Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Have been meaning to...

... to write about Eric Alterman's recent article in The Nation, "Kabuki Democracy," not so much because I disagreed with it as because I wasn't sure it went far enough down into the roots of the problem.

Babara Ehrenreich has apparently gotten the same feeling as have I, as she explains here.

But, to explain a bit, we've likely (as Charles Pierce put it in his excellent recent book, Idiot America) become a bit too dependent upon what the Founders thought as a way of defending our points of view, as if they were oracles that could see much farther into the future than mere mortals, which is a fatal assumption. Some of this impulse comes from a solid decade of the Bush and Cheney and Obama administrations making a frontal assault on civil rights. In such times, it's a natural inclination to return to the founding documents and their authors for rebuttal.

Unfortunately, those rebuttals, however well-founded in plain language, have been about as effective, practically, as a popcorn fart stopping a windstorm. There are probably two major reasons why, and both of them might well go back to the structure the Founders created for us.

The first and most obvious is that the Founders chose not to address the issue of money in politics, and collaterally (although some had tremendous misgivings about them) never addressed the issue of political parties. The latter was certainly inevitable--even if the writers of the Constitution has specifically barred the formation of political parties, legislators still would have coalesced along informal ideological boundaries into groups that would have functioned much the same as political parties do today.

The issue of money, however, is one that they could have addressed and did not. The originators of the Constitution held private property in high esteem. That much is apparent in the language of the document--the regulation of commerce among the states, the limitation of voting to men of property--so there was little inclination on their part to limit the use of personal wealth in the political world. I would guess this was a reactionary position on the part of merchants to a feudal system in which wealth and political power were concentrated in a royal aristocracy. They likely felt--by extending political power to all with property--they were greatly expanding the power of the people when compared with the system they were opposing.

Even so, a few of them, such as Jefferson, thought that the accumulation of wealth could in time create what he termed "artificial aristocracies," which might function in governance in ways very similar to the royal aristocracy which was the bane of their collective existence, and that the surest way of preventing the rise of such an aristocracy was through a system of taxation of income designed to prevent the formation of such an artificial power base, which Jefferson saw as needing to be "geometric" in nature. Jefferson was describing the progressive income tax system, as it existed in this country from the 1930s through roughly 1963.

So, was Jefferson the first socialist? Hardly. Jefferson's conception of democracy was, generally, that any well-informed citizen could make the decisions necessary for his own governance through his representatives, and that unnatural concentrations of power (via large amounts of money) in the hands of the few mooted such a democracy. Jefferson was describing not the necessity for redistribution of income, but, rather, the need for a leveling of political power among individuals to preserve democracy.

In one sense, the system of government was set up with roughly equal powers to limit any one branch from dominating government, or, in theory, government from exercising tyrannical state power against the individual. The premise of government, then, was a leveling of political power within government and within the society which chose the governors.

For a lot of reasons, including the ceding of Congressional power to the Executive with the creation of the national security state in 1947, the balance of power has become increasingly lopsided, which calls into question whether or not we effectively operate as a democracy any longer. Much of that lopsidedness has to do with the concentration of wealth in a few individuals which Jefferson feared. Since the courts have increasingly chosen to see corporations as having the rights of citizens, they, too, must be considered as individuals with concentrations of wealth unhealthy to democratic rule, as Jefferson envisioned it.

Yes, here I am depending upon one of the Founders again, but, only to demonstrate that Jefferson may well have been the most far-sighted of the bunch, given how we've turned out, two hundred and twenty-odd years after the ratification of the Constitution, and to illustrate the great paradox of our time. Even if we recognize that the country's laws are shaped to ensure the continuing accumulation of wealth by the wealthy, even if we recognize that the political power of the wealthy increases commensurate with their economic power, even if we recognize that our own power has been diminished by this system, we're powerless to interrupt or rectify that process, simply because the people we elect are the very people most dependent upon that system for their reelection. Their self-interest is at odds with our own.

Which is why we've been completely unable to either derail or thwart the artificial aristocracy that now controls the system. There are fixes that would be rather simple and egalitarian and enforceable, such as a number of public election finance schemes (which, thanks to the stacking of the Supreme Court with functionaries of that artificial aristocracy, now will require a Constitutional amendment), but, none have been implemented, and the why of that is obvious.

More recently, the problem of the revolving door between government and corporation has become acute--and blatant--and is perhaps the worst of all indicators that the artificial aristocracy and government work hand in hand. Again, the fix is simple. Bar members of government, including Congress and Congressional staffers, from working as lobbyists to government or working for firms that do business with the government for twenty years after public service. Bar the military from working for firms that do business with the government for twenty years after leaving the military. Bar Executive branch agency officials for twenty years from working for the firms those agencies regulate. Simple legislation. It, too, will never happen, because even the most democracy-minded of elected representatives are compromised by the very system which has over time evolved in this country to benefit that artificial aristocracy.

