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Democracy Matters by Cliff DuRand

Democracy Matters 2011
By Cliff DuRand

Almost all of the US public used to believe that their country was a democracy.  Most of the world’s peoples saw it that way too.  That is no longer the case.  It has become increasingly obvious that the US political elite is unresponsive to the views and interests of the majority of the people they claim to represent.  Instead they represent the interests of the wealthy and their corporations who they claim are too big to fail.  The popular classes are finding themselves unrepresented. 

So what is democracy?  Here’s my working definition:  Democracy is the possibility of joint decision making for collective action in the common good.  Let me unpack that a bit.  It is not just individuals deciding for themselves, it is individuals as members of a body engaging in a joint decision making process with others.  That involves dialogue with others and voting on what they agree to do.  And what they agree to do then becomes a collective action by the whole.  The agreement seeks to promote a common good, not just that of a part of the body.  Of course, that does not mean that some may not benefit more than others.  But that is allowed only if it is believed to contribute to a larger common good.  So democracy is the possibility of that taking place – the possibility of joint decision making for collective action in the common good.

Democracy thus means the people doing for themselves collectively what they cannot do for themselves individually.  In Lincoln’s words, it is government of the people, by the people and for the people.  A democratic government is the instrument of the will of the people.  It is the means by which they carry out their decisions.  The spirit of a democracy is not hostile to government – as long as it is an expression of the popular will. 

At this moment in our national history, there is considerable hostility toward the US government from among the citizenry.  This comes from both the far Right as well as the Left.  And I submit this is for much the same reason, viz. the realization that government is not representing them.  This realization is grounded in familiar social policies that are widely unpopular.  The 2008-09 financial bailout of the banks while leaving ordinary people stranded demonstrated that government was on the side of the rich, not on our side.  It was not our government, a government for the people.  It was a government for the wealthy.  Similarly, government promotion of neoliberal trade policies in NAFTA-like agreements has benefited transnational capital while depriving US workers of their hard won living standard, their benefits and often their jobs.  This is not our government, a government for the people.  It is a government for the corporations.  And now we are seeing state governments stripping their workers of bargaining rights, destroying the collective power of unions while giving tax breaks to corporations.  This is not our government, a government for the people.  It is a government for the corporations.  I could go on with multiple examples that are making it clearer and clearer that in the class war, our governing political elite is not on our side, it is serving the interests of the wealthy, especially the top fraction of 1%. 

This realization is coming as a rude awakening to many USians.  But it should not have come as a great surprise if people had studied the lessons of their country’s history.  Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States traces the struggles of ordinary people against the powers that be.  And even an objective conservative commentator like Kevin Phillips in his book Wealth and Democracy has pointed to how throughout our history the nation’s rich and politically powerful have worked to create and perpetuate privilege at the expense of the national interest and at the expense of the classes beneath them.  Indeed, sociologist Robert Bellah in his book Habits of the Heart has argued that “The most important unresolved problem in American history [is] the tension between self-reliant competitive enterprise and a sense of public solidarity.”  [p.256]   It is this tension between capitalism and democracy that has erupted once again in an open class war since the late 1970s.  And as Warren Buffett told the New York Times in 2006 [November 26 issue] "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."  It is only now, after 30 years of escalating attacks on working people that we are beginning to see a growing popular fightback.  I’ll return to that point later.

But if we are to get to the roots of the problem and invent radical solutions, solutions that pull up those roots, we need to recognize that the reason we now find government so undemocratic is because from its beginning it was designed to be undemocratic.  It was designed to protect the wealthy against the common man.  James Madison, chief architect of the US Constitution, made this abundantly clear in The Federalist Papers #10.  He wrote there  
Democracies have ever been…incompatible with…rights of property….  The interest in a majority…must be prevented…[because it would threaten] the unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society…and divide them into different classes.  [emphasis added] 
Living in a society already divided into propertied classes and those with little or no property, Madison and his co-conspirators sought to fashion political institutions 1) through which the interests of the ruling class could be protected and 2) that would not allow the multitude to prevail where that might injure the rights of others, particularly the property rights of the wealthy.  The Founding Fathers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were moved by what one delegate called “the excess of democracy” represented in the demands of indebted and heavily taxed yeoman farmers and mechanics.  Another complained that things had become “too democratic.”  And so this gathering of merchants, slave owners and manufacturers resolved “to create a more perfect union.”  Indeed, the Constitutional Convention amounted to a conspiracy of the propertied classes to create a system of federal government strong enough to protect them from those in the popular classes, and yet weak enough not to itself be a danger to their interests.  What was devised was a division of powers that at times would create gridlock and a system of representation that would make difficult the formation of a united popular will. 

