Democracy Theater

I’ve written in the past about managed democracy, which is a political system that is ostensibly a democracy but which is actually being controlled and managed by some sort of oligarchy. As part of that I wrote in May 2016 about the remarkable fact that our two major political parties had two massively unpopular front-runners in the presidential election:

What we’re seeing is a symptom of managed democracy, a term usually aimed at Vladimir Putin’s Russia but which, many argue, describes the United States.  In a paper about managed democracy in Russia, we find,

According to Tretyakov’s definition, managed democracy is a democracy (as there are elections, voters have alternative options, there is media freedom, leaders are changing), but it is corrected by the ruling class (or rather that part of it that holds power).

Put another way, this is why we can’t have nice things. We aren’t really in charge.

See also “They Aren’t Listening to Us” (May 2014) and “Rats and Lifeboats” (May 2017).

Today let me call your attention to “America’s Heart of Darkness” by Elizabeth Bruenig at the Washington Post. She writes that like the character Charles Marlow in Conrad’s novel, at least some Americans have seen the heart of darkness at the center of U.S. politics.

Marlow’s is a civic kind of going mad, where the veil is lifted from politics and what lies beneath makes participation in ordinary political life with a quiet mind impossible. By the time he returns, what once seemed placid and unremarkable seems sinister and false — and it is.

We’re about there, I think — perhaps not every single one of us, perhaps not just yet, but the conditions are right and the summer is long. The entire 2016 episode has been, in some sense, an introspective journey into America’s own innermost parts, with Donald Trump’s victory prompting a nervous self-inventory of what we value, whether our institutions work and to what degree we ought to trust one another. The full contents of that inward odyssey have yet to unfold. But on the question of institutional functioning, the news is unequivocally grim. Like Marlow, even after this particular chapter has ended, we are likely to find ourselves changed by what we’ve seen.

Whether national politics were ever really open and honest is a debatable point, of course. Before we went to a primary system, the old method of choosing presidential nominees at big, messy national conventions was often accused of being corrupt and undemocratic. Deals were made in smoke-filled rooms and, voila , here’s your ticket. But we got some pretty good presidents out of those smoke-filled rooms. I’m old enough to remember watching those conventions on television, and in retrospect they seem more honest and transparent than what we’ve got now.

Bruenig writes (as I have written in the past) that we may never know if the Russians really did change the outcome of the election. And we still don’t know if Donald Trump was conciously aware of and complicit in the Russian interference. But those are secondary considerations.

The primary things are these: It just wasn’t that hard for a foreign power to tinker with our deliberative democratic process, which suggests that it just isn’t that hard, full stop, for anyone to tinker with our deliberative democratic process. And if Trump’s campaign played along, those who benefited when he won don’t really seem to mind. Republicans will issue all sorts of official-sounding tweets and news releases decrying the subversion of America’s hallowed institutions, but they’ve got their tax cuts and Supreme Court seats, and they’re not going to initiate impeachment proceedings or primary Trump come 2020. A neutral observer couldn’t be blamed for concluding that the rich and powerful people who contend for control of the country don’t much care how public offices wind up in their hands, so long as they do.

Donald Trump is an abomination. He’s a walking moral cesspool. He is clearly unfit for office. He’s safe, for now, because the elites find him useful. Because he is also a moron he probably doesn’t realize he’s just a tool. But he is.

And this is true across the board. Those emails the Russians loosed upon the electorate were damning precisely because they revealed a similar scheme operating in miniature during the Democratic primary campaign: The supposedly neutral DNC functioned as more or less a Clinton campaign organ, subsisting off Clinton campaign funds and musing behind the scenes about targeting then-primary contender Bernie Sanders for being a secular Jew, how best to discipline his campaign for complaining about the DNC’s partiality and, ironically, how to properly dispel the appearance of a DNC conspiracy against Sanders.

The gravity and legality of the two exercises in meddling differ, certainly. But they both operate to wound our faith in democratic legitimacy.

