Jul 25, 2014
With 2014 a mid-term election year, the Democrats are concerned that low turnout of black voters might lose them important contests. In April, President Obama addressed the convention of the National Action Network led by Al Sharpton and raised the issue of voter turnout: “The number of people who voluntarily don’t vote, who are eligible to vote, dwarfs whatever laws are put in place might do in terms of diminishing the voting roles. So we can’t treat these barriers as an excuse not to participate.”
In the United States voter turnout in elections is very low: 53 per cent in the 2012 election. That means, 110 million people of voting age did not vote in the last presidential election. And voter turnout is much lower for other elections – sometimes in single digits for local elections. Every study has shown that, overwhelmingly, it is the working class and poor that do not vote.
In this country, the United States is presented as the premier democracy in the world, with the oldest constitution, the greatest democratic traditions. So, why don’t people use those “democratic traditions”?
In reality, there are enormous legal barriers that do keep people from voting, barriers that in his condescending way, President Obama barely acknowledged.
In 2012, there were about 20 million immigrants who are voting age but could not vote. Legal and illegal immigrants work here, pay taxes and contribute to the society in myriad ways. But they are prevented from voting by state laws that are widespread throughout the country. In the past, many states trying to attract settlers allowed immigrants who were not citizens the right to vote. Today, immigrants are expected to contribute, and get little in return, including political rights.
Another six million people are disenfranchised because they are in prison, or had previously been convicted of a felony. Florida and Texas lead the pack in the number of people so excluded. The vast majority of those people have served their time and are once again “free” men and women. Given the racially discriminatory nature of the justice system – running from who is more apt to be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for committing the same crime – not to mention the racially discriminatory aspect of poverty in this society, this restriction has a highly racist aspect to it. But fundamentally, this exclusion is based on class. It is the poor who inhabit the prisons, and it is the poor whom the bourgeoisie have always acted to exclude from voting.
The very laws that Obama is in charge of enforcing exclude a total of 26 million people from voting, or well over 10 per cent of the voting age population, most often those who are the poorest and most desperate.
Millions more are prevented from voting because the voter registration rolls are so rife with errors that they are often in disarray, as studies done by the Pew Center on the States have shown. Voter registration is not a central government responsibility, and the burden of registration is placed on the voter. One consequence is that the system has had enormous problems keeping track of the 50 million Americans – as many as one in six – who change their address every year. Those who move any distance can be cut off from voting, if they haven’t lived there long enough to establish residency.
Ignoring all this, President Obama could only scold non-voters: “We can’t use cynicism as an excuse not to participate. Sometimes I hear people saying, well, we haven’t gotten everything we need – we still have poverty, we still have problems. Of course. These things didn’t happen overnight.”
No, these “problems” didn’t happen overnight. But people will wait forever for these “problems,” like poverty, to be done away with, if they follow the policies of the two parties that dominate the political system in this country, which usually are the only ones they can vote for.
The United States has been in existence for more than two centuries. It is the richest and most powerful country in the world, and it certainly does have the wealth to do away with poverty “overnight.” But that wealth is in the hands of the capitalists. And the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, along with the entire political structure that they run, serve those capitalists. They not only help safeguard that wealth for the capitalists, they work to ensure that the capitalists take even more wealth from the working masses, making the poverty and inequality worse – even as the amount of wealth the workers create continues to grow.
In other words, there is a political barrier to voting: neither of the two big parties, the only parties that the working people have to choose from, represents their interests. It should come as no surprise that a part of the population – an increasingly larger part – is cynical about these parties and, by extension, cynical about voting.
From the moment this country’s political system was established, the ruling classes have monopolized control over the government.
The United States government was set up in the wake of a revolution for independence from Great Britain. The revolution may have been led by the two parts of the ruling class, the Southern slaveholders and Northern merchants, but the actual fighting was carried out by militias made up of small farmers and mechanics.
When the slaveholders and merchants sought to solidify their power after the revolution, their competing interests made them hold back from creating a centralized power. Each fearing that the other might use the central power to become dominant, both parts were content at the beginning to leave power in the hands of the various states. But social unrest soon brought them to understand the need for a central power.
After years of fighting in the revolutionary war, the small farmers returned home only to discover that they were not benefitting from the revolution that they had made. On the contrary, their farms were buried in debt, or they had lost their farms all together – while bankers, big landowners and wealthy speculators had grown richer. Still armed, the farmers organized their own militias, marched on government offices and forced local and even some state officials to pass legislation favoring them. A number of state legislatures passed legislation, particularly concerning money and taxes, that harmed the interests of both slaveholder and merchant.
