The notion that the people get the leaders (and system) they deserve is a common, oft-repeated one. It’s really a restatement of what some scholars call the democracy-at-work thesis: the people collectively and democratically decide who will lead them. Hence, the leaders at any given point in time are the ones that the people chose.
If the people made a mistake and the leader or leaders turn out to be no good, then the people have the responsibility to remove those bad leaders. If they don’t remove them, then the people are at fault because they failed to unseat those leaders. The people in that case must be masochists, lazy, or they secretly desire the actions of the no good leader(s). All adult citizens have the right to vote and if they don’t vote, then they’re to blame for not voting, and if they do vote, then they should have chosen better leaders.
“Any way you look at you lose,” as the Simon and Garfunkel song goes: the public is to blame no matter what.
Such a neat and tidy argument. The problem is that it’s not true.
To begin with, this “democracy-at-work thesis” is entirely and fatally one-sided. It puts absolutely no responsibility in the hands of the leaders themselves. The leaders have nothing to do with it. For this reason alone we should suspect its validity.
This kind of illogic reminds me of the common view that a woman who is repeatedly battered by her husband is at fault for not leaving the bastard. Odd that the people who say this fail to pin the responsibility where it should be placed: how come this guy is beating her in the first place?
Beyond this problem is another one that is like a clue to a crime that lies hidden in plain sight. The public doesn’t get to choose who the nominees are. The powers that be (the two major parties’ leadership and the corporate media) decide who the “legitimate” nominees are going to be. They weed out of serious consideration any other candidates (such as Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney) by excluding them from major debates, describing them invariably as sideshows, and even eliminate those mainstream candidates deemed by the PTB as not entirely trustworthy (e.g., Howard Dean in 2004).
Once this winnowing down process has happened, any candidates who are outside of the working consensus of the existing powerbrokers are out of the running, no matter how popular their platforms are. The candidates who are left, barring elections fraud (which was enough to steal the White House for the GOP in 2000 and 2004), are then “democratically” elected by the people.
This process is like a child who is told by his/her parents that they can either have the peas or the carrots, but they must eat one of them. If the child chooses the carrots does that mean that the child is in charge of what s/he eats?
If the American people are told that they can either have John McCain and Sarah Palin or Barack Obama and Joe Biden, or else they can throw away their vote on a Third Party candidate, is this not very much like the child told by their parents that they have a choice of which vegetable to eat? Are you a peas or a carrots kind of person? Make sure you’re one of them because we can’t have any beets kind of people.
Consider what would happen if, miracle of miracles, a Third Party candidate were to win the popular vote. Consider further that this person – let’s say Ralph Nader - was allowed to assume the presidency.
Suppose, in addition, that Nader’s third party wins a majority of Congress in the same election. Imagine that Nader and his party in Congress begin to try to implement their radical program of change that a majority of Americans support, akin to the majority who have for at least a few years now wanted an immediate end to the Iraq war and the majority that wants a single-payer health insurance plan.
I have one question.
How long before an incident on the scale of 9/11 happens in which, I don’t know, President Nader is assassinated, select leaders in Congress are killed, and the military finds that it must step in by declaring martial law to save the Republic from the terrorists responsible for these heinous attacks?
What’s more likely, the election of a Third Party committed to peace and justice, or the declaration of martial law before or after such a momentous event?
There is a grain of truth in the democracy-at-work thesis: the people do have the power to change things. But the power the people have isn’t through the vote. As a button I once saw said: “If voting really made a difference they’d make it illegal.”
The power of the people lies in their actions independent of the electoral arena. It lies in their acting as an autonomous force in the public arena through collective actions in the streets: demonstrations and mass movements are the most democratic acts there are.
The Voting Rights Act of 1964 did not happen because the politicians in Washington, D.C. suddenly woke up one day in ’64 and realized that black people were being discriminated against. “You mean there’s bigotry and institutional discrimination in these here United States of America? You mean it’s been goin’ on for hundreds of years? My Lord! Why we must do something about this right away!”
The 1964 Voting Rights Act happened because black people and their allies of other races joined together to march on D.C. demanding equality or else. The “or else” here is the point. The 1964 Voting Rights Act was only passed because the level of mass struggle among black people reached such a pitch that the powers that be feared that greater upheaval and perhaps insurrection would be the result if they didn’t pass this act and other concessions.
The mass movement that produced the famous March on Washington and the 1964 Voting Rights Act was in turn sparked by the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that declared the ruling dicta of “separate but equal” (Plessey v. Ferguson) wrong. This decision created an opening into which the long-suffering and suppressed masses of black people rushed like steam escaping from a pressure cooker’s release valve.
Brown v. Board came about not because the Supreme Court Justices suddenly woke up in ’54 and said to themselves, “You know, that separate but equal idea really just covers up the reality of inequality and discrimination. It’s obviously unconstitutional.”
Brown v. Board, instead, came about at the express request of the executive branch because of the post-World War II alignment internationally.
U.S. Attorney General James P. McGranery in December of 1952 filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Brown case: “It is in the context of the present world struggle between freedom and tyranny that the problem of racial discrimination must be viewed,” the Justice Department brief said. “The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man…. The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”
Translation: We’re going to lose the Cold War to the Communists if we don’t end our overt segregation policies that consign blacks to second-class status.
Brown v. Board came about, in other words, because of revolutionary socialist gains worldwide in the course of and in the wake of World War II. The mass struggle of people in other countries that produced the 1949 Revolution in China together with the national liberation struggles in Asia, South Asia, Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East created conditions that compelled the U.S. ruling class to roll back hundreds of years of racial segregation in the U.S.
