What Liberals Mean by “Democracy”

And why conservatives hate and fear it!


Recently, the United States relearned some old lessons in democracy. Currently we experienced the culmination of a generation long process of stripping from the United States the vestiges of liberal democracy; consequently we learned that the conservative promise of individualized freedom and free market utopia was at best wrong-headed ideology, or at worst a colossal con perpetrated by an organized elite against an unwary public. Either way, the conservative paradigm was revealed as a shallow promise; the universal prosperity expected to trickle down on us all turned out to be a more odious matter bringing only economic collapse for those not fortunate enough to be in the top 5%-10% of households.

The victims of American foreign policy were the first to raise their fists in the face of power. Beginning with a sandwich peddler in Tunisia and spreading throughout North Africa and the Middle East, vast democratic movements took to the streets to demand an end to their tyrannical governments. To the profound embarrassment of the United States, these tyrannies were the subordinate tin-horns propped up by the United States in exchange for the preservation of American interests in the region. The United States, the self-appointed harbinger of freedom and equality, was thus in the awkward position of having to condemn our erstwhile collaborators in our imperial pursuits, or openly own our hypocrisy by turning our backs on the very values we claimed to embrace. Though most Americans were not savvy to the awkward arrangement of historical affairs, the irony here was not lost on the mobilized millions throughout the Moslem world.

This political double-bind found its way to the United States in the last few months, rising from the streets, or should I say classrooms, of Wisconsin. No amount of political spin and obfuscation could hide the true motives of the contemporary conservative clique; that is the complete subordination of working people to the whims of the wealthy. Step one of the plan was the destruction of the unions, but only those unions that tend to vote liberal, like teachers unions and labor unions. Traditionally conservative unions, like the Police Benevolence Association, were left off the cutting block. The focus of attack was collective bargaining, the primary check against corporate overreach. Teachers were to be the first to face the ire of conservative politicians. A smart move, as disempowering teachers equates to disempowering the young, and a guarantee that future generations would be well versed in the benefits of blind conformity. Destroy the teachers…destroy the generations!

Yet conservatives found that cutting the legs out from under hard fought democratic rights would not happen without a fight. Movements from the streets were energized by the conservative colossus menacing and insulting all working Americans. If the teachers were subject to debasement, disempowerment and dispossession, then who was next? And the streets became crowded with well-organized protest against the insults of power.

The response of the conservative punditocracy was predictable—a full frontal assault against the very concept of democracy and against those liberals who held democratic principles. As I’ve written in an earlier post, an effective democratic movement was the last thing that conservatives wanted. This was not specific to contemporary conservatives. Distrust of democracy was always central to the conservative ideology.

In the face of such democratic response, conservatives feel compelled to remind us that democracy is a dangerous idea akin to mob rule. They suggest that democracy leads inextricably to socialism and then to tyranny. To punctuate their discourse they revert to the old reliable discursive formations of the Founding Fathers. We are reminded that the vaunted Founding Fathers feared democracy almost as much, if not more so, than they feared monarchy and tyranny. To avoid the scourge of democracy the ever-wise Founding Fathers established a republic that specifically limited the voice of the common classes. They did this in such a way as to presume that “We the People” agree that our own voices should not be taken seriously. In essence, “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, do sublimate our social investment to the needs and wants of the economic elite who are the only ones wise enough to protect us from our own destructive, democratic impulses.”

Indeed, the Founding Fathers did fear democracy and put certain structures in place to ensure that The People would have nothing more than an indirect influence on their own governance. To pacify The People a House of Representatives, where the popular will could be expressed, was created. By popular will, the Founders meant propertied white males as early laws were specific that if your skin was dark, you had no voice in America, and if you were a woman, don’t even try. Some conservatives
today have expressed nostalgia for this doctrine. A Bill of Rights was ratified to convince The People that the Constitution was their document. Of course, the Founding Fathers undercut those very amendments almost immediately—a process exemplified by the Alien and Sedition Acts. So yes, the Founding Fathers were inimical to democracy. They established a government for the “people” that excluded almost all but a select few, and of that select few most were relegated to a single chamber.

Specifically, the republic established by the Founding Fathers…as is the case with most republics…was one specifically designed to ensure the dominance of a propertied, ethnically dominant elite. Elite representatives were appointed to the Senate for six years, as opposed to the two-year terms for members in the People’s House. Presidents were selected by an electoral college, ensuring that only those who served the elite would occupy the highest seats. The Supreme Court was appointed by elite presidents and confirmed by elite senators, becoming a seat of elite interests with a history of supporting elite causes such as defining people as property in the Dred Scott case, legitimizing segregation in the Plessey case, restricting speech in the Schenck case and culminating in our most recent confirmation of “corporate personhood” in the Citizen’s United Case.