What finally forced the issue for the new ruling classes were the farmers’ rebellions. In the summer of 1786, a vast movement had sprung up among the farmers of western Massachusetts. Now known as Shays’ Rebellion, this movement began to organize its own militias to prevent the expropriation of the land of the small farmers, and to demand that the landless farm laborers be given land. When some of the farmers who led these events were threatened with court proceedings, Daniel Shays and others led an immense crowd which descended on the courthouses to prevent the trials. Ultimately Shays’ troops were put down and a number executed, but not before important parts of the Massachusetts state militia went over to the insurgents. The wealthy, who had taken over the reins of government from the British, were well frightened by the difficulty they had in putting down this insurrection.
Moreover, similar struggles broke out in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, with armed farmers marching on state legislatures. In all three of these states, farmers had begun to set up conventions to organize their own government.
General Henry Knox, a Revolutionary War general charged with putting down the Massachusetts farmers’ rebellion, afterwards writing to George Washington, described what the Massachusetts farmers wanted: “Their creed is: That the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all. And he that attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy to equity and justice and ought to be swept from the face of the earth.” He also pointed out the dangers that these American “levelers” posed for the new American ruling classes, who had not yet established a strong state apparatus: “The people who are the insurgents... feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former.”
Having used troops and public executions to put down some of these rebellions, Knox called for a strong central government with armed forces that could be sent from one state to another, and the money to pay for them. Why? In order to defend the interests of the “opulent” against the poor.
Alexander Hamilton, future secretary of the treasury, and one of the main architects of the Constitution, repeatedly made clear in his writings and speeches that the aim of the new Constitution was to strengthen the government in order to protect the privileges of the wealthy and propertied minority from the demands of the majority. He wrote, in “The Federalist Papers”: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the wellborn, the other the mass of the people.... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share of the government.”
James Madison, slave owner and future president, explained: “In all civilized countries the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors and debtors; farmers, merchants and manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction between the rich and the poor.... The proper role of government is to protect against leveling tendencies that might lead to an agrarian law.” In other words, the poor farmers’s actions led to “leveling,” and the purpose of government is to protect the rich from that.
John Jay, the first chief justice of the new Supreme Court, expressed the aim of those who met in 1787 in the most blunt fashion: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”
The means which Hamilton and Madison found to “repress domestic faction and insurrection” was a central power with the right to raise an army, establish a centrally predominant bank and have the control over the money supply. Their need to protect their wealth from “leveling” was what led the two ruling classes to set aside their differences and create this single power.
The Constitution, which established the framework of the government, aimed at preventing the small farmers and mechanics from imposing policies on the ruling classes. Jeremy Belknap, arguing for the delegates that wanted to establish a strong, centralized government, declared: “Let it stand as a principle that government originates from the people; but let the people be taught that they are not able to govern themselves.”
It was a clear statement of the Founders’ intentions. Because people were acting like they could govern themselves, the ruling class had to “teach” the people not to do it. The government “of the people” – proclaimed in all the Fourth of July speeches and civics classes – was set up to prevent “the people” from determining anything.
Whatever disagreements later developed between the representatives of the Southern slaveholders, and those of the Northern bankers, merchants and manufacturers, they found enough common ground to develop a structure which could defend the joint interests of the two ruling classes of their day. That basic structure has served the capitalist class so well, it has not been changed in a basic sense up to this day.
They set up a system that gave the appearance of representative government, while multiple barriers reinforced the stability of a regime that represented only the ruling class. The federal government was divided into three separate branches in which the officials were selected at different times and ways. The three branches were each given ways to veto, override or block the actions of the other. If one of those branches by chance went too far, the other branches could block it. The President could veto a law, or the Supreme Court could rule it “unconstitutional,” for example. Or Congress could block the appropriation of money necessary to implement a decision made by the Supreme Court or an executive action of the president.
