This post originally appeared on What’s Left In The Church? on June 14, 2012. It has been edited for the sake of clarity.
[N]o matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source. – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion
Political equality – citizenship – equalizes people who are otherwise unequal in their capacities, and the universalization of citizenship therefore has to be accompanied not only by formal training in the civic arts but by measures designed to assure the broadest distribution of economic and political responsibility, the exercise of which is even more important than formal training in teaching good judgment, clear and cogent speech, the capacity of decision, and the willingness to accept the consequences of our actions. It is in this sense that universal citizenship implied a whole world of heroes. Democracy requires such a world if citizenship is not to become an empty formality. – Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, pp. 88-89
I have been considering the current state of the United States, its political and social state, in an attempt to make clear what I see as the defining challenge of our current historical moment. I believe as a people we have become so consumed with fear from such a wide array of threats, real and imagined, we have, as a people, lost the capacity to consider threats not as very real yet manageable, but as dire, absolute, existential threats to our persons and to our national integrity. In short, the fears induced by a series of national traumas have metastasized to a kind of generalized, yet overpowering, terror.
The consequence of this state of affairs is a shrinking of our view of possible alternative actions. For several decades, elite institutions and individuals have sought to circumvent the minimal legal and administrative checks placed upon concentrated power. The result us our current state of affairs where elite institutions operate largely outside not only popular, democratic controls, but without even the pretense of concern for popular endorsement or validation. That we have allowed this situation to occur is perhaps inevitable. It isn’t the first, nor is it the last time congeries of private and public power have united in mutually beneficial ways, introducing policies that benefit them at the expense of the commonweal. Unlike the modest reforms of the Depression Years, there has been no serious attempt to reign in those private institutions that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse. In fact, defending their existence as an essential feature of our common life has become more important the demanding accountability for the damage they caused.
Nearly four years after, the divide between elite institutions and the public is wider than ever; four years after, the basic governing proposals of the major party candidates for high office are indistinguishable in their refusal to take a good, hard look at the abuses of power and their possible corrupting influence on our public institutions. The result is a potential voting public grumbling about both major party candidates for President as well as the current, sitting Congress without the alternatives that would address and perhaps correct the imbalances that continue within the system.
Just as there have been times in our history in which powerful private interests have created a barrier for popular participation to the detriment of our common life, elite disdain for popular democracy is nothing new. Even the founders were wary of extending potential participation beyond those individuals who, as current lingo has it, were stakeholders in decision-making. Thus, it would be nearly two hundred years before most effective barriers to universal participation were legally dismantled. Once the franchise became available to all adults, the movement to insulate seats of private, corporate, power from the threat of popular participation began in earnest.
There have been few more blatant examples of elite disdain for democracy than a recent column by New York Times‘ pundit David Brooks. Setting aside Brooks’ introduction and his attempt at a kind of profundity to which he is particularly ill-suited, the nub of Brooks’ complaint comes at the end:
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else. In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice. To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.
The interesting thing about Brooks, his career as a pundit, and this particular column is the way it demonstrates the divide between the interlocking institutions of elite power and their immunity to popular disdain. There are many well-paid, highly-visible individuals whose documented history of error on a number of levels has not prevented their continued presence as the voice of elite opinion. Precisely because the punditry exists for the sake of the wielders of power, rather than as expressions of democratic opinion in all their variety, the criticism Brooks has received, such as these, is meaningless. Whether or not the people not operating within the interlocked institutions of private and public power agree or disagree with Brooks is immaterial.
The clear expression not just of disdain but hostility toward the democratic ideal, given voice by Brooks, displays the complete break even with the pretense of obeisance to that ideal. No longer content to parade their quadrennial fealty to the voter, the only elites who really matter – the intersecting persons and institutions who represent corporate and public authority without any democratic check or limit – no longer feel any compunction about expressing their true feelings.
The problem would be insurmountable if not for the on-going complete and utter failure to govern in ways and through policies that are in their own interests. Even as corporate profits and managerial compensation rise to record levels, a sizable plurality of America remains unemployed, underemployed, or permanently outside the workforce. This large segment of people, unable to contribute to economic activity, create an ever larger hollow space in our economy that no amount of tax cuts or administrative reform will fill. In short, without people to pay for their products, corporations have created an unsustainable economic model.
Of course, this means we may well find ourselves in a situation in which we are in need of public officials willing to address the situation. As things stand, the elites of both parties, beholden to a system that rewards subservience to private money to maintain a career in public life, are incapable of giving voice to popular demands for systemic change that creates new barriers to corporate interests and institutions and their desire to control our public bodies. The divide between elite and popular interest is wide and, as the system is currently arranged, nearly impossible to cross.
The undercurrent of faith in our democratic traditions and values, however, lies at the heart of recent popular protest movements. Whether expressed by the Tea Party or the Occupy movements, regardless of the influx of corporate cash to the Tea Party, they both demonstrate an on-going popular trust in democratic protest against elite usurpation of power. One may disagree with the overall ideological thrust of one or the other of these movements; one cannot doubt, however, that the millions who expressed solidarity with each did so out of a sincere desire for some kind of check upon the power elite institutions wield without accountability.
Neither the Tea Party nor the Occupy Movement, however, has been successful in curbing on-going distortions of our public institutions away from democratic norms. It may well be the case that only some collapse, far larger and more devastating than the one that occurred in 2008, needs to happen before democratic distrust of unchecked power finds expression in one or another of our major political parties. Precisely because the status quo becomes shakier by the day, this may yet be the case.
That this continues to be a source of public angst should be beyond doubt. Our ongoing inability even to pretend the system will respond to mounting evidence it no longer works even for those few institutions who benefit from it creates many hazards, not the least of them a disdain for public life in general that could very well leave us without recourse to a return to democratic forms serving as a check upon the abuse of power. Our fear may well be even more our undoing than our current, teetering, system. For that reason alone, we need to be clear about what is happening, and prepare ourselves to act for the common good should it come to that extremity. As it stands, the system clearly shows no interest even in pretending to hear the voice of the people.