Base Politics Versus
The Body Politic
The New American Oligarchy

By Terrell E. Arnold
Barely the day after the 2004 presidential election, parties and pundits began reviewing the results. Party leaders began assessing 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 Republicans 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 positions in the election four years from now. Electoral processes have captured total attention. The reason we have a government is barely up for discussion. 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 reports that contractors, activists, election officials, or candidate partisans failed to use the system in a fair and even-handed manner. Adding to confusion 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 tampering 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 generated 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. Republican monitors "read agitators determined to discourage voters if they could" showed up in numerous places, especially in swing states. Absentee ballots did not arrive or disappeared. Hanging chads (the poorly punched out preferences of voters on punch-card ballots) reared their ugly strands anew in many districts. Vote tabulating machines counted backward after reaching a certain 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 software, 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 reports of vote miscounts, and even scams were likely to be unexamined and uncontested.
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 political 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 teams, 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 system.
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 essential 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 maturity. 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 precursors 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 immigrants.
Taking advantage of those tendencies, in the period leading 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 actually 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, instead of the rural/agricultural ones that lay at the country's colonial foundation.
These new oligarchs were different also in that their power was not intrinsic; it lay in their access to power. They were actually political horse-traders. None of them was about serving the public at large, 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 mechanical 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, military experience, mobility, changing communications"first with newspapers, magazines and radio, then with movies and television"the gradual diminution of distinctions across ethnic and national-origins of émigrés, 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 common.
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 systems, 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 leadership.
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 communications brought us into the picture on national issues while making political stumping perhaps no less strenuous but certainly more profitable in terms of audiences 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 mutually 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 participation, more coherent in expectations, and more able to pay for services rendered.
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 working for them in Washington and other capitals. It was the heyday of the lobbyists 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 favors for wealthy individuals, businesses, trade groups, and other cause-oriented organizations. And the process was supported by a growing body of institutes, think tanks and policy study centers, among the main purposes of which was to promote some specific set of issues and/or viewpoints. Their business is articulating and representing interests, cultivating government support, and delivering votes. Their clients and sponsors are among the political bases.
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 deflected from the real issues of national management to basic issues of personal choice and preference. The vote-getting issues, and appeals to their support groups have less and less to do with the real business of governance.
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 carried 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 political 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 policies in the Middle East, lie regularly to the public, and promote and support a military establishment that has little visible relationship to American necessities?
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, therefore, could drift off to matters of choice and preference. Things that were costly 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, neighborhood, 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 result, 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, industry, and business whose interests now dominate the Bush second-term agenda and whose money contributed to the most expensive presidential election in American history.
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 large.
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 leaders 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 brought this about. Perhaps government could always have been bought, but the late 20th and early 21st century bases have more money and promise more deliverable 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 significant wealth and power, the discovery that such base groups could indeed deliver bloc votes with the right incentives/promises from party leaders, all contributed to a focusing of political power in America away from the body politic and into the hands of political bases. A combination of conservative Christians, 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 parties, 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 prescription drugs from Canada"all issues bottlenecked by specific oligarchies"states 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 President, 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 wealth and power. Thus, party organizations make big-time investments of money and energy in identifying and grooming candidates, cultivating their sources 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 emergence of national level organizations that on feel-good issues are well plugged into the grass roots party organizations through feel good issue constituents 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 country, we have a government to protect their turf. That perspective is decisively oligarchic.
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 submerged. The new wrinkle that has appeared increasingly in party politics is a national 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 building. 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 Bush.
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 dictator 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 important 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 privately-funded 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 neo-conservative 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 establishment 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 leaders, 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 serving 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 at



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