Who Gets to Rule a Nation? The Rise of the One-Party State

A government in which one person has unlimited power is an autocracy. A government in which a small group has a great deal of power is an oligarchy. Unlike an autocracy, there is no requirement that oligarchs have unlimited power. Here in the United States, we still have a representative democracy, although lately it’s been veering toward oligarchy. We also have a president who would prefer America as autocracy with himself as the autocrat.

Anne Applebaum has written a long article for The Atlantic that explains the form of government that’s on the rise around the world. Her article is labeled this way:

Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.

Whether such governments are autocracies or oligarchies isn’t clear-cut. She suggests “single-party” or “one-party state”. The paragraphs below explain how they work and how their adherents justify them. Reading the article helped me understand the current crisis.

[Who gets to rule a nation?] For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled—but why should they ever be?

Monarchy,tyranny, oligarchy, democracy—thesewere all familiar to Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. But the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world—think of China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe—was first developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917. In the political-science textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union’s founder will surely be remembered not for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this enduring form of political organization. It is the model that many of the world’s budding autocrats use today.

Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as pre-revolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anti-competitive and anti-meritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Lenin’s one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media… In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.

This mockery of the competitive institutions of “bourgeois democracy” and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler’s Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire.In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants. They discourage businesses from advertising in “opposition”—by which they mean illegitimate—media.

Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives….

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Forewarned is forearmed. Please vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November’s mid-term election. And convince your reasonable friends to vote if any of them still need convincing.

The Red Menace Isn’t What It Used To Be. It’s Not Even Red. It’s Orange.

One thing everyone needs to understand about the Orange Menace’s love for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is that Russia isn’t a Communist country anymore. Boris Yeltsin banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union back in 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. Putin resigned from the party that year.

In 1995, Putin helped organize the pro-government “Our Home Is Russia” party. In 1999, he joined the new “Unity” party. That’s the same year he described Communism as “a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization”. In 2008, during his second term as Prime Minister, Putin became the leader of the “United Russia Party”.

Although there are still quite a few Communists in Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is much less popular than United Russia. In this year’s election, Putin’s party got 54% of the vote. The Communists came in second with 13%.

Since Putin isn’t a Communist anymore, what is he? Here’s how Wikipedia describes United Russia:

The Party has no coherent ideology; however, it embraces specific politicians and officials with a variety of political views who support the administration. The Party appeals mainly to non-ideological voters; therefore, United Russia is often classified as a “catch-all party” or as a “party of power“. 

In 2009 the United Russia Party proclaimed “Russian Conservatism” as its official ideology.

United Russia isn’t so much a political party that tries to win elections in order to carry out a set of policies. Instead, it’s one of the tools used by the rich and powerful to win elections so they can maintain their positions at the top of Russian society.

Putin began his political ascent when he was put in charge of the Presidential Property Management Department in the late 1990s. His job was to manage the transfer of overseas property belonging to the Soviet Union and Communist Party to the new Russian Federation. That process had been going on since the fall of the Soviet Union. But instead of being transferred to the new government, much of that property was “privatized”. In other words, it ended up in the hands of a small number of well-placed people, including Putin, who quickly became extremely rich. 

In the words of the economist and lawyer James S. Henry, whose long article “The Curious World of Donald T___p’s Private Russia Connections” tells the sordid story in detail:

…One of the most central facts about modern Russia [is] its emergence since the 1990s as a world-class kleptocracy, second only to China as a source of illicit capital and criminal loot, with more than $1.3 trillion of net offshore “flight wealth” as of 2016…

[It was] one of the most massive transfers of public wealth into private hands that the world has ever seen.For example, Russia’s 1992 “voucher privatization” program permitted a tiny elite of former state-owned company managers and party apparatchiks to acquire control over a vast number of public enterprises, often with the help of outright mobsters.

A majority of Gazprom, the state energy company that controlled a third of the world’s gas reserves, was sold for $230 million; Russia’s entire national electric grid was privatized for $630 million; ZIL, Russia’s largest auto company, went for about $4 million; ports, ships, oil, iron and steel, aluminum, much of the high-tech arms and airlines industries, the world’s largest diamond mines, and most of Russia’s banking system also went for a song.

In 1994–96, under the infamous “loans-for-shares” program, Russia privatized 150 state-owned companies for just $12 billion, most of which was loaned to a handful of well-connected buyers by the state… The principal beneficiaries of this “privatization”—actually, cartelization—were initially just 25 or so budding oligarchs with the insider connections to buy these properties and the muscle to hold them.… 

For the vast majority of ordinary Russian citizens, this extreme re-concentration of wealth coincided with nothing less than a full-scale 1930s-type depression, a “shock therapy”-induced rise in domestic price levels that wiped out the private savings of millions, rampant lawlessness, a public health crisis, and a sharp decline in life expectancy and birth rates.

