Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a political analyst on Brand X with Russell Brand. You can follow him at http://www.twitter.com/matthewstoller.
Every election cycle, Americans are greeted with a bevy of condescending lectures from well-heeled political elites about the importance of voting. It’s your duty. People died for right to vote. And so forth. This year, a far more compelling message about democracy is coming from miners in Spain, who, beset by austerity measures imposed by both political parties, are shooting at riot police with homemade rockets and slingshots.
These miners – who live in a country that was until recently considered a wealthy Western democracy – have the right to vote. But in spite of their right to vote, politicians and bankers in Spain are threatening their families with endemic poverty and powerlessness. These miners feel that they may have a vote, but they have no voice – as one of them said, their democracy is just dictatorship by another name. And so they are doing what people have done for thousands of years when confronted with a series of indignities from their political leaders – they are rebelling.
Before examining similar unrest could occur in America, let’s go to our own leadership’s attitude towards voting. This cycle, the award for cynicism in civics goes to Obama advisor turned millionaire banker Peter Orszag, who wrote an editorial for Bloomberg in June arguing we should make voting mandatory. Just six months before arguing for mandatory voting, Orszag wrote a column in the New Republic subtitled “Why we need less democracy”, arguing we need “depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions”, most likely in order to cut social spending programs on which normal Americans not in the political class rely. So on the one hand, Orszag wants everyone to vote, to participate in a system, but on the other, he wants those votes to not matter when it comes to preserving their own ability to buy food and medicine. This is exactly the dynamic that led to Spanish miner battles.
Orszag’s attitude is pervasive among political elites, and has been for years. However, such an authoritarian impulse has never in our lifetimes intersected with recent economic, climactic and political circumstances in this country. According to recently released data, wage inequality has risen faster under Barack Obama than under George W. Bush. The biggest source of wealth for most Americans – home equity – has collapsed in value. And the recent sign-of-the-apocalypse heat wave has sent food prices soaring – over the next decade years we can expect the food insecurity that sparked the Arab Spring to bite in America.
So, could we see an Arab Spring or Spanish miner style resistance here? Rebellions have happened in America, though they have been mostly whitewashed out of our history books. In 1921, in West Virginia, over one million rounds of ammunition were fired during a coal strike called the Battle of Blair Mountain. Warren Harding threatened to call in bombers left over from World War I, and private planes were hired to drop gas on striking and armed miners. Far from unsuccessful, these radical mineworkers later helped organize the massive upsurge in labor power in the 1930s through sit-down strikes. This militant pro-labor attitude held for decades, flattening wealth and power distribution in America and leading to a broad-based middle class. In 1952, one in three Americans were part of a strike of a thousand people or more. In 1970, with a much larger labor force, that number was still one in four. Most Americans had the experience of striking, of having power – it was common.
Today, the ability to participate in the most basic form of democratic control over one’s life – the decision to contribute or withhold one’s labor – has basically ended. In 2009, only one in a thousand Americans participated in a large scale labor action. But as we saw with Occupy Wall Street, there is no reason large scale civic action can’t happen here. And with paramilitary forces breaking up these largely peaceful protests, and new draconian measures imposed on protesters in cities across the country, the lesson American elites seem to want to teach those who seek redress from their government is that peaceful change isn’t possible.
John F. Kennedy once address radical political and economic inequality by noting that, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Kennedy was addressing Latin America, but as inequality increases radically under both Democrats and Republicans in this country, and political rights decline in the Citizens United era, we would do well to listen to this maxim. Though perhaps, as American politicians layer remarkable surveillance technologies, expand the importance of one’s credit rating, encourage media consolidation, allow unlimited corporate cash in politics, and expand militarized policing on top of a giant prison complex, it’s clear that the organizers of the country understand this all too well.
Turning America into a giant prison where the prisoners are forced to vote for the one who beats them may prevent normal people from having the ability to make economic decisions themselves. It may allow the rich to control American politicians, and make the normal people entirely dependent on their employers. It may free up the political class to seize even more wealth and power, and let the children of the wealthy escape from having to compete with the children of the middle class. But a prison is still a prison, even if it is the size of a country, and even if some of the cells are gilded. Is this really where American elites really want to live?