Is America Ready for Democracy?

Is this country ready for democratic elections? That’s a question we often ask about countries emerging from despotic rule or civil war. But it’s a good general question; it invites political introspection and collective self-criticism. With regard to our own country, there are reasons to worry.

First reason: the extent of inequality in American society. We have very old egalitarian commitments, but “under bad government,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract, “equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped.” Republican government would work, Rousseau thought, “only when all have something and none too much.” But that is not our condition in 2012, after three or four decades when government, if not always “bad,” has never been good enough. Historically, democratic political movements have been the work of “rising” social classes with rising expectations (like the famous French bourgeoisie of 1789). The grinding poverty of too many Americans today and the looming threat of impoverishment faced by too many others produce low expectations and political passivity, making democratic engagement very difficult.

Second reason: the power of the people with “too much” has been greatly augmented by recent Supreme Court decisions that allow our richest citizens to invest vast amounts of money in the candidates, parties, and causes they favor. The result is something very like an oligarchy—defined by Ernest Barker in his edition of Aristotle’s Politics as “a government of the wealthy…a plutocracy.” Aristotle regarded oligarchy as a perverted constitution, narrowly directed to the class interest of the rich. We aren’t there yet; countervailing class interests can still find expression in American political life. But the tendency toward oligarchy is certainly stronger than it has been at any point in the last seventy-five years. And the opposing forces, which have to count on numbers since they cannot count on riches, are harder and harder to mobilize—for reason number one.

Third reason: the collapse of the willingness to compromise that has always been critical to the success of democratic government. There are probably many explanations for this collapse, but the explanation with the greatest reach is simply the growing confidence, arrogance even, of the defenders of inequality and oligarchy. They believe they are winning and see no need for compromise. And that view, which may be strategically correct, undercuts the ongoing negotiation between Right and Left, between conservatives and liberals, that democracy requires.

When this issue of Dissent appears, the presidential and congressional elections, the great democratic festival, will be only weeks away. I don’t think that we are ready.

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