Consumption values are at the core of contemporary American culture. The mass media, businesses and politicians equate such values with freedom and democracy. The social contract as the Founding Fathers conceived of it is not about democracy, freedom and equality, but about mass consumption of citizens as consumers, an idea that America has exported to the rest of the world since the end of WWII. Government and the courts are more interested protecting consumer rights than civil rights. The legal system is also geared to serve and protect consumers rather than citizens.
The ideology of “consumption democracy” became integrated into the culture because government, corporations, and media equated it with the late 18th century concept of the contractual relationship that exists among businesses. By the late 19th century with the rise of the urban middle class, consumer protection of the bourgeois citizen was one of customer whose legal rights were as protected as those of businesses based on his/her purchasing power in society. Citizen identity with the nation during the age of romanticism in the early 19th century was replaced with consumption values prevailing during the Age of Materialism in the late 19th century. The idealism imbedded in American nationalism that can be seen by the time of Emerson had been replaced with the age of advertising focused on propagating “wants and needs” of the growing middle class during the era that Mark Twain called Gilded Age. (Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America ).
“Consumption democracy” is the Ralph Nader brand of bourgeois democracy as expressed in consumer protection that media, businesses and government project as America’s unique political culture. In theory at least, this unique type of democracy transcends race, religion, and ethnicity because it is class-based in a country that never had a privileged aristocracy like Europe and was founded by the commercial, financial, and agrarian bourgeoisie of a British colony. With its deep roots in late 19th century industrial America that produced scandals involving various services and products from rotted meats to pharmaceuticals, consumer advocacy became a legitimate way to defend democratic rights of the middle class during the Progressive Era. Although Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a leftist critique of American capitalism, it was the bourgeois progressive movement that used it to justify the creation of a much needed Food and Drug Administration.
As big business gave birth to big government bureaucracies during the Progressive Era, consumer protection was the new expression of democracy through which the middle class could fight for its rights. Despite resistance on the part of many capitalists opposed to regulatory mechanisms, corporate social responsibility became good business and attorneys filing law suits made sure of it in an effort to protect the middle class consumer. Naturally, consumption democracy did not extend to worker’s rights despite trade union organizing efforts. For example, US Steel Corporation had no problem with the concept of consumer rights, but it fought hard to keep union out of the industry. (Daniel Yankelovich, Profit with Honor; John Goldring, “Consumer Protection, the Nation-State, Law, Globalization, and Democracy.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 2, 1996; D. E. Saros, Labor, Industry, and Regulation during the Progressive Era)
As far as apologists of the “consumption democracy” are concerned, there is nothing wrong with the citizen-government relationship transformed into consumer-business contractual relationship just as there is nothing wrong of a business-to-business contractual relationship. After all, Adam Smith argued that government has a regulatory function and determines rules for binding agreements that involve private property and contracts. In order to protect his/her interests, the citizen’s role is commoditized in the market economy and reduced to a legal business role. Naturally, there are conservatives, neoliberals, and Libertarians who oppose regulations because they see them as impediments to capitalism.
Social democrats see the regulatory regime as the only viable tool of democracy in a capitalist society. Pro-regulatory elements believe that it is both good for business and society’s harmonious function to have rule regulating human relations even though it may be on the business contractual model. Operating on a very different concept of democracy, neoliberals of our time see it as an anathema to capitalist expansion and constrictive to capital accumulation that they equate with democracy. (Michael Lipsky,Rulemaking as a Tool of Democracy” MEMOS.org/ 17 December 2014)
The notion of legal consumer protection from faulty or fraudulent products and services is highly characteristic of service-oriented economies with the US at the core. In most countries around the world, the idea that consumer protection equals democracy would be as odd as the idea of commoditizing the citizen like a bag of potatoes. However, globalization and the emergence of the thriving “cybermarket” have resulted in “consumption democracy” gone global. Does this mean that globalization and cyberspace is contributing to democratization of the world or simply integrating it more closely into the capitalist system? A way to rationalize the capitalist system while providing some protection to the middle class, “consumption democracy” caught on especially after WWII because it operated within the milieu of “market economy values”, while it restricted freedoms owing to the Cold War climate and overriding national security concerns that transcended civil rights.
