ON THE FALL OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
American Democracy has always been more aspirational and conceptual than real. A this point, little is added to the debate by rehashing all of the anti-democratic structures and clauses put into place by our Founding Fathers. It is a truism that our nation was founded with a deep fear of the Demos, and our republic was specifically designed to check any effort on the part of the people to create an egalitarian order.
Ours is not the only history rife with such examples. Republics tend to be oligarchies. This is true going back to the Roman Republic governed by land owning patriarchs. It is true today in a Republic founded by slave owners and merchants and currently run indirectly by finance capital. More often than not, those tasked with governing a “republic” wrap themselves in democratic pretensions and espouse democratic rhetoric to justify and legitimize their self-serving ends. Despite this, republics, much like monarchies, operate according to the principle “the less democracy, the better.”
Still, we are living in a nation that is demonstrably MORE democratic than anything envisioned by our founders. There’s something to be said for that. However, as citizens interested in democratic processes, it is important to remember that increased democratization is not a feature of our republic, it is a historical consequence of social movements. Democracy is of the streets, not the halls of the state. There is nothing intrinsic to American politics, society or culture that privileges democratic progress. That the United States could make credible claims to being a democratic nation is the result of more than two centuries of street level challenges to established power. It is not a feature of our much cherished Constitution.
From the beginning, the United States was born with an internal tension between oligarchy and democracy. Arguably, this may be true for all republics. There’s an elite class, responsible for directing a society’s institutions, and there’s a Demos, whose labors make the institutions function. Elites strive to protect and expand their power and privilege, while the Demos aspires to secure a better life for its posterity. The latter is often focused on individual and family level advancement. Occasionally, the Demos, or elements of the Demos, come together en masse to make demands of the elite. Often these mass demonstrations or put down by the elite using “law and order” mechanism, state sanctioned violence. Sometimes, however, contingencies are at play that give the movement leverage and the state is forced to negotiate on behalf of the elite (and it’s always on behalf of the elite). The elite are forced to make concessions and expand the rights and opportunities available to everyone. When this happens, we see democratic progress. This progress, however, is often punctuated, inconsistent, non-linear and too often subject to regression once the Demos becomes complacent and historical contingencies change.
Historically, democratic progress is played out through parties asserting power by using their numbers and resources to influence governance. The only real resource available to the Demos is numbers and the labor it provides to the elite. As Max Weber points out, organizing into parties is how power is exercised in any society. The concerns of the Demos, however, are often fragmented and diverse, making party organization and structure plastic, shifting and impermanent.
In the United States, this dynamic has evolved into what we know as the “Two Party System.” Social movements in such a system must find room within one of the two major parties if they endeavor to exert any meaningful leverage on the state. We can define this as a form of internal coalition in which interest groups coalesce within the structure of a political party in order to assert power. In the United States, these internal interest groups are called caucuses. As is always the case, these caucuses are diverse, some are more democratic, some are less. Some are democratic in some regards, but not in others. Perhaps a caucus is interested in elite economic models, but democratic human rights models, for instance. This diversity creates tension within the political parties and requires negotiation, compromise and consensus building in order to advance the interests of the larger organization. This is the way of American politics.
In the United States, small “d” democratic caucuses, what we can refer to as “progressive”, have had some representation in both major parties since at least the Second Party System emerging from Andrew Jackson’s administration. This is often a minority representation. Occasionally, however, circumstances emerge that give democratic caucuses greater leverage to negotiate within one or both parties. When this happens, we see a period of democratization. During the First Party System, for instance, Jeffersonians were able to leverage the movement for universal male suffrage to empower the Democratic Republican Party and literally wipe out the Federalist Party altogether.
Democratic movements rose often in U.S. History, from abolitionism to populism, from Progressivism to the New Deal and Great Society. The progressive movement of the early w0th century enjoyed some limited support in both major parties. In the Democratic Party, progressives in the William Jennings Bryan wing had to contend with more conservative and segregationist forces of the Dixie caucus. This conflict and resulting compromise was embodied by the noted progressive, though deeply racist, Woodrow Wilson. In the Republican Party, progressives represented by Robert LaFollette, and nationalists came together in the irrepressible body of Theodore Roosevelt. They found themselves countered by the more conservative, WASP leaning Taft wing of the party.
