The wound burst open in November. History, suddenly, could no longer be avoided. Reality could no longer be avoided. American democracy is flawed, polluted, gamed by the oligarchs. It always has been.
But not until the election process whelped Donald Trump did it become so unbearably obvious.
Welcome to “The Strip and Flip Disaster of America’s Stolen Elections,” by Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, which was released last year and has been newly updated. What I find invaluable about the book is that, while it meticulously pries open the current election process with all its warts and flaws — the voter suppression games those in power continue to play, the unverifiability of electronic voting machines — it also delves deep into this country’s history and illuminates the present-day relevance of the worst of it: the history we haven’t yet faced.
Whatever else delivered Trump to our doorstep, the most undeniable element in his “victory” was the Electoral College. It’s hardly adequate to call this institution obsolete; its existence is the manifestation of racist hell.
“… to protect their interests in a nation where they were being rapidly outnumbered, Southerners got an Electoral College that included a ‘3/5ths clause,’” Fitrakis and Wasserman write. “Slaves (who could not vote themselves) were counted for 3/5ths of a vote for president and in establishing congressional districts.”
This is American history stripped naked, its basic lie revealed. Slavery wasn’t simply a regrettable sideshow. Repression and dehumanization — the creation of an “other” — smolder at the nation’s core. Because of slavery and institutionalized racism, impoverished white people could still feel good about themselves — and there would be no mixed-race uprisings against the status quo, which is still the case.
In other words, democracy is only acceptable if it can be controlled by those already in power, and the essence of this control is to ensure that the conditions benefiting the powerful are not seriously threatened. This condition has not gone away. American democracy remains in a cage, which means “we the people” — and our will to create a better world — also remain in a cage.
Fitrakis and Wasserman devote a considerable portion of their book to the phenomenon of slavery, which in colonial North America was “peculiar” in its cruelty.
“Essentially a ‘bribe’ to the whites,” the authors write, “American chattel slavery cast blacks into an abyss of subhuman barbarity. Legally, they (and their children) became mere objects, subhuman slaves for life. White ‘owners’ could sell, torture, rape and murder their black ‘property’ with no legal penalties.”
The slave codes remained unchanged when the colony transitioned to nationhood, but there was one addition. A slave was considered, for election purposes, to be three-fifths of an actual human being. This didn’t mean slaves could cast three-fifths of a vote, simply that their owners, and all the free (white) residents of the state in which they resided, acquired additional political power because of their presence. This power was manifested in the Electoral College, in which slave states had disproportional representation because of the three-fifths clause.
“Thus,” Fitrakis and Wasserman point out, “all presidents from Washington to Lincoln either owned slaves or their vice presidents did. With additional representation, the South dominated the House of Representatives.”
The Civil War eliminated slavery, as the textbooks tell us, but it didn’t eliminate the dark forces that created it. Indeed, the authors call slavery only the first of five “Jim Crows” that have manifested in this country to suppress African-Americans, maintain racial discord, prevent unity among the economically exploited classes, hobble democracy and protect the military-corporate status quo.
Jim Crow No. 2 was the century of institutional racism and segregation that claimed ownership of America after the Electoral College awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, in repayment for which he dismantled Reconstruction and ended all legal protection of freed former slaves. Racism continued to rule — and most African-Americans still couldn’t vote. Democracy remained as tightly caged as ever.
When the civil rights movement dismantled the Jim Crow legal system in the ’60s, the status quo regrouped and created a police state. They called it the War on Drugs. Fitrakis and Wasserman call it the third Jim Crow, which began taking shape in the Nixon years. No one described it better than John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor, did in a 1994 quote to writer Dan Baum, which was finally published in Harper’s Magazine 22 years later:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The fourth Jim Crow the authors cite are the electoral interventions of the American empire — from vote manipulation to CIA-engineered coups in countries around the globe — to protect “national interests.” Together, these four manifestations of the worst of who we are, the last two of which are still alive and kicking, create a credible context for Jim Crow No. 5, which is a potpourri of tactics to suppress and strangle the minority vote (too few machines in certain voting districts, strict ID laws, bogus elimination of names from voter rolls and much more) combined with the use of easily hackable electronic voting machines and the abandonment of verifiable paper ballots.
To this I would add mainstream media contempt for anyone who questions the election results sanctified on Election Night by TV anchorpersons, no matter that they differ significantly from exit poll results. I would also add the extraordinary superficiality of presidential elections: the systematic jettisoning of populist candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, from contention, and the avoidance of real issues (e.g., the military budget) in the debate, creating a huge public-interest void in the process.
But all of these extraordinary efforts to keep democracy caged make me believe that the country — and the world — are on the brink of profound change. Most of us want a world free of poverty and war and would vote for its creation if we could.
Fitrakis and Wasserman make the following recommendations: “We need to win universal automatic voter registration; transparent voter rolls; a four-day national holiday for voting; ample locations for all citizens to conveniently cast ballots; universal hand-counted paper ballots; automatic recounts free to all candidates; abolition of the Electoral College; an end to gerrymandering; a ban on corporate money in our campaigns.”
This is how it starts. Let democracy out of its cage.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.