Life under capitalism: Early deaths a ‘silver lining’ for corporations

Participating in Monday evening’s demonstration at the Trump Tower in Manhattan, I couldn’t help thinking of the connections between a Bloomberg article proclaiming that people dying earlier contains a “silver lining” because corporations will save pension costs and the ongoing savagery of the Trump administration.

Not simply the naked symbiosis between the Trump administration and white supremacists, neo-Nazis and assorted far-right cranks — all too sadly on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend — but the alliance of corporate titans, Republican Party leaders and President Trump himself. The rush by even conservative congressional Republicans to condemn the tweeter-in-chief for his refusal to condemn his so-called “alt-right” allies for two days should not distract us from the Trump administration’s all-out assault on regulations, civil rights laws, health care and the environment. (Let’s please retire the useless term “alt-right” and call them what they are: white supremacists, fascists and fascist wannabes.)

The health care system of the United States is already by far the world’s most expensive while delivering among the worst results. So of course the solution to this, in Republican eyes, is to make it worse. That effort has, so far, failed, thanks to massive grassroots activism. But plenty else is being rammed through under the radar through executive decrees — which is why we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Congress to impeach President Trump. He’s much too useful to Republicans and corporate executives. Should that change, of course, all bets are off, but short a Democratic tidal wave in 2018 Republican members of Congress turning on the president anytime soon isn’t likely.

On the march against Trump in New York City August 14 (photo by Mark Apollo/Hashtag Occupy Media)

So what does this have to do with an article published by Bloomberg? The headline on this particular article says it all: “Americans Are Dying Younger, Saving Corporations Billions,” complete with a subhead declaring “lower pension costs” a “silver lining.” As not only a proud member of the corporate media, but one specializing in delivering news to financiers and industrialists, extolling a benefit to corporate bottom lines and ignoring the, ahem, human cost of said benefit is only to be expected. The article is not at all atypical of the business press, even if this one is a little more obvious than usual.

But, as a friend who is an activist with a Marxist party but who once ran a chemical industry consultancy by day (if only his clients knew his politics!) once taught me, the business section is where they hide the news. So the point here isn’t the attitude of Bloomberg toward working people (no more hostile and sometimes less so than your average business publication) but the attitude of corporate titans toward employees. The article states:

“In 2015, the American death rate—the age-adjusted share of Americans dying—rose slightly for the first time since 1999. And over the last two years, at least 12 large companies, from Verizon to General Motors, have said recent slips in mortality improvement have led them to reduce their estimates for how much they could owe retirees by upward of a combined $9.7 billion, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company filings.”

Austerity costs human lives

Gains in U.S. death rates had been improving until 2009, Bloomberg reports, citing a Society of Actuaries analysis, but those rates then flattened before reversing in 2015. This isn’t necessarily unique to the U.S. — the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in the United Kingdom last month reported that U.S., Canadian and British seniors have ceased seeing longevity improvements, suggesting the impact of austerity since the 2008 economic collapse is a primary culprit. The Actuaries report said:

“The rising mortality rates among US working age demonstrates that the historical fall in mortality rates cannot be taken for granted. The pace of life expectancy gains of older ages has slowed down, with some age groups showing signs of increasing death rates. These signs should be taken as warnings that worsened health care, behaviour and environment can reverse decades of success in health and longevity. Actuaries need to have a better understanding of the drivers of longevity to consider how to incorporate recent experience into forecasts of future longevity.”

As welcome as a new quantification of the toll of austerity is, such a notion is far from new, nor is it simply the latest variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, that is at work here. The increased deprivation of capitalism caused a half-million U.S. deaths from 1999 to 2015. Specifically, nearly half a million excess deaths have occurred since 1999 among middle-aged White non-Hispanic United Statesians, according to a paper published in 2015 by two Princeton University researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

A shuttered hospital (photo by Jim Henderson)

From 1978 to 1998, the mortality rate for U.S. Whites aged 45 to 54 fell by 2 percent per year on average, matching the average rate of decline in five comparison countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany). But although, from 1999, other industrial countries continued to see a decline in mortality rates for the middle-aged, the U.S. White non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year, an increase that is unique, Drs. Case and Deaton reported. African-American death rates have not similarly risen although remain considerably higher than those for Whites.

The authors do not speculate on the reason for White deaths to increase in contrast to the trend of minority groups, but we might reasonably conclude that People of Color have had deprivation and economic difficulty imposed on them in greater numbers and more intensely, and thus are experiencing less of a change in historic circumstances than are Whites. The economic downturn that the world has lived through since 2008 certainly hasn’t bypassed People of Color — far from it — but the decline has not spared Whites, a group not as hardened to lower living standards thanks to their privileges.

Privatization costs human lives

Privatization and intensified reliance on “the market” has already been demonstrated to worsen health outcomes. A 2009 study published by The Lancet concluded that the mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc resulted in one million deaths. Mass privatization caused the average number of deaths to increase by 13 percent from the 1992 onset of shock therapy. An Oxford University press release summarized these findings:

“David Stuckler, from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, said: ‘Our study helps explain the striking differences in mortality in the post-communist world. Countries which pursued rapid privatisation, or ‘shock therapy’, had much greater rises in deaths than countries which followed a more gradual path. Not only did rapid privatisation lead to mass unemployment but also wiped out the social safety nets, which were critical for helping people survive during this turbulent period.’ ”

During Soviet times, we were assured by Western commentators that high levels of alcoholism were a sign of despair in Russia, yet alcohol per-capita consumption rates in 2007 were three times that of 1990.

When a health care system is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care — and this is precisely what privatized health systems do — such are the results. Throwing more than 20 million people off the roles of health insurance, as all Republican Party plans would have done, could only have exacerbated poor health outcomes. But doing so is consistent with Republican plans to shred what remains of the U.S. social safety net, sure to lead to further early deaths. As the more reliable instruments of the will of corporate plutocrats (Democrats having to sometimes make concessions to their voting base), Republicans see Donald Trump in the White House as a gift.