In the age of globalization, the Russian consumer of Microsoft products and services is entitled to the same courtesy as her US counterpart. The global corporation treats both Russian and US consumers as patrons of the company not as citizens. Whereas in the US consumer service is then turned into a social good and an integral part of the American Dream, this is not the case in Russia that has a market economy but people do not equate democracy with consumerism as Americans do. While one could argue that is largely cultural because the British consumer is much closer to her American counterpart in equating democratic rights with consumption, both the British and Russia citizens hold a much higher level of class consciousness than their American counterparts. Although according to opinion polls more than half of the Americans believe their government intervenes to strengthen the rich, they do not frame inequality issues in terms of class in the same manner and to the level Europeans and Russians do. Is the challenge of the American people to equate democracy with social justice, or is it a reflection of their culture that the European and Russian masses do not appreciate consumerist values and “consumption democracy”?
Apologists of capitalism insist that American “consumerist values” and market populism is a more democratic than political democracy that many Europeans advocate. These same neoliberal apologists would not recognize the right of a worker to unionize whether in the US or anywhere else in the world, but they have no problem with consumer advocacy organizations. This form of democracy is predicated on consumption levels, which in essence leaves out the working poor of the world from partticipation. The more money the individual has, the more consumption, thus the more democracy one enjoys. In other words, democratic rights are not predicated on citizenship rights of equality for all, but on income that varies based on class. Former Labor Secretary Reich is absolutely correct observing that consumerism has overtaken democracy and poses a challenge to the republic in this century. While for critics like Reich the challenge for a democratic society is to readjust its values otherwise its lifespan will not be long and thriving, as society is already in the phase of “corporatocracy” – economic, political, social and cultural life controlled by corporations, neoliberals insist that “consumption democracy” is the future for the world under globalization. (Robert Reich, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life).
The American middle class aspiring to the American Dream is convinced that consumerism equals democracy and shopping at the mall is something between entertainment and a religious experience. However, they are not as convinced that the system works for them nearly as well as it does for the privileged socioeconomic elites whose interests government promotes. After all, one cannot possibly be a consumer of everything described in the American Dream if one fears the prospect of downward social mobility, let alone lapsing close to the poverty line. If the political regime allows the very rich to shape all institutions and determine policy that impacts the lives of people both as citizens and consumers, then can such a system be labeled democracy or would a different name – oligopoly under oligarchy – more accurately describe it?
On 20 April 2015, the Washington Post ran a front page story that all voters are fed up with “big money” flowing into political campaigns. Presumably, this will be a defining issue in 2016, as it has been for one presidential election after the other in decades past. This may be the case for 2016, but Mother Jones magazine also ran a headline 250 Years of Campaigns, Cash, and Corruption. Going back to my undergraduate years when the Watergate scandal erupted on the political arena, big money in politics is all I can remember every four years of presidential elections. Rich people giving money to secure appointments as ambassadors, to secure tax breaks, to secure perks for their industry. The result of massive amounts of money from very few people in politics has left the majority alienated. Therefore, the level of “consumption democracy” is acquired privilege bought and paid for by those who can afford it.
It ought not to surprise anyone that America has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world. Voter participation is below 40% for congressional elections and below 60% of registered voters in presidential contests. According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, only 14.8% of eligible voters participated in 25 states. In the 2014 mid-term election that was a disaster for the Democrats, the US had the lowest voter turnout in 72 years, with 43 states fewer than half of the eligible citizens participating. It is interesting to note that some of the poorest states in the country, and some still not recovered from the effects of the 2008 recession scored below the national average in voter participation.
The result was a clean sweep by Republicans carrying an agenda favoring the wealthy even more than what the Democrats would have permitted. One could argue that voter apathy as a sign of cynicism about the political system is unhealthy and a warning sign that the percentage of non-participants will rise unless the system if fixed. However, the Republican Party, which has been in the minority since FDR, has actually been winning elections largely because of voter apathy, although by no means as the only variable. (“The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years”, New York Times, 11 November 2014) Can a functioning democracy continue with voter turnout of one-third participation, and if so, can it be called a democracy when two-thirds of the people do not participate even in a two-party system that represents the capitalist class?
Senator Bernie Sanders among others has argued that one can understand voter apathy when billionaire ultra-conservatives like the Koch brothers and their business lobby “Freedom Partners” spend enormous amounts to money to determine candidates and agendas. While most people would argue that voter apathy undermines democracy, this is exactly the result that conservatives and far right wingers want. Their goal is to marginalize as much of the voters as possible so Democrat candidates would not be elected. Although the US has Christian fundamentalists and an assortment of other right wingers that detest democracy in as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson conceived of it, it is true that ideological manipulation through the media has as its ultimate goal to silence dissent and perpetuate the monolithic corporatist state with a right wing ideological and political orientation. (Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America; Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies).
