Category Archives: Democracy

SOME WEIRD SHIT. THE CARTOON VERSION OF FASCISM. How democracy ends – David Runciman.

If Trump is the answer, we are no longer asking the right question.

Here we are, barely two decades into the twenty-first century, and almost from nowhere the question is upon us: is this how democracy ends?

Trump’s arrival in the White House poses a direct challenge: What would democratic failure in a country like the United States actually involve? What are the things that an established democracy could not survive? We now know we ought to start asking these questions. But we don’t know how to answer them.

When democracy ends, we are likely to be surprised by the form it takes. We may not even notice that it is happening because we are looking in the wrong places.

The inauguration of President Trump was not the moment at which democracy came to an end. But it was a good moment to start thinking about what the end of democracy might mean.

Democracy has died hundreds of times, all over the world. We think we know what that looks like: chaos descends and the military arrives to restore order, until the people can be trusted to look after their own affairs again. However, there is a danger that this picture is out of date.

Until very recently, most citizens of Western democracies would have imagined that the end was a long way off, and very few would have thought it might be happening before their eyes as Trump, Brexit and paranoid populism have become a reality.

David Runciman, one of the UK’s leading professors of politics, answers all this and more as he surveys the political landscape of the West, helping us to spot the new signs of a collapsing democracy and advising us on what could come next.

David Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University and Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies.

Thinking the unthinkable

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. At some point democracy was always going to pass into the pages of history. No one, not even Francis Fukuyama who announced the end of history back in 1989 has believed that its virtues make it immortal. But until very recently, most citizens of Western democracies would have imagined that the end was a long way off. They would not have expected it to happen in their lifetimes. Very few would have thought it might be taking place before their eyes. Yet here we are, barely two decades into the twenty-first century, and almost from nowhere the question is upon us: is this how democracy ends?

Like many people, I first found myself confronting this question after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. To borrow a phrase from philosophy, it looked like the reductio ad absurdum of democratic politics: any process that produces such a ridiculous conclusion must have gone seriously wrong somewhere along the way. If Trump is the answer, we are no longer asking the right question. But it’s not just Trump. His election is symptomatic of an overheated political climate that appears increasingly unstable, riven with mistrust and mutual intolerance, fuelled by wild accusations and online bullying, a dialogue of the deaf drowning each other out with noise. In many places, not just the United States, democracy is starting to look unhinged.

Let me make it clear at the outset: I don’t believe that Trump’s arrival in the White House spells the end of democracy. America’s democratic institutions are designed to withstand all kinds of bumps along the road and Trump’s strange, erratic presidency is not outside the bounds of what can be survived. It is more likely that his administration will be followed by something relatively routine than by something even more outlandish. However, Trump’s arrival in the White House poses a direct challenge: What would democratic failure in a country like the United States actually involve? What are the things that an established democracy could not survive? We now know we ought to start asking these questions. But we don’t know how to answer them.

Our political imaginations are stuck with outdated images of what democratic failure looks like. We are trapped in the landscape of the twentieth century. We reach back to the 1930s or to the 1970s for pictures of what happens when democracy falls apart: tanks in the streets; tin-pot dictators barking out messages of national unity, violence and repression in tow. Trump’s presidency has drawn widespread comparison with tyrannies of the past. We have been warned not to be complacent in thinking it couldn’t happen again.

But what of the other danger: that while we are looking out for the familiar signs of failure, our democracies are going wrong in ways with which we are unfamiliar? This strikes me as the greater threat. I do not think there is much chance that we are going back to the 1930s. We are not at a second pre-dawn of fascism, violence and world war. Our societies are too different too affluent, too elderly, too networked and our collective historical knowledge of what went wrong then is too entrenched. When democracy ends, we are likely to be surprised by the form it takes. We may not even notice that it is happening because we are looking in the wrong places.

Contemporary political science has little to say about new ways that democracy might fail because it is preoccupied with a different question: how democracy gets going in the first place. This is understandable. During the period that democracy has spread around the world the process has often been two steps forward, one step back. Democracy might get tentatively established in parts of Africa or Latin America or Asia and then a coup or military takeover would snuff it out, before someone tried again. This has happened in places from Chile to South Korea to Kenya. One of the central puzzles of political science is what causes democracy to stick. It is fundamentally a question of trust: people with something to lose from the results of an election have to believe it is worth persevering until the next time. The rich need to trust that the poor won’t take their money. The soldiers need to trust that the civilians won’t take their guns. Often, that trust breaks down. Then democracy falls apart.

As a result, political scientists tend to think of democratic failure in terms of what they call ‘backsliding’. A democracy reverts back to the point before lasting confidence in its institutions could be established. This is why we look for earlier examples of democratic failure to illuminate what might go wrong in the present. We assume that the end of democracy takes us back to the beginning. The process of creation goes into reverse.

In this book I want to offer a different perspective. What would political failure look like in societies where confidence in democracy is so firmly established that it is hard to shake? The question for the twenty-first century is how long we can persist with institutional arrangements we have grown so used to trusting, that we no longer notice when they have ceased to work. These arrangements include regular elections, which remain the bedrock of democratic politics. But they also encompass democratic legislatures, independent law courts and a free press. All can continue to function as they ought while failing to deliver what they should. A hollowed-out version of democracy risks lulling us into a false sense of security. We might continue to trust in it and to look to it for rescue, even as we seethe with irritation at its inability to answer the call. Democracy could fail while remaining intact.

This analysis might seem at odds with the frequent talk about the loss of trust in democratic politics and politicians across Western societies. It is true that many voters dislike and distrust their elected representatives now more than ever. But it is not the kind of loss of trust that leads people to take up arms against democracy. Instead, it is the kind that leads them to throw up their arms in despair. Democracy can survive that sort of behaviour for a long time. Where it ends up is an open question and one I will try to answer. But it does not end up in the 1930s.

We should try to avoid the Benjamin Button view of history, which imagines that old things become young again, even as they acquire more experience. History does not go into reverse. It is true that contemporary Western democracy is behaving in ways that seem to echo some of the darkest moments in our past, anyone who watched protestors with swastikas demonstrating on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and then heard the president of the United States managing to find fault on both sides, could be forgiven for fearing the worst. However, grim though these events are, they are not the precursors of a return to something we thought we’d left behind. We really have left the twentieth century behind. We need another frame of reference.

So let me offer a different analogy. It is not perfect, but I hope it helps make sense of the argument of this book. Western democracy is going through a mid-life crisis. That is not to trivialise what’s happening: mid-life crises can be disastrous and even fatal. And this is a full-blown crisis. But it needs to be understood in relation to the exhaustion of democracy as well as to its volatility, and to the complacency that is currently on display as well as to the anger. The symptoms of a mid-life crisis include behaviour we might associate with someone much younger. But it would be a mistake to assume that the way to understand what’s going on is to study how young people behave.

When a miserable middle-aged man buys a motorbike on impulse, it can be dangerous. If he is really unlucky it all ends in a fireball. But it is nothing like as dangerous as when a seventeen-year-old buys a motorbike. More often, it is simply embarrassing. The mid-life motorbike gets ridden a few times and ends up parked in the street. Maybe it gets sold. The crisis will need to be resolved in some other way, if it can be resolved at all.

American democracy is in miserable middle age. Donald Trump is its motorbike. It could still end in a fireball. More likely, the crisis will continue and it will need to be resolved in some other way, if it can be resolved at all.

I am conscious that talking about the crisis of democracy in these terms might sound selfindulgent, especially coming from a privileged, middle-aged white man. Acting out like this is a luxury many people around the world cannot afford. These are first world problems. The crisis is real but it is also a bit of a joke. That’s what makes it so hard to know how it might end.

To suffer a crisis that comes neither at the beginning nor at the end but somewhere in the middle of a life is to be pulled forwards and backwards at the same time. What pulls us forwards is our wish for something better. What pulls us back is our reluctance to let go of something that has got us this far. The reluctance is understandable: democracy has served us well. The appeal of modern democracy lies in its ability to deliver long-term benefits for societies while providing their individual citizens with a voice. This is a formidable combination. It is easy to see why we don’t want to give up on it, at least not yet. However, the choice might not simply be between the whole democratic package and some alternative, anti-democratic package. It may be that the elements that make democracy so attractive continue to operate but that they no longer work together. The package starts to come apart. When an individual starts to unravel, we sometimes say that he or she is in pieces. At present democracy looks like it is in pieces. That does not mean it is unmendable. Not yet.

So what are the factors that make the current crisis in democracy unlike those it has faced in the past, when it was younger? I believe there are three fundamental differences.

First, political violence is not what it was for earlier generations, either in scale or in character. Western democracies are fundamentally peaceful societies, which means that our most destructive impulses manifest themselves in other ways. There is still violence, of course. But it stalks the fringes of our politics and the recesses of our imaginations, without ever arriving centre stage. It is the ghost in this story.

Second, the threat of catastrophe has changed. Where the prospect of disaster once had a galvanising effect, now it tends to be stultifying. We freeze in the face of our fears.

Third, the information technology revolution has completely altered the terms on which democracy must operate. We have become dependent on forms of communication and information-sharing that we neither control nor fully understand. All of these features of our democracy are consistent with its getting older.

I have organised this book around these three themes: coup; catastrophe; technological takeover. I start with coups the standard markers of democratic failure to ask whether an armed takeover of democratic institutions is still a realistic possibility. If not, how could democracy be subverted without the use of force being required? Would we even know it was happening? The spread of conspiracy theories is a symptom of our growing uncertainty about where the threat really lies. Coups require conspiracies because they need to be plotted by small groups in secret, or else they don’t work. Without them, we are just left with the conspiracy theories, which settle nothing.

Next I explore the risk of catastrophe. Democracy will fail if everything else falls apart: nuclear war, calamitous climate change, bioterrorism, the rise of the killer robots could all finish off democratic politics, though that would be the least of our worries. If something goes truly, terribly wrong, the people who are left will be too busy scrabbling for survival to care much about voting for change. But how big is the risk that, if confronted with these threats, the life drains out of democracy anyway, as we find ourselves paralysed by indecision?

Then I discuss the possibility of technological takeover. Intelligent robots are still some way off. But low-level, semi-intelligent machines that mine data for us and stealthily take the decisions we are too busy to make are gradually infiltrating much of our lives. We now have technology that promises greater efficiency than anything we’ve ever seen before, controlled by corporations that are less accountable than any in modern political history. Will we abdicate democratic responsibility to these new forces without even saying goodbye?

