21st Century Challenges To American Democracy: Part I
By Jon Kofas
25 April, 2015
Abstract: It requires several hundred pages to address the complex subject of challenges to American democracy in the post-Cold War era of a global multi-polar economic and political power structure. In this brief essay, I identify only a few of the current challenges to American democracy that appear permanent fixtures of society in the early 21st century. The objective is to provide but a sample of some issues, regardless of how the corporate media, government, and presidential candidates wish to define challenges to democracy.
Introduction: Erosion of Public Confidence in Liberal Democracy
From the writing of the Constitution until the present, there have been many challenges to American democracy. This reflects an ideological struggle between those closer to John Locke’s classical Liberal model of government and those advocating a social democratic model based on jean-Jean Rousseau’s view of the Social Contract.
One of the first challenges to America’s liberal democracy intensified in 1805 during the Federalism vs. Democratic-Republican controversy (10th Amendment) that was not resolved until Civil War (states’ rights issue with slavery at the core – 14th Amendment). A second significant challenge came during the early years in the Age of Progressivism (1900-1920) the struggle to modernize the state to reflect the industrialization of society, to rationalize capitalism and balance pluralistic interests against the very rich demanding control of all institutions from the press to politics was a challenge that made its return in the Great Depression when FDR strengthened the central government and used it to keep capitalism afloat amid its self-destructive course. The last major Constitutional challenge manifested itself during the Cold War followed by the institutionalization of counter-terrorism culminating in the Patriot Act that remains a very serious threat to the US constitution and the tradition of liberal democracy. At the core of national security issues if the violation of the 4th Amendment dealing with privacy and 6th Amendment dealing with due process. (Joe Kay, Deal to renew USA Patriot Act extends police-state measures; Tom Carter, 13 December 2005; Capitalism, war and the collapse of democracy 22 April 2015 – World Socialist http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2005/12/patr-d13.html)
Despite America’s history as a former European colony that would emerge to emulate the imperial motherland, similar challenges confront other open societies as well. Depending on one’s ideological perspective, such challenges can be anything from corporate institutional hegemony to lack of respect for human rights, as far as progressive analysts are concerned, to lack of a strong defense and absence of tough policy on illegal immigrants, according to right wingers. To left-of-center critics, the challenges to American democracy are invariably associated with the dismantling of just about everything that the FDR and to some degree Kennedy-Johnson administrations created as part of a pluralistic multicultural society. The Tea Party movement within the Republican Party has its own list of challenges to American democracy, and those focus on immigration, gun ownership, and complete deregulation of Wall Street. Ironically, everyone from Tea Party Republicans and Libertarians to liberal and leftist Democrats and claim Jeffersonian democracy expresses their ideological position. (Andrew Burstein, Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead)
Some of the challenges facing the US also confront many other developed countries, including all of the richest nations on the basis of GDP. America’s history, traditions and institutions distinguishes it from Europe as well as Canada and Australia for that matter, despite their common heritage as British colonies that industrialized and moved into the core of the world capitalist system. As the world’s economic and military superpower for the last six decades, the US has a different set of challenges confronting its democratic institutions than any other nation on earth. The inherent contradiction between liberal democracy at home and economic imperialism backed by a global military network has always been irreconcilable and will remain so in this century as the US will more than likely become even more militaristic in ordert to counter-balance China’s rising economic and political hegemony.
In so far as democracy operates under the political economy of international capitalism that shapes institutions and molds the class structure, it is inevitable that challenges in American society have common characteristics with other countries far less militaristic than America. Clearly, official corruption, minority rights, human rights, and elitism that the political economy produces, to mention just a few, are challenges in all democracies and they are permanent no matter how ephemeral politicians try to portray them.
Beyond presidential elections that generate vacuous rhetoric about “change” when in fact the basic institutional structure remains unchanged there is the larger question of the evolution of American democracy owing to objective economic and geopolitical conditions at home and abroad. The US is facing challenges of global economic preeminence from China, unconventional warfare around which the US has built an elaborate institutional counter-terrorism structure and culture, and massive social and economic problems at home that are becoming worse with every downward economic cycle.
Challenges to democracy are bound to test the republic in the future partly because China will replace the US as the world’s number one economic power at some point in this century – China is already ahead in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms. The US, which has been the world’s number one economy since 1872 when it overtook UK, will try to compete by placing even greater emphasis on its defense sector and military adventures. The US will continue the current policy of containment and destabilizing various parts of the world, while continuing with corporate welfare that has drained the economy in the last four decades. The result of this at home will be detrimental for the economy and the tradition of liberal democracy, and observance of the Constitution.