The election of the president – the only office chosen by all the people on a national basis – shows how the Constitution barred “the people” from affecting policy. It is not the vote of “the people” that elects the president, but the Electoral College, made up of political appointees from each party. The Electoral College’s “election” usually might be a formality. But not always, as was illustrated by the election of George W. Bush for president in the 2000 election. Even though he lost the popular vote, he was anointed president by the Electoral College. This reflects the fact that not all votes are equal. For example, a vote from a heavily populated state counts less than one from a small state. In the 2000 election, each vote cast by California in the Electoral College represented 658,000 people, while each Electoral College vote cast by Wyoming represented only 175,000 people. But the fact that the Democrats did everything they could to squelch any protest in 2000 reflects the fact that this seemingly antiquated arrangement still represents the interests of the bourgeoisie, and it is why it has been kept intact for more than two centuries.
When the Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, popular sentiment against it was running so high that it looked like several states would not ratify it. So the Founders threw in the famous Bill of Rights, that is, the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution that promised to guarantee rights and liberties for the general population. The First Amendment, passed by the new Congress in 1791, provided among other things that “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But the proof that this “right” was all for show came just seven years later, when Congress, filled with many of these same “founding fathers,” passed a law that threw the First Amendment out: the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act. That law made it a crime to say or write anything publicly criticizing Congress or the president in a way which might “excite popular anger” against them. The right of Congress to pass this act abridging freedom of speech and the press was upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court and spoke volumes about how all ten of these “inalienable rights” would be thrown overboard and trampled on over the next two centuries.
The right to vote is supposed to be the hallmark of a democracy, the way that “the people” are supposed to have a voice in the government and hold officials accountable. But throughout most of the history of this country, the ruling class and its political servants have deprived big sections of the population of that right.
The Constitution left the question of who has suffrage up to the individual states to decide. And the new state governments severely restricted the right to vote, granting it only to white male property owners. Women, slaves, freed slaves, Indians, and white males without property couldn’t vote.
After the revolutionary period, farmers with property and the middle classes in the cities got it, but it was not extended to parts of the working masses until the 1820s, when the working class was first forming its own organizations. It took a second violent revolution, the Civil War – which was impelled by a mass movement of the small farmers and a revolt of the slaves – for former slaves to gain the right to vote, and along with them, the poor whites in the South. The two poor classes in the South used that vote during Reconstruction to set up popular governments. The right to vote was taken right back under the terror of the Ku Klux Klan – the armed wing of the upper classes – which ended Reconstruction. In the following years, new movements broke out, including populist movements among the small farmers in the North and South, as well as explosive strike movements in the working class. The state governments in the South further restricted the right to vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, the introduction of voter registration, white primaries, reduction of the hours of voting to daylight hours and residency requirements, which eliminated all those workers who were forced to move in search of work or because of the job they had, etc. To a lesser extent, states in the North and West restricted the vote as well.
It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the federal government, facing the black mobilization that culminated in the urban rebellions, finally did away with the most heinous legal restrictions that prevented most of the black population, as well as poor whites, from voting.
As for the half of the population that consisted of women, the right to vote was not won on a national level until 1920, that is, close to a century and a half after the Constitution was written, although, decades before, women had been granted the right to vote in many Western states as an inducement for them to settle on the frontier. Women’s fight to gain the right to vote had started before the Civil War, and continued for the better part of a century. A book written a few years after the vote was won explained what kind of legal maze the movement had to navigate: “To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaign.... During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.” (Woman Suffrage and Politics by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie R. Shuler.)
After all that, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment still did not lead to a big expansion of the vote. One very big factor was that all those women who were part of the working class confronted, and sometimes more severely, the same problems as their male counterparts in trying to register, pass literacy tests, etc. Those restrictions were only done away with another half century later.
So, it took almost two centuries to gain the simple “universal” right to vote, which, in fact, still isn’t universal.
For the working masses, the question wasn’t just the right to vote, but who to vote for. By the time any sizeable section of the working masses could vote, they faced an entrenched two-party system in which both parties represented the interests of the ruling class.
Nothing was written into the Constitution about political parties. Nothing required the evolution of what we have come to accept as ordinary, that is the existence of only two parties, both of which represent the ruling class, differing mainly in the language they speak and the popular base they try to appeal to. But the framework set up in 1787 pushed in the direction of this monolithic two-party state we have today. When the capitalist class was split between slaveholders and merchants, Democratic-Republicans represented the slaveholders and the Federalists represented the merchants. After that, the Democrats formed the party of the slaveholders and the Whigs represented the northern merchants. Since the end of the Civil War, the capitalists have been represented by the both parties, now called the Democrats and Republicans.
