The irrelevance of elections, explained

I have relied heavily on James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 in declaring that the U.S. Constitution was designed to suppress popular will, that it protects the minority rights not of any disadvantaged groups of people but rather the property rights of mostly wealthy, white males.[1] The system put in place preserves itself first through an exorbitant cost of campaigning, requiring funds which are only available to the quite wealthy,[2] and second through various means of repression—both violent and subversive—of dissent.[3] These are circumstances, by the way, which well predate the Occupy movement and the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, and so my commentary on these two events in this blog has been muted, not because I was unconcerned, but because I was seeing so little that was truly transformative.

I am now more than half way through C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite,[4] a book which is proving considerably more useful than I expected. It enriches, rather than contradicts, my understanding above. This is quite an old book. In its authorship, it is older than I am, dating to the 1950s, and so a question arises as to how much of it remains applicable in today’s situation. Mills himself faced a similar problem in not just updating but critiquing an older text, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class [1899], but on the whole, I would have to say of Mills’ work that it is much more applicable to our present situation than not. Where aspects might no longer be said to be true—he reports, for example, a distrust of a massive standing army that has today all but disappeared from mainstream political discourse (we now see rather the opposite with a celebration of war and the military inculcated into the young in multiple ways[5])—we can nonetheless see origins for what seems to have evolved since.

I already knew of Mills that he saw the power elite, commanding three distinct hierarchies, these being the military, the economic, and the political, as effectively unified through common interest and intermingling, and that their monopoly on power effectively excludes the voice of ordinary people.[6] But in The Power Elite, he illustrates how—even in the 1950s—how few of the power elite are actually elected; rather they are appointed.[7]

It must be said that Mills’ ideal bureaucracy or ideal civil service may exist nowhere in the world. Always there are political appointments at the upper echelons; if it were not so, one might question how a republican process could affect bureaucratic decision-making. In Mills’ ideal, however, bureaucracies are about technical competence in the area of each agency’s remit; hiring and promotion, at all levels, is strictly by merit as determined by examination (we might wonder, however, how such merit can by any means be recognized; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., points out that the hegemonic class determines which qualities even count to even be considered human[8] and Christopher Hayes undermines the entire idea of a possibility that meritocracy can ever be anything other than a means for the already powerful to preserve their position[9]). In the event, the picture of the power elite that Mills offers includes a political-bureaucratic elite overwhelmingly drawn from the corporate rich—itself drawn in part from “warlords,” who gain positions (and attendant wealth) at the heights of the corporate hierarchy owing to their expertise with military procurement, a crucial knowledge for military-industrial complex, which has, according to Mills, “come to shape much of the economic life of the United States”[10]—that is anti-democratic.[11] This is a situation that appears to have only grown worse.

[S]ometimes when I’m talking to my team, I describe us as, you know, I’m the captain and they’re the crew on a ship, going through really bad storms. And no matter how well we’re steering the ship, if the boat’s rocking back and forth and people are getting sick and, you know, they’re being buffeted by the winds and the rain and, you know, at a certain point, if you’re asking, “Are you enjoying the ride right now?” Folks are gonna say, “No.” And [if you] say, “Do you think the captain’s doing a good job?” People are gonna say, “You know what? A good captain would have had us in some smooth waters and sunny skies, at this point.” And I don’t control the weather. What I can control are the policies we’re putting in place to make a difference in people’s lives.

—Barack Obama, December 11, 2011[12]

Barack Obama might have promised “hope” and “change”; he spoke more truly when he used a metaphor of a ship’s captain to describe himself, but rather than blaming the weather, we might compare the situation to that of turning around a large ship, an aircraft carrier or supertanker perhaps,[13] whose crew consists of a vast number of war criminals and fascists, and who might, if we view their potential conspiratorially, mutiny rather than comply, but perhaps more importantly, whose history may lead it to view its own opponents paranoically.[14] Of course, Obama cannot be so easily excused; he has not only embraced but extended a large proportion of the policies he inherited, that worsen social injustice, that constitute war crimes, and that violate civil liberties.[15] But we should not minimize the problem that confronts any elected official, assuming one could even be elected, who would set things to right: The national security complex alone spends over $11 billion (in the part of the budget that isn’t itself secret) keeping secrets and includes over one million people with security clearances.[16] The intrusion of the corporate rich into the bureaucratic elite is supplemented in the national security complex by the privatization of “inherently government functions.” “The [Washington] Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors,” and quotes then-Defense secretary Robert M. Gates as admitting he “can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”[17] Meanwhile, mercenary corporations, some such as Blackwater who view their missions as something like a (very lucrative) “crusade,” have played an important role in the neoconservative agenda that Obama inherited.[18] It is indeed difficult to see this as anything other than an even broader institutionalization of a pathway from the military by way of corporations into government, not only of personnel but of regimented and conformist thought process, which Mills described. To the extent that the pattern appears elsewhere in government, the problem of regulatory (and legislative) capture—in which regulators (and legislators) favor more than regulate industry—as in the banking industry,[19] as in the oil industry,[20] this suggests a problem whose dimensions are difficult to fathom (and which I have learned not to attempt to fathom).

