Learning to be Free Again: Electoral Wackiness in Post-Communist AmericaThe year 1985 marked the fiftieth year since the founding of the Union of Socialist States of America, and as glorious as this half a century of building socialism on North American soil might have been (or not), many slowly began to succumb to fear that a sixtieth may never come. The passing of five General Secretaries of the Communist Party USSA during the last ten years, the most recent of which had been George O. Welles, was a better signal than any that the old, “revolutionary” generation of the Party was on its deathbed. Though conservatives still controlled the People’s Congress of Representatives as well as leadership positions within the Party, they could no longer ignore the mounting problems which the USSA had to face. Revolutionary fever has long since died, replaced by a cold, bureaucratic, passive exterior which some might have called “post-totalitarianism”. This state could not even muster the energy to crack down on its growing underground opposition, something which it lavishly took up on five decades ago with many, many thousands dead in the aftermath. At worst, it would lock you in prison for years or force you to relocate to Oregon or Montana or something - under heavy supervision from the FBI, of course. Planned economic policy was no longer having the effect it was supposed to, the optimistic projections presented by Party committees had zero connection to a reality where every single thing always appears to be in deficit. Five hundred kilograms of raw chicken meat are brought to a food processing plant, fifty kilograms are somehow lost within the state of the art production lines and are thrown to waste, two hundred kilograms are handily “requisitioned” by the workers and brought back home, one hundred of the processed meat never reaches the store and instead just happens to end up in the hands of the truck driver’s brother-in-law’s step-father on accident… and then people ask why no store in New York has enough chicken.
how I studied about how ridiculous post-communist Eastern European politics are for a year and decided to apply this knowledge to America
how I studied about how ridiculous post-communist Eastern European politics are for a year and decided to apply this knowledge to America
Let’s not forget that the Cold War is still ongoing, too! The USSA stands face to face against its greatest enemy yet, the democratic Eurasian Federation spanning much of the Eastern Hemisphere, a vibrant free-market society with issues of its own, but still a shining beacon of liberty compared to its competitor over the Atlantic - perhaps ironically so, considering how much of an inspiration the United States of America of old served to the Russian revolutionaries of 1917… All of that past has been buried under the rug, however, and the fierce hot-headed President of the Federation, Nikolai Ryzhkov, was determined to see this torch of liberty return to America. The standoff was turning tense, proxy wars were breaking out in Liberia, Argentina, Iraq, the Congo… and it was a standoff which Eurasia could afford, albeit with tighter belts, whereas the USSA absolutely could not. If it weren’t for the lucrative oil fields in Canada and the Mexican Gulf, it would have collapsed into bankruptcy a long time ago.
Faced with a… less than stellar situation, the CPUSSA saw a change of leadership. Within it rose a new chairman, Walter F. Mondale.
Chairman Mondale was a flatline when it came to charisma, a functionary of the Party in the Great Lakes Region with a less than stellar, though not necessarily inconsiderate either, career. As one of the younger members of the upper leadership of the Party and a member of its reformist wing, however, while also not being outright radical in his demands and proposals, he was an acceptable compromise candidate for all factions within the government. While his appointment was not necessarily a surprise to Pentagonologists, the actions which Mondale took after his assumption of power in 1985 raised a lot more eyebrows. After a few months of clearing the party cadres and replacing them with more appropriate fresh functionaries and thus growing more confident in his power, Mondale announced a new direction for the USSA. His words, as they always were, were blunt and clear - conservating the past three decades of stagnation will not lead us nowhere, and should socialism in the Americas prevail, it needs to reform and adopt the least egregious of the features exhibited by free-market capitalist democracies. This “pick-and-mix socialism” would implement some free market tenets, introduce some competition in planned economics while maintaining state control, crack down on inefficiency, alcoholism and other vices which have gripped American society for decades, and somewhat increase political participation to improve the popularity of the Communist Party. Mondale’s plan was never to put an end to American socialism, it was to strengthen it and reform it for the impending 21st century - but his initially mild reforms was what ultimately led to its demise.
