Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

By its power logic and its military and economic weight on the international stage, the U.S. rightly fits the definition of an empire. To stand, it needs to deny ordinary Americans a genuine democracy.

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.

By definition, 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 several generations. Its imperial concern is primarily economic and the military is, in this regard, just one of the means to be used. If, consequently, the United States is (still) a “superpower,” 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.'”

Domestically, this imperial logic of power can only have detrimental effects on political life. Its antics against American democracy 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.” This is undoubtedly why “no major politician or party has so much as publicly remarked on the existence of an American empire.”

Even though the reality of American empire is obvious by the level of its military expenditures and subsidies to globalizing corporations—as well as by the decimation of social programs and environmental safeguards—, policymakers will be the least likely ones to acknowledge it. At a time when corporations are people and money is speech, most of them hold their office thanks to corporate money. Why, therefore, would they denounce the momentous anti-democratic shift operated in the exercise of power by money in politics?

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to believe that it all started with some big bad CEOs conjuring together the corruption of politicians. The beginnings of inverted totalitarianism—or corporate empire—were unpremeditated, even innocent. They must be traced back to suggestions within 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 a technocratic standpoint, there is no clearer expression of people’s voices than their vote. But the quantitative outcome of elections conceals the real-life fact that political engagement is much broader and more diverse than choosing a political party at the ballot box. As citizens, our influence on public affairs can also be personal and direct, through many different forms of engagement that reflect our genuine hopes and concerns much more closely.

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 about collective issues.

“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 may easily turn into a systematic but superficial opposition between two contenders for power. The population, for its part, is 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 actual living conditions for most. Moreover, party duopoly mechanically entrenches the “us and them” logic of political flags waving, eventually splitting the electorate into two roughly equal parts. In turn, this results in a politics of near gridlock with narrow majorities or a majority limited to one of the two chambers of Congress.

It is important to note that such political gridlocks in Congress do not affect all interests equally. 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 refers to is not the one channeled through electoral campaigns toward one or the other parties; it is the majority of people with specific needs to be answered. Decisions favoring corporate donors, on the other hand, are unlikely to be blocked.

Looking closer at the alleged political divide among ordinary people, one can see that it mainly plays out on symbols. 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. This allows politicians to avoid exposing themselves to embarrassing explanations, notably as to why corporate money must prevail over the common good.

Delegation of power from the citizens to their representatives 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, adds Sheldon Wolin, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests—the real players—takes over.”

***

Far from fostering political responsibility, the American Political Science Association’s 1950 document gave the guideline that led to the absence of genuine political debate on behalf of the citizenry. The electoral mechanic resulting from the party duopoly has created a moral and intellectual void in the realm of public affairs that only asked to be filled by the corporate agenda. For corporations, securing unbridled profit-making by writing themselves the law has become part of business as usual. In that regard, “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’.”

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 put, 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.” 

This “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 both main electoral contenders simply want “a few zealous cohorts, generous donors, and a mass of occasional, TV-conditioned voters.” Paving the way from citizen democracy to mass democracy, both are “in search of ‘followers'” or, said otherwise, a dumbed-down crowd composed of “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.'”

Both parties have thrived for decades on pandering to a politically impotent population. Each with its own tune. The Republican party, more bold and direct, nurtures a mental background that Sheldon Wolin describes 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.”

Though the Republican party has turned into a fascistic organization that only seeks power for the sake of power, both parties join together in revering the army, the revealing symbol of empire. Using the dubious argument that the military does not belong to the world of politics, they assume that it is unaccountable to the common good and that its budget can grow exponentially. “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.”

Yet again, Republicans and Democrats do not fulfill the same role in regard to the imperial ambitions of American Superpower. “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. . . . 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.”

The Republican Party, on the other hand,”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 anti-democratic 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.”

In other words, if Republicans are staunch enforcers of authoritarianism, Democrats are their by-default enablers. Both for the sake of the American empire. In that respect, their difference is politically inconsequential; even though one has turned rogue and definitely wants to do away with democracy in any shape or form, their primary goal is the same: let American corporations rule the country and the world.

In their service to the American empire, Republicans are not afraid of contradictions; their lust for power cannot be embarrassed by facts, logic, or intellectual honesty. More surprisingly, Democrats are not shy of revealing their own basic incoherence. Claiming to be willing to govern “at the center,” they systematically surrender to the diktats of their Republican colleagues. Apparently, it 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, Democrats would remember that democracy cannot be for sale.

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