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Lifting the Veil of Mirage Democracy in the United States

Part of the Series

“We live in a mirage democracy,” Zeese and Flowers assert, as they trace the history and describe the institutions of a not-so-robust US democracy.

“Democracy” demokratia = demos+kratia; or democracy = people+power.

The “greatest democracy on Earth” is how the United States is portrayed to its people and the world. The hallowed words “We the people” and “Of, by and for the people” echo in the minds of Americans to characterize the United States. But do they accurately describe the “democracy” we have?

In reality, a constant conflict that has existed throughout US history, indeed throughout the history of democratic states, is present between the elites and the people. Justice Louis Brandeis said it well when he stated, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Lifting the Veil of Mirage Democracy in the United States
At some point, people do rise up and fight back. Those in power know this and employ all sorts of tools to prevent it.

Over the past 40 years, income inequality in the United States has exploded from its lowest level in 1978 . What kind of democracy exists under these circumstances? And is real democracy possible for a global empire? How does nation-state democracy exist within the new globalized economy that serves transnational corporations?

A New Vocabulary for “Democracy”

A new vocabulary is developing to describe the current state of democracy in the United States. We begin with some key words and phrases.

Managed Democracy: A governmental system that includes widespread voter franchise and competitive elections, but the elections are managed so that no matter what candidate(s) are elected, the elites win. The role of citizens in government is to choose between two pre-selected candidates, neither of whom will represent the people’s interests and both of whom will represent the elites’ interests. Chris Hedges refers to this as “political theater.”

Polyarchy: A term highlighted by Cliff DuRand, author of “Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State,” that is very similar to managed democracy. He calls it a low-intensity democracy that veils the rule of elites and allows citizens to think they are participating in power through contested elections that do not change the elite power structure.

Inverted Totalitarianism: Classical totalitarianism is the model of Hitler or Mussolini, an all-powerful government led by a charismatic leader that partners with business interests in a security state. Inverted totalitarianism is a similar marriage of government and business, but the measures employed to maintain this relationship are more subtle. It is the coming of age of corporate power, maintained through a security state working in tandem with corporate propaganda that permeates influential institutions such as the media, education, popular culture and evangelical religion.

Globalized State: This is a government that serves the interests of transnational capital devoid of any real connection to the people of the nation. The globalized state rules through economic structures such as trade agreements, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and through international military actions.

Capitalism: An economic system based on private ownership of capital, goods and the means of production. Goods and services are produced for profit. It is an inherently unequal system. In feudalism, political power and the economy were united in the noble class. Under capitalism, there is a separation of political and economic power, which gives people the impression of participation.

Neoliberalism: The dominant economic ideology of the last three decades which insists upon an extreme separation of government and capital so that the market can operate “freely.” The market operates only in the interests of individuals without allegiance to the collective society. Government exists solely to provide basics such as standards for weights and measures, laws and courts to protect property and infrastructure for the market. Neoliberalism welcomes state intervention only when that intervention is to corporate advantage as in trade agreements, bailouts or corporate welfare. Under neoliberalism, state resources and public programs are decreasingly funded and increasingly privatized. DuRand states that neoliberalism is the “default position of capitalism to which it reverts unless restrained by popular struggles.”

Neofeudalism: This is the reconfiguration of political and economic systems to create an empowered tiny oligarchic elite class. Chris Hedges points to the structure described by George Orwell in “1984” in which there is an inner party (2 to 4 percent) of corporate and political managers, an outer party (12 to 14 percent) that consists of managers, the security state and the propaganda arm, and the rest of the population exists as “proles.”

The Birth of US “Democracy”

The United States celebrates the founding of the country and the so-called “Founding Fathers” as the birth of democracy, but the real democracy movement occurred before the American Revolution. In fact, it was the founding fathers, a group of propertied elites, slave holders, noted lawyers and wealthy merchants, who created a system designed to prevent a truly democratic state.

In the pre-Revolutionary period, the American democracy movement involved small farmers, laborers, artisans, shopkeepers, seamen, women, African slaves and native Indians who revolted against the grievances of the day. There existed abolitionists who opposed slavery and slaves who rebelled against plantation owners. Disputes over taxes, ordinances, and land titles and of being ruled over by a royal governor, who represented a distant British government or a corporate monopoly like the British East India Company, were sources of democratic revolt.

