Plutocratic vistas: America's crisis of democracy

Is the present American national legislature an “exact transcript of the whole society”?

Published July 30, 2012 5:45PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

The crash of 2007/2008 hit Harvard University especially hard. Thanks to the overweeningly brilliant, unflappably self-confident financial guidance of ex-president Lawrence Summers, Harvard lost nearly a third of its $36 billion endowment in one year. ("As a former Secretary of the Treasury, I assure you that interest rates will not fall below X," he is rumored to have told the governing board, who were anxious about a particularly daring credit-default swap he was proposing.) Every department's belt was tightened several notches, and widespread layoffs were anticipated.

Los Angeles Review of Books

The talk was grim around my office, the building-services center of a large research complex at Harvard. Contractors came by frequently for keys and instructions, and the more gregarious ones often stayed to schmooze. Sports and celebrities, our usual topics, were replaced that year by political griping. As the details of the bank bailout emerged, imprecations were fervently heaped on both bankers and politicians; a respectful hearing was even accorded the office radical (me), usually humored or ignored. But these conversations always ended the same way. One or another of those tough, no-bullshit, can-do guys would shrug: “Hey, what can we do about it? Nothin’.” And the rest would chorus: “Yeah, what can ya do?” It was an epitome of twenty-first century American democracy: people used to coping with dauntingly complex mechanical systems simply took their political impotence for granted.

Their fatalism was entirely appropriate. As we sat around the office grumbling, Congress began responding to nationwide calls for financial reform. The two-year process that resulted in the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, known as “Dodd-Frank,” bestowed on the still-battered nation what the (as ever) smilingly earnest President Barack Obama called “the strongest consumer financial protections in history.” He paused for emphasis and repeated to his enthusiastic audience, “in history.”

Another two years on, the invaluable investigative reporter Matt Taibbi has written a lengthy obsequy for Dodd-Frank.

Dodd-Frank is groaning on its deathbed. The giant reform bill turned out to be like the fish reeled in by Hemingway’s Old Man — no sooner caught than set upon by sharks that strip it to nothing long before it ever reaches the shore. In a furious below-the-radar effort at gutting the law … a troop of water-carrying Eric Cantor Republicans are speeding nine separate bills through the House, all designed to roll back the few genuinely toothy portions left in Dodd-Frank. With the covert assistance of quisling Democrats, both in Congress and in the White House, those bills could pass through the House and Senate with little or no debate, with simple floor votes. …

The fate of Dodd-Frank over the past two years is an object lesson in the government’s inability to institute even the simplest and most obvious reforms. … From the moment it was signed into law, lobbyists and lawyers have fought regulators over every line in the rulemaking process. Congressmen and presidents may be able to get a law passed once in a while — but they can no longer make sure it stays passed. You win the modern financial-regulation game by filing the most motions, attending the most hearings, giving the most money to the most politicians, and above all, by keeping at it, day after day, year after fiscal year, until stealing is legal again. “It’s like a scorched-earth policy,” says a former regulator who was heavily involved with the drafting of Dodd-Frank. “It requires constant combat. And it never ends.”

The final words of Taibbi’s article toll the death knell of contemporary American democracy:

You can’t buy votes in a democracy, at least not directly. But our democracy is run through a bureaucracy. Human beings can cast a vote, or rally together during protests and elections, but real people — even committed professionals — get tired of running through mazes of motions and countermotions, or reading thousands of pages about swaps-execution facilities and NRSROs. They will fight through it for five days, or maybe even six, but on the seventh they will watch a baseball game, or Tanked, instead of diving into that morass of hellish acronyms one more time.

But money never gets tired. It never gets frustrated. And it thinks that drilling holes in Dodd-Frank is every bit as interesting as The Book of Mormon or Kate Upton naked. The system has become too complex for flesh-and-blood people, who make the mistake of thinking that passing a new law means the end of the discussion, when it’s really just the beginning of a war.

It goes without saying that in this regard, the financial industry is no worse than the energy, defense, chemical, pharmaceutical, insurance, entertainment, food-processing, or any other large industry. America is a plutocracy. Freedom House has long published a comprehensive international index of formal democracy, which the U.S. State Department found extremely convenient during the Cold War. If anyone today published a similarly careful and thorough index of effective democracy — a measure of the degree to which governments solicited and responded to public sentiment rather than money in the formation of law and policy — the United States would surely rank as low as many Communist tyrannies ranked on the Freedom House index.