Finally, I ask whether it makes sense to look to replace democracy with something better. A midlife crisis can be a sign that we really do need to change. If we are stuck in a rut, why don’t we make a clean break from what’s making us so miserable? Churchill famously called democracy the worst system of government apart from all the others that have been tried from time to time. He said it back in 1947. That was a long time ago. Has there really been nothing better to try since then? I review some of the alternatives, from twenty-first century authoritarianism to twenty-first century anarchism.

To conclude, I consider how the story of democracy might actually wind up. In my view, it will not have a single endpoint. Given their very different life experiences, democracies will continue to follow different paths in different parts of the world. Just because American democracy can survive Trump doesn’t mean that Turkish democracy can survive Erdogan. Democracy could thrive in Africa even as it starts to fail in parts of Europe. What happens to democracy in the West is not necessarily going to determine the fate of democracy everywhere. But Western democracy is still the flagship model for democratic progress. Its failure would have enormous implications for the future of politics.

Whatever happens, unless the end of the world comes first, this will be a drawn-out demise. The current American experience of democracy is at the heart of the story that I tell, but it needs to be understood against the wider experience of democracy in other times and other places. In arguing that we ought to get away from our current fixation with the 1930s, I am not suggesting that history is unimportant. Quite the opposite: our obsession with a few traumatic moments in our past can blind us to the many lessons to be drawn from other points in time. For there is as much to learn from the 1890s as from the 1930s. I go further back: to the 1650s and to the democracy of the ancient world. We need history to help us break free from our unhealthy fixations with our own immediate back story. It is therapy for the middle-aged.

The future will be different from the past. The past is longer than we think. America is not the whole world. Nevertheless, the immediate American past is where I begin, with the inauguration of President Trump. That was not the moment at which democracy came to an end. But it was a good moment to start thinking about what the end of democracy might mean.

INTRODUCTION

20 January 2017

l WATCHED THE INAUGURATION of Donald Trump as president of the United States on a large screen in a lecture hall in Cambridge, England. The room was full of international students, wrapped up against the cold, public rooms in Cambridge are not always well heated and there were as many people in coats and scarves inside the hall as there were on the podium in Washington, DC. But the atmosphere among the students was not chilly. Many were laughing and joking. The mood felt quite festive, like at any public funeral.

When Trump began to speak, the laughing soon stopped. Up on the big screen, against a backdrop of pillars and draped American flags, he looked forbidding and strange. We were scared. Trump’s barking delivery and his crudely effective hand gestures slicing the thin air with his stubby fingers, raising a clenched fist at the climax of his address had many of us thinking the same thing: this is what the cartoon version of fascism looks like. The resemblance to a scene in a Batman movie the Joker addressing the cowed citizens of Gotham was so strong it seemed like a cliché. That doesn’t make it the wrong analogy. Clichés are where the truth goes to die.

The speech Trump gave was shocking. He used apocalyptic turns of phrase that echoed the wild, angry fringes of democratic politics where democracy can start to turn into its opposite. He bemoaned ‘the rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation the crime and gangs and drugs’. In calling for a rebirth of national pride, he reminded his audience that ‘we all bleed the same red blood of patriots’. It sounded like a thinly veiled threat. Above all, he cast doubt on the basic idea of representative government, which is that the citizens entrust elected politicians to take decisions on their behalf. Trump lambasted professional politicians for having betrayed the American people and forfeited their trust:

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.

Washington flourished but the people did not share its wealth.

Politicians prospered but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

He insisted that his election marked the moment when power passed not just from president to president or from party to party, but from Washington, DC back to the people. Was he going to mobilise popular anger against any professionals who now stood in his way? Who would be able to stop him? When he had finished speaking, he was greeted in our lecture hall back in Cambridge by a stunned silence. We weren’t the only ones taken aback. Trump’s predecessor but one in the presidency, George W. Bush, was heard to mutter as he left the stage: ‘That was some weird shit.’

Then, because we live in an age when everything that’s been consumed can be instantly reconsumed, we decided to watch it again. Second time around was different. I found the speech less shocking, once I knew what was coming. I felt that I had overreacted. Just because Trump said all these things didn’t make them true. His fearsome talk was at odds with the basic civility of the scene. Wouldn’t a country that was as fractured as he said have found it hard to sit politely through his inauguration? It was also at odds with what I knew about America. It is not a broken society, certainly not by any historical standards.

Notwithstanding some recent blips, violence is in overall decline. Prosperity is rising, though it remains very unequally distributed. If people had really believed what Trump said, would they have voted for him? That would have been a very brave act, given the risks of total civil breakdown. Maybe they voted for him because they didn’t really believe him?

It took me about fifteen minutes to acclimatise to the idea that this rhetoric was the new normal. Trump’s speechwriters, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, had put no words in his mouth that were explicitly anti-democratic. It was a populist speech, but populism does not oppose democracy. Rather, it tries to reclaim it from the elites who have betrayed it. Nothing Trump said disputed the fundamental premise of representative democracy, which is that at the allotted time the people get to say when they have had enough of the politicians who have been making decisions for them. Trump was echoing what those who voted for him clearly believed: enough was enough.

Watching the speech over again, I found myself focusing less on Trump and more on the people arrayed alongside him. Melania Trump looked alarmed to be on the stage with her husband. President Obama merely looked uncomfortable. Hillary Clinton, off to the side, looked dazed. The joint chiefs were stony-faced and stoical. The truth is that there is little Trump could have said after taking the oath of office that would have posed a direct threat to American democracy. These were just words. What matters in politics is when words become deeds. The only people with the power to end American democracy on 20 January 2017 were the ones sitting beside him. And they were doing nothing.

How might it have been different? The minimal definition of democracy says simply that the losers of an election accept that they have lost. They hand over power without resort to violence. In other words, they grin and bear it. If that happens once, you have the makings of a democracy. If it happens twice, you have a democracy that’s built to last. In America, it has happened fifty-seven times that the losers in a presidential election have accepted the result, though occasionally it has been touch and go (notably in the much-disputed 1876 election and in 2000, when the loser of the popular vote, as with Trump, went on to win the presidency). On twentyone occasions the US has seen a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Only once, in 1861, has American democracy failed this test when a group of Southern states could not endure the idea of Abraham Lincoln as their legitimate president, and fought against it for four years.

To put it another way: democracy is civil war without the fighting. Failure comes when proxy battles turn into real ones. The biggest single danger to American democracy following Trump’s victory was if either President Obama or Hillary Clinton had refused to accept the result. Clinton won the popular vote by a large margin, 2.9 million votes, more than any defeated candidate in US history and she ended up the loser thanks to the archaic rules of the Electoral College. On the night of the election, Clinton was having difficulty accepting that she had been beaten, as defeated candidates often do. Obama called her to insist that she acknowledge the outcome as soon as possible. The future of American democracy depended on it.

In that respect, a more significant speech than Trump’s inaugural was the one Obama gave on the lawn of the White House on 9 November, the day after the election. He had arrived to find many of his staffers in tears, aghast at the thought that eight years of hard work were about to be undone by a man who seemed completely unqualified for the office to which he had been elected. It was only hours after the result had been declared and angry Democrats were already questioning Trump’s legitimacy. Obama took the opposite tack:

“You know, the path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forwards and others think is moving back and that’s OK. The point is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy And that’s why I’m confident that this incredible journey that we’re on as Americans will go on. And I’m looking forward to doing everything I can to make sure the next president is successful in that.”

It is easy to see why Obama felt he had no choice except to say what he did. Anything else would have thrown the workings of democracy into doubt. But it is worth asking: What are the circumstances in which a sitting president might feel compelled to say something different? When does faith in the zig and zag of democratic politics stop being a precondition of progress and start to become a hostage to fortune?

Had Clinton won the 2016 election, especially if she had somehow contrived to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, it is unlikely Trump would have been so magnanimous. He made it clear throughout the campaign that his willingness to accept the result depended on whether or not he was the winner. A defeated Trump could well have challenged the core premise of democratic politics that, as Obama put it, ‘if we lose, we learn from our mistakes, we do some reflection, we lick our wounds, we brush ourselves off, we get back in the arena’. Licking his wounds is not Trump’s style. If the worst-case scenario for a democracy is an election in which the two sides disagree about whether the result holds, then American democracy dodged a bullet in 2016.

It is easy to imagine that Trump might have chosen to boycott the inauguration of Hillary Clinton, had he lost. That scenario would have been ugly, and petty, and it could have turned violent, but it need not have been fatal to constitutional government. The republic could have muddled through. On the other hand, had Obama refused to permit Trump’s inauguration, on the grounds that he was still occupying the White House, or that he was planning to install Clinton there, then democracy in America would have been done for, at least for now.

There is another shorthand for the minimal definition of a functioning democracy: the people with guns don’t use them. Trump’s supporters have plenty of guns and, had he lost, some of these people might have been tempted to use them. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between an opposition candidate refusing to accept defeat and an incumbent refusing to leave office. No matter how much firepower the supporters of the aggrieved loser might have at their disposal, the state always has more. If it doesn’t, it is no longer a functioning state. The ‘people with guns’ in the minimal definition of democracy refers to the politicians who control the armed forces. Democracy fails when elected officials who have the authority to tell the generals what to do refuse to give it up. Or when the generals refuse to listen.

This means that the other players who had the capacity to deal democracy a fatal blow on 20 January were also sitting beside Trump: America’s military chiefs. If they had declined to accept the orders of their new commander-in-chief for instance, if they had decided he could not be trusted with the nuclear codes then no amount of ceremony would have hidden the fact that the inauguration was an empty Charade. One reason for the air of mild hilarity in our lecture hall in Cambridge was that the rumour quickly passed around that Trump had been in possession of the nuclear football since breakfast time. The joke was that we were lucky still to be here. But none of us would have been smiling if the joint chiefs had decided that the new president was best kept in the dark. Even more alarming than an erratic new president in possession of the power to unleash destruction is the prospect of the generals deciding to keep that power for themselves.

Yet it is worth asking the same questions of the generals as of the sitting president: When is it appropriate to refuse to obey the orders of a duly elected commander-in-chief? Trump came into office surrounded by rumours that he was under the influence of a foreign power. He was certainly inexperienced, likely irresponsible and possibly compromised. American democracy has survived worse if inexperience and irresponsibility in international affairs were a barrier to the highest office, then the history of the presidency would be very different. It is the knowledge that American democracy has survived worse that makes it so hard to know how to respond now. In Cambridge, we laughed for a bit, and then we sat in glum silence. In Washington, they did the same.

