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Democracy in America, part 6: What's wrong with democracy in America?

What happens when transgression from a big and biased backstage arena is institutionalised, is that power shifts: from the public good to corporate interests. The sophisticated organisational work of the Koch brothers is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a future role here for Mr.Obama.

Stein Ringen
27 October 2014

American democracy has always been messy, rough and unruly. The political process has suffered under rampant manipulation, cheating and corruption. Even so, democracy has delivered and made America not only the world’s supreme power but also its lighthouse socially and culturally. Today, by common consensus, the American political system is dysfunctional and Washington bogged down in gridlock. This week's series of articles by Stein Ringen explores the state of democracy in America, covering gerrymandering and electoral fairness, presidential power and the use of signing statements, court activism and the Supreme Court, the incapacity of Congress, and the health of democracy overall.

The argument of these articles is that the present predicament is new. Dysfunction strikes deeper than good old rough politics. It is not only a matter of disorder in Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court. Beneath is a problem of power. The disorder that is visible in governance is a result of power being sucked out of the constitutional system and of a political culture that has abandoned inclusiveness and fairness. In a recent interview in London, Hillary Rodham Clinton said (in a matter of fact way), “our democracy is not working” (with Channel 4 News, on July 4 no less). If so, is the consequence not only dysfunction in Washington but also decline for America?

We have had two stories in this series, one of bad political performance and one of bad political culture. The performance story is about a Congress that is polarized and does less than it should and a presidency and Supreme Court that have taken on powers they should not have. The culture story is about ideas: a Congress that does not do its job is good enough. Presidents are in their right to refuse to implement Congress’s orders. A Supreme Court that does not apply the law but makes law is as it should be.

Which is the true story of the American system at this juncture? If it’s the performance story, we might think that Washington is in a nasty spell of good old messy politics and that the system will come through, as so often before. If it’s the culture story, the predicament might this time stick deeper. Government is not a beauty contest, it’s a getting done contest. The American system does not deliver. The question now is how deep the decay goes, to governance or all the way to democracy?

The reason America is not getting necessary governance is that there is gridlock in Washington. But the reason there is gridlock in Washington is not only party polarization and a lopsided relationship between Congress, the president and the Supreme Court. The deeper reason lies in shifting power relations in American society. Power is sucked out of the constitutional system and usurped by non-constitutional actors.

Political combat is fought, firstly, in and around the offices of government and in elections and campaigns. Let’s call this the onstage arena.

In addition, combat is fought outside of and behind the formal stage: in the media, in lobbying, in political advertising, by the display of economic power, by informal pressure, through think-tanks and political action committees, by pamphlets and tracts, and by manifestations, million man marches and direct action. Let’s call that the backstage arena.

Thomas Jefferson (1800),

Thomas Jefferson (1800), painted by Rembrandt Peale. Wikimedia/Public domain.In the onstage arena, Congress, the president, the parties and courts do battle over elections, budgets, taxes, laws, regulations and other policies. The backstage arena is the battlefield of culture. Here the contest is mainly over ideas, over the agenda, over which issues are to be salient for policy, over the permissible domain for political decisions, over what is to come on to the table onstage, over authority, over the government’s position and its control of the platform from which it can rule.

The cultural backdrop does not dictate what happens onstage but conditions it. Ideas, said the economist John Maynard Keynes, “are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” If you are able to make your ideas the prevailing ones, you are in control of the direction of public policy.

In a functioning democracy, the power of decision-making sits in the onstage arena. However, that functionality may be undermined by excessive influences from backstage. Informal politicking is normal and appropriate. People are entitled to defend their interests and to work for causes they believe in. Economic power is a fact of life. But fair governance depends on onstage institutions being able to mediate in the battle of self-interests and forge out of that battle rules and policies that are common and joint.

Power in the backstage arena can be engineered by those who control the relevant resources. Moneyed and corporate interests are the ones with clout. They can arrange the political architecture in three ways. The first way is to boost the size of the backstage arena. Those who have money can invest in it and create think-tanks, committees, political action groups and super-groups, websites, media organizations and so on. The larger the backstage arena, the smaller, relatively speaking, the onstage arena. The more forceful the influence of informal politicking, the more ideas and agendas are shaped behind the scenes and before formal politicking comes into play.