A lot of commenters to this article are sputtering about false equivalence. But of course I agree with Bruenig. Hillary Clinton’s nomination was a done deal months before the primaries started, a fact that has been publicly confirmed in many ways. What the Democrats did to railroad Clinton’s nomination makes the smoke-filled rooms at the old national conventions seem downright guileless and innocent.

In particular, it was ghastly to me the way that a generation of left-leaning voters was relentlessly punched down on for month after month because they refused to accept the decision of the powers that be, and to this day most of the progressive young folks I communicate with are, at best, massively ambivalent about the Democratic Party. They don’t like it much, and they don’t trust it, but most have accepted they have no alternative but to work through the Democrats to defeat Trumpism. A loud minority still refuse to have anything to do with Democrats, however.

So, damage was done. The sputterers need to realize and admit this. A big reason a lot of us who are Democratic voters are twitchy about “centrism” and “pragmatism” is that these are code words for accepting the manipulation. And let’s not kid ourselves that if Hillary Clinton were president now the government would be working for us. It would be less awful in many ways, yes, and we’d have gotten much better SCOTUS nominations. But anything we, the people might want that the elites don’t want to give us would still be off the table.

Mass media is complicit in all this, of course. News coverage helped Trump become acceptable as POTUS. They played him up because he was good for ratings. And then they normalized him. Television political coverage never goes deeper than the superficial and the sound bite, and most people get nearly all their information on candidates from television (or, worse, social media). The well-known information on Trump’s long history of dishonest business deals and ties to the mob were never explained to the American television news audience.

See an old Salon article from 2006, by Ted Morgan: “This isn’t how a democracy should work.”

Our news media, television in particular, work at two levels simultaneously. One level is cultural. This is where market-driven news accentuates its entertainment value, seeking to maximize audience or readership by grabbing attention with all the devices common to entertainment. News stories are brief, dramatic fragments; they accentuate eye-catching imagery, conflict, and personalities. They play on our emotions, but tell us almost nothing about why the world is the way it is.

The other level is ideological, or political.  This is where the mass media are corporate institutions that reflect the consensual and competing views of elites who dominate our politics.  This is where Democrats and Republicans “debate” political issues, where they tell us how to interpret the world.  It is definitely not where more fundamentally critical, or outsider, views are taken seriously.

News media set the parameters of allowable political thought, and that has become a very, very narrow range of thought. And as much as I do like to watch the nightly MSNBC lineup for the latest dirt on Trump, they’re in on it, too, at least as far as the Democrats are concerned.

So here we are. We have a monster for a president, and Washington collectively lacks the political will to admit it and remove him from office. Yesterday the cable shows were all playing a tape of Michael Cohen and Trump talking about how they would hush up an affair with a model. Watch this change nothing. Today there are headlines about how Trump plans to go forward with 25 percent tariffs on close to $200 billion in foreign-made automobiles, and “advisers” are scrambling to stop him.  But, bleep it, the Constitution gives Congress the power to determine tariffs, not the president. There is obviously no national security issue that justifies Trump’s tariff policy.

Where is Congress? Not only do they not remove him from office, they step aside and let him do whatever he wants, no matter how damaging it is. It may be that the only thing that will stop him is if the monied elites who actually run things decide he’s more trouble than he’s worth. Then something nasty will be slipped into Trump’s filet-o-fish sandwich, because Mike Pence is a model tool, a tool’s tool. A Disney animatronic president couldn’t be a more reliable tool.

I can remember earlier times, when our revered historical figures were presented as virtuous and wise. They were honest and kind and never told lies. And yeah, a lot of that amounted to glossing over a lot of flaws. But that was the ideal that we at least paid lip service to. With Trump, there are no ideals and no virtues, just endless sleaze.

Back to Bruenig.

This particular horror — Trump and his failures, whatever ridiculous thing he has said or done today, whatever international incident he causes on Twitter tomorrow, however authentic the next panic is — will pass. What will last is the frank revelation of a point that, while ugly and dark, is at least true: You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors. It’s possible to continue to participate in a democracy after that. But not with a quiet mind.

I hold on to a faint hope that American democracy can be reformed and given back to the people. Campaign finance reform, voting rights guarantees, ending political gerrymandering, and some other steps would do it, and those things are possible. At least, they aren’t like spinning straw into gold or walking on water. But it’s going to take a hell of a fight.