. . .

from

How Democracy Ends

by David Runciman

get it at Amazon.com

Like Voting Rights? Thank a Socialist – Adam J Sacks.

As voting rights increasingly come under attack, we shouldn’t forget the crucial role that early socialists played in fighting for universal suffrage.

Stolen elections, decrepit voting infrastructure, draconian ID laws. The recent attacks on voting rights in the US might seem like an outgrowth of pure partisanship, the desperation of a minoritarian party using any means necessary to hold onto political power. But the GOP’s brazen attempts to restrict voting access (particularly for African Americans) should also be viewed as symptoms of a disease that has long afflicted elites: recalcitrant opposition to democracy, including the right to vote.

Since the advent of the modern state, ruling classes have tried to restrain the voting power of workers and those not “well born.” Contrary to the mainstream story that capitalism naturally gave rise to democracy, establishment powers in nineteenth-century Europe restricted the vote for as long as they possibly could. Only when faced with mass mobilization, or when continent-wide war wiped out working-class males en masse, was it clear that the franchise could no longer be withheld.

The particulars of individual European countries varied. In some nations, following intense struggles, workers won limited forms of universal male suffrage before World War I. More commonly, broad suffrage rights appeared only after the war.

But what was consistent were the actors pushing for universal suffrage: trade unions and, crucially, socialist parties. In fact, what has been called the “democratic breakthrough” of the nineteenth century could easily be called the “socialist breakthrough.”

Belgium

On August 10, 1890, seventy-five thousand men and women took to the streets of Brussels to demonstrate for universal suffrage. Like all other putatively democratic nations of the time, Belgium limited the right to vote to male property owners. Workers were entirely shut out of the country’s political life. Over the next twenty-five years, that would change, but not until a series of general strikes convulsed the country and World War I ripped the country to shreds.

In 1890, the year of the first general strike, ruling elites worried that conferring the vote on the working class would give the ascendant socialist movement a batting ram to bludgeon their autocratic citadel. Though founded just five years earlier, the Parti Ouvrier, like its sister parties in the Second International, was steadily growing, fusing workers together into a powerful, coherent political bloc. Party leaders hoped they could pursue a patient reformist course, winning trade union and suffrage rights without resorting to a revolutionary strategy of mass strikes.

But the stubbornness of reality, the powers that be resolutely blocked pro-worker measures in parliament, and the militancy of workers forced the party’s leaders to concede that more radical action was necessary.

In 1893, following up on the mass action three years earlier, the Council of Workers declared a general strike. Mass demonstrations broke out in multiple cities, miners cut telegraph and telephone lines, and soldiers chased party leaders through the streets with bayonets drawn. Women chucked rocks and broken pottery at the police behind barricades built by miners.

Leopold II, who reigned as the king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909.
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The militant action worked. Property restrictions were abolished. The leaders of the Parti Ouvrier, including a marble worker named Louis Bertrand who helped found the party, were invited into parliament.

But progress would not occur in a straight line. The elections the next year sent shock waves through Europe when dozens of socialist deputies were elected to parliament rather than the expected handful. The party immediately went to work, drafting laws to support unions and set up disability insurance and pensions. Ruling elites, realizing their mistake, pushed through a system of “plural voting” that gave additional weight to citizens living in strongholds of the conservative Catholic Party.

So workers, often over the objections of party leaders, kept up the pressure. When the government tried to deepen inequalities in voting rights, the socialist movement again declared a strike, in 1902. This time over three hundred thousand flooded the streets.
The thrust and parry continued in the subsequent years. Catholic parties, still aided by plural voting, strengthened their majority in 1912 and attacked full universal suffrage in the legislature the following year. Socialist leaders, trying to balance the competing politics of rural miners and urban social-democratic politicians, still held out hope parliament would enact universal suffrage.

Instead, 1913 brought another general strike, the largest in Western European history. Strike funds were set up via a system of coupons, and co-ops and childcare were organized. Le Peuple, a socialist daily, published recipes for soupes communistes to cook in the communal kitchens. Art exhibitions, museum visits, and country hikes drew working-class families together, offering not just respite but cultural nourishment.
The strike didn’t achieve its aim of full and equal universal suffrage. It was only after World War I, in 1919, that plural voting finally fell, and women wouldn’t receive the right to vote until 1948.
Yet those early battles for the franchise had an enormous impact on the consciousness of other socialists around the continent, the Parti Ouvrier, Rosa Luxemburg said, had inspired the entire Second International to “speak Belgian.”

The Russian Empire

During Belgium’s 1902 general strike, the city of Louvain was the site of a frightful massacre: twelve workers eventually died after state officers opened fire. Further east, another government-led mass murder triggered a seminal general strike, the 1905 Russian Revolution.
While in late 1904 liberals and progressives had successfully pressed for workers insurance, the abolition of censorship, and expanded local representative government, the Russian Empire still lacked a federal parliament. In January 1905, strikes erupted in multiple cities, culminating in a peaceful march in St Petersburg of men, women, and children, singing hymns and brandishing a petition demanding an elected parliament. Troops fired on the marchers before they could reach the Winter Palace, killing upwards of one thousand.

An artistic impression of “Bloody Sunday” in St Petersburg, Russia, when unarmed demonstrators marching to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II were shot at by the Imperial Guard in front of the Winter Palace on January 22, 1905.
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Theatrical performances were spontaneously interrupted, and thousands of students and professionals struck in solidarity with the workers. The merchants club, hardly a redoubt of radicalism, barred its doors to guards for their involvement in the massacre.

Within a couple of weeks, half of European Russian workers and 93 percent of all workers in Russian-occupied Poland were out on strike. In Lodz, strikers held the provincial governor hostage in a hotel. Throughout the entire empire, the rail network ground to a halt.

Revolution was in the air. The next few months would witness the country’s first open celebration of May Day and the legendary Potemkin Mutiny off the shores of Odessa, later immortalized by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. And by the end of October, the tsar had reluctantly signed the manifesto that established the Duma, and extended the franchise toward universal male suffrage.

Elsewhere in the Russian Empire, radical actions for the vote had even more far-reaching consequences. A general strike in Finland in 1905 led not only to the adoption of universal male suffrage and a unicameral parliamentary system, but also the granting of women the right to vote and to stand for elections the first country in Europe to do so. Over the coming decade, the country’s workers would use these expanded rights, before the strike, only 8 percent of the population could vote, to press for increasingly revolutionary reforms.

Sweden

Among American liberals, it’s popular to imagine Sweden as a social-democratic utopia, a nation where enlightened values have won out over rank selfishness. But the history of the Swedish workers movement is a testament to the tenaciousness of the country’s ruling class, including its dogged resistance to voting rights.

The political expression of the labor movement, the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP), formed in 1889 amid a broader surge in worker organizing. As elsewhere, those without property lacked basic political rights. The Swedish socialist movement’s goal was to first win political democracy.

In 1902, a two-day general strike for universal suffrage served as a warning shot at the stridently right-wing government. Called by the political parties and never intended to last longer than a couple days, the strike made a strong impression on the government due to its impressive level of mass support. Still, the strike lacked the crucial participation of the trade unions.

This would come in part with the 1909 general strike, which lasted a month and convened almost half a million workers. The initial aim was to combat worker lockouts and wage freezes. But as chairman of the transport workers, Charles Lindley, recalled, “In that time there was an almost unlimited faith in the general strike as the decisive means to get universal suffrage.” The economically inspired strike increasingly reflected workers’ democratic political aspirations.

The Swedish socialist movement’s goal was to first win political democracy.

Swedish policemen guard empty trams during the 1909 general strike. Wikimedia Common.
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The strike shut down all core export industries in the country, and workers attempted to spread it further. Employers responded with a standard tactic: importing striker breakers. In one case, three unemployed Swedish workers independently organized to bomb a ship that housed strikebreakers coming from Great Britain.

As days turned into weeks, however, strike leaders were forced to retreat, faced with meager strike funds and the prospect of having to divert relief from other workers in an economic recession. Liberals began to turn on the strikers when typographers joined, seeing their participation as an attack on “freedom of speech.” Workers’ families struggled mightily with the mounting deprivation. The Swedish Employer’s Association was therefore in a position by the end to dictate terms, and they did.

But while the strike was in many ways a setback, it is universally recognized today as laying the groundwork for the democratization of Swedish society. Later that year all men in the country, regardless of their property holdings, gained the right to vote in at least one chamber of federal government. Full political democracy, while distant, was now on the horizon.

The Riksdag, the Swedish parliament.
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Germany

Almost two-thirds of late-nineteenth century Germany lay within the Kingdom of Prussia, which had enforced the unification of the German states in 1871. Despite the passage that year of the general, equal, and secret right to vote for all males over age twenty-five, Prussia maintained a system from 1849 that divided voters into three classes based on their tax bracket.

The obviously unequal arrangement, early socialist leader Wilhelm Liebknecht referred to the Reichstag as the “fig leaf of absolutism”, created a situation where 4 percent of the first class held as many voters as the third class, who made up 82 percent of the eligible voting population. And there was another anti-democratic check on workers’ power: the upper chamber, the Reichsrat, could block any constitutional changes passed by the directly elected representatives of the Reichstag. The Second Reich, Marx declared, was a “police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms.”

Somehow, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) flourished in spite of these adverse conditions. It was the largest socialist party on the continent, the Second International party par excellence. The SPD’s Erfurt Program, ratified in 1891, declared: “The struggle of the working class against capitalistic exploitation is of necessity a political struggle. The working class cannot carry out its economic struggle and cannot develop its economic organization without political rights.” At the top of the party’s demands: “universal, equal, and direct voting rights via secret vote for all citizens over twenty years of age, regardless of sex.”

A printing of the SPD’s seminal 1891 manifesto “The Erfurt Program.”
The working class cannot carry out its economic struggle and cannot develop its economic organization without political rights.
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The country’s elites were not amused. Following the development of a country-wide strike movement, employers insisted that the kaiser both rescind the vote from all those affiliated with Social Democracy and legally limit strikes. The kaiser, showing no aversion to despotic rhetoric himself, told a group of new military recruits in Potsdam in November 1891:

“the current socialist machinations could result that I order you to shoot down your own relatives, brothers, even parents . . . but even then you must follow my orders without any grumbling.”