In truth, American democracy has been a long time dying. Equality (1897), Edward Bellamy’s sequel to the fabulously popular utopian novel, Looking Backward (1888), opens with a conversation between the reawakened 19th century hero Julian West and his generously indignant, increasingly incredulous 20th-going-on-21st-century fiancée Edith Leete:

“If the people all had an equal voice in the government […] why did they not without a moment’s delay put an end to the inequalities from which they suffered?” […]

“The capitalists advanced the money necessary to procure the election of the office-seekers on the understanding that when elected the latter should do what the capitalists wanted. But I ought not to give you the impression that the bulk of the votes were bought outright. That would have been too open a confession of the sham of popular government as well as too expensive. The money contributed by the capitalists to procure the election of the office seekers-was mainly expended to influence the people by indirect means. Immense sums under the name of campaign funds were raised for this purpose and used in innumerable devices … the object of which was to galvanize the people to a sufficient degree of interest in the election to go through the motion of voting.” […]

“But why did not the people elect officials and representatives of their own class, who would look out for the interests of the masses?” […]

“The people who voted had little choice for whom they should vote. That question was determined by the political party organizations, which were beggars to the capitalists for pecuniary support. No man who was opposed to capitalist interests was permitted the opportunity as a candidate to appeal to the people. For a public official to support the people’s interest as against that of the capitalists would be a sure way of sacrificing his career. […] His public position he held only from election to election, and rarely long. His permanent, lifelong, and all-controlling interest, like that of us all, was his livelihood, and that was dependent not on the applause of the people but on the favor and patronage of capital, and this he could not afford to imperil in the pursuit of the bubbles of popularity. These circumstances, even if there had been no instances of direct bribery, sufficiently explained why our politicians and officeholders with few exceptions were vassals and tools of the capitalists.”

This was not merely a reaction to Gilded Age excess. Twenty years earlier, in Democratic Vistas (1867), before canvassing the magnificent possibilities of American democracy, Walt Whitman paused to acknowledge the ghastly actuality:

An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk’d much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. … The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining today sole master of the field.

Ten years before that, Ralph Waldo Emerson growled in his journal:

Is there no check to this class of privileged thieves that infest our politics? We mark & lock up the petty thief or we raise the hue & cry in the street, and do not hesitate to draw our revolvers out of the box, when one is in the house. But here are certain well dressed well-bred fellows, infinitely more mischievous, who get into the government & rob without stint, & without disgrace. They do it with a high hand, & by the device of having a party to whitewash them, to abet the act, & lie, & vote for them. And often each of the larger rogues has his newspaper, called “his organ,” to say that it was not stealing, this which he did; that if there was stealing, it was you who stole, & not he …

It should be noted that there are two sides to this question. Alexis de Tocqueville, with his usual quasi-Martian apriorism, confidently declared that plutocracy in America was an impossibility:

As the great majority of those who create the laws have no taxable property, all the money that is spent for the community appears to be spent to their advantage, at no cost of their own, and those who have some little property readily find means of so regulating the taxes that they weigh upon the wealthy and profit the poor, although the rich cannot take the same advantage when they are in possession of the government. …

Again, it may be objected that the poor never have the sole power of making the laws; but I reply that wherever universal suffrage has been established, the majority unquestionably exercises the legislative authority; and if it be proved that the poor always constitute the majority, may it not be added with perfect truth that in the countries in which they possess the elective franchise they possess the sole power of making the laws? It is certain that in all the nations of the world the greater number has always consisted of those persons who hold no property, or of those whose property is insufficient to exempt them from the necessity of working in order to procure a comfortable subsistence. Universal suffrage, therefore, in point of fact does invest the poor with the government of society.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the Supreme Court majority in Citizens United, displayed a similarly breezy indifference to fact, though with two centuries less excuse than Tocqueville: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Is it otiose, in the absence of democracy, to reflect on what democracy might and should be, or at any rate might have been? Possibly, but one must pass the time. In any case, the money power may be overthrown someday — Marx's theory, never yet put to the test, may well be true. Marx predicted that globalization, financialization, concentration of ownership, and proletarianization of nearly everyone would result in either socialism or barbarism. Stable barbarism — the unsleeping plutocracy Taibbi describes — seems most likely in the near and medium term. But the world revolves, et omnia mutantur. The citizens of a post-capitalist world, if it arrives, will need to maintain a society-wide conversation, consisting of millions of smaller local ones, about how to govern themselves. Perhaps we can help by keeping the subject alive even in the dark times.

The first illusion to kill on the way to self-government is professionalism. Currently, the profession of legislators is getting re-elected. Estimates I have seen of the amount of time legislators spend raising money seem to average around 50 percent. I don’t know what percentage of time they spend traveling to and from the district, giving boilerplate speeches, and frequenting prostitutes or otherwise cavorting, but it can hardly be less than 10 or 20 percent. The time they spend studying legislative questions — reading through policy proposals and discussing them with colleagues, staff, and constituents, and acquiring sufficient background knowledge to make those discussions fruitful — must be minimal. (Though plenty of time doubtless goes to taking instructions from lobbyists.) Even an intelligent and conscientious legislator — not likely, in any case, to have survived either major party’s candidate-selection process — would scarcely be able to acquire anything resembling expertise, much less wisdom, under these conditions, which may well be inescapable in any system of electoral competition.

