How did Obama destroy America?

From Roosevelt to Obama: The Undermining of American Democracy

“We read the word 'democracy' everywhere. But I cannot repeat often enough that at its core it sleeps the sleep of the righteous ... It is a great word, the story of which has not yet been written, because this story has yet to be conveyed. "

- Walt Whitman, "Democratic Vistas"

A good month before “his” last election, that of Congress on November 4th, Barack Obama is faced with the ruins of his two terms in office, both internally and externally. In Iraq, the US air force is fighting the barbaric "Islamic State" (IS) after its troops have withdrawn. At the same time, the pictures from Ferguson / Missouri showed that there can be no talk of a post-racist society that many dreamed of after taking office for the first time. [1] At the core of this conflict, however, is an even more fundamental question, namely to what extent the USA (still) meets democratic standards today.

The US has been struggling with the question of how much democracy should be allowed since it was founded. Certainly, there have been periods of progress in which the right to vote has been upheld and respected and the potential for self-determination that arises from it has been expanded. But the respect for the expressions of will of the people was always only sometimes more, sometimes less. At the moment, however, democracy in America is declining - a development that must be taken very seriously. The legal scholar Garrett Epps assumes that it is one of those "phases of contraction" that have always occurred in the past during times of upheaval. I agree with Epps. Only, I think he underestimates how anti-democratic the electoral system and government institutions of the United States are.

When the black American Medgar Wiley Evers decided in 1946 to exercise his right to vote, heavily armed white citizens stood in the way of this proud war veteran. Their behavior showed that the victory over fascism that Evers and his comrades had won in Europe had no consequences in Mississippi: the feelings and attitudes of whites towards blacks had not changed. Democratic rights had been stripped from many Americans in the previous century, then granted, and then revoked again.

Denying citizens a basic right such as the right to vote, denying them the opportunity to “perfect the federation” under the constitution was not limited to 1946 or the racially segregated state of Mississippi. On the contrary: at no point has civic engagement in the United States been strong enough to really make the dream of representative democracy come true, let alone that of participatory democracy. In fact, American democracy is dramatically underdeveloped, especially when compared to the countries we like to compare ourselves to. And: it becomes more and more inoperable.

The extraordinary court ruling Bush vs. Gore of December 2000 made this inoperability of American democracy evident. The ruling stated: "Individuals have no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote for electors to appoint the president." According to this ruling, Americans do not have clearly defined voting rights. In the best case, they have an assumed right, which is sometimes in disputed cases by paragraphs in Voting Rights Act (1965 Suffrage Act) or by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Committee. However, this assumed right is constantly being reinterpreted for political purposes.

The ongoing decline of American democracy has far-reaching economic, environmental and social consequences for the country. It is therefore important to get to the bottom of the current debates about the suppression of voters, disenfranchisement, voter turnout and thus democracy itself. The crucial question is: will the Americans, as many times in the past, face the threat to their democracy with all determination?

Gross democracy product - constantly in the red

America's democratic deficits can be examined in a number of ways. Let's start with the obvious, the turnout. The question of how many people vote in how many elections touches on the fundamental issue of legitimacy. Do the ruling politicians really represent the will of the entire American people? Or is their power based on a dysfunctional process that promotes electoral disenchantment - and to such an extent that many Americans have now seen this injustice as irreversible and have capitulated? The answer to these questions is troubling and under-discussed in the US public. Our media measure and comment on the gross domestic product, but they do not address the “gross democratic product” at all. Otherwise you would immediately notice that the country is in a crisis. Many millions of Americans have long since disengaged themselves from the political process and no longer participate in the elections, which makes the USA an exception compared to other democracies. According to renowned institutions such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance In terms of voter turnout, the United States is consistently at the bottom end of the world. This should be the main theme in American politics. Disenchantment with politics not only has significant political consequences, it also influences debates about the economy. A supposedly representative democracy, which in reality does not represent the will of the great majority of Americans, tends to meet the demands of the rich elites.