Is it any wonder at all that Vladimir Putin, the man in charge of this highly successful criminal enterprise, is one of the Orange Menace’s favorite people? T___p built his real estate career on tax breaks from local government (a billion dollars from New York City alone), tax evasion, loans that were never repaid and a number of shady deals, while Putin should be made an honorary member of the Republican Party. Donnie and anti-Muslim, super-secretive white guy Vladimir have a whole lot in common.

It’s remarkable that the Orange Menace hasn’t said a bad word about Putin or Russia since he began running for President, even though he’s criticized just about everyone else on Earth. It isn’t just admiration on T___p’s part. There has been a lot of money involved. Mr. Henry proceeds:

… For many banks, private bankers, hedge funds, law firms, and accounting firms, for leading oil companies like ExxonMobil and BP, as well as for needy borrowers like the Trump Organization, the opportunity to feed on post-Soviet spoils was a godsend. This was vulture capitalism at its worst.

The nine-lived Trump, in particular, had just suffered a string of six successive bankruptcies. So the massive illicit outflows from Russia … from the mid-1990s provided precisely the kind of undiscriminating investors that he needed. These outflows arrived at just the right time to fund several of Trump’s post-2000 high-risk real estate and casino ventures—most of which failed. As Donald Trump, Jr., executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, [said] in September 2008 (on the basis, he said, of his own “half dozen trips to Russia in 18 months”):

“In terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

All this helps to explain one of the most intriguing puzzles about Donald Trump’s long, turbulent business career: how he managed to keep financing it, despite a dismal track record of failed projects.

According to the “official story,” this was simply due to a combination of brilliant deal-making, Trump’s gold-plated brand, and raw animal spirits—with $916 million of creative tax dodging as a kicker. But this official story is hokum. The truth is that, since the late 1990s, Trump was also greatly assisted by these abundant new sources of global finance, especially from “submerging markets” like Russia. [T___p and Putin] are not evil twins, exactly, but they are both byproducts of the … scams that were peddled to Russia’s struggling new democracy.

So, maybe the Orange Menace did something very bad on one of his trips to Russia and they’re blackmailing him. Maybe one of his fundamental desires is that the U.S. and Russia form an alliance to make weaker countries give up their nuclear weapons (as reported here). Maybe he sees Putin as an ally in the fight against Islamic radicals or a coming war with China. Maybe he views Vlad as a role model, since Putin often has his critics and enemies murdered. It seems likely, however, that it’s mostly about the money.

(For a look at one way Putin plans to rake in the rubles once the new President and the Secretary of State from Exxon are in charge, take a look at this. There’s a whole lot of oil just north of Russia.)

The Criminals Who Poison Our Elections

Anybody with the sense God gave a goose understands that Republican efforts to stamp out voter fraud are really an attempt to reduce the number of Democratic voters. Here’s what’s been happening in Georgia:

[The Republican] Secretary of State publicly accused the New Georgia Project in September of submitting fraudulent registration forms. A subsequent investigation found just 25 confirmed forgeries out of more than 85,000 forms—a fraud rate of about 3/100ths of 1 percent [in decimal terms, that’s a rate of 0.000294].

Meanwhile, a group of civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit claiming that thousands of registration forms submitted this summer still haven’t been recorded in Georgia’s voter database, “nearly all of them belonging to people of color in the Democratic-leaning regions around Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus”. State and county officials, however, said they have already processed all of the applications sent to them by the October 6 registration deadline, and anyway, there is no state law that requires properly-submitted registrations to be processed by any particular date. A local judge has declined to intervene, citing a lack of proof that the registrations have gone missing.

Then there is this detailed report from Al Jazeera America:

Election officials in 27 states, most of them Republicans, have launched a program that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls. Millions, especially black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk. Already, tens of thousands have been removed in at least one battleground state, and the numbers are expected to climb…

At the heart of this voter-roll scrub is the Interstate Crosscheck program, which has generated a master list of nearly 7 million names. Officials say that these names represent legions of fraudsters who are not only registered but have actually voted in two or more states in the same election — a felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison.

How does this Crosscheck program work? You can appear on the list as a suspected felon if your first and last name matches the first and last name of someone who voted in another state:

The actual lists show that not only are middle names commonly mismatched and suffix discrepancies ignored [such as Jr. or Sr.], even birthdates don’t seem to have been taken into account. Moreover, Crosscheck deliberately ignores Social Security mismatches, in the few instances when the numbers are even collected.

A statistical analysis revealed that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans appear on the list much more often than their percentage of the population would indicate, while white Americans appear less often. The reason is that there is less variety in the names of certain ethnic groups, and among those groups are African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, groups that all tend to vote for Democrats. (By the way, you can enter your own name at the Al Jazeera America site and see if you’re right to vote may be challenged.)

If you’ve watched enough Fox News, you might conclude that the hordes of Democrats who poison our elections by illegally voting in more than one state don’t use the same birthdates or Social Security numbers when they register to vote in this state and that, so why bother matching on those criteria?

Or you might infer that America does indeed have a criminal element bent on interfering with the electoral process. Unfortunately, the most crafty and dangerous members of this criminal conspiracy are Republican officials whose job it is to administer elections.