So conservatives are correct when they claim that the Founding Fathers, with few exceptions, were wary of democracy and established a republic for the purpose of containing the caprices of The People. To which we might add our own radical voices by asking, “So what?” Why should we give a damn that white slave owners got together two hundred years ago and structured a governing body that supported their own interests at the expense of working men, women and people of color? Yes, the Founding Fathers were exceptional men in many regards, but not in all regards. Yes, the Founding Fathers established many great ideas, but that does not mean that they were perfect in their ideology. Yes, we can say that the Founding Fathers were great men, but our understanding of their accomplishments should not carry the weight of an idolatry currently vouched by the right wing.

The founders established a framework, a liberal framework considering the structures and strictures of the day, but a framework that largely secured elite interests in the face of revolutionary consciousness. Since then an incessant evolutionary pressure toward greater democracy emerged. These movements were the scourge of the American elite for almost two hundred years. Liberalizing forces established universal male suffrage, and ultimately universal adult suffrage. They ended slavery and legalized segregation, established and entrenched ideals of tolerance and equality that few argue against today. Standards of treatment and remuneration were enacted for working people, with an expectation of adequate leisure time to be spent as they pleased. Because of movements like unions arising from Main Street, we developed a middle class. We gained health standards for our food, medicine and other goods. We gained protections for our environment to ensure clean air and water. Millions benefited from these democratic movements arising when the mass of people had had enough and were willing to sacrifice in the face of overwhelming elite power organized against them.

And this is the essential difference between conservative “republicanism” and liberal “democracy.” It’s not that democracy is inimical to republican government or desirous of inefficient and potentially oppressive majority rule. Democracy requires representative government not unlike that established by the Founding Fathers, a multi-chambered governing instrument with elaborate checks and balances against the possibility of abuse. The key difference is in whom this government actually represents. Whereas conservatives see the role of government as perpetuating elite interests, it is the objective of liberal democrats to ensure that a representative government serves the interests of the common, working classes and that it recognizes the plight of the nation’s dispossessed and disempowered. It is a dangerous error to assume that the interests of all citizens are the same. Yet to listen to the conservative argument one would think that the health of the nation rests solely on the wealth of the corporate class. They hold to this position despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Primary to a liberal understanding of history and governance is the truism that governments are established to perpetuate elite interests. This has always been the truth from the earliest civilizations and their warrior caste system, through classical landed patriarchy, to feudalism and now capitalism. There is no reason to assume that this tendency among governing institutions will change. The only check against this elite bias in government is an organized, common resistance among the governed. The revolutions of the 19th century and early 20th centuries serve as constant reminders that when The People demand recognition they will be heard, they will be respected. There is no greater check against elite power than a mobilized commons. Unlike the elite, who buy their influence in government, the commons must demand representation by their willingness to disobey, disregard and dismantle the government when justice is not being served.

Certain values must be in place for a functional democratic government to exist. Foremost among these values is the recognition of universal and inviolable rights. To hold that these rights exist by nature is a fundamental axiom of liberalism, but one must recognize that rights do not exist by virtue of one’s humanity as proposed by John Locke. Rather, rights exist because millions of people, acting upon a unified voice, demand recognition and respect and are willing to tear down the ramparts of power if they don’t get it.

Conservatives are willing to recognize the existence of rights—those rights outlined in the Constitution and directly attributable to the Founding Fathers. To suggest a “right” to healthcare, or a “right” to education, or a “right” to work, the conservative argument is, “where in the Constitution are any of these rights enumerated?” When it comes to popular rights, all political progress ended in 1793. Of course, the argument can be made that “corporations” are also not mentioned in the Constitution. Of course, this doesn’t count because there is no limit to the rights of elite interests.

On top of political rights and justice, liberals recognize the necessity for economic rights and justice. A marketplace can be as oppressive as a polity; a corporation can be as tyrannical as a dictatorship. The primary difference between the commons and the elite is access and control of market share. On one hand, liberals see the necessity to level the playing field to ensure that working Americans can benefit from the same economic structures as the elite. On the other hand is the necessity of protecting working people from the exploitation of elite interests. One’s labor is an intrinsic part of one’s humanity, and is the fundamental economic mechanism. Not a single millionaire or billionaire ever achieved his status without the rationalization of individual laborers exchanging their time and sweat for wages. Liberals demand that the wages should adequately compensate the worker for this exchange. Liberals are not inimical to wealth (okay, some are). The problem as understood by most liberals is the existence of vast stores of wealth in the face of large segments of poverty.

