Democracy in America by Joe Costello

Mar 23, 2019 by

In the last five hundred years there have been three insights gained by humanity which should have been, but weren’t, humbling factors in the conception of our individual and collective values. The first was Copernicus’ revelation that the earth revolved around the sun. The second, which to this point still has had amazingly limited cultural impact were Darwin’s concepts on evolution, which revealed we weren’t the top of anything on this planet.

The third is just beginning, artificial intelligence. The development of AI will prove much quicker and easier than imagined and will show what we deem “intelligence” isn’t as big and bad a thing as we venerate, particularly in this age of the “genius.” In fact, a great deal of intelligence, for example any repetitious task, will be quite easy to imitate. Intelligence of various degrees has always surrounded us from the beginning and we’ve done everything we can to deny it, for example intelligence in animals.

Anyway, for all our intelligence, we are in the midst of taking one of the great achievements of modern humanity, self-government, and letting it grotesquely fall to history. This is a piece I wrote a decade ago dealing with inequality and the coming of Trump. Every word is relevant today, as is the thinking on how we might restore and evolve our democracy, if we want to?

Democracy in America
Joe Costello
1/19/07

“There is a very dangerous phase in the life of democratic peoples.

When the taste for physical pleasures has grown more rapidly than either education or experience of free institutions, the time comes when men are carried away and lose control of themselves at sight of the new good things they are ready to snatch. Intent only on getting rich, they do not notice the close connection between private fortunes and general prosperity. There is no need to drag their rights away from citizens of this type; they themselves voluntarily let them go. They find it a tiresome inconvenience to exercise political rights which distract them from industry. When required to elect representatives, to support authority by personal service, or to discuss public business together, they find they have no such time. They cannot waste their precious time in unrewarding work. Such things are all right for idlers to play at, but they do not become men of weight occupied with the serious business of life. Such folk think they are following the doctrine of self-interest, but they have a very crude idea thereof, and the better to guard their interests, they neglect the chief of them, that is to remain there own masters.” — Alexis De Tocqueville,Democracy in America

The above statement was written by Alexis De Tocqueville over a hundred and fifty years ago, yet it describes better than most analysis today the greatest problems facing our contemporary American democracy. With this statement, Tocqueville wasn’t chronicling the young American republic, but with one eye to the past and the other on the future, he was expressing difficulties the United States would encounter in some undetermined future. That future is now. The American democracy Tocqueville saw was young, vibrant, and full of energy; its people concerned with bettering their personal lot, but with an enlightened self-interest that understood the need to be knowledgeable and active participants in public affairs. “The common man in the United States” wrote Tocqueville, “has understood the influence of the general prosperity on his own happiness.” It is in our democracy today that individualism rules, the general prosperity ignored, and political disenfranchisement rampant.Toqueville’s book remains a seminal and important book on understanding American democracy. Reading it today, one can’t help become dejected to see the degradation of American democracy. However, you also can’t help get an equal measure of optimism, for with a little imagination, any person can see the possibility of the American people reclaiming their politics, their traditions of self-government, and reforming their moribund democracy in a great 21st century democratic reformation. While Tocqueville doesn’t provide the blueprint for such a movement, he does provide the historical precedent and some of the necessary elements.

The mid-19th century American democratic politics Tocqueville describes are founded principally on egalitarianism, decentralization, and citizen participation. All three are foundering in contemporary America. Political participation outside of voting is in most every other aspect nonexistent. Power across society has become increasingly centralized, the Internet phenomenon being a recent important exception. However, the long march of economic and political power centralized in mega-corporations and Washington DC continues unabated. Newspapers, the local media of the era and Tocqueville’s great love, have been destroyed by television. Finally, the most essential democratic ethic – equality – has in recent decades been gradually but continuously degraded in our politics, the economy, and across our culture.

Centralization of power is the prime factor in the destruction of American democracy. Tocqueville understood, as did Thomas Jefferson who Tocqueville called “the most powerful apostle of democracy there has ever been,” centralization was inherently undemocratic. The America of the 1830s was an agrarian and market economy, where the vast majority of the decisions of life were made at the local level. The economy was overwhelming comprised of yeoman farmers and local merchants. Citizens belonged to local associations. Townships and counties made and administered the vast majority of political decisions. Tocqueville witnessed the end of the first American republic. Over the next decade, the technologies and institutions of industrialization would begin to radically transform American democracy.

