Democracy dies in Europe and America. Are we better off without it?

Summary: This post attempts to give some perspective on the growing “democratic deficit” in Europe and America. What causes it? Does it help or hurt us? These questions have no obvious answers. Hopefully this will help you see this trend, and help spark whatever action you believe appropriate. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Contents

  1. The Democratic Deficit: is it a feature or bug?
  2. Europe leads; America follows.
  3. How the 1% see us: as dogs, or sheep
  4. For More Information

(1)  The Democratic Deficit: a feature, not a bug

The rise of Hitler in Germany, center of European culture and science, terrified Europe’s elites. Their response depended on the cause as they saw it, which was the madness of the masses (the role of Germany’s elites conveniently forgotten) plus Europe’s division into competing nations. The solution was slow unification into a new polity having the form of democracy but with power concentrated in non-representative institutions.

Pew poll of support for EU
Pew Research, 12 May 2014.

The plan has worked in the halting messy way typical of political evolution.  The sovereign debt crisis tested the EU’s legitimacy and institutions. Both weathered the storm.  Public support has begun to recover, and remains adequate (even in Greece, where 34% had a favorable view of the EU in May 2014).

Pew Research: EU
Pew Research, 12 May 2014.

Interestingly, people support the EU although aware that it only superficially provides representative government. They see the “democratic deficit” (also see the links at Wikipedia), so often discussed but never changed. The natural result: a steady decline in voter turnout (even lower than ours, except where mandatory). Why vote if it makes no difference?

A European Union in your hands

(2) Europe leads; America follows

Has Europe found a third way between American democracy and tyranny (in its many forms)? It is a more stable form of elite rule than by the “throne and altar” conservative parties whose mass support allowed elites to dominate much of 19th C Europe. Although too soon to do more than guess at the answer, we should see that the framing of the question looks wrong. It implies that EU governance has diverged from the expected path leading to American republicanism.

A more accurate analysis suggests that Europe’s elites crafted a new form of managed democracy, which America’s elites have imitated. Europe innovates; we follow. While our system formally remains more responsive to the people’s will than Europe’s, in practice the difference appears small — and shrinking.

Consider the trends in America. The massive shift of power from the elected officials of the executive and legislature to a massive bureaucracy, much of which lies beyond effective control in independent agencies and statutory self-regulatory bodies. The countless laws and regulations — impossible to know, let alone follow, making criminals of us all (e.g., the Federal Register). The over-abundance of elected officials (especially at the local level), making informed voting almost impossible. The increased number of people represented by each Congressperson, diluting our ability to contact let alone influence the Republic’s most direct connection to citizens. The increased role of money (directly as contributions or indirectly through lobbyists) in steering the government.

The trend is clear; the effect is not. Is this a good thing for America, or not?

Dog with leash

How the 1% see us

You win at poker by playing the players, not the cards.
— Ancient adage.

To understand America’s growing democratic deficit, consider why the 1% have worked to produce it. We can choose see them as cartoon villains motivated by only greed and lust for power (our blockbuster films today are almost all cartoon-like, devoid of life-like characters). That we see them like that makes us easy to rule, as does anything that distorts our vision. It makes effective reform difficult or impossible.

In fact they see themselves as the most fit to rule, based on intellectual trends with deep roots in western culture (and especially America culture). For an introduction to this see Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought). For some recent examples see How do our leaders see us? Don the shoes of the 1%. Look down on the 99%. Describe the view. In brief, speaking as someone with much experience dealing with our elites, they see us as dogs.

They can give examples of our folly, our mobs, and our irrationality. But these are behaviors they too display, since they too are of (no, they’re “not different”). There is another reason they see us as inferiors, one seldom mentioned. They’re superior to us because we allow them to dominate us. Patron-client, master-slave, higher-lower are social roles created by our behavior.

Re-phasing this, they’re contemptuous of us because we have the ability to rule ourselves but instead allow them to rule us. Every day we acquiesce by apathy and passivity, allowing the Republic’s political machinery to rust away, re-enforces their confidence. Ruling million without force (except on the underclass) provides a heady brew.

Each day that we believe ourselves to be weak makes it more so. Atomized — acting as isolated individuals — we are powerless. Even voting seems pointless. But our history shows that working together we can do great things. We appear to have lost the will to do so, but we retain the power if we decide to do so again.

The lion and the sheep.
What happens next is not pretty.

