RETHINKING DEMOCRATIC THEORY: WHY THE US IS NOT A DEMOCRACY
By Philip Green and Drucilla Cornell
We propose that the appropriate term for the American political system is not democracy, or representative government, but “representative oligarchy.” As Aristotle puts it in his classic description of the types of government:
“In democratic states...the people is sovereign; in oligarchies, on the other hand, the few have that position...” The Politics, Book III, vi, 2
In our conception of “representative oligarchy,” the sovereignty of the people formally exists, but only notionally. Popular sovereignty is subject to the condition that, as Aristotle again puts it:
“It is inevitable that any constitution should be an oligarchy if the rulers under it are rulers in virtue of riches...” III, viii, 7
The de jure rulers in the U.S. are not of course rulers in virtue of riches, but the de facto rulers are, because no one can become a ruler without their support and approval. To understand the significance of this condition, we must look again at the question of representation and representative government.
In the Twentieth Century, earlier defenses of representative government such as those of James Madison and John Stuart Mill, became theories of “democracy,” in the hands of influential theorists such as Joseph Schumpeter and Seymour Martin Lipset. But what happened incidentally was the short-circuiting of serious discussion of self-governance, since democracy in the form of representative government was thought by its proponents to be self-evident. There are elections, legislators, chief executives, voila there must be “representative government.” It was probably not altogether helpful that critiques of representative government, especially in the United States, at first devolved into theories of participatory and later of deliberative democracy, since these sought in some degree to transcend representative government rather than consider it in its own terms. What has therefore not been addressed seriously enough is the question, What is representative government, really? And whatever it is, do we have it in the United States?
Considerations of how to make representative government work better for minorities have advanced this discussion somewhat, but without directly addressing the major question: does representative government as we know it work for the people generally, for majorities? From traditional liberal pluralism to the politics of difference, the (essentially Rousseauian) ideal has been that a minority should never be anything but a temporary coalition of the people who lost the last election. But even if this ideal--the dissolution of permanent minorities--were realized (as is perhaps the case in the Scandinavian democracies), we would still have to be thinking about how to make majority rule/representative government do its genuine work. We would have to ask seriouly whether a shallow formalism, a democratic minimalism, is really all that’s required. In a nation where the Senate is a millionaire’s club, and the House of Represetatives a collection of fiefdoms only a handful of which are contested electorally most of the time, why should we call the result “representative?”
In this fundamental sense there is in the US no party of “democracy”--of rule of the people--and that is why the supposedly democratic character of representation is in fact only notional. There is formal accountability of titular rulers, to be sure, in that they must run for reelection. But true accountability on any other than purely symbolic issues is delivered only to those who in turn deliver the goods that nominate and elect. Even those contemporary theorists who have advanced the idea of a “democratic minimum” as a ground on which to justify humanitarian interventions in sovereign nations, require more than such empty formalism to make a meaningful definition of “democratic.” Therefore it is not an afterthought but rather a grasp of essentials to address the way in which the American electoral system as a whole is dominated by capital, making it almost impossible for anyone who is not a millionaire, or at least able to fundraise as if they were a millionaire, to even seriously consider running for any major office. This is not an execrescence of the system; it is the system. Thus the abysmal failure of all efforts at meaningful electoral reform not only profoundly undercuts mass participation in the electoral process but undermines the idea that available structures of representation are compatible with even a limited representative form of democracy. This decisive relationship between representation and capital is also highlighted by such subsidiary but crucial questions as the determination of who can and can not participate as financial donors in an election. For instance, corporations are legally defined as persons before the law but trade unions are not, and consequently are unable to make donations to candidates as a bloc or group. So the Supreme Court’s assertion (in Buckley v. Valeo) that for individuals to spend their money on behalf of their interests is First Amendment-protected activity, somehow applies only to individuals operating as solitary persons, or to entities that are in no way real individuals; but not to the kinds of blocs or groups that can often bring people together to discuss their mutual interests and indeed their vision of democracy before the broader populace, and to pool their resources to that end. Here even the finest vision of political liberalism (we must remember that it was Justice William Brennan who wrote the majority opinion in Buckley) is put at the service of amassed capital.
Again, the result can only be called oligarchy. How may such a system be legitimated in a soi-disant democracy? Aristotle again:
“If property were the end for which men came together and formed an association, men’s share of the state would be proportionate to their share of property; and in that case the argument of the oligarchical side--that it is not just for a man who has contributed one pound to share equally in a sum of one hundred pounds (or for that matter in the interest accruing upon that sum) with the man who has contributed all the rest--would appear to be a strong argument. But the end of the state is not mere life; it is, rather, a good quality of life...it is not the end of the state to provide an alliance for mutual defence against all injury, or to ease exchange and promote economic intercourse...” III, ix, 5-6
Where those are the only ends of the state, when no other bond of any kind unites the polis, then oligarchy exists. That is the American condition. To sum up: elections in which the many participate do intervene between the agenda-setting (and candidate selection) of the few and the installation of a government. However, except on certain (mostly symbolic) issues, the government governs at the approval of the few: this is representative oligarchy.