Tocqueville writing at the beginning of the industrial age stated, “I think that generally speaking, the manufacturing aristocracy which we see rising before our eyes is one of the hardest that have appeared on earth…the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world it will have been by that door that they have entered.”

Since Tocqueville’s time, the egregious democratic faults of the corporation have been revealed. The corporation, like aristocracy, transfers wealth and power across generations. Tocqueville pointed out equality in America was assured by several means, the most important was the outlawing of primogeniture and entail, that is the passing of wealth from one generation to the next. Tocqueville writes, “I am surprised that ancient and modern writers have not attributed greater importance to the laws of inheritance, and their effects on the progress of human affairs.” The corporation became a new way of concentrating wealth and power and transferring it across generations, not necessarily by family, but through the corporate entity itself. The centralization of economic power in the modern industrial corporation and its ability to hold that power across generations has contributed most significantly to the growing inequality of wealth distribution.

American democracy struggled with the power of modern industrial and financial corporations since their inception, but a crucial political point was reached with the New Deal and World War II. The Great Depression and World War II were national and global phenomena propagated by industrial technologies and the modern corporation’s control of the economy. The New Deal was a reaction by the Federal government to events resulting from the economic centralization that had rapidly occurred in the United States over the previous half-century. It was a well meaning attempt by a democratic republic birthed decentralized and participatory, to develop new processes and institutions to meet the challenges of a collapsed centralized economy. In many ways, the New Deal was the second republic, but it was much different than the first. Political and government power followed down the path paved by industrial economic centralization, not, the distributed power of yeoman farms, democratic associations, and county administration.

In some ways, the politics of the New Deal can best be understood with an historical analogy of the ancient Roman republic. Dictator is a Latin term. The office of dictator was an extraordinary institution of the Roman republic. It was an institution developed for use in times of extreme crisis, when the Roman people for a brief period of six months would bestow extraordinary power onto one man to meet a challenge, almost always a military challenge. In the republic’s five centuries history, the dictatorship was used little more than a dozen times, and after six months the army or other instruments of power created by the dictator were dismantled, results and memory became its only vestige. The Roman republic looked at this temporary centralization of power as a short-term necessary evil.

The New Deal was the American republic’s virtuous reaction to a profound national and global crisis. Unfortunately, at the end of World War II, the centralization wasn’t dismantled, it was institutionalized. While Tocqueville considered America’s decentralized administration of public policy key to understanding American democracy, the New Deal centralized administration in DC’s ever since growing bureaucracies. Instead of being dismantled in both the Roman and American republican traditions, the WWII military was institutionalized into an imperial force. Finally, the New Deal was the republic’s last capitulation to economic centralization in the form of leviathan industrial and financial corporations.

This centralization is antithetical to everything Tocqueville writes about American democracy. In much of Tocqueville’s work he compares decentralized democratic America to centralized aristocratic Europe. However, it is very difficult to use the word aristocracy today, especially in America. The tradition and knowledge of aristocracy is now two centuries removed from the American experience. To use the term aristocracy is in may ways to use an anachronism. Nonetheless, after over a century of centralization, we see developing in the United States a malformed and mutant aristocracy comprised of militarists, the political class, and an economy run by corporate barons, whose corporations more resemble the bureaucracies of Louis the XVI than Tocqueville’s American economy, or Adam Smith’s nascent industrial era for that matter. In Tocqueville’s eyes, aristocracy of any sort was completely Un-American.

As American democracy degrades, with the increasing centralization of political and economic power, the American egalitarian ethic slowly erodes. Instead of each citizen having equal rights, responsibilities, and roles for societal prosperity, power increasingly gravitates around certain centers. A culture of entitled wealth and power replaces an egalitarian ethic of democratic opportunity and enlightened self-interest. This loss of equality reveals itself no place more than in the lack of political participation. The American public feels disenfranchised from politics. Overwhelmingly, they belong to no political or civic associations. Individuals have little or no ability to impact political decision making or administration.

Tocqueville wrote:

“The inhabitant in some countries shows a sort of repugnance in accepting the political rights granted to him by the law; it strikes him as a waste of time to spend on communal interests, and he likes to shut himself up in a narrow egoism, of which four ditches with hedges on top define the precise limits.

But if an American should be reduced to occupying himself with his own affairs, at the moment half his existence would be snatched from him; he would feel it as a vast void in his life and would become incredibly unhappy.”

As our democratic culture grows weaker, Americans are reduced to occupying themselves in their own affairs. The American citizen has voluntarily abdicated political involvement out of a increasing sense of dis-empowerment emanating from the loss of equality. They are encouraged by those who have taken their power to turn completely from the enlightened self-interest of democratic participation and to shut themselves behind the fence-walls of suburbia. Desperate former citizens futilely try to fill the vast void with mindless consumption.

Centralization of power is inherently undemocratic and over time in an established democracy, it destroys egalitarian culture. We see the destruction of equality across our culture today, with “superstar” sport’s figures, celebrity filled media, and most obscene, the cult of the CEO. Instead of an appreciation of healthy and fair competition, America is led to believe the only thing that matters is who at the top, and the top justifies the most unequal distribution of wealth and power in the republic’s history.

The greatest political manifestation of our egalitarian and democratic decline is represented in the growth of the presidency. In this institution, the burgeoning culture of aristocracy and the degradation of democracy meet. The chaotic universal cacophony of political voices Tocqueville admired is no longer audible. Instead, the amplified voice of centralized media and a decadent professional politics focus on one institution, endlessly drumming into the citizenry a focus on one person and the one office furtherest from their influence. The presidency has become the most anti-democratic institution of the republic and it propagates the culture of non-participation and inequality, today, it completely dominates our entire political system.

On all fronts, political, economic, and cultural, our egalitarian spirit and the actual democratic processes of our two centuries old republic are in decline. Thus the increasingly urgent question presses upon the American people, “Do you still want your democracy?” Only the American people will be able to revive and reform their democracy. We can not hope to bring back Tocqueville’s agrarian/small merchant republic, nor the necessary and honorable impetus that made the New Deal a temporary solution. We need a reformation of democratic culture, associations, processes, and institutions, based on Tocqueville’s insight that once a republic’s democratic ethos has degraded, “the most powerful way, and perhaps the only remaining way, in which to interest men in their country is make them take a share in its government.”

A democratic reformation must begin by revitalizing democratic culture — a rebirth of America’s passion for equality. Americans must once again understand liberty in a democracy is dependent on equality. A culture of equality begins not with the acceptance of diversity, but something much more fundamental and universal, the understanding of our common humanity. The vibrancy of democratic processes strengthen egalitarian culture. We must address how decisions are made across society, how institutions are structured, and most importantly how citizens participate.

A first step to reviving democratic culture can begin with the simple process of beginning a new, healthier, political dialog. The important democratic historian Lawrence Goodwyn has accurately stated, “Americans don’t know how to talk about politics today.” We have removed political discussion from our lives, now we must recreate public space at the local, national, and for the first time global level for discussions of the issues of our time. We need to redefine our political vocabulary and once again make it vital. We must break politics free from its present narrow definitions mouthed by bad professional political actors on a neo-vaudevillian stage, that lacks any of the original integrity. The American people must regain the egalitarian principle that each and every one of their voices has value.

We can begin a democratic conversation by asking: what is democracy in the 21st century; what are the processes of democracy; what are its institutions? An easy starting point, though not necessarily the best, is examining our government institutions. Tocqueville observed, “In America not only do municipal institutions exist, but there is also a municipal spirit which sustains them and gives them life….if you take power and independence from a municipality, you may have docile subjects, but you will not have citizens.” The centralization of power in both state capitols and DC has destroyed municipal spirit. We can help recreate a civic spirit reforming government by making it more participatory.

We must also simultaneously engage corporate reform. Corporate power must be broken up and there must be institutional reform. However, there is an issue I have mentioned previously, that is little understood, but has played just as an important role in industrial centralization as the corporation, it is technology itself. There is a politics of technology. Entrenched technologies create generational dynasties as strong as any family or corporation. There has not been nearly enough thinking on this issue, but a couple key insights have been gained over the last several decades.