As Sheldon Wolin has pointed out, Madison in Federalist Paper #51 took comfort from the fact that
the geographical expanse, ideological differences and socioeconomic complexity of the new system would splinter the demos, --‘the society … broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens’ –and thereby prevent it permanently from gaining the unity of purpose necessary to concert its numerical power and dominate all branches of government.  (1)
The Constitution framed, not a democracy but a removal of a supposedly sovereign people from government.  Madison congratulated himself and his co-conspirators for their success in removing the people from the councils of government, ensuring that it would remain in the hands of those who he deemed better qualified.  

The resulting system of governance proved to be remarkably enduring under a continuous constitutional rule lasting well over two centuries.  There have been democratic moments in that history, as we will see shortly, but its chief virtue lies in establishing a political system of representationism by which legitimate power can be passed from one part of the elite to another in an orderly way. Its essence is found in contested elections and in the deliberations among the representatives chosen thereby.  The role of the people is to choose from among a political elite which ones are to rule them; the role of elections is simply to produce a government.  Once this is done, we have discharged our civic responsibility as citizens and we are expected to return to the affairs of our private lives.  While claiming to be a theory of democracy, this polyarchy (as political scientists have dubbed it) is actually an elitist theory of democracy, a kind of low intensity democracy at best.  As Joseph Schumpeter put it, democracy simply means that “the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them.”  (2)   Philosopher Sheldon Wolin has called it a managed democracy. (3)   By whatever name, it is a far cry from the classical concept of democracy expressed in the original meaning of the Greek word -- the rule or power, kratia, of the people, demos.  Democracy means people’s power, not the legitimating of elite rule.

So, the function of the US political system is to protect wealth against people’s power.  In the late 18th century wealth was in the hands of landowners and merchants.  A century later new wealth came to be concentrated in corporations.  The war for independence had been a struggle not only against the king of England, but also against the corporate bodies it had chartered and which enjoyed vast power over the colonies.  Recall, the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the East India Company.  As a result, the newly independent country was deeply suspicious of the corporate form of property.  Corporations were carefully limited.  They were to be chartered by state legislatures for specific purposes deemed in the public good for a limited period of time and could be dissolved if they failed to fulfill that purpose. (4)   But with the industrial revolution and the building of the railroads, corporations became increasingly powerful economically as well as politically.  As early as 1864 President Abraham Lincoln saw what was coming.  In a letter to Col. William F. Elkins he wrote
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.  (5)

Before century’s end Lincoln’s fears had been born out.  Now, another century later, those corporations have grown enormously and transnationalized beyond the confines of mere nation-states.  At the same time capitalism has financialized, with its center of economic power in the hands of gigantic banks.  Another prophetic voice from our past, Thomas Jefferson, warned of this danger in an 1802 letter to Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin:

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, [...] the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered.
Another voice from the past who speaks pointedly to our present.

Political philosopher Milton Fisk has made a useful distinction between the function and the form of the state.  From its inception the United States has been a divided society, divided by class, divided by race, divided by gender, divided by culture.  As Fisk has pointed out, in such divided societies the function of government is to maintain “domestic peace and tranquility.”  That is, it is to ensure social stability, which, in a class divided society inevitably means preserving existing class relations of inequality.  He writes, “preeminent among the goals ruling is to promote is that of reproducing the economy …[so] that the socially dominant class retains its dominance.”  (6)

At the same time, the state must concede to popular demands to some degree in order to win the consent of the governed.  The alternative would be to rule by sheer coercion.  As long ago as Aristotle it was recognized that ruling had to be linked to justice.  This is a condition of governability.  Ruling must thus adopt the form of justice.  But popular demands for justice may well exceed what the rulers find consistent with the basic function of government to reproduce the economy, protecting the existing unequal social order.  It is then that the elite has a crisis of governability and complain about an excess of democracy.  Radical justice from below always pushes the limits of the official justice from above.  How hard it pushes it depends on how active the popular classes are in their struggle.  That is, it depends on how much democracy there is at any given moment.  The elites cannot stand too much democracy; the people always want more.  That’s why there is protest.  As Sheldon Wolin points out, what passes for democracy in America “has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered.”  (7)

President Obama’s efforts at health care reform are a good example.  Popular sentiment has long favored public provision of health care either along the lines of the Canadian system or, as a second preference, by a public option added on top of the present private system.  But as is painfully obvious for some time now, the political establishment, beholden to wealthy special interests, is not able to come close to this popular form of justice.  The dysfunctionality of the system of representation to express the democratic will of the people is reflected in the continuing stalemate on this issue. 