The institutions of representative oligarchy, moreover, are not synergistic with the mode of political justification that Robert Dahl called “the [democratic] Creed.” The latter instead has to contend with another mode that is not at all democratic but rather is anti-democratic: the “creed” that Stuart Hall has named as “authoritarian populism.” In this contention, oligarchy and authoritarianism are indeed a better fit. Majority rule, the heart of the democratic creed, is an institutional practice based on the pursuit not of power but of fairness: where numbers ought to count, then numbers ought to be counted. However, neither the theory nor the practice of fairness suggest that numbers ought always to count; and at least in classical theories of majority rule majorities are not held to be morally better because larger, but rather simply more workable. Authoritarian populism, in contrast, is an ideology and practice not of fairness but of exclusion. “The people” as a whole are virtuous, and therefore so can the polity be virtuous, if only the enemies of virtue nested within it are expelled or suppressed: Jews, Communists, “liberal elites,” “trade union bosses,” terrorists, etc. Authoritarian populism therefore functions particularly well as the legitimizing creed of representative oligarchy, in that the authoritarian power of “the people” over largely symbolic or fictitious issues can always be invoked to distract the electorate from its surrender of the ordinary powers of representative government to the few: to oligarchy.
In making this analysis, we proceed on the basis that “democracy” is not simply a “type of government” in the classical sense; this is a reification that conceals more reality than it uncovers. Rather democracy should be conceived of as a practice with many and various instantiations; and as a practice it is no better (or worse) than those instantiations. Put differently, a group of people aiming toward what they think of as the practice of “democracy” in their collective decision-making, can succeed or fail (or something in between) in realizing that aim. By “success” we mean that there is to some important extent an integral connection between the treatment of each member of the polity as a free and equal person, and their endowment with basic political rights to participate in the shaping of the polity. Where this connection is non-existent or only tenuously established, when it is not respected in a meaningful way by those temporarily installed in power, then the practice of democracy falters. What is necessary at this historical juncture, then, is a description of what happens when democracy is failing.
We begin this analysis at the minimal beginning, with elections themselves. Simply put, the American electoral system is broken. We do not make this assertion, moreover, out of some extravagant theory of participatory democracy, but merely in recognition of the basic demand, that meaningful participation of citizens means that their votes ought to be counted. This assertion is crucial to any further assessment of a so-called democratic system. In the standard version of representative government, after all, “elections are trumps.” This is true even of most critical accounts of democracy, that propose to make elections more “fair”--overcoming discrimination, obstacles to the suffrage, etc--while implicitly assuming that they are “free:” However, we can no longer accept the standard version so easily, and everything in our thinking about “democracy” changes when we reject it. That is, we are not at all sure any longer what constitutes a “free” election, when was the last time we (in the U.S.) had one, and when if ever we might have one again. In this context, it is striking to realize that although a “free election” is the basic operational unit of “democracy,” democratic theory gives no sophisticated cues as to how to recognize whether the operation has taken place, or what to do or think if (one suspects) it hasn’t. Nor for that matter does contemporary democratic practice give us any clue, for those who are suspicious of theory and its claims. Thus the presumably authoritative Supreme Court declared that a free election took place in the United States in 2000, but we do not believe that. We are not questioning mere constitutional interpretation, which must always be open to question. Rather, we think the Supreme Court majority was party to a hijacking and overturning of what was supposed to be a free election, but was not. Nor, given the technological takeover of the very act of voting, are we really certain what to believe about the election of 2004. Indeed, the only thing we do know for certain is that the last two presidential elections have been decided by the historically racist practice of ex-felon disenfranchisement, a rarity in the democratic world and a repudiation of the basic right to the vote.
We recognize that it might well be asked, when were elections ever “fair”? Perhaps never, but the problem of their fairness or not was visible--someone, always some identifiable person (Richard Daley, Lyndon B. Johnson), was stuffing the ballot box, or disappearing votes; it was cheating on a human scale. The present electoral system, however, is best described as one in which technology has so taken over, that we can’t even know if there’s cheating, or what scale it’s on. Moreover, the technology is in the control of a small group of unaccountable people; it is within the system, not exogenous to it. Do political life and political thought both then simply go on as before? Are there more than merely prudential reasons for accepting the assumption that the United States federal government has a democratically elected executive branch? Or legislature, for that matter, given the extraordinarily low rate of turnover in recent biennial elections to the House of Representatives? Perhaps the journalistic cliche that those elections have become a meaningless charade is correct. To the extent that all of this is so, representative oligarchy has replaced representative democracy.
