Outdated and undemocratic - not just the Electoral College, but the entire political system


from the New Unionist, December 2000

Outdated and Undemocratic

Not just the Electoral College, but the entire political system

Your vote won't count until its a workplace vote

The closeness of the presidential election gave the talking heads the opportunity to endlessly repeat, "See, your vote does count!" But in all their breathless excitement over this "history-making election" the media mouths neglected to report that the real election had taken place months before the November 7 vote.

The first ballots that chose Bush and Gore as the major candidates were paper ballots, but not the kind you punch or mark an "X" on. No, these were the kind that are labeled "Federal Reserve Note" and are adorned with the likenesses of past presidents.

It's these economic votes which come first and which insure that, however the political vote tally turns out, the economic voters of Corporate America win. And for yet another four years they'll enjoy all the privileges and giveaways that "big government" - chastised in campaign rhetoric but always still there after the election - has to offer.

This kind of government of, by and for a privileged oligarchy was just what Americans rebelled against in 1776. And having thrown the British out they were anxious to avoid the reappearance of any strong central government which was seen as the natural ally and tool of great wealth.

So immediately following the Revolution the United States of America was less a single unified nation than a loose association of independent states. The very name of the country's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, reflected that reality.

The revolutionary movement had been an alliance of wealthy Southern planters, big, medium and small Northern merchants, and self-employed farmers and craftsmen North and South. They had a common goal of independence, but once independence was won their unity was no longer essential and their conflicting economic interests came to the fore.

The wealthy planters and merchants feared that if the new government were too democratic the men of small property would seize control of the political powers and use them to redistribute the wealth. The small farmers and artisans in turn feared that without democratic safeguards the rich would monopolize government and use it to fleece them.

Some of the educated members of the big-property class thought the solution was to have a government of wealthy educated men who, because of their economic independence, could stand above the conflict of private interests and rule for the common good. They would be guided by calm reason and republican "virtue," and prevent the acquisitive passions of both rich and poor from corrupting the common good.

It was a congenial theory. But in an economic and social system that was to be dedicated to private gain it quickly went out the window. In its place stepped another, newer theory expounded by Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations coincidentally was published in 1776. This theory held the very opposite, that the common good was best served when individuals were free to pursue their private interests without government interference.

The Revolutionary War had been largely financed with borrowed money. The well-to-do lenders wanted the new government to repay their loans, with interest. But this meant the government would have to tax its independent minded citizens, a delicate point as British taxation was one of the instigators of the Revolution.

While the government was in hock to private financiers, most farmers were in hock to city merchants. They wondered just what independence had accomplished for them if they were still slaves to debt.

The new American nation inherited the voting rules of England and the colonies, where only those white males owning a required amount of property could vote. While this seemed reasonable enough to large property owners who believed "those who own the country should govern it," the Revolution had unleashed the democratic spirit throughout the lower orders of society. The states determined their own voting rules, and under mass pressure they proceeded to lower the property requirements for voting. Subsequently, they did away entirely with such property requirements, allowing all adult white males to vote.

With this newly acquired political power the debt-ridden small farmers could influence state legislation. By 1789 bills were being debated in state legislatures for cancelling debts and other relief measures for debtors.

Needless to say this didn't sit well with the merchants and other creditors, who saw government-ordered debt relief as unlawful confiscation of their property. Farmers were also in open rebellion against taxation, the money that needed to be raised to repay the government's creditors. Class conflict threatened to tear the country apart and potentially weaken it to the point where it could be reconquered by England or other European powers.

In response, top political leaders from the states, acting pretty much on their own authority, met in Philadelphia to craft a new national constitution to overcome the proven inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation. They felt compelled to act not only to contain a democracy that seemed to threaten social stability, but also to head off some of the upper class who were talking about establishing a monarchy to ensure stability and the protection of property.

Several decades before Karl Marx was born James Madison explained politics as a clash of "factions," competing economic groups. The manufacturing interest, the farming interest, the merchant interest, the financial money-lending interest - all contended for government office and the use of the public powers of the state to further their private interests. Then there was the as yet small but potentially large faction that owned no property and that might be tempted to use democracy to get some by taking it from the owning factions.

So the trick facing the Founders was to devise a new constitution of the government of the United States that would be complex enough to prevent domination by any single faction, yet efficient and powerful enough to ensure public safety and the equal protection of all forms of property - including, with tragic and deadly consequences, property in human slaves.

History has rightly judged that they accomplished their task in brilliant fashion. The Constitution created the governing framework for a unified nation of conflicting interests, one elected by the people and without a king, yet in which self-interest and competitive capitalism could thrive. And, as history would show, thrive it did. But first they had to sell the scheme to the people and the individual states.

