Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

Corporate money in politics, notably through lobbying and campaign contributions, is the cancer of American democracy. What was its genesis and how far has it metastasized?

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.

“There are differences of opinion about whether the United States actually is an imperial power. Some scholars pronounce it an empire that is bashful about identifying itself as such.1 Others celebrate the existence of a U.S. empire. “The fact is,” opined one commentator, “no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically, and militarily in the history of the world since the late Roman empire.” 2 Still others deny that the United States is a genuine empire, primarily because it does not occupy or directly rule foreign territories.3 Almost without exception these recent discussions avoid evaluating the impact of empire upon domestic politics, much less of its effects upon American democracy.”

Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

In order to evaluate this impact, the ambivalent nature of the country’s imperial power must first be clarified. An empire dominates, and the United States does effectively impose a superior-inferior relationship, both militarily and economically, on the international stage. But unlike other empires in history, it does not rule or occupy foreign territories for generations. Instead, it simply retains more than 750 military bases in at least 80 countries worldwide. The United States’ imperial concern is primarily economic; the military is but one of the means to be used internationally. “Its power, says Sheldon Wolin, is “projected” at irregular intervals over other societies rather than institutionalized in them. Its rule tends to be indirect, to take the form of ‘influence,’ bribes, or ‘pressure.'”

In regard to domestic politics and American democracy, the influence of empire is all the more dramatic that those who rule are a new kind of “people”: corporations. The amalgamation of state and corporate power called by Sheldon Wolin “Superpower” is the negation of actual citizens’ political voice, and its antics are well-known: “Halliburton’s power begins in Texas, extends to Washington, and then connects with projects (often without competitive bidding) in Afghanistan and Iraq; it returns to the “homeland” enriched and eager to invest its profits in politicians. Politicians, in turn, become responsive to the new sources of pressure, contributions, and lavish favors. The district or constituent back “home” shrinks in significance. The politician’s postponed gratifications: the higher rewards of lobbyist or corporate executive.”

Even though the consequences of empire in the United States are evident in military expenditures, subsidies to globalizing corporations, mounting deficits, and the decimation of social programs and environmental safeguards, “no major politician or party has so much as publicly remarked on the existence of an American empire.” The reason is that the rule of empire has become to representatives as natural an environment as water is for a fish; they are not even aware that it is there. After all, do not we all use money? So what is the big deal? It is that money seeks money, not benevolence. Once formerly allowed to enter the realm of politics as “speech” it will quietly but relentlessly, like water, fill all corners of the collective decision process. At the difference with empires of the past, there is no need for brutal enforcement of the conqueror’s rule and, in appearance, nothing has changed. No wonder that virtually all representatives still believe that we are in a democracy. As long as they can hold their office (while being kept largely safe from the population’s hardships), they are the least likely ones to acknowledge the momentous shift in the exercise of power that was operated by money in politics.


It would be a mistake, however, to blame big bad CEOs for having staged a soft political coup by buying politicians. The beginnings of inverted totalitarianism were unpremeditated, even innocent, and must be traced back to suggestions made by the world of politics itself about the best way to go. In 1950 the professional organization of political scientists, the American Political Science Association (APSA), published Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System. “A major assumption of the report, says Sheldon Wolin, was that “politics” is identical with, or exhausted by, the activities of political parties. And by implication politics was properly the monopoly of the parties and a two-party system was the natural or obvious form. The role of the citizen was pretty much reduced to “choice” between competing candidates.”

Looking at the political system through the lens of efficiency was probably the core mistake of the authors. From that standpoint, there is no clearer expression of the voice of the people than their vote. In reality, however, political engagement is much broader than that and the influence citizens can have on the collectivity comes from who they are, not just the color of their ballot paper. Reducing the role of a citizen to her vote is giving her no say other than “yes” and “no” over programs and priorities that might or might not address the issues of ordinary people. On the other hand, as they become the exclusive vectors of political life, political parties have no incentive in opening up the debate to contradicting views. Their interest is to gain steam by managing the masses rather than by inviting people to educate themselves in politics.

Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

“Without intending to do so, says Sheldon Wolin, the APSA report foreshadowed the difference between classical and inverted totalitarianism: one sought to eliminate politics, the other to contain politics by introducing structures designed to facilitate managerial control. Unlike the democratic citizen, who, through the experiences of participation, grows into a political being, the voter is akin to a response system engineered by public opinion surveys, pollster strategies, and media advertising that first stimulates voters to vote and afterwards encourages them to relapse into their accustomed apathy. The voter is the flip side to the imperial subject.”

