The election results are in: we live in a Plutocracy. What are we going to do about it?
Last Tuesday's election results were a serious cause of dismay to many liberals and progressives. It wasn't just the fact that Democrats took such a drubbing - it's how out of whack those results were with what's happening in the communities we work with. At a time of record inequality and rapidly changing demographics, the midterm results show that our national politics are still dominated by rich, old, white men.
My progressive friends right now
In response to the midterm losses, many progressive are asking what we can do to win elections. How can the progressive community deal with problems like inequality, climate change, immigration, and mass incarceration when we can't decide who serves in office? But the problem isn't that progressives lose elections -- it's that our theory of change is dependent on winning elections. Trying to solve social problems through winning elections and pressuring politicians makes sense when you live in a functional democratic system. But, as difficult as it is to come to terms with, we don't live in a functional national democratic system.
We Don't Live in A Functioning Democratic System
In a functional democratic system, the will of the people is expressed through election results. In our system, the will of the people is thwarted because election results are based largely based on the amount of money spent by candidates, so politicians act according to the interests of donors, rather than voters.
In a functional democratic system, the party that wins an election puts the agenda they campaigned on into law. In our system, winning parties have to get their bills through a Congress that grants lobbyists and the minority party dozens of opportunities to gum up the works, leading to endless stagnation and gridlock.
In a functional democratic system, voters use elections to affirm the policies of incumbent parties and keep them in power, or throw the bums out and go with a new set of policies. In our system of divided, polarized government, voters who want to throw the bums out don't know who to vote for when Congress doesn't solve problems.
Frank Underwood has a message for you
It is not a radical, ideologically based conclusion to state that the United States no longer has a functional democratic system of national government. It is increasingly the conclusion of somber Congressional historians, political scientists, economists and constitutional scholars that we live in a plutocracy. Even Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz said these election results showed, "People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them -- only for the rich and powerful." And yet, the progressive community's strategy is still largely based on winning elections and influencing politicians, as if we live in a functional democracy.
How Do We Work Under Plutocracy
It's time for the progressive community to admit we live in a plutocracy and start working on strategies that reflect that reality. Our strategy can't just be to elect more Democrats. Even when Democrats had a super majority in Congress and control of the Presidency, they were incapable of passing anything that dealt with climate change, or the soaring cost of higher education, or long-term unemployment, or the undocumented status of millions of immigrant Americans. The problem isn't just the Republicans. The problem is that we live in a plutocracy in which those with money rule and the will and interests of the people is kept from becoming law.
Fortunately, there are ways to create political change from outside the political system - such as social movements. There is a rich tradition of social movement organizing in U.S. -- from the women's suffrage movement, to the labor movement to the civil rights movement -- and social movements continue to be a powerful tool in struggles against repressive and authoritarian regimes. If we are unable to create change through institutional channels, we must find ways to change the public's behaviors and norms, in order to shift institutions from below. Social movements are a method of changing society's behaviors and norms en masse that often lead to changes in institutions and law, but is not oriented towards gaining leverage over policy-makers.
Many people think social movement only emerge when the conditions are ripe, so leaders have no agency in the formation or growth of movements. However, social movement organizing is a skill that can be learned and improved upon, like any other skill. If we are to successfully organize under plutocracy, we need to develop the skill of movement organizing, and focus on shifting the public's norms and behaviors, instead of channeling so much of our time and energy into winning elections. If we realize the rules of the game are rigged, we should play a different game.
I believe that we will win
In order to help the progressive community start thinking about strategies for how to operate under plutocracy, I've put together a list of rules for how the plutocracy works, and how we can create change while living under it. Check back tomorrow for Part II: How To Organize Under Plutocracy.