The SPD patiently agitated and organized to become the largest party in the Prussian parliament by 1908. They led repeated mass demonstrations for full suffrage, which were inexorably met with brutal repression.

On the eve of World War I, suffrage rights were still the province of the elite. But for their efforts, the SPD was rightfully recognized as the most consistently democratic force in prewar Germany.

Great Britain

Of all the European countries of the Second International, Great Britain had the least democratic voting system, the proportion of men over the age of twenty-one who could cast a ballot at the start of World War I was smaller than in eight of nine countries for which full data is available.

Mass disenfranchisement was deeply rooted in the country’s political system. At the start of the nineteenth century, in an electoral system marred by extreme gerrymandering, only 4 percent of the population could vote. In the middle of the century, the pro-suffrage demonstrations of the Chartists, the first mass working-class movement in European history, were met with elite antipathy. As late as 1884, access to voting remained unequal between the towns and the countryside, and after reforms altered that undemocratic hindrance, eligible voters still had to prove a base payment in rent to qualify.

The ruling class simply couldn’t countenance approving a measure they thought would give “the rabble” political power: universal suffrage, in the estimation of British statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay, was “incompatible with property . . . and consequently incompatible with civilization” itself.

Arrayed against Macaulay were the working class and their burgeoning movement. The Labour Party, firmly committed to universal suffrage, agitated for political democracy and was able to wrest some concessions before World War I. In 1911, they pushed for an end to the House of Lords’ veto over legislation.

Finally, on the heels of continent-wide war, universal male suffrage was established, and women won the vote in 1928.

The political order that, in Lenin’s words, had entrapped the working masses in a “well-equipped system of flattery, lies, and fraud” was cracking open.

Fighters for Democracy

The early socialist parties showed an unflagging commitment to universal suffrage, a commitment unmatched by any other party.

Their dedication was at once ethical and practical. On the one hand, they were determined to overturn structures of domination and inequality wherever they existed. And in the political sphere, workers were vassals, subject to the decisions of officials they had no hand in choosing.

On a more practical level, the early socialists recognized the potency of the ballot. Their fight for universal suffrage joined the political and economic struggles, transforming the vote into an object of radical tactics and revolutionary élan. It tied together the different factions of the movement in the pursuit of a tool (the vote) that workers could use as part of the broader class struggle. Their aim was to create a “true democracy,” from the bottom-up, in the tradition of Marx.

Today, amid fights in the US to maintain the basic functionality of a democratic voting system, socialists mustn’t forget their historic role in struggling for political democracy. So many of even the liberal democratic parts of liberal democracy came about thanks to the battles socialists waged against the feudalistic leftovers of the Old Regime and the new capitalistic oligarchy.

Barely a century old, and only for males of European descent the universal right to vote is still an infant in need of close guard. Current shadows of Jim Crow, whether in Georgia or the Dakotas, reveal the persistent threats to its existence, as well as the oligarchic and undemocratic strain that runs strong in the American republic and still hasn’t accepted universal suffrage.

We should reject faux-radical pronouncements that dismiss voting as inconsequential and, instead, meld the fight for universal suffrage with the fight for socialism and radical democracy. The vote was a historic conquest for the working class. It remains a “paper stone” in the hands of the disenfranchised.

Adam J Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York.

Jacobin Magazine

Democracy is more fragile than many of us realised, but don’t believe that it is doomed – Andrew Rawnsley.

The dismantling of freedom begins with attacks on unfettered media and an independent judiciary.

Nothing ages so badly as visions of the future. When the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by the implosion of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama celebrated by publishing his bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. The book argued that, with the demise of its main ideological competitor, the world would belong to liberal democracy. He has been much mocked since for failing to foresee that democracy would face the emergence of fresh threats and the resurgence of old foes in new guises in the shape of nationalism, religious extremism, autocratic capitalism, unaccountable tech titans, cyber warfare and even, in the case of North Korea, legacy Stalinism. But fair’s fair. For a while at least, his thesis was true.

The end of the Cold War accelerated what is sometimes referred to as “the third wave” of democratisation in the late 20th century. The peoples of eastern Europe were liberated to choose their own governments. African presidents-for-life were sent into retirement. Much of Latin America, once a grisly tableau of coups, insurgencies, juntas and death squads, embraced the tenets of democracy. India was no longer a shining exception to autocracy in developing Asia, as more of the world’s most populous continent followed the democratic path. By the turn of the century, more than 100 countries could be reasonably classified as democracies, albeit often flawed ones. A hundred years before, you could barely find 10 democracies on the world map. If your definition of democracy includes, as really it ought to, women having the vote, then there was New Zealand by 1900 and some bits of Australia and that was it.

Democracy won the 20th century. The hubristic mistake was to think that this trend was so powerful that it could not be reversed. The size of that error is illustrated by the latest report from Freedom House, a non-partisan thinktank that conducts an annual audit of global freedom. The fundamentals of democracy, particularly regular and honest elections, a free media, the rule of law and the rights of minorities, are under attack around the world. Last year was the 12th consecutive one in which the number of countries becoming more free were outnumbered by those becoming less so. The report’s authors conclude that “democracy is in crisis”.

Does the evidence justify this alarming assessment? Some autocratic brutes have been given the boot, among them Robert Mugabe, whose removal at least gives the possibility of a better future for Zimbabwe. Many countries remain robustly democratic. Britons may feel a squeak of patriotic pride that Freedom House awards a high 94 points to our country. You have to be Scandinavian to achieve the maximum 100.

It is hard, though, to disagree that the big picture is a negative one. From Venezuela to the Philippines, more countries have become less free. And many of those countries that remain democracies are becoming more dysfunctional. The charnel house that is Syria is a daily reminder that the hopes associated with the Arab spring have crumbled into the dust. Tunisia, democracy’s lonely outpost in the Arab world, is now very troubled. Closer to home, there is the slide into autocratic rule in Turkey and creeping authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, countries that had been presumed to be permanent gains for liberal democracy. The danger here is not so much the old spectre of tanks on the streets. The dismantling of freedom begins with attacks on what some call “the soft guard rails” of democracy: unfettered media, an independent judiciary, a basic level of respect for political opponents. Freedom is not devoured in one gulp, but in a series of bite-size chunks.

Political scientists are conducting a lively argument about how worried we should be and what has caused this global retreat, but I think we can pick out some clear drivers of what has gone wrong. Start with the democratic victors of the Cold War. Their cohesion and confidence are being corroded by economic pressures, social inequalities, rebellions against the consequences of globalisation and a resurgence of nationalism and regionalism. Populists of left and right have exploited voter anger to gain support and parliamentary seats across Europe. The result is that they have got into power in some places and in others made it harder for mainstream parties to form viable coalitions, as in the Netherlands and Germany. This wave has not yet broken. Ahead of Italy’s elections in March, populists of left and right lead the polls and have cornered two thirds of the electorate.

Populists have profited at the ballot box by telling voters that democracy is a sham or a scam rigged in favour of outsiders or an elite or both. The populist prescriptions are nearly always snake oil, but their diagnosis has resonance with many voters because the economic discontents are real. It is no coincidence, as the old Marxists liked to say, that western democracy has come under so much stress since the Great Crash of 2008 and the protracted squeeze on living standards that has followed it.

In western countries that previously promoted liberal values, there is what Human Rights Watch calls a “frontal assault on the values of inclusivity, tolerance and respect”. America is mesmerised by Trump. Britain is obsessed with Brexit. Germany struggles to put together a government. All have become fractiously inward looking. This has bloody consequences for the rest of the world, by helping to allow mass atrocities in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen to continue with near impunity.

The United States has shrunk from its traditional role as exemplar of democracy and global champion of it. America was always extremely imperfect in this role, but its postwar leaders at least paid lip service to the idea that the shining city on the hill should be a beacon of liberty. The Oval Office is occupied by a president who has spent his first year in office trashing democratic norms at home while expressing no sense of responsibility to be an advocate for universal human rights. He has triggered a plunge in international respect for American leadership to a record low. The United States has often in the past been an enabler of undemocratic regimes, but never before has it had a president who expresses so much open admiration for authoritarians in the Kremlin and elsewhere, and so much undisguised contempt for his country’s traditional allies among the other democracies.

Division and disarray among democracies has encouraged the pursuit of an aggressively anti-freedom agenda by the major autocracies, China and Russia. During the optimism of the third wave, it was presumed that democracy had a world-winning formula. The more prosperous countries became, the more they would want to be free; the more free they were, the more prosperous they would become. The belief that a richer China ought to become a more liberal China is not shared by President Xi Jinping. He is intensifying repression at home and promoting the Chinese model of autocratic capitalism as a superior recipe for stability and prosperity. It was Xi’s recent boast that China is “blazing a trail” for developing countries to emulate. China’s autocrats blaze while the democracies fiddle.

As is their way, political scientists have seen a disturbing phenomenon and given it geeky labels. Some call it “democratic deconsolidation”. Others go for “democratic recession”. I prefer “recession”, because at least that description implies a seed of hope that this trend does not have to be permanent. Recessions can and usually do come to an end.

Reading the recent flurry of reports about the endangerment of liberty around the world, you could be driven to the despairing conclusion that democracy is dying. That fatalism would be as large an error as the assumption that democracy would be everywhere and permanently triumphant. Democracy has a lot going for it, not least that it is a better form of government than any other type that the human race has yet managed to design. Millions of South Koreans are not trying to flee to the north. There was something both bizarre and fantastic about watching the White House physician take questions from reporters about the most intimate details of the president’s health on live and global television. They don’t do that in dictatorships.

Democracy is not doomed. The lesson of the past decade is the subtler one that democracy is more fragile, vulnerable and contingent than many liberals have often complacently supposed. The arc of history is not irreversibly bent in favour of freedom. The case for it has to be renewed and reinvigorated for each generation. The biggest mistake we make about democracy is to take it for granted.

The Guardian

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It – Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens. 

More Democracy

Today the United States faces a number of daunting problems. Economic inequality has reached levels not seen for a hundred years. While the wealthy keep piling up riches, many Americans are hurting from job losses, low wages, high health-care costs, and deteriorating public services. Whole communities have been devastated by factory closings. Our public schools are neglected. Our highways and bridges are in disrepair.

Well-designed government policies could help deal with these problems. Large majorities of Americans favor specific measures that would be helpful. Yet our national government often appears to ignore the wants and needs of its citizens. It pays more attention to organized interests than to ordinary Americans, and it gets bogged down in gridlock and inaction.