Colonial governments were structured for the elites and only those with substantial property ownership had any right to participate. Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy Inc. describes the rise of a “fugitive democracy” in this period. There were spontaneous protests, assemblies, petitions, tarring and feathering of government officials, burning effigies of officials, surrounding courthouses and removing government officials from office and storming jails to free their own. Committees of correspondence were formed to coordinate actions with counterparts in other colonies. This democracy movement was born out of necessity, out of the struggle for survival against deep-seated grievances and was improvisational rather than institutionalized.

Ray Raphael in The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord describes colonists in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, filling the courthouse to prevent British judges from entering. And, in Worcester, 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined Main Street as crown-appointed officials walked the gauntlet, reciting their resignations 30 times each, “so all could hear.” Raphael reports that these common people were intensely democratic, disavowing all leadership. In fact, “when they elected representatives, they did so on a day-to-day basis.”

Wolin writes that in the period from 1760 until the Constitutional Convention, there was intense political interest that formed an “American demos” that “began to establish a foothold and to find institutional expression, if not full realization. State constitutions were amended by provisions that broadened voting rights, abolished property qualifications for office, and in one case, instituted women’s suffrage. There were also efforts to ease debtor laws, even to abolish slavery.” It was these attacks on property that prompted several “outstanding politicians” (also known as the founding fathers) to “organize a counter-revolution aimed at institutionalizing a counterforce to challenge the prevailing decentralized system of thirteen sovereign states in which some state legislatures were controlled by ‘popular’ forces.”

These outstanding politicians were some of the wealthiest property owners in the United States, slave holders, well-known lawyers and merchants. James Madison, credited as being the “father” of the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers #10: “Democracies have ever been . . . incompatible with . . . the rights of property . . . [because it would threaten] the unequal distribution of property.” The founders were concerned with “the excess of democracy” as one delegate to the convention said. The new Constitution put property rights ahead of human rights.

The “founders” proposed a new system of national power that discouraged the “American demos,” removed people from the councils of government and reduced the power of states. The Constitution favored elite rule and protection of property. It established a republic in which courts protected minority rights and property rights from majority sentiment, and government power was limited.

Only the House of Representatives would be directly elected by the people, at least the limited group of six percent of the white, male property-owning population that was allowed to vote. Wolin writes, “The Constitution of the Founders compressed the political role of citizen into an act of ‘choosing’ and designed it to minimize the direct expression of a popular will.” The president was not directly elected, but rather citizens voted for electors who chose the president in the Electoral College. Senators were selected by state legislators, and judges were appointed by the president. It created a representative, not participatory or direct, democracy. The “right to vote” is not even mentioned in the Constitution.

While people were declared “sovereign,” they were, in fact, “precluded from governing.” “From the beginning,” Cliff Durand writes, the country “was designed to be undemocratic.” The role of the people was limited to choosing from among the political elite the representatives who would rule them. This managed democracy or polyarchy is far removed from the people power of real democracy. As Durand writes, “Democracy means people’s power, not the legitimizing of elite rule.”

Throughout US history there have been democratic moments when the people sought to seize power. These included Jacksonian democrats, abolitionists, suffragettes, populists, progressives, civil rights activists and ’60s radicals; and the Occupy movement of today. These political conflicts have “often been described as a war between ‘the haves and the have-nots.’ “

The Rise of the Corporate State

Beginning in the 19th century, wealth and power shifted from property owners and merchants to corporations. This shift was accelerated during the industrial revolution, when corporations gained great economic and political power. Wealth became more concentrated in the hands of a few robber barons, who used it as political leverage. President Abraham Lincoln warned in a November 21, 1864, letter to Colonel William F. Elkins about the corruption that would follow this rise of corporate power:

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Mass production and new forms of energy and transportation allowed industrialists to accumulate wealth rapidly. This wealth was used to amass more resources and control over the economy. Industrialists bought up their competitors and formed monopolies. They enriched themselves through cheap labor. Workers were housed in unsanitary factory towns and forced to work in unsafe conditions. They were paid low wages and charged high prices for basic goods in factory-owned stores.

Many of the wealthiest people in US history made their riches during the industrial revolution: oil magnate John D. Rockefeller; steamboat and railroad businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt; Andrew Carnegie with his empire of steel; financiers Jay Gould, Andrew Mellon and J. P. Morgan; and mass producer of automobiles Henry Ford.

