- Barely the day after the 2004 presidential election,
parties and pundits began reviewing the results. Party leaders began
their support bases and strategies to decide where to go from here, while
the pundits tried to decide what actually happened. The election was no
landslide, but with effective control of the presidency, both houses of
Congress and, by likely new appointments, the Supreme Court, the
certainly have cause to celebrate their investments in political bases.
The Democrats, on the other hand, showed modest movement in the direction
of base politics; in at least one instance "support for Israel and
related Middle East policies" they shared bases with the Republicans.
But they have to assess whether there are bases that (a) are not dominated
by Republicans, (b) are big enough"individually or collectively--to
assure future Democratic victories if developed and cultivated, (c) address
issues that are compatible with Democratic Party goals, or (d) actually
can improve political prospects.
- Both parties want means to get and stay elected. It is
only a month after the vote, but people are already maneuvering for
in the election four years from now. Electoral processes have captured
total attention. The reason we have a government is barely up for
The process itself has become the shimmering brass ring: the path to power
and wealth for successful candidates, plus the chance to have one's way
for successful support groups. Party players, candidates or hopefuls,
are not looking at what the country might need in the way of governance
four years from now. They are trying to anticipate what it will take to
run a successful campaign. How government functions in the interim is not
a matter of concern to party bosses.
- Meanwhile, Americans just witnessed the deplorable state
of national systems for casting votes, counting ballots, tabulating and
reporting the results, avoiding blatant conflicts of interest, and securing
the integrity of the process. To make matters worse, the largest numbers
of system deficiencies turned up in key swing-vote states such as Florida
and Ohio. Technical difficulties were outweighed in many instances by
that contractors, activists, election officials, or candidate partisans
failed to use the system in a fair and even-handed manner. Adding to
about outcomes was the fact that for several swing states the exit polls,
regularly the most accurate previews of voting results, were wildly at
odds with final election results reported by media, or in the end by state
and county election officials. The exit poll disparities and reported
with vote tabulation machines raise legitimate concerns about fraud.
- What went wrong with the election?
- The complaints, more than 30,000 of them, were not
by simple cases of Murphy's Law. Polling places did not open on time. Polls
were located awkwardly for large groups of voters, especially people of
color and the poor, most of them Democrats. There were not enough polling
places in such districts, so that lines were long and discouraging.
monitors "read agitators determined to discourage voters if they
showed up in numerous places, especially in swing states. Absentee ballots
did not arrive or disappeared. Hanging chads (the poorly punched out
of voters on punch-card ballots) reared their ugly strands anew in many
districts. Vote tabulating machines counted backward after reaching a
maximum number of votes; thus people who voted after the maximum number
was tabulated actually lost their own vote while having other people, s
votes taken off the total.
- But that was only the beginning. Once votes were in,
ordinary PCs, driven by Microsoft Windows and Office home computer
compiled the results, and computer hackers could well have gotten there
before election officials or the public did. Voters said their votes for
Kerry actually were recorded for Bush "apparently an easy software
trick. Vote tabulations in precincts that used optical scanners showed
results that were at odds with exit polls, including some scanner counts
that showed more votes than registered voters. Comments of witnesses in
an informal Democratic "hearing in the Congress indicated that most
of the errors were favorable to Republican candidates. Thus, what looked
in some states like a landslide for Kerry turned into a popular majority
for Bush. Kerry conceded without contest, which meant that numerous
of vote miscounts, and even scams were likely to be unexamined and
- But clouds on the vote are far from lifted. The political
post mortem requires some faith-defying leaps. Republicans, pleased with
the results of their campaign, said, qua Carl Rove, that "it was
moral values, stupid. The Democrats, especially some of their leading PACs
such as Move On, attributed the outcome to political hanky-panky at the
polls, including numerous system failures. Some said that important
minorities, such as the Hispanics, had switched sides en masse and had
voted Republican, but the truth of that stand is not demonstrable. Yet
a fourth rationale, according to a few, was that white racism had carried
the day for the Republicans. Since the total vote was large enough and
close enough so that none of those explanations, by itself, could have
been decisive, the question yet hangs over the battlefield: Why, better
how, did this happen?