Do the American people have the same confidence in their government and institutions – political at all levels of government, media, educational and in corporate businesses – as the media tries to convince its audience? According to one public opinion poll, 75% of all Americans polled indicated they were “angry” with the policies of their federal government, albeit for different reasons depending on their ideological and political orientation. Naturally, people look to government for solutions to serious problems ranging from unemployment to living standards, but they also like to believe their government is fulfilling the social contract and not marginalizing the majority of the people to further the interests of the small minority.
According to Thomas J. Scott (“Democracy and its Discontents” Truthout.org ; January 2015), the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data for 2013 indicates that only 35% of Americans have confidence in their government. Statistics are even worse among young people who simply become disengaged from the political process. A Rasmussen poll indicates that a tiny 8% of all voters have confidence in US Congress doing a good job, and a Gallop poll suggests 44% approve of the Supreme Court, while a Rasmussen poll for December 2014 notes that more than half of the citizens disapprove of Obama.
While one could argue these are not bad statistics when compared with approval ratings for governments in other developed countries, similar public opinion poll results for European and non-European countries only prove a general decline in confidence for open societies that claim to the name democracy but fail to deliver what the majority believe is the democratic social contract. Again, the percentage of young people dropping out of the political process completely is rather common, reflecting the high level of youth unemployment and expectations of their government vs. reality of “bourgeois democracy” as it is shaped in each country reflecting its dominant culture and heritage.
It is of interest to note that public opinion polls show a sharp drop for democracy and capitalism (from low 70th percentile in favor in the early 1990s to mid-30s today) on the part of people across all of the former Soviet republics. This includes Ukraine where a minority of the population turned to neo-Nazism (SVOBODA) under the guise of freedom and democracy. The reason for the drop in public support of democracy and capitalism is largely because the dust has settled and people have now seen that behind the mask of democracy is a small clique of oligarchs on whose behalf government conducts policy.
The lack of confidence in public and private sector institutions in the US, and other open societies reflects a widespread recognition that these only serve the interests of the small privileged political, social, and financial elites to the exclusion of all the rest. Despite this reality, the corporate-owned media would have the public believe that the single most important challenge to democracy is none other than “foreign threats”. Government must meet these “foreign threats” by becoming even more militaristic in its foreign/defense policy, and more authoritarian at home, all in the name of imposing conformity.
Media-defined Threats to Democracy
On a daily basis, the mass media projects the image that the threat to American democracy comes mainly from abroad and from domestic violence that includes everything from petty crime to gun violence by some emotionally unstable individual. Large crimes that involve billions of dollars in banking scandals are hardly a threat to the integrity of the political economy. In short, the neighborhood burglar and foreign and domestic security are newsworthy, while rarely is the challenge to democracy the growing inequality gap, persistent culture of racism, political alienation by the majority of citizens, to mention only a few problems of major societal significance. Meanwhile, all the media and political focus stays on Islamic unconventional warfare – “terrorism”, Russian foreign policy, Chinese economic hegemony, North Korean adventurist statements and military exercises threatening America’s regional allies, and defiant states such as Syria, Venezuela, Argentina, Iran, etc.
Almost every Republican Party politician embraces the theme of a foreign enemy threatening American democracy. Therefore, the response to such ominous challenges is a massive military buildup and military solutions to international conflicts, so the people at home “feel safer”, regardless of whether they are actually safer. In the absence of the Cold War because there is no longer a Warsaw Pact but under the persistence of Cold War institutions and policies of containment, surveillance, counterinsurgency and militarism, the US has redefined and subordinated democracy to “emergency politics” invariably associated with a state of war or national emergency. In this manner, the government can justify everything from unilateral military interventions to violating the Constitutional rights of its own citizens. Using the politics of “foreign enemy distraction” government uses the fiscal system to favor the top ten percent of the population, while slashing social and environmental programs. (Des Freedman Daya Kishan Thussu, Media and Terrorism: Global Perspective; Bonnie Honnig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy; Pippa Norris, Montague Kern, Marion Just, eds., Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government and the Public; Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War, and Election Battles (Cultural Politics & the Promise of Democracy)
Populist rhetoric on the part of the two major political parties is the key in convincing public opinion that “the foreign enemy” threatens democracy and freedom, both in increasingly short supply because of “emergency politics”. Populist rhetoric is the catalyst for winning elections for both the Republic and Democrat parties and for defining democracy and its threats real and perceived in the manner that engenders optimum sociopolitical conformity and distracts from issues significant to the larger population. While Republicans and Democrats agree the threats to democracy are terrorism and foreign enemies, it is mostly Republicans that subscribe to a xenophobic and Islamophobic, often latent racist agenda targeting Latin American immigrants who make up the cheapest labor force, African-Americans, and Muslims.
