The Democracy Deficit

Everyone has heard about the problem of budget deficits, but there is a far more insidious deficit that receives very little media coverage – this is the democracy deficit. Once you open your eyes, it is hard to miss.

If you ask Americans today, they would be hard pressed to describe the United States as a true democracy. The accumulated evidence suggests, instead, a society where the wealthy few have disproportionate political power and economic advantage over the many, with the gap continuing to widen. This is usually referred to as a “plutocracy” or an “oligarchy”, but not a democracy.

One does not have to rely on the arguments of left-wing radicals to find evidence for the democracy deficit. Mainstream political science analysis, conducted by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, concludes that: “…economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence….we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

For many, this research simply confirms what they have known or suspected all along.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in 2012, 76 percent of Americans agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country. America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency. The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.”

When the average American is asked about democracy, they typically point to voting and political parties as the foundation. But in the United States today, the electoral system hardly qualifies as a model of democratic choice. Despite the rhetoric of political polarization, the two parties have actually been moving in the same direction over the past thirty plus years – that is, toward the right-wing pole on the ideological spectrum. It just happens that the Republicans had a head start and are moving at greater speed, fueled by corporate financial support. The net result is two Republican parties (Florida is actually a pacesetter for this one-party trend represented by the recent gubernatorial choice between two Republicans, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist) neither of which offers any significant substantive alternative to the current political-economic setup; and both are equally dependent upon and controlled by corporate interests. As a consequence, the policies of both parties have contributed to an increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth since the 1980s. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed: “We can either have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

But the wealthy are not taking any chances. If you are a member of the 1%, and believe that the growing inequality might at some point generate a radical political response by the many, you would be wise to try and neutralize the potential one-person one-vote power of the 99%. This could be done if private corporations were granted citizenship rights (or in the words of Mitt Romney, “corporations are people”), if campaign spending was defined as a form of free speech, and if restrictions on an individual’s total campaign contributions were removed. Hence political participation would be determined by a new principle — one dollar-one vote. As it turns out, this has all been effectively accomplished with the two recent Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United and McCutcheon.

Under this new arrangement it is difficult to imagine how any potential candidate for political office could be viable without the support of the wealthy, on whose checkbook they will depend in order to fund a successful campaign. While in Hong Kong, pro-democracy forces are protesting Communist Party control over the pre-screening of candidates for their Chief Executive, here in the United States there is, unfortunately, no comparable protest despite what is a de facto pre-screening of candidates by the corporate elite.

But no system of elite control can rest on the flow of material support or control of the electoral machinery alone. It is also important for the elite to develop an ideology that dictates public policies benefiting private corporate interests under the guise of the general interest. This has been effectively accomplished by neoliberal or supply-side political-economic doctrine which has “cognitively captured” almost all public officials, Democrat and Republican alike. Its fundamental premise is that any policy that privileges private corporate interests – i.e. creates a favorable business climate — will advance the cause of freedom, liberty, economic growth and job creation and, therefore, contribute to the common good (remember “trickle-down”). This seductive neoliberal ideology remains stubbornly immune to the empirical counter evidence of the past thirty years.

As a self-evident truth, it substitutes for substantive democratic debate and discourse and, as a consequence, demobilizes citizen participation in the policy-making process. There is no reason to consult or engage the larger citizenry when there is an elite consensus that economic development and progress requires showering the private sector with tax breaks, incentives, and subsidies. These are often described, innocuously, as “public-private partnerships”; but in many cases they amount to little more than private gain at public expense.

Closer to home in Jacksonville, the democracy deficit can take a number of forms.

On the mayoral front, once again, a small segment of the urban power elite screen and anoint the acceptable candidate. In 2010 it was Alvin Brown. In 2014 it is Lenny Curry. Most people in Jacksonville have never heard of Curry; he has never run for elected office. But he is the clear frontrunner to unseat Mayor Brown and he has collected the most campaign funds. Curry’s singular political credential, if it can be called that, is the highly partisan position as chair the Florida Republican Party. In his private life, Curry co-founded a successful professional staffing business. This is apparently his most important accomplishment. But does being a successful business person qualify someone for public service as Mayor of a large city? It does if you have adopted the neoliberal ideology that equates the generation of private profit with civic virtue.

On the issue of local economic development, we have the proposal to dredge/deepen the St Johns River. This will require up to $1 billion in public money to environmentally damage a public resource. The only “public” missing in this equation is public participation and input in the decision. No democracy there. Supporters of the project argue that we must have “deep water” in order to compete with other East coast ports. But as with most public-private partnerships, a recent comprehensive study of port competition by Cuz Potter concluded that it “results in an unnecessary and unrewarded transfer of wealth from local taxpayers and users to global firms.”

The democracy deficit, nationally and locally, cannot and will not be remedied through the ballot-box or existing two-party politics. It will require a social and political movement that disrupts the system and demands fundamental systemic change to both the political and economic arrangements. In the history of the United States this has always been the recipe for progressive social change. The rumblings are just beginning.

David Jaffee

Professor of Sociology

University of North Florida