In this same perspective of efficiency, a two-party system may look like the best option since it seems to guarantee the possibility of debate, vital to democracy. This is forgetting that without the input of actual citizens on the ground, this debate necessarily turns into a catfight between two contenders for power who will indefinitely rehash the same talking points. The population itself is consequently left with no choice but to opt for one side or the other by default only, based on broad values people perceive as theirs instead of specific policy projects that would improve their living conditions. Both political parties growing strictly by opposition to the other, over and beyond any actual constructive debate, the political allegiance of the population splits evenly in two as well.

This almost inevitable balance between both political weights results, of course, in a politics of near gridlock with narrow majorities or a majority limited to one of the two chambers of Congress. Such gridlock does not mean, however, that all interests are equally affected. Even a gridlocked Congress may enthusiastically increase military spending. “The true significance of near gridlock, says Sheldon Wolin, is not that it paralyzes governmental action but that it prevents majority rule.” The majority he is referring to is not the one channeled through electoral campaigns toward one or the other of the parties. It is the majority of people with the same specific needs to be answered. Political gridlock in Washington only paralyzes the advancement of the social interests of the Many.

Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

On the surface, there is a much-publicized polarization of the country; in reality, polls that provide the evidence of a sharply divided electorate are based on questions so broad that they are meaningless. What can substantively follow from “Do you think that the president is doing a good job?” The point is to make no point about policies most citizens, left and right, would agree upon. Politicians would otherwise, to their great inconvenience, have to explain to their constituents why the logic of empire—corporate money dictatorship—supersedes the good of the people.

Delegation of power from the citizens to their representatives and from the latter back to the citizens is precisely what the theatrics of an absolute and definitive opposition between two parties allows to stifle. One party prides itself in being the party of “true Americans,” the other the party of the reasonable and pragmatists, both selling to their base a shallow political identity that hides how deeply beholden American politicians are to the empire they serve. Designed to “demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy,” gridlock and pseudo divisiveness are the bread and butter of electoral politics. “Afterwards, says Sheldon Wolin, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests—the real players—takes over.”


The political status quo resulting from a two-party system is, generally speaking, as good for corporations as it is for politicians who went into the career for prestige and power before anything else. For corporations, however, securing unbridled profit-making by writing themselves the law is the real name of the game. In that regard, says Sheldon Wolin, “The proliferation of Washington lobbyists, who now number in the thousands, is indicative of a radical change in the meaning of who and what are being represented, and indicative also of the final defeat of majority rule. It is no secret that lobbying is designed to short-circuit the power of numbers, of the ordinary citizenry. In contrast to the citizen-as-occasional-voter, the lobbyist is a full-time ‘citizen’.”

Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

In effect, lobbyists’ power in Washington “declares that in a democracy the demos is to be denied the use of state power.” Weakening more particularly the unaffluent constituencies that have a vital stake in preserving and expanding government social programs, lobbyists’ constant advocacy for deregulations also discourages ordinary people from political participation, simply because the government appears unresponsive to their needs. Lobbyists’ victory thus capitalizes upon itself, as corporate political power and influence “can then take advantage of the capitulation of the demos to strengthen the corporation’s own partnership with the state.”

The “politics of reversal,” as Sheldon Wolin calls it, was launched in earnest with the Reagan counterrevolution which “aimed at eviscerating the social programs vital to political democracy, either by dismantling them or, alternatively, assigning them to private entrepreneurs, thereby expanding the dependence of ordinary citizens upon unaccountable “private” powers.” Creating an imperial workforce of dependent low-wage workers, “for whom survival, rather than political participation, is uppermost,” corporate capitalism takes full advantage of electoral politics, where a party simply wants “a few zealous cohorts, generous donors, and a mass of occasional, TV-conditioned voters.”

