Is America a Democracy by Definition?
There is mounting clear evidence the U.S. is a flawed democratic country that increasingly exhibits the characteristics of an oligarchy.
The U.S. is not a classic democracy, but a republic, which has features of a representative democracy. The key difference between a democracy and a republic lies in the limits placed on government by the law, which has implications for minority rights. Both forms of government tend to use a representational system — i.e., citizens vote to elect politicians to represent their interests and form the government. In a republic, a constitution or charter of rights protects certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by the government, even if it has been elected by a majority of voters. In a “pure democracy,” the majority is not restrained in this way and can impose its will on the minority.
The most well-documented early democracy was found in Athens, Greece, and established around 500 BCE.Under Athenian democracy, the people voted on every law. This was a pure or direct democracy where the majority had nearly complete control over rights and progress.
The most well-documented historical representational republic is the Roman Republic, which developed shortly after Athenian democracy. The rule of law favored by the Roman Republic remains popular in most of today’s governments. It is worth noting that the Roman Republic had an unwritten constitution that was constantly adapting to changing principles.
Most modern nations—including the United States—are democratic republicswith a constitution, which can be amended by a popularly elected government. This comparison therefore contrasts the form of government in most countries today with a theoretical construct of a “pure democracy”, mainly to highlight the features of a republic.
Somewhere in the 227 years since the foundation of the U.S. many Americans have adopted the idea that the U.S. is a democracy not a republic. Nothing could be further from the intent expressed at that Constitutional Convention in 1787.
In a pure democracy, all citizens who are eligible to vote take an equal part in the process of making laws that govern them. In a pure or “direct” democracy, the citizens as a whole have the power to make all laws directly at the ballot box. Today, some U.S. states empower their citizens to make state laws through a form of direct democracy known as the ballot initiative. Put simply, in a pure democracy, the majority truly does rule and the minority has little or no power.
In a republic, the people elect representatives to make the laws and an executive to enforce those laws. While the majority still rules in the selection of representatives, an official charter lists and protects certain inalienable rights, thus protecting the minority from the arbitrary political whims of the majority. In this sense, republics like the United States function as “representative democracies.”
James Madison, often called “the father of the Constitution” wrote, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.”In the early 1800s, John Marshall, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”
It’s interesting that you won’t find the word “democracy” in either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
Signs That The Democratic American Republic is Crumbling
In the famous book, Democracy in America, published in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville praised America’s egalitarian society but warned against the tyranny of an ignorant majority and the possibility of its democracy degenerating into soft authoritarianism. Since then, many political experts have given warnings of decay in the American democratic institutions and practices.
An increasing number of Americans favor alternatives to a democratic government.
Research conducted by Bright Line Watch, the group that organized the Yale conference on democracy, shows that Americans are not as committed to these norms as you might expect. Another startling finding is that many Americans are open to “alternatives” to democracy. In 1995, for example, one in 16 Americans supported Army rule; in 2014, that number increased to one in six. According to another survey cited at the conference, 18 percent of Americans think a military-led government is a “fairly good” idea.
The U.S. ranking as a democracy is declining.
The Democracy Index 2016, released in January 2017, now lists the United States as a flawed democracy. The basis for the decline was not the most recent presidential election. Instead, the report argues that Donald Trump benefited from a lack of popular trust in American government, a lack that also led to the demotion. Indeed, the ranking of the United States had been dropping for a number of years; the country was just barely included at the bottom of the list of fully functioning democracies in 2015.
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Note the U.S. does not make the top 19 countries listed.
The weak points in the U.S. system, according to the report are “functioning of government” and “political participation.” One contributor is the Supreme Court’s refusal to find any constitutional violation in political gerrymandering, which has led to a breakdown in deliberative democracy. With so many members of the United States House of Representatives and the state legislatures coming from districts that have been drawn so as to make their seats safely Republican or safely Democratic, there is no longer any incentive to compromise.
A member who compromises, thereby moving to the center of the electorate, moves away from the center of those who vote in his or her party’s primary. In a safe district, it is the primary that matters, and winning the primary requires ideological purity. Compromise calls that purity into question. That affects the functioning of government. It can also impact political participation, when voters find themselves in safe districts in which their votes don’t really matter.
The other contributing factor is the Supreme Court’s repeated striking down of any attempts to limit the influence of money in politics. While the Court has accepted contribution limits to avoid actual, or the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption, it has been completely unwilling to limit expenditures by anyone, including corporations and unions, supporting the election or defeat of candidates. Somehow, the Court does not see the corruption this may cause. It may also impact the functioning of government, in the sense that government is not responsive to the people but instead to those who have the capacity to spend in favor of, or against, reelection of members of the legislature. It is also likely to affect political participation; people may choose to take no part in the process, if they believe that government is bought and paid for.
In its Freedom in the World 2018 report, the independent watchdog Freedom House found that “democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017,” citing the United States’ withdrawal from its historic role as a “champion and an exemplar of democracy” as one of the causes. As the role of the United States as an advocate for democracy around the globe has weakened, authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China have gained global influence and increased repression at home. Overall, the report found that 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties while only 35 registered gains. This is not the first year the organization has observed democratic decline around the world. In fact, 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of the trend. Democracy in the United States has been declining over the last seven years, but this year’s report noted an “accelerated” decline in 2017, which they attributed to Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Trump administration’s violations of ethical standards, and a lack of transparency in government.