No wonder many Americans are angry and alienated. No wonder there have been populist rebellions on both the Left and the Right: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump.

In this book we argue that gridlock and inaction in Washington result from two main causes: clashes between our two sharply divided political parties and obstructive actions by corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individuals.

The many “veto points” in our complex political system (that is, the many opportunities for one or another political actor to thwart policy change) are used to prevent the enactment of policies that most Americans want. The nonresponsiveness and dysfunction of government are closely related to undemocratic features of our political system. Our laws and institutions make it hard for ordinary citizens to have an effective voice in politics. They permit corporations, interest groups, and the wealthy to exert a great deal of influence over what the government does. And they allow donors and highly ideological political activists to dominate the parties’ nominations of candidates for office, so that the two parties are pushed in sharply contrasting directions—contributing to gridlock.

Both parties often stray from what majorities of Americans want them to do. It follows that our problems can be more effectively addressed if we reform our political system to achieve more democracy: more equal opportunity for all citizens to shape what their government does and policies that better address the needs of all Americans.

If the political parties are democratized, for example, so that each of them is forced to appeal more to the voters and less to the party’s donors and activists, they will differ less sharply from each other. That will reduce gridlock. Both parties will be more responsive to the citizenry and more likely to adopt solutions that Americans favor for the problems we face. Similarly, if we reform elections so that all citizens have an equal voice, and if we mute the influence of political money and organized interests, public officials will more faithfully reflect what ordinary Americans want.

Again, if the Congress and other political institutions are reformed to represent all citizens equally, those institutions will be more harmonious—less prone to clashes with each other that result in gridlock—and more responsive to the citizenry as a whole.

Some impediments to democracy have been with us for a long time. Others have grown worse in recent years. But most, we think, are fixable.

In the course of American history, the health of democracy and the extent of economic equality have tended to rise and fall together. Each has affected the other. In the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, for example, extreme inequalities of income and wealth—inequalities not unlike those that afflict us today—empowered the wealthy few and undermined democracy. Yet that same extreme economic inequality provoked protests and social movements, which in turn helped bring about reforms that advanced both political and economic equality.

Through such efforts, the United States has enjoyed periods of relatively democratic, harmonious, and effective government, and widely shared prosperity. We believe that we can once again enjoy more vigorous democracy and more widely shared prosperity, if enough citizens mobilize and work hard for effective reforms that promote both economic and political equality. The two types of reform go together. Each facilitates the other. Neither is likely to get very far alone.

In the following chapters we show precisely how undemocratic U.S. government policy making has become. We do our best to diagnose exactly what has gone wrong. Based on that diagnosis, we explain how certain specific political reforms could greatly increase democratic responsiveness. Finally, we explore how the formidable obstacles to reform might be overcome.

Why Democracy.

We define democracy as policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens—that is, popular control of government. Or simply “majority rule.”

This commonsense definition reflects the foundation of our Constitution in the will of “we the people of the United States.” It embodies the fundamental value of political equality, insisting that in a democracy all citizens should have an equal opportunity to influence the making of public policy. It reflects the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men (we would now say all human beings) are “created equal.”

It corresponds to Abraham Lincoln’s espousal of government “ of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yet the fact is that this sort of “majoritarian” democracy—which is widely embraced by ordinary Americans—has been rejected by a number of political theorists and by many social and political elites. So we need to explain why we think majoritarian democracy is desirable.

ELECTIONS ALONE DO NOT GUARANTEE DEMOCRACY.

Some theorists have argued that all that is needed for democracy is elections that create a competitive struggle for citizens’votes. To us, however, a core element of democracy is political equality—an equal voice for each citizen. Just holding elections does not guarantee that citizens will have equal influence.

For example, even if we formally allow each adult citizen one and only one vote, some people may be left out because they are deterred or excluded from voting. (We will see that voters in the United States tend to be quite unrepresentative of the citizenry as a whole.) Other people may, in effect, get many votes—if they provide money or organizational support that is essential to running political campaigns and getting a party’s supporters to the polls. Moreover, election outcomes may not reflect the real preferences of the voters if the choices on the ballot are severely restricted. And policy may diverge sharply from the desires of the public if officials ignore those who elected them and pay attention to lobbyists instead.

One way in which elections can go wrong is if voters’ choices are circumscribed. A stark example: Iran’s Guardian Council, a twelve-member body of jurists and theologians appointed by Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” decides which candidates can get onto the ballot. In Iran’s 2013 presidential election, the Guardian Council disqualified the vast majority of would-be candidates—including all thirty women and the reformist former president. So even though many Iranians (72 percent of them) voted and could exercise a “free” choice among the six candidates on the ballot—and even though the winner of the most votes peacefully took office a few weeks later—we would not want to call that election democratic.

In the United States today, no body of theologians controls who can and who cannot run for office. Yet—as a result of much more subtle and indirect processes—we may actually have something like our own Guardian Council.

In today’s America, a relatively small, unelected set of people exerts a great deal of influence over who appears on the ballot and who has a realistic chance to win: those who supply the money. When the members of this group agree with one another, they have the power to determine that certain kinds of electoral choices are essentially off-limits for voters.

In our electoral system, private money plays a huge part. Neither major party can function without many millions of dollars. And the parties generally select their candidates in obscure, low-visibility primary elections, in which only a small, atypical set of voters participates. This process limits the influence of rank-and file voters. It empowers a few highly ideological activists, organized interest groups, and donors.

In this and many other ways, our system differs from those of most other advanced countries. Since Republican and Democratic activists and donors typically disagree sharply with each other about a number of issues, there are usually very real differences between Republican and Democratic candidates. But the megadonors of both parties tend to agree in opposing certain policies that most Americans favor. These include important policies related to government budgets, international trade, social welfare spending, economic regulation, and taxes (as will be discussed in chapter 4).

On these issues, big-money political donors can act rather like a Guardian Council. They can keep off the ballot candidates, ideas, and policies they disagree with, by giving or withholding the money that is needed to put on a serious campaign.

THE MONEY PROBLEM. 

A crucial part of this picture is that both parties need enormous amounts of money, but—under our current system—that money mostly comes from a very small set of megadonors. In 2012, for example, a tiny sliver of the U.S. population—just one-tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans—provided almost half of all the money spent in federal elections. Even more remarkably, just 132 donors to huge political action committees (PACs) known as “super PACs,” giving an average of almost $ 10 million each, accounted for more money than all of the 3.7 million small donors to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns combined.

It is extremely difficult to win a major government office without the backing of affluent campaign donors. The “preapproval” process by America’s “Guardian Council” of potential donors seems to be remarkably effective at screening out candidates who fundamentally disagree with the preferences of well-funded interest groups and well-to-do contributors. The result: U.S. government policy often reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.

To be sure, the 2016 “outsider” campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate that—at least under certain circumstances—huge contributions from the usual millionaire and billionaire donors may not be necessary to compete. But of course Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the general election.

Trump was an extremely unusual case: his celebrity and communication skills markedly lowered his campaign costs by giving him an enormous amount of free media exposure. And Trump had his own fortune to fall back on, if necessary, which also helped make him unusually independent of megadonors.

We will have much more to say in later chapters about the distorting effects of money in politics. For now, the main point is that we should not think about democracy in terms of the mere existence of elections. If we want true majoritarian democracy, what really matters is whether—and to what extent—ordinary citizens can control what their government does.

Elections can effectively ensure democratic control only if a representative set of citizens votes, and only if election outcomes are not excessively influenced by party activists, interest groups, or financial donors.

But do we want true, majority-rule democracy? Not everyone thinks so.

IS THE GENERAL PUBLIC WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO? 

The most important objection to majoritarian democracy is that ordinary citizens may be too uninterested in politics, too ill informed, too capricious in their political opinions, too selfish, and too subject to demagoguery to have their views taken seriously. What if most Americans do not really know which public policies would be good for them or for the country? Why should we pay any attention to what they think? 

In the nation’s early days, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton worried about alleged “extreme fluctuations,” “passions” and “temporary errors and delusions” of the public. Walter Lippmann bemoaned “stereotypes” or “pictures in [the] heads” of ordinary citizens, who (he said) often fail to comprehend world realities. 

Subsequently, decades worth of polls and surveys have shown that most Americans are not much interested in or informed about politics. Again and again, many or most Americans have failed quizzes about basic political facts, such as which party controls the House of Representatives or how long a term senators have in office. 

Most people have trouble identifying or locating foreign countries. Acronyms and abbreviations that are coin of the realm in Washington, DC—NATO, ICBM, MFN, and the like—are mysteries to many Americans.  

Moreover, many Americans are confused or uncertain about exactly what kinds of government policies they favor or oppose. “Don’t know” responses to poll questions are fairly common, at least when survey researchers don’t make it too embarrassing to give them. 

Repeated surveys of the same individuals over time have showed that their stated opinions about political issues tend to vary from one year to another—sometimes back and forth, for no easily discernable reason. 

Researchers have talked of “non-attitudes”and have called into question the very existence of meaningful public opinion. 

Right up to the present day, scholars continue to write that “widespread political ignorance” is a profound problem for democracy and (in effect) to counsel political leaders to pay no heed to what ordinary citizens say they want. 

An important recent book on “democracy for realists” seems to cast doubt on the idea that the public has meaningful views that should shape government policy.  

There are good reasons for low levels of political information, reasons that can be summed up in the phrase “rational ignorance.” Most people—unless they happen to enjoy being political junkies—have little reason to devote a great deal of time or energy to most political matters. To most people, work, family, and leisure are higher priorities than most aspects of politics. Why make a big investment in acquiring political information? Especially since the odds of one individual having a pivotal effect on a major electoral outcome are usually vanishingly small. 

“Rational ignorance” notwithstanding, a few members of the public are indeed political junkies who enjoy learning about politics. And a larger portion are concerned with and knowledgeable about specific issues such as education, health care, or Middle East politics, depending on their particular occupations or interests. 

Whereas most people lack clear preferences on most issues, many people do have informed views about the few issues that they care about most. And still more have general notions about what sorts of policies are likely to suit them. 

Critics of democracy are certainly right that most individual Americans lack fully informed opinions about most issues. But it does not follow that the collective or aggregate, survey-measured policy preferences of all Americans—such as the percentages of Americans that polls show favoring or opposing various public policies—have the same characteristics as the preferences of a single typical individual. The notion that whole entities must have the same characteristics as their individual parts is a fallacy, known as the “fallacy of composition.”