In 2008 we saw in the U.S. an invigorated electorate focused on replacing the imperial presidency of a globalized state with a new leader who promised change.  And although he came into office in the midst of a structural crisis in the economy –a circumstance that offered a unique opportunity for far reaching changes –the new administration sought to operate within the existing institutional structures of power.  President Obama came into office as a community organizer.  But once inside the capital beltway, he proceeded to govern within the established parameters of the elite.  As a result all he was able to do was rescue financial institutions from their self-inflicted crisis.  By relying on an existing political process that excluded popular participation, he only demonstrated the dysfunctionality of that process for representing the popular will.  And by embracing the imperial role of the dominant globalized state, he is perpetuating an imperial presidency.  The fundamental lesson is clear: an undemocratic polyarchy will be able to continue to rule until popular protest transforms the political and economic institutions and brings popular classes into power.

Throughout our history there have been periodic democratic moments when the power of the people has found voice.  The labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s come to mind as high points of democracy in our lifetime.  Those decades of heightened political participation, social protest and citizen engagement in public affairs were among the democratic moments in our history.  Social movements made demands on the ruling elites, demands for economic empowerment, for racial equality, for peace, for social justice, demands that the institutions of government address pressing social problems.  The spirit of citizen engagement was articulated in the call for a more participatory democracy by the Students for a Democratic Society,

As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.  (8)

This is a fundamentally different concept of democracy, one that resonates from deeply held American values. Rather than seeing citizens as passive subjects to be ruled by elites, it advocates active participation in all those decisions that affect ones life.  This extends not just to government, but also education, the workplace, the family, neighborhoods – all of those spheres, both public and private, in which we live our daily lives.  It is a call for all the institutions of society to become more democratically participatory.

It is this concept of participatory democracy that I want to set against the dominant polyarchic elitist theory as better expressing the core of the democratic ideal.  To return to my initial point, the present disillusionment with government reflects the realization that we have a system of elite rule that cannot represent the people.  This is what we see in the rise of the Tea Party.  This ersatz social movement is largely a creation of the economically powerful and their political operatives in their class war against the popular classes.  By drawing on the deeply rooted culture of self reliant individualism, they have transformed anger against a government that in fact protects the rich rather than them, into an anger against government itself.  Rather than making government into an instrument of a popular will against the rich, they seek to neuter the powers of government, thereby freeing the rich from any democratic restraints.  It is a brilliant strategy that has generated a Right wing populism in the absence of a Progressive populism.     

We’ve come a long way in the last few years.  But we are not where we expected to be.  Remember how our hearts soared when President-elect Obama gave his victory speech in Grant Park.  After eight dark years our hopes were buoyed for changes that would address the nation’s deep problems and return a sense of pride in being an American.  And on January 20, 2009 we wept with joy as we inaugurated our first Black president.

To understand what went wrong we need to look at the very different reaction of another group, the very rich, the plutocrats who had prospered beyond their wildest dreams under previous administrations.  They looked upon this new, young, charismatic president with fear and trembling.  They saw a man at the head of a massive popular progressive movement that, in the midst of a systemic crisis, could bring about the “wrong” kind of change, change that might narrow the income differences between them and a declining “middle class,” change that might punish the bankers and those on Wall Street who had caused the crisis by their reckless gambling, change that might even nationalize the banks so they could be made to serve the public rather than private interests.  And even though from Day One President Obama continued the same bank-friendly bailout program begun in the waning days of the Bush administration and surrounded himself with Wall Street insiders, they were not reassured.  Because what was at the root of their fears was his base.  Those massive popular forces that had elected him had the potential to demand progressive changes that would reverse the relentless move to the Right during previous decades.  They might even force their president to go farther than he intended.  An awakened, mobilized populous is a dangerous thing, dangerous to the plutocrats. 

And so, they launched a preemptive class war against the new president.  They sought to block him at every turn, they hoarded the bailout money rather than release it as credit into the productive economy, they strategized to destroy the president, as Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has openly stated.  Through the copious use of the filibuster, the minority party in the Senate blocked initiatives.  In a quixotic quest for bipartisanship, President Obama and Congressional Democrats appeased the Party of No again and again.  It was such appeasement that empowered his opposition, disillusioned his base and finally resulted in victories by the Right in the 2010 mid-term elections. 