Big money lobbies exert undue influence on Congress.
In her book Corruption in America, the legal scholar Zephyr Teachout notes that the institutions of the United States were explicitly designed to counter the myriad ways in which people might seek to sway political decisions for their own personal gain. Many forms of lobbying were banned throughout the 19th century. In Georgia, the state constitution at one time read that “lobbying is declared to be a crime.” In California, it was a felony.Over the course of the 20th century, lobbying gradually became acceptable. But even once the activity became normalized, businesses remained reluctant to exert their influence. As late as the 1960s, major corporations did not lobby directly on their own behalf. Instead, they relied on collectives such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had a weaker voice in Washington than labor unions or public-interest groups.
All of this began to change in the early 1970s. Determined to fight rising wages and stricter labor and environmental standards, which would bring higher costs, CEOs of companies like General Electric and General Motors banded together to expand their power on Capitol Hill. At first, their activities were mostly defensive: The goal was to stop legislation that might harm their interests. But as the political influence of big corporations grew, and their profits soared, a new class of professional lobbyists managed to convince the nation’s CEOs that, in the words of Lee Drutman, the author of the bookThe Business of America Is Lobbying:How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate, argues their activity “was not just about keeping the government far away—it could also be about drawing government close.” Today, corporations wield immense power in Washington: “For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public-interest groups,”
“Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business, ” Drutman argues, The work of K Street lobbyists, and the violation of government by big money, has fundamentally transformed the work—and the lives—of the people’s supposed representatives. Steve Israel, a Democratic congressman from Long Island, was a consummate moneyman. Over the course of his 16 years on Capitol Hill, he arranged 1,600 fund-raisers for himself, averaging one every four days. Israel cited fund-raising as one of the main reasons he decided to retire from Congress, in 2016: “I don’t think I can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money,” he told The New York Times. “I always knew the system was dysfunctional. Now it is beyond broken.”
In his 2014 essay, “America in Decay,” conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama analyzed that processes that have contributed to the decay of democracy in the United States. In particular, he identified the distribution of power as one of the main contributing factors. Fukuyama wrote that:
“Liberal democracy is almost universally associated with market economies, which tend to produce winners and losers and amplify what James Madison termed the “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” This type of economic inequality is not in itself a bad thing, insofar as it stimulates innovation and growth and occurs under conditions of equal access to the economic system. It becomes highly problematic, however, when the economic winners seek to convert their wealth into unequal political influence. They can do so by bribing a legislator or a bureaucrat, that is, on a transactional basis, or, what is more damaging, by changing the institutional rules to favor themselves — for example, by closing off competition in markets they already dominate, tilting the playing field ever more steeply in their favor.”
Fukuyama explains how the lobbyists buy Congressmen to pass legislations that benefit their interests. In his view money enters from the back door and creates supporters [for the lobbyists]. The lobby industry bribes the congressmen and later demands what it wants.
In 2009, 13,500 lobbyists and interest groups spent $5.3 billion to influence Congress, and hurt its credibility. The American people’s trust in Congress has declined from 42 percent in 1973 to just 7 percent in 2014.
Big money buys elections and politicians.
The ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Citizens United v Federal Electoral Commission revoked the legal limits that prevented companies, non-profit organizations, and trade unions from financing electoral campaigns. This opened the way for the so-called super PACs, which are today the real protagonists of presidential and legislative elections. As a result of the Supreme Court case, outside spending in elections has skyrocketed from $143 million in 2008 to over $1.3 billion in 2016 – an 800 percent increase.
In 2016, candidates running for federal office spent a record $6.4 billion on their campaigns, while lobbyists spent $3.15 billion to influence the government in Washington. Both sums are twice that of 2000 levels. This reality sparked former president Jimmy Carter to lament that any candidate to the Presidency of the United States needs at least 200 million dollars to set foot on the path to the White House. “There’s no way now for you to get a Democratic or Republican nomination without being able to raise $200 or $300 million or more,” Carter told Oprah Winfrey on her talk show in September 2015.
The book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by journalist Jane Mayer, which has become a bestseller, also clearly describes how the U.S. political system is dominated by dollars, which implies that even the most modest attempts to tackle climate change, gun control, etc., fail before the real power of big money interests. The vast majority in the U.S. — 84% — believe money has too much influence in political campaigns, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll . The feeling cuts across party lines, with 80% of Republicans, 90% of Democrats and 84% of independents believing campaign cash plays too big a role.
Civic participation has dramatically declined.
The percentage of people voting in the Congressional elections in the 1990s and the year 2000 was never more than 39 percent. Less than 30 percent of the eligible votersvoted in the last Congressional elections, although another study put it at less than 19 percent. The voting rate in the presidential elections is higher, but not too high.It declined from 63.1 percent in 1960 to 51.3 in 2000. Obama’s anti-war coalition of 2008 increased that to only 56.8 percent.