Although the US has always been a status quo country, and moved to the right during the Cold War, it is hardly a totalitarian country, or even Fascist in the sense of classical Fascism that made its appearance in the interwar era. However, Sheldon Wolin is correct that the US has very troubling signs of a nation in the grip of “inverted totalitarianism” where government and corporations are in collaboration to maintain a political economy and social structure that resembles a totalitarian society. As long as there was upward social mobility from 1945 until 1975, “inverted totalitarianism” was camouflaged because income distribution was not as concentrated as it has become. The massive capital concentration, however, has resulted in a more right wing course. In a nation where class consciousness is far lower than any other among the advanced capitalist countries, and where a sense of powerlessness prevails and conformity constantly reinforced by media and the state, the result is apathy rather than organizing and fighting to change the undemocratic system. (Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism)
If we need incontrovertible evidence of a chronic threat to American democracy, then we need not look any farther than institutionalized racism manifesting itself in the police enforcement, judicial and penal systems. This is not to say that there is no evidence of racism when we analyze socioeconomic indicators from unemployment and income distribution to housing, health and education statistics. It would be false to argue that there has been no progress since the 1960s. However, it would equally wrong to argue that institutionalized racism is not a 21st century challenge for American democracy. Regardless of the Bill of Rights, amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights movement, and of course political correctness intended to provide a thin veil of superficial politeness beneath which rests an apartheid mindset, racism remains an institutional problem.
The absence of political will to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment from the end of the Civil War until the early 1960s meant that it was not until the Johnson administration that the courts finally began to impose the law, and then only selectively and on-case-by-case depending on the court. The numerous court cases and millions of dollars paid to victims of civil rights violations have yet to stop either the police or any other entity public or private from overlooking the law with regard to race. Despite a black US president and a Justice Department with minority leadership from 2008 until 2016, the militarist-racist culture in police departments around America is clearly manifested in its treatment of minorities, especially black males. Targeting minorities by police and the methods often used is a reflection on the entire democratic system and the collapse of the Constitutional protections afforded to citizens. Recorded visual and audio evidence of police methods notwithstanding, and police and court records clearly showing deliberate targeting of minorities, government at all levels from local and state to federal have done nothing to change the culture of racism, thus sending the message that democracy must be subordinated to police-state methods that violate the law of the land.
Beyond the numerous incidents involving police officers and black males, despite the reality of US prisons populated inordinately by minorities, there is an inexorable link between “consumption democracy” and racism that impacts mostly poor black people. It is true that class transcends race otherwise we would not have black millionaires and blacks in management. However, Obama sitting in the White House and Oprah owing several mansions has absolutely nothing to do with institutionalized racism that is very much alive in society where the mass media portrays it as “isolated incidents” rather than at the core of the dominant culture. (Ahmed Shwaki, Black Liberation and Socialism)
In the early 21st century, American democracy will be challenged by the persistence of the culture of discrimination against minorities that has been a part of the history from Independence until the present. Marginalizing minorities reflects the glaring contradiction between the ideological commitment to the constitution that promises equality for all, and the reality of subtle and blatant discrimination against blacks, non-white immigrants, and in the last two decades Muslims. If Muslim, black and Hispanic minorities have to engage in self-censorship to show that they have accepted the institutional structure and hegemonic culture that is in itself a constraint on their freedom and their right of dissent in a democratic society. If there is a need for Affirmative Action because the majority is not to be trusted to make decisions based on a combination of merit criteria and rectifying social injustices, that too is a reflection that democracy is not functioning the same for all as the Constitution stipulates. (Manisha Sinha and Penny von Eschen, Contested Democracy: Freedom, Race, and Power in American History)
Minorities as well as a segment of the majority population realize that America has a serious problem with racism and one that is not going away any time soon. On 13 December 2014, there were large popular protest rallies across major US cities, including New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Boston. These demonstrations came after numerous others had taken place throughout November and early December when grand juries – in essence the justice system – failed to indict white police officers killing unarmed black males. On 12 April 2015, Freddie Gray died in police custody after running from the police after a chase for allegedly carrying a knife. The city of Baltimore, like so many other cities across America, has seen popular protests by people demanding respect for civil rights of minorities. In a nation hardly known for its tradition of protests and defiance of authority, such mass protests across the country reveal a systemic problem that government, media and the elites deliberately ignore and try to settle with payments to the families of victims after law suits filed in court. (“Protesters vow to ‘shut down’ Baltimore over Freddie Gray killing,” Christian Science Monitor, 25 April 2015)
The anti-racist protests in American cities come right out American history when the entire justice system was stacked against minorities and remains so to this day as evidence by court cases and prison statistics of minorities. No matter the superficiality of “Political Correctness” intended as protocol and legal cover for the hypocritical political and legal structure desperate to project a non-racist image, the empirical evidence suggests vestiges of an apartheid society. Because the American institutional structure is rooted in racism and the police state is in full force during the era of counter-terrorism it really does not mean much that there is a black president and attorney general in the Department of Justice, or a black anchor person reporting the news. The challenge to American democracy in the 21st century is to eradicate institutional racism, not to allow a small percentage of minorities be integrated into the institutional mainstream as leaders.