Even before offering it to the states for ratification they changed the original Constitution by adding ten amendments which prevented the government from infringing on the people's basic rights. What became known as the Bill of Rights - free speech, freedom of assembly and petition, protection against arbitrary search and seizure, etc. - was included in the basic law of the land to reassure the people that the new Constitution, while tightening things up a bit in such areas as contracts, would actually protect rather than threaten their liberties.

Then there was the Electoral College. In addition to wanting to place a buffer between what they feared were the easily manipulated passions of the people and the election of the top executive officer, the Founders wanted to assure those states with smaller populations that they could still have an impact on the presidential election. Several small states voting together in the Electoral College could offset the elec-toral votes of a few big states, which wouldn't be possible by merely adding up the split popular votes in each state.

Under the Constitution the conflicting economic interests could deal and compromise with each other, settle their differences peacefully in the courts and remain united in the growing nation. For while they had their differences, they shared, as property-owning groups, a common commitment to the principle of private property.

But one difference did prove to be irreconcilable, because one form of property came to be seen as illegitimate - slaves.

Many of the Founders were slaveowners themselves, but even they were discomforted by the contradiction of its continued existence in a nation founded on the principle that "all men are created equal." But in 1789 they saw no way of eliminating it without wrecking the Southern economy, and their personal fortunes along with it.

So the Constitution protected slave property too, without ever using the embarrassing words "slave" or "slavery." And the Founders consoled themselves with the belief that slavery would eventually die out on its own in the South as it already had in the North.

But rather than shrink, the slave economy dedicated to producing cotton for Britain's textile mills exploded. As cotton cultivation wore out the soil of the old South the plantation owners looked to the newly acquired territories of the West to move into.

While doing their best to smooth over the rough edges slavery gave to the new republic, the Founders worried too what the implications were for democracy should a landless and capital-less class develop in America as it had in Europe. They concluded on the basis of what they saw happening in Europe that it wasn't good.

They believed that a successful self-government, free of aristocracy and monarchy, depended on a widespread, if not equal, distribution of the land and other capital. If the government couldn't nor shouldn't guarantee land for every citizen, it could and should guarantee that every free person had the opportunity to acquire it through his own effort.

America had the chance to do this, they thought, because a whole continent spread west for the taking. By continually acquiring new lands America could provide a growing population the opportunity for ownership and prevent the growth of a large urban proletariat which, the Founders believed, would have no stake in and thus no allegiance to the nation and its property-protecting institutions.

So westward expansion became America's "destiny" from the start. The credo, however, implied a state of perpetual warfare with the native tribes, at least until they were completely vanquished and all their lands forcibly expropriated. The task fell to the newly reconstituted federal government to carry out - a military establishment had to be organized and maintained not only for defense, but for conquest.

While North and South agreed America's destiny was to rule the continent, the North saw the new lands as farms for free white settlers, while the South envisioned new cotton plantations worked by black slaves. For the North "liberty" meant the equal opportunity for every (white male) individual to improve his condition through his own effort. For the South it meant the freedom of every white male individual to improve his condition through other people's effort.

It was a clash of two mutually-exclusive economic systems and social philosophies, though it wasn't until civil war had actually broken out that it was generally recognized as such. Right up to the brink of the Civil War political compromises were still being patched together on the basis of the Constitution, as they had been repeatedly since the Constitution was first adopted. But economic developments had by then thoroughly outgrown the political institutions they had been nurtured under, and new institutions had to be forged to fit the new economic reality.

The North's victory in the Civil War forcibly terminated the slave economy, but it wasn't necessary to scrap the Constitution and start all over from scratch. It wasn't the general principle of private property that was overturned by the Civil War, only the principle that some people could be the private property of other people.

So the basic Constitution could continue, with new amendments added, the 13th, 14th and 15th, which prohibited "involuntary servitude" and, at least in theory, protected the political rights of every citizen, with equal protection under the law.

In the South these new provisions had to be enforced by military occupation against the intransigence of the former slaveholders and their poor- white dupes. In fact, it was only the presence of Northern troops that protected the black freedmen from the murderous violence and vengeance of the whites.

Then came the election of 1876, when the popular and electoral vote to- tals produced different winners. Then, as in the election of 2000, uncertainty, delays and lawsuits ruled, until a bargain was struck in Congress whereby the South supported the Republican Hayes for president in exchange for the re-moval of the federal troops. White supremacy with all its viciousness returned to the South for another 100 years, until finally uprooted by the civil rights movement and the belated revival of federal enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments.

The benighted South aside, the West was quickly filled up with ambitious and hardworking settlers from the East, spurred along by the Homestead Act of 1863 which effectively gave federal lands to anyone who'd go West and settle them.

Up to this point the Founders' hopes that western expansion would stave off the development of a permanent urban proletariat were fulfilled.

