“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” — Mark Twain, on western liberal democracies
Introduction: Democracy under duress
The sanctity of our democracy has recently entered widespread public consciousness in the US. Election meddling and collusion by a foreign entity has stirred up concerned citizens. The National State Police (F.B.I) continues its investigation and indictment activities in full swing. Media actors are livid at the attacks on American democracy. Not since the presidential election in 2000 has the country been so focused on the purity of its democratic processes, the integrity of collective decision-making and communal ownership of the fate of the country.
To put these events in a broader context, let us go to a little-known, rarely visited place called History.
Origins: Plutocracy by Design, Democracy by Will
Let us begin with the basics. Say this group is the country, all five of them.
Today, after ages of political theory, debate and war, we have chosen to organize the group by a system we call ‘democracy.’ In its ancient Athenian interpretation, each person owns 1/5th of any decision that impacts the collective, as long as the individual is not female, a slave, a foreigner or below 18 years of age.
James Madison, the main designer of the U.S Constitution, desired even more exclusion on the basis of a critical criterion. Using England as an example, Madison set up a thought experiment: imagine if the elections were open to all classes of people. On his way to dominating the Constitutional Debates, he declared that such a system would not protect the property of the rich. According to him, as evidenced by the 1787 Constitutional Convention records, the “responsible men” or “owners of the nation” or “property owners” are faced with a conundrum…
…and the conundrum is simple: If democracy is a form of government by which the majority rules, there must be a mechanism by which “the minority of the opulent is protected against the majority,” as lectured by Madison.
About 2000 years earlier: Aristotle, who is accepted as the pioneer of western political thought, also claimed it to be an injustice that the minority’s property wouldn’t be protected in the face of the rampaging herd of the majority controlling the government.
The exact same question, but very different answers.
Aristotle: Limit wealth inequality
Aristotle indicated that there is no intellectually honest discussion of democracy without factoring in wealth and property distribution. Attempting to do so is like discussing environmental protection policies without factoring in the meat and fossil fuel industries.
An extreme imbalance in the distribution of wealth annihilates democracy, and so he postulated a requirement to reduce wealth inequality through a welfare state, in an attempt to reconcile this intrinsic contradiction. Not doing so leads to a vicious cycle that quickly results in a death spiral for democracy, and explosive inequality.
Per Aristotle, a state trying to prevent this spiral would exercise a social contract between the ‘owners’ of the country and the rest. The purpose of such a social contract would be to create a more equitable distribution of opportunities and benefits of life. Erosion of such a contract leads to the erosion of democratic decision-making itself — since the above perpetual engine would yield a terminal state of extremely concentrated wealth and political control. As a Princeton study showed in 2014, this view proved to be accurate. The US in its current state is decidedly an oligarchy, not a democracy. The foundation for such an outcome was built during the Constitutional Debates, as described below.
Madison: Limit democracy
James Madison had a different answer. He did not like Aristotle’s teachings, apparently. Instead of reducing inequality by way of a welfare state, he chose to argue for reducing democracy. The responsible elites, a group he was part of, should own and operate the nation. For this reason, initially only white, male property owners had the right to vote.
These responsible elites were theorized to be compassionate leaders, well-meaning political philosophers who would shepherd the masses with their richer understanding of the world, sheer brilliance and benevolence; you know, like Donald Trump.
Madison expressed his fear that a growing part of society, suffering from inequities, would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of blessings in life.” This would increase the threat of democracy. As history has shown, it turned out to be slightly more than a sigh.
Some highlights of ever-increasing democracy:
Beginning of the abolition of property qualifications for white men, from 1792 (Kentucky) to 1856 (North Carolina).
Citizenship is guaranteed to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, setting the stage for future expansions to voting rights.
Non-white men and freed male slaves are guaranteed the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (However, for many years, some states were very successful at suppressing the vote, and still are today.)
Citizenship is granted to Native Americans who are willing to disassociate themselves from their tribe by the Dawes Act, making the men technically eligible to vote.
Women are guaranteed the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (However, in reality, the same restrictions that hindered the ability of non-white men to vote now also applied to non-white women.)