Voting - a republican right

In the past, however, voter turnout in the United States was comparatively high. In 1960, during the election campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, 65 percent of the electorate took part in the election. But since then the participation has decreased noticeably, like that United States Election Project has traced in studies. But even worse, there has been a clear gap between the participation of eligible voters and the participation of people of voting age since the early 1970s. In other words, fewer people vote, and more people have been deprived of their right to vote or are made difficult to vote. Most of the time, the exclusion of potential voters goes back to regulations and structures of the federal states, which in the best case can be called archaic.

Karl Rove, George W. Bush's political strategist in the White House, encouraged the Conservatives to make “election fraud” their topic. Many Republican politicians took up Rove's idea and declared the fight against alleged electoral fraud, which should be prevented by stricter ID checks, to their goal. In many states, especially in those where Republicans have a majority in the legislature, there were massive legislative changes as a result.

The Republican initiative is highly controversial among electoral law experts. They complain that the goal of the initiative is not the fight against electoral fraud - which, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, is so minor that the "problem" is most aptly described as invented. According to the experts, the real issue is to force legitimate voters to go through a tedious process before they can vote. First of all, according to the draft law, they have to obtain valid documents and then submit them according to an extremely strict procedure. Only then are they allowed to vote. The experts also pointed out who the trial hits the hardest: African Americans, Latinos, and others People of Color as well as low-income students and older Americans - groups that tend to vote for the Democrats. This means that voting in the United States is difficult for many people. This is one reason why the United States slipped to 21st place on The Economist's “Democracy Index”. And yet, if the US simplified its elections greatly, the underlying reasons for frustration and disenchantment with politics would still not be eliminated. Any serious discussion about democracy in the US must first and foremost recognize that the electoral and political structures have led to such a serious loss of importance of voting that elections are little more than an empty political spectacle.

Plutocrats and dollar rule

The declining participation of many people in political processes is also being driven by another trend: the growing influence of economic elites within the US political system. A common thread in history can be seen: the closer democracy is grasped, the greater the wealth and power of the elites.

Today the powerful in politics and business secure their status with the argument that societies should define themselves through markets, not through democracy. The neoliberal economic dogma, which promotes abundance for the few and frugality for the many, is a real threat to democratic values ​​and institutions.

In 1992 Tony Benn responded to Francis Fukuyama's claim that the world had reached the “end of history” with democracy and a market economy, that history had had a most unpleasant outcome: massive inequality, severe poverty, environmental degradation, discrimination and violence. Twenty years later, these conditions have deteriorated even further - so much so that Fukuyama returned in 2010 with an essay on "Is America a Plutocracy?"

Fukuyama answered this rhetorical question straightforwardly: "If the question means 'Do the rich in the US have a disproportionate amount of political influence?' Then the answer must be 'yes'." That "yes" relates to the collapse of the United States Democracy that has not only robbed people of their political power, but also deprived them of economic stability. Fukuyama wrote: “It may sound like a mockery to the ears of Republicans who grew up with the Reagonomics [the economic policy under President Reagan] and are its supporters to this day, but an essential measure of a vibrant modern democracy is their ability to ensure that their own elites have adequate tax revenues. The most dysfunctional societies in the developed world are those whose elites legally evade tax payments or tax evasion through loopholes - thereby imposing public spending on the rest of society.

In addition, Fukuyama pointed out the inadequate reactions of an “opposition”, which too seldom really opposed: “The Democratic Party was actually expected to have put the issue politically at the center. Instead, she acted hesitantly and hesitantly. Although she regained a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives and Senate and was the president between 1993 and 2001 (and of course from 2009), her political successes did not lead her to raise the issue of economic inequality. To an unexpected extent, the Democrats have swallowed everything that was presented to them from the market fundamentalism of the 1990s. This reflects a widespread intellectual trend. "

Subsequently, the English sociologist Colin Crouch diagnosed a “post-democratic” phase in which the two major US parties made the neoliberal hoax their own. The elections, like the entire political process, are, according to Crouch, degenerating into "a tightly controlled spectacle, the framework of which is framed by rival teams of PR professionals, with the two teams only allowing a limited amount of content". Elections are held at regular intervals and there are changes of government - but the few billionaires always seem to get their way: bailout plans for Wall Street, no tax increases, an investor-friendly and at the same time locally devastating free trade policy, cuts in social safety nets and attacks on unions and public institutions, which should actually maintain and define the community.

