The Politics of Superpower: Managed Democracy

Corporate power is no longer an external force that occasionally influences policies and legislation; it is an integral part of the government. What are the main aspects of its “management” of 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.

“This chapter inquires into some of the political changes that are making Superpower and inverted totalitarianism possible and demoting democracy from a formative principle to a largely rhetorical function within an increasingly corrupt political system.”

Sheldon Wolin continues, “The crux of these changes is that corporate power and its culture are no longer external forces that occasionally influence policies and legislation. As these have become integral, so the citizenry has become marginal and democracy more manageable. What follows is an account of these developments.”


The amalgamation between state and corporate power has “its own ‘constitution,’ its own ‘more perfect union,'” according to the author. Instead of emphasizing checks and balances and limitations of power, this unwritten constitution is about power itself in the form, more specifically, of dominated markets and the prevalence of the military-industrial complex. However, at the difference of the Roman empire that had to extend the privilege of citizenship on physically conquered territories to maintain itself, “Superpower” exercises its own empire economically, enforcing treaties with comparatively weak client states instead of incorporating provinces.1 This is the unwritten constitution of the hierarchical and arcane power structures in the corporate and military world. As a consequence, “The insulated status ascribed to imperial affairs, the secrecy and inhibitions beginning to envelop domestic politics and the operations of globalizing corporations have the net result of excluding the public from a deliberative role in each and all of the major preserves of modern power.” Relying on organized science (including psychology and social sciences), technology, and capital, Superpower’s structures evolve on a totally different plane than the democratic ideal of politics as a public debate accessible to all citizens.

Paradoxically, “the powers that exclude democracy from their counsels are eagerly exporting it.” Democracy gains a universal status but as a PR stunt destined to impose American power. This is how, for instance, John Negroponte could announce that the George W. Bush administration would ask its agencies’ “operators” to “forge relationships with new and incipient democracies” to help “strengthen the rule of law and ward off threats to representative government,”2 thus promoting the peculiar notion of undercover democracy. “Having domesticated democracy at home, the administration knew the specifications in advance; hence a proven product could be exported, along with expert managers boasting honed skills, tested nostrums, and impressive résumés.” Unsurprisingly, this “democracy” supposed to be exported as a mere product of American ingenuity is a sham. “As one important American adviser remarked in warning against introducing direct elections before safeguards were in place, “If you move too fast, the wrong people could get elected.”3 Voting is a veneer, not the fundamental right of citizens to periodically reshuffle to their advantage the cards of electoral power.

In domestic affairs, Superpower’s unwritten constitution plays itself out through the well-known revolving door kept at the disposal of the elite: “Consider this postmodern potpourri. Politicians resign in order to accept lucrative corporate positions; corporate executives take leave (typically with “delayed compensation”) to run government departments and set policies; and high-ranking military officers are hired by corporations, become TV commentators, join faculties, and run for presidential nominations.” Due to this casual exchange of favors between corporations and government, the private sector has increasingly assumed governmental functions in defense, public health, communication, transportation, or education.

Obviously, the issue is that private mechanisms are largely divorced from popular accountability and, consequently, hardly scrutinized for their coerciveness when being part of governmental power. This is why, contrary to the usual narrative in support of efficient private management as opposed to public administration, “The union of corporate and state power means that, instead of the illusion of a leaner system of governance, we have the reality of a more extensive, more invasive system than ever before, one removed from democratic influences and hence better able to manage democracy.” The question is not a small or big government; the question is a government for who.

The corporate revolution in politics has reshaped the republican ideal in the image of the corporate executive, but “Although managerial elites are typically trumpeted for their ‘objective’ skills, their aura of rational decision making sits uncomfortably with the favors, perks, golden handshakes, golden parachutes, and fraudulent, deceptive practices that have been revealed to go far deeper into corporate culture than the peccadilloes of a few. More than one CEO has ruined his firm while ‘managing’ to emerge unscathed and richer for the experience. Not, one might think, the kinds of qualities desirable in those sworn to ‘protect and defend’ a Constitution of limited powers and checks and balances.”

Before Superpower shaped itself up, the common assumption was that “the government consisted of nonprofit institutions whose basic responsibility was ‘to promote the general welfare.’ The measure of performance was political, not economic; the common good, not the bottom line.”4 Today, all three branches of government answer the corporate world. Though in a less direct way than for executive and legislative powers, the judicial branch is systematically subject to efforts trying to “identify, encourage, and educate future court appointees through organizations such as the Federalist Society and so-called judicial education programs financed by business interests and held at fancy resorts.”5


“Over the centuries politicians and political theorists—starting with Plato’s Republic—have emphasized disinterestedness, not personal advantage, as the fundamental virtue required of those entrusted with state power.” By contrast, “the ethos of the twenty-first-century corporation is an antipolitical culture of competition rather than cooperation, of aggrandizement, of besting rivals, and of leaving behind disrupted careers and damaged communities. It is a culture for increase that cannot rest (= “stagnation”) but must continuously innovate and expand. It accepts as axiomatic that top executives have to be, first and foremost, competition-oriented and profit-driven: the profitability of the corporate entity is more important than any commonality with the larger society.” The corporate revolution in government runs deep, unfortunately. While the government does all it can to avoid being accused of stimming entrepreneurial freedom, it never berates corporate executives for sacrificing the common good to their private interests when they happen to do so.

