Tony D. Senatore
"I'm the spokesman for the OK Boomer generation

America Has the Democracy That It Deserves

Photo courtesy Tony D. Senatore
Photo: Tony Senatore: all rights reserved

If you ask an American what makes America so exceptional, there is a good chance you will hear the word democracy shortly after. The ability to choose political leaders who ostensibly act in our best interest and vote them out of office when they do not sets us apart from authoritarian regimes. Moreover, we are so enthusiastic about our particular brand of democracy that promoting it internationally has replaced containment as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, the mainstream media argue that one year after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the future of democracy. An NPR/Ipsos poll from January 2022 asserted that 64% of Americans believe U. S democracy is “in crisis and at the risk of failing.” The implication is that American democracy was functioning flawlessly and better each day until Donald Trump encouraged a band of miscreants who looked as if they lost their way en route to a cosplay convention, almost succeeding in overturning a free and fair election. Mainstream American news organizations have an unhealthy fixation with former president Donald Trump when he is merely a marionette whose strings are being pulled by forces that neither he nor we can understand nor govern. He is cast as either the hero or the villain in America’s fight to save democracy. The pundits on the Left said the Capitol attacks were an unprecedented attack on constitutional democracy and were unrelenting in their event coverage, calling it the Big Lie. Their counterparts on the Right trivialized the event and portrayed the rioters as patriots defending democracy. All the news organizations of the cable news variety, beholden to corporate interests, seek to divide American citizens to obfuscate what is happening. Whether Americans believe the politicians they have elected have been attentive to their needs or the possibility that a free and fair election might be overturned by voters unhappy with the results are two different questions. American journalists only seem to be interested in the latter. These “journalists” are nothing more than court intellectuals employed by the State. They have no plan to save democracy, cannot define it, and have no interest in conveying how much power has been taken away from American citizens over the years.

The Left is trying to build the narrative that the events of January 6th were the manifestation of a new type of assault on democracy that academics call backsliding. A few years ago, I reviewed a book entitled Backsliding that outlines the phenomenon. The premise is that Donald Trump is the second coming of Mussolini and initiated a soft coup in his attempt to retain the presidency.

Moreover, the book asserts whether we speak of Turkey or South America ( Ergodan, Bolsonaro, etc.), every nation has its self-styled Trumpian-type dictator that is destroying democracy in the same way that Trump is that differs from the authoritarians of the past. Whereas it can be impossible to discern any logic or strategy in former President Trump’s actions, the fascists who marched on Rome in 1922 were relentlessly and violently focused on a clear goal: to destroy democracy and install a dictatorship. This totalitarian system was hostile to capitalism and individual freedom.  In reality, if former president Trump were as nefarious as the Left claims, he would have climbed into a tank and taken over the Capitol Building with the rest of the so-called patriots. Of course, that never happened because although Donald Trump may be many things, he is undoubtedly not an authoritarian dictator. I agree that there is indeed a problem with democracy in America. However, it is not because of the mainstream media’s backsliding narrative. No one should proclaim Donald Trump as a defender of democracy. He and anyone who supports the events of January 6th should be ashamed and views summarily rejected.

On the other hand, this new era in which election officials cannot tabulate election results in a timely manner must be examined. We must return to the days when election results were certified by midnight or the next morning at the very latest. Still, in my opinion, dissatisfied voters unwilling to accept election results spurred on by demagogues are not America’s most significant threat to democracy. As Noam Chomsky wisely illustrates, the greatest threat to democracy in America has always been the transfer of governmental decision-making into the hands of unaccountable private power. Of course, no one who derives their sustenance(academics, journalists, politicians, and think tanks) from this unaccountable private power is willing to address this critical issue for self-evident reasons. America’s favorite television pundits are unwilling to speak about how presidents of both parties bestow money and privilege on their donors and favored businesses and the revolving door that connects Wall Street and the White House because they are accomplices in the deception. America’s most popular politicians would be displeased if it were revealed that the average member of the U. S. Congress earns  $174,000 per year, half of whom are millionaires with incredible health insurance and work an average of 150 days per year. The safe bet is to keep this information as secret as possible and instead blame Donald Trump for all that ails America and the world or prop him up as its savior and never once offer a definition of democracy. What is meant by democracy? Some believe that the classical doctrine of democracy is a steadfast adherence to the notion of the common good and the supposition that individuals will or ought to act politically with the idea of a common good in mind. This is known as the pluralist model of democracy, in which citizens realize this common good by electing individuals who can carry out their will. In essence, the idea is that the American government is dominated not by a single elite but rather by an assortment of small, politically autonomous groups. These organizations, some of which are well funded and organized, some of which are not, include unions, trade, and professional associations, environmentalists, and formal and informal coalitions of like-minded citizens who influence the drafting and administration of laws and policies from the bottom up.  Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter asserted there is no common good upon which everyone would agree. Even if there were one, there would not be a consensus on how to achieve it. Thus, Schumpeter believed that democracy is not characterized by an upward flow of opinion from the people to the government but the reverse. Competing elites (political parties) offer themselves and their ideas to the public just as entrepreneurs offer their goods to consumers. To be clear, Schumpeter offered this analysis in 1942, long before the military-industrial complex used its powers to limit democracy.

