The Dynamics of Transformation

“American superpower,” “the greatest power in history,” or, more recently, “America first” are slogans objectively running against constitutional democracy. How did they become part of American political values?

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.

Americans are raised in the idea that their main political institutions, the Constitution, and the protections of citizenship are firmly established because the United States is, after all, “the world’s oldest continuous democracy.” But when expressions such as “American superpower,” “the greatest power in history,” or, more recently, “America first” become popular rallying cries, then, says Sheldon Wolin, “Instead of a system in which governmental powers are measured by a constitution of enumerated powers, there appears to be an expansive conception of power and a triumphalist ideology alien to the Constitution.” What are the dynamics of this transformation?

The Dynamics of Transformation

In order to find out, a distinction must first be made between the causes and the conditions of the said transformation. Its conditions pertain to the ignorance of the role and limits of the Constitution. A national constitution is not the word of God. Far from being the hieratic statement of some absolute law, it is a political document handed down from one generation to the next as a set of necessary guidelines for the achievement of a state of law. Being a work of reason, it is inherently perfectible. This critical approach is precisely what guarantees the Constitution its durability as well as the possibility of an open and fair society. One of the demagogues’ preferred tricks is, by contrast, to refer to the Constitution with a trembling voice and a teary eye only to betray its spirit and letter. Their constitutional fundamentalism is an intellectual sham. Making a moral obligation to revere the Constitution, this self-proclaimed true patriotism hollows the text out by ignoring its critical understanding, thus intentionally preventing its effective implementation in the context of the time. All fundamentalists are of the same stripe, be it with the Coran, the Bible, or the Constitution. What they want from people is not a genuinely personal and well-informed commitment but to be as dumb as they are, all for the sake of their own neurotic authoritarianism. The first form of tyranny the Constitution is set to be a rampart against is our own stupidity.

Aside from its interpretation, the use itself of the Constitution may vary. As Sheldon Wolin explains, “In general, while a constitution may “constitute” power by creating institutional authorities virtually de novo—as in the invention of the presidency and the Supreme Court—more often it demonstrates flexibility by recognizing and investing de facto power with authority—as when, in 1933, the Weimar Reichstag declared Hitler to be chancellor (or prime minister) but only after changing the law that had declared Austrians ineligible for the office.” Reversely, “A constitution may also serve as the means of deflecting external powers: for example, a supreme court may zealously turn back “attacks” on property rights and business interests from the regulatory powers of state legislatures, as happened from roughly 1871 to 1914 in the United States.” To mention another example: “challenges to racial segregation were resisted by all branches of government and the two major political parties until the mid-twentieth century.” The Constitution is not, therefore, the end-all-be-all of political life. It is indispensable to give power its authority but this does not guarantee that it will itself be fully applied.

As for the causes leading to an “expansive conception of power and a triumphalist ideology alien to the Constitution,” Sheldon Wolin reminds us that in a society strongly encouraging technological innovation, “definitions of constitutional authority tend to lag well behind the actual means of power and their capabilities.” For instance, “A war power may be authorized by a constitution drawn up more than two centuries ago, but “advances in weaponry” have altered dramatically the meaning of warfare without formally rewriting the authorization to use them.” And this formal discrepancy bears a predictable outcome: “When a constitutionally limited government utilizes weapons of horrendous destructive power, subsidizes their development, and becomes the world’s largest arms dealer, the Constitution is conscripted to serve as power’s apprentice rather than its conscience.” This is what the author sees as the emergence of a “Superpower.”

The Dynamics of Transformation

Was Superpower ever anticipated? Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) and James Harrington (1611–77), notably, “proposed a distinction between a political system content to preserve itself rather than expand and a political system, such as that of ancient Rome, eager to “increase” its power and domain.”1 The United States combines both. On one hand, the Founders established a government of limited power and modest ambitions. On the other, Superpower overrides their intention with an unlimited dynamic “embodied in the system whereby capital, technology, and science furnish the sources of power.”

Superpower is, in other words, its own constitution shaped toward ever-increasing power but with no inherent political authority. Whereas the formal Constitution has limited authority and is shaped toward preservation. As power is dependent upon those who operate the constitution for increase, the two constitutions—one for expansion, the other for containment—form a deadly combination. They are the two sides of inverted totalitarianism. Examples abound: “Accordingly, when certain reformers, such as environmental activists and anticloning advocates, seek to use constitutional authority to control the powers associated with the “constitution for increase” (e.g., regulating nuclear power plants or cloning labs) they find their efforts blocked by those who invoke the conception of a constitution as one of limited authority. But typically when representatives of the “constitution for increase” press for favors from those who man the “constitution for preservation,” they get their way.”

