

“I can’t be,” Trump flatly told moderator Neil Cavuto. “…Our taxes are too high…. Wages too high. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it [the minimum wage] the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard, and they have to get into that upper stratum.”

Leaving aside the obvious factual errors of Trump’s response (both taxes and wages are notoriously low in the U.S. compared to other industrialized countries; likewise, Americans already rank among the hardest-working people in the world yet only a tiny privileged minority make into that “upper stratum”), his callous rhetoric toward the poor is virtually identical to Scrooge’s.

Turns out the capricious mindset of the rich has not changed much in the last 200 years.

But as much as I enjoy A Christmas Carol, I find it unfortunate it is Dickens’ best known work. Indeed, the 1843 short story really only scratches the surface of Dickens’ literary talents.

Dickens’ novels following Christmas Carol–most of which originally appeared as serialized installments in magazines–featured intricately-woven plots, and delved into darker subject matter than his previous works. The classic Dickens storyline typically features dozens of characters—often, as is the case in Great Expectations and Little Dorrit, hailing from opposite social classes—whose fates are inevitably bound together somehow.

A master of wit and satire, Dickens’ stories tend to feature outlandishly cartoonish characters like the teacher Mr. M’Choakumchild from 1854’s Hard Times or the duplicitous Yes-Man, Uriah Heep from David Copperfield. Consider Dickens’ vivid description, as narrated by titular protagonist, David Copperfield, of Heep from the following passage:

“There I saw him, lying on his back, with his legs extending to I don’t know where, gurglings taking place in his throat, stoppages in his nose, and his mouth open like a post office… Afterwards I was attracted to him in very repulsion, and could not help wandering in and out every half hour or so, and taking another look at him.”

Dickens introduces Scrooge, likewise, as a “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” Needless to say, Dickens was never too keen on subtlety.

But it was Dickens’ passionate humanization of England’s poor and working class, and his scathing indictment of the ultra-rich that truly secured his legacy not merely as a writer, but as a social reformer as well.

Like George Orwell and Upton Sinclair, Dickens began his writing career as a newspaper reporter. His stories on the ills of London’s capitalist industrialization easily lent themselves to his literary exposes of child labor, homelessness, and the plight of the poor as depicted in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

Even Karl Marx took notice of Dickens’ socially-conscious writing. In an August 1, 1854 article in the New York Tribune, Marx praised Dickens as belonging to a “splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

Dickens’ concern for the poor came out of his own childhood struggles with poverty. At the age of 12, Dickens was forced to leave school to work full-time in a rodent-infested boot-blacking factory after his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens would later denounce these prisons and the institutional criminalization of poverty, in 1857’s Little Dorrit.

Dickens’ own difficult childhood proved a near endless well of inspiration for his novels, nearly all of which feature child or young adult protagonists. For the leftist historian, Howard Zinn, who was greatly influenced by Dickens at an early age, this championing of the plight of children was something of a revelation.

“How wise Dickens was to make readers feel poverty and cruelty through the fate of children,” Zinn writes in his 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “who had not reached the age where the righteous and comfortable classes could accuse them of being responsible for their own misery.”

To be clear, Dickens was not a socialist and it is not my intention here to paint him as such. While Dickens understood all too well the dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism, neither his novels nor his nonfiction writing offer anything in the way of an economic or political alternative.

Indeed, as a successful literary celebrity, Dickens likely had as much to fear from a working class uprising as the greedy capitalists he took such obvious pleasure in skewering. This fear is hinted at in the character of bloodthirsty revolutionary, Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, whose motives have more to do with pure vengeance than any real political agenda.

“Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again,” Dickens writes in the conclusion of Tale of Two Cities, “and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

This moralistic, “a-pox-on-both-houses” view of class struggle is all too common among center-left liberals who put their faith in piecemeal reforms and legislation to ameliorate what they describe as capitalism’s “excesses.” Dickens’ novels, likewise, stressed social reforms, a generic Christian kindness, and in the case of Scrooge, philanthropic charity from the wealthy.

Again, Dickens was no Marxist.

(A socialist re-imagining of A Christmas Carol would perhaps see Bob Cratchit organizing his fellow workers to forcibly wrest Scrooge’s business and wealth from him. Come to think of it, somebody should really write that book…)

These limitations of political vision aside, one is hard-pressed to identify a contemporary author who shares Dickens’ keen sense of social outrage.

And this is why Charles Dickens’ work still resonates in our own time.

Today, we find ourselves living in hard times not unlike those that defined Dickens’ Victorian England. In the wake of late-stage capitalism, and Wall Street’s trashing of the global economy, we are witnessing an unprecedented gulf between the rich and the rest of us. According to Oxfam, the richest one percent are currently on track to own more wealth than the rest of the world. This is a scale of global inequality the charitable organization calls, “simply staggering.”

And, in what is perhaps the most frightening indicator that we stand on the brink of a return to the dark, Dickensian days of unregulated capitalism, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, belongs to a right-wing think tank that endorses repealing child labor laws.

Perhaps David Copperfield‘s perpetually unemployed Mr. Micawber best sums up the plight of the working class:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen-six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”