Democracy vs. Plutocracy in America


When I teach Introduction to American Politics I like to frame the course around the question of “How democratic is the United States”?  The text I use offers a fairly simple definition of democracy as popular sovereignty (or rule by the people) which is present in a polity when the values of political freedom, political equality, and majority rule are realized.  I tell students on the first day of class that the question “How democratic is the United States” will be on the final exam and to answer it correctly they have to analyze how present are the values of political freedom, political equality, and majority rule in the rules and practices of American politics.  I always get a range of answers from very democratic to almost authoritarian which are always interesting to read.  If I had to answer the question myself I would have to include a temporal dimension.  I would probably say that over time America has become more democratic as political freedom and political equality have expanded although there are still counter-majoritarian aspects of American politics that limit our democracy.  However, after reading a couple new books on American politics I think I would change my answer to emphasize the perhaps cyclical nature of American democracy.  Such that groups that have been oppressed like African Americans have fought for equal rights and expanded American democracy, but these efforts are often followed by a white backlash that causes the contraction of American democracy.  I believe we are living through one of those repressive (at least attempted repressive) periods right now.

How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson and Let Them Eat Tweets by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that American politics has historically been a struggle between oligarchy and democracy (How the South Won the Civil War) and our current political period is one where the Republican Party has fully embraced oligarchy/plutocracy and threatens our, however flawed, democratic system (Let Them Eat Tweets).

Both books wrestle with fundamental contradictions at the heart of American democracy and democracy in general.  Richardson agues that “America began with a great paradox: the same men who cam up with the radical idea of constructing a nation on the principle of equality also owned slaves, thought Indians were savages, and considered women inferior.” (XV). This we can call the equality/inequality paradox of America’s founding and it’s not new to students of American politics. However, what Richardson does is use it as an anchoring principle to explain American political history from its founding up until our present period.  The equality/inequality paradox has morphed and shifted encompassing different groups and supporters and detractors but if you scratch a major episode in American history underneath it lies this paradox.  Richardson is a historian and as a political scientist what I find most comforting about historians is their ability to put present events in historical context which helps us understand that nothing is truly new. The contradiction explored by Hacker and Pierson is what is termed the “Conservative Dilemma.”  The term comes from another political scientist, Daniel Ziblatt who in an exploration of British and German conservative parties analyzed why the former embraced democracy while the latter did not.  The conservative dilemma is basically that conservative political parties are those that generally support, and are supported by, the wealthy elite who are by definition a minority of the population.  The problem in a democracy, however, is that political power is widely distributed in the franchise which puts conservative parties at a disadvantage.  The dilemma then for conservative parties is what to do – moderate their economic policies to attract some non plutocrat votes or double down on plutocracy and try to gain non-plutocratic support through divisive cultural issues whether based on nationalism or religion etc,.  Hacker and Pierson argue that the contemporary GOP has chosen the latter strategy in the U.S.  Since the 1980s the GOP has pursued plutocratic economic policies tied with white nationalist resentment policies.  This toxic stew has brought us Donald Trump and a Republican Party so destructive that our fragile democratic system maybe on the precipice of collapse.

In a somewhat strange way I take some comfort in the fact that this hazardous period of American politics is not new.  This is no comfort to the many people who are experiencing government repression but as Black Lives Matter and other movements are showing is that any progress in American politics comes from these groups mobilizing.  We still have time to strike back against the oligarchic advancement of the GOP so we cannot let this moment pass.

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