Conservatives deplore any attempt at closing the wealth and income gaps as socialism. The obscenely high incomes of the economic elite is described as the result of hard work, not questionable investment practices, favorable economic and labor policies, international trade agreements, lax regulation and legal structures that protect the vast accumulation of wealth, not to mention inheritance. No, wealth is only the result of hard work. By insinuation, if you are not wealthy it is because you are not working hard enough. To cut into the wealth of the obscenely rich is maligned as stealing one’s hard earned money, whereas cutting wages and benefits from working people is justified as necessary to be competitive on the global market. The elite need access to increasingly vast wealth resources to incentivize their investment in the economy. What is the incentive for working people? Wouldn’t access to higher wages equally incentivize them? Well, if workers don’t produce they will lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes, even their families, their health, their rights. So the elite are in a position to demand “incentives” while working people are expected to submit to coercion.

Such hypocrisy is not lost on liberals. Central to liberalism are policies that address the scourge of poverty and corresponding policies that ask, if not demand, that those who benefit the most from society should pay a little more to compensate those who benefit the least. This compensation may come in the form of higher wages, or even living wages and benefits or taxes to promote social programs for jobs, housing, health care and education for the bottom quintile. After all, prosperity on the part of the top tiers of society does not trickle down to the rest of society, but prosperity in the hands of working, common people, always filters throughout all of society, enriching everyone.

Conservatives write off liberals and academics who point out America’s inequalities as engaging in “class warfare.” Indeed it is. Liberals recognize that there is and always has been an ongoing class war. When one group of people endeavors to exploit, dispossess and disempower another group it is necessary to engage in warfare of some kind. In some cases, this warfare is fought with the traditional logistics, but when it comes to class warfare, the weapons and strategies are more subtle, more insidious. Make no mistake, however; the casualties are just as real. In the United States the death toll amounts to about 50,000 people a year as exemplified by the miners in the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine and oil the workers on the Deep-water Horizon who died doing nothing more than their jobs. The different mortality rates between working Americans and the corporate elite should provide all the evidence that is necessary to acknowledge the reality of a class war. That conservatives are currently pushing to increase the retirement age based on the life expectancies of those who have no need for such benefits should demonstrate to all the disconnect between the ideologies of the right and the real life experiences of working people.

Government is the institution tasked with the goal of ensuring political and economic rights. After all, what is the purpose of government if it is not to “promote the general welfare?” Indeed, it is not to promote “elite” welfare. The elite are perfectly capable of promoting their own welfare. It’s working people who need a social mechanism in place to protect their interests. Government can, and should provide that service to its citizens. By this estimation, government is a legitimate means for leveling the playing field between the haves, the have-nots and the have-lesses. This is not to be mistaken as a call for “big, intrusive government” as condemned by conservatives. Rather, government must be responsive to the needs of average, working people. How big does the government need to be? Exactly big enough to serve as a check against the elite interests. The size and power of the government should be proportional to the size and power of the corporations.

As described above, however, the tendency of government is to perpetuate elite interests, not the general welfare. For this reason, a liberal democracy requires an active, vocal and organized polity. The People cannot expect government to be responsive by right, or by moral obligation. Institutions know no obligation except to their own perpetuation. There must be social movements with legitimate access to the seats of power through which to make common voices heard. Currently, unions with collective bargaining rights as well as other social movements that can mobilize large numbers of people and dollars serve as an avenue for legitimate voice between the people and the government. These institutions have been effective in the past at pressing for progressive and positive change in the country.

These networks giving voice to popular demands are the very mechanisms currently under attack by the conservative machine. Destroy community advocates like ACORN and disempower the poor. Destroy collective bargaining and destroy labor. Destroy Planned Parenthood and destroy poor women and children. Destroy any vestiges of liberalism in the media by tagging it as “liberal bias” while defining right wing propaganda (read Fox News) as “Fair and Balanced” and destroy any semblance of reasonable discourse that might produce meaningful social change. Destroy the social safety net and deliver the commons into the vice-like grip of corporate dependence. Conservative political operatives are effectively waging this culture war.

Finally, conservatives must destroy the very functions of government that serve the common interest. This is the “small government” agenda of the Tea Party and other NeoCons like Grover Norquist who endeavors to shrink government to the size that it can be drowned in the bathtub. Government is the only institution that can legitimately check elite interests. For this reason alone government must be destroyed or at the very least rendered impotent against the ravages of the corporate elite.

In truth, the corporate elite do not need government at all. We have achieved a level of industrial and technological sophistication that Herbert Spencer would have admired—one in which all functions of government can be satisfied through private institutions. We even have private police forces and private armies owned by corporations. It’s no wonder that corporations endeavor to privatize all government functions. Corporations benefit when government is powerless against them. Working people, however, do not benefit from a government too small to protect them from elite exploitation.