While most Americans – 70% in a recent Pew Research Center survey – say high turnout in presidential elections is very important, what constitutes “high turnout” depends very much on which country you’re looking at and which measuring stick you use. The 55.7% VAP turnout in 2016 puts the U.S. behind most other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each OECD nation, the U.S. placed 26th out of 32. The highest turnout rates among OECD nations were in Belgium (87.2%), Sweden (82.6%) and Denmark (80.3%). One factor behind Belgium’s high turnout rates – between 83% and 95% of VAP in every election for the past four decades – may be that it is one of the 24 nations around the world (and six in the OECD) with some form of compulsory voting.
Americans are a little less likely to ask what they can do for their country these days. An Associated Press-GfK poll found that the sense of duty has slipped since a similar survey three decades earlier. Civic virtues such as staying informed or serving on a jury don’t seem as important as they once did — especially among the younger generation. The findings fit with research that’s been worrying many experts who study civic engagement or advocate for teaching more about civics in school.Only 37 percent of Americans said that keeping up with the news and public issues is a “very important” obligation for citizens. In 1984, a majority — 56 percent — said that being informed was a very important civic duty. One-fifth answered that there is “no obligation at all” to keep up with the news.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, only 31% of Americans can name the three branches of government (and 32% cannot name a single branch). In 2011, when Newsweek administered the United States Citizenship Test to over 1000 American citizens, 38% of Americans failed. This widespread civic illiteracy is not just shameful, it is dangerous. How people expect to hold their representatives accountable when 61% don’t know which party controls the House and 77% can’t name either of their state’s senators? How can Americans expect to exercise their rights when over one third can’t name any of the five rights protected by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, the press, protest, and petition)?
Economic inequality erodes democracy.
In 1970, 90 percent of 30-year-olds in America were better off than their parents at the same age. In 2010, only 50 percent were. The conservative Hudson Institute, reported in 2017 that the wealthiest 5% of U.S. households held 62.5% of all assets in the country in 2013, compared to the 54.1% they had three decades before. That is to say, the richest families are becoming even richer. But even more noteworthy was the finding of academics Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who in their research on inequality found that the wealthiest 0.01% controlled 22% of all wealth in 2012, when in 1979 the figure was just 7%, according to a recent BBCreport. Tens of millions of people in the United States are living their lives below the first threshold. The economic gap has been widening, denying millions of people a respectable life. Speaking about the widening economic gaps in the United States. Statistics indicate the huge gap between the average incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans versus the remaining 99 percent: $1,303,198 versus $43,713, a gap of roughly 30 to 1. In 1950 the top 1 percent received only 5 percent of the total incomes produced during the economic expansion. The top 1 percent now receives 95 percent.
In his book, The Price of Inequality, American economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001, demonstrates that, over the past few decades, economic inequality has increased dramatically. He shows that 1 percent of the American people own 25 percent of the total wealth. In interviews with Jon Stewart (here,here, and here),der Spiegel, and Euro News, Stiglitz argued that the only solution to the problem is an economic model similar to that of the Scandinavian countries, and that the “American dream” has become myth. In his article in theNew York Times in 2013, Robert Putnam, Professor of public policyat Harvard University also argued that the “American dream” is being destroyed.
In his book, The Law of People, political philosopher John Rawls stated that a constitutional-based democratic state is a pillar of liberalism, and that: “Public deliberation must be made possible, recognized as a basic feature of democracy, and set free from the curse of money. Otherwise, politics is dominated by corporate and other organized interests who through large contributions to campaigns distort if not preclude public discussion and deliberation.”
To prove his point that “money is an enemy of democracy,” Rawls referred to the article , The Curse of American Politics, by Ronald Dworkin. Rawls offered a masterful critique of the economic gap in the United States, and pointed out that lobbies for American corporations have transformed Congress to a center for buying and selling laws, writing:“An example worth mentioning is Public financing of both elections and forums for public political discussion, without which sensible public politics is unlikely to flourish. When politicians are beholden to their constituents for essential campaign funds, and a very unequal distribution of income and wealth obtains in the background culture, with the great wealth being in the control of corporate economic power, is it any wonder that congressional legislation is, in effect, written by lobbyists, and Congress becomes a bargaining chamber in which laws are bought and sold?”
In his books,Inequality Examined, Development as Freedom, and The Idea of Justice, Harvard Professor and Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen links equality to the capabilities theory, an idea that was expanded by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, in her book, Women and Human Development. According to this theory, certain capabilities, such as having food and water, a place to live, health care, education, and job are essential to the definition of human being. The capabilities theory proposes two threshold states for the people. A life below the first threshold is not humane, while a life lived below the second threshold is not a good life. The inverse relation between the economic power and democracy can also be analyzed from another perspective. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam demonstrates that since WWII the widening gap between the rich and the poor has been in parallel with a decreasing rate of participation by the people in the political process.
The Equal Branches of Government Are No Longer Equal.
