Saturday, July 16, 2011

The downward spiral of democracy in America

I've often quoted John Kenneth Galbraith's 1992 book The Culture of Contentment as one of the best pieces of social commentary I've ever seen. And while it's still relevant nearly two decades later, some of the underlying realities have changed, and much for the worse.

A large part of Galbraith's theme goes back to his The Affluent Society (1958), his most famous work. Poverty became a particularly intractable problem when the majority of the population came to not only assume but experience a reasonable level of comfort. This conclusion was not an entirely welcome one to all reformers, and especially not to self-conscious radicals. Because underlying basically all liberal-activist and left assumptions for social progress during the last century or more assumed some form of majority pressure for reforms promoting democracy and equality. And most of them understood that to involve organized labor to a greater or lesser degree.

The situation on which Galbraith focused in 1992 was the combination of that assumption of economic security together with massive voter apathy. Even in Presidential elections, which typically draw the highest voter participation, barely half the eligible voters bothered to participate. (Voter participation is sometimes cited on the basis of registered voters, which gives a much higher percentage.)

While voter participation since then has improved at times, particularly with increased voter participation by Latinos, the basic level is the same. And the math is pretty straightforward. If only half the eligible voters are actually voting, elections can and are decided by something like one-quarter of the eligible voters. And in the fact that more affluent voters tend to participate at higher rates, and that the most affluent at very high rates, the most affluent portion of the electorate have a wildly disproportionate influence on electoral outcomes.

And that is just in terms of raw numbers. Of course, not all affluent voters go Republican. But add in the power of campaign contributions by the wealthy and by corporations, and the information available to most voters in most campaigns is heavily tilted toward the frames favored by the wealthiest. The result is that already by 1992, both major US political parties were dedicated to comforting the already comfortable. With the Republicans being especially committed to comforting the extremely comfortable.

Some major factors in American public life have changed dramatically since then. The maldistribution of wealth and income has become even more extreme. The quality of our national political press went off a cliff in 1992 with the Whitewater story and the plunge has continued. The Republican Supreme Court not only overrode the the Presidential election of 2000 in the infamous Bush v. Gore decision. In Citizen's United, they opened the floodgates even wider to corporate money in politics and elections.

And one of the factors in 1992 that Galbraith rightly assumed was generally understood and accepted as a pillar of prosperity and what most Americans think of a middle-class life was the old-age security provided by Social Security and Medicare. Social Security in particular was then regularly called, as it was until fairly recently, the "third-rail of American politics," i.e., touching it would be politically fatal for either party.

That has changed radically! Today, we have a Democratic President who is insisting on major cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Tim Fernholz report in Will the Party Bases Go Along With a Deal? National Journal 07/15/2011 on how differently the Democratic and Republican Parties respond to their political bases:

Conservative activists have dominated the Republican Party’s negotiating position, while progressives' demands have not restrained the Democratic leadership from putting the party's sacred cows - Medicare and Social Security - on the chopping block if the GOP is willing to compromise.

"Many people are trying diligently to create a false equivalence here, I just don’t think that’s true," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "You've got Democrats and liberals bitching and moaning about the Social Security and Medicare stuff, but the Republicans really are in a much, much more adamant position when it comes to the tax front."
And this coming from a stone conservative at AEI!

Republican members of Congress, the vast majority of whom have signed a pledge refusing to raise taxes, haven’t budged as President Obama and other Democratic negotiators suggested a $4 trillion grand bargain that would include reductions in benefits in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in the hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for revenue increases from closing and limiting tax loopholes.

Everyone National Journal spoke to believed that Democrats could find enough votes for such a plan to pass Congress. [my emphasis]
That pretty much sums up the predicament of the Democratic base today. Why would anyone have confidence today that the Democratic Party would defend Social Security and Medicare? And it's a predicament that also reflects a real and major democratic deficit in the American system. As Galbraith wrote in 1992 when the situation had not deteriorated nearly to the point it has reached today:

Books of this genre are expected to have a happy ending. With awareness of what is wrong, the corrective forces of democracy are set in motion. And perhaps they would be now were they in a full democracy — one that embraced the interests and votes of all the citizens. Those now outside the contented majority would rally, or, more precisely, could be rallied, to their own interest and therewith to the larger and safer public interest. Alas, however, we speak here of a democracy of those with the least sense of urgency to correct what is wrong, the best insulation through short-run comfort from what could go wrong.

There is special occasion here for sadness — for a sad ending — for what is needed to save and protect, to ensure against suffering and further unpleasant consequence, is not in any way obscure. Nor would the resulting action be disagreeable. There would be a challenge to the present mood of contentment with its angry resentment of any intrusion, but, in the longer run, the general feeling of security in well-being would be deepened. [my emphasis]
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