Sidney Falco and J.J.Hunsecker in the Sweet Smell of Success, United Artists, 1957

Sidney Falco and J.J.Hunsecker in the Sweet Smell of Success, United Artists, 1957. Wikimedia/Fair Use.The second way is through bias. Moneyed interests can buy up the backstage arena for themselves. They can invest in organisations of their own making, such as media organisations and think-tanks, and put in more money than the competition. They can pull in friendly intellectuals, give them space and resources. They can take control of the tenor of public discourse and the formation of ideas.

The third way is by the transgression of economic power into politics. In a democracy, candidates for office are supposed to be beholden to the voters. Since all voters have one vote, there is political equality and no voters can make candidates more beholden to themselves than to others. We get compromise policies.

When, however, money is allowed to transgress from markets, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business operating, those who control it gain power. Candidates and decision makers have to satisfy not only voters for their votes but also givers for their money. This encourages corruption, of course, but more fundamentally it allows the rich to buy influence, all the more so when political candidacy is mega-expensive as it now is in America.

The rich get two goes at influencing candidates and public policies, one as a voter and one as a giver, while the non-rich have only the single influence of the vote. And it’s actually worse than that. The poor are less likely to vote and have less voting power than they should have by their numbers. The potential givers are relatively few and the power of their money, certainly of the corporate money, is much more than that of an additional vote. Inflation in the price of politics causes the value of the vote to deflate. It is a misunderstanding to think that candidates chase money. It is money that chases candidates.

When backstage investment, bias and transgression reinforce each other systematically, sooner or later, a point comes when politicking in the onstage arena is unable to overrule the influences that bear down from backstage. It comes to be decided behind the scene who can run for office – those who can raise the money – and what they can do in onstage politics – that which is acceptable to those who hold the sway in agenda setting backstage and who have the ability and will to give or deny serious political money. Backstage actors win control over ideas and agendas. There will still be lively politics onstage, but the sum total of onstage and backstage politicking adds up so that not much remains of autonomous decision making onstage.

What happens when transgression from a big and biased backstage arena is institutionalised, is that power shifts: from onstage to backstage, from political to economic resources, from the public good to corporate interests. The ability of political power to dominate economic power evaporates, fair governance breaks down and the most well-meaning attempt to rule is frustrated.

During the last thirty years or so, there has been a reconfiguration of power in the American system. Political candidacy has become forbiddingly expensive so that it has become impossible to run for national or state office, other than exceptionally, without economic backers. So much does economic sponsorship matter that the balance in the various campaigns is routinely measured by how much money the contestants have raised. Politics is now caught up in an absurd and destructive arms race of money, which honest politicians on both sides no doubt hate but have no way of opting out of. So twisted has the logic of money become that even those who aim to clean money out of politics intend to do so by raising huge sums of money for their own cause.

While previously there was at least some balance backstage between corporate interests relying on the influence of economic resources and labour on organisational resources, capital has advanced in power while labour has declined. Capital has advanced by itself embracing organisational power and adding that to the force of its economic power. It has acquired organisational power through the building of a vast network of backstage institutions, overpowering onstage policy making by force of an ever bigger backstage arena that is ever more biased in favour of moneyed interests, and with the help of ever more sophisticated transgression. The sophisticated organisational work of the Koch brothers has been much noticed and commented on but is only the tip of the iceberg.

One consequence of this reconfiguration is that capacity and force in the onstage arena have withered. Laws and budgets are obviously still decided onstage (to the degree that the onstage system is able to get decisions made at all) but more than previously, much more, it is laid down backstage what can be decided and who the decision-makers are to be. Congress, in particular, has succumbed to backstage power. Because of the prevalence of safe seats, candidates can count on being elected or re-elected if they can get themselves nominated or re-nominated. For that, they are more beholden to economic supporters than to political voters. Here is the root cause of Congress’s incapacity. The Supreme Court’s crusade against campaign finance regulation, which is legally bizarre, only makes sense against the backdrop of a political culture in which corporate interests hold sway.

A second consequence is a shift in ideas about government and public policy. If we go back to the parade of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through to Lyndon Johnson before his demise, politics was fought predominantly onstage and with less powerfully organized interests. The political question was what governments could and should do, with taxation a background constraint. The eight years of Republican rule under President Eisenhower did not challenge the prevailing consensus. He was a fiscal conservative, but one for whom taxation was still a function of necessary action.

Now, in American politics, combat in the backstage arena matters more than what is done onstage for the shaping of public policy. Corporate interests have grasped that influencing proceedings in the onstage arena with the help of economic power does not give them control and that to be effective they must get into the act earlier with organisational power to dominate the ideas and agendas that shape the decision game. One result is a redefinition of the political question so that taxation has become the primary parameter, and government action the consequential one. That has made life difficult for those who are supposed to govern, for whom the need to tax is the Achilles heel, and easier for those who are content to prevent governance, who can always appeal to the pain of taxation.

Much could be done to overcome paralysis in the onstage arena, some of which we have visited in previous articles in this series: get rid of gerrymandering and signing statements, pull the Supreme Court down to earth, give Congress more workable procedures. But a reconfiguration of relations between the onstage and backstage arenas, which is to say a restitution of dignity and ability in Washington, is another matter. That goes to the core of power and political culture.

There have been radical, even revolutionary, shifts in political culture in America’s history. The “revolution of 1800” following Thomas Jefferson’s election as president represented a shift in values and mindsets so that it has come to be seen as a democratic consolidation, dismissing the aristocratic leanings of the original Constitution. Later in the century, under President Lincoln’s guidance, a progressive revolution was ensured when the country went to the extreme of civil war to preserve and improve the Constitution, and with the emancipation of the African American people as the eventual outcome. The two great transformative presidents in the twentieth century, President Roosevelt through his New Deal and President Reagan through his “government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem” both created radically new ideas about the role of government, although in opposite directions.

Reagan’s counterrevolution has so far endured. The reconfiguration of power that I have described represents its consolidation. Following the crash of 2008, when free market capitalism imploded in the same way that previously had cleared the ground for the New Deal revolution, we should have expected a new break in political culture, away from the big-business-small-government paradigm. But in a sign of how deep the reconfiguration of power has been, this has not happened.

In his first inaugural address, at the birth of the American republic, President George Washington defined the job of government as “the discernment and pursuit of the public good.” Society is not just a mosaic of private interests, there is also a public interest that transcends private divisions. Government is the instrument of that public good. Can America find its way out of its present irreconcilable divisions and back to a political culture around these simple ideas?

What is common in the previous revolutionary shifts is that the catalyst has been a towering presidential personality. President Obama might have been another such personality. He is a supremely attractive president with great leadership skills. His presidency will, when the dust settles, be seen as a great one. On his watch, the economy was pulled out of recession, the auto industry salvaged, consumer protection in financial markets improved, the country was extricated from the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan (but regrettably not from military action in the region), health insurance was extended to the working poor, and the dignity of the presidency was restored.

But Mr. Obama has not become the transformative president he aspired to be. He aimed, precisely, to restore workability to Washington. That has, however, proved to be not a matter of style but of power. Capacity will not be restored to Washington unless power is democratized.

There is little reason to hope that a next president will succeed in what Mr. Obama did not, or will even try to do so. But Mr. Obama could still be the transformative president America needs, if only after he is released from the strictures of office. The battlefield is not inside the Washington system but in the arena of political culture. There is no better platform from where to engage that battle than that of the respected ex-president.

President Obama at the UN General Assembly

President Obama at the UN General Assembly. Brittany Somerset/Demotix. All rights reserved.When President Eisenhower left office, he sounded a warning to the nation, in his magnificently prophetic farewell address, against the uncontrollable “military-industrial complex,” the influences of which, he said, were “economic, political, even spiritual” and “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” The nation should have listened more attentively than it did to its wise outgoing leader. His prophecy has come true, but even more so than he feared. The constitutional system has become distorted not only by the influence of a military-industrial complex but by the dominant power in the backstage arena of a politico-corporate complex.

Mr. Eisenhower had felt the influence of the military-industrial complex and warned against it. No one has felt the influence of the politico-corporate complex as Mr. Obama has. He could follow Eisenhower’s example and warn the nation. This time, given the nation’s deep disaffection with the Washington system, it might listen. Mr. Obama could also, as Eisenhower could not, follow up on that warning and take on the battle that needs to be engaged for the soul of American political culture.   

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