The purported disapproval enunciated by the likes of Senator Jeff Flake are a sad joke — the Arizona Republican has reliably voted for all Trump appointees and legislation. What really “embarrasses” members of Congress are the president’s vulgarity and ham-fisted obviousness. He simply refuses to use code words that way that ordinary Republicans have learned to do. Stop being so obvious! But in reality President Trump is the logical product of 37 years of Republican pandering — half a century if we go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.”

We can certainly argue over what constitutes fascism, and whether President Trump is properly called a fascist or that he is simply a Republican who is more willing to show the fist behind capitalist rule albeit someone who carries the seeds for a potential fascist movement. The latter is more than scary enough. But as the casual talk of a “silver lining” for shortened life spans illustrates, human life is expendable in the pursuit of profits under capitalism. And as long as the Trump administration is useful to this pursuit, occasional protests from corporate executives will remain no more than hollow gestures.

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Koch brothers take aim at Republican ‘moderation’ and the Constitution

The Republican Party isn’t extreme enough. So say the Koch brothers, who are threatening to withhold the $400 million they have promised to inject into the 2018 electoral cycle.

Members of the U.S. Congress have received their marching orders: Repeal the Affordable Care Act (in other words, replace “Obamacare” with “Trumpcare”) and lavish billionaires with massive tax cuts. A June “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network,”  The Guardian reported.

The Koch brothers are on record as committing up to $400 million on the next midterm elections, but such largesse is not without strings. The Guardian quoted the head of the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, as frustrated at the delays in extremist legislation getting through Congress. “There is urgency,” Phillips said. “We believe we have a window of about 12 months to get as much of it accomplished as possible before the 2018 elections grind policy to a halt.”

A Louisiana bayou devastated by a nearby natural gas operation (photo by John Messina for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

As an example of what is expected to be done, one wealthy donor told the gathering that his “Dallas piggy bank” is closed for now. “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed. Get it done and we’ll open it back up,” he told The Guardian, adding that he has encouraged other wealthy donors to similarly withhold money until they get what they expect.

There really isn’t anything new here, other than it is unusual for any window to be opened into the secretive workings of Charles and David Koch’s networks. Their massive spending to buy Congress and state legislatures (they budgeted $900 million for the 2016 elections), their widespread funding of global-warming denialism, their willingness to destroy the environment in pursuit of endless profits, and their relentless focus on privatizing public assets are well known. Their Americans for Prosperity outfit was also a crucial funder for the corporate-sponsored Tea Party movement. Perhaps less known is that they are bankrolling an attempt to re-write the U.S. Constitution.

Amending the Constitution to suit themselves

There are two separate pushes for a constitutional convention. In a Truthout report, Alex Kotch writes:

“One would attempt to engineer a convention for a balanced budget amendment only, and the other tries to secure an open convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. But once a convention is underway, all bets are off. The convention can write its own rules, resulting in a wide-open or ‘runaway’ convention that can make major changes to the constitution and, some argue, even change the number of states required to ratify those changes.”

Under U.S. law, if the legislatures of 34 states (two-thirds of the states) call for a constitutional convention, Congress is required to convene one. The balanced-budget resolution has been passed by 29 states, Truthout reports. Once a convention is convened, it can write its own proposals, including changing the number of states required to pass a constitutional amendment to make it easier for extreme corporate wish lists to be converted into permanent law. But even if only a balanced-budget amendment were to become part of the U.S. Constitution, such an amendment would enshrine harsher austerity with little or no recourse.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts this plain:

“By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would raise serious risks of tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses. That’s because the amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both just when the economy is weak or already in recession. … [T]he amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both. That would launch a vicious spiral of bad economic and fiscal policy: a weaker economy would lead to higher deficits, which would force policymakers to cut spending or raise taxes more, which would weaken the economy further.”

A detailed analysis by Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that, had a balanced-budget amendment been in place at the time of the 2008 economic crash, there would have been an additional 11 million people unemployed in 2012 and gross domestic product would have declined 12 percent that year. Because of the decline in tax revenue this would cause, an additional $500 billion would have been added to that year’s deficit, and coupled with the cuts in spending that would have mandated by such an amendment, U.S. government discretionary spending would have been reduced to zero. As in literally nothing.

The Koch brothers and their billionaire confederates would be doing just fine, however, and that’s all that matters. A web of Koch-funded organizations are funding and promoting these pushes for a constitutional convention.

Clean air and water? Who needs them?

Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. Thus it comes as no surprise that Charles and David Koch, who operate the company, are also active funders of global-warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. They own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Koch brothers stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

The Koch brothers are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that writes legislation to benefit its corporate membership that is frequently passed by state legislators verbatim; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

Not content with control of Congress and state legislatures, David Koch donated $300,000 to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and Pence has dutifully denied global warming. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

As I have noted before, this is a lament that the Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal!

National parks in the cross hairs

The Koch brothers’ extreme hostility to anything public — that is, anything that is not being exploited for corporate plunder — has gone so far as to oppose national parks. Unfortunately, this is not a joke. A Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for selling off other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. Oil rigs and fracking operations instead of natural scenery for all to enjoy because it would be more profitable in the short term. This mindset has reached the highest level of government as exemplified by the Trump administration’s intentions to open federal lands to mining and oil extraction at fire-sale prices without oversight, or to sell them.

It’s not as if the Koch brothers don’t know where their next billion is coming from. Combined, the two are worth about $97 billion. Each is one of the nine richest people on Earth, and together the two possess more wealth than the world’s richest person, Bill Gates. They were worth $32 billion in 2009 — nearly tripling their fortune since the first year of the Obama administration.