The Supreme Court as a door opener for elites

Structural changes have aggravated these conditions. The electorate is increasingly losing the ability to influence the political discourse. It has now gone so far that even a clear result like Barack Obama's re-election in 2012 - five million votes more than his opponent and a huge lead of 332 to 206 on the electoral body - has a strikingly low impact. Voters may reject austerity proposals such as cuts in state pensions and social programs for the old and poor, thereby rejecting candidates such as Paul Ryan, who made such proposals. And yet, before the last votes are even counted, the business elites meet again to repeat their old threats. Some of it is based on nothing more than economic calculation.

The Supreme Court plays a crucial role in expanding power in favor of financially strong lobby groups. His 2010 verdict on the case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission enables corporations to have unlimited influence on elections. This judicial decision is only the latest in a series of judgments over the past four decades that have removed centuries-old hurdles for the richest Americans. Now, as a result of Citizens United, they can actually buy the elections: Those who can afford TV commercials now have more power than ever in the history of television to set the rules of engagement. Money interests are so dominant in politics that the bickering between Democrats and Republicans, between Liberals and Conservatives is only a sideline. Plutocracy and pillage take place on the big stage. That is not a democracy. Robert W. Chesney and I called something like this a "dollarocracy". In a democracy, the votes of voters determine what should happen after the elections. In a dollar democracy, money has power over it.

Badly damaged by a flood of money, the structures of civil society are gradually collapsing, while the foundations of bourgeois decision-making bodies begin to rot. This is of enormous benefit to the handful of billionaires. Because the shrinking number of active voters and the dissolution of democratic structures make it even easier for them to set the political agenda and thus to accelerate the neoliberal redistribution from the bottom up.

Some aspects of this phenomenon can be easily identified. For example, it is undisputed that money is the Lingua Franca represents our policy. The 2012 election campaign was the most expensive in American history at around $ 10.5 billion. Massive financial injections dictated the direction of the presidential and congressional elections. The donations also influenced state and local elections, judges and referendums. In almost all of these cases, the money comes from the same wealthy individuals, corporations and interest groups. Their influence on the regional and local level is unfortunately hardly noticed by the media because they allow themselves to be distracted too much from what is happening in Washington. If we become clear about the extent of this money power, then the overall picture shows that the judgment of the court Citizens United leads to a rapid restructuring of US policy.

Hardly anyone denies that both major parties give in to “the power of money”. However, it would be wrong to claim that Democrats and Republicans are the same; they differ considerably on a number of important issues. Nevertheless, it was silly when supposed political experts, after the 2012 election campaign, slammed the phrase that Obama's election victory proves that grassroots activism can still prevail against big money. That was a fallacy - in reality, Obama and his supporters had raised and spent over $ 1.1 billion in donations. It was $ 1.2 billion for Mitt Romney and his supporters. It is true that Obama's team was able to collect more individual small donations than Romney. But Obama also received more donations from major donors than the Republican. Romney's slight financial advantage was due to the fact that so-called Great PACs (short for Political Action Committee), organizations funded by billionaires, spent more on Romney.

The campaign donors and super PACs who write the biggest checks determine the political process. And they get what they prepaid for. The research officer of Sunlight Foundation, Lee Drutman, stated in 2013 that “Large corporations often and gladly have political stalemate. Just ask the big oil companies whether they would like an active congress on climate policy. Or hedge funds, what they think of an active Congress that wants to tax profit-sharing. ”Even if something happens in the government about this, the bottom line is rarely a radical departure from the usual, unsuccessful practice. Almost always try the leadership of both parties then "fix" a broken regulation by transferring taxpayers' money from the federal budget to private regulators of the same caliber.

The media as accomplices

The power of the money that goes into campaigning and influencing the government is reinforced by the fact that campaign spending is no longer being journalistically tracked. As a mainstay of democracy, journalism ought to hold up public interest, but in the United States it is in crisis. Because the donors no longer invest in information gathering and news dissemination. The reasons for this are waves of consolidation, the pursuit of profit and the reduction in advertisements. Advertisements are disappearing from traditional media, which covers much of the local, state, and national news, and appearing on new media platforms that collect and comment on this content. The resulting shutdowns of newspapers and the radical restructuring of radio stations have received a lot of attention. Newsrooms are shrinking in the printed press and on the radio - the latter is therefore more of an entertainment medium than a serious news source.