The overall purpose is to make political representation meaningless, and this is best achieved by overplaying representativity itself. Sheldon Wolin explains, “Democratic legitimation might be defined as the ceremonial and symbolic action whereby citizens invest power with authority. In a truly participatory democracy elections would constitute but one element in a process of popular discussion, consultation, and involvement. Today elections have replaced participation.” For a good reason indeed: “One method of assuring control is to make electioneering continuous, year-round, saturated with party propaganda, punctuated with the wisdom of kept pundits, bringing a result boring rather than energizing, the kind of civic lassitude on which a managed democracy thrives.”

Voters’ apathy is an important consequence of low expectations that their government will respond to their needs. A reflection of low civic morale and a dangerous symptom of democratic decline, a low voter turnout is, by the same token, a good omen for the power of the elite: “A certain amount of nonvoting is especially welcome if it deters the most desperate, those who are likely to be swayed by ‘populist’ demagoguery. When Republicans and conservative Democrats work methodically to reduce or eliminate social programs, the result is tantamount to a deliberate strategy of encouraging political apathy among the poor and needy.”

Overall, “The entrenched system of bribery and corruption involves no physical violence, no brown-shirted storm troopers, no coercion of the political opposition. While the tactics are not those of the Nazis, the end result is the inverted equivalent. Opposition has not been liquidated but rendered feckless.” The system is what matters. Corporations strive for an orderly power grab with stable conditions. Among those come first a reliable legal system and a governmental apparatus equally able to squelch the social unrest regularly created by capitalist ventures.


However, it would be a mistake to believe that the conditions of managed democracy relate only to the works of modern corporations. In the Western world, there has been a “long-standing historical opposition between the advocates of democracy and those of republicanism. Managed democracy represents the triumph of the latest version of republicanism. The distinctions were invented centuries ago, appearing first in ancient Athens. The Greeks formulated it as a contrast between those who supported the idea of having political offices filled by ordinary male citizens (the demos) on the basis of lot and election, and those whose ideal was a leader-oriented democracy of outstanding men, typically aristocrats (áristoi), supported by a deferential citizenry.”

When the time came to draft a constitution in the United States, it was understood that a modern state should make concessions to democratic sentiments, but also that public policies could not be decided under the rule of popular majorities. While “the people” was recognized as a political presence, an elaborate system of checks and balances, separation of powers, Electoral College (originally conceived to select the president, not merely register popular votes), and, later, judicial review was designed to prevent popular majorities from instituting policies. The only tangible democratic concession was that the House of Representatives was to be directly elected by eligible (white males) voters; the Senate, for its part, was to be indirectly elected by the various state legislatures. Still, intended “to establish a smaller, more aristocratic body that would attract more reliable, respectable men, who would serve to place a brake on the popular passions that the House was expected to reflect,” the Senate was set to run on six years terms, thus giving this body greater political stability and continuity than the House’s two years terms.

Therefore, it clearly appears that “The framers of the Constitution were the first founders of modern managed democracy.” To Sheldon Wolin, “The republicans assembled at Philadelphia demonstrated their grasp of how, in a popular government, the electoral system could be stacked so as to prevent its being used to promote a populist agenda, and nowhere more clearly than in the provision governing the most crucial power a democracy can have, the power to change its constitution. Article V stipulated that an extraordinary majority was required for constitutional amendments: a two-thirds vote of both houses and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures or by three-fourths of special state conventions. That naked empowering of minorities amounted to a subversion of the Constitution’s grandly democratic preamble, ‘We, the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution.'”

At long last, the principle was established by successive Democrat administrations in the twentieth century that “what legitimized a government as democratic was not solely an electoral majority but the use of governmental power to serve the needs and aspirations of ordinary people.”6 That consensus disintegrated after the Reagan election of 1980. Since then, the effort has been undertaken—principally, but not solely, by Republican politicians—”to hammer home the astounding principle that a democratically chosen government was the enemy of ‘the people.’ Reagan promised, accordingly, ‘to get government off the backs of the people.'” Since then, most American citizens have been gullible enough to buy this demagogic talking point, fantasizing that there is us on one side and the government on the other, somewhere else. This directly undermines democracy by making citizens deny its very principle: we are the government, and there is no other government than us.7 It is a challenging path toward freedom and justice for all, but there are no others.

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Book Club discussion: What is the main idea in this chapter? What are its logical and/or real-world implications? Can you think of an objection?

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  1. See the thoughtful and engaging study by Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  2. Spy Agencies Told to Bolster “The Growth of Democracy,” New York Times, October 27, 2005, A-10.
  3. Noah Feldman, cited by Dilip Hiro, One Iraqi, One Vote, New York Times, January 27, 2004, op-ed page.
  4. The landmarks are the Civil Service Reform Act of 1887 and the Hatch Act of 1934.
  5. See Dorothy Samuels, Golf Anyone? The Movable Feast Called “Judicial Education,” New York Times, April 24, 2004, A-24. Between 1992 and 1998, more than a quarter of the federal judiciary, some 230 federal judges, accepted free vacations, thanks to a loophole in the law.
  6. Here, the landmarks are the New Deal, 1932–40; the Fair Deal, 1945–52; and the Great Society, 1963–68.
  7. δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā, from dēmos, “people” and kratos “rule.”
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