Why are Too Many Americans Ignoring the Ongoing Collapse of Democracy in the US?
This year’s election may be our last chance to push back against the oligarchy that the GOP has been constructing for the past forty-three years…
Like an alcoholic family that won’t discuss alcoholism (proving Don Quixote’s warning never to mention rope in the home of a man who’s been hanged), far too many Americans are unwilling to acknowledge or even discuss the ongoing collapse of democracy in the United States.
We see it in everything from our last two Republican presidents having lost the national vote but taking office anyway, to the extreme gerrymandering happening in every Red state in the country, to the naked bribery of our legislators and Supreme Court justices.
And our media exclude it from almost every conversation. Networks run promotions mentioning Trump’s indictments, but completely fail to point out that he is calling for the end of democracy in America, the suspension of the Constitution, and playing the role of a “dictator” on day one.
President Jimmy Carter took it head-on when he told me on my radio program that the Citizen’s United decision, which brought us this crisis:
“[V]iolates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
This “complete subversion of our political system” grew, in large part, out of Richard Nixon’s 1972 appointment of tobacco lawyer and rightwing extremist Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court.
Powell, in 1971, had authored the infamous Powell Memo for the US Chamber of Commerce, strongly suggesting that corporate leaders needed to get politically involved and, essentially, take over everything from academia to our court system to our political system.
In 1976, in the Buckley case, Powell began the final destruction of American democracy by declaring that when morbidly rich people or corporations own politicians, all that money that got transferred to the politicians wasn’t bribery but, instead, was Constitutionally-protected First Amendment-defined “Free Speech.”
Powell expanded that when he personally authored the decision in the 1978 Bellotti case, which acknowledged corporations as “persons” with full access to the Bill of Rights, including their own “free speech” right to own politicians. Five corrupt and in-the-bag Republicans on the Supreme Court radically expanded that doctrine in 2010 with Citizens United.
As a result, there’s really very little democracy left in our democracy.
— Our votes are cast in districts so gerrymandered that a 50/50 electorate can produce an 70/30 outcome in congressional representation.
— Our laws are written, more often than not, by corporate lawyers/lobbyists or representatives of billionaire-level wealth.
— And our media is owned by the same class of investors/stockholders, so it’s a stretch to expect them to do much critical reporting on the situation.
In his book The Decline of the West, first published in German in 1918 and then in English in 1926, Oswald Spengler suggested that what we call Western civilization was then beginning to enter a “hardening” or “classical” phase in which all the nurturing and supportive structures of culture would become, instead, instruments for the exploitation of a growing peasant class to feed the wealth of a new and strengthening aristocracy.
Culture would become a parody of itself, average people’s expectations would decline while their wants would grow, and a new peasantry would emerge, which would cause the culture to stabilize in a “classic form” that, while Spengler doesn’t use the term, seems very much like feudalism — the medieval system in which the lord owned the land and everyone else was a vassal (a tenant who owed loyalty to the landlord).
Or its more modern incarnation: fascism, a word that didn’t even exist when Spengler wrote Decline.
Spengler, considering himself an aristocrat, didn’t see this as a bad thing. In 1926 he prophesied that once the boom of the Roaring Twenties was over, a great bust would wash over the Western world. While this bust had the potential to create chaos, its most likely outcome would be a return to the classic, stable form of social organization, what Spengler calls “high culture” and I call neofeudalism and/or fascism.
“In all high Cultures, therefore, there is a peasantry, which is breed stock, in the broad sense (and thus to a certain extent nature herself), and a society which is assertively and emphatically ‘in form.’ It is a set of classes or Estates, and no doubt artificial and transitory. But the history of these classes and estates is world history at highest potential.”
Twentieth and 21st century cultural observers, ranging from billionaire George Soros in his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism, to professor Noreena Hertz in The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, have pointed to deep cracks in the foundational structure of Western civilization, traceable in part to the current legal status of corporations versus humans.
More recently, Jane Mayer has laid out in painful detail in her book Dark Money how the Koch Network and a few other political-minded billionaires have essentially taken over the entire Republican Party, as has Nancy MacLean with her book Democracy in Chains. The extent of the problems within our political and economic structures are laid bare with startling and sometimes frightening clarity.
As a result, of all these changes in our politics (most driven by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court putting oligarchy above democracy), Princeton scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page famously found that the odds of average Americans’ political desires being translated into policy are about the same as “random noise,” whereas what they referred to as “economic elites” frequently get everything they want from the political class.
They wrote that we still have the “features” of democracy like elections, but ended their paper with this cautionary note:
“[W]e believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
It seems that America has arrived at the point Spengler saw in early 20th century Europe, and, indeed, there are some concerning parallels, particularly with the late 1920s and early 1930s. Italy, Germany, and Spain all lost their democracies and moved to fascism during that era, while Spengler and his acolytes cheered.
And, indeed, it was one of FDR’s biggest challenges in the early 1930s: steering America through a “middle course” between communism (which was then growing popular) and fascism (also growing popular). He pulled it off with small (compared to Europe) nods to democratic socialism, instituting programs like Social Security, the minimum wage, and establishing the right to unionize (among other things).
Mark Twain is often quoted as saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Many look at the all-out war being waged against American government by the hard right, from Trump and his cronies to the billionaire networks funding right-wing propaganda and lobbying outlets, and think “it can’t happen here.”
They’re wrong. It can happen here.
Meanwhile, Republican politicians and the billionaires who own them are now dropping any pretense at all to caring about the fate and future of our country’s fiscal health, so long as they get and keep their tax cuts.
In summary, what’s left of our democratic institutions are under siege.
Add to that a largely billionaire-funded/owned right-wing media machine that’s willing to regularly and openly deceive American voters (documented daily by Media Matters), and you have the perfect setup for a neofeudalist/fascist takeover of our government.
Or, as President Carter so correctly called it, oligarchy.
This year’s election may be our last chance to push back against the oligarchy that the GOP has been constructing for the past forty-three years. President Biden and Democrats in Congress made a valiant try with the For The People Act that would have expanded voter rights, outlawed gerrymandering, and reversed Citizens United to strip dark money out of our electoral system, but were stabbed in the back by Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema.
If Biden is re-elected and Democrats can take the House and hold the Senate, there’s a very good chance — particularly without Manchin and Sinema to sabotage the process like they did in 2022 — that such legislation can be brought up again and pass.
Double check your voter registration — particularly if you live in a Blue city in a Red state, where they’re already purging millions of voters every month — and help everybody you know get their registration up to date.
American democracy can’t afford many more years of corruption before it’s dead: our time to act is now.