It didn’t even look that bad at first. The economic reports were overly enthusiastic as always, but at least nothing seemed to be breaking apark when the first collective farms and factories were transformed into locally owned cooperatives, and price controls were loosened to allow private competition. The Daily Worker and People’s World began to allow articles of left and right opposition like, and though scathing articles about the inefficiency of planned production, or the lack of Browder-era oppressive methods to renew the revolutionary vigor of the state, were scathing, all were united in the belief towards a socialist future. The American heartland as well as the numerous foreign states it integrated in Canada and Central America throughout the years all began to witness organizations unaffiliated with the Communist Party form, be it the Quebecois Reform Bloc, or the Mexican People’s Movement… they all were united in their support for Mondale’s reforms, however, and owed their existence to him, and so could not possibly be a threat. But this was the first loose strand of an unraveling post-totalitarian regime. The cooperatives and privatized industries would start to go under and prices start to rise monumentally… the criticism in the press would continue testing the limits of freedom and rouse agitation within the populace… and those same “pro-Mondale” national movements would soon become the backbone of each republic’s national liberation movement.
America wanted to liberate itself from America, too.
It started in 1987, when the issue of mass pollution in the Mississippi River became too difficult to ignore. Throughout its existence, the government of the USSA saw the by-effects of crash nationalization and transformation of nature as a side-effect, not as something to tackle. When the power of the will of the people allows to dot the North American continent with nuclear power plants, pave dozens of thousands of kilometers of roads, and witness the construction of some of the greatest feats of engineering in human existence, including the first human ever put in space, who cares if a few rivers get polluted along the way? Socialist American industry was gargantuan, but it was also inefficient and resource intensive, for those resources were ever plentiful - gigantic food processing facilities, power plants of all type and size, and oil refineries dotted both sides of the Mississippi and turned this mighty river into an artery of poison. News of several dozens of deaths in the Louisiana region stemming from the pollution of drinkable water sparked discourse and discontent, and from it was born a growing circle of intellectuals, environmentalists and nationalists, dubbing itself the Columbia Movement and chaired by the essayist and writer Norman Mailer.
Contrary to popular option, Columbia presented no threat to the CPUSSA regime at first. It was environmentalist, stemming from its original purpose to raise concerns about America’s dying rivers and soil, it was a lobby group for those who suffered under the communist regime most and demanded those atrocities to be recognized, and it published articles requesting an end to the quagmire war in the Congo, but it applauded Mondale’s reforms and raised no issue with the socialist framework of the Socialist States. Other American dissidents from decades past often viewed it with contempt. Noam Chomsky, for example, writing on the issue of the Columbia Movement, was amazed that “it [Columbia] managed to achieve something nobody else could accomplish - sell out to Mondale and Ryzhkov at the same time!”. Indeed, even if it presented itself as an opposition movement, it did not even shy away from accepting members of the Communist Party if they were sympathetic to their cause. But that was in the past.
It took five years since the start of Mondale’s leadership for the USSA to stumble downwards until it reached a total collapse. The inefficient, resource-guzzling American industry did even worse under semi-free market conditions than it did before, while a steady drop-off in oil prices throughout the 1980s meant that the regime could no longer afford to maintain price controls - these two things added together meant that prices for everything, even the most basic commodities, skyrocketed. Government finances reached a catastrophic low - the army was starving, collective farms were going under and cooperatives refused to provide grain unless it was under their terms and prices, which meant that food redistribution was taking a severe hit and malnourishment was starting to set in. If the East was not so enamoured with Mondale and thus did not constantly bail his regime out, its last lifeline would have been cut. National movements in Central America, Mexico and Canada all threatened the integrity of the state, raising demonstrations, denouncing what they perceived to be the illegal violation of their sovereignty in the 1940s, which the central leadership of the USSA either could not prevent or did not even try. The local communist parties were either too intimidated by the Union’s decay or outright joined the wave of nationalism - the Popular Vanguard Party of Costa Rica, the local branch of CPUSSA, outright broke ties with its mother party and thus set the precedent that the power of the American regime can be challenged. American forces were withdrawn from Africa and South America, immediately paving the way for reformist, pro-Eurasian movements to take charge and put an end to five decades of imposed communism. With each blow to Mondale’s support, with each publication of unrest in the countryside or bread riots in Chicago, with each assuring word coming from Ryzhkov and his diplomatic corps, stating that liberty is near and communism can be challenged, the power of the CPUSSA waned and the strength of Mailer’s Columbia Movement grew. What was once a small circle of intellectuals now became the largest mass movement in American history, organizing peaceful marches from Panama to Anchorage, from Los Angeles to Boston, and uniting millions of Americans under one word - hope.