Shouldn’t I have said “in any system of privately financed electoral competition”? Wouldn’t public financing of campaigns change everything? No, it would not. Thanks to the ingenuity of the public relations industry and the complaisance of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, most of the expenses of political competition are or soon will be incurred not by candidates but by supporters — usually very rich — operating, often anonymously, through ad hoc committees. Political money, it has been often and wisely observed, is a hydraulic system; if you stop a leak in one place, it breaks out somewhere else.

Perhaps we should replace competition with sortition, i.e., drawing lots. What is the purpose of political competition, anyway? According to the founders of the Republic, it is to produce a legislative body that represents — i.e., speaks with the same mind as — the populace. According to James Madison: “The government ought to possess not only, first, the force, but secondly, the mind or sense of the people at large. The legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society.” John Adams seconded this: the legislature “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” Even that arch-plutocrat William F. Buckley Jr, posing as a democrat, famously proclaimed that he would rather be governed by the first 200 people listed in any big-city telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. Though his antipathy towards Harvard was undoubtedly genuine, whether he would have countenanced the rule of ordinary citizens who had not bent the knee to wealthy donors is highly doubtful. After all, he strongly supported his brother’s baneful lawsuit, Buckley v. Valeo, aimed at preventing precisely that.

Is the present American national legislature an “exact transcript of the whole society”? The question invites ridicule. Racially, sexually, economically, and ideologically, the members of Congress more closely resemble the executive ranks of most large corporations, or the membership of most large country clubs, than they do the society as a whole. Polls consistently reveal a sharp variance between the views of the citizenry and those of the political class, which it is the job of political consultants and communications specialists to finesse during election season. Popular approval of Congress, never robust in recent years, has lately been plunging toward the single digits — one of the few hopeful signs in contemporary American political culture.

We can scarcely do worse than what we have; on this the country seems agreed. How would sortition work? Fortunately, there is a blueprint to hand: a short book called A Citizen Legislature by Ernest Callenbach (author of Ecotopia, one of the finest utopian novels ever written) and Michael Phillips. The process is not complicated. Every county in America maintains a list of prospective jurors. Combine these lists in one national master list, and a computer may easily be programmed to choose a random sample of 435 (the size of the present House of Representatives). The same categories of people would be excluded from the selection pool: felons, non-citizens, the institutionalized. The resulting Representative House would (unlike the House of Representatives) be an exact, or near-exact, transcript of the society: roughly the same proportion of women, minorities, academics, professionals, blue-and-white-collar workers, homemakers, millionaires, and unemployed persons as in the general population. The representatives would train intensively for three months, would serve three years, and would then return to their communities (or stay in Washington as lobbyists, though perhaps less as a matter of course than at present). One-third of the House would be replaced each year. The Senate and the Executive Branch would, for the time being, remain unchanged.

Would sortition rule out government by the “best”? This question, too, can scarcely be considered with a straight face. We all know what Mark Twain said about Congressmen, and matters have not notably improved since. Besides, as Callenbach and Phillips write, “pure intelligence — if there is such a thing — is certainly not directly related to political wisdom. The only reasonable assumption is that both are broadly distributed through the population.”

This was apparently the Athenians’ assumption as well. The Assembly, the city’s governing body, was chosen by lot. And Athens was not, as the popular conception has it, a “democracy of orators,” of citizens speaking and listening by turns, and then, having said their piece, voting. It was much more like Callenbach and Phillips’s Representative House of ordinary shlubs. Political theorist Daniela Cammack has carefully analyzed virtually all uses of the three Greek terms for “to deliberate.” Two of them involve speaking; the other — the only one nearly always applied to the membership of the Assembly as a whole — means “reflection” and has an exclusively internal reference. There were orators and advocates, of course, but their function was advisory. There was, Cammack writes,

a greater cleavage between speakers and listeners in the assembly than is usually imagined. … The [language] suggests that a small number of citizens were conceived as “advisors” to the group, who by the very act of speaking cast themselves outside of the deliberating unit. … Speakers did not cease to be voters, of course, when they came forward to speak; in that sense, they remained part of the decision-making unit. … [But] the key tasks of ordinary citizens did not include speaking. Listening, thinking, judging, voting, and finally holding speakers to account were all far more important.

The Athenians, that is, entrusted their civic destiny not to experts or professionals (though they made use of them) but to ordinary citizens, selected at random in order to produce a faithful representation of the society as a whole. There is no reason why the United States should not do the same. The only alternative is elections, and the American electoral process is fundamentally, irredeemably corrupt. Elections cost money, vast and increasing amounts. As long as economic resources are distributed as unequally as they are at present, elections cannot be fair.