The industrial revolution was also a time of gross political corruption. Bribery of politicians and bureaucrats and the gift of political positions and contracts in return for favors and loyalty ran rampant. The result was two political parties loyal to the elites with narrow agendas that were unwilling to challenge the status quo in any meaningful way.

The courts were no better. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868 to provide due process of law to freed slaves, was used mostly to empower corporations. In 1886, the Supreme Court voided 230 state laws that regulated corporations, primarily freight rates charged to farmers, on the basis that the regulations deprived corporations of property without due process. Of 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases considered by the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, 288 were about protecting corporate rights, only 19 about people. This is when the court established that corporations were “legal people” while at the same time protecting corporate owners from criminal prosecution.

The situation rose to a head under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who was elected after the depression began. The Roosevelt family is one of the oldest banking families in the nation, as are the Delanos. His great-grandfather James Roosevelt founded the Bank of New York in 1784, and five generations of Roosevelts headed that bank. Before that the family helped fund the American Revolution. FDR’s uncle, Fred Delano, was appointed to the first Federal Reserve Board in 1914. FDR’s first job was with a JP Morgan law firm, and he lived in the home of JP Morgan partner Thomas Lamont when he went to Washington, DC, as assistant secretary of the Navy. During the ’20s, before he became governor of New York, he was a Wall Street investor, banker and lawyer.

During FDR’s presidency, when he broke from the gold standard and created mass government jobs, the financiers and big business interests who funded his campaigns were shocked. A group of businessmen planned a coup and contacted General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in history, to become the American Mussolini and make FDR either a figurehead or remove him. Butler blew the whistle and although a congressional committee confirmed the plot, there were no prosecutions. Many of the corporations bailed out in the recent financial collapse came from the same corporations allegedly involved in the coup attempt. Perhaps a more sophisticated coup has taken place now.

Following World War II, new institutions were created that propelled the rise of the global corporate state. In 1944, members of 44 nations gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to discuss how to rebuild the international economy. The United States was the dominant power at this meeting. Out of it came the Bretton Woods System, which tied official reserves to the US dollar instead of to gold.

This conference also gave birth to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the precursor of the World Bank. Shortly after that, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) was created, which reduced barriers to trade between nations. In 1995, it became the World Trade Organization (WTO). This shift was significant because unlike the GATT, the WTO had the power to enforce rules, which meant that nations were required to change their laws to comply with rules put forth by the WTO. Today, the largest trade agreement in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated by the Obama administration in secret except for 600 corporate advisors, will result in a global corporate coup.

Since the 1980s, the era of so-called “free trade,” the world has seen the rise of transnational corporations. This has allowed the off-shoring of jobs that has hollowed out the US labor market and caused labor’s share of the GDP to hit an all-time low. It has also allowed the free flow of finance overseas, the avoidance of more than $100 billion in corporate taxes and the growth of international tax havens housing tens of trillions of dollars off-shore. Neoliberalism, which had been unleashed upon the world, is now coming home to the US.

Of Monopolies and Sacrifice Zones

DuRand describes unfettered capitalism, or neoliberalism, as a game of Monopoly. In the Parker’s Brothers game, the players begin on equal ground. The goal of the game is to amass wealth and property to the point of collapse, bankrupting the other players who are no longer able to participate. He writes that, just as in Monopoly, inequality is an integral part of a capitalist economy.

In the board game, when only one player is left, the game ends. Players may choose to start fresh with a new game. In the real world, there is no reset. Instead, there is the drive toward greater degrees of inequality as the rich become richer at the expense of people and the planet. Occasionally there is respite in the form of social programs that counter the effects of neoliberalism, but in the absence of popular struggle, the drive toward greater profits continues unabated.

In his most recent book, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” Chris Hedges describes the real effects of neoliberal policies on US communities. His words are made even more powerful through the illustrations of Joe Sacco. Hedges and Sacco stayed in communities that have been destroyed economically and environmentally for the sake of corporate profits. They call these areas “Sacrifice Zones” and define them as “areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress and technological advancement.” Their intention was to show “what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit.”

Hedges and Sacco reported on levels of poverty and poisoning of communities that most Americans don’t recognize as existing in the United States. They tell stories of drug use and violence that arise as people are trapped in losing situations that involve great suffering. And they describe efforts of those who try to provide some relief. Hedges states that their stories are “important windows into what is happening to the rest of us.”

In the final section of the book, they cover the Occupy protests, which arose in large part because of growing wealth inequality and fraud by the elites. At some point, people do rise up and fight back. Those in power know this and employ all sorts of tools to prevent it.