- Welcome to the Third World!
- Relax! What country did you say this is? What century
did you say this is? Such things happen in the third world all the time.
In the third world cases, as clear-eyed as can be, our diplomatic missions
report results, and they explain the problem to us: Those things happen
when an entrenched elite refuses to relinquish power or to have its power
in any way diminished. (Emphasis deliberate.)
- Being well aware of vote rigging in several overseas
locations, such as Kosovo, the Ukraine, Haiti, and Georgia, US-funded
from the National Endowment for Democracy, have been fielded to support
democratic processes in several countries. The work of those groups is
somewhat controversial; however, reports from numerous polling places in
key states strongly suggest that detached monitoring teams should have
worked our own elections first. But this, you might protest, is the United
States. We have the world's best democracy. We even aggressively export
it, and we criticize other countries for not seeing the virtues of our
- What gives here?
- What gives here is the aggressive assertion, in some
ways the reinvention, of oligarchy with some new wrinkles and some new
members. A review of American history on this subject will provide
background for what is now happening and why. Go look at David Maurer's
History Explained website for the best short history (under 50 pages) of
that experience, especially where oligarchy fits in the historic and the
modern political scheme of things.
- What gives here is happening in plain sight. It is also
subliminal, but it is not new. It is only approaching a gross sort of
Its effects are beginning to matter seriously for the proper function of
our democracy, and for our future. Because of oligarchic tricks, there
will be a persistent and deserved backlash to election 2004. But this
situation did not just hit us overnight.
- Let us go back a while and look at some classic
of our present system. The founding fathers, by and large, were oligarchs,
but both politically and intellectually enlightened, or we never would
have gotten the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. The pre-Civil
War oligarchs of the south, who thrived on cotton and tobacco production
supported by slavery, were agricultural holdovers in a society that was
urbanizing and industrializing as well as receiving new waves of
- Taking advantage of those tendencies, in the period
up to World War II, political machines, mostly Democratic Party to be sure,
achieved political dominance in many parts of the United States. Take
Boston, for example, where the mayor, James Michael Curley, governed the
city from jail and became a textbook example of machine politics. Take
Chicago, where the greater city region was dominated by the organization
masterminded by Richard Daley, the father of a recent mayor who was
a reformist. Take Kansas City, where the Pendergast machine that backed
Harry Truman achieved more or less complete command of statewide Missouri
politics. Take a look at Tammany Hall, the organization that by repute
had complete control over the politics of New York City through the term
of Fiorello ("Little Flower) La Guardia.
- As University of Maryland Professor Clarence Stone notes
in a recent article on the machines, several had leaders with colorful
names: "Bathhouse", "Red Mike", "Hinky Dink",
and "Slippery Dick". These organizations all had a number of
attributes in common: They were virtually closed oligarchies that depended
on complete loyalty between their leaders and their constituents. These
organizations were new oligarchies in the sense that they were urban,
of the rural/agricultural ones that lay at the country's colonial
- These new oligarchs were different also in that their
power was not intrinsic; it lay in their access to power. They were
political horse-traders. None of them was about serving the public at
voting issues, or running cities and states for the body politic. They
were all about political patronage, impolitely defined as dispensing favors
for votes. "Machine, according to Stone, implied the virtually
delivery of votes for the favored candidate.
- Machines Were An Era of their own.
- It was not uniformly so, but the old style political
machines declined in the post World War II era. The natural sets for them
in many instances had weakened: Population mixing generated by war,
experience, mobility, changing communications"first with newspapers,
magazines and radio, then with movies and television"the gradual
of distinctions across ethnic and national-origins of
and actual improvements in the availability of public services rendered
the machines in many ways obsolete. They had provided a vote getting and,
let's face it, a service providing response to constituencies that was
based on group dynamics, not on real issues of governance. Vote scams were
- The key detail not to lose sight of as we walk through
those experiences is that the political machines were very successful.
