The Dynamics of Transformation

“American superpower,” “the greatest power in history,” or, more recently, “America first” have become part of American political values. What about constitutional 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.

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 expressions such as “American superpower,” “the greatest power in history,” or, more recently, “America first” are objectively referring to something else than the principle of constitutional democracy. According to 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.”

This ambivalence in the exercise of power is nothing new in the history of the United States. This chapter aims at describing the dynamic by which the shift from its constitutional background to its expansive one was made possible.

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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 bound to evolve in time, either by extending its protection to new categories of people or by amending what is dated and not acceptable anymore.

Moreover, 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. . . . 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.” There is a painfully clear example of that last instance in the fact that “challenges to racial segregation were resisted by all branches of government and the two major political parties until the mid-twentieth century.” Whether or not the interpretation and implementation of a Constitution answer the requirements of a fair and just society, the document itself is usually supposed to remain the necessary template to refer to for the coherence and authority of political power.

Opposed to that constitutional order is an “expansive conception of power and a triumphalist ideology alien to the Constitution.” 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 the one hand, the Founders established a government of limited power and modest ambitions. On the other, their intention is overridden by an unlimited dynamic “embodied in the system whereby capital, technology, and science furnish the sources of power.”

In a society strongly encouraging technological innovation, “definitions of constitutional authority tend to lag well behind the actual means of power and their capabilities.” Typically, “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.”

Unsurprisingly, this ambivalence between a regulated exercise of power and what is seen as its legitimate expansion always tends to play in favor of the latter: “. . . 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.”

This was most vividly illustrated during the presidential election of 2000.2 Let’s remember what occurred during the Florida recount: “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.”3 He adds, ” . . . 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.” The Constitution for power increase had taken over the Constitution for power containment. To Sheldon Wolin, the whole lesson here could be, “Constitutional democracy is dead; long live the president.”

The adoption of a “constitution for increase,” as the author calls it, leads to a situation where the exercise of political power is managed, in today’s world, like corporate power. “. . . 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 those of the people. . . . Congress, which was once thought to be the predominant branch of government because it supposedly stood ‘closer to the people’ has been demoted to a position of power comparable to that of a corporate board. . . . 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.”

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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 with 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.”4 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.” 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.”5

This evolution has been spectacular, and the U.S. nowadays has very little to envy to media state ownership in China or Russia. “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 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.

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 financial 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 and 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. It is more advantageous for Superpower to leave the public uncertain and demoralized about health care costs since 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.”

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 eliminate constitutional democracy. Unfortunately, most American citizens who formally subscribe to democratic values put their faith in what the establishment tells them. We are supposedly a democracy because the President and the New York Times say so, not because people’s rights and needs are structurally addressed. Thanks to corporate media, the status quo wanted by the corporate state is set to remain virtually unchallenged.

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Book Club Discussion: What could have prevented the United States to go from a “constitution for preservation” to a “constitution for increase”?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. (Ready for more? Let’s talk!)

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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. Sheldon Wolin passed away on October 21, 2015, before the Trump era, the “big lie,” and the all-out GOP’s war on elections. Democracy Incorporated, moreover, analyzes the exercise of power from the standpoint of inverted totalitarianism, where authoritarianism is a mere by-product of the absence of genuine political life.
  3. For an engrossing account, see Toobin, Too Close to Call.
  4. 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.’”
  5. See the very interesting work updating Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent on Spencer Snyder’s Youtube channel.
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