This is all the product of libertarianism, a a philosophy of might makes right. A belief in complete freedom of commerce, of minimal government involvement in the economy or social affairs, is nothing less than allowing the “market” to determine economic and social outcomes. The logical outcome of this is no more minimum wage, no more Social Security, no more laws against discrimination in the workplace, no more safety rules, no more consumer-protection laws, no more environmental protection. This indeed is what libertarians preach, including the Koch brothers and Ron Paul.

Who is this individualistic “freedom” for? It is “freedom” for industrialists and financiers to rule over, control and exploit others. “Justice” becomes the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

On an even playing field, the brutality of the programs put forth by the Koch brothers and their fellow libertarian billionaires wouldn’t pass the laugh test. But when you have hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around every two years, and an interlocking maze of organizations and “think tanks” to promote your self-serving agenda, you have the ability to make the most obscene ideas “mainstream.” On what basis should such one-sided power relations be considered democratic?

Pence as president could be worse than Trump

The thought of Donald Trump’s monstrous ego being swiftly turned out of office because of his incompetence and corruption can’t help but give us a warm feeling of schadenfreude. Yet contemplating his possible impeachment gives full meaning to the idea of being careful of what you wish.

The complicating factor here is that an impeachment and removal from office would elevate Christian fundamentalist Mike Pence to the presidency. That would be truly a horrifying development. Not only because Vice President Pence is more of a “true believer” in the extreme Right agenda than is President Trump but as an experienced legislator and governor, he’d likely be far more effective in steering bills through Congress.

With some of the most ideological Republicans in control of all three branches of government, and given that the Democratic Party has shown no sign whatsoever of learning from last year’s electoral debacle, hoping for relief from traditional politics seems even more hopeless than it is ordinarily. What to do? Even the ongoing campaign to “Refuse Fascism” by “driving out the Trump/Pence regime” has a controversial element to it. Although appropriately aimed at both while targeting the system that could elevate such horrors to the apex of political power, this sort of campaign spreads confusion by equating what is a particularly nasty manifestation of capitalist formal democracy with full fascism.

The Indiana Toll Road (photo by Georgi Banchev)

Let’s step back for a moment and remember a bit of history. In the last years of Weimar Germany, the Communist Party of Germany maintained a rigid sectarian line that focused its attacks not on the Nazis, but at Social Democracy. The Social Democrats were scorned as “social fascists,” and the coalition governments of Social Democrats and its moderate Right allies denounced as “objectively fascist” already. Instead of a united front against the Nazis, the only strategy that could have defeated Hitler before Hindenburg appointed him chancellor, energy was dissipated in sectarian sniping.

When the Nazis took power, they wasted no time rounding up Communists and Social Democrats, sending them to the first concentration camps. Of course, it was the Social Democrats who paved the road for the Nazis through their continual reliance on the right-wing death squads known as the “Free Corps” who would later became the seeds for Hitler’s storm troops.

The difference between a miserable, politically bankrupt bourgeois government and a fascist government was hammered home the hard way. Let us not make the same mistake now. Donald Trump’s ascension carries the seeds of a potential fascist movement but it is not actually fascist; thus far it is a conventional Republican administration in its policies, albeit one more extreme and incompetent than even the Bush II/Cheney administration. That is more than enough reason to organize with urgency, going beyond demonstrations to building organized movements. But if both Trump and Pence were removed from office before their terms were up, then House Speaker Paul Ryan would take office. Hardly an improvement!

The bar is mighty low indeed when Speaker Ryan, capable of little more than robotically repeating the lines he’s been fed by the Koch brothers, can, with a straight face by corporate-media commentators, be considered an “intellectual.” As the Green Party activist Paul Gilman jokes, “Ryan is considered an intellectual by Republicans because he’s read both of Ayn Rand’s novels.”

None of the foregoing in any way is an attempt to discourage the work of Refuse Fascism, or anybody else organizing against the Trump administration. We need more of this kind of work — especially work that targets capitalism instead of focusing on personalities. For our ability to limit the damage from the White House and its congressional enablers will depend on the intensity and effectiveness of our organizing.

A general in the Republican war on women

Circling back to Vice President Pence, it would be nearly impossible to overstate his extremism. In public speeches, he has said he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” Like many evangelical Christians, he believes he has a right to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else, and as Indiana governor passed a law intended to do that. As a Daily Kos report put it:

“He has repeatedly claimed that he should make policies and pass laws that are in accordance with his faith. The evangelical church Mike Pence has been attending teaches that marriage is only between one man and one woman. The wife must be submissive to her husband. All women are expected to submit humbly to the teachings of Christian men.”

The church he attended in Indianapolis openly calls for a theocratic state, believing the Bible should be taken literally:

“We believe the Bible to be the verbally inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts and the sufficient and final authority for all matters of faith, practice, and life.”

And this church asserts that not only should women be “deferential” to men and be “guided” toward marriage and away from a career, but that this applies to all women, whether or not church members. The Daily Kos article notes that a foundational book used by the church

“does not distinguish between conduct expected from women in voluntary marriages and unrelated women who may be members of another faith. This book teaches that preferences of women from different faiths (or no faith) are simply wrong and need to be corrected by the older women.”

And thus it is no surprise Vice President Pence would so distinguish himself for his crusades against women. As a member of Congress, he led fights to defund Planned Parenthood. Upon becoming Indiana governor, he cut Planned Parenthood funding by more than half and cut funding for domestic-violence programs. The slashing of funding for Planned Parenthood forced five non-abortion clinics that provided testing for sexually transmitted diseases to close, leading to an increase in HIV infections so severe that federal intervention was required. As the health crisis began to spiral out of control, local public health officials suggested using a needle exchange and harm-reduction program to combat it, but Pence refused, allowing the crisis to worsen.