In both parties, politically coherent progressivism, or democratic, influence was arguably a minority force. The excesses of the Gilded Age and the organization of the Populists and other parties, however, were sufficient to push almost all politicians, even the most conservative, into compromise with democratic forces. This necessitated compromise from the elite, at least for the short term. Conservatives like William Howard Taft ultimately embraced some democratic goals. The movement was so successful that from the early 20th century until today, all politicians, regardless of their oligarchic and even autocratic aspirations, have had to pay at least rhetorical homage to democracy even in advocating for elite privilege. After the New Deal Coalition and the end of World War II, culminating in the Great Society, it was easy for Americans to feel that the United States was on a more or less linear progression to greater democracy.
The political and economic upheaval of the 1970’s, culminating in the rise of the New Right and the Reagan Revolution, however, represented a typical oligarchic backlash to what was up to that time an exceptional democratic run. Even as the 20th century drew to a close and Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism emerged as potent counter-movements with support among the capital elite, democratic pretensions were still required. Democratic influences retained some restraining influence on the growing regressive tendencies emerging in both parties. The restraining influence of progressive leaning caucuses and, to be fair, progressive ideological fragments held by even conservative party members, explains the appearance of linear democratic evolution in the United States up until the second Bush Administration.
It was under the leadership of George W. Bush that we first see a discursive shift in the Republican party. Neoconservatives became ascendant under Cheney influence. 9/11 and the war on terror empowered neoconservatives as well as the more militant and nationalist neoliberals. The rise of right-wing media offered an Orwellian tool to keep the base in line, reinforce in-group loyalty and purity and to demonize all alternative voices. Republican apparatchiks could talk openly about empire, and creating reality. Progressives in both parties were effectively silenced. In the Republican Party, what used to be called “moderates” were annihilated. The recession, a quagmire in two wars and the election of Barack Obama activated the most monstrous elements of the right under the Tea Party Banner. This movement did not bring a consistent ideology, but they were openly anti-liberal and scornful of democracy defined, as Benjamin Franklin claimed, as two wolves and a sheep voting on what they’re going to have for lunch.
Now we find ourselves in a position unique to our history. We now have a party that is totally dedicated to dismantling every semblance of American democracy. There are no internal democratic constraints. This sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t. Conservatism is deeply unpopular in the United States. If Republicans are to be the home of contemporary conservatism, they cannot do so with popular support. They must have structural power. So the Republican Party has become the defender of every undemocratic process they can. The filibuster, the Electoral College, gerrymandering, the GOP must maintain these regressive systems or they will be shut out from governance.
Furthermore, Republicans are waging an open campaign against democracy. We see this at the national level as the Republican Elite almost to the person embrace the Big Lie not because they think it’s true, but because doing so sheds doubt on voting as a legitimizing process. Anyone who even momentarily stands up in support of the truth is destroyed. Institutions intended to expand our thinking, understanding and pursuit of the truth is attacked and subordinated by the right. Journalists and the mainstream media are marginalized. Public schools and state colleges and universities are accused of brainwashing students into “Cultural Marxism” and now “Critical Race Theory.” The government is run by some nefarious Deep State that only Right-Wing heroes are willing to confront. Big Tech is out to enforce its kale eating, gay, socialist agenda. And, of course, elections are riddled with fraud…when non-right-wingers win.
The most egregious attacks are happening at the state level where Republicans control State Houses and thus control how votes are counted and whose votes count more. Through gerrymandering, restrictive voting laws and outright intimidation, Democrats are incapable of winning by appealing to majority interest. Now Republicans are pushing laws that actually allow the majority party at the state level to overturn election results that they don’t like. And this is going to get worse.
Furthermore, there’s no real check against Republican autocracy. The excesses of the Bush Administration and the calamity resulting from the Great Recession helped to invigorate an atrophied left. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 opened the door for the left to find a home in the Democratic Party. Progressive caucuses are ascendant within the Democratic Party, but they face a hostile party elite and internal dynamics that are difficult for newcomers to navigate. The Democratic Party’s relationship with small “d” democracy has always been tepid at its very best. For over forty years, the Democratic Party has been a Neo-liberal co-conspirator in establishing a pro-corporate, anti-labor New World Order. For more than a generation, the Democratic Party has used the threat posed by the rising conservative movement to put progressives and labor on a back-burner. Disenchanted progressives abandoned the party and the working class has become rife for right-wing demagogues. Now the left has enough power to make demands and the Democratic Elite doesn’t like it. After all, according to Nancy Pelosi, “we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.” That the relationship between moderate and left Democrats is fraught is an understatement.
