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How can you tell if you’re living in a democracy? The answer can get rather complicated. Simple yardsticks can often confuse more than clarify.
Take the notion that you have democracies where you have elections. Ballots over bullets. Sounds good. But authoritarians have been brazenly manipulating elections — to cement their rule — for generations. The deadliest example: the plebiscite Adolf Hitler staged in 1934 to lock in Nazi power. Stormtroopers at polling stations would ensure Hitler an overwhelmingly “victory.”
How about free speech as the most indispensable indicator of democracy’s presence? If people can get up on a soapbox to speak their minds, if they can publish whatever they have to say, you have a democracy. But this simple formulation turns out to be less than universally revealing.
“Free speech can act as a safety valve,” points out Ashutosh Bhagwat, a University of California-Davis law prof who has studied political expression in authoritarian societies. “Permitting some degree of free speech can alleviate pressures for political change.”
That same “free” speech, Bhagwat adds, “can lend legitimacy” to governments that otherwise routinely trample the will of the people.
So should we abandon our quest for a single simple yardstick we can use to distinguish real democracies from the faux variety? Not necessarily, suggests a recent analysis from Clarissa Rile Hayward, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Hayward has in mind a simple conceptualization from the contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
This 90-year-old political thinker, Hayward notes, has “famously argued that, in a democracy, no force except ‘the force of the better argument’ should influence outcomes.”
Political leaders in true democracies, she continues, “win popular support by making the better argument: by advancing platforms, developing policy proposals, and articulating goals that resonate with voters.” By this yardstick, we don’t have anything close to a vibrant democracy in the United States. What we do have: a political system that lets billionaires use “the blunt force” of their “superior economic power” to “shape the messages citizens receive” and “influence the ways they understand and participate in politics.”
We see this “superior economic power” play out in all sorts of political clashes and confrontations, from the relatively petty to the disturbingly profound.
The petty? Consider the question of who should pay to protect the oceanfront mansions of the super rich who summer in the Hamptons, a seaside stretch of awesome affluence about a hundred miles east of Manhattan. Many of these manses sit on a long sand barrier now under siege from rising sea levels. Their super-rich owners have nightmares about seeing seaweed in their foyers.
These deep pockets believe that local officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a patriotic duty to protect their summertime fun. Can they get this firm conviction to “resonate with voters”? Can they make a “better argument” than those who believe that subsidizing frolicking billionaires might not make for a prudent investment of limited public tax dollars? They haven’t had to bother.
The Hamptons rich simply haven’t needed voter support. They’ve taken government officials to court instead and let their generously compensated lawyers spend years litigating their case. That strategy has served the rich well. They’ve won a settlement that will have public tax dollars renourishing their beloved beachfront with fresh sand through at least the year 2027. A smashing triumph for the “blunt force” of “superior economic power.”
A much more profound battle over public priorities has broken out in the weeks since the police brutality that murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Advocates for racial justice across the United States have been calling on the nation to “defund the police,” and they’ve been working hard to make the case for that defunding. They’re developing policy proposals. They’re debating how to articulate goals that resonate with as many Americans as possible.
These advocates must make this outreach. They have no choice. They lack the “superior economic power” of the super rich. They can only realize their vision for public safety by convincing a broad public that they truly do have a better argument.
Meanwhile, America’s super rich and the corporations they run have been running their own “defund the police” agenda. Unlike racial justice advocates, these rich haven’t had to convince the broad public that they have the better argument.
In fact, few average Americans know anything about the defunding agenda the rich have been so relentlessly pursuing. For good reason: The wealthy have kept their defunding efforts largely outside the political spotlight. They realize that most of America would never support the defunding they seek: the defunding of government agencies that police the behavior — the greed grabs — of the rich.
Here, once again, the rich have depended on the “blunt force” of their “superior economic power.” They’ve parlayed the dollars they pour into politics into legislative majorities that have quietly defunded one policing agency after another, slashing budgets and crippling public-safety missions. The defunded, notes journalist David Sirota, range from the Consumer Products Safety Commission — the agency that “polices industries to make sure their products don’t harm or kill people” — to the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency that polices corporate polluters.
“Apparently,” comments Sirota, “we’re expected to be horrified by proposals to reduce funding for the militarized police forces that are violently attacking peaceful protesters — but we’re supposed to obediently accept the defunding of the police forces responsible for protecting the population from the wealthy and powerful.”
Washington University’s Clarissa Rile Hayward traces the continuing political success of America’s wealthy to “the power of big money in American elections.” In today’s political campaigns, anything essentially goes. The rich, through one channel or another, can move their millions wherever they please.
“Our democracy has failed,” Hayward argues, when “only the very rich” — or those they support — can fund competitive campaigns.
Our democracy may have failed. But our plutocracy has succeeded.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.