Veering from the path to authoritarian oligarchy.
Welcome Back to Win-Win Democracy
Historian Heather Cox Richardson opens her March 12th newsletter saying:
“In our history, the United States has gone through turning points when we have had to adjust our democratic principles to new circumstances. The alternative is to lose those principles to a small group of people who insist that democracy is outdated and must be replaced by a government run by a few leaders or, now, by a single man.”
She continues,1 explaining the four times in our history — the 1850s, 1890s, 1930s, and the present — when there were Americans “who doubled down on the idea of human hierarchies in which a few superior men should rule the rest.”
“Now, once again, we are at an inflection point. The rise of global oligarchs and the internet, which enables those oligarchs to spread disinformation, has made significant numbers of American voters once again slide away from democracy to embrace the idea that the country would work better with a few leaders making the rules for the rest of us. In nineteen states, Republican-dominated legislatures have passed laws that restrict the vote and entrench minority rule, even up to allowing state legislatures to overturn election results. If that is permitted to stand, that minority can choose our president, and it is increasingly backing one single man, one individual, to rule over the rest of us.
If history is any guide, we are at the point when voters of all parties must push back, to say that we do, in fact, believe in the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, and that our government is legitimate only if we have a say in it.”
The first three issues of this newsletter focused on the most obvious way in which we all “have a say in it” — voting.
In particular, reducing partisan bias in drawing districting maps would give the Constitution’s we the people a much greater say in how our state and federal governments work. Fewer representatives would be in safe districts, forcing them to be more responsive to voters. Reducing potential voter suppression by making it easy for lower-income people to obtain valid voter IDs would further improve matters.
The question is: could proposals like these be enacted? I will return to that question below.
Perhaps an even stronger force against us having a real say in the way our governments work is the rise of American oligarchs and their stranglehold on our political system. As former President Jimmy Carter stated in 2015:
“It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery [emphasis mine] being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over. … The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody’s who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.”
It is time, as Richardson says, “for voters of all parties to push back,” to veer us off the path toward America as an authoritarian oligarchy.
It is this agenda for the survival of American democracy that I intend for us to work on in the coming months. I’m not so naive as to think that just writing about it will solve the problems. But I do believe that if we can get more people to understand the issues and and if we could get some novel win-win ideas in front of our political leaders, there is a glimmer of hope that progress could be made.
For the remainder of this issue, I want to tackle three topics:
Where is this newsletter headed over the next months in an effort to understand some of the big trends threatening our democracy and proposing ideas for win-win solutions?
How can we hope to implement win-win solutions when a large number of our political leaders lie, have no integrity, and are under the influence of Carter’s “unlimited political bribery”?
Are there ways to foster more interaction on the topics in the newsletter?
Issues for Coming Newsletters
There are four huge, inter-connected issues that I believe are foundational threats to American democracy. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to attack them independently.
Money speaks — loudly.
Money influences politicians directly through campaign and PAC contributions, and by funding extensive lobbying by large corporations and special interest groups. Money funds decades-long efforts to change laws and courts in states and at the federal level.
Money buys influence through advertising, by supporting “think tanks” that advocate particular world views, and by control of the media.
Money is power and we have a class of people in the country today who have, for all intents and purposes, unlimited wealth and, therefore, tremendous power.
According to the Forbes 2021 Billionaires list, the combined wealth of the 20 wealthiest Americans is more than $1.5 trillion. For perspective, the President’s FY2022 defense budget request was $715 billion and Medicare expenditure in 2020 was $829.5 billion. The combined wealth of just twenty Americans could fund both defense and Medicare for a year.
Imagine the influence that people like this can buy. And, they are just the wealthiest 20 of America’s 724 billionaires. Billionaires can spend tens of millions of dollars a year, year after year, promoting their favorite candidates and causes, without breaking a sweat.
So, the next topic I want us to discuss is America’s lopsided distribution of wealth and income and how our tax system contributes to it.
Corporate Wealth and Power
Corporations have been an economic engine in America since the arrival of Europeans on these shores. There have been times in our history when they’ve also been extraordinarily powerful in our political life. We’re seeing such a time now, a time when large multi-national corporations are able to evade significant taxation, when anti-trust enforcement is lax, allowing monopolistic, winner-takes-all behavior, and when the doctrine of corporations as “legal persons” has reached its pinnacle in the Citizens United decision, which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns.
Corporations are now able to dominate our political discourse like never before, giving them enormous influence on the direction of our country.
The fortunes of our corporations and our oligarchs are intertwined, and they often work hand-in-hand.
Tens of millions of Americans have been left behind in the country’s economic growth. These are the people whose industries and jobs have been devastated by the globalization, technological change, and financialization of the economy that has unfolded in the last forty years.