The first was Marshall McLuhan’s still little understood insight that, “the medium is the message.” Simply understood, a society adopts a technology, the technology then adapts the society. For example, the automobile creates automobile culture, no matter if inside the automobile are English, Americans, or Chinese. Suburbia is automobile culture, created by the automobile. Another example, broadcast television creates television culture, which is a sedate individual staring into a screen no matter what the content. The individual has zero control. Make no mistake, the message of broadcast television is, it is one of the most undemocratic technologies ever devised.

The second insight on the politics of technology was offered by Mitchell Kapor, who helped found the personal computer industry. From the insights he gained understanding the development of the personal computer and the Internet, Kapor deduced “architecture is politics.” Simply, the design of technologies determines control of the technology and the politics that develop from it. The easiest example of this is the Internet, where the distributed, decentralized, and participatory design at its inception, allowed an amazingly explosive democratic culture to grow atop it. Of course today, our corporate barons, increasingly with the help of government, look to change the Net’s architecture, making it much more centralized, and thus lessoning its democratic politics.

Technology’s role will be instrumental in any democratic reformation, this role must be publicly understood.

The new technology revolution of the last fifty years, electronic and information based, will shape society in radically different ways than the industrial revolution. It is simplistic though insightful to say industrial technology was built on Newtonian physics and chemistry, while this new technological revolution is based on quantum physics and biology. One innovation of this new technology, that is just beginning to be understood and can have a revolutionary impact for democracy, is the architecture of distributed networks. The Internet has shown that order can be gained with openness and decentralized distributed control. This is the most promising idea and process for a democratic reformation. In most ways, the American system described by Tocqueville of local, state, and Federal entities was an 18th century distributed political system, thus the architecture of distributed networks offers great promise in revitalizing democracy — a great reform tonic for our sick democratic body politic.

Another element of the 21st century that must be considered is its global nature. Today, you cannot consider local, state, or national democracy, without considering global components. Technologies, corporations, and America’s military, bring global affairs to every level of American life. A shirt bought in Lawrence, Kansas is made in Guangzhou, China. A gallon of gas burned in Kentucky comes from the Persian Gulf. It is with the global economy that the great disparity in political power between transnational corporations and the citizen is made so readily visible.

Yet, an even more important global element is our ever growing recognition that the human species is part of a greater planetary environment, an environment we are altering ever more rapidly, and now threatens to radically alter global systems which are tens of thousands of years old. In the 21st century, no understanding of an individual citizen’s democratic role will be complete without a global element.

I have only touched briefly on a few themes in Tocqueville’s work, but I look at them as the fundamental elements of any democratic society. If power is not distributed, equality not both honored and kept, and the majority of citizens actively participating in political affairs, no society has a hope for democracy. Tocqueville shows how this system worked in the 1830s, I have hoped to very briefly demonstrate how in very important ways it has changed, but more importantly, reveal some important elements that must be part of any reform. We will not go back to the democracy of Tocqueville’s time, but what we can hope for a rebirth of the democratic spirit and a resulting democratic reformation for the 21st century.

History reveals the change required on the scale necessary to reform American democracy is not something that can be worked on gradually or will come with some well thought plan. It will come in a concerted ephemeral movement, unleashing the wonderful creativity of democratic political action. The tremendous inertia of the political status quo, just as in physics, will only be altered with an equal or greater force. Otherwise, things will continue in the same direction and where that direction leads has been amply demonstrated most recently. As Tocqueville wrote:

“A nation which asks nothing from the government beyond the maintenance of order is already a slave at the bottom of its heart. It is a slave to its prosperity, and the road is free for a man to tie the fetters.

When the great mass of citizens does not want to bother about anything but private business, even the smallest party need not give up hope of becoming master of public affairs….one is left in astonishment at the small number of weak and unworthy hands into which a great people can fall.”

Thus, we must begin. We must begin a conversation amongst the American people and ask them to reengage with their democracy. Not a conversation about who should be elected or for what office, but a conversation that speaks of the future and our responsibilities. We must begin to recreate a healthy political space, a process that allows each of us to participate in making decisions for the public interest. We need to understand once again, as the citizens of Tocqueville’s republic did, that our private welfare is founded in the commonweal. We need to place the power of American government back into the hands of the sovereign — we the people — and understand the political power of each citizen is not restricted or enhanced by race, gender, position, or wealth, but flows from the simple and radical notion that we are all created equal.

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