Southwest Harbor Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Many US citizens take comfort in the conviction that progress toward democracy has been steady even if bitterly contested on occasion. Early in the post Revolutionary War period the right to vote was extended to all white men, even those who held no property. Women achieved the same privilege early in the twentieth century, and the Civil Rights movement of the sixties completed the work Reconstruction had left undone. The arc of the universe is long, but “it bends toward justice.” I would argue, however, that Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United challenge that easy faith. Nor are they aberrations within the fabric of a generally supportive culture and polity. Our citizens are facing a broad, multifaceted attack on democracy itself. This attack is far more consequential than efforts to manipulate the results of one election.
Confidence that there is no going back is hard to maintain in the face of political controversies today that in many ways replay issues of Reconstruction. To take just one example, the Fifteenth Amendment declares that the right to vote will not be abridged on the grounds of previous condition of servitude.
Radical as the Fifteenth Amendment may seem in the post Civil War context, it represented a compromise. Some representatives of northern states, where in many cases black males were not allowed to vote, did not want to force a change in their own political practices. They rejected a proposed amendment that would have granted the right to vote to vote without regard to race, nativity, property, education, or religious belief. The version of the amendment as enacted says nothing about voter discrimination based on other criteria, such as literacy, or a poll tax.
In the years following Radical Reconstruction most Southern states had in effect availed themselves of the exclusionary practices not constitutionally sanctioned. Some northerners were unwilling to endorse or allow the level of federal intervention that would have been necessary to enforce truly egalitarian outcomes. Many other northerners turned their attention toward economic expansion in the west and toward industrial development. That development had encouraged and been facilitated by readings of the 14th amendment as granting corporations the status of personhood. Late 19th century decisions protecting the intangible and physical assets of corporate bodies helped encourage a process of corporate consolidation that many saw as a threat to democracy. (I am drawing on Eric Foner’s superb work on Reconstruction)
Fast forward from one Gilded Age to another. Citizens United, granting unions and corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates, is often regarded as a singularly dangerous challenge to our democratic norms, especially with its infamous assertion that money is speech. Less attention, however, is paid to the context in which this decision occurred, including corporate consolidation in most sectors of the economy, obscene levels of economic inequality, and near religious reverence for deregulated markets. Media consolidation itself has played an enormous role in driving up the cost of political campaigns. How did we get to this second Gilded Age and what lessons can we infer regarding our democratic prospects?
The post World War II decades saw white working class gains made possible by a set of broadly accepted welfare state ideals and policies. The most important initiatives included the right to organize, the GI bill, Social Security, and a federal commitment to full employment. The gains of that era also depended in part on a less discussed factor, moral, cultural, and political commitments to self government as both key to other values and a good in itself. Wendy Brown, author of In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, provides an eloquent explication of the social connections in a healthy democracy:
“Democracy also requires a robust cultivation of society as the place where we experience our linked across our differences and separateness….citiens of vastly different backgrounds and resources are potentially brought together and thought together. It is where we are politically enfranchised and gathered (not merely cared for) through provision of public goods and where historically produced inequalities are made manifest as differentiated political access, voice, and treatment [and] where these inequalities may be partially redressed.”
The gains that flowed from this ethos were not merely economic. The Progressive and New Deal eras saw a growing recognition that individual health depends on shared commitments to each other.Atlantic Magazine’s Ed Yong points out: “At the end of the 20th century, public-health improvements meant that Americans were living an average of 30 years longer than they were at the start of it. Maternal mortality had fallen by 99 percent; infant mortality by 90 percent. Fortified foods all but eliminated rickets and goiters. Vaccines eradicated smallpox and polio, and brought measles, diphtheria, and rubella to heel. These measures, coupled with antibiotics and better sanitation, curbed infectious diseases to such a degree that some scientists predicted they would soon pass into history. But instead, these achievements brought complacency. “As public health did its job, it became a target” of budget cuts, says Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.”
Though complacency is surely one factor, successful social programs can invite attack merely because they are successful. If democracy had been an ideal of the post WWII quarter century, austerity at least as an aspiration came to shape policy from the end of the Carter Administration on. Just why austerity replaced the robust democratic ideal and with what consequences for our nation’s welfare is an important but too frequently neglected topic.
Positive as the gains of the post WWII era were, they carried with them unintended consequences. Workers and employers, having less fear of depression, periodically drove wages and prices up. Bursts of inflation and an unprecedented profit squeeze led to unemployment even in the midst of inflation, an unprecedented and unexpected circumstance. Blacks had been left out of the full benefits of the New Deal welfare state and raised demands not only for political equality but also for economic opportunity, one of Reconstruction’s forgotten promises.