Paving the way from citizen democracy and toward a mass democracy, both main political parties are “in search of “followers.” First and foremost, “patriots who yearn to believe—in America’s moral, economic, and political superiority, and in its sanctity; followers who want to feel secure rather than participate, who want the burdens and demands of politics shouldered by leaders who care for ‘people like me.'” The ambiguous aspiration of a politically impotent population is what the Republican party, more particularly, has thrived on for decades. Sheldon Wolin paints its mental background this way: “where is the power located that can be trusted to protect him and her but not to tax them? And what kind of politics would support that kind of power? The answer: a form of antipolitics that reflects a distaste, bordering on intolerance, for frank discussion of inequalities, class differences, the persisting problems of racism, climate change, or the consequences of imperialism. Antipolitics is expressed as patriotism, antiterrorism, militarism—subjects that brook little or no disagreements, provoking fervor while stifling thought. Ambivalence is temporarily suspended before a patriotic power “above” politics, one represented by the armed forces, symbols of heroism, anti-materialism, sacrifice for others, force purified by a righteous cause. Big government may be the problem; big military is the solution.”

Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

One more reason why no responsible citizen should hesitate, therefore, to recognize the United States as an empire is the prepotency of armed forces over all other public matters. “That the patriotic citizen unswervingly supports the military and its huge budgets means that conservatives have succeeded in persuading the public that the military is distinct from government. Thus the most substantial element of state power is removed from public debate. Similarly in his/her new status as imperial citizen, the believer remains contemptuous of bureaucracy yet does not hesitate to obey the directives issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the largest and most intrusive governmental department in the history of the nation.”

If inverted totalitarianism has evolved a politics to support its imperial ambitions, Republicans and Democrats do not contribute to it in the exact same way, however. “While the transformed Republican Party reveals what a “party of government” might look like under inverted totalitarianism, the Democrats reveal the fate of opposition politics under inverted totalitarianism. The Democrats’ politics might be described as inauthentic opposition in the era of Superpower. Having fended off its reformist elements and disclaimed the label of liberal, it is trapped by new rules of the game which dictate that a party exists to win elections rather than to promote a vision of the good society.”

For that reason, consequently, “Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. At best Democrats might repair some of the damage done to environmental safeguards or to Medicare without substantially reversing the drift rightwards. By offering palliatives, a Democratic administration contributes to plausible denial about the true nature of the system.” In other words, Republicans are staunch enforcers of an imperial and anti-democratic state, and Democrats its enablers.

Making “reaching the other side of the aisle” their constant motto and declaration of political virtue, Democrats have long chosen not to lead. They just forget to tell their constituents that there is no one to reach out to on the other side of the aisle. “The Republican Party is not, as advertised, conservative but radically oligarchical. Programmatically it exists to advance corporate economic and political interests, and to protect and promote inequalities of opportunity and wealth. (…) An antidemocratic party [it] tries to prevent the formation of an active, participatory demos—it distrusts popular demonstrations—and is deeply antiegalitarian. An illiberal party, it considers “rules” less as restraints than as annoyances to be circumvented. It exploits the vulnerabilities of a two-party system with the aim of reshaping it into a more or less permanent undemocratic and illiberal system.”

Aside from a few social issues that cannot be a threat to corporate power, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is politically inconsequential. To do away with people and let corporations rule the country, Republicans enthusiastically lean toward an authoritarian form of government. Being in the political game for power only, they are, therefore, never afraid of their own contradictions. Supposedly opposing Benito Mussolini’s spiritual grand-children, Democrats have fully embraced money in politics at their suite. Using the pretext of governing “at the center” with their Republican colleagues as an excuse, they systematically end up surrendering, by and large, to the economic diktats and political authoritarianism of our present-day corporatocratic regime. It apparently does not occur to them that the “center” in politics is where the majority of the American people are when asked about specific policies. If true to their name, most of all, they would remember that democracy is not for sale.

Book Club Discussion:

1/ An empire does not primarily seek the good of the people under its rule but to expand itself. Would you say that this is what defines the United States today? What “territories” does it seem to be willing to conquer?

2/ Electoral politics is “Vote for us because the other guys are really bad.” How can this spell of political entitlement be broken, according to you? Which alternative(s) do you see to the two-party system for the voice of the people to be heard in a modern democracy?

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


  1. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), vii ff., and “America, Unconscious Colossus,” Daedalus, Spring 2005, 18–33. Mann, Incoherent Empire, 13, sees the United States as “a disturbed, misshapen monster stumbling clumsily across the world.”
  2. Charles Krauthamer as quoted by Mann, Incoherent Empire, 10.
  3. Anthony Pagden, “Empire, Liberalism and the Quest for Perpetual Peace,” in Daedalus, Spring 2005, 46–57, at 52.
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