Needless to say, even those in government who recognize the visionary perception of Jefferson in this regard are unable or unwilling to implement the means he suggested to prevent or ameliorate the problem, and are, instead, lost in the midst of quibbles about whether or not the expiration of a tax cut on the wealthy constitutes a tax increase; meanwhile, any resolution of that problem still leaves the wealthy with an extraordinarily undemocratic level of power in government, which is precisely why those quibbles were fostered, promoted and chewed on interminably in the media--to serve as a distraction from the underlying problem.

Today, the idea that democracy works best when in the hands of people with equal political power is a radical one. Even the Founders would not go so far in Jefferson's direction as to put that level of power in the hands of ordinary people. Even after enumerating a Bill of Rights protecting basic freedoms for all, when virtually all of which were intended to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority and the individual from the tyranny of the state, the Founders did not give the people the opportunity to control their national destiny by referendum, even with the counterbalancing force of a court system charged with the protection of civil and human rights.

We live now with what has evolved from the system left us by the Founders, one that to a considerable degree did not anticipate that the disproportionate accumulation of power through wealth would one day corrupt the very system of lawmaking and law enforcement upon which their society governed by rule of law would depend, and that would also shape and shift public knowledge and public opinion, as well as institutionalize governmental and corporate secrecy, in ways that would undermine the ability of the citizen to be truly well-informed, as the Founders said would be fundamentally necessary for effective citizenship in the democracy they launched.

So, for now, yes, finding candidates that somehow can prevail against the tremendously powerful (and, perforce, somehow resist the institutionalized corruption of the system as it is now, once elected) is the only avenue to change currently available. Still, over time, the imbalance of power has become so disproportionately large that we simply and finally must accept that our government is controlled by an artificial aristocracy, which to a considerable extent also determines the candidates for whom we may vote, thus further diluting the little political power we retain.

As with all other societies based on aristocratic control of government, ours will eventually succumb to the corruption that attends such aristocracies, and will lapse into a modern form of feudalism, signs of which are already apparent. It is important to note that if this happens, as looks likely, the fault is not in the concept of democracy itself, but in the inherent flaws of the system we inherited, that, like loose stitches in a sweater that, once pulled, unravel into an unrecognizable heap.

Therefore, we will need, eventually, to correct those flaws, perhaps through some national movement to write a new Constitution--outside of the traditional Constitutional Convention system which, because it is managed by that same aristocratic government, is sure to be corrupted itself--retaining the best ideas in the founding documents, but also adding those ideas that better undergird democracy in modern times, and then command the government to accept that document, through sheer force of numbers, or through mechanisms such as national non-violent sit-down strikes.

The inevitable alternative is revolution, and as I've mentioned here many times, that alternative is fraught with uncertainty. One never knows who prevails in such chaos, one can never minimize the human destruction or the damage to the national psyche, and the odds are at least even that what rises out of the ashes of violent revolution may be even worse than the previous status quo, however undemocratic that status quo may be.

Nevertheless, we are a nation in decline, and that decline is not measured by GDP, but, rather, by the degree of apathy and helplessness and powerlessness we feel, and increasingly, that we are being conditioned by the aristocracy to accept that state of affairs as normal, which it is not.


  • Montag: This is brilliant with brilliant sauce.
    If he were here I'll bet Jefferson would tip his tri-cornered hat to you. Sadly the modern day wearer would use his hat to hit you with while shouting, "Don't tread on me!"

    If you are ever visiting SF I'd love to meet you.

    By Blogger Spocko, at 3:03 PM  

  • Hey Montag:

    Found this through Spocko's link. Had no idea you have a blog, very nice. In future please don't be shy about linking to yourself, more people should be reading you.

    Appears we are more in agreement than not about the current state of affairs, and while I might quibble a bit over the historical argument - Jefferson wrote A Lot and much of it is contradictory, never mind the conflict between his posturing on paper for posterity and his private behavior, so I'm on balance less than thrilled about using him as an authoritative source...but again I quibble. Tying a Progressive agenda to Founder's Intent is I agree a good political strategy. As we have seen from the Right, it doesn't have to be strictly true to be effective.

    What to do about our current quandry? Nominate Progressive candidates in greater numbers? Sure but, how do we do that given the two-party stranglehold and how do we get them elected to office even if we secure such nominations? If more Progressive candidates only results in more Reactionaries being elected, I'm unclear on the advantage. I think we also need to shift the electorate itself as part of the process.

    A new Constitution? Rather a large undertaking and one that the elites will surely try to co-opt before it can do them any harm. Like an armed revolution, we could easily find ourselves worse off than we already are. Once launched, can we control the process and outcome?

    But I like your thinking, essentially that we damn well need to do something rather than sit back complaining that those in power aren't giving it up for us willingly. Good stuff, and that re-Constitution thingie might have some potential if approached from a slightly different angle.

    Thanks for this, look forward to more. FWIW, I'll put you on the blog roll.

    By Blogger Graham Firchlis, at 11:12 AM  

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