The Executive Branch of Government, its bureaucracy and the Supreme Court wield the greatest power, and the elected representatives in Congress has weakened. More and more issues have simply been taken out of democratic contestation. In many policy areas, the job of legislating has been supplanted by so-called independent agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Once they are founded by Congress, these organizations can formulate policy on their own. In fact, they are free from legislative oversight to a remarkable degree, even though they are often charged with settling issues that are not just technically complicated but politically controversial. In 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws. In the same year, independent federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules. This same tension between popular sovereignty and good governance is also evident in the debates over the power of the nine unelected justices of the Supreme Court. Take Citizens United. By overturning legislation that restricted campaign spending by corporations and other private groups, the Supreme Court issued a decision that was unpopular at the time and has remained unpopular since. (In a 2015 poll by Bloomberg, 78 percent of respondents disapproved of the ruling.) It also massively amplified the voice of moneyed interest groups, making it easier for the economic elite to override the preferences of the population for years to come.
Today’s “separation of powers” is no longer between the three original, constitutionally created, branches of government, but between, on the one hand, a branch consisting of the president, his supporters in Congress and their mutual supporters on the federal bench; and on the other hand, a branch made up of the party in opposition to the president, his opponents in Congress and their co-partisans on the bench. However, throughout the 1800s until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of the national government. Then, throughout the rest of the 20th Century, the balance of power shifted dramatically, so that the executive branch currently has at least equal power to the legislative branch. Most of the accretion of presidential power has taken place in the last 50 years. The Founding Fathers set up Congress as the most powerful of the three branches, not the President. According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress possesses “all legislative power.” This includes the most fundamental tools of governance and state-building, such as laying and collecting taxes, coining money and regulating its value and deciding what persons may join the nation as citizens. The continued erosion of Congress’s lawmaking power undermines democracy.
Preemption of the legislative function by the President increases the concentration of power and the risk of abuse. It also decreases the transparency that accompanies a legislative process marked by open debate and compromise. Preemption of the legislative function by the Judiciary similarly diminishes democracy. In the absence of a prompt reassertion of Congress’s power, its powerlessness risks becoming institutionalized. Handicaps created by the Executive may be difficult to dismantle. Federalism precedents espoused by the Judiciary may be impossible to undo. Even if one believes that the current President has not taken executive power too far the next president will likely continue the trend if unchecked. A compliant Congress risks permanently undermining its credibility and its relevance which in turn damages democracy.
Authoritarianism is on the rise.
“The long century during which Western liberal democracies dominated the globe has ended for good,” write Harvard University lecturer Yascha Mounk and University of Melbourne lecturer Roberto Stefan Foa. They argue that such governments have gotten worse at delivering economic growth, whereas authoritarian states have gotten better at doing so. “The only remaining question now is whether democracy will transcend its once firm anchoring in the West, a shift that would create the conditions for a truly global democratic century—or whether democracy will become, at best, the lingering form of government in an economically and demographically declining corner of the world.”
“The immediate cause of rising support for authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements is a reaction against immigration (and, in the United States, rising racial inequality),” observes University of Michigan Professor Ronald Inglehart. He warns that the world is experiencing the most severe democratic setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
Even though the 15th Amendment formally extended the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” in 1870, newly elected conservative Democrats — known as Dixiecrats — began to impose a series of laws in 1877 designed to suppress the black vote. These Jim Crow voting laws included requirements to pass literacy tests, nearly impossible for uneducated former slaves. Other states instituted poll taxes, a financial burden that many poor African-American (and whites) were either unable or unwilling to pay. Some precincts even held “whites only” primaries in direct opposition to federal law. Attempts to break or protest Jim Crow laws often met with deadly retribution. In fact, the intimidation and suppression campaign was so successful that only 3 percent of voting-age African-American southerners were registered to vote in 1940.
Although women were finally extended the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the federal government finally eradicated Jim Crow voting laws in the southern U.S. The Voting Rights Act explicitly banned any “test or device” to qualify voters on the basis of literacy, education or fluency in English. Poll taxes weren’t banned until 1966, when the Supreme Court found Virginia’s poll taxes to be unconstitutional.
Republicans in this and past elections have been engaged in an aggressive effort to prevent Americans from voting. In Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere, Republican officials are purging the voter rolls — taking away people’s registration, often for no good reason. In Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere, Republicans have closed polling places. In Arkansas, Iowa and North Dakota, Republicans have added onerous new identification requirements. And in Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, Republicans have tried to make it even harder for people previously convicted of felonies to vote.
Gerrymandering is a means of stacking the political deck, to preserve incumbents, and give one political party an unfair advantage. Gerrymandering in the United States is the practice of rearranging the boundaries of electoral districts, where it has been practiced since the founding of the country to strengthen the power of particular political interests within legislative bodies. Partisan gerrymandering is commonly used to increase the power of a political party. In some instances, political parties collude to protect incumbents by engaging in bipartisan gerrymandering. After racial minorities were enfranchised, some jurisdictions engaged in racial gerrymandering to weaken the political power of racial minority voters, while others engaged in racial gerrymandering to strengthen the power of minority voters.
The United States is alone among major countries in that self-interested politicians govern the redistricting process.