PS — Paul Krugman wrote an excellent column the other day called “Plutocrats Against Democracy”. I suggest reading the whole thing, which isn’t very long. It ends this way:

But now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy.

Professor Krugman is an optimist. He thinks the plutocrats haven’t already won.

Dreaming About Democracy

In a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill uttered one of the best-known and most profound witticisms on the subject of democracy, although he was apparently quoting someone else:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

Benjamin Franklin was responsible for the other best-known and profound remark on the subject. One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 recorded the following exchange in his diary:

A lady asked Dr. Franklin, Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? A republic, replied the Doctor, if you can keep it.

Churchill and Franklin summed up the situation quite nicely. Few people these days (at least around here) question whether some kind of democracy is the best form of government. Most of the discussion now regards whether we’re losing our democracy or have already lost it.

In that vein, one of Salon’s writers, Andrew O’Hehir, published an article a few days ago called “This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like”. O’Hehir argues that our democracy is hardly a democracy at all and, furthermore, it’s unlikely to get any better (more democratic) than it already is:

We have to consider the possibility that the current state of American politics, with its bizarre combination of poisoned, polarized and artificially overheated debate along with total paralysis on every substantive issue and widespread apathy and discontent, is what we get after 200-odd years. It’s not a detour in the history of Jeffersonian democracy but something closer to a natural outcome. We also must consider that our version of a democratic system is not, in fact, designed to reflect the will of the people … but to manipulate and channel it in acceptable directions.  

On O’hehir’s view, those who believe our dysfunctional democracy might one day evolve toward a more democratic ideal are as misguided as the defenders of the Soviet Union who thought the state would eventually wither away and be replaced by a truly egalitarian form of communism. Given the influence of money in our political system and the increasingly bizarre politics of the Republican Party, it may in fact be too late for America to become less oligarchic and plutocratic. O’hehir may be right about that.

Still, he doesn’t suggest anywhere in the article that Churchill was wrong and we should prefer aristocracy or anarchy instead. He only argues that democracy is a fantasy, which seems to imply that we should all relax and accept our politics for what it is, a tool of the rich and powerful meant to keep the rest of us in line. Why try to elect better politicians or advocate particular reforms if nothing is going to improve? At this point, our best strategy might be looking for refugee status in Scandinavia.

Assuming that Sweden and Denmark aren’t realistic options for most of us, it seems to me that we might as well do what we can to make America more democratic, even if we can’t do very much. It isn’t out of the question that there will be a reaction in coming years to the right-wing onslaught of the past several decades. It certainly seems possible that we could one day institute real campaign finance reform, for example. We could make it easier for everyone to vote. The Fairness Doctrine that once called for broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on important public issues could conceivably be resuscitated and even strengthened. We might make the tax code more progressive again. Regulations that interfere with the most rapacious forms of capitalism might be adopted. It isn’t impossible that labor unions will reverse their recent decline.

It seems unnecessarily pessimistic to conclude from the past 30 or 40 years that we might never have another New Deal. Or too assume that corporate capitalism can never be replaced by democratic socialism, even in the United States. Human institutions do evolve. Maybe it will take a crisis of some sort. Or maybe we just need to help. 

Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally remind ourselves why democracy is worth fighting for. To quote the great American philosopher John Dewey:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is … a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together, [which] is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in political power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living…. Democratic political forms are simply the best means that human wit has devised up to a special time in history. But they rest upon the idea that no man or limited set of men is wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent; the positive meaning of this statement is that all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them.  [“Democracy and Educational Adminstration”, 1937]

Republicans on Supreme Court Make Plutocracy Official

In their latest effort to make America’s status as an oligarchy (sub-class plutocracy) official, the five Republicans on the Supreme Court have now decided that wealthy people will be able to give as much money as they want to political parties and groups of candidates. According to the New York Times, the Republicans ruled that:

Overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

So, rich people will now be able to give millions of dollars every two years to the political party of their choice, without going to the trouble of setting up supposedly independent political action committees. In addition, rich people will now be able to give millions of dollars directly to candidates every two years, so long as they don’t give any candidate more than $2600 for a single election.

The $2600-per-election limit wasn’t killed off today, but it will be eliminated as soon as the Republican justices gets their chance. That’s because the Republicans on the Court claim, in the Chief Justice’s words, that “there is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” And by “participate”, of course, the Court means “use one’s financial resources to elect and influence as many politicians as possible”.

It’s now official, therefore, that the most basic right in our democracy is no longer the right to vote, a right that should belong to rich and poor alike. Now the most basic right is to “participate”. Anatole France once pointed out that “in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” In the same way, the law in the United States now allows rich and poor alike to give millions of dollars to the candidates of their choice and buy as much political advertising as possible, all in the name of freedom of speech.

Treat money as speech, discourage low-income voters from voting (as Republican politicians are doing in every state they control), and do whatever possible to encourage financial inequality (let’s get rid of the death tax!). It’s an amazingly clear agenda. Replace government of the people with government of the few and make sure the few are the rich!