The newspaper editorials that greeted Brown v. Board made this abundantly clear. The St. Louis Dispatch, for example, stated: “The greater significance [of Brown v. Board] is the affirmation in the eyes of millions of people in India, Pakistan and Africa, in China, Japan and Burma, in Indo-China, Thailand and Indonesia that the pledge in the United States of the worth and integrity of the humblest individual means exactly what it says. Had this decision gone the other way, the loss to the free world in its struggle against Communist encroachment would have been incalculable.” And the San Francisco Chronicle opined: “Great as the impact will be on the states of the South, still greater, we believe, will be its impact in South America, Africa and Asia, to this country’s lasting honor and benefit.”
Missing from the country’s newspaper editorials and from the executive branch’s amicus curiae briefs were statements that racial segregation was per se wrong. The point of Brown was that segregation was wrong now because it would make America look bad in a world in which white supremacy and imperialist domination weren’t any longer the only games in town.
Pleading and appeals to common decency and common sense for hundreds of years didn’t bring about the Brown decision. Elections over the course of hundreds of years didn’t do this. Condescending or benevolent public officials didn’t finally extend these rights out of their largesse. These reforms/concessions came about because of mass movements and revolutions that demanded, and in the case of revolutions, effected, fundamental and structural change. The post-WW II alignment brought forth a powerful and large socialist camp: an alternative to the capitalist world. People of the world, especially the people of the Third World, now had a choice.
Power gives up nothing without struggle and grants nothing absent struggle. Appeals to reason and fairness mean nothing to power. There are no short cuts to justice. People around the world in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s dared to challenge decades and centuries of oppression, they dismissed those who counseled them that dreaming dreams of an entirely different world were unrealistic and foolhardy. They dared to go for what many said was impossible.
Do we not now need, more than ever, these kinds of dreamers and fighters?
President Barack Obama is widely seen as the culmination of the civil rights movement. This is partially true. Without the civil rights movement and black power movements of the 1960s there would be no black politicians in high office today, including in the White House.
But the belief that Obama - or any other politician, for that matter - is going to do the right thing because they promised “change” is foolishness. Belief in this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how political power is actually exercised. Even if Obama were such a genuine person, how long would he be in office if he actually did the things so many people thought (mistakenly) that he would do when they voted for him? What happened to John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X - with only one of them an actual revolutionary?
The only way that any justice can be obtained is through mass participation in mass movements that aren’t linked to electoral contests or shoehorned into some version of mass lobbying. The people must speak through mass movements. This is our one real power.
Abandoning it, forsaking it, or overlooking it would be like a boxer going into a fight and declaring that the one thing s/he won’t do is use his/her hands. It would be like Yo Yo Ma saying that “Rather than play the cello I’m going to demonstrate my prowess at checkers.” It would be like Shaquille O’Neal showing off his basketball skills by shooting free throws and never taking the ball to the hole.
What is holding people back from doing the one thing that can make a difference and doing it in sufficient numbers?
The principle problem here is not public apathy or ignorance. While there is plenty of those unfortunate characteristics present in the American populace – we lead the world in this – and while it would be much better if Americans were as inclined to taking to the streets as people of other countries are, that is not the main problem.
It is true that the American people need to grow up politically. They need to cast away the illusion that political action on their part consists of voting and nothing else. They need to see the U.S. within the context of its real role in the world as a whole.
The main problem isn’t the gullibility of the American public. The main problem is that we face an uphill struggle of enormous difficulty: we have to constitute an alternative moral authority to the existing authorities. Our existing leadership – the Democratic and Republican Parties and the corporate media – are in overall agreement on the path that they’re taking. And that path, every day makes clearer, is awful, bankrupt, and alarming.
We have to disenthrall people from following the lead of the people that they are used to taking their political cues from. As disenchanted as many people are, and increasingly so (Obama is going to disillusion more and more people as the months go on), this disenchantment doesn’t necessarily lead to good outcomes. Witness the success that the right wing is having in feeding people’s fears and mobilizing some of them around reactionary solutions.
To bring about fundamental change, to meet the terms of today’s dire challenges, does not require that a majority of the people take to the streets. Americans aren’t going turn out in the streets the way the Iranian people have. Great as that would be, we don’t need that to happen. What we do need is for a small fraction, 1%, of the people to act visibly and publicly. That 1%, or 3 million plus, need to make their sentiments known and as they do this, they will be doing two things: 1) reflecting and concentrating the majority's sentiments, and 2) altering the political atmosphere dramatically, both here and worldwide.
Imagine the impact internationally if the world’s people saw three million Americans demonstrating for an immediate end to the wars and occupations and for prosecution of the Bush regime’s torturers from Bush on down. Consider the impact this would have within the U.S.
We can’t get that 1% to act all in one fell swoop. We need to build it in stages. To get to 1% you need to in turn get a fraction of that 1% to step forward. You need to get a few people in any community to come forward and declare themselves for a different world and against the awful things being done in our names. A few individuals or even one individual in any community and in any school and in any workplace can have a profound impact on those around them, if they are proceeding on a basis that their goal is to mobilize millions and to build a mass movement. Every single individual who steps forward this way is precious and can tap forces far beyond themselves because they will be voicing the closely held sentiments of literally tens of millions of others around them who are afraid to speak up and act because they think that they are alone in their views.
Start something up in your school or neighborhood. Join up with the aptly named activist organization World Can’t Wait.
I close with a quote from I.F. Stone that I found in David Swanson’s new book, Daybreak:
“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.”
 This democracy-at-work thesis is also frequently employed to account for why media is so inadequate: the people who listen, read, or watch the media are to blame because they listen, read, or watch those shows.