A much-needed safety valve for American democracy

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. - John F Kennedy, 1962.

The Protest Party can be seen as an alternative to violent revolution. As I like to point out, the British Monarchy enjoyed more support in the American Colonies at the time of our revolution than our congress has among Americans today. One major difference between America today and the colonies of the 18th century is that the America of today is designed to have all sorts of “safety valves” (as Dan Carlin put it in his recent Common Sense podcast that inspired this post) to let off revolutionary steam. Chief among these are the First Amendment and the vote. The idea behind these safety valves is that if we think the government is unbearable, there are real and effective alternatives to revolution: our First Amendment ostensibly guarantees that we can shout our grievances from the rooftops without fear of reprisal from the government. And the right to vote, which is (today) guaranteed for most Americans, ostensibly empowers the people to elect representatives who are capable of enacting new laws to address the people’s grievances.

Neither of these safety valves are functioning properly. Consider the stakes involved in the decision to join a street protest in America today. The recent militarization of America’s police forces, which was most clearly on display during the shutdown of Boston during the search for the marathon bomber, was also put into action to violently quell the Occupy Wall Street protests and other street demonstrations. Meanwhile, with the COINTELPRO scandal in its rearview mirror, the FBI has resumed systematically and egregiously abusing its powers in the surveillance of activists of all sorts. Local police also routinely send undercover cops to infiltrate activist groups, which means that if you are a new member in an activist group, all the regulars will be suspicious of you, and if you are a regular you must always stay on guard around your friends. Worse, these cops are under a lot of pressure to make a case, and have been known to fabricate quotes to incriminate protesters. Perhaps worst of all, activists who are accused of committing crimes, especially animal-rights activists, are being charged under terrorism statutes. All things considered, for most Americans, the personal risks associated with protesting vastly outweigh any small hope of getting noticed or changing policy. So much for that safety valve.

So the Free Speech Pressure Valve is out of order, but at least we can still depend on the Electoral Valve to relieve the revolutionary pressure, right? If people have grievances, all they have to do is to elect the representatives who promise to address them. Unfortunately, this is a nice story that does not bear much of a resemblance to reality any more (if it ever did), and it goes well beyond the recent spat of voter suppression efforts. The fundamental problem is well documented in books like Larry Lessig’s Republic Lost: The people in power are profiting from the current system of campaign finance, enabling them to further consolidate their power. Those of us who cannot afford to play this game are left powerless. Until last week, there was still hope that some legislative solution could be found that would curtail the “Dependency Corruption” caused by our current lobbying system, but the Majority Opinion in McCutcheon vs FEC bluntly stated that any such attempts would be deemed unconstitutional by the Roberts Court. Writing for the Majority, Chief Justice Roberts put it in no uncertain terms, (beginning with Roberts quoting from Justice Kennedy’s 2010 Citizen’s United opinion):

“Ingratiation and access ... are not corruption” ...

They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns. Any regulation must instead target what we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance.

That’s right: unless a bag of money is accepted in exchange for an official act, the Roberts Court thinks our institutionalized corruption is actually “a central feature of democracy.” More to the point, the Roberts Court makes clear that it would strike down any future attempts to circumvent the corruption that disempowers us, because apparently this process is essential to democracy.

Whether you agree with the McCutcheon decision or not, John Roberts’s comments quash the Electoral Safety Valve. Meanwhile, The First Amendment Safety Valve also has been suppressed. What options are left? I agree with Dan Carlin when he says he would rather not relive the revolutionary unrest of the late 1960’s, and I shudder to imagine the (extremely remote) possibility of a revolution in America akin to the Arab Spring or Ukraine. As much as I admire the courage and dedication of those who join public protests, I’d much rather take a more judicious approach to fixing our democracy while one is still available. That’s why we need the Protest Party.