We can look back on them as colorful and generally corrupt systems for,
on the one hand, getting, keeping and exploiting access to government
especially government coffers at all levels, and, on the other hand, for
maintaining coherent cadres of deliverable votes. The machines provided
a vital commodity to politicians and their close constituencies. They were
go-betweens for a largely passive electorate and a largely oligarchic
- The Flowering of Popular Democracy
- Those of us who acquired the vote during and after World
War II saw the flowering of American democracy in a manner that had never
before been possible. Virtually instant and constantly improving
brought us into the picture on national issues while making political
perhaps no less strenuous but certainly more profitable in terms of
contacted, messages delivered and potential voters engaged. The country
actually achieved a national system of political participation, moving,
it seemed, beyond the tawdry power brokering schemes, the pattern of
supportive oligarchies that had plagued the system before World War II.
But the changes were bigger and more important than that.
- Both the structure and the dynamics of power brokering
were changing. The old urban machines had operated around ground level,
that is community, ethnic constituency, and, as some grew, regional bases.
Their value lay in their capacity to deliver votes for oligarch selected
candidates and propositions. But in the decades after World War II the
crowd around the throne, the various local, state and national thrones
to be sure, was thickening, growing richer, more agile in its
more coherent in expectations, and more able to pay for services
- The votes that mattered and, of course, the money were
still in the hands of state and local governments and the federal system.
But burgeoning government resources meant that most constituencies could
be rendered some order of satisfaction, if they had the right people
for them in Washington and other capitals. It was the heyday of the
who in many respects assumed the role of machine politicians in interfacing
between interest groups and government decision makers.
- Where Did That Take Us?
- The way was paved for the present pattern of corrupt
dealings with political leadership. That included a Congress virtually
every member of which becomes increasingly wealthy through traffic in
for wealthy individuals, businesses, trade groups, and other cause-oriented
organizations. And the process was supported by a growing body of
think tanks and policy study centers, among the main purposes of which
was to promote some specific set of issues and/or viewpoints. Their
is articulating and representing interests, cultivating government support,
and delivering votes. Their clients and sponsors are among the political
- The country was drifting back toward the machine, but
issue politics really came to life in the form of machine-like national
level organizations. Many issues were linked to distinct support groups,
political bases potentially. Such issues as abortion or homosexuality,
and family values became litmus tests of political candidate respectability
for a growing roster of potential bases. Real matters of governance, such
as defense, economic growth and development, medical care, employment,
poverty, or the degradation of the environment were eclipsed in numerous
political debates by the right to life, display of the Ten Commandments
in government facilities, family planning, reference to God in the Pledge
of Allegiance, and equal rights for gays and lesbians.
- By these digressions, American attention has been
from the real issues of national management to basic issues of personal
choice and preference. The vote-getting issues, and appeals to their
groups have less and less to do with the real business of
- The Flowering of Base Politics
- Through those developments, the way was paved for the
current generation of base politics. Carl Rove, the chief architect of
the Bush campaign victory, says that 30% of the electorate had a primary
focus on the War in Iraq. That may be true, but even if all the people
who focused on Iraq had voted for Bush, he would not be President. How
the Iraq vote split is not yet clear, but the other 70% of voter interests
were heavily into the personal choice and preference issues, and here,
the base of Christians in the Christian Coalition, right to lifers, and
gay bashers, lined up with big business, small-government, low taxes, low
entitlement advocates, and gun owners, provided a win that no single issue
on the 2004 political agenda could possibly have delivered.
- What Has This Cost The Country?
- The acid test of the impact of choice and preference
issues in election decisions is clear. Inadequate health care, the growing
disparity between rich and poor, real decline in minimum wages, growing
poverty among Americans, anything but uniform education of young Americans,
the declining wealth of the American middle class, the export of jobs,
the deteriorating environment, excessive reliance on military solutions
to basic social problems such as terrorism, and rising national debt
less weight with political base voters than their issues of choice and
preference. The fact is that national issues of governance frequently do
not have coherent, deliverable voting blocks. The base issues do.
- That formula has resonance with the people of several
countries whose governments many Americans would look down upon as
travesties or relics of the past. Why the lack of interest in governance?