For More Information

This post describes what Collin Crouch calls “post-democracy”. See the links in its Wikipedia entry; better yet, read his book Post-Democracy (2004). If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See the links at the pages About the quiet coup in America and Reforming America: steps to new politics. Also see these posts …

Jim Hightower on the two parties

20 thoughts on “Democracy dies in Europe and America. Are we better off without it?

  1. What gives them power is not the money. Is the power 99% people give to the money. The problem is the people that are for sale

    1. You can’t take the power back. You can only NOT give it to them in the first place

    2. Petisa,

      The history of the West during the past few centuries has been one of “taking power” from the elites. The growth of representative institutions from small beginnings.

      I am astonished that the majority of comments to posts about political reform are expressions of surrender and despair — often in defiance of our history.

  2. There is one essential historical element that is often forgotten in that discussion of the democratic deficit in the EU, and that also informs somewhat the situation in the USA.

    That second aspect, which also terrified Europe’s elites, and whose cause they also ascribed to the madness of the masses was the rise of the Popular Front(s) — which won state power through elections during the 1930s in Spain and France (and even farther away in Chile), as well as in local governments in countries such as the UK and Switzerland, and went on to take such horrific measures as paid vacations, 8 hours workdays, or public works to fight unemployment.

    The EU has been structured to enforce “policy without politics”: making sure that no matter how the populace votes, the decisions that matter will be taken by a bureaucracy or oligarchy according to its own objectives, thus preventing not just a devastating war caused by a new form of nazism, but also welfare-orientated, elite-adverse policies due to a re-edition of a popular front. In the USA, elites never confronted a serious form of fascist mass movement at home, and are therefore only concerned with the second aspect — dismantling the New Deal and preventing the emergence of something similar.

  3. We can choose see them as cartoon villains motivated by only greed and lust for power (our blockbuster films today are almost all cartoon-like, devoid of life-like characters). That we see them like that makes us easy to rule, as does anything that distorts our vision. It makes effective reform difficult or impossible.

    Although greed and lust for power might not be their only motivators, they can certainly be counted as two of their primary motivators. I agree with you that they wrap pretty words – words that amount to little more than plutocratic propaganda – around rationalizing their actions in an attempt to justify their abhorrent deeds. However, once those words are stripped away, greed and lust for power (and everything that goes with them) are the motivators that best explain the catalysts for their actions. Seeing them as otherwise motivated is what distorts our vision.

    …they’re contemptuous of us because we have the ability to rule ourselves but instead allow them to rule us. Every day we acquiesce by apathy and passivity, allowing the Republic’s political machinery to rust away, re-enforces their confidence. […] What happens next is not pretty.

    Agreed.

    1. rguendo,

      I disagree. I know some people in that class, and they’re motivated by more than greed and power. It’s a cardinal error to believe others are different than you. Our inability to clearly see the world — reducing everything to child-like simplicity — renders us incapable of governing ourselves.

    2. I live in San Francisco, a city with among the most billionaires per capita in the world, and so I know a number of these “1%” myself, and I’ve had chances to hear what they have to say about economics and politics.
      From my personal experience, I can say that almost all of these rich people are generally good and decent, and they do care about their fellow man just as much as anyone else.
      Unfortunately, almost all of them also seem to be afflicted by “Let them eat cake” misconceptions about the realities of life for the rest of us. I mean this in the original sense of the phrase, where an alleged princess apparently concluded that the peasants’ lack of bread was due to some logistical shortfall (not due to real hardship), and so it could be easily corrected by substituting some other yeast product such as cake.
      I’ve heard more than one very nice and well-intentioned rich person say something along the lines of, “If those minimum-wage earners in Middle America are unhappy with their disposition, then they should get a scholarship at Princeton, graduate with a degree in Finance, move to New York, and get job as an Associate at a major investment bank. Sure it won’t be easy for them, but it wasn’t easy for me either!”

      More to the point of this post about the value of Democracy (vs say, Plutocracy), I’ve also heard some comments by the wealthy about such topics as neighborhood gentrification causing long-time residents to be evicted from their homes, which is often the subject of public protest here. The conversation often goes something like this: “Those poor, misguided protesters. Don’t they understand the laws of supply and demand? Just wait until they see the improvements in the neighborhood, then they’ll realize they were wrong about these things.”

    3. Todd,

      I too have lived in the Bay Area, and have had the exact same experience.

      And it is not just with the 1%, but in general with the rich. I had a long conversation with a guy who did not understand why we should not raise the social security age to 70, having never done a day’s worth of manual labor.