The American Electoral System Electing the President Favors Minority Rule
The U.S. Constitution has always had a small-state bias, but the effects have become more pronounced as the population discrepancy between the smallest states and the largest states has grown. “Given contemporary demography, a little bit less than 50 percent of the country lives in 40 of the 50 states,” Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Texas,” says “roughly half the country gets 80 percent of the votes in the Senate, and the other half of the country gets 20 percent.”
The distortion carries over to the Electoral College, where each state’s number of electors is determined by the size of its congressional delegation. This would matter less if the United States weren’t so geographically polarized. But America is now two countries, eyeing each other across a chasm of distrust and contempt. One is urban, diverse and outward-looking. This is the America that’s growing. The other is white, provincial and culturally conservative. The latter is the America that’s in charge.
Twice in the last 17 years, Republicans have lost the popular vote but won the presidency.In 2000, Al Gore won half a million more votes than George W. Bush nationwide, but Bush won the presidency after he was declared the winner in Florida by a mere 537 votes. In the 2016 election Democractic candidate Hillary Clinton got 3 million votes more than Donald, but Trump won the election because of the influence of rural voters through the electoral college system. And that wasn’t the first time — electoral college/popular vote splits happened in 1876 and 1888.
A small state bias is also built in, since every state is guaranteed at least three electors (the combination of their representation in the House and Senate). The way this works out in the math, the 4 percent of the country’s population in the smallest states end up being allotted 8 percent of Electoral College votes.
The electoral college is, essentially, a vestigial structure — a leftover from a bygone era in which the founding fathers specifically did not want a nationwide vote of the American people to choose their next president. The Democratic candidate for president has now won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. But in part because the system empowers rural states, for the second time in that span, the candidate who garnered the most votes will not be guaranteed the presidency.
But even as a deliberately undemocratic body, the Senate has slipped further out of alignment with the American population over time.
The House of Representatives retains a rural bias. Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country than Democrats, who are concentrated in cities. That means that even when Democrats win 50 percent of voters nationwide, they invariably hold fewer than 50 percent of House seats, regardless of partisan gerrymandering.
Research has also found that a significant rural bias in resources persists. You can see it in Homeland Security funding that gave Wyoming, for example, seven times as much money per capita as New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. You can see it in Alaska’s proposed “bridge to nowhere.”
Most of these legislative and constitutional structures enforce conservative policy preferences. That’s partly because Republicans enjoy unprecedented control in state capitals—they hold 33 governorships and majorities in 32 state legislatures. The trend also reflects a broader shift: Americans are in the midst of what’s been called “the Big Sort,” as they flock together with people who share similar socioeconomic profiles and politics. In general, that means rural areas are becoming more conservative, and cities more liberal. Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.
The Growing Power of Authoritarianism in America
Both Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, the great historians of totalitarianism, argued that the dangerous conditions that produce totalitarianism are still with vibrant in the U.S. Wolin, in particular, insisted (in his book Democracy Incorporated) that the United States was evolving into an authoritarian society.
How Democracies Die, authored by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt contend “democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” They rot from the inside, poisoned by leaders who “subvert the very process that brought them to power.” For example, in 2011, after Venezuela had been taken over by an authoritarian regime, “a majority of Venezuelans said they lived in a vibrant, thriving democracy. The genius of modern tyrants has been in realizing you don’t need to dislodge democracy; you need to co-opt it, you need to make it your own”. Like Venezuela, Turkey voted for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “They then devolved, with the consent of their constituency, into authoritarianism.” Levitsky and Ziblatt argue there are four indications of a move toward authoritarian governments:
- Rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules.
- Denying the legitimacy of political opponents.
- Encouraging or tolerating violence.
- A readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
Nancy Bermeo, a politics professor at Princeton and Harvard, gives a jarring reminder: “Democracies don’t merely collapse, as that implies a process devoid of will. Democracies die because of deliberate decisions made by human beings. Usually, it’s because the people in power take democratic institutions for granted. They become disconnected from the citizenry. They develop interests separate and apart from the voters. They push policies that benefit themselves and harm the broader population.” Do that long enough, Bermeo says, and you’ll cultivate an angry, divided society that pulls apart at the seams.
One-third of the global population lives in outright authoritarian regimes, primarily due to the massive population of the People’s Republic of China. The percentage of the world’s population that lives in a “full democracy” fell to less than five percent.
The report cites a “serious decline” in trust for governmental institutions for the decay of the United States’ score, which fell low enough in 2015 to earn the title of “flawed democracy.” The authors suggested that the decline was caused by factors which go back to the 1960s and helped facilitate the election of Donald Trump. The authors also warn that many elements of a falling score can create vicious cycles, such as increasing polarization preventing government functionality. The decline in functionality almost inevitably leads to further erosion of confidence in public institutions.
The election of Donald Trump — built as it was on several long-term trends that converged in 2016 — has created an authoritarian moment. This somewhat surprising development is the subject of Remaking Partisan Politics through Authoritarian Sorting, a forthcoming book by the political scientists Christopher Federico, Stanley Feldman and Christopher Weber. The three authors use a long-established authoritarian scale — based on four survey questions about which childhood traits parents would like to see in their offspring — that asks voters to choose between independence or respect for their elders; curiosity or good manners; self-reliance or obedience; and being considerate or well-behaved. Those respondents who choose respect for elders, good manners, obedience and being well-behaved are rated more authoritarian.