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

As member of Congress, he co-sponsored a bill allowing hospitals to turn away women in need of life-saving abortions, and another bill that would have designated fertilized eggs as people with legal rights.

As governor, he signed into law a measure requiring fetal tissue from abortions to be buried or cremated, which was suspended by a federal judge before it could go into effect. The law would also have imposed rules designed to seriously impede the right to an abortion and subject doctors to potential jail terms. And it was under Pence’s governorship that Purvi Patel was given a since-reduced 20-year prison sentence for a miscarriage, after prosecutors claimed she had induced a “late” abortion.

A general in the war on gays and lesbians

In an Orwellian touch, then Indiana Governor Pence signed into law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The act does not grant freedom of religious belief, already strictly enforced and one that governments and courts bend over backwards to support, but rather was intended to allow evangelicals to force their religious beliefs on others. The law would have trampled on the rights of others, such as allowing businesses to refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, similar to Southern businesses being allowed to refuse service to African-Americans.

The Human Rights Campaign, in a report analyzing the Indiana law and other similar laws around the country, wrote:

“These bills are often incredibly vague and light on details — usually intentionally. In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law. The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

Swift public pressure and announced boycotts led to a revision allegedly softening the law, but the intention is clear. A President Pence would surely feel emboldened to attempt such a law on the national level.

His animus toward the LGBTQ community is so severe that he tried to block federal funding of HIV treatments unless they came with a requirement to advocate against same-sex relationships. He opposes non-straight people serving in the military, going so far as to claim that “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion.”

A crusader against science

Not surprisingly for someone who believes in the Bible as the sole source of truth and law, Vice President Pence is no fan of science. He doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming. On evolution, a Think Progress analysis notes:

“Speaking with an inflection many evangelicals would recognize in their pulpits, Pence advocated in 2002 for changing science textbooks to describe evolution as merely one ‘theory’ among many, and suggested including ‘intelligent design’ — a school of thought similar to Christian Creationism — alongside the work of Charles Darwin.

‘The truth is [evolution] always was a theory,’ he said. ‘And now that we’ve recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask: can we teach it as such? And can we also consider teaching other theories. … Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence? The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them — and I believe that.’ ”

Vice President Pence’s hostility to science has apparently prevented him from understanding that human knowledge has progressed since the 18th century. That is of no consequence because God gave him the ability to read the minds of people dead more than 200 years.

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

And as to global warming, perhaps here the concerns of his billionaire backers are intermingled with his religious obscurantism. He once wrote an essay in which he said: “Global warming is a myth. The global warming treaty is a disaster. There, I said it.” Putting “greenhouse gases” in quotation marks (maybe he didn’t take chemistry in high school?), he assured his potential voters that the Earth had actually cooled over the previous 50 years. In a truly marvelous piece of perfect ignorance, he wrote:

“[T]he greenhouse gases alluded to are real but are mostly the result of volcanoes, hurricanes and underwater geologic displacements. Regrettably, none of these causes can be corralled by environmentalists hungry for regulation and taxes and, therefore, must be ignored.”

Funded by the Koch brothers

The Koch brothers must have been proud of him. He certainly has proved to be a winning investment for them. One of the brothers, David Koch, donated $300,000 to Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and there are strong ties. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

The Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal! Something else to keep in mind should Vice President Pence gain even more power than he already has. Given his ability to understand how government works, he would likely be more effective at ramming through far Right wish lists than Trump. A Republican consultant quoted by The Guardian backed this opinion:

“Pence has outstanding relationships with the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill of all stripes, not just the social conservatives. So there’d be clear alignment and rapid progress on healthcare, taxation, and many other key policy initiatives that have eluded the party over the past months as a result of Trump’s unorthodox approach.”

To what extent the policies of the Trump administration are those of Mike Pence and what policies are those of White supremacist chief strategist Steve Bannon are difficult to know. Perhaps they have separate spheres of influence or, as is likely, there is considerable overlap in their agendas. The draconian budget proposed by the Trump administration on May 23 has the fingerprints of the budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a far right ideologue himself, but it is likely the vice president had much say in it — the punishments intended to be administered to people for the crime of being poor are certainly consistent with his style.

Given that Donald Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity or attention span to actually be president, and appears to rely heavily on a small coterie, Mike Pence likely is already directing much policy. There is nothing to choose between the two. We don’t have to declare them fascists to find them plenty scary enough. (You are, after all, reading this on your computer screen at your leisure rather than having this conversation in a concentration camp. And by this point, Hitler had already consolidated his dictatorship with political opponents and union officials murdered or in camps.)

We have all the reasons we could want to oppose the Trump administration at every step. An administration, not one personality. There is no reason to think ousting President Trump would lessen the danger to the world he presents, and could actually have the counter-intuitive effect of increasing it. Organize!

Trump is a Republican, but is he a fascist?

It’s hard not to chuckle at the hand-wringing going on within the Republican Party. That terrible Donald Trump: How dare he say openly what we only say in code! And, why, Republican candidates have never stooped to exploiting fears and pandering to racism and nativism.

Uh-huh. Richard Nixon attempted to provide federal money for segregated schools as he ushered in the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy”; Ronald Reagan famously opened his 1980 presidential run close to the site where three Civil Rights Movement workers were murdered in Mississippi with calls for “states’ rights,” well understood code words for supporting racially biased policies; George H.W. Bush exploited racial stereotypes with his Willie Horton campaign ads; George W. Bush’s presidency will be remembered for his callous ignoring of New Orleans and its African-American population in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the roster of Republicans hostile to civil rights is too long to list.

So does Donald Trump really represent something new and frightful? Or does his campaign represent the same-old, same-old in more concentrated form? Or, to put the second question in a different way, does he represent a new manifestation of fascism, as many are already proclaiming.