To Sheldon Wolin, the crucial event exposing how deeply political deterioration had penetrated the system was the Florida recount in the presidential election of 2000. Let’s remember what occurred then: “Once the polls closed, the slanted process began: actual counting and decisions about which ballots qualified were supervised by a loyal Republican official whose politico-mathematical correctness was later rewarded by elevation to a safe seat in the U.S. Congress. Then the high-powered legal talents and public relations experts took over, fought the case through the Florida Supreme Court, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. There a pliant judiciary hurriedly produced a contorted justification for a manipulated result.”2

That event provided a glimpse into the inverted totalitarian character of Superpower: “while tacit racism and class discrimination informed the proceedings, at no point was there a latent threat of violence; nor did the media respond with a chorus of support for the result. Instead they made a circus of the events—one act after another—and once the Supreme Court had spoken, they dropped the series, leaving the public with an impression that a hiccup had occurred, and with the unintentionally sardonic reassurance that “continuity” remained unbroken.” As Sheldon Wolin ironically adds, the new order of things’ motto could be: “Constitutional democracy is dead; long live the president.”

The Dynamics of Transformation

In this new model of democracy managed on the behest of corporate interests, “the presidency bears little resemblance to the original conception of a national leader and chief executive; it owes even less to the later ideal of the president as “the tribune of the people.” Instead the office is modeled after the corporate CEO.” While being made the dominant figure in the organization of power, the president’s new role is to protect and advance the interests of money instead of people’s.

Congress, which was once thought to be the predominant branch of government because it supposedly stood “closer to the people” has been demoted, says Sheldon Wolin, “to a position of power comparable to that of a corporate board.” Like a board, it may occasionally disagree with the president, especially if they represent opposing parties, but the main point is that Congress has lost its connection with the citizenry. And finally, “in the image of shareholders, who wield small power over their CEOs or boards and are stirred to protest only when dividends disappoint, so the citizenry has embraced a diminished role. Like shareholders they can vote out their own CEO, the president, or their board of directors, Congress, but mostly they want to be assured that the CEO-president is ‘heading the country in the right direction.'”

The consequence of this new distribution of power is plain to see: “One cannot point to any national institution(s) that can accurately be described as democratic: surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class-biased judicial and penal system, or, least of all, the media.” What went wrong?

“To identify the antecedents of inverted totalitarianism, says Sheldon Wolin, we must bear in mind that throughout much of the past century the American political system was repeatedly subjected to the strains and pressures of war.” During WW II, the Roosevelt administration measured its war powers against Nazism, a totalitarian system that made no secret of subjugating as much of the world as possible. Victory consequently depended on the creation of a “home front” as well as “total mobilization.” Military conscription was thus instituted, the economy was put under control to achieve government prescribed production goals, the labor force saw its mobility restricted and its collective bargaining power put on hold, wages and prices were fixed, food and fuel were rationed, censorship was introduced, and a propaganda war enlisting radio, newspapers, and the movie industry was waged. All in the single purpose of winning the war.

As a leading constitutional scholar warned shortly after the end of World War II, however, “The effects of the impact of total war on the Constitution will . . . become embedded in the peacetime Constitution.”3 Embedded it has been indeed, since then. As Sheldon Wolin notes: “Strikingly, in the post-1945 wars, whether hot or cold, warfare became normal, incorporated into ordinary life without transforming it.” In opposition to the WW II era, nothing has had to change in the course of ordinary life for Americans, allowing “distant wars” to become the new normal and hostilities lasting more than four decades to be characterized as “Cold War,” even though they edged more than once toward nuclear catastrophe.

What went wrong, therefore, is that the citizenry has been kept at a distance, turned into disengaged spectators watching events in the sanitized yet fascinating formats determined by media that, themselves, have become increasingly “embedded.” “Unlike the Nazis, Sheldon Wolin notes, who may accurately be described as “control freaks” obsessed by the need to rule everything, American rulers prefer to manage the population as would a corporate CEO, manipulatively, alternately soothing and dismissive, relying on the powerful resources of mass communication and the techniques of the advertising and public opinion industries.”