  4. I know some people in that class, and they’re motivated by more than greed and power.

    There are certainly other motivators. But it’s unclear to me why their existence would exclude the historically well documented greed and power as motivators? Also, never underestimate the minds ability to rationalize behavior. Rationalization; it’s a hell of a drug.

    It’s a cardinal error to believe others are different than you.

    It’s a very similar cardinal error to believe others are necessarily like you.

    Our inability to clearly see the world — reducing everything to child-like simplicity — renders us incapable of governing ourselves.

    While I agree with you that reducing everything to child-like simplicity can be counter-productive to critical reasoning, taking baser human motivators into account when evaluating behavior, is not. If anything, naively not consider them is what is child-like in its simplicity.

    1. arguendo,

      “It’s a very similar cardinal error to believe others are necessarily like you.”

      That’s nuts. We are all people, human beings with the same array of complex motivations. To believe a class of people are motivated only by greed and power is beyond ridiculous, reducing them to the kind of cartoon figures seen on the TV and film screens.

  5. We are all people, human beings with the same array of complex motivations.

    Agreed. Adding only that we can differ greatly in how we act based on that array of complex motivations.

    To believe a class of people are motivated only by greed and power is beyond ridiculous, reducing them to the kind of cartoon figures seen on the TV and film screens.

    I don’t understand why you continue to use the word “only” as I clearly indicated I did not believe those to be the only motivators. Simply that they should be included as likely motivators and that those so motivated would likely rationalize justifications for related behaviors. Greed and power are common, historically well documented motivators. That is true even if they don’t happen to apply to the people you know.

    1. Argue do,

      Good point, I misread you. You did not say “only”. My apologies.

      What I meant to say was that we don’t know the mix of motivations for the individuals in the 1%. At this level we need to be more granular that looking at the group.

      I suspect that for some of them the money is secondary. Such as the Koch brothers. That makes them more dangerous.

  6. What I meant to say was that we don’t know the mix of motivations for the individuals in the 1%. At this level we need to be more granular that looking at the group.

    To be clear, the class I was referring to is the plutocratic class (i.e., the 1% of the 1%) – a very small group of folks. I agree, we should look at all probable motivations.

    I suspect that for some of them the money is secondary. Such as the Koch brothers. That makes them more dangerous.

    I imagine it’s easy to consider money as secondary when one finds oneself in such abundance. And yes, plutocrats should be considered very dangerous to the 99%.

    Also, I very much appreciate your excellent posts and generous replies. Thank you.

  7. “They’re superior to us because we allow them to dominate us. Patron-client, master-slave, higher-lower are social roles created by our behavior.”
    ……….And by our own deeply held beliefs foisted upon us as young people.

    An age old problem and reality. Most people really harbor a deep seated belief that there are elites. That these people are different in some essential ways. They see them living a life that is so very different in form and reality and thus assume these so called elites are different and by inference, superior. Way too many Americans are of a slavish mindset, a deferential positioning and as passive as it is, they still harbor aggressive fantasies about the life they have found themselves living versus the one they think elites do live.
    Myths and fantasies supplement the harsh reality that is emerging for many people today.
    And that is hopeful.

    I am certain, FM, you have solved that riddle or you could not write the scathing critiques you do write. One can easily learn the rites of the elites, mimic the speech, copy the dress codes, fawn when they fawn, utilize their lawyers and professionals. And mainly use them as they are so well trained to use the Others. Pretend just enough but not too much!

    I disagree with your analysis of the success of the Euro Experiment; time will tell and it is still quite early for that union of disparates.
    The US, on the other hand, has always been a faux European stepchild with great fantasies about being different. The American myths we all so fondly recite are devolving right before our eyes. ELITES!
    Nonsense; their greatest power is they want us to think they are.

    Breton

    1. Nonsense; their greatest power is they want us to think they are.

      Exactly. The propaganda they employ to create this (et. al.) illusion is deliberate, constant, systemic, and institutionalized. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

      But as you noted, time will tell. In the face of all monopolistic ideological manipulation, people still develop a skepticism toward the official ideology. Reality is a problem for the ruling class. Reality has to be constantly finessed and misrepresented because reality has a natural tendency to reveal itself. There is a limit to how many lies people will swallow. Along with institutional stability we have popular ferment and popular innovation. Along with ruling class coercion we have skepticism and sometimes even mass resistance. All social institutions of free market capitalist society have a dichotomous tension within them. They must sustain the few while appearing to serve the many. And sometimes the many, beset and distracted as they are by so much else, do catch wise and resist. The empire is only as secure as the lies it can sell.