THE STRENGTH OF COLLECTIVE POLICY PREFERENCES. 

There is plenty of evidence that public opinion as a collective or aggregate phenomenon is very different, much more worth paying attention to, than the day-to-day opinions of a typical individual citizen. How can this be? 

There are two main reasons. The first involves collective deliberation: a society-wide process in which experts and leaders debate public policies, their views are reported in the media, attentive Americans pick up cues from those they trust, and the attentive citizens communicate those views to their families, friends, and coworkers. 

The second reason involves the aggregation process itself: when many uncertain expressions of opinion are combined into a collective whole (for example, into the percentage of Americans favoring a particular policy), random errors and uncertainties among individuals tend to get averaged out. Survey measures of collective preferences cannot overcome systematic, nonrandom errors (we will have more to say about that later), but they do cancel out random variations that occur in “doorstep” opinions offered to survey interviewers. In most cases, the results of well-designed surveys fairly faithfully reflect longer-term, underlying tendencies of collective opinion. 

The process of forming collective opinions about politics is akin to the processes that tend to make verdicts by twelve-person juries, or market judgments by thousands of consumers or investors, much more reliable than the opinion of a typical individual. Each is an example of what can be called the “wisdom of crowds.”

Most Americans do not devote a great deal of thought to politics. But they do have easy, direct access to some information that is highly relevant to public policy: the size of their Social Security checks; what is happening to their jobs and wages; the (perhaps crumbling) condition of roads they drive on; price rises or declines in grocery stores or at gasoline pumps. On some of these day-to-day pocketbook concerns—and on such matters as neighborhood crime, the challenge of holding down a job with no paid sick leave, the difficulty of finding affordable child care, or the (un) reliability of public transportation—ordinary Americans may actually have better firsthand information than elites who live more rarefied, sheltered lives. 

When it comes to many abstract, complex, or distant matters, however—including precisely what sorts of public policy might be best for reducing layoffs and wage cuts, or for curbing price inflation, improving air quality, or avoiding war casualties—collective deliberation becomes crucial. 

Experts debate the merits of alternative public policies. Commentators and politicians express their views through various media. A set of relatively attentive citizens—without having to memorize a lot of facts—can figure out what sorts of policies are favored by leaders whom they trust to have expertise and to share their own values. (This works only if such leaders exist, can be heard, and deserve the trust bestowed upon them.) Attentive citizens adopt those policy preferences for themselves, and—again without needing to learn or recite a lot of facts—communicate them to friends, families, and coworkers who also share similar values. As a result, most Americans—on most major issues—are able to form a general idea about what they want the government to do. They develop underlying tendencies of opinion. When the uncertain beliefs and opinions of millions of people are combined, the random noise is reduced. 

Collective preferences tend to be solid. They tend to reflect the underlying needs and values of the whole body of citizens, in light of the best available information from experts and commentators. This is not just a theory. It is supported by evidence drawn from close examination of Americans’ actual collective policy preferences, as expressed in many polls and surveys conducted over many years. 

An exhaustive study of thousands of survey questions that had been asked over a fifty-year period found that Americans’ collective policy preferences do not in fact suffer from the alarming defects that are often attributed to them. “Violent fluctuations” in collective opinion are a myth. The proportions of Americans favoring or opposing a given policy generally stay stable over time, except that they react in sensible ways to such big events as an armed attack or a nuclear reactor meltdown. And they gradually change to take account of new realities or new information. As unemployment declines, for example, public support for unemployment assistance declines as well; when tax rates are lowered, public support for tax cuts declines. 

Americans as a group make many definite distinctions among policies (for example, which countries should receive economic aid; under what conditions abortions should be allowed; which kinds of assistance to the poor should be expanded or curtailed). Collective policy preferences are generally coherent: they are seldom inconsistent or mutually contradictory.  

Well-designed polls and surveys typically do a good job of revealing collective policy preferences that reflect the worldviews, values, and interests of the average American. In a word, public opinion is generally deliberative—it generally reflects the best available information and the values and interests of the citizenry. It does so not because most individuals are deliberative or aware of the best information but because individuals form their opinions through a collective social process that brings deliberation and information to bear on the issues of the day. 

We need to add certain caveats. First, poll results—especially those based on confusing, biased, or inept questions—have to be interpreted with care. But even poorly worded questions, properly interpreted, can often help reveal the contours of collective opinion.  Another problem is that tabulated poll responses can underrepresent the interests of respondents who are uncertain and give arbitrary answers or say “don’t know.” Such effects (which, however, are not generally large) should be taken into account when possible. 

The more important caveat is that collective opinion sometimes does not reflect the best available information because individuals’ errors do not always “cancel out.” This is particularly true if systematic misinformation is fed to many Americans at once and is not effectively contradicted. Examples include “fake news” transmitted by social media or misleading claims about events abroad (e.g., alleged “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) by presidents or executive branch officials who have a near-monopoly on intelligence sources. 

Our view is that successful manipulation of public opinion is not common, at least not concerning the domestic policy issues that we focus on in this book. On such issues, personal experience and competing elites can usually be counted on to help people figure out the truth. 

In later chapters, however—when we describe concrete policies that majorities of Americans favor, and advocate that the public’s wishes should be heeded—we need to be alert for any cases in which public opinion may have been manipulated or misled. As a general matter we believe that the expressed preferences of the American people deserve much more respect from policy makers than they currently get. Respect does not mean slavish adherence. The public is certainly not infallible, and majorities are sometimes shortsighted or misguided in ways that policy makers must try to recognize and resist. But in most cases, we believe that majority rule—even when we ourselves happen to disagree with the majority—tends to produce public policies that benefit the largest number of people and promote the common good. 

We believe that more democracy in the United States today would yield better policies: “better” in the sense that they would advance the interests and preferences of more Americans. 

This conclusion is strengthened when we consider the rather bleak alternatives. Who, exactly, should rule if the people do not? Most modern societies have, for good reasons, rejected rule by hereditary monarchs, landed gentry, dictators, party cadres, or theocrats. Even rule by the best-educated, most successful Americans—if it could somehow be arranged—would suffer from serious flaws. 

Our political and economic elites—who have recently stumbled into costly and futile wars, neglected economic inequality and wage stagnation, caused devastating financial crashes, and snarled up the functioning of government—appear to suffer from their own defects of judgment. Our wealthiest elites, though highly educated and knowledgeable about many things, often seem to know or care rather little about the needs of ordinary citizens. (We will have more to say about this in chapter 4, when we discuss the enormous political clout wielded by wealthy Americans.)

In short: citizens are not perfect guardians of their own values and interests. But they are pretty good guardians. And they are the best we are likely to find. 

WHAT ABOUT MINORITY RIGHTS? 

Even if majority rule does good things for most citizens, a serious problem remains: how to protect minorities. We are not much moved by Madison’s fear that the masses might use democratic control of government to seize property from a well-to-do minority, through such “wicked schemes” as the printing of paper money.  

In our view, U.S. history and, in recent years, survey data have demonstrated that most Americans have no desire to confiscate the property of the wealthy. They have never come close to doing so. In fact, wealthy Americans have been highly successful at resisting or rolling back even mildly redistributive threats to their property, such as the progressive income tax. 

But other minorities—especially racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and those who have distinctive political interests or hold unpopular views—deserve protection. Surely Madison, the French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville, and others were right that under certain circumstances (fear of terrorism comes to mind), majorities can threaten the rights and interests of minorities who live in their midst. 

We are not absolutist democrats. We accept the desirability of providing minorities with special protections in case majorities of Americans might want to use the power of government against them. We believe the framers of the U.S. Constitution were wise to append a Bill of Rights, including protection for freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and the press; guarantees of due process; and protection against arbitrary arrest or unreasonable searches and seizures—all provisions that help safeguard minorities from unfair treatment. 

The tricky part is how to guarantee that these freedoms are actually protected. The record of the U.S. Supreme Court is mixed, at best. Until relatively recently the court did little or nothing for enslaved or abused African Americans and Native Americans. It has frequently permitted harsh treatment of political dissenters, especially during wartime—or amid foreign policy crises or “red scares.”

As recently as World War II (1939–45), the Supreme Court went along with the shameful incarceration of Japanese Americans in prison camps, without any evidence that they represented a threat. The court swims in the same political sea as the rest of us. It cannot always be counted on to protect minorities whom majorities of Americans are willing or eager to oppress. 

Still, we cannot think of a superior system of legal protection. The Supreme Court and the Constitution—helped along by vigilant civil liberties lawyers—are probably the best we can do. But we believe that minorities should also be protected in ways that go beyond bare-bones constitutional rights. As we will note in our discussion of democratic reforms of the U.S. Senate, it is worth maintaining certain institutional protections for minorities of any sort who hold intense political views. 

Even the much-despised filibuster, if properly reformed, might be turned into a tool for preventing unjust government actions against minorities—instead of preventing action of almost any kind, as it does now. But that is a topic for a later chapter. 

How This Book Unfolds 

In the next chapter we note certain patterns in American history, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830s onward. Democracy has tended to flourish in times of relative economic equality but has withered when there are big gaps between rich and poor. Yet periods of very high economic inequality have sometimes provoked social movements that have fought for and won amelioration of both economic and political inequality. (The same thing may be starting to happen today.) 

In part 2 of the book we examine more closely what has gone wrong and what is obstructing democratic responsiveness now. 

Chapter 3 shows how undemocratic the United States is today. Ordinary citizens have little or no influence on public policy, while affluent and wealthy Americans and organized interest groups—especially business groups—often get their way. 

When large majorities of Americans want policy changes that would improve their jobs, wages, retirement pensions, or health care—or that would combat climate change, reduce gun violence, improve public schools, or rebuild bridges and highways—they are often thwarted by gridlock and inaction. 

In chapter 4 we examine just how much political clout wealthy Americans have (a great deal), what techniques they use to exercise it, and what sorts of government policies they want and get. 

Chapter 5 documents the substantial political influence of organized interest groups and explains how they exercise it. Corporations and business associations do particularly well, while “mass-based” groups have relatively little clout. 

Chapter 6 explores the vexing problems of highly polarized political parties, gridlock, and policy inaction. It discusses how polarization has increased with geographical and racial realignments, demographic and economic changes (especially the great increase in economic inequality), and certain features of our electoral system. It notes how polarization interacts perniciously with our separation of powers and our multiple “veto points” to produce gridlock and inaction. 

