The Worthlessness Of Representative Democracy: A Local Case Study

I’m alternately amused and exasperated by the constant refrain of calls to “Vote Harder!” from Progressive Democrats (the kind of people who use the #UniteBlue hashtag on Twitter). During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama made the most left-populist noises of any Democratic candidate in generations, and won by a landslide almost as big as LBJ’s over Goldwater in 1964 (including a 60-seat Senate majority). He came into office facing the worse economic crisis of any president since FDR’s inauguration in 1933, and a presumptive mandate to fix it.

So what did this “Kenyan Marxist,” this pal of Saul Alinsky, actually choose to do, after all that campaign rhetoric? He continued Paulson’s Hamiltonian TARP program, with a few minor cosmetic touches, bailed out the legacy auto industry in Detroit, and poured $600 billion into “shovel-ready projects” (mostly automobile-highway complex infrastructure already railroaded through by local real estate developers, to extract a few more years of profit out of an economic model clearly doomed to destruction). He took his sweet time ending one war — indeed never completely ending it at all — drastically expanded another one, and started still another one. He did virtually the opposite of virtually everything he promised regarding domestic surveillance, torture, whistleblower protection and government transparency in 2008. He adopted a healthcare “reform” based on Romneycare, which essentially creates a captive market for the crooks in the health insurance industry.

If voting such a vocally “Progressive” candidate into office, with such an unprecedented alignment of stars in his favor, still led to betrayal, how hard do people have to vote next time to get somebody who won’t betray them? Actually, the very people who should be holding Obama’s feet to the fire — the liberal establishment — are abjuring the very actions that would be needed to put the fear of God into future betrayers. They’re outdoing each other to apologize for Obama’s double-crosses and warning the “Progressive” wing of the party to keep it down with their criticism lest they give aid and comfort to the Republicans. The only reason the New Deal itself passed — and its “progressive” nature is largely a myth — was because a major part of the capitalist ruling class saw it as promoting their own interests.

So if voting didn’t work this time, it will never work. My God, it doesn’t even work at the local level, with city and county governments where the functionaries at City Hall and in the County Courthouse represent only a few thousand people each. Even at the local level, governments are so captive to inside business interests as to be virtually immune to popular control.

As a case in point, consider the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, which was completed at Highfill in 1998.

The Northwest Arkansas Council was a nominally private lobbying organization made up of “civic-minded” representatives of Tyson, Walmart, the J.B. Hunt trucking company, and the Jim Lindsey real estate empire responsible for most of the new strip malls, apartment complexes and housing additions in the Washington-Benton County area. It also had ex officio representatives from local city and county governments and the University of Arkansas. Although nominally private, it was a de facto shadow government. Its main agenda was to lobby for major regional infrastructure projects that would directly or indirectly subsidize the major corporate interests in the area and cause real estate values to skyrocket.

In 1990, the Council went to work lobbying behind the scenes for a regional airport. Their work was quiet and low-key because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves and trigger a public opposition movement. So the first the issue appeared on the public radar was when the airport project was presented as a done deal. In response to quiet NWA Council lobbying, five city governments and two county governments voted to create an intergovernmental authority, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, to oversee the airport project. The local governments, as I say, presented it as a done deal, without any prior notice or debate, by passing it as an “emergency measure”; this meant they could secretly vote on it without the multiple public readings and debate required under normal legislative procedure. So the people of Northwest Arkansas just woke up one morning and found out that the Authority had already been created — a body, immortal under state law so long as any two of the member governments remained party to it, with the power to condemn land under eminent domain and levy taxes.

Bear in mind that the deck was still less stacked in favor of the airport in Northwest Arkansas than it would be in a lot of areas. The Washington County seat, Fayetteville, besides being a college town, is also home to several thousand aging hippies who settled here during the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s. There’s a thriving local counter-economy of natural foods cooperatives and head shops, and at the time there was still an underground newspaper that printed investigative journalism of quite high quality. So at least here — unlike a lot of other places where you’d never have heard a peep aside from the official Chamber of Commerce happy talk on the mainstream editorial pages — there was actually a highly polarized public debate on the airport after the creation of the Authority was announced.