Conservatives within the CPUSSA, rallied around the experienced foreign affairs staffer and hardliner Caspar Weinberger, pressed for action. This cannot possibly be this difficult of a dilemma - force and pressure has been a viable answer before and why can’t the same be said about now? Crack down on Mailer and his uppity intellectuals, establish martial law, force the workers back into their factories and declare the reform experiment a failure - that should give the USSA a new lease of life. At least long enough to last their lifetimes, however short they may be at this point. Mondale, however, backed off from a harsh solution, for reasons not easy to discern. Some simply chalk it up to his indecisiveness and fears, a lack of willpower from his part. Others believe that he was determined to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts and did not want his nomination stained with the blood of dissidents. Some people say that he was starting to turn pro-Eastern himself, and became a secret collaborator aimed to tear the USSA down from within. Whatever may be the reason, instead of suppression, Mondale chose to host an unprecedented round table talks with the Columbia Movement in Debs, formerly St. Louis, in 1989. Attended by thirty representatives from the CPUSSA and thirty representatives from the opposition, almost all of them Columbia members, gathered to discuss the future of the Union. The initial plan was a plot, an attempt to co-opt members of opposition into the shaky government and improve its legitimacy without actually changing anything to the fundamental principles of the state, and for this reason, they were boycotted by radical anti-communist opposition. Norman Mailer chose to accede, however, and his movement promptly ripped out more concessions from the weak and indecisive Mondale than any might have initially anticipated - an end to the privileged status of the Communist Party in the state and semi-free elections held across the Union as a show of democratic transformation. Semi-free. A 30% quota was left for “professional appointments” not contested in the general election, which both sides knew were just going to be Communist stooges, but 70% is a lot better than a 100%.
The elections to the People’s Congress of Representatives in 1990 were the first, and the last, free democratic elections in the USSA.
On the surface, the results of the election were enough for Mondale’s party to crack open a bottle of champagne. The overwhelming mass of the silent, complacent majority was more than enough to allow them to maintain power. Even when allied with national movements across the entire Union, from Canada to Panama, Columbia failed to break even with the Communist Party and the legitimacy of its rule was (somewhat) democratically assured. And yet… The fact that Mondale’s chairmanship chose to not only legitimize the most powerful opposition movement the USSA has ever witnessed, but has also had it seriously threaten the Party in popularity and yet has done nothing to suppress them sent shivers down the spine of many. Mondale did have a plan. It was to turn the Columbia Movement into a “loyal opposition”, a harmless mouthpiece for radicals, nationalists and pro-Eastern intellectuals which would be able to contain them and keep them content, crafting the illusion of competitive democracy while essentially keeping all the reins of power within his hands. However, he was no telepath and could not transmit his ideas to everyone in the party, nor was his honesty about the scheme convincing to Weinberger and his conservative faction. It definitely did not turn any more convincing when the first session of the newly elected People’s Congress of Representatives began, which gave the impression that the Columbian representatives were having a competition on who can push the Overton’s Window farthest to the right.
Fearing an end to American socialism, an end to the USSA, an end to their careers, or some combination of the above, the conservative army general corps and reactionaries in the CPUSSA grabbed onto their last straw - a coup d’etat to vanquish Mondale’s faction once and for all. The last weeks of 1990 were the most intense in the entire period of the USSA’s dissolution. The East Coast was put on lockdown, Mondale barely escaped with his life from the Capitol and frantically made his way towards Chicago, martial law was being put in place and murmurs of a “government of Union salvation” were dropping in and out. Fears were abound of a nuclear civil war, the East was already willing to write the democracy experiment in the USSA off, convinced that Mondale’s reign was over and conservatism has taken the reins. Times had changed, however. America was now united, and they were united in one thing - to toss away the shackles of communism and join a community of free nations. Ignoring fears of tank treads and rubber bullets, Mailer and dozens of others climbed vehicles and podiums to call the American people to resist. The populace was no longer on the side of the putschists, their units turned against them, Weinberger and his peers were arrested, and the threat of coup or, worse, civil war, was avoided.
Mondale returned to the Capitol a week after the Christmas of 1990, but he was no longer welcome. The narrow popularity which the Communist regime used to enjoy was long since gone, Columbia were the heroes of the day. One by one, the USSA’s constituent nations were cutting all ties and declaring independence - first Central America, then Mexico, Canada… and finally, the United States. Having lost many, many members after the December coup attempt and departure of representatives from newly independent republics, the People’s Congress of Representatives lacked a quorum for any decision-making power. According to the Constitution, a new election would need to be held and a new government appointed. Nobody bothered. Mondale resigned. An emergency interim government was formed in his stead. The last Congress of the CPUSSA abandoned its privileged status in the country, its name, its communist ideology, and renamed itself the Democratic Socialists of America. On February 2nd, the United States of America was declared to be reborn once more.