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

Perhaps it might be best to see the Trump campaign as constituting the seeds for a potential fascist movement rather than a fully fledged fascism. That ought to be scary enough, and enough for all of us to make a stand against it.

Fascism is a specific phenomenon, and we should not loosely throw the word around, as if it means anything with a whiff of authoritarianism that we do not like.

At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

We often think of fascism in the classical 1930s form, of Nazis goose-stepping or the street violence of Benito Mussolini’s followers. But it took somewhat different forms later in the 20th century, being instituted through military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Any fascism that might arise in the U.S. would be wrapped in right-wing populism and, given the particular social constructs there, that populism would include demands to “return to the Constitution” and “secure the borders.”

The Trump campaign’s ongoing violence

There is no shortage of peans to the Constitution or demands for border sealing, true enough, and violence has not been missing from the Trump campaign — to the contrary, the Republican front-runner has been reveling in it. Watching videos stringing together some of these incidents is sobering.

It’s been said over and over again that Germans didn’t think Hitler could ever take power (although he was never elected; he was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg). Let’s set aside that all too easy comparison. Instead, it would be more pertinent to look back to the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign that culminated in a lurch to the right. That was the first one I could vote in. Many people thought Ronald Reagan would never be elected; voters in the end would recoil from his extremism. I was one of those doubters. To this day I remember the chill of horror that ran down my back when I first saw the electoral results, well into the evening, as a television announcer called the latest state to go his way part of a “tidal wave.”

In a year in which even the Democratic primary front-runner, Hillary Clinton, eagerly white-washes President Reagan’s actual history, we should correct the record. To only scratch the surface, he lavishly funded and supported the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador in their terror campaigns against their population through military units and death squads that killed hundreds of thousands; waged war against Nicaragua, mining harbors and funding and directing terrorism through the Contras; opposed civil rights legislation at every opportunity; cut Medicaid, Medicare, school breakfast and lunch programs, and declared ketchup a vegetable for school lunches; refused to lift a finger as AIDS ravaged communities across the country because homosexuals where seen as deserving their fate; and invented preposterous stories of pink-Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” raking in $150,000 per year.

There is a straight line from Reagan, whom the Republican establishment still venerates through a rather creepy personality cult, to Donald Trump. And Mr. Trump isn’t necessarily the scariest or most extreme candidate out there — Ted Cruz, determined to become the second Joe McCarthy, holds that distinction. But Senator Cruz, however much he lusts for a Medieval theological dictatorship and despite the frightening ignorance of his supporters, doesn’t command a following the way that Mr. Trump does.

The culmination of Republican pandering

He’s the front-runner precisely because he says it straight out rather than using code like other Republican candidates. He’s the logical product of 36 years of Republican pandering — half a century if we go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” Or, really, a continuation, if in new packaging, of the whole history of the United States. If he were just another in a long line of demagogues, we would not be throwing around the word “fascism” so freely. But the Trump campaign comes with violence and particularly open hatreds. Alarm bells ought to be ringing.

Let’s return to the definition of fascism offered above: “A dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business.” Industrialists and financiers are firmly in the saddle in the United States. Opposition to the policies there that have created widespread misery and towering inequality certainly is growing not only in intensity but in numbers, yet it could hardly be said that capitalist rule in the U.S. is in any danger whatsoever today. There is no need for capitalists to create and build a corps of street thugs or brown shirts.

Rather, we have the odd phenomenon of a billionaire “populist” telling his followers that he won’t be beholden to corporate interests because he is too rich to be bought. We have seen this siren song before: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s morbid combination of George W. Bush, Rupert Murdoch and Ross Perot. He did not work out so well for Italy. Prime Minister Berlusconi’s reason to run for office was to advance his business interests and stay out of jail. Promoting his business interests is Donald Trump’s motivation. All we have here is a billionaire cutting out the middle man and buying the office for himself instead of buying a professional politician.

Nonetheless, it is impossible not to note the violence and the threats against Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims and, implicitly, to all People of Color, and to social activists of the Left. Any Right-wing movement that has gained a substantial following of people that includes more than a few willing to condone violence must target the Left. History is painfully clear on this. We need not think Trump is a fascist or capable of building a fascist type of movement to mobilize against his campaign. Not that we should minimize the ultimate threat of fascism — all capitalist countries contain the potentiality of fascism, a threat that materializes when capitalists dispense with democracy because they can no longer earn profits in the ordinary ways and working people begin to refuse to cooperate with capitalist business as usual in significant numbers.

I would argue that the Trump campaign is not necessarily fascist today, but that it carries with it the seeds of a future, potential fascist movement. That is more than serious enough for everybody who struggles for a better world.

Which came first, the prayer or the bomb? (a poem)

My God is bigger than your God
My weapons are bigger than your weapons
Because my God is bigger than your God
My country is wealthier than your country
Because my weapons are bigger than your weapons
My God is bigger than your God
Because my country is wealthier than your country

God likes the United States more than other countries
Because God helps those who help themselves
And no country helps itself to other countries’ wealth like the United States
God likes a winner
And the United States is the biggest winner since the Roman Empire
God liked the Roman Empire
Even though it used to persecute the church
But in the end the Romans made the church official
And then the church replaced the Romans
So it all worked out in the end

Roman Empire gladiatorsIt is possible to know what God wants
God speaks through the Republican Party platform
The platform says it represents God
Therefore what God wants is in the Republican Party platform
God gives the country with the most believers the most weapons
Because believers are the most likely to use the weapons
And then there will be less believers in other countries
So it will be easier to take those other countries’ wealth
Proving that the country with the most wealth
Has the most believers
And therefore is the best country
It is easy to believe

Happy holidays, everybody. And if you happen to be in New York on January 1, drop by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for the annual Alternative New Year’s Day Spoken Word/Performance Extravaganza, from noon to 9 p.m. It’s free!