Of course, it might also reasonably be asked whether we have not to this point only presented a critique, without defending the proposition that degeneration has actually occurred; has not the American political system always been a “representative oligarchy”? Here the answer is of course yes, but on the other hand representative oligarchy impinged on representative democracy as part of a constant struggle, the reverse being true too. And it was not always a one-party oligarchy, but was rather a competitive system in at least some degree. From time to time, at any rate, it contained points of entry; there do not seem to be any now. Even in a period that is said by mainstream journalism to be one of deep ideological conflict between the two major parties, corporate welfare legislation, and legislation for the relief of rich people, pass the national legislature without significant Democratic dissent; the corporate looting of Iraq goes almost completely unopposed. It’s not that full-scale “representative oligarchy” is permanently unbroachable, but that at this historical juncture that’s what it is: it’s gone all the way.
Having said that much, though, we have to confront the charge of “idealism” with which any such argument will be met. It will be suggested that “representative oligarchy” is the only kind of representative government that can realistically be expected in a polity numbering more than a few thousand in population; beyond that, any expectation of genuine representation belongs in the realm of fantasy. However, the actual status of representation as a concept is not that simple.
In discussions of representative government as what Mill called “the best practicable” form of government, the question, “what does it mean to be represented?,” is rarely asked. The same is true of the alternative question, “representative of what?,” or “representative of whom?” These questions are on the whole only asked by advocates of fairer or more meaningful representation for the under-represented--marginalized social groups, excluded minorities (e.g., Lani Guinier, or Iris Young). Yet it’s not at all obvious what we are trying to describe in using the honorific phrase, “representative.” Another way of putting the point here is that in the absence of strong ideological parties articulating “single-peaked” interests, identities and class positions are often quite dispersed, and the overt meanings of legislation are ambiguous and impenetrably legalistic much of the time; thus there is often no clear “interest” attached to the latter. Unless legislation is directed at corporate interests (a clear but powerful minority) or white people generally (not often the case) or heterosexual males (not actually a majority, and rarely addressed directly by legislation), there is no “majority” being represented. Oddly enough, most people much of the time are therefore in the position Iris Young ascribes to marginalized groups; her prescription of special forums for interest articulation and representation, to the extent they’re appropriate for minorities, are also generally appropriate. The same is true of the various types of proportional representation and similar voting mechanisms as described by Guinier--again they are appropriate for all of us, not merely minorities.
What then might we actually mean by “representation?” Being elected is only the beginning; what follows? For the representative to be a free agent totally is like Bonapartism for small districts. “Accountability” is often offered as the requirement, especially by democratic minimalists, but that too is easily satisfied by formulaic adjustments: appearing at press conferences, opening files, making periodic reports in the Federal Register, etc. It is perhaps closer to the truth to say that what we’re after is responsive government, but what might that mean that is not just a version of utopian direct democracy? It’s true, after all, that in any nation-state, let alone one as populous as the United States, it cannot be the case that individuals as such are represented in any realistic sense. A representative from a district in California or New York may have anywhere between half a million and a million constituents; as for senators or presidents, there’s no point in thinking of them as “representative” at all (nor did the Founding Fathers think of them in that way). How then does one of us, any one, get represented in the realm of governance?
The most obvious answer is that we don’t; in Mill’s phrase, government is only in the last instance subject to the judgment of “the nation.” “The people,” that is, are on regular but infrequent occasions constituted as an inquest on what has gone before. “Democracy” here consists of elected leadership free to do what it wants (or is permitted to do by other branches of government) until and unless rejected by the next election--a potentially unlimited term in the case of US senators and representatives and the prime ministers of most other liberal democracies, eight years in the case of the US president. Democratic minimalism then becomes democratic maximalism, and no theory of representation is necessary, since the thing itself doesn’t really exist.
But is this then to say, cynically, that no one is represented in, e.g., the US national government? Obviously that is not the case. Many people are intensively and profoundly represented. For example, the executives, board members, and other major shareholders of Hercules Inc., a chemical manufacturer, were represented to the tune of $22 million in the 1996 legislation that had the ostensible purpose of raising the minimum wage. Or as IF Stone put it forty years ago, “the rich march on Washington all the time.” Emissaries from the health care industry, the insurance industry, “Big Pharm,” weapons manufacturers, and other major sectors of the economy, have lunches with “their” representatives, make phone calls to them, help them draft legislation or administrative regulations, and so on. So even in a polity of 280 million people, representation is not at all impossible, or even difficult to realize: except for most people. As noted above, lobbyists for mere aggregates of individuals, as opposed to corporations, especially at the national level have nothing to lobby with but our allegedly likely votes or our voluntary contributions to whatever organizations we belong. Even then, having to work through remote leaders (heads of trade unions, e.g.), individual voters or blocs of voters are much farther removed from actual representation than their corporate opposite numbers; only working on actual campaigns places them within or at least close to the nexus of power. And since the entire purpose of the truly represented few is to ensure that as little as possible is actually decided by the outcomes of campaigns, even these connections are of minimal effect for most people. For the rest, “representation” consists of the hope, often to be thwarted, that the reward for “participation” will at least vaguely have something to do with the expectations they carried into the process. Beyond that, a small--given the constituency sizes involved, usually a very small--proportion of the electorate may get some kind of personal assistance from a legislator’s office, usually to smooth the way in dealing with some bureaucracy; almost never to hear with attention what they might have to say on general issues of policy and governance.