17 thoughts on “Democracy Theater

  1. Donald Trump is an abomination. He’s a walking moral cesspool. He is clearly unfit for office. 

    I haven't finished reading the complete post, but I'm compelled to stop at this point and issue a big big AMEN. Now I'll continue reading..Just have to say..Thanks, I needed that! Just like V8.

  2. I will admit saying that the only thing worse than a DJT Presidency would be a HRC Presidency.  I feared the former for all the events we have seen unfold since 1/17.  I dreaded the latter because I figured that nothing teaches one less than winning, because all one learns is to repeat what you just did (because that's how you win right?).  Well I was wrong in one important aspect, I assumed that the GOP still had some honorable people within it and that those with honor and integrity would oppose the DJT malfeasance.

    Nevertheless, here we are.  The Democratic party learned nothing from losing the election (and one should learn a great deal from failure).  The GOP learned nothing other than that there is a large plurality of the electorate that is simply a horde of uncivilized, uneducated, vindictive bigots that they can use if they are immoral enough (and apparently they are).

    I'm old.  I'm childless. I'm going to die, and the city, state, country, and planet will not miss me when I am gone.  I made an effort, I served my country in the military, I served humanity in my profession (science) and well I enjoyed a few brief moments in the sun.  But I will also be witness to the decline and collapse of what may have been one of the great civilizations man has ever gathered together.  I hope subsequent generations enjoy the squalor and misery this generation has bestowed upon them because it's only going down from here,

  3. Campaign Finance Reform – as a phrase – is the best cure for insomnia you can hope for. I've gotten flack from pros in the media who want me to avoid the word "corruption'. It's not that the "c" word isn't accurate, voters are supposedly turned off by calling politicians working to enrich themselves by selling out the public, 'corrupt'. 

    I refer to the larger issue of big money in politics, which includes the "revolving door" by proposing a wall of separation between big money and our government. This files with republican voters as easily as it does Berniecrats. Exercise for the doubter who thinks Republican voters support corruption, check what happened to Eric Cantor. The Tea Party guy who beat Eric Cantor did it with rhetoric about Congress supporting Wall Street that sounded like Liz Warren. 

    Money in Politics is the central issue of restoring representative government. That government would ALSO represent conservative voters, but it would exclude corporate domination which dominates BOTH sides.

  4. I liked Bernie. I was thrilled when former students invited me to go to a rally in Greensboro. It was the most wonderful, hopeful, unified political hour of my life.  But I did not think Bernie could win because so many would be put off by the "socialist" label.  Looking back, we might as well have tried.


  5. Wingnut tribalists declared Obama a socialist.  With Bernie, they'd be talking about gulags full of starving parents the kids had snitched on.  They think Stefan Löfven and Joe Stalin are the same guy.  They think Donald Trump and George Washington are the same guy.  Humanity may be stuck with their kind, these tribal lemmings too afraid to express skepticism, let alone discuss,  for fear of being shunned by their cohorts.

    Sometimes I wonder if in private, there's much secret gnashing of teeth.  They have to know something bad is approaching, that hitting bottom is gonna hurt. Continuously blaming The Other, while hugging each other the way scared chimps do, aren't long-lasting solutions.  And then the part where Jesus just never, obviously shows up.  At some level, this must be hard on them too.

  6. "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." Boss Tweed

    This defines the problem with BOTH party establishments. The party machine determines our options, The desire in a managed democracy with BOTH parties is to vote for the anointed candidate – then go away. 

    Trump's appeal is that the RNC rejected him in the primary. Perceived "attacks" by the media "prove" Trump's legitimacy to them. 

    Hillary's biggest liability was that she rigged her DNC nomination through the primaries and married Wall Street in fund raising thru the entire process. Die-hard Republicans I talk to are sympathetic to Bernie (frequently) because they are more inclined to view him as 'legit' and not sold out, even if they disagree w/ his philosophy.

  7. Maha, 

    I, too, hold onto that same faint hope.