A tale of two elections: Venezuelan accountability and U.S. irregularities

There were two widely watched national elections earlier this month. In one, a popular incumbent won for the fifth time in a voting system called “the best in the world” by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The other election featured widespread attempts at voter suppression with many localities using computer systems with no paper backup that do not confirm the results.

The incumbent in the first example is nonetheless routinely referred to the corporate media as a “dictator” while the second country is portrayed by the same corporate media as “the world’s greatest democracy” that has the right to dictate to other countries.

The first example, as you have by now surmised, is Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just for the record, here are the results of his presidential contests:

  • December 1998: Elected president with 56.2 percent of the vote.
  • July 2000: Re-elected president with 59.8 percent of the vote under a new constitution.
  • August 2004: Retained presidency by defeating a recall referendum with 59.3 percent of the vote.
  • December 2009: Re-elected president with 62.9 percent of the vote.
  • November 2012: Re-elected president with 55 percent of the vote (81 percent of those eligible voted).

If we were to count elections to the parliament, state and local elections, and various referendums, President Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have won 15 of 16 elections since 1998. The lone exception was a ballot on constitutional changes that lost by two percentage points – and his reaction was simply to accept the results. Accepting a narrow defeat and allowing an opposition that bitterly hates you and everything you stand for to place a recall referendum on the ballot — it would seem that President Chávez needs to work much harder to become a “dictator.”

All parties confirm voting process in Venezuela

What most stands out in Venezuelan elections is the transparency of the electronic voting system. Voters in Venezuela make their selections on computers in which party and independent observers participated in 16 pre-election audits, according to a report by the Carter Center. The center’s report further states:

“One of the key aspects of the security control mechanisms involves the construction of an encryption key — a string of characters — created by contributions from the opposition, government, and [National Electoral Council], which is placed on all the machines once the software source-code has been reviewed by all the party experts. The software on the machines cannot then be tampered with unless all three parties join together to “open” the machines and change the software. In addition, each voting system machine has its own individual digital signature that detects if there is any modification to the machine. If the voting count is somehow tampered with despite these security mechanisms, it should be detectable … because of the various manual verification mechanisms.” [page 5]

As an added precaution, each voter has a fingerprint on file, with a voter having to provide a fingerprint to avoid anyone attempting to vote more than once, and this system is also encrypted to guarantee secrecy. Finally, there measures to ensure accuracy in the vote count, including printouts of all votes and an automatic audit. The Carter Center reports:

“The voting process permits voters to verify their ballots through a paper receipt generated by the voting machine. A comparison of a count of the paper receipts and the electronic tally at the end of the voting day with the presence of voters, political party witnesses, domestic observers, and the general public is conducted in a large sample of approximately 53 percent of the voting tables, selected at random. Additionally, party witnesses receive a printout of the electronic tally from every machine. The [National Electoral Council] gives the party a CD with the results of each machine and publishes them on the website so that all of these results can be compared. The human element is therefore still important.” [page 7]

The opposition coalition that supported President Chávez’s main opponent, Henrique Capriles, approved the voting lists and electoral process ahead of the vote; the opposition campaign therefore had no basis to contest the results afterward and indeed conceded soon after the polls closed. It took only “minutes” for the vote to be announced, based on 90 percent of the vote total, according to a commentary by a Venezuelan journalist writing for the business publication Forbes magazine.

One would not expect to see an article praising Hugo Chávez’s government in a publication like Forbes, which proudly refers to itself as a “capitalist tool.” So all the more noteworthy is this commentary by Venezuelan journalist Eugenio Martinez:

“[I]t may be time for the greatest democracy in the world to take a lesson from Venezuela on how to develop and administer an efficient electronic voting system spanning across all stages of the electoral process.”

Controversy in U.S. presidential elections

We can contrast that with the U.S. election, in which it took days for many local races to be known; the Florida vote for president wasn’t decided until the following weekend. A week after the election, the winners of six congressional races could not be determined.

U.S. elections are rarely without controversy, and the last four presidential elections have featured significant attempts to suppress the vote, controversies concerning unverifiable voting machines, hours-long lines at polling places sometimes due to manipulations in the distribution of voting machines and even (in 2000) a sacking of an election office to prevent a re-count from being conducted.

That 2000 sacking occurred in Miami when a mob organized by Republican Party operatives stormed the election office, physically preventing the vote count from continuing in an area expected to vote for Al Gore, the Democratic Party presidential candidate. The 2004 election saw the first widespread use of electronic voting machines. And in 2012, many states with Republican governments passed laws aimed at keeping groups of people, particularly African-Americans, from being able to vote, and on election day there were widespread reports of shortages of machines in areas expected to vote heavily for Democrats, leading to long lines while nearby areas expected to vote Republican had no lines at all. Similar problems also occurred in 2004 and 2008.

In contrast to Venezuelan voting machines which can be checked, many U.S. voting machines are not equipped with any way to confirm the results — and the machines use private, proprietary software belonging to the manufacturers of the machines that is not accessible to election officials, nor do they provide printouts for confirmation. The 2004 presidential election was noteworthy for the extraordinary 5.5 percentage-points disparity between exit polls and the announced results.

In the U.S., the presidential vote is actually 51 separate votes because each state plus the District of Columbia distill their individual totals into the electoral college. Statistically, it would not be unexpected that two might report a result that is a small amount outside the polls’ margin of error, with the divergences evenly distributed. In 2004, seven states reported results that were so far beyond the margin of error that the odds of any one happening are less than one percent, according to a study by the group US Count Votes. The odds of seven outliers (all in one direction, for George W. Bush) to such an extent is one in ten million!

