Democracy’s Perversion

The United States is used to equating being “the greatest power in the world” and a democracy. But which is it? How and why a constitutionally limited government would turn into a superpower?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

When George W. Bush said as a matter of pride that the United States is the “greatest power in the world” he was not necessarily doing the country a favor. Conflating power and greatness has never bode well for democracy, and the president himself proved it by opening an era of expanded executive powers concerning the right to war and against citizens’ privacy as well as public liberties. Defining a country by its power is, in any case, a particularly narrow path toward its greatness. This is in fact, as Sheldon Wolin points out, contradictory: “Does, or can, our Constitution, which typically has been understood as intending to limit power, actually authorize power of the magnitude being claimed by the president or is an extraconstitutional justification being claimed?” In other words, “How, and when, did the people delegate ‘the greatest power in the world’ to their government? If the people did not have that power in the first place, where does it come from?” There lies the perversion of democracy addressed in this chapter.

Contrary to classic forms of totalitarianism, the perversion of democracy does not announce itself in ways that could be immediately flagged as authoritarian. There is no dictator building power around his supposed charismatic persona, animated by the intent to become the center of gravity of all public institutions.1 As a matter of fact, inverted totalitarianism follows an entirely different course: “the leader is not the architect of the system but its product. George W. Bush no more created inverted totalitarianism than he piloted a plane onto the USS Abraham Lincoln. He is the pliant favored child of privilege, of corporate connections, a construct of public relations wizards and of party propagandists.” It follows that “Unlike the classic totalitarian regimes which lost no opportunity for dramatizing and insisting upon a radical transformation that virtually eradicated all traces of the previous system, inverted totalitarianism has emerged imperceptibly, unpremeditatedly, and in seeming unbroken continuity with the nation’s political traditions.”

Inverted totalitarianism, therefore, does not succeed by being a blatant rupture with democracy but by being, precisely, its inversion. “An inversion is present, says the author, when a system, such as a democracy, produces a number of significant actions ordinarily associated with its antithesis: for example, when the elected chief executive may imprison an accused without due process and sanction the use of torture while instructing the nation about the sanctity of the rule of law.” Obviously, Guantanamo or the fate of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden—soon to be followed by Julian Assange—came to mind when Sheldon Wolin was writing these words. The important point, here, is that while classic forms of totalitarianism celebrate their breaking with the constitutional system of the past, inverted totalitarianism subverts it.

As such, totalitarianism is “the attempt to realize an ideological, idealized conception of a society as a systematically ordered whole, where the ‘parts’ (family, churches, education, intellectual and cultural life, economy, recreation, politics, state bureaucracy) are premeditatedly, even forcibly if necessary, coordinated to support and further the purposes of the regime. The formulation of those purposes is monopolized by the leadership.” In classical totalitarian regimes, it is assumed that total power is exclusively achievable from the top. Inverted totalitarianism, on the contrary, is free from the grandiosity expressed by the Duce, the Fuhrer, the Great Helmsman, or whichever supreme figure is supposed to embody all by himself the good of the country. It simply reflects “the belief that the world can be changed to accord with a limited range of objectives, such as ensuring that its own energy needs will be met, that ‘free markets’ will be established, that military supremacy will be maintained, and that ‘friendly regimes’ will be in place in those parts of the world considered vital to its own security and economic needs.” Formally limiting the objectives of government to seemingly reasonable ones may nevertheless hide that only corporations are meant to benefit from them.2 The transition from a government presided by the idea that all men are born free and equal in rights to a democracy managed by and for corporate entities has become a reality without the need for brown shirts parading in the streets.

Sheldon Wolin adds in that regard that “Inverted totalitarianism also trumpets the cause of democracy worldwide. As we shall point out in later chapters, ‘democracy’ is understood as ‘managed democracy,’ a political form in which governments are legitimated by elections that they have learned to control. . . . Managed democracy is centered on containing electoral politics; it is cool, even hostile toward social democracy beyond promoting literacy, job training, and other essentials for a society struggling to survive in the global economy. Managed democracy is democracy systematized.” This last phrase refers to the systematization of the appearances of democracy to better serve the exclusive interests of the corporate power elite.

That we have an alleged free press and can vote is in no way a hindrance to inverted totalitarianism but the fuel it relies on. The more the appearances of an open society are satisfied, the better a managed democracy can thrive. “Thus far the promoters of American superpower have evinced no interest in abolishing a system that enables them to maximize power: a free politics, under the right conditions and controls, interposes no barriers to their kind of totalizing powers and may even serve as their auxiliary. The ‘right conditions’ refers to the porousness of institutions that enables a different form of power—one ostensibly nonpolitical in its origins, unbound to constitutional limits or to democratic processes (call it ‘corporate power’)—to turn access or simple influence over legislators and policy-makers into copartnership: not as in a corporate state of Mussolini’s fantasies but as in the incorporated state. Why negate a constitution, as the Nazis did, if it is possible simultaneously to exploit porosity and legitimate power by means of judicial interpretations that declare huge campaign contributions to be protected speech under the First Amendment, or that treat heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations as a simple application of the people’s right to petition their government?”