The most significant protest movements in American history that have resulted in reforms include tax revolts (Boston Tea Party rebellion 1773) that led to the War of Independence, the abolitionist movement leading to the Civil War, the Women’s suffrage that led to voting rights, and the Civil Rights movement that ended legalized segregation. The degree to which popular protest movements have actually resulted in reforms of greater democratization is debatable, considering that women remain the discriminated gender, and racism has very deep institutional roots as evidenced by all indicators from the percentages of blacks living below poverty to the percentage convicted and imprisoned in comparison with the general population. It is simply impossible to overcome the challenge of racism to American democracy in isolation and not part of an integrated effort of democratizing all of society as part of a commitment to social justice. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King recognized toward the end of their lives that institutionalized racism is part of a larger issue regarding social justice. (Nick Bromell, The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy; Joseph Barndt,Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America.)
Gun violence and NRA-Democracy
Does gun violence have anything to do with democracy, or is it strictly a Second Amendment issue as the gun-manufacturing supported NRA insists? Clearly, there is a direct correlation between gun violence and poverty and unemployment in urban America, as many politicians, academics and journalists acknowledge. While the predominantly white middle class in suburban areas are hardly affected, it is not so for the mixed race-ethnically diverse inner city poor areas where political participation is extremely low and residents are victimized by gun violence.
Gun violence is unique in the history of the US, perhaps because of the confrontational relationship with Native Americans as well as the glorification of lawlessness as part of the Westward expansion movement. Considering that there is greater gun ownership per capita in Switzerland but far less violence, we are forced to consider how gun violence fits into American culture. Not just the history involving decimating the Native American population and preserving the apartheid regime even after the Civil War, but the consumer culture itself are inexorably part of the gun violence society that presents a major challenge to democracy.
At the core argument of the Second Amendment (The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.) is the right of the individual and the sense of freedom gun ownership provides. Is the proliferation of firearms constructive to a democracy or detrimental? Is society as a whole pays for the devastating results of gun violence almost as much as the entire Medicaid program does society have the right to a gun-violence free environment? Clearly, this is an ideological issue with arch-conservatives opting for gun ownership they equate with rugged individualism and the “American way of life”. However, if it were not for the powerful NRA lobby, this would not be an issue. (Firmin DeBrabander, Do Guns Make Us Free?: Democracy and the Armed Society;Joan Burbick, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy)
It is amazing that the cost of gun violence to America is $229 billion, according to a recent estimate by Mother Jones. However, even it gun violence cost a tiny fraction of what is estimated, does this make it acceptable? Should a democratic society tolerate the rightwing ideologues backed by the gun lobby imposing a massive burden on the majority of the population? That Mother Jones has fallen into the assumptions of the mainstream media and framed the issue of gun violence in sheer terms of the bottom line is indicative of how the dominant culture prevails in defining not just the issues of importance, but how they are presented to the public. “at least 750,000 Americans injured by gunshots over the last decade, and she was lucky not to be one of the more than 320,000 killed. Each year more than 11,000 people are murdered with a firearm, and more than 20,000 others commit suicide using one.” Mother Jones April 2015
Beyond the right wing NRA politics, gun violence is at its core a class, race and ethnicity issue. The victims of gun violence are minorities and poor whites, while the affluent are rarely touched except as hunters. The leading cause of death among black teenagers is gun violence. While the media and government become alarmed when gun violence impacts middle class white areas, they rarely mention the impact of gun violence in minority neighborhoods. That a democratic country places the individual’s right to gun ownership above people’s right to live free of fear from gun violence reveals a great deal of an ideological commitment to gun manufacturers and values rooted in violence. (John D. Marquez, Genocidal Democracy: Neoliberalism, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Urban Gun Violence.)