The study then broke down discrepancies between exit polling and official results, and found that in jurisdictions in which paper ballots were used, the aggregate discrepancy was within the margin of error (and thus statistically unremarkable), while the aggregate discrepancy for electronic machines was far outside the margin of error, sufficiently so to conclude that an impartial investigation be conducted (which was not done).

A separate watchdog group, Election Defense Alliance, said of these unexplained discrepancies and other problems following the 2008 election:

“The central process of our elections is the counting of our votes. Yet we now have electronic machines that count our votes out of view [of U.S.] citizens — in other words, in secret. … In the presence of large exit polls discrepancies, there is no way to know whether or not extensive fraud has been committed without an extensive investigation, including access to the voting machines. After three consecutive national elections manifesting large exit poll discrepancies well beyond the margin of error, and all in the same direction, it is way past time that we find a way as a nation to ensure that our elections are conducted fairly.”

The three largest manufacturers of voting machines in the U.S. at that time each had strong connections to the Republican Party, and machines of each were involved in problems with the 2004 vote, according to exhaustive accounts chronicled in the book Fooled Again by Mark Crispin Miller.

The 2012 presidential vote aligned very closely with polling; perhaps sufficient safeguards have begun to be implemented. But the shortage of machines in areas with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters in several Republican-controlled states demonstrates that clean elections remain an aspirational goal. The attempted voter suppression may have backfired, as most of the voting-suppression laws were overturned by courts and news reports were full of African-Americans and others determined to vote to defy those who didn’t want them to do so.

Enthusiasm in Venezuela a contrast to U.S. voters

The sanctity of the vote itself aside, the U.S. election was mostly a sterile affair of voting against the other candidate; neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could generate much excitement. Certainly there were millions of people in Venezuela motivated by opposition to Hugo Chávez, but there were many more who voted for the incumbent enthusiastically. A reporter writing before the election for the online news site Venezuelanalysis wrote:

“Talking to people at the Merida rally, I was impressed by the depth of political consciousness and variety of opinions among the crowd as to why they supported Chavez’s re-election. For some, Latin American integration was the reason, for others, free healthcare. For many, their main reason for supporting Chavez, as one middle-aged couple put it to me, was that ‘he’s the president who has most given power to the people’ while another man told me, ‘he’s the president who has awoken the people of Venezuela and fellow peoples.’ Another young woman told me her reason was quite simply ‘I love him.’ …

Indeed, the young woman who told me that ‘love’ was the reason she voted for Chavez wasn’t being tricked by some populist image or last minute spending burst. She came from a poor family which used to live in a shanty house near where the Merida rally took place. Now she is about to graduate as a doctor in the government’s integral community medicine program, and would have been excluded from the Venezuela’s traditionally elite medical system. Her shanty house had also been transformed into a dignified home through the community driven ‘homes for shanties’ program, part of the government’s mass housing construction mission. It’s transformations like these that have earned Chavez such strong support, as much as it pains the international media to say so. Indeed, according to corporate media sources, gaining the support of the popular majority through directing government policy toward their needs seems to be a bad thing for ‘democracy.’ ”

President Chávez is often accused in the corporate media, by no means only in the United States where the most vigorous opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution originates, of “buying” votes. Yet the presidential campaigns of President Obama and former Governor Romney spent approximately US$2 billion while an additional $1.7 billion was spent on congressional races, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. A handful of billionaires, most notably but not limited to oil barons David and Charles Koch and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson accounted for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars each thanks to the a string of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court that equate money with speech, capped by the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision.

How does that staggering amount of money not constitute buying votes and offices?

Uneven progress for Bolivarian Revolution

The point here isn’t that Venezuela is perfect or a paradise — it is neither. But President Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has repeatedly received Venezuelans’ approval to continue progress toward what he calls “21st century socialism.”

That process is aimed explicitly at putting an end to the neoliberalism that has imposed so much misery and putting power into the hands of local communities so that people can make the decisions that affect them. Doing so is bitterly opposed by the former rulers of Venezuela, who were the leading backers of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles; by industrialists and financiers throughout the advanced capitalist countries; and by the numerically minuscule capitalist elites of regional countries.

The Bolivarian Revolution is a sometimes chaotic process that does not advance in a straight line; aspects of its are opposed by some leaders inside President Chávez’s government. Although nationalization of the state oil company receives most of the attention, the bedrock of the revolution are the formations of small cooperatives in a variety of industries; the creation of “social production companies” in which existing enterprises were to create co-management structures and create chains of supply with cooperatives; shuttered enterprises that are expropriated by the workers who re-start production; and experiments in “co-management” with workers’ participation conducted in large state-owned resource enterprises.

The last of these initiatives has suffered setbacks for a variety of reasons, including resistance from existing managements. A need for modernization and resistance from unions has also contributed to setbacks in creating workers’ co-management of the large state-owned resource enterprises. Considerable differences of opinion on the appropriate forms of management and ownership of enterprises continues not only among working people but among officials in the government.

Dario Azzellini, in a chapter covering Venezuela in the book Ours to Master and to Own (the source for the preceding two paragraphs), summarizes the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution:

“The transformation and democratization of the economy has proved the most difficult. The administration of most companies is neither under workers’ nor community control. Surrounded by a capitalist system and logic, it has been extremely challenging to establish collective production processes. Questions over the distribution of work and the resulting gains are particularly conflictive. However, where workers have succeeded in gaining control of their workplace, it can be observed that they have usually developed ties with the surrounding communities, abolished hierarchical structures, made themselves accountable to the workers’ assembly, and in most cases introduced equal salaries and increased the number of employed workers.” [page 397]

Professor Azzellini concludes that “The search for an alternative economy is thus firmly on the agenda.” We need not look any further to discover the solution to the puzzle of Venezuela being falsely painted as a “dictatorship” when it has elections much more transparent and fair than those of the United States.

