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James Burnham

Their Government

Just What Happens on Election Day?

(24 February 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 8, 24 February 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Election Day next November will be pointed to with pride by defenders of the “American system’’ as convincing proof that “genuine democracy” prevails in this country. On that day, they will argue, the adult population, of its own free will, without coercion and by secret ballot, selects its own chief executive, together with the other major officials who govern the nation. In the case of the Presidency, all citizens over 21 years of age may vote for anyone he wishes who is native-born and more than 35 years old. What further evidence could be required to show that the people rule themselves, that they have the kind of government which the majority wants to have?

Universal suffrage and the secret ballot are, in truth, precious rights, and no Marxist will advocate abandoning them; on the contrary, the problem in this country is rather to extend them so that they will apply in fact to all, and not be restricted as at present through various kinds of racial and property disqualifications. Nevertheless, a very little examination of what happens on and before Election Day will be enough to show that universal suffrage and the secret ballot are in themselves powerless to guarantee a full and genuine democracy.

How Do Names Get on the Ballot?

The Presidency is the decisive political office in the United States today. The extension of the power of the executive branch of the government during the past two or three decades gives it in practice the controlling power over the most important political and social issues, including power to involve the country in war.

On Election Day, though theoretically free to vote for anyone we wish, the ballot actually prints the names of electors for only from two to five or six candidates for the Presidency. In many if not most States, only two candidates – those of the Republican and Democratic parties – appear on the ballot.

How did those names get there? If the people have no real say about what names they select from on the November ballot, or what policies the men named stand for, then the pretended freedom of choice in November is largely an illusion. It would be like telling someone he is free to select any card he may wish from a deck, but then constructing the deck so that it contained only two’s and three’s.

The decision about the two principal names to appear on the November ballot will be made at the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties, to be held in June and July. Preparations for these conventions are now going rapidly forward. Beginning next month, a series of primary elections will be held in many States to select the convention delegates.

It might seem that through these primary elections, the people should be able to control the work of the conventions, and thus decide whose names go on the convention ballots. This is not at all the case. The delegate slates at the primary elections are publicized as if they were men pledged to Roosevelt, Garner, Dewey, Taft, or whoever it might be; but, with the exception of only one or two States, the pledges are not binding. The delegates are in no way responsible to the people who voted for them; they may do anything they please at the conventions. They are almost always hardened machine-men, ready to do whatever they are told. The public pledge to one candidate or another is only a temporary device to attract votes and interest.

So much so is this the case that many of the chief candidates do not even bother to enter slates in the primary elections. Senator Taft, for example, high on the list of Republican possibilities, is steering clear of public primary battles. He is lining up delegates quietly, behind the scenes in the club-houses and committee-rooms.

Some years ago, many liberal reformers thought that direct primaries for convention delegates would break the backs of the corrupt political machines. A majority of States introduced them. Experience showed that they were seldom a handicap, and often an additional advantage, to the machines. In recent years, several States have abandoned direct primaries, and gone back to the standard method of selection by the State party committees.

Indirectly, of course, popular feeling influences to some extent the selection of candidates. A convention, unless it wants to out its own party throat, has got to pick a man with a certain amount of mass appeal, who can be put across to the voters. But it remains a fact that in the United States today there is no serious and responsible democratic control over the major political parties and, through them, over the personnel and policies of the government.

A Labor Party and Democracy

There is no mystery in this fact when once we understand that the existing parliamentary and party machinery in this country has as its object not merely or even primarily to express a certain (very minor) degree of democracy, but to limit and restrict democracy within narrow and closely guarded borders. These borders are defined by the property relations of capitalist economy and the interests of the owners of property.

Inside those borders, some democracy is permissible, at least until capitalism in order to save itself is compelled to resort to fascist totalitarian politics. Outside those borders, attempts at democracy become – “subversive agitation.” The parliamentary machinery, the “two-party system,” are designed to defend those borders, and thus to limit democratic control by the masses in such a way that it cannot interfere with capitalism.

These general considerations indicate one reason why it is so vain to hope that the workers can ever “use” either the Democratic or Republic parties to achieve their aims: by their very nature these parties are anti-working class, and workers support them only at the cost of making their own aims impossible.

For the workers to get anywhere on the political arena, the first step has got to be to break out of the framework of capitalist – that is, anti-working class – politics; specifically, in this country, to break away from both the Democratic and Republican parties, and build a workers’ party with a workers’ program and workers’ candidates. If this isn’t done, the choice in November isn’t worth the time it takes to walk to the polls. A vote over who is to be warden is not very crucial when the real problem is how to get out of jail.

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