The authors found that in 1992, 62 percent of white voters who ranked highest on the authoritarian scale supported George H.W. Bush. In 2016, 86 percent of the most authoritarian white voters backed Trump, an increase of 24 percentage points.
Last year, Federico, writing with Christopher Johnston of Duke and Howard G. Lavine of the University of Minnesota, published “Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution,” which also explores the concept of authoritarian voting.
Johnston argues “Over the last few decades, party allegiances have become increasingly tied to a core dimension of personality we call ‘openness.’” Citizens high in openness value independence, self-direction, and novelty, while those low in openness value social cohesion, certainty, and security. Individual differences in openness seem to underpin many social and cultural disputes, including debates over the value of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, law and order, and traditional values and social norms.
Johnston notes that personality traits like closed mindedness, along with aversion to change and discomfort with diversity, are linked to authoritarianism: “As these social and cultural conflicts have become a bigger part of our political debates, citizens have sorted into different parties based on personality, with citizens high in openness much more likely to be liberals and Democrats than those low in openness who are more likely to be conservatives and Republican.”
In 2009, Marc J. Hetherington of Vanderbilt and Jonathan D. Weiler of the University of North Carolina, wrote one of the fundamental texts on this topic, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. In it, Hetherington and Weiler argue that preferences about many of the new issues on the American political agenda, such as gay rights, the war in Iraq, the proper response to terrorism, and immigration are likely structured by authoritarianism.
There are “colliding conceptions of right and wrong,” they write, between those on the high and low ends of the authoritarian scale. That, in turn, makes it difficult “for one side of the political debate to understand (perhaps, in the extreme, even respect) how the other side thinks and feels.”
In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 percent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. A PPP pollfound that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn’t have freed the slaves.
Karen Stenner’s seminal book The Authoritarian Dynamic describes how authoritarianism has grown more rapidly and in greater force than anyone had imagined, in the personage of one Donald Trump and his norm-shattering rise.
According to Stenner’s theory, there is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or “activated” by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.
It is as if, the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, “In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.”
Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order people equate with basic security.
Authoritarianism experts agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.
A survey found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians, with 19 percent as “very high.” That’s actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare.
Authoritarians generally and Trump voters specifically, we found, were highly likely to support five policies:
- Using military force over diplomacy against countries that threaten the United States
- Changing the Constitution to bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants
- Imposing extra airport checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent in order to curb terrorism
- Requiring all citizens to carry a national ID card at all times to show to a police officer on request, to curb terrorism
- Allowing the federal government to scan all phone calls for calls to any number linked to terrorism
What these policies share in common is an outsized fear of threats–physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.
How America has become an oligarchy
Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning ‘few’, and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning ‘to rule or to command’) is a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. Aristotle believed an oligarchy was a bad form of government because it led to ruling parties governing solely in their own interests, disregarding those interests of anyone outside their sphere, most often the voiceless poor. Oligarchs may be distinguished by nobility, wealth, family ties, education or corporate, religious or military control.Such states are often controlled by families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.
Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which another term commonly used today is plutocracy.
Although an oligarchy is usually seen as tyrannical, many modern states rely on some form of oligarchy, usually in the form of representative officialsdeciding national policy. The concern of tyranny usually occurs when the rule of law is violated or when there’s limited separation of powers.
Especially during the fourth century BCE, after the restoration of democracy from oligarchical coups, the Athenians used the drawing of lots for selecting government officers to counteract what the Athenians saw as a tendency toward oligarchy in government if a professional governing class were allowed to use their skills for their own benefit. They drew lots from large groups of adult volunteers to pick civil servants performing judicial, executive, and administrative functions (archai, boulē, and hēliastai). They even drew lots for posts, such as judges and jurors in the political courts (nomothetai), which had the power to overrule the Assembly.
Whether it is the unwillingness of Congress to reauthorize the assault weapons ban, or the inability of the same to allow for the negotiation of prescription drug prices by Medicare (both popular with a majority of Americans), the obvious conclusion that America is no longer either a democratic republic nor a constitutional democracy, but, rather an oligarchy of multinational corporations, like pharmaceutical companies, and wealthy special interests, like the National Rifle Association, with members of Congress less sensitive to the will of the people than to that of their campaign benefactors, who fully expect something in return for their generosity.
Progressive thinkers have been warning for decades that it is money that pulls the strings in Washington; while the democratic system, since the country’s founding until today, is a mask to conceal the interests of the rich minority. The striking thing is that this idea has now spread to sectors of the U.S. intelligentsia that in no way could be labeled as leftist.
But the data has been in existence for some time. A study carried out in 2014 by Martin Gilens, of Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, of Northwestern University, demonstrated that elites always fare better than the middle class in political decision-making. After checking thousands of legislative bills and public opinion surveys of recent decades, Gilens and Page found that any policy change with little support from the upper class has about a one in five chance of becoming law, while those backed by the elites triumph in about half of occasions, even when they go against majority opinion.