The Maintenance of the Corporate State

The actions of the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in such abuse of workers and poor living conditions that labor and others joined in protest. The response of the elites was the New Deal, which brought some relief, calmed the masses and allowed capitalism to continue.

Relative quiet ensued until the 1960s and early ’70s, when multiple struggles manifested in movements for civil rights, opposition to war, the environment and women’s rights. DuRand writes that this uprising was described by elites as a “crisis of democracy,” meaning that people were demanding too much democracy. Capitalists felt under attack once more. Following a blueprint developed by Lewis Powell in his memo to the US Chamber of Commerce, they built institutions over the next 40 years, including think tanks, lobbying firms and courts, to promote the market agenda and control the media and universities to prevent another outbreak of democracy.

We are living in a time of Inverted Totalitarianism, in which the tools used to maintain the status quo are much more subtle and technologically advanced. These include propaganda and control of the major media outlets that hide the real news about conditions at home and our activities around the world behind distractions such as high-profile citizen trials and celebrity gossip. The major electronic media, owned by six corporations nationwide, also routinely misinforms the public about domestic and foreign policy. A recent example is the “Fiscal Cliff.”

Another tool is to create insecurity in the population so that people are unwilling to speak out and take risks for fear of losing their jobs and being unable to afford food, a home and health care. Changes in the work environment, such as the attack on unions and the war on whistleblowers, have led to greater job insecurity. Changes in college education also silence dissent, including the trend toward adjunct rather than tenured professors. Adjunct professors, now comprising 85 percent of faculty, are less willing to teach topics that are viewed as controversial. This, combined with massive student debt, are tools to silence the student population, once the center of transformative action.

Hedges describes the growing security state and is actively fighting provisions within the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allow the indefinite detention of US citizens without trial. Legal experts fear the NDAA also weakened Posse Comitatus, passed in 1878 to limit federal military powers, so that the military can be used on domestic soil. There is obvious collaboration between military and local police departments through joint training exercises, paramilitary police forces and new equipment such as tanks and drones. The Department of Homeland Security is building a 176-acre secure compound in the lowest-income area of Washington, DC.

Laws, such as the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allow warrantless wiretapping of US citizens. In fact, whistleblower William Binney, who served in the NSA for 40 years, estimates that the NSA is currently storing between 15 and 20 trillion communications, including domestic emails and billing transactions. And the Pentagon is set to increase its cyber-security program by five-fold.

Other, more subtle forms of public control come in the form of organizations that function to protect the interests of corporations and their servant political parties. This may occur through direct creation of “astro-turf” groups or by co-optation of existing grassroots and other groups by granting them increased access to politicians and controlling their access to foundation grants and donations. A recent example involves Obama’s “enforcer,” Jim Messina, who met with liberal organizations during the health reform process to keep them in line with the Democratic agenda. DuRand writes that in polyarchy, “it is through its penetration and co-optation or even creation of the components of civil society that the elite garners the consent of the people to its rule and thereby achieves governability.”

Those groups that directly challenge the system and cannot be co-opted by money or access are routinely infiltrated for the purpose of spying, dividing and destroying. More evidence of infiltration and spying on Occupy is coming to light.

We live in a mirage democracy. Elections have become expensive spectacles with $2 billion presidential campaigns and a corporate media that reports on the political drama every day for months on end. Elections are tightly controlled, rigged for the two parties by restrictive ballot access laws, a corporate-run debate commission that blocks third parties, gerrymandered voting districts, unverifiable computer vote counts and a mass media that does not cover alternatives to the corporate duopoly. US voting systems are among the least democratic in the world. They lack modern, more democratic approaches like universal voter registration, proportional representation and ranked choice or instant run-off voting. Only half the US public is registered, and only half of registered voters vote, so these mirage elections provide a less than legitimate government.

Our next article, Part II of this series on democracy, will focus on how participatory government and economic democracy are being put in place in Latin America and steps being taken in those directions in the United States. If we are to achieve the “We the People” government to which we aspire and end the mirage democracy we are in, these are the twin pillars on which real democracy will stand.

You can hear our interview with Chris Hedges and Cliff DuRand: What Kind of Democracy Exists in the US? on Clearing the FOG Radio (podcast) or view it on UStream/ItsOurEconomy.

This is Part I in a series on democracy in the United States. Next week we examine participatory democracy as an antidote to managed democracy.

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