What the Constitution did decree is that elections be decided in a “winner take all” fashion. The candidate who obtains the most votes wins. Those who vote for the losing candidate – 49 per cent of the voters, for example – get no representation in the government. It is bizarre – and hardly a way to express “the will of the people.”
This election system is unlike the proportional representation system that exists in many countries, whereby a party that receives 20 per cent of the vote, for example, will get seats in the legislature, perhaps not the full 20 per cent, but at least some representation for all the people who voted for that party.
The winner-take-all method of deciding elections gives enormous advantages to the two big parties, both representing the ruling class. Even when a smaller party gains an important part of the votes, chances are that it will come away with nothing. This made it much more difficult for the parties representing workers or farmers that did grow up at one point or another to maintain an electoral existence.
For the last 150 years, the same two big parties, the Democrats and Republicans, have shared a monopoly at the polls, except very briefly and in a fleeting fashion during the campaigns of the Populists at the end of the 19th century and Debs and the Socialist Party at the beginning of the 20th century, and occasionally a few campaigns on the local level.
Today, the big companies contribute to both the Democrats and Republicans. They shift their money to one or the other party, depending on the circumstances. Currently, for example, the financial sector is the biggest campaign contributor, which is hardly a surprise, given its domination over the entire economy, including production. In 2012, the financial sector gave more to the Republicans, while in 2008, the financial sector gave more to the Democrats. But in both years, finance gave to both parties.
These enormous campaign contributions don’t just buy these companies “access,” as is often repeated. Money allows these companies to select and groom the politicians of their choice. When the companies bankroll their campaigns, or surround them with advisors, it’s just a small part of their cost of doing business. The “politicians of their choice” are little more than puppets.
There may be some big differences between the two parties, since they appeal to different voting bases, employ different rhetoric, mobilize different parts of the population for support, and appear to propose different policies. But all the vitriol is essentially an attempt to maintain their base. Once elected to office, the politicians of both parties fall in line. They both loyally serve the same master, the bourgeoisie, by implementing policies that serve the bourgeoisie’s interests, even if, from time to time, there are slight differences on issues that don’t touch the vital interests of the bourgeoisie.
Before assuming office, Barack Obama was presented as representing some very different policies than his very unpopular predecessor, George W. Bush. But once in office, Obama kept many important parts of Bush’s team, including Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, as well as top appointees in the federal departments. He also nominated Ben Bernanke to a second term at the Federal Reserve, after Bush had put him there in the first place. Obama continued Bush’s program: the bailouts of the banks and auto companies, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drastic cuts in social spending, the privatization of public education, corporate tax cuts, etc. Obama’s first term in office could have been Bush’s third term, their policies were so similar. Even Obama’s signature domestic program, healthcare reform, was merely a copy of what the Republican Mitt Romney had instituted in Massachusetts years earlier.
The fact that such a large part of the working population doesn’t vote for either party is, to one degree or another, a recognition of this reality – supporting the candidates of either party changes nothing essential for the working class.
The working class needs its own party to represent its own interests, including in elections. A workers party could break through the capitalists’ stranglehold over the elections and give workers a choice, a real choice, one that expresses their interests.
A working class party could use elections to expose what the capitalists are doing, how they are making the workers pay for their crisis, for their wars and military adventures, and how the capitalists try to divide and pit the workers against each other by propagating racism, prejudice and ignorance. It could also counterpose workers’ solutions to the problems in the face of the worsening crisis. Above all, it would insist on the fact that there is more than enough wealth to do away with the overwhelming problems that working people face, but that wealth has to be taken from the capitalist class, which today holds it. And it would underline the necessity for the working class to mobilize its own forces and power.
By voting for such a party, workers could be counted. The vote itself could reinforce the workers’ will to carry out a collective fight, and thus cut across the demoralization that so many feel, because they are stuck trying deal with their overwhelming problems on an individual level.
A working class party based on a program representing the workers’ interests might not have great prospects of gaining a majority of votes. But a workers party could give all those working people who don’t vote, something to vote for. And it could also attract the votes of those workers who vote for the Democrats because they “don’t want to throw their vote away,” but then feel betrayed once the Democrats are in office. It can create a situation so that millions of workers become conscious enough to say, as Eugene Debs did say a century ago: “I would rather vote for what I want and not get it, than vote for what I don't want and get it.”
For the workers really to get what they want, they are going to have to fight for it.