The Extinction of American Democracy and Middle Class

It seems appropriate to express the possible extinction of democracy and the American working class on a day that is supposed to honor them. bison-middle

Why? Because Americans are sick of to death of politics and especially corrupt, incompetent, or hypocritical, lying politicians that has devastated both our system of democracy and its backbone…the middle class. Every day, my email inbox is filled with Democrats begging for money. And as soon as I delete the ones that are there three more show up for each one I deleted.

Only 13 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, a near record low. The President’s approval ratings are in the toilet. Regardless of apparent gains in the economy, the results are skewed because the only growth in GDP is from investors cashing in on low capital gains tax rates being subsidized on the backs of people who pay taxes by making money actually PRODUCING things…a primary goal of the Republican Party.

A large portion of the public doesn’t even bother voting. In most countries, people would risk their lives to vote. In the U.S., if it’s raining a vast majority won’t bother. Only 57.5 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential election. Midterms are even more pathetic.

The reasons for the growing apathy is obvious–most Americans feel powerless, and assume the political game is fixed–so why even bother?

A new study scheduled to be published in this fall by Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page confirms this assumption.

Gilens and Page analyzed 1,799 policy issues in detail, determining the relative influence on them of economic elites, business groups, mass-based interest groups, and average citizens.

Their conclusion: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Instead, lawmakers respond to the policy demands of wealthy individuals and influential (read:rich) business interests – those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.

Before you’re tempted to say “duh,” hang on a minute. Gilens’ and Page’s data come from the period 1981 to 2002. This was before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in “Citizens United,” prior to SuperPACs, and before the Wall Street bailout.

So it’s many times worse now.

But honestly, did the average U.S. voter ever have much power? The distinguished journalist and commentator Walter Lippman argued in his 1922 book “Public Opinion” that the general public didn’t know or care about public policy. Its consent was “manufactured” by an elite class that more often than not that manipulated it. “It is no longer possible … to believe in the original dogma of democracy,” Lippman concluded. And that was damn near a hundred years ago.

Yet American democracy appeared vigorous compared to other nations that in the first half of the twentieth century succumbed to communism or totalitarianism.

Political scientists after World War II theorized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were at least somewhat receptive.

“Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby concentrated the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a substantial share of the gains from economic growth.

But as we all know, starting in 1980, something overwhelmingly changed. Ronald Reagan actively sought to change the prevailing dynamic and was extremely successful at changing how a huge segment of the middle-class white workers viewed the way government was perceived. It wasn’t just that big corporations and wealthy individuals became more politically potent, as Gilens and Page document. It was also that other interest groups began to decline under the political onslaught of the elite class wealthy individuals.

Grass-roots membership organizations began to shrink because Americans had less time for them. As wages stagnated, most of the middle class had to devote more time to work in order to makes ends meet. That included the time of wives and mothers who began streaming into the paid workforce to buttress family incomes.

At the same time, union membership plunged because corporations began sending jobs abroad and fighting attempts to unionize. (Ronald Reagan legitimized these moves when he fired striking air traffic controllers and began a domino effect in diminishing the influence of collective bargaining.)

Other centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big box enterprises, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Deregulation drove the nails into their coffins.

Meanwhile, political parties began to stop caring, and thus, representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties started morphing from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising engines.

We entered a vicious cycle in which political power became more concentrated where big money lived and the  interests (read lobbyists) that used the newfound power to their advantage – getting tax cuts, expanding tax loopholes, benefiting from corporate welfare and free-trade agreements, slashing safety nets, repealing political protections enacted following the Great Depression, enacting anti-union legislation, and reducing public investments.

Great collapses of once-safe and trusted institutions resulted from the collapse of the Savings & Loan industry to huge boondoggles like the collapse of WorldCom and Enron without a corresponding return to the recognition of necessary safeguards to prevent the protect the middle class.

These moves further concentrated economic gains at the top, while leaving out most of the rest of America. Then the Bush/Cheney team came in and even started manufacturing wars for personal gain and still the middle class wishes were ignored, or worse, manipulated by the concentration of the Fourth Estate into the same big corporations benefitting from the dispersion and disappearance of the once-mighty U.S. middle class.

No wonder Americans feel powerless. No wonder we’re sick of politics, and many of us aren’t bothering to vote. The game is fixed. The odds are stacked. The house always wins.

But if we give up on politics, we’re done for. Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only way back toward a democracy and economy that work for the majority is for most of us to get politically active once again, becoming organized and mobilized.

We have to establish a new countervailing power. Or democracy will be dead; once and for all.



Harvey A. Gold