The Dynamics of Transformation

This is where we are at. “The growth of Superpower and the corresponding decline of democracy can be measured by the concentration of media ownership and its accompanying discipline over content.”4 This evolution has been spectacular, and the U.S. nowadays has very little to envy to media ownership in China or Russia. One obvious historical comparison is that “In the sixties, thanks to the antiwar movements and the publicity given to them by national and local television and radio, the nation truly agonized over that preemptive war and tried to work through it.” Relate this to the virtual blackout of the protests against the invasion of Iraq or to the deafening silence about the casual jailing of peace activists and whistleblowers. Insulating society from hearing dissonant voices and thus hurrying the process of depoliticization, cable news and newspapers “of reference” are the dedicated gatekeepers protecting Superpower and empire. Crying “Fake news!” is just a distraction if you do not follow the money.

Orchestrating citizens’ ignorance is not enough, though. As with any empire, fear is the factor cementing social cohesion. With the so-called “war on terror,” asserts Sheldon Wolin, “Nowhere is the manipulation of fear better illustrated than by the numerous invasions of privacy authorized under the Patriot Act and encroachments upon constitutional guarantees, particularly those pertaining to right to counsel, confidentiality of communications between lawyers and their clients, and the resort to secret tribunals. Since the vast majority of the cases involve males of Middle Eastern origins, the broader public is reassured and simultaneously given an object lesson.”

But fear itself does not come in one flavor only. Economic fear can be leveraged as well on behalf of Superpower. This is exactly what happened when, facing the 2008 final crisis, the Bush II administration decided to double-down on its politics of inequality. “For example, says Sheldon Wolin, by pushing through an enormous tax rebate that blatantly favored the wealthy, it simultaneously assured that no funds would be available to subsidize programs—such as the democratization of health care, increased unemployment benefits, and protections for pension funds—that might have eased the impact of recession.” An all too familiar tune, unlikely to reduce the anxiety levels that had been the original target of the Social Security Act of 1935. Americans were told then that we had nothing to fear except fear itself. Today, all administrations—both Democrat or Republican—swear that what all other industrialized nations in the world have implemented—a universal healthcare system in one form or another—is an absolute impossibility in the U.S. How is it politically more advantageous to leave the public uncertain and demoralized about health care costs? Because fearing for your family’s financial future keeps you quiet, struggling on your own and away, precisely, from a global vision of public issues.

The challenge for Superpower’s managed democracy, then, is to give the “lonely crowd” that the citizenry has become “a sense of belonging, of selfless anonymity, of solidarity with a noble cause,” says Sheldon Wolin. “The solution: a mix of patriotism and nationalism, and unthinking loyalty to the troops. That solution is the populist counterpart to the role played by elites in bridging the two constitutions. While corporate power and its ethos are incorporated into the structure of the state, the patriotism, nationalism, and unblinking loyalty of the citizenry connect the constitution for preservation to the constitution for increase. That role becomes all the more important as it becomes clearer that globalizing, multinational capitalism has no political loyalties as such.”

The Dynamics of Transformation

As a result, Americans are “kneaded” into a citizenry less suited to democratic demands and increasingly more supportive of the dominant forms of power manipulating them with fear and misguided patriotism. The January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol in Washington made clear that a substantial part of the American population wants to get rid of constitutional democracy by substituting their white knuckleheads’ representation to that of all the people. Unfortunately, the part of the lonely crowd composed of citizens formally subscribing to democratic values does not fare much better. Putting their faith in what the establishment tells them, we are a democracy, in their world, because the President and the New York Times say so, not because people’s rights and needs are structurally addressed. By the same token, questioning the logic of empire is, to them, close to anathema and necessarily the deed of “far-left extremists,” whatever the phrase means. Either through culture wars distracting from the implementation of policies that could benefit the country as a whole, or through a more sophisticated willingness to avoid the temerity of genuine critical thinking, the status quo wanted by the corporate state is set to remain unchallenged.

Book Club Discussion: Do you agree with Sheldon Wolin that the distinction between “constitution for preservation” and “constitution for increase” applies to the U.S.? If the country has adopted the logic of an empire, how far back in history do you date it?

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

Footnotes

  1. See Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), bk. 2, chaps. 4, 19; The Political Works of James Harrington, ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 320–25.
  2. For an engrossing account see Toobin, Too Close to Call.
  3. See Edward S. Corwin, Total War and the Constitution. In a review by Carl Brent Swisher, published by The Academy of Political Science in June 1947, one can read: “He portrays the continuous course of constitutional change through World War I, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and World War II. He finds, throughout, a movement away from state rights, away from Congressional domination of the federal government, and away from judicial intervention to protect the people from the political branches of their government. Consistently throughout, he sees the increase of executive power and the growth of control by inadequately restrained administrative agencies. He sees this trend as likely to continue in the regime he calls ‘Total Peace’.”
  4. See the very interesting work updating Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent on Spencer Snyder Youtube channel.
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