The academics noted, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
This reality explains the difficulties the movement of young people in favor of gun control currently faces to obtain the support of legislators, who receive millions of dollars from the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups that consider carrying a rifle a symbol of the American way of life. And the differences that are demonstrated in politics are getting bigger in the economic sphere.
.Such data shatters the myth of U.S. democracy, in which decisions must be made based on the view of the majority. On the contrary, the United States shows the clear characteristics of an oligarchy, a system in which power is in the hands of a few people who generally share the same social class.
Jane Mayer destroys another thesis that sustains supposed U.S. democracy, claiming that the political thought of the elites and the middle class is very similar. In her investigation, the journalist describes how huge fortunes, mainly of the conservative classes, are invested in intellectuals, think tanks and universities to elaborate and socialize their reactionary ideas, and that these are assumed naturally. They even go so far as to hire “scientists” to counteract proven hypotheses such as the role of human beings in climate change or the damage to health caused by certain products.
In an op-ed in theNew York TimesCarter wrote that the United States violates at least 10 articles of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Carter believes that the American democracy has been transformed to an oligarchy. He criticized the Supreme Court’s vote in favor of Citizens United that has allowed unlimited funds to be spent in elections, and said: “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or being elected president. And the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. Senators and congress members. So, now we’ve just seen a subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect, and sometimes get, favors for themselves after the election is over. … At the present time the incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody that is already in Congress has a great deal more to sell.”
It is estimated that the 2016 elections will cost close to $10 billion. Aside from the top 1 percent, who in the middle class or among the poor can participate in such an expensive process? This has become a democracy for the rich and dynasties.
The New York Times estimates that the chances of a child of a state governor becoming a governor is 6000 times better than an ordinary citizen, and that the chances of a child of a U.S. Senator becoming a Senator is 8500 times better than a common citizen.
The three richest people in the US – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet – own more than the bottom half of the country combined.The combined wealth of America’s top 400 billionaires came to $2.7tr in 2017, which is more than the entire GDP of Italy ($1.8tr) or France ($2.5tr).The super-rich have supersized political influence. The Koch brothers have said they invested about $250m in the 2016 election and have promised $400m for the 2018 midterms. Michael Bloomberg spent about $23m on Democrats in 2016, and is planning to spend $80m in 2018.More than one-quarter of all disclosed political contributions in 2012 came from just 30,000 people– and the percentage may be higher because many donations are unreported. Some researchers have concluded that wealthy people and business interests have 15 times the political efficacy of the rest of the population.
In an oligarchy, those ruling may have gained their power due to their noble birth, wealth, family ties, religion, education, business interests, or military control. The group in charge are very close-knit; they are often unwilling to share their influence with any unrelated to them by birth, marriage, or status.
Many contemporary authors have characterized current conditions in the United States as oligarchic in nature. Simon Johnson wrote that “the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent”, a structure which he delineated as being the “most advanced” in the world. Jeffrey A. Winters wrote that “oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay.” The top 1% of the U.S. population by wealth in 2007 had a larger share of total income than at any time since 1928.
In 1998 Bob Herbert of The New York Times referred to modern American plutocrats as “The Donor Class” (list of top donors) and defined the class, for the first time, as “a tiny group—just one-quarter of 1 percent of the population—and it is not representative of the rest of the nation. But its money buys plenty of access.”
French economist Thomas Piketty states in his 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that “the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed.”
The shaping of the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a privilege reserved to the country’s 20% of the population that holds 93% of the wealth, the happy few who run the corporations and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, compose the laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the policy institutes, the casinos, and the sports arenas.
Oligarchy prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. The preference accounts for the current absence of honest or intelligible debate on Capitol Hill. The members of Congress embody the characteristics of only one turn of mind — that of the obliging publicist. They leave it to staff assistants to write the legislation and the speeches, spend 50% of their time soliciting campaign funds.
As with the Congress, so also with the major news media that serve at the pleasure of a commercial oligarchy that pays them, and pays them handsomely, for their pretense of speaking truth to power. On network television, the giving voice to what Cooper would have regarded as real opinions doesn’t set up a tasteful lead-in to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V or the U.S. Marine Corps.
In America Beyond Capitalism, Prof. Gar Alperovitz argues that the US is simply too big to operate as a democracy at the national level. Excluding Canada and Australia, which have large empty landmasses, the United States is larger geographically than all the other advanced industrial countries of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) combined. He proposes what he calls “The Pluralist Commonwealth“: a system anchored in the reconstruction of communities and the democratization of wealth. It involves plural forms of cooperative and common ownership beginning with decentralization and moving to higher levels of regional and national coordination when necessary. He is co-chair along with James Gustav Speth of an initiative called The Next System Project, which seeks to help open a far-ranging discussion of how to move beyond the failing traditional political-economic systems of both left and right.