We then turn, in part 3, to the question of what sorts of political reforms might be effective for making government policies more responsive to ordinary citizens. 

Chapter 7 discusses a number of “equal voice” reforms that would move all citizens toward equal political influence. Campaign finance regulation—or (even without such regulation) public funding—could greatly reduce the power of private political money. Other reforms could curtail the impact of interest groups. Still others could encourage voting by citizens who are currently not well represented in the electorate—especially lower-income people and racial and ethnic minorities. 

Chapter 8 considers how to overcome policy gridlock and, more generally, how to make our political institutions more democratic. It notes undemocratic features of Congress that our legislators could easily improve if they felt sufficient pressure to do so. It also discusses undemocratic electoral arrangements that will be harder—but far from impossible—to change. And it mentions certain particularly difficult but important-to-address problems, including the extremely unrepresentative, rural-heavy nature of the Senate, and the tendency of the Supreme Court to overturn (without, in our opinion, sound justification) certain policies backed by large majorities of Americans. 

Part 4, the final section of the book, addresses the difficult question of whether and how major democratic reforms can actually be enacted. Big obstacles stand in the way, especially the need to persuade, pressure, or replace officials who have been elected in an undemocratic system and would be happy to keep it that way. 

Major changes will likely take a long time and a lot of work. But we are optimistic that they can be achieved. 

Chapter 9 addresses the idea of a social movement for Democracy. Some important improvements can be accomplished through simple changes in rules or laws that policy makers might be pushed to adopt through conventional political pressure. Ultimately, however, we believe that the most important major reforms can probably be won only by means of something new: a large-scale, long-term social movement for Democracy. 

The chapter draws lessons from past social movements—especially the Populists, the Progressives, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement—to suggest what sorts of strategies and tactics might lead to success. And it points to groups that are already beginning to work together toward democratic reforms and might help form the core of a Democracy movement. 

Chapter 10 highlights democratic reforms that are currently being achieved on the state and local level. By building on these efforts, we believe that a successful social movement for more Democracy can eventually transform America, enhancing both the quality of our politics and the quality of our lives. 

Now we turn to concrete discussions of what has gone wrong and what we can do about it. 

TWO 

Unequal Wealth Distorts Politics 

“Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions.  .  .  . The social state of the Americans is eminently democratic. It has had this character since the birth of the colonies; it has it even more in our day.  .  .  . It is of the very essence of democratic governments that the empire of the majority is absolute  .  .  . there is nothing that resists it.” ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, 1831. 

To understand what has gone wrong with American democracy, it is helpful to look back at how our economy and our politics have changed since the early days of the United States. One historical pattern stands out. Economic inequality—the concentration of wealth and income in a few hands, with a big gap between rich and poor—has risen and fallen at various times. 

And democracy—popular control of government—has tended to move in the opposite direction. When citizens are relatively equal, politics has tended to be fairly democratic. When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers. 

The reason for this pattern is simple. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, influence over public discourse, and other means, wealth can be translated into political power. When wealth is highly concentrated—that is, when a few individuals have enormous amounts of money—political power tends to be highly concentrated, too. The wealthy few tend to rule. Average citizens lose political power. Democracy declines. 

This pattern underlies a key theme of this book: that the extreme economic inequality afflicting the United States today is a major cause of our loss of democracy. Only if we reduce economic inequality—and/ or break the links between money and political power—can we hope to make our government responsive to the citizenry

In this chapter we take a quick look at the historical relationship between economic inequality and political inequality in the United States. 

When Americans have been relatively equal economically—as they were in the early years of our country and were again during our post–World War II “golden age”—democracy has generally flourished. But when the gaps between the rich and everyone else have grown too great—as in the Gilded Age of the 1890s and again during recent decades of low, stagnant wages for most Americans but soaring wealth at the top—democracy has suffered. 

American history also shows, however, that we are not helpless in the face of impersonal forces that exacerbate economic inequality. Public policy matters. At several key moments in American history, extreme economic inequality has led to anger, protests, social movements, and government action to remedy the situation. Average citizens, working together, have been able to make important strides toward moderating economic inequality and enhancing democracy.  

Tocqueville’s Relatively Equal America In 1831, when the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the newly founded United States, he was deeply impressed by the high level of economic and social equality among Americans. He was also struck by the extent to which government policies—especially in the states—were responsive to the will of the majority of citizens. He called the majority “omnipotent” and declared that nothing could resist it.  F

rom today’s vantage point, the America of the 1830s was certainly no utopia. Equality and democracy were far from complete. As Tocqueville was well aware, the slave system in the South treated most African Americans as property, exploited their labor, deprived them of personal freedom, and excluded them from any voice in politics. 

Women were stuck in a patriarchal society, with subordinate status and no right to vote. Native Americans were being driven from their lands, conquered, and killed—under the leadership of (among others) the democratic hero Andrew Jackson. No utopia, for sure. 

Still, among white males, equality and democracy were indeed highly advanced during the Jacksonian period—much more so than in any European country at that time, and much more so than in the United States today. In the 1830s many white male Americans were farmers who owned a small piece of land and grew or raised their own food. These farmers, along with craftsmen and small merchants who lived in towns and cities, enjoyed fairly similar standards of living and had much the same modest levels of wealth. 

Only a few big merchants, manufacturers, and (especially) Southern plantation owners stood out as notably more affluent, while slaves and landless urban laborers stood out as deprived. 

Economic historians calculate that U.S. inequalities of income and wealth were substantially lower in Tocqueville’s time than they are today—though there was a sharp distinction between the highly equal North and the very unequal South, and much depends on how the calculations treat slaves. 

For the country as a whole in 1810, if one considers only the free (nearly all white) population, some estimates indicate that the top 1 percent of wealth holders owned less than 15 percent of all the wealth, much less than the 35 percent figure for the United States in 2010. 

Consider those numbers for a moment. Today, 1 percent of Americans hold fully one-third of all the wealth in the country. The distribution of wealth in early nineteenth-century America was much more equal than today. Indeed, it was much more equal than in most other times and places. If slaves—who owned virtually nothing—are included in the population, and if the market value of slaves is attributed to their owners (a grim but useful calculation), Tocqueville’s America looks considerably less egalitarian—but still more equal than Europe at that time or the United States now.  

Much the same was true of incomes. In colonial times (and presumably in the Jacksonian period as well), U.S. incomes were distributed much more equally than those in England or Holland, and much more equally than in the late nineteenth-century United States. 

THE RISE OF DEMOCRACY IN THE UNITED STATES. 

As to politics, we cannot be sure exactly how responsive the state or federal governments were to citizens in the 1830s. (There were no opinion polls to tell us which policies citizens favored or opposed.) But the judgment of most historians, bolstered by evidence on voting turnout and other matters, is that among white men, American politics were in fact relatively democratic in the age of Jackson. 

In the earliest years of the United States, the right to vote had been severely restricted. The U.S. Constitution provided direct elections only to the House of Representatives. Presidential candidates were to be proposed and winnowed down by “electors,” who were chosen “in such manner as the [state legislatures] may direct”; House congressional delegations were expected to do the final picking of presidents. Senators were chosen “by”(emphasis added) state legislatures, and Supreme Court justices were appointed. Only a small minority of Americans could vote at all. The states controlled voting qualifications. 

Most states allowed only white males who were owners of substantial amounts of property to vote, and some states imposed religious or other qualifications as well. As a result, in 1790 only about two-thirds of adult white men—and few others—were legally eligible to vote. And far fewer did so. 

By 1828, however, when Andrew Jackson won his first term as president in an outburst of popular participation, presidential and House elections had become more democratic. All but two states let their voters choose presidential electors, who were generally pledged to back a particular candidate—in effect allowing citizens a more or less direct vote for president. And more white males could take part. 

Several of the original states had loosened their voting restrictions, and many new, more democratically oriented states had joined the union, so that in 1830 only eight of the then-total twenty-four states imposed property requirements for voting.  

Levels of voting turnout rose markedly. Turnout for the first election for the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1788—as a proportion of the people who were potentially eligible to vote in terms of their age, sex, race, and citizenship—was only about 12 percent, an astoundingly low figure. It rose to 38 percent by 1812 and, after a decline, jumped up to about 56 percent in Jackson’s two elections of 1828 and 1832. 

The establishment of political parties and active campaigning made a big difference, by offering citizens choices and mobilizing them to get to the polls. The highly democratic society that Tocqueville observed reflected strong popular mobilization for the 1828 election, when frontiersman and military hero Andrew “Old Hickory”Jackson of Tennessee, and his key ally, Martin Van Buren of New York, assembled a broad political coalition drawn from much of the Northeast, South, and West. 

A sophisticated party committee worked with Van Buren’s congressional caucus in Washington, DC, to set up state campaign committees, local Hickory Clubs, and a vigorous network of partisan newspapers around the country. Rallies, parades, and get-out-the-vote efforts delivered a large, enthusiastic popular vote for Jackson, who defeated the incumbent president, John Quincy Adams.  

In office, Jackson set a tone for popular democratic control of government. His inauguration brought an outpouring of people from hundreds of miles around Washington, who lined the route to the Capitol. 

Jackson opened his White House reception to citizens of modest background, who were scornfully described by a society matron as “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity, what a pity.” 

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife that “the reign of KING MOB seemed triumphant.” 

At least in electoral and symbolic terms, then, the American politics of Tocqueville’s time were relatively democratic. 

Inequality after Tocqueville As the nineteenth century proceeded, however, the relatively equal, small-farm, agrarian America of Tocqueville’s time turned into something else. Settlers moved West. Millions of immigrants arrived from Ireland, Germany, and then southern and eastern Europe. The U.S. population doubled, doubled again, and then nearly doubled once more, from thirteen million in 1830 to ninety-two million in 1910.

Millions of people moved into big cities. While agriculture continued to expand and move westward, manufacturing surged, with more and more big mills and factories coming into existence, owned by wealthy individuals and—increasingly—by large corporations. Economic productivity soared. The United States launched into a post–Civil War “special century” of rapidly increasing standards of living. Railroads and (later) automobiles provided swift transportation. Electricity lit up people’s evenings and later began to power remarkable new consumer appliances. The telegraph, telephone, and national newspapers (and, in the twentieth century, radio and television) revolutionized communications. Nutrition, medical care, and life expectancies all improved. 

At the same time, however, millions of urban workers suffered from dismal living and working conditions, while the owners and managers of big businesses thrived. Inequality of wealth and income grew markedly. 