Overall, the picture of general decline emerges. There is almost no report at all on major topics from politics and government. The lack of coverage of major election campaigns then leads to the fact that incompetent or simply impossible candidates are elected to high offices. The low level of coverage that still exists gives the candidate “legitimacy” solely because of his donations and analyzes his campaign advertising instead of his ideas about content. This trend began about a quarter of a century ago when the major television networks gave control of the presidential debates to a consortium led by former leaders of both parties. Campaign coverage on US television today consists of little more than the rejected phrases and twisted facts of partisan moderators.

Negative advertising appears on the gaps left by dwindling journalism. It dominates the discourse in most election campaigns today and is so disgusting that the commercials keep many voters away from the ballot box. It does not convince voters to choose the other candidate instead of one, but rather discourages potential voters from voting for their preferred candidate and from even going to the polls. This fits well with the general strategy of political background actors to keep voters from voting. They prefer a small, easily manageable electorate. Instead of objecting to this, the owners of TV stations are reducing their local coverage in order to be able to offer more advertising space. Because especially in the individual states with head-to-head races, payments for political commercials have become the main source of income for local television. It is therefore not surprising that the media conglomerates are most vehemently opposed to a reform of the rules for campaign financing. Instead of real news, they offer Americans political propaganda and benefit from it.

Real democratization

But in view of the disastrous situation, what would a real democratization of the US-American situation look like?

One thing is certain: real change, which may even shake the economic elite, always seems impossible until it is actually carried out. Progressive Americans have been working within existing political, legislative, and legal structures since the 1970s, rather than trying to change them from the ground up. This was understandable for as long as it seemed, as if the prerequisites for an open and honest policy were in place. But while the left obediently adhered to the rules, the business elites launched a sophisticated counterattack with lobby groups, think tanks, media associations and legal strategies - all designed to put a stop to these democratic advances.

What is needed today is nothing less than a new reform era - with as much vitality and energy as that of the 1960s and 1970s. The great thing about the democratic experiment in the USA is that every generation can rewrite the existing rules. But the experiment can only succeed if it is understood that it can and must be re-formed over and over again.

It is evident that those who seek to weaken and curtail American democracy are absolutely in control right now. That is why the most dynamic politics at the moment often take place outside of elections and election campaigns: strikes in the fast food industry, demonstrations for the rights of immigrants, mass mobilizations of civil servants as in Wisconsin and Ohio, demonstrations under the motto "Moral Mondays" in North Carolina, the fight against school closings from Chicago to Philadelphia, the $ 15 minimum wage campaign. These movements will continue to grow because they are simply economically and socially inevitable. But in order for activism to be transformed into political decisions and regulations, these initiatives must alliance with movements for a strengthening of democracy that want to give the elections and voting meaning again. To do this, they must focus on demands for constitutional changes. In the same way, from the post-American Civil War to the present day, leftists have made it clear that they are concerned with much more than tinkering with the very edge of a broken system.

There are many political movements in the US that are barely covered. The most underexposed movement is a broad-based US campaign to bring about a Constitutional Change: To repeal judgments the Supreme Court paved the way for “big money” politics in this era. So far, 16 states have backed different proposals for constitutional amendment, formally declaring that "Money is property, not expression, and that Congress, state parliaments, and local authorities should have the power to regulate political donations and related expenditures . "

Support for a constitutional amendment comes from across the country, in the form of parliamentary resolutions or successful referendums in the states. In addition to Washington D.C. around 500 communities are promoting the project, from Liberty in Maine to Los Angeles in California. In May 2013, 77 percent of voters there supported in a referendum calling on MPs to bring about a constitutional amendment "so that there are upper limits for spending in election campaigns and so that corporations do not have the constitutional rights of individuals."