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of working Americans found themselves without work.  Homeowners faced the loss of their homes.  Retirees found their 401ks of declining value.  Millions found the American Dream slipping away as they experienced downward mobility.  Austerity and insecurity became the new normal – insecurity, and resentment.  Resentment that the government was giving trillions of dollars to save the rich, but doing too little to rescue ordinary Americans.  The plutocrats and their allies were very successful in deflecting this resentment away from themselves and directing it against government.  Rather than seeing government as the instrument of the popular will, many came to see government as the enemy.  Since the Reagan administration the public had had it drummed into their head that “government is the problem.”  Now many were all too ready to see “big government” rather than “big business” as the problem.

This has fueled the Tea Party phenomenon.  Financed by plutocrats like the Koch brothers, organized by their operatives and encouraged by lavish attention from the corporate media (especially that political machine called Fox “News”), this reactionary populism grew in the absence of any progressive populism.  Some, although not all, of its followers could have been won to a progressive movement and maybe still can.  What is needed is an organized effort (from unions perhaps?) to highlight how it is the giant transnational corporations, aided and abetted by a bipartisan consensus on “free trade” that is destroying the “middle class.”  Such anti-globalization sentiments are strong among Tea Party rank and file as well as in the population as a whole. 

What if the AFL-CIO declared a moratorium on all job relocations from the US and backed this up with militant mass actions and public outreach at the local level, as suggested by Roger Bybee in Z Magazine. (9)  Such actions could go far to educate the public, winning them away from the corporate Right and mobilize them into a progressive movement for change we can believe in.  The last two years should have made it obvious by now that we cannot wait for Obama to lead such struggles.  We’ve waited too long for a savior already.  Real change will have to come from a social movement, not from the political elite.  The present political system is dysfunctional.  Democracy requires the action of the people, it always has and always will. 

The potential for a progressive populist social movement has been present for some time now, focused on the twin issues of the devastating impact of neoliberal corporate globalization on working USians and the rescue of the banks and abandonment of the middle classes.  Now it is being given new impetus by the Right’s offensive against the slender remaining power of unions.  Emboldened by their electoral success, they have opened a new offensive in the class war.  And finally, in Madison and other state capitals people are fighting back, saying “enough, already!”  Similar fight-back has developed in many European countries as people resist austerity imposed by their governments that would force them to pay for the recklessness of the wealthy.  Even the surge of People Power we have been seeing in the Arab world is in part moved by democratic opposition to ruling elites.  Everywhere participatory democracy is on the march as we the people take up the class war.   

There have been democratic moments throughout the history of the US.  The degree of democracy at any moment depends on the relative class power of capital and the popular classes.  For example, the power of capital was at a zenith in the 1920s until the economic system collapsed into a great depression.  In desperation, social movements arose demanding that their government protect their interests in the name of social justice.  The political elite responded with the New Deal programs in hopes of saving capitalism from itself.  That was a democratic moment in our history.  That was the beginnings of an American social democracy.  But capital was never altogether happy with its decline in class power under the social liberalism that predominated for nearly a half century.  Thus when it encountered its limits in the stagflation of the 1970s, it sought to recover class power by a strategy of globalization and curtailment of the New Deal and Great Society programs.  It was able to do so due to the absence of the countervailing power of social movements.  Now we have reached another turn of the screw as capitalism has arrived at another crisis born of its own excesses.  Are we at another turning point where a democratic upsurge of social movements will force a correction upon capital?  And if so, will this one save the system from itself once again or will it pull up the roots of the problem, creating a new system that finally resolves the contradiction between capitalism and democracy that has marked the modern era?  The answer is up to us.  We must remember the words of Frederick Douglass:  “Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never has and it never will.” 


Cliff DuRand is a Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice www.globaljusticecenter.org and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Morgan State University.  This talk was presented at the Center for Global Justice, March 30, 2011 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  cliff@globaljusticecenter.org

1. Sheldon S. Wolin  Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008)  p. 234, cf. p. 280.
2.  Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Harper and Row, 1975) p. 285.
3.  Wolin, op.cit. 
4.  Cf. Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy, Dean Ritz, ed.  (Apex Press, 2001).
5.  The Lincoln Encyclopedia, Archer H. Shaw, ed. (Macmillan 1950).  Cf. also http://www.ratical.org/corporations/Lincoln.html 
6.  Milton Fisk, The State and Justice: An Essay in Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1989) p.12.
7.  Wolin, op. cit. p. 228.
8.  SDS, The Port Huron Statement, 1964.
9.  November 2010 issue.

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