We can now better understand why elected officials regularly put in balance being the greatest power in the world and being a paragon of democracy. Once people have been left long enough with only the appearances of democracy, they forget about what the proper functioning of the institutions is supposed to be and substitute to the democratic ideal the idea of some inherent goodness of the country. And by that token, the more power the country has when compared to others, the more there is a reason to feel good about the course of the world. This collective drift from reason to emotion is a major prerequisite for all forms of authoritarianism.

What are the main traits of this managed democracy? Sheldon Wolin’s first remark is that “Our government need not pursue a policy of stamping out dissidence—the uniformity imposed on opinion by the ‘private’ media conglomerates performs that job efficiently.” Their conglomerates rely primarily upon advertising money provided by corporations; therefore, they have all interests in acting as faithful agents of the status quo and distracting their audience with superficial culture wars. Instead of investigating actual issues impacting people’s lives, they demean those who do as “fringe” and “radical.” Dissidence is simply made irrelevant.

In the corporate state, moreover, the citizenry itself is being instrumentalized. “Almost from the beginning of the Cold War the citizenry, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as a participant, has been replaced by the “electorate,” that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them. By splintering the population into specific categories such as “between 20 and 35 years old,” “white male over 40,” or “female college graduate”, opinion polls make it easier for political representatives to specifically “target” small sub-groups. “The effect, says Sheldon Wolin, is to accentuate what separates citizens, to plant suspicions and thereby further promote demobilization by making it more difficult to form coherent majorities around common beliefs.” Crucially, “the dicing of the public into ever more refined categories renders their constituent members more easily manipulable: cheaply reproduced in ‘focus groups,’ their conclusions are represented as political reality. The respondents, for their part, are not obligated to act on their opinions: giving an opinion entails no political responsibility.”

Thirdly, because it has no political boundaries the corporate state quite naturally defines itself as a Superpower. As stated in the George W. Bush administration’s “National Security Strategy” (NSS) released on September 20th, 2002, “The United States possesses unprecedented—and unequaled—strength and influence in the world.” More than a factual statement, this has been the founding principle of U.S. foreign policies since after World War II under the pretext that with great power comes great responsibility. But that a country would define itself by its might also suggests that, when it is its own, might makes right.

In this regard, the ruthlessness and total disdain for other people’s rights with which American governments have regularly imposed their own will on other countries has absolutely no equivalent in the world and is a far cry from the democratic ideal claimed by these administrations. 3 The scheme is perpetuated under the disingenuous assumption that since the U.S. is the beacon of democracy, it can do no wrong. Hence the equivalence made—in its exclusive case, as one might expect—between military strength and protecting democracy in the world. But to anyone whose view is not blurred by the lure of profit-making on an international scale, the idea that freedom and justice were handed down at birth over the U.S.’s cradle by the democratic fairy is a wild assumption.

To Sheldon Wolin, the 2002 NSS declaration quoted above implies “a reformulation of the nation’s identity: it stands for sheer power, economic and military, that is measured by a global standard rather than the nation’s constitution; freed not only from constitutional democracy but from any truly political character. . . . Democracy proposes a radically different conception of power. Democracy is first and foremost about equality: equality of power and equality of sharing in the benefits and values made possible by social cooperation. Democracy is no more compatible with world domination than is ‘the political,’ which is first and foremost about preserving commonality while legitimating and reconciling differences.”

Drowning dissidence through the daily protection of the status quo by media conglomerates, reducing citizens’ voice to that of splintered opinions in electoral horse races, and defining the country by its military and economic power rather than by progress toward equality appear to form the three main pillars of managed democracy. The end result is effective political demobilization. All in all, “Inverted totalitarianism reverses things. It is all politics all of the time but a politics largely untampered by the political.” In this political theatre, politicians’ squabbles are on display non-stop, while national elections are periodically presented as the culminating moment of political life. The choice, however, is always to be made between personalities rather than between thorough and explicit political programs. “What is absent, adds Sheldon Wolin, is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.”

As a practical side note, inverted totalitarianism’s victory is best attested by the resounding silence of intellectuals and career academics. “[because of] a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system. . . . During the months leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, university and college campuses, which had been such notorious centers of opposition to the Vietnam War that politicians and publicists spoke seriously of the need to ‘pacify the campuses,’ hardly stirred. The Academy had become self-pacifying.” Instead of indoctrinating the population, as classic forms of totalitarianism do, inverted totalitarianism has cultivated a loyal intelligentsia of its own. Allan Dulles, the founder and effective director of the CIA up until his death, showed a constant concern for a sophisticated and prestigious intellectual background to his agency’s subversive vocation.4

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Book Club discussion: What is the main idea in this chapter? What are its logical and/or real-world implications? Can you think of an objection?

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  1. To the exception of Trump, obviously, whose antics as president took place after Sheldon Wolin’s passing in 2015.
  2. On the whole topic of citizens’ power in the U.S., the 2014 Princeton study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page remains a useful reference: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.
  3. See for instance: Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II, by William Blum
  4. For a detailed historical view of the CIA with a focus on its corporate roots and on the personality of its founder, see The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot.
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