I don’t often like to resort to overused analogies when analyzing politics, but when talking about the U.S. presidential election I find the best way to view it is as a protection racket. A protection racket, of course, is a mafia-like scheme where a group threatens violence against businesses or people unless they are paid to “protect” said groups. You know, the old “you’ve got a nice store here, wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to it, would you?” Our political system has been carefully crafted by the Democratic and Republican parties to frighten voters into selecting what they perceive to be the best worst option, rather than the most positive outcome. Keep in mind that the opposite is true for the ruling class and donors to campaigns: they tend to get what they want because both candidates are likely to promote the interests of the people and groups who fund their campaigns and control the levers of economic power. The two major parties and their large retinue of paid staff also get what they want: political power and access to jobs/resources.
The Shape of the Racket
The political protection racket has been built and maintained by the Democrats and Republicans using a number of techniques:
- Gerrymandering rendering the majority of the country into non-competitive Congressional and state-legislative electoral districts.
- Use of the Electoral College, and not the popular vote, to elect the president.
- Placing of ballot-access and electoral hurdles in the way of alternative party candidates.
- Preventing the establishment of fully publicly financed elections.
- A symbiotic relationship with media outlets to both indoctrinate and propagandize the voting public as an extension of the media’s role in supporting the state and ruling class ideology.
- Extremely negative responses to attempts by voters to exit the system by voting for alternative parties and candidates: predictions of voter irrelevance giving way to constant propaganda that third-parties (which may be the voter’s preferred outcome) will prevent the voter’s least non-preferred outcome from happening.
- Actual reprisals against districts and voters who have successfully chosen to exit the protection racket.
It’s important to examine each of these in turn.
Gerrymandering is drawing a district so that one party has an overwhelming registration advantage over all others. This makes voter rebellion (exit) unlikely because it would require the opposition to either enroll a significant number of new voters, encourage non-voters to vote, attract a significant portion of the majority party voters to vote against the party, or a combination of the three. In the United States, the Congressional district map has been so gerrymandered that there are between 16-19 races out of 435 that can truly be called competitive. That’s 4% of all House races! The Senate is slightly more competitive, with 7 seats out of 35 up for election in that category (20%), but keep in mind they are only 7% of the total Senate (7/100).
I mention this as a building-block of the political protection racket because by eliminating choice in vast majority of elections, you force voters to A.) consistently elect people from one political organization no matter what their preferences might be, B.) inevitably discourage many voters from participating in the political process, and C.) train voters to consistently vote for one particular party (no matter what) and that this is part of a democratic political order’s proper functioning.
Keep in mind this is all even worse at the level of state legislative elections.
Thus the Democrats and Republicans and their paid staff are assured a certain amount of political spoils no matter what, as exit from the system is blocked in most areas of the country. Like a company store, the voters an residents have to go because there seems to be no other option.
The Electoral College was designed to prevent the working class and poor from electing a radical executive who might try confiscate the property of the wealthy. Alexander Hamilton put this in an eloquent way when he wrote that the Electoral College was designed so “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” That is, because the vast majority of electors were originally chosen by state legislatures, this meant there were safeguards in place to prevent the popular will from being exercised, should it prove unacceptable to the elite.
Today the Electoral College is a part of the protection racket not because they are selected by state legislatures, but rather because it limits the truly competitive (swing) states to just 10 or 11: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. 40 of the 50 states have voted for the same party since the election of 2000.
Think about this! Preventing a fully national electoral campaign and limiting the impact of democratic choice (in the form of the popular vote) but means there is precious little chance of voter rebellion and exit. The protection racket has tightened its grip by limiting the swing vote to merely 11 states.
On top of this the state-by-state nature of the vote means the two parties can attack alternative party candidates like Jill Stein in two ways: first for being irrelevant (they can’t win electoral votes) and second because they could be so relevant as to tip the election. They can have their cake and eat it, too, and petrify voters into choosing between two candidates even in non-swing states due to the irrelevance/relevance pretzel-logic of the Electoral College.
Those of us who fight for instant runoff-voting and the popular vote in presidential elections should bear in mind that it is the Democratic and Republican parties who love the Electoral College and the fear they can create in the hearts of voters if alternative presidential candidates gain any traction (while ignoring and disparaging them when they do not). It is a perfect example of the racket.