The economy has grown but the rewards of that growth have flowed mostly to the highly educated and the wealthy, leading to widespread resentment and anger among those left behind. Republican politicians have exploited this resentment to polarize our society and our politics.
We will not preserve democracy without finding a way for our country’s economic success to be more broadly shared.
Campaign Finance Laws
Our campaign finance laws have been defanged, allowing both wealthy individuals and corporations to use their wealth both stealthily and effectively to advance their political agendas.
I plan to devote several months of newsletters to getting us to a common understanding of these four issues. I’ll resist proposing solutions because, as I said, these issues are coupled.
Once we achieve a shared base, I will explore several ideas for win-win solutions that span multiple issues.
Getting to Win-Win with Liars
Whenever I discuss the idea of this newsletter — win-win solutions to tough political problems — I get pushback that this approach is doomed because Republican politicians are liars (frequent) or because all politicians are liars (less frequent). I admit that my circle of friends is not representative of the country, and imagine that if I spoke with some staunch conservatives I’d also hear more frequently that Democratic politicians are liars.
Democrats, for example, argue that today’s Republican leaders2 use the specter of voter fraud as a smokescreen to justify voter suppression: When today’s Republican leaders say “prevent fraud” they really mean “suppress the vote of people who tend to vote Democratic”.
Our country’s long history of erecting gates to voting (e.g., poll taxes and literacy tests) to prevent people of color, native Americans, and immigrants from voting, as well as recent behaviors taken by Republican-led states immediately after the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, reinforce that viewpoint.
Conversely, Republicans argue that when Democratic leaders say “voting rights” or “make it easier to vote” they really mean “let non-citizen aliens vote.” I haven’t seen any evidence that reinforces this viewpoint.
Regardless, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that what our political leaders say is not necessarily what they mean. Does this make win-win solutions hopeless? I don’t think so. Consider the voting example.
I’ve talked to ordinary Republicans (i.e., not politicians) who say that voter ID makes sense but are appalled at the idea of suppressing the votes of people of color. They’ve bought their leaders’ premise but not necessarily their unspoken agenda.
Likewise, I’ve talked to ordinary Democrats who don’t see anything wrong with voter ID, suggesting that getting a driver’s license or state ID card is no big deal.
A few personal conversations aren’t a trend. But, a June 2021 Monmouth University poll shows that more than 70% of the public feel in-person voting should be made easier and that 80% support requiring voters to show photo ID. The public accepts both the Republican politicians’ message that voter fraud should be prevented and the Democratic politicians’ message that in-person voting should be easier.
In the face of “unlimited political bribery,” translating the public’s views to action by our representatives is, as we’ve discussed above, difficult. But it is not impossible, especially if we can get a few politicians of each party to show some independent thinking.
There’s reason to hope for a win-win based on what leaders say they want because some voters believe the messages that they hear.
Moreover, the alternative, that our situation is hopeless requires us to accept that our American democracy is already dead. For my granddaughter’s sake, I’m not ready to accept that premise quite yet.
Increasing Interaction and Impact
Several people have asked me how to make comments and also to see what other readers are thinking. If you read the newsletter in your email, you won’t see any comments because the emails are sent before there are any comments 😀.
There is a “Leave a Comment” button at the bottom of each issue; clicking on it takes you to the issue’s comments section on the web site. You don’t have to “leave a comment” but can just read them. I’ll change the wording on the button to make that clear.
You can also read newsletter issues directly on the web site (https://winwindemocracy.org) or by clicking on the issue’s title in the email version. In either case, you’ll see the comments if you scroll to the bottom of the issue.
Finally, new last week, you can read Win-Win Democracy in the new Substack app for iPhone and iPad.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for this newsletter and any other Substack-based newsletters to which you subscribe. You can choose whether or not continue to get issues in your email or to just get notifications of new issues and read them in the app. There’s a bar at the bottom that shows you how many comments have been made and takes you directly to the comments. If you have an Android device, you can join the Android waitlist here.
If there are people interested in discussing the topics in the newsletter, I’d be willing to host some virtual meetings. I wouldn’t want to “present” a newsletter issue, but would be happy to moderate a discussion among people who’ve already read the issue. If you’re interested in this idea, please leave a comment or, if you’d prefer to communicate privately, reply to this email.
A reader who is concerned about whether/how any of the ideas in this newsletter could have impact — a concern I share — pointed me at an article about Deliberation Nation, which is a modern incarnation of deliberative democracy. I think it is too early to attempt something like this, but what do others think? Other ideas for having impact?
I urge you to read her entire essay.