International Endowment for Democracy
www.internationalendowmentfordemocracy.org    or    www.iefd.org

Rethinking Democratic Theory:
The American Case

By Philip Green and Drucilla Cornell

According to all versions of democratic theory, however they may differ on the extent to which fully democratic institutions are thought to be practicable, "democracy" is about the authorship of collective decisions. People who are subject to laws are to be treated as if they willingly subjected themselves to such laws, to endorse their own personhood and to firmly ground a sense of collective agency. This ideal notion of authorship is of course not reducible to the actual making of decisions, particularly not in a system of representative government. Still, even democratic minimalists have suggested that at the very least this notion of expressive agency has to include some sense on the part of citizens that they can in different ways initiate political activity and influence public opinion. Thus it is basic to democratic theory that the idea and practices of democracy include some continual mediation between collective self-determination and the individual self-determination of particular citizens. It follows that some kind of equality of participation and discourse is needed for this mediation, so that citizens can feel that their own agency in political matters can potentially have an effect in the larger society.

It is not simply, then, that public opinion must be responsive to individuals; rather, it is that individuals, in accordance with the ideal of their ultimate authorship of the laws that apply to them, must have some actual impact on the form and content of law. Obviously, if conditions are such that citizens come to feel that they can have no impact, and that laws are made by those who in no way seem to take heed of or to need to take heed of their views, then the ideal of democratic government and the notion of authorship begins to unravel. What we are suggesting here is that this unraveling has now reached the point where it must be called into question whether the United States can be considered to have a democratic form of government in precisely this traditional sense.

We propose instead that the appropriate term for the American political system, in which the lawmakers, though elected, have a source of power distinctly separate from those to whom the laws are addressed, is not democracy or representative government, but rather "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.

Though the de jure rulers in the U.S. are not rulers in virtue of riches, the de facto rulers are, because no one can become a ruler without their support and approval. To understand the full significance of this condition, however, we must look briefly at the origins of Western democracy.

Over the past three centuries, capitalist economies and democratic, or quasi-democratic, political institutions have developed side by side. This is a case not of mutual support, but rather of a very fragile and often temporary compatibility. The historical result is that in any capitalist society, oligarchy and democracy coexist in a barely concealed struggle for dominance. As long as free and fair elections exist, so does the potential for majority representation. As long as capital is amassed in the hands of a minority, so does the potential for oligarchy: for the offsetting or overcoming of votes by money. Where the determining power of voting is extinguished we call the result oligarchy; where money cannot buy votes or policies, then there is representative government, or democracy. What determines the balance of the opposed forces at any given historical juncture? This question is not an easy one to answer, for the reason that it is not self-evident exactly what is at stake. That is to say, as is well known both "representative government" and "democracy" are heavily contested terms.

Thus 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.1 Even serious critiques of contemporary American politics seem to suggest by their very titles—e.g., Inclusion and Democracy, Democracy in Capitalist Times, Democracy's Place, Equality and Democracy—that in its main outlines the subject under discussion can be assumed to exist; it is the details that need to be criticized. 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 often not been addressed seriously enough by democratic theory is the question, What is representative government, really? In "rethinking democratic theory," we mean to highlight that question.

Considerations of how to make representative government work better for minorities have advanced this discussion greatly, but without directly asking: does representative government as we know it works for the people generally, for majorities? 2From 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), it still has to be asked whether a shallow formalism is really all that's required to make majority rule/representative government do its genuine work of mediation between the general and the particular. To help in answering this question, we have attempted to isolate six considerations. Before undertaking that discussion, though, we need to consider a neglected, seemingly ancillary, question that has suddenly come to the fore at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Simply put, the American electoral system is broken. This assertion is not founded in some extravagant theory of participatory democracy, but merely in recognition of the basic demand, that equal participation of citizens means that their votes ought to be counted. 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, if it is no longer possible to accept the standard version so easily, much in our thinking about representative government changes. That is, at this point in time it is not at all obvious what constitutes a "free" election, when was the last time (in the U.S.) there was one, and when if ever there might be 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. The presumably authoritative Supreme Court declared that a free and fair election took place in the United States in 2000, but there is no good reason to take the Court at its word. This is not a question of mere constitutional interpretation, which must always be open to question. Rather, it is reasonable to conclude that the Supreme Court majority was party to an overturning of what was supposed to be a free and fair election, but was not. Nor, given the technological takeover of the very act of voting, can anyone really be certain what to believe about the election of 2004. Indeed, the only thing that can be known for certain is that the last two presidential elections have been decided by the historically race-based practice of ex-felon disenfranchisement, a rarity in the democratic world and a repudiation of the basic right to the vote. To make matters worse, several of the American states have begun to institute the practice of requiring picture ID's for voter registration: a contemporary version of the "literacy" tests that have been used to disenfranchise minority voters in the past.

We recognize that it might well be asked, when were elections ever "fair" in the United States? 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; this was cheating on a human scale. The present electoral system, however, is best described as one in which a technology controlled by a small group of unaccountable people has so taken over, that it isn't even knowable whether there's cheating, or what scale it's on: it is within the system, not exogenous to it. Thus it is not clear at this point that there are more than merely prudential reasons for accepting the assumption that the United States federal government has a democratically elected executive branch. To be sure, the sitting though un-elected President was returned by a substantial popular majority in 2004. But this was after an historical accident gave him an opportunity that might otherwise not have existed to further embed the institutions and practices of oligarchy. In any event, in principle when elections stop doing their job, the way is prepared for oligarchy (if not tyranny) to replace democracy. With this in mind, we return to more general considerations.

  1. The role of money in politics.

    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.3 This decisive relationship between representation and capital is also highlighted by such historical anomalies as that, following a long run of decisions culminating in The Slaughterhouse Cases of 1876, corporations in the U.S. have been legally defined as persons before the law while, contrastingly, trade unions and other, similar agglomerations of citizens are not. In fact, 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 development climaxed with the Supreme Court's assertion in Buckley v. Valeo (424 US 1, 1976) that the political activities of corporations, including the spending of vast sums of money on political campaigns, are a First-Amendment-protected activity, and that this conclusion somehow applies only to individuals operating as solitary persons, or to entities that are in no way real individuals; not to the kinds of collectives of persons (such as trade unions) that make up the core of democratic participation. Here even the finest vision of political liberalism (it was Justice William Brennan who wrote the majority opinion in Buckley) was specifically put at the service of amassed capital. 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. "Authorship" is completely negated, except for the leaders of the corporate and financial worlds.

    Again, taken to its logical conclusion the end result can only be 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, though elected, governs at the approval of the few: this is representative oligarchy. In making this analysis, we proceed on the basis that "democracy" is not simply a "type of government" in the textbook 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, as we claim, democracy is failing.

    Of course, it might also reasonably be asked, has not the American political system in this respect always been a "representative oligarchy"? Here the answer is on the one hand, yes; but on the other hand representative oligarchy has always 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 at crucial moments a competitive system in at least some degree. From time to time, at any rate, it contained points of entry; for reasons having to do not only with the power of capital but with the further considerations we advance below, 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 specifically designed for the relief of rich people pass the national legislature without significant dissent. To be sure, the Democratic Party—some of it—has different deep pockets than the Republican Party: certain elements of the financial world, the world of entertainment, trial lawyers. But it is also beholden to many of the same corporate interests: they are where the money is. It's not that full-scale "representative oligarchy" is permanently unbroachable, but that at this historical juncture that is what it is. It is not merely historically contingent, but structural as well. In a nation where the upper house is a millionaire's club, and the lower house a collection of fiefdoms only a handful of which are contested electorally most of the time, the legislative branch is only marginally more representative than the executive. There is in a fundamental sense 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. And the ability to deliver votes, as with the influence of organized labor on the Democrats or the Christian Right on the Republicans, still counts for something. Just the same on issues of importance to capital, oligarchy almost always rules—after all, deregulation, the latest bout of "free trade," and even the attempt to privatize social security, all began within the Democratic Party. 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 construct a meaningful definition of "democratic."4

  2. The possibility of representation.

    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, of the mediation we describe at the beginning of this essay, 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 marginalized social groups and excluded minorities (e.g., Lani Guinier, or Iris Young). Yet it is not at all obvious what is being described by 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.5 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 usually no discernible "majority," real or fictitious, 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 totally a free agent is the equivalent of 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 the desideratum is responsive government, but what might that mean that is not just a version of utopian direct democracy? It is 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 at 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.6 Or as the journalist 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 Pharma," 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 the allegedly likely votes or voluntary contributions to whatever organizations we belong. 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 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.

    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 less dependent on capital for their livelihoods—our fragmentary but recognizable access to institutions of government and administration could possibly be available to almost anyone. The 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 even more crucially, 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 might 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 at a minimum 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 in another context, 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."7 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 (which can be seen at work in such European democracies as France or Germany) 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 wisdom or knowledge and with only the relentlessness of their lust for power to legitimize it.

  3. Democratic citizenship.

    The reduction of governance to the mere aggrandizement of power renders all its forms equally corrupt. Democracy 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, notoriously in Hobbes as fear, or some moral reason for agreement on self limitation, famously in Kant as dignity. For Kant especially, 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?

    Thus the question of what having freedom and respect demands of government is a question that must always be posed by democratic theorists. In the past century it was John Rawls who most forcefully argued that political 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.8 Our contemporary practice, however, is 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 (by tanguay). 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. (The contemporary American battle over social security is instructive here. Advocates of privatization point out that many people will be too well-off on retirement to benefit more than marginally from the relatively small pension that social security will grant them: why, then, should they be expected to support a system that truly benefits only the poorly off? This is one of those ethical questions that, if it has to be asked, can not be answered.)

    For both Kant and Rawls, and for ourselves as well, contrarily, the promotion of an egalitarian moral community based on at least some degree of reciprocity is integral to the practice of democracy. Without the idea and practices of reciprocity, people come to see each other's civil activities as isolated from or even hostile to their own. Without a meaningful degree of equality people cannot participate in the structures of representation that ought to be inherent within a democratic system, especially as the very idea of a just and democratic community turns both on popular participation in and equal treatment by the state. And equal treatment by the state in turn requires that people must be able equally to affect the activities of its many institutions to ensure at least some meaningful semblance of reality of that treatment. Here, however, the domination of money and capital coalesces with a "winner take all" mentality rooted in 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 U.S. polity, instead, so-called rational self-interest dominates thought, unless it is to be sacrificed 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 power lust: a justification incompatible with the realization of democratic self-governance. Since Nine Eleven moreover, there has been a profound and largely unchallenged remasculinization of public discourse in both politics and culture. Concomitantly, the sense of masculinity under threat produces a politics and culture of victimhood, a connection of citizenry to the nation that verges on paranoia. History testifies that this movement breeds an acceptance of violence as a moral norm, and an embrace of force as the ultima ratio regum, that are unalterably opposed to the ethic of fairness and civic equality upon which a stable democracy can only be based. This in turn points to our next, and perhaps most decisive, consideration.

  4. The question of empire.

    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—several unique features of the American polity stand out. First, the United States is by any historical standard (with appropriate modifications for the nuances of historical development) an empire. We suggest, however, 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 square 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." Most of the activities of "the nation" other than the use of military force, in fact, are undertaken neither by the executive nor the legislature but by giant corporations, with their acquiescence. 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, resistance, 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 at home 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? In any event, the doctrine of permanent warfare that is integral to the new imperial conception is meant to ensure that the opportunity to rectify abuses may never arise; government establishes itself as (in Charles Tilly's words) a protection racket based on fear that it itself creates.9 Moreover, permanent war is not just a doctrine but a reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Empire creates its own violent reaction, out of the volatile mixture of uneven development and consequent cultural rage, made much stronger by the evident disdain of the imperium for its subjects. As well, the bloated "defense" budgets it demands for its activities abroad make the egalitarian politics of democracy unaffordble at home. At the moment both major American parties are effectively committed to the militarized politics of empire, and seem especially loath to retreat in the face of that reaction. Moreover, the backlash that might ensue if one or the other did signal retreat, is an especially dangerous prospect given the ideological roots of today's representative oligarchy.

  5. The role of ideology.

    That is, another distinctive (although not unique) contemporary feature of the American polity, that dovetails neatly with the impositions of empire, is the profound absence of what Rawls describes as an overlapping consensus on constitutional essentials and ethical principles. This is not to imply, as Rawls himself did not, that just any overlapping consensus is sufficient for maintaining the democratic commitment.10 But some version of an overlapping consensus on essentials and principles, on what Robert Dahl called "the [democratic] Creed," may just the same be a necessary precondition of "democracy within one nation."11 The institutions of representative oligarchy, however, breeding cynicism about or even contempt for democratic representation on all sides, fit ill with the democratic creed. Rather, they are synergistic with another mode of political ideology, authoritarian populism, that is not at all democratic but rather is anti-democratic. The difference is profound. Majority rule, the heart of the democratic creed whatever its particular variations, 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, homosexuals, etc. Authoritarian populism, even though it certainly does not in principle command the affection of a majority of citizens, thus functions particularly well as the legitimizing creed of representative oligarchy, in that the authoritarian power of "the people" can be invoked to distract the electorate from its surrender of the ordinary powers of representative government to the few: to oligarchy. On issues of material well-being and distribution, oligarchy is utterly recalcitrant; but on cultural, sexual, and symbolic issues, it can be apparently responsive to brute popular will: i.e., in that one sense of the word, "representative."

    Nor would it even be accurate to say that the contemporary United States satisfactorily illustrates the concept of what Rawls calls a "decent hierarchical" regime that if not fully democratic is at least minimally compatible with "the law of peoples." That concept surely excludes, among other possibilities (such as institutionalized racial oppression), any variety of totalitarianism.12 However, the contemporary variant of authoritarian populism that may properly be called "theocratic totalitarianism," not only governs or competes for governance in several Islamic states, but at the present moment has effectively taken over one of the two major US political parties, thus effectively and legitimately vying for governing power. It is theocratic because it is based on an interpretation of faith and scripture that names opponents as fundamentally evil. It is totalitarian because it permits of no boundaries, no limits, in the exclusionary war against that "evil,"especially as seen in those forms of sexual behavior and attitude that manifest the irreversible decline of patriarchy. 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 notorious instance of this impulse to tyranny. Contemporary Christian totalitarianism thus raises the question that surfaced in the Communist control cases of the 1940' and '50', 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; about a purely hypothetical subversion allegedly—but not truly—endangering the survival of democratic institutions. The new theocracy, in contrast, poses as a version of democracy itself: subversion masquerading as the thing it subverts. Of course we do not advocate some version of "repressive tolerance" by which intolerance might be outlawed. 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 potentially normative. Again, to take just one among many possible examples, with few exceptions the nationwide assault on science and reason that takes place under its aegis often goes unreported or reported uncritically (or worse yet, with "balance," as in the case of the fraudulently named "intelligent design"), while anti-imperial or secular ethical discourses are virtually silenced. What is the appropriate description of a polity that is open to domination by an authoritarian discourse, and to conquest by such a space? Again, a polity open to the inroads of unreason is hostile to the kind of public discourse representative democracy requires, and is thus open to oligarchy.

  6. Communications monopolies and democratic politics.

    Representation, in other words, is a matter not only of the expression of political will but of political ideas as well. Obviously, it is the right to free expression that serves to mediate the two forms of self-determination, the collective and the individual. Thus this right to free expression must play an integral role for theories that seek to explain the value of democracy to its citizens. For this reason the entire liberal democratic tradition turns on a notion of a rowdy free press and right of free expression, but in the U.S. the "free press" largely inverts its original purpose. The press in a sense has become "free" only from those who would challenge its monopoly of public information. As capital and wealth become increasingly the moving force of 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.13 Yet, freedom for self expression, at least as expressed by theorists of liberty such as John Stuart Mill, turns on the idea that human beings should be able actually to express themselves in public and be heard. The life force of democracy is rooted in the promotion and defense of endless civic questioning of the status quo and contestatory debate.14 However, as media monopolization proceeds, 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: "the space for the renewal of the imagination and the concomitant re-imagining of who one is and who one seeks to become." In the age of mass communications, more and more of the realm of the imaginary for individuals is a public realm, and who controls that realm is thus crucial for the conditions of human individuation that undergird political equality.15 The paucity of examples of dissenting thought being able to enter into mainstream media 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.16 So it is not exogenous 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 life of democracy, and to what degree the American polity fails in meeting those conditions. The idea 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 with especial power. In a profound sense, as Noam 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, at least in a way that would require serious response.

    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 of allegedly elitist 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.

    Especially, 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. We are then 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 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. What kind of mass media of communications system might be compatible with the restoration of free expression to its appropriate place in a democratic polity is not a question we can answer here. However, 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 neoliberal political economy 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 interests of the bottom 80 % of the population, would conflict with the material interests of those who do the representing.17 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 neoliberal values and corporate power is not just a matter of policy but of class order itself; of oligarchy.

    This anatomy of representative oligarchy suggests two conclusions. First, it would be disastrous to fall into the trap of thinking of it as a totally closed system.18 There are basic institutional and structural reforms without which the failing balance between oligarchy and democracy cannot even begin to be righted, and which must be the objects of continued contestation. These reforms—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 hardly utopian or revolutionary. 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 the will to live in a representative democracy rather than a representative oligarchy existed among a secure majority of the American people.

