The ultimate battle ahead – transcending while affecting struggles over race, inequality, climate crisis and war – will be between democracy and secrecy.
Most of our elites eventually have accepted democracy, in many cases reluctantly, in the form of voting rights, elections, jury trials, independent media, regulatory bodies, etc. – all the fruits of popular movements from 1776 until the present day.
But they are haunted increasingly by the specter of a “majority faction” as warned against in John Madison’s Federalist Paper 10. His friend John Adams gave a vivid description of this dangerous faction when serving as a lawyer for the British charged with killing patriots in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Madison called the accused patriots “a motley rabble” consisting of “saucy boys” (drunks), Negroes, Mulattos, Irish Taigs (Catholics) and “outlandish Jack Tarrs” (mutinous American sailors). This “many-headed Hydra,” as it was described, was an emerging majority of patriots who were to be channeled against British colonialism but contained in the limited democracy that followed.
Today, 250 long years later, that “motley rabble” appears again and again in protests like Occupy Wall Street, and has materialized politically as the rank-and-file of a permanent new multi-racial, multi-cultural American majority.
They are the base of the Obama majority and more. When united, they are the progressive anchor of American politics, with aspirations and demands beyond those that are presently acceptable to the political, corporate and military establishments, especially the elites of the Republican Party. The new majority wants the wars ended, the rich taxed, and global warming reversed, to take three examples.
In the words of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, the danger to the powerful is “an excess of democracy,” which spilled out in the streets in the 1960s and now threatens to spill out in ballot boxes.
Lest the multicultural appearance of the Obama administration, the Democratic Party and the span of television talk show hosts deceive us, it is important to remember the degree of ultimate elite control 250 years after the Revolution. Ninety-five percent of the cultural apparatus, as represented by the Academy of Motion Pictures are white men over 62 years old. Ninety-five percent of the CEOs of corporate America are white males as well. Blacks comprise 1.2 percent of CEOs, Asian-Americans 1.4 percent, Latinos 3 percent, and women are 4 percent of those CEOs.
Is it any wonder that equality and income distribution are widening in a time when women and minorities have so little institutional power? It will take more than Sheryl Sandberg’s coaching techniques to redistribute so much power in our lifetimes.
And, as we know from experience, the elites sometimes respond positively, but only gradually, when some of them decide that reform is preferable to revolution or chaos. The hard-core conservatives turn into phenomena like the Tea Party, or worse, into violent counter-movements. After a period of dangerous strife, the center usually reconstitutes and holds its ground. Labor unions are recognized, segregation is lifted, environmental impact statements are required, gay athletes gradually dribble out of the closet, and so it goes, far better than the past, but leaving any rational person with frustration about the pace of change and a sense of foreboding about the future.
In the current setting, the fear of the “majority faction” is driving most of the elites to greater secrecy and to any measures, however illegal or immoral, they believe necessary to retain their power.
- The CIA is back in the business of overthrowing governments and funneling cash to its allies, just like Iran and Guatemala back in the early 1950s. The CIA runs the drone war. The CIA directs an army of mercenaries in Pakistan. The CIA bundles “ghost money” to Karzai. And so on.
- Wall Street lobbyists defend trillions in overseas derivatives against the reach of regulatory reformers.
- Special interests fight to keep their “dark money” campaign contributions a secret during elections, even after the right-wing Supreme Court ruled those donations must be disclosed. The Citizens United ruling was not enough for the banks and corporations; they did not want the voters or reporters to know what they were trying to buy.
Democracy is being hollowed out. The vultures are circling above.
Voter suppression laws are being passed in many states. Identification requirements and new forms of poll taxes are imposed on the “motley rabble.” Where those measures fail, long lines are made to form at voter booths in freezing weather. Students find it harder to vote in swing states. Gerrymandering of congressional districts is designed to increase Republican strength in the already undemocratic Electoral College. The filibuster prevents majority rule from prevailing in the US Senate. Who can keep up with, much less deter, all the daggers hurled against democracy?
Many in the elite have decided in the face of the new majority that they cannot win fair elections, only steal or buy them. They count on the “motley rabble” becoming divided, demoralized and too depressed to turn out. They hope to win elections and preserve their power by driving down the turnout of voters.
They are planning to obstruct everything Barack Obama tries to accomplish between now and 2014, defeat him in congressional elections that favor low turnout, and then take back the White House in 2016.
By definition, we who are the “motley rabble” – or, if one prefers, the representatives of social movements – are fragmented and disunified. Some of this is due to our rich diversity, some to narrow strategies, some to sectarianism, some to pure ego rivalries – not to mention carefully designed “divide and conquer” tactics by the domestic agents of disorder. Perhaps the most common divisions among the progressive majority have to do with working “inside” or “outside” the system of electoral politics. While this debate is worthwhile and of necessity long-winded, there should be one principle beyond debate. Protecting and expanding the democratic system, including voting, is absolutely essential to mobilizing around issues of every kind. Even people who do not believe in voting themselves should understand the importance of voting to the preservation of their purity. The fight for basic democracy, on many fronts, should be considered the unifying strand of everyone aspiring to a better world.
1. Cooper, Michael, and Griff Palmer. “How Maps Kept Party Keep Edge in House,” New York Times (find date). Democrats won 1.1 million more votes for Congress than Republicans in 2012, but thanks to gerrymandering Republicans maintained control of the House. A Republican training session included a PowerPoint slide that said “keep it secret, keep it safe.”
2. Tomasky, Michael. “Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation,” New York Review of Books, February 7, which says Democrats outpolled Republicans by 500,000 votes but Republicans won 54% of the seats by drawing the lines.
3. “The Great Gerrymander of 2012,” New York Times, February 3, 2013. “Gerrymandering is a major form of disenfranchisement…Politicians, especially Republicans facing demographic and ideological challenges, use redistricting to cling to power."
4. “Smaller States Find Outsize Clout Growing in Senate,” New York Times, March 10, 2013. Political scientists say, “the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.” In the recent financial crisis, small states, including those with only one House member, “have made out like bandits” in terms of federal assistance. Eight states and the District of Columbia propose to allocate their 132 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. They need states with another 138 electoral votes. Two-thirds of the public favors the presidency going to the winner of the popular vote, including 61% of Republicans.
5. “Waiting Times at Ballot Boxes Draw Scrutiny,” New York Times, February 5, 2013. The average length of time for waiting to vote in 2012 was 12.7 minutes for Hispanics and Blacks compared to only 12.7 percent for whites. The times lengthen depending on weather and availability of ballot boxes. In Florida, the time period for early voting was shortened by Republican officials from 14 to eight days. Those Florida waiting times cost Obama 15,000 votes, according to one expert; he carried the state by 74,000 votes.