All of this is well known; it would take many books even to approach an accurate accounting of truly representative acts--the kind that have nothing to do with what happens in voting booths or letters to one’s senator or representative--at the various levels of American government. In most common understandings of the term, these “truly representative acts” would be designated by their appropriate name, “corruption.” Though these are not usually straightforward transactions between the bribers and the bribed, since most of the time they consist simply of securing a place at the table, it is a place that is denied to most people and therefore generates a special and--given the designated ends of supposedly representative government--corrupt relationship. So used are the American people to this massive corruption that most of our history books barely mention the constitutional case law development that led to the recognition of corporations as legal “persons:” a development so decisive that for many decades after the passage of the 14th Amendment it was easier to get the Federal courts to apply its protections to corporations than to the actual human individuals for whose protection that Amendment was designed. This approach to personhood and citizenship is hardly self-evident; in post-Apartheid South Africa, for example, corporations are considered to be nothing more than legal entities governed by the state, and not at all subject to the constitutional protections of individuals. The upshot of the American version of rights, however, is that the integral connection between trust and respect for persons and meaningful freedom to participate is effectively and systematically undermined.
This dichotomy, between the truly represented and the mostly unrepresented, suggests one obvious answer to our question about the true nature of representation. Acts of representation of individuals occur all the time, as undertaken by attorneys, authorized spokespersons, community activists, and so forth. Democratic representative government, however, mandates the equal representation of persons whose needs, interests, or passions require expression in public political space if they are to be heard and potentially heard effectively. But to be equally represented does not necessarily mean that we as individuals should be more effectively represented than we already are; rather it means that no one else should be either. In fact the authors of this essay, as well-paid professionals in the information sector, are perhaps slightly more effectively represented than is the average person, but this need not be the case. In a system geared more to popular and less to corporate representation--say one involving proportional representation, and more highly organized and ideologically structured parties--our fragmentary but recognizable access to institutions of government and administration could possibly be available to almost anyone. The absolutely crucial point is that no more than that should be available to anyone else by virtue of either wealth or position; that oligarchy should be abolished. Rousseau’s words are still the best exposition of this principle: “With regard to equality, this word must not be understood to mean that degrees of power and wealth should be exactly the same, but rather that with regard to power, it should be incapable of all violence and never exerted except by virtue of status and the laws; and with regard to wealth, no citizen should be so opulent that he can buy another, and none so poor that he is constrained to sell himself.” (The Social Contract, Bk II, ch. xi; italics added). Of course in the modern world, as contrasted to Rousseau’s, the reality is not that the opulent or the powerful can buy the votes of the poor but that they can buy the votes of the legislature. This happens every day in every legislature in every state of the American Union, in most cities and towns, and above all in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House and all its outlying offices. Contrarily, representative democracy is taking place when the ideas and interests of each person have an equal chance of being communicated to those who make and administer policy by persons whose communications have an equal chance of being heard; when financial exigencies do not determine access to the ballot, or to debates, or to media coverage; when limits on the public space available to everybody are the same as the limits on public space available to anybody. In fact a lottery determining who gets to meet with the elected official of their choice (or who gets to make a televised address to their neighbors on public television) would be strikingly more democratic than existing mechanisms of influence, and not at all inefficient. This is not, in other words, to state an utopian ideal, but simply to re-state what we mean by “representative government.” Many such mechanisms of equal representation are conceivable; it is not our intention to imagine them all here. Rather, we simply ask, whatever a democracy is meant to be, if it is not constituted by acts of equal representation, then what warrant have we to call it “democracy?”
Again, “oligarchy” would indeed seem to be the proper term here, but in that case we need a new “democratic” theory, or at least some serious amendment of the old one. What are the virtues of oligarchy? What relationship does it have to representative government? Is the one merely “the best possible shell,” as Lenin put it, for the other? This prospect is the genesis of our neologism, “representative oligarchy.” In Aristotle’s discussion of the types of government, democracy--by which he meant the Athenian version of direct participation--devolved into tyranny in its degenerate form. That remains a possibility in the contemporary world, and therefore conditions of minority and individual right, how they are institutionalized and how they are maintained, are not incidental but central to democratic theory and practice both. However, an equally important threat is what we have called the systemic relationship between “representative democracy” and “representative oligarchy,” the latter not only always impinging on the former but threatening to replace it in the absence of any counter-movement. That being the case, democratic theory properly conceived must also have at its center an account of the practices necessary for maintaining the boundary between the two, or for restoring democracy when the oligarchy attendant on the unregulated triumph of corporate capitalism has corrupted its institutions. It will not do, in this respect, simply to reiterate the alleged unavoidability of the neo-realism (or neo-Machiavellianism) that came to be called the “theory of democratic elitism.” The neo-realists--Weber, Mosca, Michels and their latter-day followers--highlighted the necessity of leadership and expertise in the modern state. In retrospect the relationship of their elitism to more traditional and idealistic notions of democracy appears benign, when compared to the contemporary apotheosis of oligarchy. This system is not in any way either democratic or truly elitist, consisting as it does of rule by the wealthy, the well-connected, and their “organic intellectuals”--including those so-called “religious leaders” who front for the corporate order--unmarred by any pretense of elite wisdom or knowledge and with only the relentlessness of their lust for power to legitimize it.