From 1980 to the present, there is a noticeable trend toward bitter partisanship and disintegration of America’s ‘consensus politics’ that has exacerbated sociopolitical polarization. Given the declining living standards with the erosion of the middle class at a time that we have seen vast wealth concentration, the beneficiaries are clearly the financial elites that want the state to maintain the appearance of pluralism but in fact have authoritarian traits. The dynamics of human society are similar today as in the 17th century when Hobbes wrote The Leviathan. Therefore if a modern American Leviathan emerges it will be an expression of contemporary society confronting a social and economic structure that is unraveling. (Juan Enriquez, The Untied States of America: Polarization, Fracturing, and Our Future; John Sides and D. J. Hopkins, Political Polarization in American Politics)
The media that has the power to mold public opinion and convince people that Leviathan means “salvation” from self-destructive proclivities of an otherwise irrational public. If people are convinced that safety and security rests in the hands of the Leviathan, will society move away from the Jeffersonian model that some equate with ideal democracy toward one that projects an image of narrowly-defined democracy equated with freedom to enjoy safety and security, consume and vote for politicians who represent the same elites? Is this a democratic model or one behind which rests an authoritarian/police/military state? How much freedom would Americans enjoy under an authoritarian government model?
In January 2011, the US-government funded NGO watchdog group Freedom House, released a report listing 25 of 194 countries with declining levels of freedom, a list that includes France and Hungary, among the usual Middle East, African, and Latin American suspects. Well known for clandestine activities in a number of countries the US opposes, Freedom House does not include the US on its list of nations with declining freedoms, but many other organizations and public opinion polls have the US on their lists.
The World Press Freedom Index ranks the US 49th out of 180, below Chile, Niger and South Africa! The UK’s Legatum Institute lists the US lists the US 21st in the world, largely because of its lack of tolerance of dissident voices characteristic of an authoritarian country rather than a democracy. In 2014, the Legatum Prosperity Index showed that while the US was 10th most prosperous country in the world, 86% of its citizens felt that their personal freedom has been in decline because of inability to choose the way to live.
Although party affiliation as related to social class is not nearly as great a factor in the US as it is in Europe, the US has been drifting toward political-ideological polarization that reflects socioeconomic polarization in the last 30 years. Sociopolitical polarization is more evident today than it was when the Reagan-Bush team came to Washington and contributed to that phenomenon. But is it the fault of the politicians seeking elected office at almost any price, the well-paid “talking heads” that propagate for one side or the other, or is it the source of polarization a political economy that has resulted in the weaker middle class According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in June 2014, 36% of Republicans view Democrats as a threat to America’s wellbeing and 27% of Democrats feel likewise for the Republicans. This also reflects the reality that those identifying with the Republican Party are much more rightwing in 2014 than they were in 1994, while the majority of Democrats have also shifted left of the liberal “middle” that the party wants voters to embrace.
This polarization in the voter base, added to voter apathy reveals that the vast majority of the American people no longer believe in the kind of political consensus that developed under Truman in the late 1940s in both domestic and foreign policy. The irony here is that while the Republican Party has most certainly moved to the far right by embracing Tea Party agenda elements, the Democrat Party has also moved to the right away from principles and policies that in the 1960s afforded a sense of hope for the workers, the middle class, workers and minorities. As much in foreign policy as in fiscal and trade policy, there is hardly much difference between the two. Where there are differences on environmental and culturally liberal issues such as gay marriage, right to life, those have only a marginal impact on society, no matter how polarizing the media tries to portray them.