Ballot-Access and Electoral Hurdles
I doubt most people think of how difficult it can be to even appear on the ballot for office in the United States. There are 51 different rules (including Washington, D.C.), and the process used for independents and alternative party candidates is usually onerous. Not only that, but since boards of election issue the rules and are staffed by Democrats and Republicans by law, non-major party candidates start at a disadvantage.
As for electoral hurdles, while gerrymandering is one, the single-member district, plurality voting system tends to replicate the racket at the local level. Alternatives (which often include the disadvantaged major party candidate in that district) are either derided as a wasted vote or they are seen as a mortal threat to the party that controls the racket.
By limiting the ability of candidates to appear on the ballot and then limiting their chances of success, the racketeers rarely have to worry about serious rebellion.
The amount of campaign cash spent on elections in the United States is staggering; the Economist estimates nearly $5 billion will be spent in the 2016 cycle. Neither major party has much interest in limiting the gusher of donations available to them from the very wealthy and corporations. In fact, the political economist Thomas Ferguson developed his investor-driven theory of elections after determining that political parties set their policies and limit their rightward and leftward tilts based on investor-blocs donating to the parties. Since no investor-bloc seems interested in eliminating private funding of elections, there is no real movement to do so in Congress or at most state levels (with Maine and Arizona as rare exceptions).
Quite simply, this is part of the protection racket because A) candidates and parties unable to raise vast sums of cash cannot pay for ads, staff and mailings necessary to appear viable – which is only the case because there is no system of public campaign financing, B) voters either become non-voters due to despair or disgust (which is preferred by the racketeers in gerrymandered districts if a voter is not an orthodox party supporter) or dismiss alternative candidates and choose to keep the racket because nothing else seems viable.
Media Coverage and Propaganda
It would be easier to view the media as a crucial part of the state and ruling class’ tools for indoctrinating the population than as an independent body; it is enmeshed in the ideological superstructure of the system. Regardless, the media’s role is to be a gatekeeper for their paymasters. 6 corporations control 90% of the media in the United States! Not only does that give unprecedented control to the heads of those corporations, but given their own interests in maintaining a relationship with the racketeers (for “access”) the journalists and editors rarely take a negative view of the electoral racket, and even more rarely afford third-party and independent candidates equal, fair time and consideration.
They are in fact more likely to propagandize in whatever way keeps the racket stable for the elite; in 2016 this seems to mean almost every media outlet denouncing Donald Trump and backing Hillary Clinton (the elite consensus choice).
If one never knows about an alternative, the limitation of choice means a large contingent of voters will simply choose to become non-voters when discouraged, and the rest will remain trapped loyal party members.
Negative Response To Racket-Exit and Third-Party Votes
The main response to a concerted decision by a bloc of voters to reject the racket is to belittle their chosen candidate(s) and to shame and scare them back into line. We see this with the development of the “spoiler” mythology during, and then immediately after the election: the Democratic Party, which has helped game and rig the system almost since the inception of the United States, blamed Ralph Nader and the Green Party for their candidate’s loss. It is as if the owners of a casino (another racket) were sobbing about losses due to card counting at the blackjack table – hilarious, to be sure, since they set the rules to a corrupt game!
This is a very persuasive tactic and most people don’t like being constantly belittled for their choice of third-party candidates or “losers.” It’s ideological shaming and part of the larger indoctrination into the systemic rules that are enforced by hard and soft power.
Actual reprisals are rare, since the system is rigged against alternative candidates to begin with, but examining wins by Green Party state legislator John Eder in Maine (2002 & 2004) we can see that the first course of action is to redistrict (this also happened to Dennis Kucinich in Ohio even as a Democrat, albeit one very critical of the Democratic Party apparatus). Eder happened to run in Portland, Maine, a very liberal city and won his second election after being redistricted; it helps that Maine has a very good public campaign financing law as well. Matt Gonzalez, who was a GP head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, very nearly won the mayor’s race in 2003. During the run-off election the Democrats and Republican celebrities campaigned together and there were threats to city workers to campaign for the Democrat (Gavin Newsom) on the job.
Break the Racket
The solution, of course, is to break the racket. Build alternatives by supporting them with money, time and votes – and refuse to accept the fear-based racketeering of the major parties. Easier said than done, of course, but the decay of the two-party apparatus in the United States – which mirrors the swift decline of old-guard 20th century parties in Europe – should give hope that a battle against the racket is not fruitless.