The reduction of governance to the mere aggrandizement of power renders all its forms equally corrupt. Democracy, in the best American tradition at least, has typically been thought rather to have two central components: self governance and some ethical notion about how citizens should behave toward one another. Almost all social contract theory (the type of theory upon which the American founding was based) attempts to justify limits on self governance (i.e. state institutions such as the law) through an appeal either to some allegedly experiential reality, famously in Hobbes as fear, or some moral reason for agreement on self limitation, famously in Kant as dignity. For Kant, the only reason we would agree to any form of government is the promise that such a social formation allows each one of us to exist as an equal citizen and as a free subject. This articulation of freedom is self-limiting in that my freedom as a subject to pursue my own desires can only be limited by other subjects who have a claim on me because they are also equal citizens. Thus for example the extraordinary, contemporary notion of “property” as conveying uncontrollable rights against the moral community rather than an opportunity to enter it on equal terms, is completely incompatible with equal citizenship among subjects possessing equal dignity. Self-limitation, in other words, and the acceptance of limits on self government is for Kant only justified by the achievement of a moral community rooted in both freedom and mutual respect. What other justification can there be?
Of course, the question of what having freedom and respect demands of government is a huge question for democratic theorists. In the past century it was John Rawls who most forcefully argued that equality and freedom would demand the promotion of an egalitarian community, limited only by those inequalities that would make the worst in society better off. Other theorists each in their own ways have argued that equality and freedom are the basis of an acceptably moral community in which some meaningful notion of justice is both the goal and--at least partially--the practice. Our contemporary practice, however, is obviously a far cry from this kind of understanding of the requirements and limitations of self government, an understanding that is rooted in a notion of moral and ethical standards for a just political community. Instead, in political theory today the reigning view of the social contract, as promoted especially by rational choice theory and often justified through reference to either Thomas Hobbes or David Hume, argues that the only limitation that we as greedy, aggressive creatures would ever agree to has to be understood as an expression of our naked self interest.
For both Kant and Rawls, and for ourselves as well, contrarily, the promotion of an egalitarian moral community is integral to the practice of democracy. This is not simply because without equality people cannot participate in meaningful structures of representation that ought to be inherent within a democratic system, but also because the very idea of a just and democratic community turns both on our participation within and equal treatment by the state. And equal treatment by the state means that people must be able to equally participate in its many institutions to ensure the at least some menaningful semblance of reality of that treatment. Here, however, the domination of money and capital coalesces with a “winner take all” mentality and electoral structures that, although not unique to the US, are more and more shunned by the rest of the democratic world, especially new constitution-makers. In some parliamentary democracies, even after electoral defeat opposition parties continue to be represented in the government as high up as the presidential cabinet. (This is the case, for example, in South Africa, where the president is required to appoint a percentage of cabinet members from the rival parties). In the American polity, instead, so-called rational self-interest dominates our thinking unless it is to be sacrified for the sake of order, its sinister companion that is more and more interpreted as dominance over others. Combined with the structures of winner-take-all, this ideology leads to the justification of governance as sheer force that we see on the contemporary scene: a justification incompatible with the democratic idea.
This raises the question whether we are we talking about democracy in general, or the US in particular. In a sense the appropriate answer to this question would be “both,” for although the description of representative oligarchy we are developing applies to the US in particular today, further analysis suggests a potential problem for democracy in general. In any comparison to what social scientists have called “stable democracies,” i.e. Western Europe and some of the descendants of the British Commonwealth, as well as societies struggling to become stable democracies--e.g., South Africa, Poland--two unique features of the American polity stand out; together they might point to a general principle. First, the United States is by any historical standard (with appropriate modifications for the nuances of historical development) an empire. We suggest that there is no such thing as a democratic empire; that the forms of governance in empire at best fluctuate between tyranny and what we’ve called representative oligarchy. Since empire subordinates the people to the nation, and the nation to the requirements of an imperium spread over thousands of miles, the principle of popular sovereignty must be abandoned in practice, whatever of it remains in public relations. What disappears is even the minimal requirement of representative government as described by Mill, that the activities of the executive be subject to judgment by the “suffrage of the nation.” In this respect representative oligarchy is more profoundly oppressive than the traditional monarchies of the past, in that the very irrationality of the latter bred checks, resistances, and revolutions in society. The oligarchy of empire, per contra, already encompasses these in its pretense of democratic legitimacy: a pretense that can’t be effectively resisted without destabilizing the imperium that depends on it. If a faux democracy commits a “long train of abuses,” in whose name are they to be rectified?