All presidential campaigns promise the American Dream to all citizens, but all of them deliver even greater privileges to those making the hefty campaign contributions. The presidential race for 2016 is no different, considering that the campaign of the Republican favorite and presumptive nominee Jeb Bush is already engaged in illegal activities. In fact, the super PAC raising money for Jeb Bush has done so in record time and exceeded all previous records. According to Reuters, the Bush campaign is trying to convert the super PAC backing him into a campaign committee so that they can circumvent the limits on unlimited donations. “A relatively small number of millionaires and billionaires could pay for Bush’s race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The only problem is that the Bush scheme, as reported, would be illegal.”Reuters, 23 April 2015
The Hillary Clinton campaign is equally corrupt and equally beholden to a handful of very rich. Her family’s “charities” have been forced to re-file tax returns for the last five years because they withheld vital information regarding contributions to the Clinton Foundation, an organization that has been criticized for its endemic corruption practices. While Hilary Clinton was in the State Department, the Clinton Foundation brought million of dollars from foreign governments as well as corporations paying to buy influence. Is this sloppy accounting or systemic corruption at the heart of the American political system? If this is the Democrat candidate presenting herself as the champion of the middle class and the enemy of the rich, it is understandable why voters become cynical and apathetic about politics. Much of this comes from Republican critics (Peter Schwitzer Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich)
The amazing thing is that the wealthy do not have to make any contributions to political campaigns because the system is already set up to serve their interests and no politician will survive if she/he tries to challenge the power and influence of big capital in society. Senator Bernie Sanders has been the remarkable exception, but always works within the system to survive. The rich give money to ensure influence for even more privileges of their specific interests, whether in the pharmaceutical industry, banking etc. This means that the average citizens are left out completely.
People have no illusions that the US is a country with elected officials that hardly represent the interests of the workers and middle class. Focused on the elites for whose benefit laws and policies are designed, the entire institutional structure exists to line up the masses intoconformity. It is amazing that even in the latest budget deal that Obama sent to Congress for approval in December 2014, school lunch subsidies were slashed, while more tax breaks for Wall Street were included. No matter how much right wing radio and TV rhetoric is thrown at the American public, how is it possible that the vast majority do not appreciate that Congress consistently fails to serve the public interest because the financing of its campaigns and its ideological commitment is to the top ten percent of the country’s richest people?
The end result is that political polarization will become much worse during the next deep recession when there is further erosion of the middle class and further downward social mobility. People will become more cynical as both political parties try to convince the American people that the threats to American democracy are beyond the sovereign borders and that the solution is even more defense, intelligence, security and police spending, allegedly to contain foreign enemies when in fact democracy itself is the enemy of the existing political and socioeconomic elites.
An ancient Athenian invention, democracy evolved from the oligarchic system that existed from Solon the “Law Giver” who set on a course to harmonize society until Pericles who represented merchants and trade interests. A more representative system of government than any other in the ancient world, democracy was never inclusive, as it left all everyone who was not an adult male citizen in a city-state where the slaves andmetics (non-Athenians) were the major engine of the economy. Similarly, in the modern times its challenge is the lack of inclusiveness and failure to deliver on social justice that people see as an integral part of this system. American democracy as the two political parties define it, as the mass media projects it, as all mainstream institutions want it to be is safe and sound for now because it helps to maintain a privileged elite with a fairly substantial middle class social layers living the “American Dream”. The rest of the population either aspires to the dream that never materializes, or they have given up and live on the fringes.
As the political economy continues to erode the middle layers that historically constitute the popular base of American “democracy”, and as the gap widens between the popular base and the power base of the system – concentrated wealth and political power – the system will begin to weaken and become increasingly authoritarian. If the challenge of American democracy in the 21st century is to survive and become stronger, it will not accomplish that goal if the system is in essence a form of oligarchy of the rich that both political parties represent as their role is achieve popular consensus to keep the oligarchy going under the guise of the label “democracy”.
In an article entitled “America’s Social Democratic Future”, Lane Kenworthy writing in Foreign Affairs (February 2014) agrees that the US has had many obstacles in its democratic progress. He concludes that American democracy is better off today than in was when Wilson took office in 1913, and it will be better off in the 21st century because its regime emulates the “Nordic” model. Those who have studied the “Nordic” models know the US has very little in common with them and even less with where it is headed based on its contemporary history and current trends.