...it was not.
The dissident movement of the United Socialist States and the spiritual successor it found in the Columbia Movement, they held an end to communist rule as their first priority. What would happen afterwards was hardly on their minds. They knew of the America which existed before, they knew of the democracy it exhibited, they knew of the freedom it declared and granted to its citizens in speech and in commerce, and they wanted it restored. Few of them had actually witnessed with their own eyes what the United States of America were like. Even the eldest and most venerable among them were, at most, in their thirties when the system collapsed, and fifty years of communist rule did its job to dull those memories. That’s not to mention that American dissidents were not politicians, nor did they ever style themselves as such. Politics were a job of the Communist cadre and the boring bureaucrats who staffed the overbearing system, the people who led Columbia and its predecessors were dreamers, idealists - philosophers, writers, historians. They knew what they wanted and they could describe in vivid detail what their utopian society would be like, but they could hardly write you a policy plan on how they plan to reach it.
Placed at the head of an interim temporary government, Norman Mailer and the Columbia movement set itself two goals for this transition from communism.
First, the restitution of what had been wronged in the past fifty years. The old administrative boundaries were abandoned and the forty-nine states of the United States were restored, each with their own government and local issues to resolve. Some did better than others. Many, especially in the Midwest, went under within months and had to be bailed out, whereas wealthier states such as Texas and California, both of them profiting from oil extraction, endured the transition somewhat more easily. Collective farms were destroyed en mass and pre-revolutionary land ownership was reduced to the highest possible accuracy. The descendants of those who owned family farms across the Great Plains had their patches and homesteads returned, as inefficient as their small farms might be in the late twentieth century, and collective farms were thrown to the dustbin of history. National symbols were being restored and statues of revolutionary heroes torn down to no longer scar the face of the continent.
Second, the imitation of what had been done successfully in the East. For the American democratic movement, Eurasia and its numerous allies in Europe and Asia were as much of an inspiration as their own history - especially when the question of economic order came up. It was a natural response, perhaps. We have freed ourselves from the shackles of communism, therefore everything associated with communism must be distanced away from, and since the USSA was in the middle of a worldwide clash with Eurasia, Eurasia’s free market democracy is as far away from communism as you can get, therefore it is the way to go. Advisors from Moscow and returning American emigres all advocated a swift deregulation and privatization of industries, and the creation of a responsible, democratic government.
The goodwill of the American people swiftly began to erode.
Prices rose, monumentally, and inflation eroded the average person’s meager savings. Millions were relieved from failing factories, especially in the Northeast, whose industrial belt, no longer artificially maintained by central planning, was rapidly turning into a rust belt. The countryside was decaying, agricultural production tanked, hundreds of square kilometers of farmland were abandoned outright. Shopping malls were getting more full, especially with foreign imports, but the livelihood of the average person was hardly any better - if anything, it only turned worse. And the average person didn’t plan to wait for the promised prosperity which will supposedly, eventually, arrive. Is this the America he fought for, is this the America he stood before tanks for?
The government was not having it any better. While not clenching their heads over the massive recession raging around them, Mailer and his peers were worrying over decommunization. The question raised in the emergency Assembly was simple - what should be done with the numerous, very numerous cadres of the former Communist Party? Should they be barred from participating in government or not? On one hand… the choice appeared simple - these are the people who willingly chose to collaborate with a government which destroyed America! That government trampled onto the construct laid down by the Founding Fathers and subjugated the freedom-loving American people for half a century, their goons have no right to return to power! This was the position held by the most radical faction of the Columbia Movement, the so-called “Chicago Boys”, named after the university their circle first began to form. On the other hand… the choice also appeared simple - many members of the Communist Party joined not because of ideological commitment, but simply because party membership was needed to advance in your career, and they are the only people in the country who are actually experienced in statesmanship, so why should their services be declined if they renounce their former communist beliefs? Of course, the DSA stood in favor of this position, and so did many moderates within the Columbia Movement. The massive tent of a party glanced from side to side, considered one option, considered another, thought about compromise, and ultimately convulsed in splitter parties. In a multi-party democracy, nobody needs a non-partisan movement seeking to unify everyone.