Perception and reality of what threatens American democracy are two different things, just as there is a huge gap between what politicians promise and what they actually deliver. The populism of the ruling parties in the US is also a characteristic of Europe where both conservative parties and center-leftist under the label of “Socialism” employ similar rhetoric but wind up supporting globalization, neoliberal policies, strong defense and weak social programs, all resulting in downward social mobility of the middle class. (Claire Snyder-Hall and Cynthia Burack, eds., Right-Wing Populism and the Media; Daniele Albatazzi and Duncan McDonnell, Twenty-First Century Populism: The Specter of Western European Democracy)
If indeed people care more about safety and security, or at least if the media and their political, business, and social leaders convinces the public that nothing matters more than safety and security, people will voluntarily surrender any commitment to democracy for the perceived guarantee of safety and security. If the US moves increasingly toward a more authoritarian model under the political shell of “democracy,” as it could if in the future it faces more and deeper economic contractions that result in an increasingly smaller and weaker middle class, the cause will not be the UN, the WTO, Islamic “terrorism,” rogue nations like North Korea, etc.
“Military Keynesianism” in the Age of Counter-terrorism
It is not as ironic as it may appear that American democracy is facing more challenges in 2015 than in 1950. This is because the East-West confrontation (Cold War) provided a consensus that the “war on terror” has not replaced as the Republican and Democrat parties had hoped. The breakdown of consensus revolves around the huge gap between what government, business and media promise and what actually transpires in society. The “open society” would deliver even greater rewards because the Communist threat does not exist. However, there is continued downward socioeconomic mobility and decline in personal freedoms for the vast majority of citizens and not much hope the future has the American Dream in store for most people.
For conservatives the solution is “Military Keynesianism' an early Cold War containment military doctrine refers to defense spending as a means of stimulating the civilian economy by allowing the surplus to be absorbed by the defense sector. This was feasible when the US enjoyed balance of payments surplus in the early 1950s, but in 2015 when its public debt surpasses its annual GDP, “Military Keynesianism” is obviously destructive, especially when combined with the policies of corporate welfare capitalism where the state essentially is steering subsidies and contract to private companies to keep them healthy. (Jerry Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis: The Committee on the Present Danger and the Politics of Containment).
The result of this doctrine can be seen in the immense US sovereign debt that has been skyrocketing in the last fifteen years, as we will see below when analyzing debt as a challenge to American democracy. Moreover, the doctrine of “Military Keynesianism” has weakened the economy with the middle class and laboring classes as the victims paying the price. As David Shreve points out: “Because they sap the strength of the already bastardized Keynesianism built on the weak reed of the defense industry multiplier, the lingering advantages of Keynesianism itself become attenuated even further, devalued and increasingly misconstrued in political circles, and felt only perversely by most affected citizens. “Making the eagle scream” as John Dos Passos once described it, to compensate partly with ever increasing military expenditure, can postpone some of the reckoning, just as it did in the last days of the Soviet Union, but it cannot stave off the inevitable weakening of the overall economic fabric.” (David Shreve, “Defense Spending and the Economy: The Pitfalls of Military Keynesianism”. @War IS A Crime.org
By itself, “Military Keynesianism” does not constitute a threat to American democracy, but when put in the institutional context of a state that violates the constitution by keeping its citizens under surveillance, denying human rights to prisoners, denying due process to citizens, and expanding the “counter-terrorism” institutional structure to the degree that “security transcends democracy”, then there is a very serious problem. The continuation of “Military Keynesianism” and pursuit of counterterrorism measures used as a pretext for police state methods benefits the political, economic, and social status quo. At the same time, counterterrorism precludes societal progress to the benefit of all people, social justice, and above all democratic practices. The result of the “military-solution based foreign policy” invariably weakens democracy at home as domestic institutions mirror the military foreign policy regime. (David C. Unger, The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs; James Petras, The New Development Politics: The Age of Empire Building and New Social Movements .)
The irony about “Military Keynesianism” is that its congressional advocates castigate government spending as counterproductive to the free market system, as though such a market exists, but they have no problem with government engaged in deficit financing to dish out contracts to the defense industries. The argument is that despite deficit financing, defense spending, inherently capital-intensive rather than labor intensive, creates jobs as though non-defense spending such as infrastructural development is detrimental to jobs growth. “Because the combination of defense spending, massive tax cuts, and the bailout had led to large budget deficits, the proponents of this perverted military Keynesianism insisted that programs for productive government expenditures had to be cut in the name of fiscal responsibility to make way for (wasteful) military spending.” (Michael Perelman, “The Rise of Free-Trade Imperialism and Military Keynesianism” , May 2014, @Naked Capitalism.com)
At the core of this doctrine that goes back six decades rests the assumptions that: a) the US as an imperial power has enemies that refuse to accept its political, economic and military integration model; and b) whether it is the East-West conflict as its evolved during the Cold War or the ongoing “war on terror”, conflicts between the US and its “enemies” have an inherent military solution. Given that such assumptions impede on the nature of the economy and social structure as well as on the kind of democracy the US has, “Military Keynesianism” will remain a major threat to democracy in the 21st century.
Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University.
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