National organized groups like Public Citizen, Common cause, Free speech for people and Move to Amend (Movement for Constitutional Amendment) have joined forces with grassroots groups now operating from northern Alaska to the southern Florida Keys for the sake of this goal. This successful work is far more radical than what comes from Democrats and Republicans. The parties are basically only concerned with collecting as many donations as possible. All sorts of small groups from the right and left do little more than deepen the political trench warfare. Nevertheless, it is true that the reform successes are hardly paid any attention, not even by supposedly benevolent media. This is precisely why the misconception is firmly anchored that it is impossible to implement radical reforms that limit the power of corporations in favor of electoral and economic democracy.

The struggle for the right to vote

There is another movement that seeks constitutional amendment. It is less developed, but word is slowly getting around. Because what by judgment Bush vs. Gore and the subsequent voter card laws were attacked and by the unspeakable verdict Citizens United has been exposed to ridicule, this movement seeks to restore its full value. Working with electoral and civil rights groups, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota colleague Keith Ellison proposed the following constitutional amendment:

First, all US citizens of voting age should have the basic right to vote in any public election that takes place in their place of residence. Second, Congress should be empowered to monitor and implement this section through appropriate legislation.

Americans have in the past repeatedly considered amendments to the constitution that enshrine the right to vote. But the frequency with which heated debates on this issue have erupted across the country of late underscores the urgency to do something now. In 2013 alone, 80 bills were tabled in over 30 states to make voting more difficult. Ellison says: “No other law mentions the US Constitution as often as the right to vote. Even so, parliaments across the country are trying to take it away from millions of Americans. It is time we made it clear once and for all that every citizen of the United States has the fundamental right to vote. "

No question about it: a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote is a great challenge. But it is absolutely necessary. Because in the fight for democracy, the fight for the right to vote is of crucial importance. The movement for a corresponding constitutional amendment will create more scope for political activity so that the Citizens-United- Supreme Court rulings can be contested at the congressional and state levels. It will also initiate a discussion in favor of further constitutional amendments, which can expand the political, social and economic leeway.

These two movements point the way to repel attacks on democracy and to ensure a democracy that deserves its name. This is a risky undertaking because it rejects the widespread misconception that US democracy is already fully developed and instead emphasizes that much remains to be achieved.

An era of democratic renewal

The history of incapacitation and ongoing repression prevents the United States from delivering on Abraham Lincoln's promise of "government of the people, by the people and for the people." This failure of democracy has consequences right down to the last corner of society. The US cannot offer “freedom and justice for all” if elections are nothing more than a tasteless series of character assassinations. Voters today have far too little choice, and civil society interference is undesirable. Instead, the elections are shaped by the machinations of the millionaires, the actual main actors in politics.

Only in a healthy democracy with lively political debates is the turnout high and the decisions of the government throughout the legislature reflect the will of the people - not just one day after the elections. With such a democracy alone, the USA can cope with the far-reaching economic, ecological and social challenges of the present. Bernie Sanders and I share the view that American democracy can be saved. One thing is certain: far-reaching reforms that bring democratic structures to fruition and enable all Americans - not just billionaires - to vote are still possible. But such a turnaround will not occur if one only tinkers with the edges of the current system. Changes have to be radical - in the best American sense, which includes a revision of the constitution. Our goal must be on the one hand to keep the promise of suffrage for which Medgar Wiley Evers and many others gave their lives, and on the other hand that elections have consequences again.

A true representative democracy has emerged in the United States once before, if only briefly, namely in the 1930s: After the population elected Franklin D. Roosevelt's government and progressive state governments, a lively multitude emerged for a while. Party democracy. In response to public pressure, these governments established new structures such as trade unions, cooperatives and programs that gave the citizens more power in a turbulent economic time. Crouch described this period as the United States' democratic "summit".

There is no need to climb the exact same peak again. Rather, we should see that a democracy expands and shrinks, rises and then falls again. So we should definitely try to keep going up - but first we have to realize how far we have already fallen.

This text is based on a study by the author that was recently published on the website of the New York office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation ( has been published.

[1] See James Jennings, Barack Obama and the myth of post-racist America, in: “Blätter”, 6/2014, pp. 59-70.