Those inclined to keep track of the calendar know that on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the 58th American presidential election will take place. Those inclined to keep track of history will ask themselves, in what kind of historical circumstances for the nation, for the world, and for their families are this presidential elections taking place? Those inclined to change history—those with the desire build a better and more just nation—probably ask themselves the same questions as the calendar and history trackers, but also wonder about the validity of the electoral process as an efficient tool for change.
Successful examples of radical democracies
If we look at the history of the last decade we can extract two important political conclusions: neo-liberalism has been challenged around the world, and democratic social change is possible. Latin American progressive governments such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil provide successful examples of reducing poverty, redistributing wealth, changing the tax system so it benefits the majority of people, using the national income to improve health and social services, diminishing military expenses, extending education to previously ignored sectors of society, as well as guaranteeing the civil rights of minorities and other marginalized groups, and finally, in the case of Ecuador and now Bolivia, considering nature as an entity with rights similar to people. (Ironically in the U.S we also have granted rights to non-human entities: American corporations).
A similar positive example challenging neoliberalism is given by the electoral triumph in Greece of SYRIZA, a leftist-populist party willing to defy the catastrophic austerity policies imposed by German banks on southern European countries. Equally significant is the victory in the European Parliament of the number of seats gained by the Spanish PODEMOS, another leftist populist organization challenging the inequalities of European capitalism by extending the democratic demands of Spanish people.
All these constitute important popular achievements and re-define the content of democracy in a fashion closer to its original meaning, as a form of government by the people and for the people. These events provide—with diverse levels of intensity—clear examples of how common citizens can have a voice in determining the direction of the economic and political life of the societies in which they live.
We should not conceive democracy as a thing in itself, a state of being, or a noun without adjectives. Democracy necessarily comes holding hands with an adjective or a qualifier tying this form of government to the specific organization of the economy in a specific historical time with specific beneficiaries. American democracy has become a highly developed post-industrial global capitalist economy with growing internal inequality, latent racism and discrimination, a strong military presence around the world, and a centralized, un-scrutinized, all inclusive state apparatus of surveillance of its own citizens and foreign nations alike.
Many social observers describe present day America as a post-democratic society. The social scientist Colin Crouch defines post-democratic societies as societies “dominated by elites, where influential business interests are the only group able to make their voice heard”.
Probably the most important ‘occupation’ of the Occupy Movement wasn’t Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street Financial district, but the linguistic insertion of inequality as a category that is now recognized by the media and American popular discourse. The social asymmetries of the country became obvious, the paradoxical dichotomy between the wealthy 1 percent of the population and the growing difficulties of the experienced by the remaining 99 percent of Americans captured in a clear slogan.
It is not the intent of this article to summarize the inequalities organized by income, wealth distribution, and race inequality. But just to provide a brief illustration: some studies indicate that the richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.Similar figures provided by the U.S. Census Bureau regarding poverty, ethnicity and age confirm the growing inequality in America. Officially, 16% of the American population lives in poverty, 20 percent of those, or the equivalent of 44.4 million are children, 9.9 per cent are white, 12.1 percent are Asian, 26.6 percent Hispanic, and 28.4 percent Black. Twenty two percent are people under 18 years of age, 13.7 percent between the ages of 19 and 64, and 9 percent over 65 years old. Indicators like these are hard to justify considering that the U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the history of humanity. They are also hard to justify if we continue calling ourselves a Democracy. What kind of democracy would allow these catastrophic levels of concentration of wealth and disparity?
In this context, it is hard to determine where the American oligarchy gets its definition of democracy—certainly not from the will of the vast majority of American citizens. We have reached a stage in which formal democratic institutions continue to exist but with no real public participation. Public interests are neither heard nor represented. Yes, we can vote (after long struggles and continuous obstacles still present) but do we actually have a voice?
The state, at all levels, continues to restrain democratic spaces, even those considered basic individual rights, such as the right to privacy and free speech. The recent revelations of the clandestine operatives of surveillance and spying on practically every American citizen are indicators of the deficit of the democracy in America.
What determines American identity?
Most nations express their national identity through a sense of shared history or common ethnicity. Given the fact that from its very early days, the American nation was built upon the violent repression of black people and the genocide of Native Americans, history and ethnicity have never been a strong point of departure for American identity. Nor are they now. The most recent series of events in which black civilians have been killed by white police officers is a sobering indicator of how the long history of racism and discrimination lives on. In spite of the particularly inconvenient truth of both historical and current circumstance, the reigning ideology still presents “American Democracy” as the common and highest denominator of what it means to be a civilized country.
Considering just this most recent outbreak of police violence aimed at people of color, we have to ask: what kind of people have we become? What kind of social relations do we value? Yes, we can, and should identify those responsible for the current condition. Yes, we should ask ourselves how we arrived at this point and who is to blame, and they should be taken to the political trial of true democratic justice. But at the same time, we need to remake ourselves by reinstituting true democratic values in our society. The upcoming elections offer a possibility to begin that process–a possibility to generate a more egalitarian sense of national identity.
The up-coming elections
Elections are neither good nor bad in themselves; only a political cretin would assign the essential attributes of wrong or right to the given forms of political participation. The value of electoral processes can only be determined by a concrete analysis of the material situation in which those processes occur. As Lenin stated in 1902, “the whole of political life is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and gripping as strong as we can the link that is the least likely to be torn out of our hands, the one that is more important at any given moment, the one that guarantees the possessor of a link the possession of the whole chain”
I believe that the struggle for the radicalization of democracy during the upcoming elections should be understood as an opportunity to grip the link that will connect the broadest possible segments of the population willing and ready to change the current situation. To do otherwise—to not take the upcoming elections seriously—effectively detaches the progressive movement from public concerns, and frames democracy as form in itself, a philosophical concept without specific political content. It is important to intervene and participate in the upcoming elections from an inclusive leftist perspective not necessarily based on a particular candidate, but based on a radical democratic political platform centered against corporations and inequality.
We must intervene with an alliance of multiple politically progressive subjects (allied across class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation) behind the platform of a candidate who advocates a critique of the current post-democratic derailment of American politics, and the instauration of forms of government and economic policies able to reverse the existing inequality, radicalize democracy, and ensure and encourage public participation.
Given the current circumstances, the following measures are central to any vision of a radical democracy platform for America:
- Stop corporations from avoiding paying taxes by using off shore banks
- Tax monetary institutions for their financial transactions
- Stop tax breaks and government subsidies for oil, gas, and coal
- Tax income on wealth—capital gains and dividends–like regular work income
- Increase the federal minimum wage to $15/ an hour
- Reduce military spending and increase social services
- Instaurate the right to free higher education.
- Eliminate the surveillance state.
We must build the type of democracy that is not a subaltern of the dominant neoliberal ideology—a democracy that has in mind the interests of 99 percent of Americans.
Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.