His use of the word elite is regarding politicians well-versed in world affairs, not affiliated with corporate elites administering a representative democracy. Unfortunately, the Schumpeterian vision of democracy provided corporate elites with the academic foundation to justify their belief that political action and democracy were not the business of ordinary people. This alliance of politicians and the corporate elite is known as the elite model of democracy. While watching CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, one realizes that politicians from the democratic and republican parties often disagree with one another. These disagreements, which have become part of the background noise of national politics, are proof that not one but an assortment of political elites exist. The same applies to the elites that set American economic and foreign policy. The interpersonal differences between politicians and corporate elites are overshadowed by complete agreement on a worldview. This worldview is a set of values, beliefs, and attitudes that shape mutual perceptions of government and prevent divisions from arising. They agree on a basic outline of the free enterprise system, including profits, private property, the unequal and concentrated distribution of wealth, and the sanctity of private economic power. They are united in their belief that the primary responsibility of government is to maintain a favorable climate for business. They do not want a capitalist system with a free market with zero government interference. They want the option to run to the State and be bailed out by the American taxpayer, as we have seen with Too Big To Fail. Other governmental duties, such as social welfare, are secondary to appeasing corporations.

Transnational corporations rely on federal support, subsidies, protections, and loans to ensure the success of their ventures. Market principles prevail for the working class, who fall for the “government is the problem, not the solution” propaganda. Former President Trump proudly proclaimed to a cheering Congress that the United States would never be a communist or socialist country, even though socialism for wealthy bankers has existed in America for quite some time. Gullible Americans who enjoy myths are pretty susceptible to deception. Stories like an American President telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down his walls of communism” greatly appeal to working-class Americans who rightly love their country.

On the other hand, when that President tears down every advance the working class has gained since the New Deal, they are oblivious to it and embrace him as the hero of the working class. Politicians and business people prosper together far more than they do separately and act accordingly. American citizens, unwilling to understand the power they wield in solidarity, are divided today more than at any point in our history.  In America, we fight over the right to abortion or to bear arms. We forge our opinion on our fellow citizens based on their political party affiliation. Black athletes can kneel in protest during the national anthem. American(and world) citizens can boldly criticize the politician of their choice, including presidents past and present, with no repercussions. Americans can even burn the American flag. This gives Americans the idea that they have power, but it is illusory. The ability to do all of the above does very little to address the problems of everyday Americans. None of the infighting and bickering affects the bottom line of giant American multinational corporations playing a different game. 

 When the U. S was a manufacturing center, it had to be concerned about American consumers and workers. Famously, Henry Ford raised the salary of his workers so they would be able to buy cars. Transnational corporations neither care if Americans buy their products nor have to rely on American workers to produce them. A defacto world government with its own institutions and trading structures (IMF, World Bank, NAFTA) has coalesced around economic power. On the other hand, the man who said “Let’s Go, Brandon” to President Biden might have to sell his home if he becomes ill and has no health insurance or his health insurance does not cover his particular malady.  Republicans and Democrats significantly differ in matters like abortion, immigration, crime, and gun control.

However, there is little disagreement among them regarding war, Wall Street, and foreign policy. Many on the Right call Obama a “socialist,” as many on the Left accused Bush of being a “fascist.” Neither group is willing to discuss the similarities in almost all of their policies.   My analysis of how the military-industrial has weakened democracy and usurped power from American citizens is not original. C. Wright Mills, a sociologist who inspired my decision to study sociology, was among the first academics to note the phenomenon. According to Mills, a single elite decides America’s most critical issues, not a multiplicity of competing groups. Playing a minor role in a democracy are the individuals most Americans think of as having a central role: senators, representatives, mayors, governors, judges, lobbyists, and party leaders. This middle level concerns itself with implementing policies formulated at the top. Noam Chomsky asserted that throughout American history, there had been an ongoing clash between pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below and efforts at elite control and domination from above.

I believe that Mills and Chomsky provide the most accurate assessment of American democracy and that it cannot exist with the amoral ethos of corporate elites. Despite President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the “disastrous rise” of the military-industrial complex, his worst fears have come to fruition. Ultimately, corporate interests and banking elites establish the primary policy agenda in national security, foreign policy, and economics. Modern-day politicians promote the package they provide to the electorate at the behest of corporate America. Despite the disparate views on a vision of a future America based on hope and change or making America great again, it is a lose-lose situation for American citizens. Regardless of their political party, these politicians will offer no substantive change for the lives of everyday Americans, each party deficient in myriad ways.  The American citizens’ role in our democracy is primarily symbolic. Their main activities include expressing opinions to pollsters, arguing on social media, and voting every two or four years. Mills believed that the U. S economy is both a permanent war economy and a private-corporation economy and that American capitalism is a considerable part of military capitalism. The most important relationship of the big corporation to the state rests on the coincidence of interests between military and corporate needs, as defined by warlords and corporate executives.