Why would voters not focus primarily on what newly elected leaders might
do about the tasks of government? Why would voters go for mainly Republican
candidates whose party leaders subscribe to catastrophically failing
in the Middle East, lie regularly to the public, and promote and support
a military establishment that has little visible relationship to American
- Why? The answer appears to be in two parts. For the
strong and even moderately well-off, neither major candidate represented
any threat to basic life style. Actually, both candidates represented the
oligarchy, especially the Zionist supporting and war-making elements of
it. For the weak, neither candidate made promises that appeared, at least
on the face of things, to make matters worse. The issues of interest,
could drift off to matters of choice and preference. Things that were
or hard to fix, or not related to a support group qua voting bloc, could
be put aside.
- What are the new political bases?
- The new bases are not the local, shared ethnicity,
or patronage-acquired followings of political bosses. The potential bases
have emerged as major national groups: the Christian Coalition, evangelical
Christians, the so-called Moral Majority, Right to Life, Freedom of Choice,
Women's Rights, marriage"between man and woman or gay rights, the
Catholic Church, to name several that figured in election 2004. As a
there was a spirited campaign between the two main contenders, Bush and
Kerry, but the election did not hinge on what either candidate thought,
if he bothered to bring up such a subject, about the vital interests of
the United States or its people.
- These were the new oligarchs, but they did not carry
the day on their own. They simply added to the great weight already on
the side of the established oligarchies in finance, banking, media,
and business whose interests now dominate the Bush second-term agenda and
whose money contributed to the most expensive presidential election in
- The open campaign was a typical rabble-rouser, much of
it spent on Kerry's (medal winning) and Bush's (nil) Vietnam War record.
Meanwhile the real politicking went on in quiet consultations among key
candidate followers in the bases, and Bush simply had more moxie at this
level than Kerry. On the other hand, Kerry received over 48% of the popular
vote apparently along more traditional lines of appeal to Americans at
- How Does This System Work?
- The base formula, however the issues may be presented
on posters and ballots, is the key to democratic electoral processes in
most of the third world. It is basically oligarchic in that both the
and the voters are in the same groups; they may be ethnically, religiously,
regional or economically cohesive supporters, and the base politics formula
works for them. Ignore everybody else! That typically means the majority
of people get under-represented, if represented at all on key national
governance matters, and the body politic will be largely ignored until
another rigged election is needed to keep the peace.
- It has taken a long time for our system to reach this
state. In the good old days of machine politics, we were well on the way.
However, war and the rapidly changing postwar environment broke up the
set. A spate of genuine egalitarian democracy set in here in the United
States, and for a while we were on the way to something big. But we are
now on our way into the Third World.
- The political promise of satisfaction on pet issues
this about. Perhaps government could always have been bought, but the late
20th and early 21st century bases have more money and promise more
votes. The surge in corporate earnings, the burgeoning, in many cases mere
inflation, of share values, the sudden growth in executive incomes and
perks, the growth of national level religious organizations with
wealth and power, the discovery that such base groups could indeed deliver
bloc votes with the right incentives/promises from party leaders, all
to a focusing of political power in America away from the body politic
and into the hands of political bases. A combination of conservative
Zionists and their supporters, right to lifers, and financial and corporate
power brokers literally has stolen the selection of national leadership
from the body politic.
- The theft is virtually complete for both political
except that the Republicans have captured a larger set of bases than the
Democrats. The theft is also virtually complete for the national agenda,
because it is no longer about the issues that matter to all Americans.
The agenda centers on what the oligarchs want. As many as a dozen states
now see the flaws in this system, and on such issues as stem-cell research,
the environment, minimum wages, health insurance, and imports of
drugs from Canada"all issues bottlenecked by specific
are passing their own laws.
- How Is Power Controlled?
- Believers in the present system can argue that the people
go to the polls every two years for Congress and every four years for
governors and others, and that is the way a democracy works. That certainly
is true, but the keys to this system are who selects the candidates, who
formulates the issues, and who handles the electoral process. Elections
to most state offices and all Federal ones simply cost more money than
most people have or can muster. Moreover, election opens the door to
and power. Thus, party organizations make big-time investments of money
and energy in identifying and grooming candidates, cultivating their
of support, and defining the issues that will drive voter interest. In
fact, by and large these political organizations are well-established and
fairly tightly run little oligarchies. One proof of that is the large
number of members of Congress who regularly run unopposed.