In a prescient chapter on “How Aristocracy Could Issue from Industry,” Tocqueville himself foresaw that industrialization and economic development might well undermine the high level of equality that he had observed among Americans. Increased division of labor would do it. Workers, he said, become “weaker, more limited, and more dependent,” while very wealthy men come forward to exploit industries. 

“At the same time that industrial science constantly lowers the class of workers, it elevates that of masters.”

Yes, indeed. As industrialization proceeded, the U.S. population became more and more sharply divided between a few very wealthy captains of industry and millions of low-wage workers. 

During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, inequality of income and wealth reached extreme heights. Government policies that placed the interests of businesses above those of citizens, along with Supreme Court decisions that rejected progressive taxation or regulation of business, contributed to economic inequality. 

Extreme economic inequality, in turn, created a wealth-dominated, undemocratic politics. The English scholar James Bryce, who retraced some of Tocqueville’s steps in the 1870s and 1880s (and wrote a lengthy tome on American government) found that the inequality of material conditions in the United States had become greater than that of Europe. The United States had more “gigantic fortunes” than anywhere else in the world and a remarkable “crowd of millionaires.” 

By 1910, the top 10 percent of U.S. wealth holders owned the vast bulk—fully 80 percent—of all the wealth in the country. 

That left only 20 percent of the wealth to be divided among the whole other 90 percent of Americans. Nearly half of all the wealth (45 percent of it) was owned by the top 1 percent of Americans. 

Americans’ annual incomes were quite unequal as well. The top 1 percent of U.S. income earners got almost one-fifth of all the income in 1910, and almost one-quarter of it at the end of the 1920s. 

These numbers are worth thinking about. They imply big differences between the lives of people at the top and everyone else.  

During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for those early twentieth-century economic disparities, the huge, unregulated “trusts” that dominated many industries extracted monopolistic prices from consumers and paid enormous profits to stockholders. Meat-packers sold adulterated food. Rapacious railroads charged farmers exorbitant rates to ship their grain to market. Workers labored long hours for low wages. Even professionals and people running small to-middle-size businesses resented the conspicuous consumption of the “plutocrats.”

An emblem of Gilded Age excess was Cornelia Bradley Martin’s lavish Waldorf-Astoria costume ball in the midst of the depression of 1897. While many Americans were struggling to make ends meet, six to seven hundred wealthy New Yorkers joined Cornelia—who was dressed as a queen and greeted her guests from a raised dais under a canopy of rare tapestries—to display their jewels, silks, and brocades, and to enjoy the Versailles-like scene of mirrors and tables laden with food. 

THE DECLINE OF DEMOCRACY. 

The extreme economic inequality of the Gilded Age brought with it a high degree of political inequality. Democracy declined. “Muckraker” journalists wrote of the “treason of the Senate”; they showed that key senators were on the payrolls of wealthy bankers or industrialists and did the bidding of their employers. 

The Senate became a graveyard for popular reforms. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s politics, wealthy individuals, business firms, and institutional gridlock combined to prevent Congress from passing laws that large majorities of Americans undoubtedly wanted them to pass.  

The decline in democracy was also manifested in a sharp decline in voter turnout. After the pivotal election of 1896—in which the industrial conservatism of William McKinley decisively defeated the agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan—a series of changes in election laws curtailed citizens’ participation: new, onerous requirements for personal registration; disenfranchisement of working-class immigrants; barriers against party labels on ballots or party mobilization of voters. (Many of these “reforms”were supported by Progressives, who sought to reduce corruption and shift power away from the wealthy toward middle-class professionals, not ethnic urban masses.) 

Also, voters were discouraged by a narrowing of political choices under the business-dominated politics of the day. The high, 80 percent or so presidential-election turnout levels of most of the nineteenth century fell sharply, to just 59 percent in 1912. 

THE REBIRTH OF EQUALITY AND DEMOCRACY. 

The extremely high levels of economic and political inequality during and after the Gilded Age were eventually moderated, however. Inequality itself provoked protests and social movements that pressed for reforms and—after a long struggle—enjoyed considerable success. 

The Populist and Progressive victories of the early twentieth century (which are discussed further in chapter 9) included two fundamental democratic reforms: direct election of U.S. senators (rather than selection by corrupt state legislators) and the right of women to vote. They also brought more popular participation in party nominations; government regulation of business monopolies; limits on long working hours and bad working conditions; and the beginnings of a progressive federal income tax. 

After a relapse into economic and political inequality during the 1920s, the Great Depression led to the political mobilization of millions of citizens and to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s, which more closely regulated business, imposed more progressive income taxes, and provided social welfare programs including Social Security. 

Most important for reviving democracy, the New Deal facilitated the organization of workers into unions that could mobilize their members and exert countervailing power against business.  

New Deal policies, together with the economic leveling effects of World War II and its aftermath, produced a “great compression” (much more equality) of income and wealth and a substantial restoration of democracy.  

THE “GOLDEN AGE.”

For a period of twenty to thirty years after World War II (from about 1946 to 1973)—which is sometimes referred to as a “golden age,” though it was certainly not golden in every respect—income and wealth were much more widely shared. By 1950, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent of wealth holders had fallen from 45 percent to 30 percent. The income share of the most affluent Americans was also down markedly from the late-1920s peak.  

As the economy grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, the American Dream seemed realizable. Average workers could expect ever-increasing prosperity for themselves and their children. Real incomes were doubling each generation. Living standards soared. The most economically successful Americans did not seem to be impossibly far ahead; one could imagine that—with hard work and luck—one might possibly join them.

As to democracy: we cannot be sure exactly how responsive to the citizenry the federal government was during the 1950s. (Available survey data are too scanty to judge how well public policies reflected citizens’preferences.) But indications are that policy making was much more democratic during the Eisenhower administration (1953–61) than it is today. Certainly the political parties were less polarized; there was more bipartisan cooperation, less gridlock, more legislative accomplishment—including clearly popular measures like the development of the interstate highway system and the maintenance or expansion of a number of social programs.  

Today’s Explosion of Inequality 

Then, in the 1970s, things began to go badly wrong. Already during the golden age, other countries had started to undermine the global economic dominance of the United States. Germany and Japan recovered from the ravages of World War II and built vigorous new economies. Volkswagens and then Hondas began to undersell Detroit cars in the U.S. market, and inexpensive Japanese electronic goods began to appear on our shelves. 

Suddenly, in 1973–74, an embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) doubled the price of oil. Wages, salaries, and the U.S. economy as a whole stagnated, while prices rose. At first nearly all Americans suffered. Then the wealthiest began to leap ahead while nearly everyone else stayed stuck, and a period of sharply rising inequality began. 

WAGE AND INCOME STAGNATION AMONG AVERAGE AMERICANS. 

American workers’ wages stopped rising. Since 1973—including many years of substantial economic growth—median hourly wages have barely risen at all. (Half of all workers earn more than the median, while half earn less. The median wage tells more about typical workers than does the mean or average wage, which can be misleadingly high because of a few extremely high-wage earners. If Bill Gates walks into a bar, the “average”income of the customers jumps way up in terms of the mean, but there is little or no effect on the median income, nor—unless Gates buys the drinks—on anybody’s actual welfare.) 

Even now, median wages remain stuck around $16 per hour, where they have been (in “real,” inflation-adjusted terms) ever since the early 1970s. Wage stagnation is a fundamental feature of contemporary America. 

For a while, family incomes (though not necessarily families’well-being) did a bit better than wages, but only because more family members began working harder and for longer hours. And soon family incomes stagnated too. Between 1947 and 1979, in terms of real dollars, the total incomes of American families in the bottom two thirds of the income distribution more than doubled. But since 1979, they have stayed nearly flat.  

Pundits and pontificators sometimes attribute this wage and income stagnation to workers’ alleged lack of skills or effort. Nonsense. American workers did not suddenly lose their ambition, their energy, or their skills at the end of the golden age. They continue to work hard and work well. Their productivity rose markedly for many years. Between 1979 and 2011, in fact—while wages were staying flat—average productivity nearly doubled, from $36.03 of goods produced per hour worked, to $60.83. 

The problem is not that the typical American worker is not working hard enough or not producing enough; it is that factors beyond his or her control—chiefly labor-saving technology and wage competition from low-wage countries—have reduced the market value of that work. 

A bigger share of revenue now goes to managers and stockholders. So a small number of wealthy people with very high incomes now get most of the gains from increased production. No wonder that many Americans feel that they have been marching up a steep hill but getting nowhere. No wonder that many resent those who seem to have leapt ahead—whether they focus on wealthy corporate executives and hedge fund managers or on immigrants and minorities. 

Wage and income stagnation tell us something about why there were so many antiestablishment Trump and Sanders voters in the 2016 elections. Americans can no longer take much consolation from hopes and dreams of upward mobility, even in relative terms. 

The American Dream promises that hard work, creative thinking, risk taking, and thrift can get anyone—or at least anyone’s children—to the top of the heap. In actual fact, however, Americans who are born into lower-income families tend to stay in the lower income ranges all their lives. So do their children. 

Those born at the top mostly stay near the top. For example, a recent study found that about half of Americans who had been in the bottom fifth of income-earning households in 1987 and were aged thirty-five to forty at the time remained in the bottom fifth twenty years later, despite the normal expectation of rising earnings over the life cycle. Those who did move generally did not move far. Fewer than one out of twenty made it into the top fifth, and fewer than one in forty into the top tenth.  

Americans enjoy somewhat more mobility between generations than within them, but less than we might like to think. High-earning parents tend to have high-earning children, and low earners tend to have low earners. The sons of fathers in the bottom tenth of income earners have just a paltry 4.5 percent chance of making it into the top fifth. (If parents’income did not matter, everyone would have a 20 percent chance of making it into the top fifth.)  

A moment’s thought about the importance of family in early childhood nurturance and in schooling, personal networks, college attendance, and financial help with homes and businesses helps us understand why it is rare to leap from the bottom to the top. More startling is the fact that the United States now appears to have less, rather than more, intergenerational mobility than several other countries that we sometimes sneer at as stultified: especially the egalitarian Scandinavians (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden), but also Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Japan. 

The most striking contrast is with our neighbor Canada, which resembles us in many ways but has some government policies that are very different from ours. Canada enjoys one of the highest rates of intergenerational mobility among advanced countries, while we suffer from one of the lowest. 

*

from

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It 

Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens.

get it at Amazon.com