I suspect that since I have mentioned the military-industrial complex, many of my detractors consider me a promulgator of leftist psychopathology and conspiracy theories. Despite this, there is much evidence to support my claim. A study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page asserts that over the last 40 years, America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy to an oligarchy. Using data collected from over 1,800 policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, they concluded that wealthy, well-connected individuals on the political scene steer the direction of America, regardless of, or even against, the will of American citizens. Moreover, the central point of their research was that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have a substantial independent impact on U. S government policy. In contrast, mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

I disagree with Schumpeter’s claim that in a nation built on the concept of democracy, there is neither a common good upon which all citizens could agree nor a way to achieve it. While his enemies claim that his policies prolonged the recovery from the Great Depression or unimaginatively concluded that he was a socialist, no one could ever assert that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a wealthy man who used his office to enrich himself and his family, and whose primary focus was to placate corporate stockholders. On November 5, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in office, a testament to his popularity among Americans. Not only did the first phase of the military-industrial complex take root under FDR’s tenure, but also the first battle over control over how the government is used and who benefits. America’s working class prevailed early on. As Patrick Newman posits, 19th-century America transformed from a relatively free and laissez-faire society(with low taxes and a non-interventionist government at home and abroad) into a welfare-warfare imperial State in which people’s daily lives were regulated to a massive degree. Between 1933 and 1965, Congress passed legislation that increased access to health care and education, established social safety nets, expanded home ownership, protected the savings of average Americans, and ensured the rights of Americans in the workplace.

The 1960s were a period of significant democratization. Black and white Americans, college students, and activists fought hard for an America more representative of the founders’ vision. Some fought wars or left the country. Others died for their beliefs. Everyone made a sacrifice that coincided with their views. Our politicians had no choice but to respond, and as a result, America’s working class benefitted. This is a reminder that democracy is neither easy to implement nor maintain and requires tremendous effort to endure. By 1978, things had changed for the working class.  U. S dominance of the global system declined(with Japan and German-based Europe playing a more significant role). That led to a lot more pressure on corporate profits and consequently to a considerable reduction of social welfare gains. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Republicans love big government as must as their Democratic counterparts but for vastly different reasons. A Democratic Congress and President Jimmy Carter approved the U. S Airline Deregulation Act. This was subsequently used (primarily by Republicans) as a model for the deregulation of other sectors, including telecommunications and financial services. It became a milestone in building popular confidence in the private sector and dissatisfaction with government regulation. The Economic Recovery Act of 1981 cut individual taxes by 25 percent. This act changed the federal government’s direction, the most significant shift since the New Deal, and laid the groundwork for neoconservative ideology. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996) overhauled welfare, requiring work rather than government assistance. Signed by President Bill Clinton and passed by a Republican congress, this act set the stage for the bipartisan abandonment of the ideas that undergirded President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. 

As can be seen, except for the Affordable Care Act, both political parties in America have offered nothing significant to working-class American citizens but false promises, thoughts, and prayers.

In summary, democracy is under attack in America. Still, those who blame Donald Trump or attribute it to backsliding are not living in reality. The greatest threat to democracy in America is the transfer of governmental decision-making into the hands of unaccountable private power. Moreover, true democracy cannot exist with the amoral ethos of corporate elites.   America takes pride in its democratic system, a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Since the end of the Cold War, exporting this model worldwide has replaced containment as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy. Still, it is clear that the people who rule corporate America also dominate the government. Democrats and Republican politicians differ on a host of policies. However, their presidential appointments always involve people with years of government and corporate experience. They blame the nation’s problems on the entrenched Washington establishment and promise to put new people with fresh ideas into their administrations, but never follow through on their promises.

Most importantly, they share a worldview that aligns them with the corporate and financial communities. Although the American system retains an elected legislature, a method of legalized corruption (lobbyists, campaign contributions payoffs to powerful interests) has shortcircuited the connection between voters and their representatives and weakened democracy far more than any one man could. In the 1960s, American citizens would not tolerate the status quo delivered to them by their elected officials. In 2022 duplicitous politicians, with the help of the mainstream media, are depending on American complacency, ignorance, and a woefully uninformed electorate to thrive. As a result, democracy in America will continue to deteriorate unless Americans demand change with the vigor displayed in the 1960s. Until then, America will continue to have the democracy that it deserves. 

About the Author
I was a sociology major at Columbia University, where i received my B.A in 2017, at age 55. My opinion pieces have appeared in the Columbia Spectator, the Tab at Columbia University, and Merion West.