This vast incestuous relationship between the military, corporations, and top-level politician-bureaucrats governing a complex involving such vast numbers of people—Jeremy Scahill cites a statistic that by late 2006, “the ratio of active-duty U.S. soldiers to private contractors deployed in Iraq had almost reached one to one”[21]—cannot help but have its own inertia, an inertia that would be extremely difficult to slow down, let alone reverse even in a more democratic system. As it is, the vastness of this well-funded web of influence will surely, as it has with financial reform, despite Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s hopes, overwhelm any attempt at citizen influence. Indeed, one might ask of Hacker and Pierson, where would the middle class—itself melting into an underclass comprising two thirds of the workforce—amass the money to compete?[22] And how could it overcome the the influence of a network—arguably forming a system of apartheid—of private social clubs, elite campus clubs at elite universities, and prep schools that separates and insulates the rich from everyone else?[23] (Mills described this as well.)

Certainly, the problem is well beyond the power of the vote. At a minimum, it will require a mass uprising, far larger and far more effective than what we saw with the Occupy movement. I am inclined to think that the cyclical, incremental approach suggested by Bill Moyer[24] is inadequate. Not only does climate change threaten human extinction on a relatively short time scale but the status quo is already killing far too many people and stunting far too many lives. I do not know how such a movement can be amassed or if it can be amassed in time. I fear, particularly given the evident willingness of the authorities to brutally crush the Occupy movement, that even if such a movement can be aroused, there will be violence and lots of it, as the elites direct police to fight back to preserve their all-important position. I fear that the technological advantages of the police, advantages of a militarization that only make sense in the context of a mass uprising,[25] will mean that the death toll will be high. And I fear that any power that changes hands as a result will pass from one set of thugs to another.

  1. [1]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  2. [2]David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003).
  3. [3]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  4. [4]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  5. [5]Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” New York Times, November 4, 2012,
  6. [6]C. Wright Mills, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  7. [7]Mills, The Power Elite.
  8. [8]Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “‘Race’ as the Trope of the World,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 521-526.
  9. [9]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  10. [10]Mills, The Power Elite, 222.
  11. [11]Mills, The Power Elite.
  12. [12]“Interview with President Obama: The full transcript,” by Steve Kroft, CBS News, December 11, 2011,
  13. [13]I thought that Obama had used this metaphor in this form, but I have failed to locate it.
  14. [14]Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harpers, November 1964,
  15. [15]Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama,” Atlantic, September 26, 2012,; Matt Stoller, “The progressive case against Obama,” Salon, October 27, 2012,
  16. [16]Tom Engelhardt, “The National Security Complex and You,” TomDispatch, July 19, 2012,
  17. [17]Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “National Security Inc.,” Washington Post, July 20, 2010,
  18. [18]Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation, 2007).
  19. [19]Ryan Chittum, “L.A. Times Quantifies the Dominance of the Finance Lobby,” Columbia Journalism Review, November 15, 2010,; Democracy Now!, “Crony Capitalism: After Lobbying Against New Financial Regulations, JPMorgan Loses $2B in Risky Bet,” May 15, 2012,; Gretchen Morgenson, “One Safety Net That Needs To Shrink,” New York Times, November 3, 2012,; Kathleen Pender, “Financial regulations gutted in new bill,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 11, 2012,; Nathaniel Popper, “Financial reform law offers look at lobbyists’ efforts to shape it,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2010,; Matt Taibbi, “Why Obama’s JOBS Act Couldn’t Suck Worse,” Rolling Stone, April 9, 2012,; Matt Taibbi, “Yes, Virginia, This Is Obama’s JOBS Act,” Rolling Stone, April 12, 2012,; Washington’s Blog, “Failing to Break Up the Big Banks is Destroying America,” July 21, 2012,
  20. [20]Dan Froomkin, “Regulatory Capture Of Oil Drilling Agency Exposed In Report,” Huffington Post, September 8, 2010,
  21. [21]Scahill, Blackwater, 341.
  22. [22]Richard Florida, “The 66%: America’s Growing Underclass,” Atlantic Cities, October 29, 2012,; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Popper, “Financial reform law offers look at lobbyists’ efforts to shape it.”
  23. [23]Peter W. Cookson, Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, “The Vital Link: Prep Schools and Higher Education,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 380-391; G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 156-164.; Ralph H. Turner, “Sponsored and Contest Mobility and the School System,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 71-76.
  24. [24]Bill Moyer, JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  25. [25]Andrew Becker and G. W. Schulz, “Local police stockpile high-tech, combat-ready gear,” Center for Investigative Reporting, December 21, 2011,; Justin Elliott, “How the feds fueled the militarization of police,” Salon, December 24, 2011,; Naomi Wolf, “The coming drone attack on America,” Guardian, December 21, 2012,

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