Most hated among conservatives is the dreaded social safety net. Conservatives and their corporate masters decry all forms of social welfare as breeding dependence on the government among the poor. This dependence creates a spiral of poverty from which the individual becomes comfortable in his own poverty, or incapable/unwilling of taking care of himself. Indeed, there is credit to this argument. Conservatives, however, cannot answer to the difference between being dependent upon the government and being dependent on corporations. One argument is that the individual can always leave one employer and negotiate his labor with another employer who pays more and provides better benefits. This is a false argument as capitalism does not cultivate competitive markets, but rather cooperative arrangements called conglomerates or singular institutions called monopolies. By perpetuating poverty and unemployment corporations can increase profits by driving down the value of labor and also maintain dependency upon the working class, too cowed to resist lest they lose their valuable jobs. Corporate tyranny thus reproduces the consequences of political tyranny.

The solution to dependency on a vast government welfare state is not to eliminate the social safety net. The solution is to create programs that maximize autonomy such as education and skills programs as well as programs that guarantee work for citizens at a living wage. A single payer health system would contribute to this autonomy by liberating employees from the tethers of their employer provided insurance plan, allowing workers to leave their jobs to pursue other opportunities without the fear of losing their health care. Of course, this is exactly opposite of the conservative paradigm. Private schools, only the most expensive of which will provide worthy credentials, must replace public education. Health insurance must be scarce to ensure that those Americans lucky enough to have such access will remain cowed and tied to their employers. The right to work will never be recognized beyond the dishonest “right to work” laws that guarantee nothing but the employer’s right to fire a worker without cause. The conservative scheme is to convert the social safety net into a net of a different sort, a snare from which working Americans must always be entangled. This is the conservative promise—the state of “individual freedom” to serve a corporate master.

“Big Government” fear-mongering is the cornerstone of conservative assault against liberalism. The United States has a long history of skepticism with regard to the government, including a fear of oppression and a disdain for large bureaucracies. Such skepticism is well founded and healthy, and a centerpiece of liberal discourse. Liberals do not, or at least should not, “trust” the government. That governments are untrustworthy requires very little effort to discern. History is replete with examples of governments turning their backs on the citizenry. There’s no reason to assume that a liberal government is any less inclined to betray its people than a conservative government. Government is, after all, an institution dedicated to its self-perpetuation and the acquisition of power and prestige.

This is what makes liberalism such a great challenge and such a huge source of frustration for liberals, and fear for elite conservatives. In order to function effectively, a liberal democratic society must maintain a balance between government power and popular voice. Where popular voice is too weak, or too passive, or too contented, or too cowed government will resort to its old habits of pandering to the power elite. This is especially problematic as liberal reforms are hard won by tireless social movements. They are put into place and institutionalized, leading to the relaxation of the social movements that fought for their establishment. Then elite interests move in and disassemble these reforms, often piece-meal. By the time the original social movements wake up to the dangers posed to their cherished reforms, it’s too late (I fear this is happening to the women’s rights and pro-choice movements). Gaining the desired reforms leads to atrophy of the movement with regard to setting even loftier goals. Medicare was great, but Medicare for all would have been better.

On the other hand, if the government or the networks by which the citizens deliver their claims to the government are too weak to give legitimacy to the popular voice, then common Americans have no legitimate means to pursue their ends, to pursue social justice. Such an arrangement leaves the majority of the population subject to the whims of the elite with no legitimate recourse to achieve their goals and enforce the respect of their rights. When this happens, the People turn to illegitimate means of being heard. No force on earth can stop the collapse of a society when the majority of the People decide to burn down an unjust social framework. The results of this are often catastrophic, especially for the very people holding the torches.

Liberals tirelessly dedicate themselves to this balance. When liberals talk about democracy it is this fine and complicated balance that we are describing. Democracy is a leveling of the playing field to ensure that all rights are respected, that all needs are met and that no one is excluded from the benefits of being part of a society, a nation or, ultimately, of humanity. It’s a bottom up notion rising from the street and reaching into the top echelons of power demanding fairness, equity, justice. The satisfaction of these demands is anathema to the elite class, represented today by a global corporatocracy. The last thing they want is the dirty fingers of the unwashed masses reaching into their vaults of wealth and power. That the elite are the members of society truly dependent upon the sweat and skill of common Americans is the awkward secret the elite would rather you not know. So when liberals talk about democracy they are dangerous…dangerous to those who benefit the most from society, yet contribute the least.


Note: Interspersed in this essay are details of a mural painted by Judy Taylor. It was commissioned for the Maine Department of Labor building and commemorates the labor movement. It was ordered removed by conservative governor Paul LePage. There can be no homage to working Americans at the Maine Labor Department!




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