University of Kentucky history department chair Ronald Formisamo’s latest book is titled: American Oligarchy: The Permanence of the Political Class.By Formisamo’s detailed account, U.S. politics and policy are under the control of a “permanent political class” – a “networked layer of high-income people” including Congressional representatives (half of whom are millionaires), elected officials, campaign funders, lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, television celebrity journalists, university presidents, and executives at well-funded nonprofit institutions. This “permanent political class,” Formisamo warns, is taking the nation “beyond [mere] plutocracy” to “the hegemony of an aristocracy of inherited wealth.” It:“drives economic and political inequality not only with the policies it has constructed over the past four decades, such as federal and state tax systems rigged to favor corporations and the wealthy; it also increases inequality by its self-dealing, acquisitive behavior as it enables, emulates, and enmeshes itself with the wealthiest One Percent and .01 percent …[It engages in] the direct creation of inequality by channeling the flow of income and wealth to elites [while]… its self-aggrandizement creates a culture of corruption that infects the entire society and that induces many to abuse positions of power to emulate or rise into the One Percent” …[and as it] contributes to continuing high levels of poverty and disadvantage for millions that exceed almost all advanced nations.”
Thanks to the American oligarchy, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social ill-health: economic inequality, intergenerational social immobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, low life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, illiteracy, and environmental pollution and fragility.
It’s a vicious circle. As Page and Gilens note, “When citizens are relatively equal [economically], politics has tended to fairly democratic. When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers.” Savage inequality and oligarchy are two sides of the same class-rule coin in New Gilded Age America, as in previous eras.
Oligarchy vs. Plutocracy
Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. While the members of an oligarchy could either be wealthy or not, a plutocracy is an oligarchy with rich members. Many countries and business may be considered plutocracies for this reason, where the wealthy are ruling or heavily influencing policy and operations.
Oligarchy vs. Aristocracy
And while a plutocracy is rule by the wealthy, aristocracy is rule by the elite. Despite being its own system in and of itself, aristocracies can often accompany other systems like monarchies, where the socially elite are influencing a monarch. Still, much like a plutocracy, an aristocracy is a type of oligarchy, and therefore both can be considered subsets.
Several modern-day governments are allegedly oligarchies. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum even dared to call then-candidate President Trump an oligarch, writing in The Washington Postthat “the real problem with Trump isn’t that he is sympathetic to Russian oligarchs, it’s that he is a Russian oligarch, albeit one who happens to be American.”
Russia has long been accused of being a mega oligarchy, with dozens of influential members seemingly molding the government to fit their interests. In fact, CNN recently published a “name and shame” list of all of the Russian oligarchs who rose to power and are supported by current Russian president Vladimir Putin. The list is quite extensive, and makes it seem as though the antiquated form of government is long from dead. The billionaires of Russia seem to be able to gain and sustain their wealth by approving of and supporting the government. Some on the aforementioned list include Gennady Timchenko, head of Russia’s biggest oil trading company, and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.
Other notable oligarchies include post-Mao China, when an oligarchy assumed control of the country. And, Saudi Arabia seems to boast a similar government structure, with current King Salman bin Abdulaziz appointing two of his sons to high positions, controlling oil prices and other major policies.
In business, perhaps one of the most recent examples of an oligarchy may be the corporate structure at Papa John’s, as exposed in a 2018 Forbes article. The tight-knit community of top execs and the loyalty to their respective interests definitely smells of oligarchy – however mild.
The chart here shows how much political influence different groups have in America today. Not only do the wealthy have the most influence; ordinary voters have basically none.
To have “political influence” in this case means that Congress responds to you by passing the laws and policies you like. Low influence means you’re ignored — Congress passes laws that have no relationship to what you want. Special interest groups also have sway over public policy. The researchers divided them into two types. “Mass” interest groups, which represent large groups of organized citizens, have a small amount of power. Business groups, like trade associations, have a moderate amount, likely because they can afford to spend more on lobbying and political donations.
To what degree America is a “corporatocracy?” A corporatocracy is a type of oligarchy where corporations control government. Simply, shareholders, board members, capitalists, and employee owned stocks mean more people have a slice of the pie (this being less-and-less true the more “oligarchical” or “plutocratic” it becomes and the “fewer and fewer” owners sit on the top).
It is clearly evident that a bigger part of the American public actually have little influence or no influence at all over the policies United States government adopts and passes. Americans do enjoy many benefits that American government promotes, such as regular elections, freedom of speech, association, equal rights, domestic and international business support. Yet, at the same time oligarchy is an fundamental part of American politics. While at present they seem to co-exist, the creative tension is unlikely to persist through time, because the power of oligarchy is much greater.
Oligarchs are people who have means to manage large amounts of assets that can be used for strengthening their position in society and secure inherited wealth. If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of powerful Americans, still America claims to being a democratic and follow a democratic path. Most Americans are blind about how democratic ideology doesn’t reflect reality.
The United States is not a humble country. Despite widespread voter suppression tactics and a criminal justice system that imprisons a higher percentage of black people than South Africa did during apartheid, Americans have a disconcerting tendency to insist that they live in the greatest democracy in the world. Not only is this claim to be the world’s best highly disputable, but the United States wouldn’t classify as a democracy at all—from the perspective of the ancient Greeks who invented the term.
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