      By becoming aware of this, we have a better chance of moving against the tide and resisting the deadening hand of free market plutocracy, a better chance of exposing the dominant imperial paradigm for the suffocating dirty litter box that it really is, a better chance to build a real and viable democracy amid a family of nations in a peaceful and sustainable world. But to do this, we must take responsibility for our part in allowing our society to come to this point and, above all, realize that this is a very, very old conflict. Plutocrats/oligarchs have always sought these ends. They will never concede; never stop. We must be ever vigilant in the defense of whatever democracy we can wrestle from them.

    2. Arguendo,

      “Nonsense; their greatest power is they want us to think they are.”

      They want us to think they are “what”? I don’t understand.

      As for the rest, I think (guess, wonder) that you are making this too complicated. IMO the evidence is overwhelming that as a people (group, collective) our OODA loop is broken — our ability to see, orient ourselves, decide, and act.

      “Why” is usually the most difficult of questions to answer. My guess is that we have lost the will or desire for the burden of self-government. That implies that your forecast will prove wrong — that it is not a fluke that we fall for lies, that is a means to our ends.

      If so, I doubt that we can find a cure easily or quickly.

  8. “Nonsense; their greatest power is they want us to think they are.” – They want us to think they are “what”? I don’t understand.

    From the context of epagbrenton’s comment to which I was replying, I took him to mean that they want us to think them elites. A conclusion to which I agree. However, my intent was to use his conclusion as a segue to mention the broader propagandistic effort the plutocrats employ and the import of possessing the ability to identify it in real time for the purposes of gaining better clarity in which to understand events.

    As for the rest, I think (guess, wonder) that you are making this too complicated.

    The only part I thought was complicated was developing the ability to see through the relentless, institutionalized propaganda as it is generally quite effective on those unaware. Then there’s the ongoing effort required to decipher/divine/decode/audit what our “official sources” and corporate news tells us to be true. The rest I find relatively easy to understand if events are viewed through a paradigm other than that of the officially sanctioned one. That paradigm being the one I already mentioned; Cui Bono? Through this alternate paradigm, I’ve found it’s much easier to see that a very small group with an insatiable appetite for accumulation of capital and resources is attempting to concentrate as much wealth as possible in the hands of as few as possible and subjugate everyone else. Although it doesn’t explain every single plutocratic action, I’ve found it extremely useful in explaining much. Even where there is no admission of guilt, reviewing the outcomes of their actions over time show distinct and consistent patterns, which I think, provide us sufficient information to deduce probable motive. And we don’t always need deduce thanks to whistleblowers and/or subsequently obtained official documents that explicitly show intent and/or prior knowledge of previously denied events/intent/design.

    IMO the evidence is overwhelming that as a people (group, collective) our OODA loop is broken — our ability to see, orient ourselves, decide, and act.

    Agreed. I think you’re kind to imply most people ever possessed that skill in the first place.

    “Why” is usually the most difficult of questions to answer. My guess is that we have lost the will or desire for the burden of self-government. That implies that your forecast will prove wrong — that it is not a fluke that we fall for lies, that is a means to our ends.

    Ha! It definitely seems as if that’s true much of the time. I find people’s unwillingness to act on their own behalf (and even against their own interests) as perplexing as it is frustrating. The epithet, lazy sheeple comes to mind. However, historically, it’s rarely the majority of people that are the catalyst to bring about socio-economic/political change for the better. More typically, that catalyst for positive change comes from smaller groups of highly motivated/dedicated/brave/desperate people. And sometimes, the efforts of these few will wake enough of the broader populous to get them join forces – sometimes not – and sometimes their inclusion is not necessary. So, if you can hear this, you are the Resistance. Also, unfortunately, for the broader public to take notice/action their day-to-day quality of life must first be materially upset. IMHO, this threshold of materiality has not yet been met. Although it likely soon will be. We’ll see what happens then.

    If so, I doubt that we can find a cure easily or quickly.

    We do little more than discourage ourselves by hoping to achieve a complete fix. Our democracy and corresponding civil rights/liberties are usually taken from us (and won back) in terms of degrees. I highly doubt there will ever be a cure for this conflict. Only pushing back and forth. And never will it be quick or easy.

  9. Democrats are currently talking among themselves about retaking state legislatures and governships by a long process of grassroots organization. This at least seems like a move in the right direction.

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