US Politics and Society: The Status Quo Rhythm of 'Change'

By Dale T. McKinley · 6 Nov 2010

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Picture: Daves
Picture: Daves's Fiction Warehouse

So, the Republicans and their Tea Party buddies have resoundingly won the just concluded mid-term elections in the US, taking majoritarian control of the House of Representatives as well as state governorships and almost doing the same in the Senate. The victors are busy screaming from the rooftops about securing the ‘mandate of the people for radical change’, while the incumbent President and his defeated Democrats murmur their mea culpas and wonder what went wrong. Is this the beginning of a new, 21st century political revolution in US politics, a marker of a ‘sea change’ in US society? Not quite.

The political system in the US is, like all such systems emanating out of a liberal bourgeois framework, conceptually designed to protect and enhance institutional, procedural and representative democracy. There is the constitutional bedrock, the institutional state, the three-tier checks and balances set-up and the holding of regular elections. However, in the real world of capitalism, of which the US is the prime example, the key function of such a framework has always been one of providing the practical, political means by which democracy serves to protect and enhance the overall socio-economic system. In other words, things are turned upside down such that the political system becomes the ultimate guarantor, not of democracy, but of capitalism itself.

The way that the US (and all capitalist nations that have embraced and institutionalised the liberal bourgeois framework), has managed to practically achieve this is through the effective ideological and institutional separation of the state from the other framework elements. On the one side sits the permanent state with all of its massive bureaucratic, coercive, informational and intelligence-monitoring powers. On the other side sits the executive-legislative-judicial triumvirate (the government) whose representational character, and thus political legitimacy, supposedly gives it power to control and run the institutional state. 

Because the representational component of such a system is (and has been for a long time now) defined by electoral politics, this means, in practical terms, that the entire political legitimacy of the system rests on (regular) elections – and this is precisely how it works. The perverted ‘beauty’ of this is that unlike the state with its (effectively) institutionally autonomous power that does not come and go with electorally-linked changes in government the representational set-up is organically tied into a hyper-commoditised electoral politics whose outcomes, in a capitalist democracy, can largely be bought and sold to the highest ‘bidder’. Thus, there arises a situation in which there can be regular changes in the political party and ideological content and character of the representational side of the system without any meaningful or sustained changes in the institutional character and ideological purpose of the permanent, state side of the system. 

In turn, those with real ownership of the means of production and distribution in a capitalist society (i.e. capitalists) thus can, and do, enjoy dual power; power through a state designed and set up to ensure the overall institutional and ideological viability of a socio-economic system they effectively own and power through a government – whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans - whose representational character they can manipulate/greatly influence through commoditised elections and through the usual forms of money politics (i.e. lobbying, bribery, political donations et al.). For the latest examples of how this works in practice we need look no further than the past two US elections.

In 2008, Obama and the Democratic Party rode a wave of popular discontent with the governance, both domestic and foreign, of the Bush administration and the cynical opportunism of the corporate financial sector all the way into the Presidency and majoritarian control of the House of Representatives. While this was accompanied by lots of talk about ‘change’ and doing things differently as well as the rise of a renewed political vigour from a grassroots ‘citizens movement’ (that provided not insubstantial monetary infusions into Obama’s presidential campaign), there was, not surprisingly, very little talk of actually changing any of the permanent fundamentals of the socio-economic or political system - in other words, of changing the state and thus society itself.

The fact is that once Obama and his party took political ‘control’ of the government they became – like others before them - part and parcel of a political system in which the existent state remained as it was and what it was. In such a democracy, the only thing that Obama and company could/can really ‘change’ with any degree of consistency (other than the ‘natural’ change of party controlled government that comes with electoral victory) is the faces of his administration’s political appointees in the state and potentially, certain sectors of the legislative terrain. While there is definitely a strong argument that Obama has not chosen well or tried hard enough on these respective fronts, the bottom line is that he was never going to do anything other than try to save the system from itself (ironically, something the Republicans of late have simply taken for granted). 

In this respect, by using government – in the name of the people - to bail out the hopelessly bankrupt finance/banking and automotive industries he did a pretty decent job. The problem for Obama and the Democratic Party however, besides their naïve belief that resuscitated capitalists would actually repay the favour and invest in people, is that in doing so they opened up the political space for the Republicans and their Tea Party mates - completely opportunistically and hypocritically of course - to take up the cries of ‘big government’ screwing over the ‘little guy’, the taking away of individual economic ‘freedoms’ and grassroots opposition to the politics of elitism. 

Once again, if from a decidedly different and very confused ideological and tactical starting point, the government became the target and elections the vehicle. As the momentum – partly fuelled by the post-2008 economic downturn but predominately through a constructed political ‘backlash’ - gained speed it was the Republican/Tea Party folk who usurped Obama’s movement and electoral tactics. They railed against ‘insider’ Washington politics and the influence/power of corporate capital, held ‘citizen’ rallies and meetings and, of course, raised boatloads of cash from ordinary folk and corporate donors – helped along by a myriad network of foundations, institutes, non-profit organisations and ‘citizen’ groups. 

Yes, some of the big social/cultural issues were raised for specific constituencies (healthcare, gay rights, religious freedoms etc.) but that was not where the real fires could be lit. On the other side of the political party fence there was a fairly quick-step turn into collective depression (how could this happen only two years after we crushed them?) and eventual rearguard action to limit the fallout. 

So, the US government has ‘changed’ now that there is a representational hybridity stemming from the latest act of electoral theatre. And, no doubt, there will be a great deal more political drama over the next two years as the two parties do executive, legislative and judicial ‘battle’ until the next act appears on stage. Irrespective of this, the state will remain – as it always has - to ensure that the objects being thrown do not completely shut down the show. Change is a wonderful thing isn’t it? 

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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