The second distinctive (although not unique) contemporary feature of the American polity, that may or may not be historically related to the impositions of empire but dovetails neatly with them, is the profound absence of what Rawls describes as an overlapping consensus on constitutional essentials and ethical principles. We do not mean to imply, as Rawls himself did not, that just any overlapping consensus is sufficient for maintaining the democratic commitment; the developing nationalist consensus in France, for example, is stifling rather than empowering, and potentially racist rather than democratic. But some version of an overlapping consensus on essentials and principles may just the same be a necessary precondition of “democracy within one nation.” In Rawls’s formulation, any “decent hierarchical” regime is compatible with the nascent “law of peoples,” but the concept of a “decent hierarchical” regime surely excludes, among other possibilities, both theocratic totalitarianism and institutionalized racial oppression; excludes, that is, any regime based on the anti-democratic creed of authoritarian populism.
However, the contemporary variant of authoritarian populism that may properly be called “theocratic totalitarianism,” is precisely the movement that not only governs or competes for governance in several Islamic states, but that at the present moment has taken over one of the two major US political parties, thus effectively and legitimately vying for governing power in this nation. It is theocratic because it is based on an interpretation of faith and scripture that names opponents as fundamentally evil; totalitarian because it permits of no boundaries, no limits, in the exclusionary war against that “evil.” As in the classic picture of totalitarianism, this theocracy erases the distinctions between public and private, political institutions and civil society, moral judgment and punitive sanction, due process and arbitrary power; the assault on judicial independence that surfaced during the Terri Schiavo case is only the most frightening instance of this impulse to tyranny. Fundamentalist Christian totalitarianism thus raises the question that surfaced in the Communist control cases of the 1940s and ‘50s, particularly Dennis v. U.S.: what is the place of anti-democratic beliefs in a democratic society? Dennis and like cases, however, were indeed merely about beliefs. They presented the instance of a purely hypothetical subversion allegedly--but not truly--endangering the survival of democratic institutions. Contemporary theocracy, in contrast, poses as a version of democracy itself: subversion masquerading as the thing it subverts, in an all-out takeover bid. We do not, it should be clear, advocate some version of “repressive tolerance” by which we mean to outlaw intolerance: it is much more likely to outlaw us! Rather we raise the question: is there in fact such a category as “anti-democratic belief systems?” If there is any such category, contemporary American theocracy surely belongs in it. Allied with the institutions of representative oligarchy in the pursuit of world-wide dominance and empire, it creates a political discourse and a public political space hostile to what most democratic theorists think of as democratic, representative, limited, government. Moreover, the monopolized mass media in the US treat this anti-democratic discourse as though it were perfectly ordinary, even normative; so that, to take just one among many examples, the nationwide assault on science and reason that takes place under the name of “creationism” goes uncritically reported (when it is reported at all), while the politics of anti-imperialism or secular ethics are virtually silenced. What then is the appropriate description of a polity that is open to domination by such a discourse, and to conquest by such a space? Again, we suggest that the answer is not any variant of democracy, but rather representative oligarchy. Therefore, once again we need to be asking ourselves whether or not the United States is actually a democratic nation, to be bringing democratic theory face-to-face with the most pressing issues of the time.
Sadly, the question and problem of representation does not end here. Representation is a matter not only of the expression of political will but of political ideas as well. Thus the entire liberal democratic tradition turns on a rowdy notion of a free press and the right of free expression, but in the US the “free press” largely inverts its original purpose. The press in a sense has only become “free” from those who would challenge it by, for example, demanding a response as a matter of right and not as a matter of editorial happenstance. As capital and wealth become increasingly the moving force of our society, and the means of mass communication are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, there are by that token fewer places where the populace can actually congregate, literally or figuratively, to express and represent its opinions to each other and amongst one another. Yet, freedom for self expression, at least as expressed by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, turned on the idea that human beings should be able actually to express themselves in public and be heard. The very life force of democracy, in other words, turns on the promotion and defense of endless civic questioning of the status quo and contestatory debate. However, not only is the American polity far from achieving the ideal of self governance, but those members of the polity who hold unpopular views usually find out exactly how difficult it is to actually get their ideas out there in what are supposed to be public media, the space that count the most when it comes to trying to access the larger social imaginary. Occasionally, there are important exceptions such as Michael Moore and his film Fahrenheit 911, which is of course exactly that: an exception. The paucity of examples of dissenting thought being able to enter into mainstream media--when was the last time Noam Chomsky appeared on a cable opinion program?--is made more crucial by the fact that the gigantic industry of visual information media is in effect controlled by fewer and fewer people, as media consolidations become not the exception but the rule in business regulation. So it is not ancillary to democratic theory but central to it that we think through what are the conditions of self expression and representational contestation that are necessary to the heartbeat of democracy, and to what degree the American polity fails in meeting those conditions. The ideal of representative democracy supposes that while it is impossible to reach actual unanimous consensus to self governance, as many as possible differing voices must be given the space for representation and self-expression. The right to have differing voices speak and be heard is not only crucial to ensuring that representative democratic institutions work, but also to strengthening the existence of a community in which, at least in principle, all voices are to be considered equally.
