Is America Ready for Democracy?

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 t...

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