Democracy’s Perversion

Drawing on previous administrations’ political legacy, President G. W. Bush’s doctrine explicitly equated being the “greatest power in the world” and being a democracy. But which is it: democracy or superpower?

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

As in any book club, you are kindly invited to let the rest of us know what you think!

Disclaimer: Being the result of personal work, this chapter summary cannot and does not pretend to offer a detailed and accurate transcription of all the author’s ideas.

On the one hand, asks Sheldon Wolin, “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?” On the other, “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?” Between the logic of empires and that of governments formally based on the universality of freedom as their core value, the contradiction seems, indeed, irreconcilable.

At first consideration and for most people, saying that the U.S. is the greatest power in the world and that its system of government is a democracy seems broadly correct. But unless we understand that superimposing the image of the greatest power in the world over an undefined but highly praised reference to democracy is an intellectual sham, we may never be able to relearn the effective demands that democracy places on us as citizens.

Democracy’s Perversion

Contrary to classic forms of totalitarianism, the perversion of democracy does not announce itself in ways that could be flagged immediately. 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 Sheldon Wolin, 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 break with the constitutional system of the past, inverted totalitarianism professes to be the opposite of what, in fact, it is.

To definitely make the difference between the two, let’s first examine what they have in common. What is totalitarianism? “First and foremost, it 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, this monopolization unmistakably goes back to the Duce, the Fuhrer, the Great Helmsman, or whichever supreme figure is supposed to embody all by himself the good of the country. Most importantly, it is assumed that total power is achievable only through the control of everything from the top. Inverted totalitarianism, on the contrary, “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.”

Democracy’s Perversion

The twist of inverted totalitarianism is in the justification of these objectives in the name of democracy itself. This is how the transition from a form of government presided by the idea that all men are born free and equal in rights to a democracy managed by and for corporate entities is operated. Sheldon Wolin: “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 being 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 the equivalence made by George W. Bush and others between 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, their will to believe in something positive subconsciously shifts from the institutions to something as hollow as the managed democracy imposed upon them: the idea of some inherent goodness of the country. And by that token, the more power the country has, the more reason to feel good about the course of the world. This is also why the message addressed to the public is that there is no salvation outside of democracy the American way.

How, then, does this managed democracy treat people, the claimed justification of its power? Sheldon Wolin’s first remark in that regard 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.”

Democracy’s Perversion

Mainstream media has a vested interest in not speaking truth to power. In classical forms of totalitarianism, the economy is subordinated to politics, and no free press is tolerated. In inverted totalitarianism, politics is subordinated to the economy (or, rather, to its financialization), and mainstream media get a cut of it by acting as faithful agents of the status quo. They legally are private and thus independent press entities but, knowing where their best financial interest is as media conglomerates, they willingly adopt the corporate state stance. At the end of the day, even though “Withholding appropriated money is an expression of power that is not lost on those adversely affected; waiving minimum wage standards is an act of power not lost on those who benefit and those who suffer,” these strategies play such an important role in the incorporation of state and corporate power that mainstream media and most political representatives will not address them openly.

Not only is dissidence made irrelevant in the corporate state, but 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 shadowcitizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have “opinions”: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.2

By splintering the population into specific categories such as “between 20 and 35 years old,” or “white male over 40,” or “female college graduate”, opinion polls make 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.” This might not be fully intentional but what else to expect when each group is being addressed as such and according to its “values”, prejudices, or habits? 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 George W. Bush’s “National Security Strategy” 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 the U.S. would define itself by its might also suggests that when it is American might makes right.

Democracy’s Perversion

It escapes no one that the willingness of so many American administrations to exert power for the sake of power by imposing on other countries their own will is at a far cry from the democratic ideal.3 This ruthlessness and total disdain for other people’s rights are backed by the disingenuous assumption that since the U.S. is the beacon of democracy, it can, therefore, do no wrong. Hence the equivalence made—in its exclusive case, as one might expect—between military strength and democratic influence in the world. It remains, however, that to anyone whose own view is not blurred by the lure of profit-making on an international scale, the claim of American exceptionalism that is so widely accepted in Washington is a claim to exceptional idiocy. Freedom and justice were not handed down at birth over the U.S.’s cradle by the democratic fairy.

It is important, therefore, to understand the true perspective of the 2002 NSS declaration: “Implicit in that declaration is 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.” Having a political character is what defines democracy since democracy is, at its core, a debating space. And this, as Sheldon Wolin underlines it, postulates equality: “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 the corporate state in regard to its management of the population. The aimed result is effective political demobilization.

Roughly between one-half and two-thirds of America’s qualified voters fail to vote, thus making the management of the “active” electorate far easier. And, as Sheldon Wolin puts it, “Every apathetic citizen is a silent enlistee in the cause of inverted totalitarianism.” This apathy is, most of all, an answer to the third pillar of the corporate state. It is a political response to the “rollbacks” of numerous social services that had been established after hard-fought battles and that had long been accepted afterward as major elements in a national consensus. “Rollbacks, says Sheldon Wolin, don’t simply reverse previous social gains; they also teach political futility to the Many. And along the way they mock the ideal and practice of consensus.” Does it ever happen that instead of preaching about the necessity of crossing the aisle with the other party, Democrats show the same fervor to cross the aisle with the American people themselves? (Republicans don’t care in either case)

Democracy’s Perversion

“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.”

Unfortunately, dissenting voices are scarce among those who pose as intellectuals or who are career academics. According to Sheldon Wolin, who was himself a scholar, “[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.”

However vexing this may sound to Wolin’s colleagues, the fact is that “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 other forms of totalitarianism do, inverted totalitarianism has cultivated a loyal intelligentsia of its own. There is a reason why 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

Book Club Discussion: Sheldon Wolin characterizes inverted totalitarianism as the deliberate porousness between political institutions and the corporate world. To your knowledge, what is the main justification given by its promoters in recent U.S. history?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.


  1. To the exclusion, obviously, of the buffoon whose 2016-2020 presidency was not witnessed by the late Sheldon Wolin.
  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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