But here instead the demands of empire make themselves felt. In a profound sense, as Chomsky reminds us, we have been asked to defer democracy in the name of an infinite war on terror. Since there is no end to the war there is also no end to the deferral. Most importantly, given what happened at the World Trade Center serious public discussion was never more needed than at that juncture, yet none was forthcoming, neither debate nor dissent; and those who sought either were condemned as un-American. Most significant from our point of view is that public discussion could not get off the ground because there was no meaningful way to get any alternative point of view heard in public space.
In highlighting these concerns about the limits on speech as the expression of interests, beliefs, and needs, we are not trying to resurrect a theory of false consciousness or a right-wing theory of manipulation, with all the questionable assumptions they suggest. What we want to emphasize, rather, is the systemic nature of the mass communications system, especially commercial television: its overwhelming monopoly of visual and verbal communications, and the concomitant condition that is best described as cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism,again, comports well with oligarchy but poorly if at all with democracy. The space for expression and therefore for conception--since very few people generate their ideas about life wholly out of their own heads--is taken over and monopolized, so that one set of ideas about both what people’s interests might be and what is the appropriate way to express them becomes dominant in public space. Not exclusive but dominant; and though not comprehending only the narrowest range of conceptions still leaving out entirely what is actually a broad range. (For example, almost every crucial point about almost every political issue would be raised in a debate among Marx, Marcuse, Foucault, Arendt, and Chomsky, could they be gathered together at one place and time; but this is not true when they and their like are excluded). This colonization of public space narrows what can be said, and after a while the narrowing of what can be said narrows what can be thought, since there’s no practical point in thinking it. All this happens in the logic of the system; it requires no straightforward manipulation of people, nor any assumption that they don’t know their own interests or are not being allowed to express their own thoughts. Just the same, the result is a perversion of discussion without anyone having been in charge of perverting it--just as though there were a commissar of speech without there actually being one, or having to be one.
It is not that we are told what to eat; it’s that there’s nothing else on the table. Commercial television especially, the dominant institution of public space in American society, is a total, self-referential world, designed to screen out all alternatives to passive consumption and complaisant acceptance of the social order. As well, by virtue of their guaranteed national access, the networks effectively set the costs of a visually interesting production, and the rates for nationwide advertising, well above the level that any independent producers can hope to pay. All in all, neither common carriers nor middlemen of the creative arts, they are essentially private profit-making machines with enormous incomes generated by whatever it is they choose to do, and guaranteed by public license to monopolize the channels they possess to the exclusion of all others. What they actually produce is a visual culture of almost total alienation. For however we might try to define it, consumer democracy is not really democracy in any meaningful sense of the word, in any sphere of production and consumption whatsoever. It is true that the alienation of culture’s consumers could only be completely abolished in utopia. Realistically, only some people are creative artists, and only some people are both knowledgeable followers of and communicators about the infinite world of public events. That being the case, the rest of us will not live lives in which we can hope, strictly speaking, to imbue the public sphere with our own representations of ourselves and our beliefs about the world. But for all that realistic truth, there are degrees of alienation, even in the realm of mass communication. Cinema, for example, as manipulative and fetishistic as it can be, does not present itself as the very background of life, does not relegate other kinds of understanding and (re)presentation to the sidelines. It presents itself only as one among many varieties of public communication; more ubiquitous than most because it is a mass art, but hardly hegemonic. As full of stereotypes as it is, it has comparatively little imperial power over the level and content of public discussion; and as a medium it is much more pluralistic, in that there hardly any such thing as “independent film” (or anything), let alone foreign film or “art film” or genuine documentary, on commercial television. That is the level of power, at a minimum, to which we should want to reduce television. In the spheres of both entertainment and information, the slogan of “a marketplace of ideas,” as tired and misleading as it is, would if implemented constitute a tremendous improvement over the existing conditions of monopoly. Not an escape to some utopian condition of total non-alienation, but a comparatively simple transformation of television’s products to the normal status of commodities in a capitalist society, is what is required.