All Native Americans are granted citizenship and the right to vote, regardless of tribal affiliation. By this point, approximately two-thirds of Native Americans were already citizens.
Chinese immigrants are given the right to citizenship and the right to vote by the Magnuson Act.
Tax payment prohibited from being used as a condition for voting in federal elections by the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Protection of voter registration and voting for racial minorities, later applied to language minorities, is established by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This has also been applied to correcting discriminatory election systems and redistricting. However, evidently, this is highly theoretical.
Tax payment and property requirements for voting are prohibited in all U.S. elections by the Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.
Adults aged 18 through 21 are granted the right to vote by the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This was enacted in response to Vietnam War protests, which argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country should be granted the right to vote.
Notice 1966? Looks like something Aristotle would support. These tremendous leaps have been made through popular struggle and advocacy. By the above list alone, the present-day country should be close to a thriving, colorful and fragrant flowerbed of democratic discussions, activities, organization and efficient representation of the popular will.
Then why does it feel like it is the trashcan next to the flowerbed, belching out ‘choices’ like Clinton or Trump?
Because of the design.
The concessions above still operate under the foundations of a republic responsive to the elites, as dreamt up by Madison, et al. There are many mechanisms to achieve this, such as the electoral college, superdelegates for a major party’s primaries (Democrats) and gerrymandering. Other factors include a largely privatized and compliant media, and coercive capital. The elite and their property must be guarded, and by today’s standards, grown without bounds. The exponential growth in wealth inequality fully mirrors the rapid loss of democratic representation in the country.
As the aforementioned Princeton study describes, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”
These outcomes are not accidental; rather, they are structural. The responsible men, as Madison described, must form the intellectual aristocracy that maintains complete control of the political, economic and social sphere. The rest of the population must be delegated to largely spectator roles, invited every two years to showcase their support for one of two representatives of the aristocracy. The Orwellian-named non-profit Citizens United was successful in opening up the floodgates for unlimited campaign finance in elections, further entrenching elite control of the body politic. In the 2016 elections, just 158 families provided about 50% of campaign financing to Republicans and Democrats. Let us for a moment imagine a hurricane of hysteria over these facts on cable TV and online publications, combined with countless books published to analyze these structures — in exactly the same way the media have responded to Russia’s possible interference of the election process. We hear the phrase ‘Russian oligarchs’ at a brisk frequency, but rarely ‘American oligarchs.’
The dishonesty is not strictly limited to revising the country’s domestic origins, and existing tyranny. It also includes, as writer and intellectual Gore Vidal put it, America’s “amnesia” internationally as well. Language fails to describe the hypocrisy of a nation that is up in arms against the slightest possible tinge of outside flavor in its otherwise delectable democratic dessert, when it has a deep history of not just interfering in the elections of at least 85 sovereign nations, but toppling many other democratically elected governments as well.
More specifically, one of the targets was Russia itself. As Stephen Cohen, scholar and professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University describes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the approach of US advisors “was nothing less than missionary — a virtual crusade to transform post-communist Russia into some facsimile of the American democratic and capitalist system”.
Immediately after Bill Clinton became President in 1993, his experts began “formulating a policy of American tutelage”, including flagrant partisan support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin. “Political missionaries and evangelists, usually called ‘advisers’, spread across Russia in the early and mid-1990s,” observes Cohen. Many were funded by the US government. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, saw Russia “increasingly passing into de facto western receivership”. This was conducted out in the open.
Democracy by will
The recent uproar regarding Russian meddling has made it strikingly clear that democracy is still a truism. It is rightly self-justified. However, its history and definition have been warped after centuries of reconfiguration and distortion. There are many conditions, such as robust media, education and worker-owned enterprises, that are necessary to realize a completely different understanding and implementation of democracy in society. Inversely, a country that does not meet these conditions cannot claim to even approach a semblance of democratic ideals; condemned to a culture that feigns interest in its protection by generating media circuses around the most hypocritical and vacuous protests. Consequently, the systemic root causes of democratic failures are cast into the black-holes of history.
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