The idea that the US is anything like Finland, Sweden, Norway, or any “Nordic” country is a combination of a mental construct and wishful thinking to placate the beleaguered masses crying out for a more just society. Appealing to the patriotic and nationalist mass sentiments, politicians and the corporate media will argue that “sacrifices” by the middle class and workers, not by the capitalists, are essential for America to remain “competitive” and enjoy the fruits of its labors in the future. The idea that the American financial elites will voluntarily compromise their privileges is as absurd as it was for the French nobility to surrender their privileges before the French Revolution of 1789. The only goal of the wealthiest Americans is amassing even more power so they remain hegemonic within society and globally. It is greed and power that motivates them, not rational ideas, not what is just and unjust, right or wrong.
The dogmatic ideological turn to the right after the election of Reagan in 1980, and the US-led global effort to undo all vestiges of Keynesianism and the social safety net while transferring capital to corporations and banks through the fiscal system and subsidies, created a political atmosphere hostile to any notion of democratic collectivism. Even Walter Lippmann who was the arch defender of liberal democracy agreed on the need of some measure of collectivism in a well function democratic society. He conceded that the state has the obligation for society’s economic life as a whole, even as it preserves liberty for individual transactions.
The business and political establishment expects the masses to enjoy the vicarious thrills of capitalist success and institutional privileges that the elites enjoy in society and be content with such an ethereal experience because they could be living in sub-Sahara Africa or Central America where living standards are the lowest in the world. After all, is it not enough that one enjoys personal identity with the super power of the world? Because of the added elements of nationalism and patriotism, the middle class and workers forgo their own realities and accept identity with the “larger” entity as success. In other words, if the US economy and military are strong and healthy, that ought to be enough for each individual, regardless if they have a well-paying job and can make the rent, or if their children have a prospect of upward social mobility.
Backed by the media, the corporate interests and political class will use everything from “terrorism” to foreign policy crises to forge some popular support for taking the country down the road to even more militaristic and police state methods than we have know in the last fifteen years. Not to belabor teleological mode of thinking, but the next decades will entail a deterioration of both democracy and social justice, while socioeconomic and political polarization are inevitable. Ideologically and politically the elites and media will steer the public more to the right, creating even more political apathy and cynicism, even greater polarization that will justify a course toward more authoritarian methods.
One reason that American society will evolve in this manner is that the contradictions between “Empire as a Way of Life”, to borrow from William Appleman Williams great work, is in direct contradiction with democratic development. It is entirely possible that a very deep and serious societal crisis even worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s could bring about a pause to these conditions at some point in this century. Such a crisis could also result in some form of a totalitarian state still calling itself democracy.
The challenges to American democracy in this century are not so different than they were during the Gilded Age, but the US survived and went on to become a superpower while creating a broader middle class. Having achieved the zenith of its power during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations when there were no economic rivals of any consequence, the US missed its opportunity to create a sound economic base that would keep it strong for another century. Instead, its policies of “Military Keynesianism” and welfare capitalism under a neoliberal regime weakened not only the economic base but also the political popular base on which American democracy stood. The very foundations of American society are now shaky, though not beyond repair. If current trends persist as I have described in this essay, those foundation will become even more so as the century unfolds.
How can people bring about change if they people are slaves to aspirations of supporting a system that inherently marginalizes them? Can there be greater democratization of society in the absence of a cultural revolution, and is it likely in the absence of a social revolution that will bring about political, economic and social change. Emerging from the Enlightenment rationalist tradition of the 18th century, American democracy aimed at the ideals of the French and English political philosophers but constantly grounded in the realities of a young nation endeavoring to emulate the success of the mother country. Applying abstract reason to solve societal problems was mainstream Enlightenment thinking among idealists who came out of a class society in which the nobility and the upper clergy held back the progress of society. In our time, the social progress of society is held back by a handful of very wealthy people who enjoy a hold on the state and institutions, including the media as a major tool of social control.
More so today than in the late 18th century, American democracy’s challenge is to serves the public interest not the interests of the 1% richest Americans to the detriment of the middle class and workers. It is interesting that the media, politicians, and even academics use the term “special interests” so that they avoid any class-based language and so that in the so-called “special interests” they can include trade unions and organizations such as the AARP, women’s and others. Defining corporate and finance capital as “special interests”, while defining the “public interest” as the sum total of citizens and the collective goods of the working class and middle class would be a good first step toward meeting some of democracy’s challenges in the 21st century. Engaging in deliberate illusion-making by trying to remain politically, ideologically and culturally acceptable to apologists of the existing system and refusing to recognize the class struggle at the core American democracy’s simply perpetuates more myths rather than trying to expose them. (John B. Judis, The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust.)