But controversy and public debate notwithstanding, once the Authority was created it was a done deal. As I said, it was an immortal corporation that could take over land and apply for FAA grants, and there wasn’t a thing the local population could do about it. Local governments were forced to allow a ballot initiative on the Authority. But given the structure of the Authority under state law, the people in any individual city or county would only be voting on whether their own government would withdraw from a corporation that would continue to exist unless six of the seven participating governments all voted to withdraw. This would mean that the airport project would still continue without a hitch, and any locality whose citizens voted to withdraw would simply “lose their voice” on the authority. And this was the constant talking point of the pro-airport forces throughout the election: “If you vote to withdraw, you’ll lose your voice.” But really, we lost our voice when the local movers and shakers decided to create the Authority without asking us.

In the period leading up to the vote, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce formed an elite caucus called “Leadership Fayetteville” to coordinate strategy against airport opponents, and held a big secret seminar behind closed doors. The good ol’ boys quietly went to work behind the scenes; the editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times and a popular radio DJ who had vocally called for a public vote were fired, and Airport Authority Chairman George Westmoreland daily stood up for the cameras and parroted talking points about hippies and ignorant housewives trying to hold up progress that would benefit everyone.

Really, the only thing that could have stopped the project at this point would have been FAA refusal to approve or fund it. But the Authority was willing to resubmit the proposal — totally revised, with totally different selling points — as many times as it took. The first proposal was for a regional cargo airport, because they greybeards at the Authority said there wasn’t enough regional demand to support a passenger airport. But the FAA turned that down on the grounds that there wouldn’t be enough demand for a cargo facility. So the Authority turned around and submitted a proposal for — get this — a regional passenger airport, with all kinds of statistics showing the overwhelming demand for it. The interesting thing is that this passenger airport — which the FAA approved — had runways far longer than they’d have needed to be for any purpose other than serving fully-laden cargo jets. Can you say “Trojan Horse”?

A few years later, in 2006, there was a “progressive” Mayor (Dan Coody) and City Council in power in Fayetteville, who had run on new urbanist or smart growth platforms. Of course the one thing they didn’t do was eliminate all the structural interventions of government, like subsidies to sprawl and zoning restrictions on mixed-use development — that played a primary role in causing sprawl. That would have made real estate developers like Jim Lindsey mad. Instead, they installed a lot of speed bumps in residential areas, built some bike trails, and passed a lot of aesthetic regulations about what kind of material big box stores could built their facades out of and how big their signs could be. Greenwashed sprawl and monoculture development, pure and simple.

The city decided it was necessary to expand the sewer plant, because all of Jim Lindsey’s new subdivisions (naturally they didn’t phrase it that way) were overwhelming its capacity. Now, the obvious solution would have been to increase sewer hookup fees in new subdivisions and commercial developments enough to pay for expanding the sewer plant. But you know they’re not gonna do that, right? I mean, making ordinary people and in-lying utility ratepayers fund subsidized infrastructure to real estate developments on the edge of town is what local governments are for, right? And Jim Lindsey had already threatened to take his real estate business out of any town that increased utility hookup fees on his projects.

So Dan Coody called for a public vote on a one-cent sales tax to fund the expansion, instead. Either that, or increasing rates on everyone, were the “only feasible options,” he said. Increasing fees on the real estate developers imposing most of the new costs on the system wasn’t even on the table. (Deciding what “feasible options” are placed on the table, and what’s clearly impractical moonshine that’s out of the question, is the main sleight of hand ruling elites use to maintain control of the agenda.) At the same time, sales tax proponents appealed to the greed of local residents by pointing out it would be paid in part by out-of-towners who spent money in Fayetteville.

So the sales tax squeaked through, by less than a percent. And later, when someone proposed putting higher sewer connection fees on the ballot, Jim Lindsey’s lackeys could say, “Oh, that might have been a good idea — but there’s no need for it now that we’ve got this sales tax!”

Now, this is local government — the government which is supposedly closest to the people, and most amenable to popular control. But even in a town of a few score thousand people, where an Alderman represents fewer than ten thousand, anything the Chamber of Commerce, banks and real estate industry want is decided in secret by the good ol’ boys and presented to the public as a done deal.

And you really think that it’s possible to use the political process at a national level to influence policy in any meaningful way, when the single biggest influence on actual policy is an unelected shadow government of narco-traffickers, money-laundering banks, surveillance state functionaries and global torture and death squad operations funded by Pentagon and CIA black budgets or laundered drug money? I have one piece of advice for any politician who presents a credible threat of getting elected on a platform of shutting down this real government — don’t ever get on a private plane.

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