Is the United States
Still a Democracy?
The simplest answer to this question, of course, is “no.” When teaching United States history I would always emphasize, “we are a democratic Republic.” The idea being that we vote for representatives democratically and they then do the work of governing. We have known for quite some time, of course, that money has had a huge impact on our “democracy” (particularly since the Citizens’ United decision) but we may be failing to see just how seriously endangered democracy is, with oligarchic threats from both the right and the left. The consolidation of power and money from both sides of the political spectrum, along with the disastrous Trump “presidency,” may well be the real beginning of the end of democratic republicanism. Let’s examine some facts.
The Lovely Carol Marie and I were at Yankee Stadium yesterday and one could not help but notice the HUGE sign in left field that simply declares: KOCH. The Koch Brothers, who are big sponsors of the best-known brand in the world (the New York Yankees), are themselves a well-known brand of right wing libertarianism. The August 20, 2017 NY Times Book Review provides some insight as to how the Koch Brothers consolidated their political power. In reviewing a new book by historian Nancy MacLean (”Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”), Heather Housey outlines how the economist James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013) created a blueprint for developing --- and maintaining ---the power of the 1%. Buchanan ‘s work:
advanced the field of public choice economics into politics, arguing that all interest groups push for their own agenda rather than the public good. According to this view, governing institutions cannot be trusted, which is why governing should be left to the market.
Distrust of the government, of course, is a “given” in today’s political environment. If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, however, people trusted the government and actually saw it as an engine of positive change. That’s when “Buchanan came to a radical conclusion: Majority rule was an economic problem. “Despotism,” he declared in his 1975 book “The Limits of Liberty,” “may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” A radical notion, for sure, but one that was given more credence when Buchanan won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economic Science:
for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision making.” Buchanan therefore argued for “curbing the appetites of majority coalitions” by establishing ironclad rules that would curb their power. As he was known for saying, “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers.”
Having been thwarted in his attempt to privatize (voucher) public schools in Virginia in the 1950s (to fight integration!), Buchanan “decided he needed to influence policy at a deeper level. In the ensuing years, he sought to lead an economic and political movement in which he stressed that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential” to mask efforts to protect the wealthy elite from the will of the majority.” What MacLean discovered in her research was that:
Buchanan’s papers revealed how, from a series of faculty perches at several universities, he spent his life laying out a game plan for a right-wing social movement. American democracy was unprepared to defend itself against the agenda of Buchanan and conservative benefactors.
As a result:
Public choice economists argue that those with the most to lose from change will pay the most attention, which has certainly been the case with Charles and David Koch. They and their friends have invested enormous sums in organizations that have changed the national debate about the proper role of government in the economy. Our politically polarized and increasingly paralyzed government institutions are the result.
And the election of a gross incompetent will only speed the process of the power consolidation from the wealthy 1% on the right. We have watched the inequality gap widen over the years that Buchanan’s theories have held sway with the Koch Brothers and their ilk.
But we also have to be concerned with growing left wing oligarchy that is emerging on the West Coast --- particularly in Silicon Valley and Puget Sound. As detailed in an August 27, 2017 Daily Beast article by Joel Kotkin:
This new hierarchy is narrowing the path to riches, or even the middle class. Rather than expand opportunity, the Valley increasingly creates jobs in the “gig economy” that promises not a way to the middle class, much less riches, but into the rising precariat—part-time, conditional workers. This emerging “gig economy” will likely expand with the digitization of retail, which could cost millions of working-class jobs.
While they seem progressive (“gentry liberals,” as defined by Kotkin) the consolidation of power by Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft is not improving the economy for the middle and lower classes --- quite the contrary. As Kotkin notes:
The rich have gotten richer, in part by taking pains to minimize their tax exposure. Now they are talking grandly about having the government provide all the now “excess” humans with a guaranteed minimum income. The titans who have shared or spread so little of their own wealth are increasingly united in the idea that the government—i.e., middle-class taxpayers—should spread more around.
Unlike the right wing these leftists are supporting government programs, while their own nests are being padded --- particularly as the gobble up new companies and start-ups. Using the Bay Area as an example of where the Digital Economy is headed:
Not at all coincidentally, the Bay Area itself—once a fertile place of grassroots and middle-class opportunity—now boasts an increasingly bifurcated economy. San Francisco, the Valley’s northern annex, regularly clocks in as among the most unequal cities in the country, with both extraordinary wealth and a vast homeless population.
There was a recent NY Times article documenting one Bay Area woman’s daily commute of 3 hours to maintain her job (at an Amazon “fulfillment center”) and still afford to own her own home. And, as Kotkin notes again:
In recent years income gains in the region have flowed overwhelmingly to the top quintile of income-earners, who have seen their wages increase by over 25 percent since 1989, while income levels have declined for low-income households.
And this is from those CEO’s who have now become a major influence in the Democratic Party! What is most concerning about the leftist oligarchy is that they now dominate the flow of information. Yes, of course, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart have their following of Trumpists, but :
the digital universe, dominated by a handful of players located in just a few locales, threaten to make a pluralism of opinions a thing of the past. The former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris suggests that “a handful of tech leaders at Google and Facebook have built the most pervasive, centralized systems for steering human attention that has ever existed.”
While some may trust Bezos and Zuckerberg, et al, we should not look lightly upon what is happening. Once again, as Kotkin notes:
In a future Democratic administration, as is already evident in places like California, the tech titans will use their money, savvy, and new dominance over our communications channels to steer and even dictate America’s political and cultural agendas to wield power in ways that even the likes of J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller would envy.
What started as a brilliant, and profoundly non-political extension of the information revolution, notes early Google and Facebook investor Robert McNamee, now looms as “a menace,” part of a systematic “brain hacking” on a massive scale. We can choose to confront this reality—as the early 20th century progressives did—or stand aside and let the oligarchs chart our future without imposing any curbs on their seemingly inexorable hegemony.
It sounds ominous --- and it is! What is most distressing is that we are not hearing voices of reason from either end of the political spectrum trying to move the nation back to a center where compromise and the Public Good are at the center of governing. I’ve noted before my concern about the United States being an empire in decline (like Great Britain after WWII) and nothing on the horizon is shaking me from that belief.
What do you think?