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new laws as the Maine Constitution requires, the Legislature has instead undermined the measures, re-written them, or repealed them entirely.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!

 

The Police State: Racist to the Core

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Police cordon off a section of the Old Port in Portland, Maine, during a July 15, 2016 Black Lives Matter demonstration that blocked traffic for hours. Eighteen protesters were arrested. Photo from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

PORTLAND, Maine- One of the most common objections to last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstration that shut down parts of Portland’s Old Port on a busy Friday night in July, and resulted in the arrest of 18 protesters, is that the police shootings of unarmed black citizens that have become a regular fixture of the cable-news cycle “do not happen here in Maine.”

As Chris Busby wrote in his Bangor Daily News column (07/21/2016), questioning the overall efficacy of the protest, “If Portland cops are engaging in any racist behavior, word of it hasn’t reached my ears…”

But Black Lives Matter detractors can no longer make such naive assertions.

Chance David Baker, 22, was fatally shot by a Portland Police officer on Saturday, Feb. 20 at Union Station Plaza. Baker, who is black and had a history of mental illness, was seen outside the Subway restaurant, wielding a pellet gun and acting erratically, according to eye witnesses. Police were, reportedly, unable to discern that the pellet gun was not a rifle.

The PPD officer who shot Baker, Sgt. Nicholas Goodman, previously used deadly force prior to Saturday’s incident. Goodman has been placed on administrative leave following the shooting.

Baker had struggled with substance abuse as a teenager, and had been in and out of homeless shelters, according to local news reports. Still, friends said Baker had made great progress in recent years. They praised his selfless nature and committed work ethic. Baker was working three jobs just to make ends meet.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck lashed out at criticism of the PPD’s use of deadly force the following Wednesday, telling reporters he is “disgusted” by local officials who have “politicized” the shooting.

“I am saddened, I’m disappointed,” said Sauschuck at a press conference, “and I’ll tell you I’m disgusted by any use of a tragedy to further some kind of political agenda…”

The citizens of Portland are disgusted as well, Chief: Disgusted that police throughout the country feel they can kill unarmed people of color at will without repercussions.

Speaking of “politicizing tragedy,” Sauschuck was scheduled to receive an honorary commendation from the Portland City Council during its Feb. 22 meeting. Mercifully, a group of protesters loudly disrupted the provocatively-timed ceremony, causing the council to go into recess, and the police chief to flee City Hall before it could be concluded.

Baker’s death marks the third fatal shooting by a police officer in Maine so far this year. Much as we like to believe otherwise, we are not immune to racist police violence, here in Maine.

Yet, in our imperialistic culture of mandatory troop worship, many Mainers are reflexively rushing to express sympathy and condolences not with Baker or his friends and family–but with the officer who murdered him in broad daylight.

Eileen Reynolds of Brunswick defends the “brave, heroic sergeant,” in a Feb. 22 letter to the editor in the Portland Press Herald, “who prevented what easily could have resulted in a disastrous situation.”

“This incident,” Reynolds writes, “… should reinforce all of us to appreciate and stand behind our law enforcement officers.”

Donald Trump–who campaigned on a pledge to be a “law and order president”–has, likewise, stoked pro-police sentiments, perpetuating the false narrative that law enforcement officers are “under attack.” Trump and police-worshiping Republicans have countered the mantra of “Black lives matter,” with the ludicrous rejoinder, “Blue lives matter.”

Legislators in Louisiana recently passed a “Blue Lives Matter” law, which expands the list of protected classes under the state’s hate crimes statute to include police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel.

But not only is there no “war on cops,” police work overall is not actually as dangerous as we are frequently led to believe. A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of the most dangerous jobs in America does not even list law enforcement among the top-ten. Instead, the survey found that truck drivers, fishermen, electricians, and garbage collectors all face a greater threat of injury or death on the job.

Thus, it is difficult to understand why Goodman felt compelled to use lethal force against Baker, rather than resolving the situation by talking him down and apprehending him. Perhaps the answer becomes clear when one considers the origins of the modern police force and its roots in the late 19th century slave patrols.

The epidemic of police violence towards people of color is not, as is often suggested, the result of a “few bad apples.” The entire system of capitalist law enforcement is rotten to the core.

“The modern police institution is at its core racist, elitist, undemocratic, authoritarian, and violent,” writes Kristian Williams in his recently updated book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America.

These are the institution’s major features and it did not acquire them by mistake. The order that the police preserve is the order of the state, the order of capitalism, the order of White supremacy. These are the forces that require police protection … These are the ends the police serve.

Far from being members of the working class, the police have historically been the bourgeoisie’s first line of defense against strikes, peaceful protesters, and the threat of slave insurrection in the antebellum South. Though police officers generally make a fairly modest salary, their elevated position in society often causes them to identify more closely with the wealthy elite.

And the overall selective nature of the implementation of law enforcement grants individual police officers (who, unlike most workers, generally go about their job unmonitored by a boss or supervisor) wide leeway in terms of who, precisely, to target. This leaves them to rely on subconscious (and, in all likelihood, racist) prejudices about what a “criminal” or “suspect” looks like, how he dresses, his skin color, etc. Such leeway also provides greater opportunity for corruption.

As George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia:

I have no particular love for the idealized “worker” as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

Baker’s death must not go unpunished. We should fully support the implementation of body-cameras on all PPD officers–an effort many of the “liberal” local news outlets oppose.

But our efforts for police accountability must not end at body-cameras alone. Indeed, I ultimately envision a world where we do not need the police at all–at least not the institution of policing as it currently exists. (Williams, in his book, points to a form of democratically-run community policing as a viable alternative.)

In the meantime, let us place blame for Baker’s murder squarely where it belongs: With Sgt. Goodman, and the racist, hyper-masculine culture of violence that the police ultimately serve.

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…). Thanks for reading!