The first elections after the Communist era were scheduled in 1992. The excitement over the first true expression of democracy in the United States since 1932 were soon drowned out by a crawling realization.
What works in the East does not work in America. People knew that elections in the West are a bunch of parties, each with snazzy names representing some ideology or political stance, and went ham. The Democratic and Republican parties of the good old days were restored with their own symbolism and convention practice, other Columbia splinters lifted names used in Eastern nations - Liberal, Conservative, Social Democratic, Nationalist… sometimes, if they are feeling extra dutiful, lifting some of the terms and rhetoric used in established democracies, too - “welfare state”, “free markets”, “national heritage”, so on and so forth. But party systems simply do not work that day! A laborer does not vote for a socialist party simply because they are socialist, they vote for them because socialists focus solely on their concerns and listen them out, instead of listening to everyone. Most freshly baked politicians in America did not crack that. They may have called themselves liberal, conservative or socialist, but they geared their parties for everyone.
And, to be fair, who can blame them? The divisions and cleavages which existed in established democracies could hardly be found in America. How can you build a party based on the class cleavage when, for the past fifty years, the Communist regime sought to eradicate all classes? How can you build a party based on the ethnic or religious cleavages when the Communist regime cleansed away religion with state atheism and subjugated all cultures within America into one “socialist” culture? Over three hundred parties in America had been registered throughout the course of the campaign season, but among them, the most successful were the ones who found some sort of cleavage to hold onto.
The remnants of the Columbia Movement, desperately clutching onto the last remnants of their power and gathered around Norman Mailer, targeted those who had some sort of gripe with the Communist regime of old. Those were the descendants of Red Terror victims, the urban intellectuals who had their thought suppressed by the FBI, the enthusiastic pro-Eastern youths, and those who cling onto the memory of Columbia and its resistance against communism. Naturally, on the other side of the spectrum, the DSA gathered those who held communism in fond memory - the former party cadres and the unemployed workers and farmers who lost their livelihood at the face of neoliberal reforms. Foreign observers might have called Columbia center-right and DSA center-left, but they really were… anti-communist and pro-communist. Difference in actual policy, beyond rhetoric, was miniscule.
The few voting blocs which could be considered somewhat stable were ethnic and especially racial minorities. The African-American vote was immediately guzzled by the refounded NAACP - which, despite its name, had absolutely nothing to do with its pre-communist predecessor. Not even ideologically so - having once been allies of the socialist cause in the 1930s and 1940s, the African-American community found itself becoming enemies of the USSA due to their struggle to integrate into a greater socialist society, and withdrew towards religion as a result. The NAACP was founded by African-American reverends and Christian faithful and appealed not only to African-American autonomy, but also their faith. Aside for them, the two main parties, and the occasional religious interests party desperately trying to appeal to the remaining faithful across the United States… it was just a massive, massive swamp.
The second in command of the Columbia Movement of the 1980s, commonly called the brain behind Mailer’s idealism, John Rawls, broke ties with his former comrades and moved on to form the Liberal Party of America. The “Chicago Boys” coopted what could very, very loosely be described as “nationalist rhetoric”, which generally just devolved to foaming at the mouth about cracking down on former members of the FBI and demanding the restoration of the Constitution of the 18th century, and ended up forming about the so-called Constitutionalists. In response to their announcement, as well as general dissatisfaction with the way this country’s headed, the Federal Election Commission had to register one more party name - “Beer and Barbecues Party”. Its leader Dick Cavett described the odd choice of name simply: “In this day and age, all people talk about is how to recover, restore whatever America used to be about. They say we gotta restore the Constitution or our national pride. But we gotta start with the simple things, which make us American. Like a relaxing barbecue evening with a beer at hand.” The less is said about the restored Democrats and Republicans, the better - their identity crisis arguably made them more frivolous than the actual joke party running in the election, considering that, to stay relevant, one was basically overtaken by angry labour unions and the other had to make a deal with Alaskans of all people…
In a party system this fractured and this lacking in identity, the worst possible thing to do would be to make the elections to the restored House of Representatives proportional… oh wait. It was a necessary compromise, to be fair, between those who wanted as precise of a restoration of the pre-communist system as possible, and those who hoped to take the chance to reform and abandon antiquated First Past the Post. The lower house was proportional, the upper house was constituencies, and the Electoral College rest in the dustbin of history… a decision which many soon came to regret.