Two-party lesser evilism rooted in winner-take-all system

It would be nice to vote for somebody we like as opposed to the “lesser evil.” Two-party systems are not to be found in any law, yet variations of them are prevalent among capitalist countries.

Countries as disparate as Britain, France, Germany and Spain have two dominant national parties, although nowhere is such a system as entrenched as in the United States, where there is not the limited space for small parties found elsewhere. The reason for such a constricted choice in the U.S. does not lie in its constitution (which makes no mention of parties), nor even in the iron-gripped dominance of its large corporations (although the Republican/Democratic split tends to replicate the industrialist/financier rivalry among capitalists).

Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum. They can exist only in a political system, the two basic types of which are legislatures or parliaments based on single-seat districts and those based on proportional representation. What sort of party system a given country has is more dependent on what kind of representative body it has than on any other factor.

Much of the world uses proportional-representation systems.

Much of the world uses proportional-representation systems.

A legislature based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. (This includes the U.S. Senate, which, because of its staggered terms, is effectively a single-seat system in which the district is an entire state.)

When there are two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no space for a third party to emerge. The two parties are necessarily unwieldy coalitions; they must be so because they will have to contain room for people and ideas across long portions of the political spectrum. (That does not mean that all factions’ desires are incorporated into the party’s positions or are even heard).

A faction of one of these two parties might gain the upper hand at one time, especially if it is linked with an ideology promoted by an energetic bloc of capitalists, but in this instance the party will become too narrow and rigid. The other major party will inevitably benefit and eventually the factionalized party will have to loosen the grip of its dominant faction and revert to becoming a coalition if it intends to compete successfully nationally in the future. This natural elasticity provides an additional stability to a two-party system.

Personality contests instead of a focus on issues

Campaigns for elections in single-seat districts can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated.

These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are going to be heard more than other views. Corporations are the dominant institutions in advanced capitalist countries, and the accumulated wealth and power of those who lead and profit from them are able to disseminate their preferred ideologies through their influence over society’s other institutions, including educational, military and religious.

Leaders from corporate and other institutions, to be viable candidates, will seek office through one of the two dominant parties, thereby transmitting corporate ideology back into them, while also bolstering them by linking their personal “credibility” to the parties.

Compounding those tendencies, if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together so that both have “safe” seats. Elections cease to be competitive, and if you live in a district in which voters who consistently favor the other party are the majority, you are out of luck.

The two parties compete fiercely to win elections — they represent different groupings within the capitalist class who have a great deal of money at stake. This is a closed competition, however: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out.

Although real choice is blocked, the illusion of competition is maintained and there is enough room to allow safety valves to work when needed, such as the removal from office of an unpopular office-holder. All this makes for a remarkably stable system: One U.S. government has fallen in 220 years.

More scope for parties with proportional representation

More democratic is a parliamentary system, which in almost all cases comes with some form of proportional representation. The two notable exceptions are Canada and Britain, where members of parliament are elected from single-seat districts. Both have a third national party that consistently wins seats, but nonetheless usually produce single-party governments. This system retains some of the drawbacks of a single-seat congressional system, with the additional weakness that governments in both countries often take office with less than a majority of the vote.

One common parliamentary system is a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large political subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats.

There can be two dominant parties in this type of system — Germany is an example — but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup.

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats.

If the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party — thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion in a country and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. A party needs to earn five percent of the vote in many of these systems, but cutoffs are set as low as two percent.

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several parties into parliament, can exclude a minority, as happens in, for example, Israel. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Multiple-seat districts

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts in which districts are drawn large. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland uses such a system.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats — more than one party is then guaranteed to win representation.

All the systems above are based on the traditional concept of one vote for one seat. But there is no need to limit ourselves to tradition. There are voting systems that enable the casting of multiple votes. One of these is “cumulative voting.” This is a system in which each voter casts as many votes as there are seats on a legislative body. A voter can vote for as many candidates, or cast all her votes for a single candidate, as she wishes. If the voter has five votes, he can cast all five votes for a preferred candidate, or split them among as many as five candidates if he so wishes. This is a system that enables a minority to earn representation if that minority — racial, ethnic, political or some other basis — votes cohesively.

Cumulative-voting proponents argue that this method encourages the creation of coalitions, encourages attention to issues because community groups can organize around issues and elect candidates that represent those interests, and encourages high turnouts. This is a complicated system, and probably appropriate only on the local level. A few U.S. cities do use this system.

irv-flow-chartAnother alternative voting system is instant runoff. Here, voters cast a ballot by voting for as many candidates as they wish, ranking each candidate. First votes are tabulated and if there is a candidate who earns a majority of votes, the winner is seated. If not, the candidate with the fewest first votes is eliminated, and the second votes on ballots that voted for the eliminated candidate are now added to the first votes on the other ballots. If there is still not a winner, there are more rounds, each time with the lowest vote-getter eliminated, until a candidate has a majority. This system works the same way for multiple-seat elections.

The advantage of this system is that it encourages voters to cast ballots for the candidate they truly support, as their first choice, without the need to vote only for the “lesser evil.” A voter could still choose the “lesser evil” as the second choice to block the worst choice from winning. It also ensures that there is some level of majority support for the winning candidate rather than a simple plurality. Australia uses such a system, but with an added unnecessary, undemocratic requirement mandating that all candidates be ranked (otherwise the ballot is voided). Instant runoff can be democratic only with full freedom of choice.

That any representative system truly reflect the diversity of a society in all possible ways is the important thing, and that what can be accomplished at local levels or through direct democracy be decided there.

No matter what system is used, however, a true political democracy can only exist when there is economic democracy and a measure of equality — any economic system in which a handful dominate through their immense wealth will be corrupt and undemocratic. Otherwise, we are ultimately tinkering around the edges.