- What has made the present system possible is the
of national level organizations that on feel-good issues are well plugged
into the grass roots party organizations through feel good issue
on the ground. But those issues are more about faith, ideology, life-styles
and matters of personal preference than they are about governance. For
many of these advocacy groups, we do not have a government to run the
we have a government to protect their turf. That perspective is decisively
- The political form of this transformation was a change
in the approaches of base political groups. Racial, ethnic, religious,
cultural, regional, or occupational identities, to mention some big ones,
have long been successful rallying points for groups. They made machine
politics, those identities and the will and energy of the organizers. The
political opening of the post World War II era saw those identities
The new wrinkle that has appeared increasingly in party politics is a
level version of groups that basically define new or widened oligarchies
who are prepared to pay with votes or financial support for official favor
for their causes.
- The second part of the scheme is loose coalition
On a national scale, the groups are small. The Christian Coalition, for
example, says it has about 3 million members, but it says it distributed
70 million voter information packages. The Moral Majority provides a name,
but does not supply a number. Right to life organizations have at most
a few million members. Conservative Christians, hardline right to lifers,
anti-gays and lesbians, true believers of various cuts including white
racists, gun owners, and low tax, small government groups may each make
up an identifiable, if not necessarily a cohesive minority, and they may
not be on the same sides of numerous issues, but collectively they elected
- The main casualty of this process is that Bush brings
to the White House not a nationally and popularly mandated set of programs,
but a national policy agenda of his own and his party's making, so long
as it does not conflict with his obligations to oligarchic supporters.
This constitutes a perversion even of the concept of majority rule, because
Bush is bound to cater to specific minorities on their pet issues, while
he has no aggregate promises to keep to the majority of people.
- That is the ultimate definition of rule by oligarchy.
It is also the way many a small-time dictator has survived: Such a
can abuse the public at large in any number of ways, so long as he does
not lose control, fail to deliver the stability conditions that are
to the oligarchs, or fail to protect their privileges. Those, indeed,
are key missions of an oligarch-selected leader, however democratic the
selection process may look.
- Where to from here?
- The solution to this problem is simple, but that does
not make it easy or likely. Money and leadership support for feel-good
issue groups have corrupted the system. Privately funded elections have
long been known to promote corrupt practices, but the amounts of money
available for those purposes have never been greater. Feel-good issues
have long had influence at local levels where "one of ours always
has had a better chance than "one of theirs. But with one member
on the Supreme Court bench openly advocating an end to the separation of
church and state, those issue preferences have begun seriously to erode
constitutional protections, and it is time to call a halt. The only visible
way out of this corner is to publicly fund all elections and make
election campaigns illegal. That must be paired with rigorous rules on
conflicts of interest.
- The passage this week of so-called "intelligence
reform legislation that is liberally larded with Patriot Act-like erosions
of civil liberties shows that the war-favoring oligarchs and their
allies in government have co-opted the Congress. That was already evident
in congressional handing of war-making authority to the President in 2001.
But the larger sores are (a) catering to the military-industrial
by going to war to solve the basic social problem of terrorism, because
the club cannot have all the expensive toys without a war, and (b) catering
to the financial community by guaranteeing them the rewards from a large
piece of Social Security funding, because the main beneficiaries of this
scheme will be the financial oligarchs, not the investors.
- The bottom line is that our democratic system has become
dysfunctional. As the Democratic Party leadership meets to select new
it should heed the advice of former Governor Howard Dean: Do not move
to the right in search of Republican-like bases. Recreate the picture
of national interest that is built upon the interests of the great majority
of Americans. This may need to be a third party, because any viable future
party must get away from the idea of secure political bases and start
the American people, rather than its oligarchic minorities. Don,t go to
Washington or other capitals to get rich. Go to retrieve and protect our
system of government.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State and former Chairman of the Department of
International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comments