Now the Party of the New Deal and the Great Society is being manhandled by Joe Manchin. Bryan, FDR, and LBJ are rolling in their graves. Even the normally milquetoast Biden wants to swing for the fence, but Manchin remains content to bunt. And democracy cannot be protected by a bunting team when the opposition is dedicated to the eradication of popular government and the establishment of a one party state oligarchy. Republican embrace of autocracy even at the hands of the most incompetent is testament to their drive to be done with American democracy
2022 will be a pivotal midterm election, and it doesn’t look good for Democrats. The Party cannot just rely on blind loyalty and obvious lies to hold their split base together. They must find ways to satisfy both the moderates and the left in their caucus and, at the same time, draw in enough independents to overcome legislative electoral disadvantages resulting from a rural bias in the Senate and jimmied election laws in the House. Without HR 1 signed into law ASAP, there’s little chance of leveling the electoral playing field. And Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema appear determined to bunt that away. That means Democrats need meaningful and clear legislative victories that immediately and definitively improve the lives of the American people. As Democratic strategist John Lapp, said, “What we have to do is actually do good things that help people, make a difference in their lives…If people feel better in their lives, Democrats will do better.”
But remember, these legislative victories need to be bulletproof. The Affordable Care Act is a case study. This was a significant legislative victory that clearly improved the lives of Americans. Yet, by the time the right-wing propaganda machine was done with their psychological warfare, Obamacare was actually a liability for Democrats. The Republican Party will not allow any such legislation to pass. So long as the filibuster is in play, any Democratic legislation will need to water away any bulletproof properties it might have because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will insist on seeing the bipartisan unicorn first. Democrats need some home runs, but they have a history of leaving players on first.
It’s hard to be optimistic about American democracy at this stage. We may be reaching a turning point come 2022 that will entrench a formal and unrepentant oligarchy in the seats of power.1 Many variables will have to come together to preserve American democracy. First, the Democratic Party will have to become a democratic party in more than just name. Joe Manchin and his ilk will see to it that that never happens. Secondly, the Democratic Party will have to institute undeniable social and economic progress the effects of which will be established and become the expectation going forward. This will have to happen within the next year. Anything less will be eviscerated within the alternate reality emitted by the FoxNoise propaganda machine. With the filibuster in place, such legislation will die at Mitch McConnell’s bloody hands. Once this legislation is secured, it would have to survive the Supreme Court–The Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett Supreme Court. Finally, the Democratic Party will have to win so impressively in 2022 that the conservative movement is beyond redemption. That’s a big ask. The overwhelming election in 2008 should have been the end of the Republican Party. Instead, it was a new beginning.
That the fate of American Democracy lies in the hands of a Joe Biden led Democratic Party is pretty ominous in itself. That American Democracy lies in the hands of Senator Joe Freakin’ Manchin is nothing short of a catastrophe. The bottom line is that significant challenges await us in the future. We will have to contend with global climate change. It’s impossible to predict how this will play out. Artificial intelligence will uproot all socio-cultural assumptions let alone the economic disruptions it will cause. The impending crises will be of global consequence and the answers that we come up with to face these challenges will become entrenched structures for generations. If oligarchies are allowed to make the rules by which we face these future crises, then the lives of most of the people in the world will be made much, much worse. If we want a better world, only democracy, real democracy, holds the answers we want. We need a United States that embodies real democratic ideals and virtues rather than mere rhetoric or aspiration. That something so important should fall to a crumbling empire and rest in the hands Joe Manchin–well…it’s hard to stay optimistic.
- I’m not trying to be alarmist here. The 2022 election is not the cliched “most important election of our lives.” American democracy has always been a struggle of the streets. The New Deal and the Great Society were the height of progressive influence in the state, but they were paralyzed by the concurrent phenomena of Jim Crow, militarism, and the rising Defense/Intelligence Complex. The factors that may take down American democracy have been in play for quite some time and their impact is cumulative rather than revolutionary. If 2022 goes as expected, we as citizens will probably not see an immediate difference. Nobody will crown themselves emperor (I hope). I do, however, feel that 2022 may be the tipping point by which oligarchic structures will accelerate and become so entrenched that further democratic progress will be impossible without revolutionary action.