The unique structure of alienation of the television system is that we have ceded to it, unlike any other producer of commodities, preeminence over other realms of activity–politics, sports, the education of children, information about our major institutions, and so on. In actuality, the system doesn’t communicate about or report on or tell stories about those realms: it reconfigures them in its own image. What we are alienated from most importantly then is not ourselves, as in the language of psychoanalysis; or our productive capacities, as in the language of Marx (though both of those accounts are in some part true). We are alienated from the public sphere in its totality, because we participate neither in the making and remaking of it, nor in discussions about it; all that is done for us. The only way then to combat this structure of alienation is to restore that sphere to itself as much as may be possible, by stripping the system of its power over ourselves, our time, and what ought to be our, that is everyone’s, public space. Instead of attempting to imitate the mindless flailings of the conservative moralizers, then, democratic critics of the mass media system should give up any attempts to evaluate its products (beyond the occasional expression of our personal opinions about them), let alone to affect its output, and instead consider an entirely different question: how to remake the system so that it might be compatible with the restoration of free expression to its appropriate place in a democratic polity? Whatever the precise answer may turn out to be, the democratic principle is that all of us, or our genuine representatives, have the same meaningful chance to engage in the shaping of ideas about what constitutes the public sphere; how these ideas are debated; and how we resolve fundamental disputes within that sphere.
At the present moment, instead, representative oligarchy and the mass media have found a perfect match in each other. In practice, the neoliberalism upon which contemporary oligarchy is based has cemented an alliance between the supercorporate class--the controllers of most private capital--and the professional communications class. The latter lives off high salaries and pension funds, both of which are dependent on the performance of capital for their value--as opposed to, e.g., social security, which is dependent on the performance of the government for its value, and therefore has no one of any true power minding its store. (Both parties have participated in the looting of its trust fund without qualm.) The result is that any putative ideological representation of the material (as opposed to symbolic) interests of the bottom 80 % of the population, would conflict with the material interests of those who do the representing. Thus the collaboration of the communications elite with the corporate agenda in its major, ruling class, anti-popular outlines, leaves that elite open to attack on the cultural issues where it is isolated, and where the ruling class will not defend it against those authoritarian attacks from below which are the only grounds on which “below” can successfully attack it. (As the cases of Dan Rather and Easson Jordan demonstrate, the real media powers will throw media professionals overboard at the first moment they become embarrassing to it.) The point of this critique, then, is that the narrowing in of free speech consequent on the alliance of neoliberalism and corporate power is not just a matter of policy but of class order itself: of oligarchy.
At the same time, finally, we think it is necessary not to fall into the trap of thinking of representative oligarchy as a totally closed system. In many ways, admittedly, the political world which we have described, in which people have less and less access to public information and less and less ability to participate in anything even resembling public will formation, would seem to ally us with Sheldin Wolin's idea of inverted totalitarianism. What Wolin seeks to analyze as an ideal type is precisely the kind of totalizing ideology in which the very concept of “democracy” changes so that our freedom is presented to us as "something" that can not be other then our right to buy the latest brand of shampoo. Wolin tells us that in this condition we do not need to be controlled by overt repression, because the inaccessibility of opposition forces on the Left to anyone but our own micro community makes us more and more irrelevant. To be relevant or to be heard we have to say what we do not mean. If we say what we mean then we are not heard. This diagnosis calls to mind, for instance, the advertisements against President Bush that were censored by CBS during the 2004 Superbowl last year, even though Moveon.org raised the necesary funds for this increasingly prized commercial advertisement space; one could multiply such examples unendingly.
However, Wolin's solution to all of this is what he calls “fugitive democracy:” to give up all big battles including the grandest one of all: the seizure of state power. But that would also take our attention away from the fundamental changes in both electoral politics and the politics of communications, without which the battle against oligarchy can only be lost. These changes can not be accomplished done community by community, or in a place where we can hide out from the totalizing consumer world we live in. Therefore, although we accept much of Wolin's analysis of what is wrong with what he calls inverted totalitarianism, we do not think that progressive forces can rely on fugitive democratic struggles alone. We agree, and emphasize, that only constant engagement in local struggles can bring about the kind of psychic change that might at least begin to breath life back into the demos. But it would be disastrous at the same time to ignore the necessity of the thinkable reforms that alone can begin to right the balance, now so badly out of kilter, between democratic representation and oligarchy. Again we insist that the kinds of proposals for basic institutional change that grow out of our diagnosis--curtailing the role of money in political campaigns, restricting the lobbying process, subjecting corporations to meaningful regulation in the interest of preserving public space, breaking up media monopolies, adopting variants of proportional representation wherever possible--are not utopian. In one form or another some of them already exist here and there in the world of democracies, and in fact they would be not at all difficult to implement if the will to do so existed; if, that is, the will to live in a representative democracy rather than representative oligarchy existed among us. The essential first step, for us, is to begin by naming what has been lost: democracy. Beyond that, if it true that there is a dynamic relationship between public life and individual character, then what may be at stake is not just our political institutions but our very fullness as human beings.