    But my grip is slipping, and the hope grows ever more faint…

    Too much brain and soul damage has been done to America since the GOP's  racist blow-backs to the CRA & VRA, and then the sexist and "Christianist" reaction to Roe v. Wade.

    And conservative propaganda has brainwashed millions and millions of people since "The Equal Time Rule" went the way of the dinosaur.

    You can't reverse over 75 years of ratfucking America in an election or two.

    The war I joined as s teenager continues.

    It will last for decades – long after I'm gone.


    Or else there may not be any future.  Or at least one we might recognize…

  8. The odd combinations of gays and veterans, farmers and women, blacks and atheists, are the most aware of this, I think.  All the props used by the puppeteers get tossed aside when they are done, or even worse.

  9. Take heart from this, if you can: taken on their own terms, both candidates lost. Clinton the technocrat lost on the EC technicality, and Trump the populist lost the popular vote.

    The present moment is seeing the return of the repressed. Fascism and socialism are now on the table.


  10. This is probably the best snapshot of where we are and how we got here that I've ever seen.  Some of the links lead to nowhere, but, I am sure that will be remedied, if possible.

    Great work, Ms. O'Brien.

  11. Very  good.  I've been thinking about it for a long while.  With 2000"selection" and citizens United and 2016. Wars of choice and recession bailouts,we are close to done stick a fork in it. 

    I love the cartoon   it says it all.

    Now we will get Kavanaugh the hypocrite hack. If it is business, oligarchs, monarchy he loves it. Republicans are outnumbered  and know it. Funny how money is speech but we are not allowed to know who's talking.'s

  12. “Bruenig writes (as I have written in the past) that we may never know if the Russians really did change the outcome of the election.”

    That’s like saying police don’t need to search for someone who attempted to rob a bank and failed.  They need to get that person, as well as the bank needs to think about safeguards to prevent or at least mitigate the risk of future attempts.  We need to do the same thing here, with Russia and anyone who may have been involved.  Trump is certainly acting like the robber’s getaway driver here.

    “He’s safe, for now, because the elites find him useful. Because he is also a moron he probably doesn’t realize he’s just a tool.”

    And being a moron and ignorant fool adds value, in terms of what the elites (and Putin) wants.

    “And let’s not kid ourselves that if Hillary Clinton were president now the government would be working for us.”

    The US would not be the laughingstock it is with Trump.  We’d be getting along with our allies, and we wouldn’t be made fools of by Putin.  But her approach of “incremental centrism” is really nothing more than an excuse to continue the approach of serving the elites first, and hence:

    “But anything we, the people might want that the elites don’t want to give us would still be off the table.”

    “News coverage helped Trump become acceptable as POTUS. They played him up because he was good for ratings. And then they normalized him.

    And that normalization was less an intended lift for Trump and the republican party, as much as it was a justification for the media having promoted him for their own gain, i.e. ratings.

    “It may be that the only thing that will stop him is if the monied elites who actually run things decide he’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

    “You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors.”

    It’s been this way for some time now, and maybe, hopefully, the silver lining in this is that more voters will wake up to the fact that, it’s not just one party that is the reason voters’ concerns are not being met; it’s both, and that is because both parties are beholden to that same elite.  All one needs to do is think about, even at a surface level, of legislation that is passed, by either party, and it’s clear that the needs of the owners are always met.  In response to that, some will shout, ACA!  Even with that the huge subsidies undergirding the program – public money, mind you, went to the for profit health care industry.  There wouldn’t have been an ACA without it.

    • “That’s like saying police don’t need to search for someone who attempted to rob a bank and failed.” No, I was not even close to implying that the meddling was okay because Clinton probably would have lost anyway. What was said is just that we don’t know for sure whether Clinton would have won without the interference, which is a fact. There’s no accurate way to measure that. But, as I said, that’s a secondary consideration. That meddling occurred is the primary point.

  13. Best news all day, Allen Weissellberg is getting subpoena.  If he's made to tell all, game over.

  14. Maha, I know you weren't implying that, I was speaking more to those who have said, in an effort to exonerate Trump, that since we can't prove for certain whether Russia's efforts actually changed the election, that therefore there was no collusion.

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