    Therefore, second, and perhaps more fundamentally, what is at stake in the continuing contest between oligarchy and democracy is not just institutions and structures but the moral psychology of the citizens themselves. Movements for political reform may prove to be fruitless unless we come to have a more general appreciation among us of the relationship between the character humans manifest and the institutions they create. Without that understanding, democracy will be lost.




  1. Robert Dahl is an important exception to this generalization. Having introduced the term "polyarchy" to register the distance between actually existing representative government and "democracy," he then somewhat elided the distance betwen the two in works ranging from A Preface to Democratic Theory to Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy. More recently, however, as in his How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), he has become much more skeptical about the connection and sharply critical of the American system as a faux democracy.

  2. Among the most important of these are Iris Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), Lani Guinier's The Tyranny of the Majority (New York: The Free Press, 1994), and Wil Kymlicka's Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). It's instructive that the best recent general account of representation, Melissa Williams's Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failure of Liberal Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) has more to say about works such as theirs than about the basic problems of representation.

  3. See Ronald Dworkin's Sovereign Virtue: the Theory and Practice of Equality (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000), ch. 10.

  4. See, e.g., James Bohman, "The Democratic Minimum and Global Justice," Ethics and International Affairs, v. 19 no. 1 (2005), 102-116.

  5. The omnibus appropriations bill of 1996 was 3000 pages long.

  6. See Dan Clawson et al., Dollars and Votes: How Business Campaign Contributions Subvert Democracy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), p.69. Given the various other similar provisions that were slipped into that bill, it might well have wound up costing taxpayers and even workers more than the rise in the minimum wage benefitted the latter. The chapter in which this anecdote is embedded—"What A Typical Bill Is Like"—tells more about the political process of representative oligarchy than almost any imaginable textbook on American government. It's also important to note that the worst instance of corruption Clawson et al give comes courtesy of Democratic Senator John Breaux, demonstrating the reality of the one-party system at work.

  7. Peter Bachrach's The Theory of Democratic Elitism (Washington D.C.: University Press of America,1967, 1980) is the classic critique of this neo-realism.

  8. See, e.g., Ronald Dworkin's Sovereign Virtue (note 4 above), Philip Green, Equality and Democracy (New York: The New Press, 2000), and Carol Gould, Rethinking Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press,1988). Gould's "social ontology" has much in common with Cornell's conception of "the social imaginary;" see below, note 14.

  9. On the difference between legitimate protection and "racketeering," see Charles Tilly, "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime," in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Reuschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, eds., Bringing the State Back In (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 170-71.

  10. The developing nationalist consensus in France, for example, is stifling rather than empowering, and race-inflected rather than democratic. See Judith Ezekiel, "Magritte meets Mahgreb: this is not a veil," Australian Feminist Studies, v. 20 no. 47, 2005.

  11. Robert Dahl, Who Governs? (Yale University Press, 1960), ch. 24.

  12. See Rawls's The Law of Peoples; with the idea of public reason revisited (Harvard University Press, 1999). On "overlapping consensus" see Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993).

  13. There is no evidence so far that cyberspace in any way promises to be a satisfactory substitute for the real spaces in which speaking and publishing take place. On television and the monopolization of opinion, see Philip Green, Primetime Politics: The Truth about Conservative Lies, Corporate Control, and Television Culture (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).

  14. On the necessity of debate within the context of American idealism, see the "Introduction" to Rogers M. Smith's Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press,1997).

  15. See Drucilla Cornell, The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography, and Sexual Harassment (New York: Routledge, 1995).

  16. Recall, for example, the anti-War and therefore anti-Bush ads that were censored by CBS during the 2004 Superbowl, even though Moveon.org raised the necessary funds for this most prized of all commercial spaces; one could multiply such examples endlessly. Of course there are exceptions, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 being the most well-known. But it is so notorious precisely because it escaped the fate that otherwise awaits all products of the political documentary ghetto.

  17. See Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy, "Class and Income in the United States," New Left Review,30 (second series), November-December 2004, 105-133, for the best current analysis of U.S. income distribution.

  18. Compare our analysis with that of, e.g., Sheldon Wolin in the "Expanded Edition" of his Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). Wolin describes the American polity as already a system of "inverted totalitarianism," in which only the struggles of a "fugitive democracy" are possible. This approach, we think, surrenders ground that has not yet been permanently lost.



  
 
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