Would random selection of legislators produce a less lively political culture? This is yet another question that answers itself. Contemporary American political culture is comatose, kept alive only by such artificial life supports as televised debates between candidates, radio and TV talk shows, and the protracted electoral news cycle, reporting on polls, trends, gaffes, and gossip for 18-24 months before each presidential election and 9-12 months before each Congressional election. The degree to which this panoply of triviality is initiated or controlled by ordinary Americans is zero. Political messaging in our society is, like commercial messaging, wholly unidirectional. Voters, like consumers, exercise only an unavoidable and irreducible minimum of choice at the very end of a process from which their self-organized and unmanipulated input is entirely absent.

What might a live political culture look like? It would no doubt feature some version of the “committees of correspondence” that flourished in the American colonial period, only more permanent and less ad hoc. There would be continuous discussion, in small groups, in living rooms, church halls, school buildings, workplace lounges, libraries, municipal buildings, and other venues of political issues, organized by ordinary citizens, employees, neighbors, etc. These groups would make use of information about these issues collected by public agencies and made available on the Web, information equal in quality and depth to the information available to policymakers and industry lobbyists. The meetings of these groups would be regularly attended by public officials, who would have plenty to time to do so once they were released from the time-consuming obligations of fund-raising and electioneering.

The local discussion groups would communicate regularly with one another, sharing information and conclusions, and would join in formulating questions and instructions for local officials and legislators. They would also send delegates to state and regional citizens groups, which would conduct discussions with other such groups and then, jointly or separately, with state and national legislators and policymakers. (Unions would have a parallel structure of member involvement, unlike today.) These delegates would be in continual contact with the smaller bodies that sent them, and would be readily recallable.

Such groups at all levels, particularly the higher-level ones, would also monitor and criticize media coverage of issues that interest them, exactly as industry and other (e.g., religious) interest groups do today. They would commission, and in some cases, write articles for the media — articles which, unlike the continuous stream of corporate propaganda that largely constitutes present-day “reporting” in many local and regional newspapers, would be openly acknowledged — and would propose guests on radio and television discussions of contentious issues. And just as advertisers boycott publications of media programs considered ideologically unsound, the citizen/worker groups would orchestrate pressure, including boycotts, of chronically biased outlets. This is not a complete remedy for the extreme concentration of ownership in newspapers, radio, and television at present, with all the possibilities — fully realized — for censorship and ideological homogenization that implies. But it’s a step.

Something like this scheme might help restore some substance to this society’s hollow democratic pretensions. Of course, genuine democracy in any form depends on broad economic equality. The preconditions of democracy are that: 1) minimum economic security is universal, so that no one’s economic welfare can be jeopardized by political activism that may be anathema to his/her economic or political superiors; 2) gross inequality of resources does not give some political opinions vastly greater possibilities of publicity or promotion (i.e., lobbying) than others, as at present; and 3) the material prerequisites of political activity — leisure, education, at least modest disposable income — are universally available. Even this bare preliminary statement suggests how many light-years the United States is from anything worthy to be called democracy, and also makes clear how rapidly we’re traveling away from, rather than toward, the ideal.

Granted, no one can be forced to be free or self-governing. Those who are addicted to television, or allergic to meetings, or simply don’t give a damn about other people, are perfectly free to blow the whole democracy thing off, though their neighbors will be equally free to call them what the Greeks did: idiotes.

Will all — or any — of the above happen? Over Money’s dead body. Far more likely is a continued bread-and-circuses electoral oligarchy, with increased surveillance and repression as the allotment of grub and gadgets to the lower orders has to be parceled out among a growing global army of proletarians. Technology without democracy: a Blade Runner world.

The American empire has already found its Edward Gibbon, at least in rough draft. The medieval intellectual historian turned social critic Morris Berman has produced a trilogy of works — The Twilight of American Culture (2000); Dark Ages America (2006); Why America Failed (2011) — that diagnose and forecast the country’s decline in real time with an imaginative freedom and an unyielding pessimism that no conventional academic historian would permit him- or herself. He has naturally been ignored when not (as, for example, by that bellwether of middlebrow, Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times) ridiculed.

Unfortunately for his trilogy’s commercial and critical prospects, Berman has no last-minute proposals to save us from the long descent he foresees into soft authoritarianism and cultural debasement. Possessive individualism has thoroughly routed civic republicanism; hucksterism has vanquished virtue; a mindless commitment to economic growth has rendered the ideals of simplicity, balance, and voluntary renunciation all but unintelligible as guides to public policy rather than merely to individual salvation. It is too late for a happy ending.

It is indeed late, as anyone who reads Berman without extraordinary mental inertness will find herself forced to acknowledge. And yet, omnia mutantur. The Dark Ages, if they arrive, will — may — eventually be followed by another Enlightenment, which our present efforts may assist, even though we go under. We may as well give Money a good fight. What else can ya do?

By George Scialabba

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