Yet in the years following the adoption of the Constitution few of them were pleased by what they saw. Rather than the genteel republic guided by educated men of established property and virtue they thought they had created, America had become a raucous, freewheeling democracy where men could rise and fall whatever their family backround, education or moral qualities. And with white male suffrage becoming universal, the traditional governing class was unceremoniously swept aside in favor of a new species of professional politician, smooth talking sharpies who could arise from any rank of society - and did.

These developments meant that the top property owners no longer ran the government themselves as a matter of course. The elected politicians, and the permanently organized political parties that got them elected, became the intermediaries between property and political power, and the owners soon discovered that the new bosses expected to be generously compensated for their legislative favors.

Thus the payoff, rather than an aberration in an otherwise pristine system, became an inherent and permanent feature of American democracy: politics and corruption became one and the same.

So while voting and access to political office were democratized, the ironic result was that the relatively small number of big property owners gained political influence while the majority of small owners lost influence. Government became a "you-get-what-you-pay-for" operation, and as the big boys could pay more, they got more.

This political fact of life became highly relevant in the latter decades of the 19th century when, due to the unfortunate presence of the Pacific Ocean, the safety valve of the Western frontier ran out. Indebted farmers and bankrupt small businessmen could no longer just head West and acquire a new stake on the frontier (evading their creditors in the process). Now if you lost out in the competitive scramble of the free market and had no property off of which to earn an independent living, there was usually no alternative but to go to work for someone else who did still have his own business.

With millions of the self-employed middle class facing bankruptcy and descent into the propertyless working class, they looked to their elected representatives for salvation. But they discovered that their illustrous legislators had already been bought by the same banking, merchant and railroad interests which were responsible for squeezing the farmers and other small businessmen out of business. New parties dedicated to saving small-business agrarianism from the onslaught of industrial capitalism, most notably the People's Party of the 1890s, sprouted up, only to quickly fail and fall apart.

The political democracy of the Constitution proved no match for the forces of economic development. In fact, the courts' interpretations of the Constitution upheld the inviolability of property rights and contracts and prohibited government from encroaching on the right of corporations to amass huge concentrations of property at the expense of small owners.

With the end of the frontier came the end of the American Dream for most citizens. As small businesses were swallowed up by the big corporations, more and more of the population became wage earners instead of business owners.

Today, of course, the process is complete. 90% of the people work for employers; business property is concentrated in the hands of the top 1%.

America remains a formal democracy, with elections and all the open discussion and debate of social issues that accompany the political process. Yet public dissatisfaction with the political system is widespread.

Still, defying the fears of the Founders that a large class of propertyless "servants" would have no loyalty to the nation's institutions, Americans remain committed to democratic ideals. They are not unhappy with democracy but are befuddled and frustrated by their repeated experience of believing they are voting for one thing and then getting something else. Problems are talked about incessantly by the politicians and the media mouthpieces, yet nothing gets done about them.

The reason is that once again political democracy is unable to deflect the path of economic development. Big business requires certain things for its operational success, and the capitalist economy depends on business profitability for its continued operation - the ongoing production and distribution of goods and services and the employment of its people. Government, regardless of who is elected to run it, must accommodate business or risk economic collapse.

So regardless what promises politicians make to the voters at election time, once in office they are constrained by the profit needs of the economic system, and by the watchful eyes of the corporate interests that paid for their campaigns - and by the property-protecting provisions of the Constitution - from taking any action that violates those needs, interests or laws. The people may have thought they were voting for environmental protection, safe consumer products, job security and other socially-beneficial measures, but if these measures are seen to threaten the profitability of business, they're not going to happen.

The fundamental problem is then not with the political system but the economic system. Where 200 years ago private property promoted democracy because it was widely held, today it undermines democracy because it is monopolized by a few. It is this economic inequality that makes a sham of political equality. Your vote doesn't count the same as the "votes" deposited in the Democratic and Republican campaign coffers by Exxon, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Intel.

While "campaign finance reform" is constantly talked about (while nothing is done about it), there is no discussion whatsoever on why a few people should own and control all the wealth produced by the labor of the working population in the first place. Questioning property rights is the one issue strictly off-limits to Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and "60 Minutes."

Yet, if democracy is going to have any real meaning for people it is precisely this question that needs to be asked and answered. The Founders of the American nation didn't think it was possible to have democracy if property was concentrated in the hands of the few. Why is it any different today? In 1789 most people voted from where they worked because for most people their home and workplace were the same place. As they owned their own workplace and tools of their work, they enjoyed economic independence. As owners they were the political equals of everyone else, even if some were richer than others. Their opinions and votes counted in the making of national policy and government decisions.

To revive this spirit and practice of American democracy we need to regain our economic independence. In the context of today's complex and interrelated industrial economy that means making the industrial resources the property of all the people. Not as individual property owners, but as a democratic community of workers who manage their own work and vote for their government representatives - workers like themselves - from the workplaces.

This is the new Constitution to replace the old one that has outlived its usefulness.

This is The Next American Revolution.