These events provided an opening for a group of academics who had long despised the New Deal welfare state They are often called market fundamentalists, but for many their ambition went beyond laissez faire to include an attack on the very notion of society on behalf of both traditional morals and markets. Brown cites Friedrich Hayek’s conviction that both markets and conventional morals endure and are valid because they arise spontaneously and adapt organically. They bring into being new human powers that would otherwise not exist.
Seen from this perspective democracy is a threat rather than an aspirational ideal. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” and Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution, it is the problem” become trademarks of the era. In the realm of policy the neoliberal agenda includes an attack on all those institutions and practices that make a just society possible in an era market by corporate power and economic inequality. Brown argues: “Democracy also requires constant vigilance to prevent concentrated wealth from grasping the levers of political power. Wealth…will never stop reaching for these levers..There is no limit to its self-serving practices which may include efforts to prevent the traditionally marginalized even from voting.”
An essential part of this faith in markets is the post Reagan view of corporate consolidation. Combinations are to be judged only on the basis of cheap products to the consumer. Older anti- trust concerns about worker welfare or threat to democracy itself are put aside. Such a tolerant attitude is not applied to worker associations.
Brown’s fears are well under way to full realization. The attack even on voting is already a multi-pronged offensive in many states. Strategies include redutions in polling places, limited hours, restrictive voter id laws. All such restrictions are defended by accusations of widespread fraud, for which no evidence has been forthcoming. The deeper truth talk of fraud is designed to conceal is that democracy itself has now become a deeply partisan issue. One party actively attacks or at least tolerates attacks on citizen’s fundamental right to vote. Defending, emphasizing, and repeating this fact along with efforts to contest every voting restriction should be central to the upcoming campaign. In addition, in the midst of a pandemic it is vitally important to point to the disastrous effects of neoliberalism’s encounter with public health’s institutions and practices. Ed Yong:
“America’s neglect of nursing homes and prisons, its sick buildings, and its botched deployment of tests are all indicative of its problematic attitude toward health: “Get hospitals ready and wait for sick people to show,” as Sheila Davis, the CEO of the nonprofit Partners in Health, puts it. “Especially in the beginning, we catered our entire [COVID‑19] response to the 20 percent of people who required hospitalization, rather than preventing transmission in the community.” The latter is the job of the public-health system, which prevents sickness in populations instead of merely treating it in individuals. That system pairs uneasily with a national temperament that views health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.”
The signs of neoliberalism are all around us and they long predated Citizens United. Worried about student debt? There is a widely advertised financial institution that will refinance your loan. Trapped in prison with no money for bail. There are corporations and products that will take care of that. Cancer cures, money for funerals and burial expenses can all be obtained via the market. Any problem the market creates the market can solve.
The revolt against democracy has occurred on several different levels of the political process. The question of who can vote is just as contested as during Reconstruction, and not just in the South. As during Reconstruction, it does not take the form of explicit racial appeals. Who can vote is also a function of the racist legacy of our history, with prohibitions on voting by felons serving to exclude large numbers of potential voters, disproportionately minorities..It shoud be mentioned more than it is that these techniques also work to the disadvantage of poor whites. Burnham and Ferguson point out: “In Georgia in 1942, for example, turnout topped out at 3.4 percent (that’s right, 3.4 percent; no misprint). Why is no mystery: the Jim Crow system pushed virtually all African-Americans out of the system, while the network of poll taxes, registration requirements, literacy tests and other obstacles that was part of that locked out most poor whites from voting, too. Since the civil rights revolution, turnouts in the South have risen fitfully to national levels, amid much pushback, such as the raft of new voter ID requirements (though these are not limited to the South).”
Minorities, poor, and even substantial segments of the working class are further disadvantaged by efforts to defund the labor opposition. Unions have been the one big money source that Democrats had available, but as the party from Bill Clinton on increasingly became a kind of neoliberalism light, embracing corporate trade agreements with a little bit of job training assistance thrown in, unions lost members, many corporations forced decertification elections. Democrats lost not only financial resources but also the ground troops that had mobilized their voters.
One result of and partial driving force behind these changes is that both parties become big money parties. Burnham and Ferguson-( December 2014)-“The President and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money – defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1000) from the 1 percent as the Republicans. To expect top down money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle. Instead the Golden Rule dominates: Money-driven parties emphasize appeals to particular interest groups instead of the broad interests of working Americans that would lead their donors to shut their wallets.”
One positive conclusion to be drawn is that if this attack on democracy exists on several levels, activism might be fruitful in many domains and may have a spillover effect. Unions are still not dead, and there is a fight now for the soul of the Democratic Party and that fight might stimulate voter access and eligibility reforms. These in turn could reshape the party’s orientation and ideology. Even at the Federal level Dark money is worrisome to many voters and could be an incentive to mobilize for better disclosure laws. There are ample fronts on which to fight and good reason to keep up the struggle.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: