To be fair, Wolin does note that, even in the absence of popular input into policy planning, elite rule in America has not focused exclusively on self-serving objectives of economic and political power. In the 20th century especially, our national politics were also concerned with what might be called "the common good." The creation of national parks for public use under Teddy Roosevelt, social security under Franklin Roosevelt, the G.I. Bill of Rights under Truman -- these were all popularly applauded advances in the communal life of the nation. They were available broadly to all eligible people and readily supported by the entire body of taxpayers.
Now, however, Wolin laments, such programs aimed at the common good are notably absent from the concerns of Washington politics. In recent decades, our corporate/state government has focused its attentions almost exclusively on economic expansion to every corner of the globe. This enterprise proceeds under cover of an ideological commitment to bring free enterprise and "democracy" to developing nations that remain lost in the morass of political tyranny and corruption. Yet, its unannounced but real purpose, Wolin insists, is to create new markets and/or overseas manufacturing facilities for American corporations. To secure these new assets, various inducements are advanced, or pressures applied, to ensure that subject governments are willing to cooperate with U.S. interests and accept the protection of American armed might.
If this description is accurate, America's reach for empire is obviously oppressive to the countries affected. In Wolin's view, however, it is also devastating to democracy at home, since it deepens inequalities among the citizens and promotes moral decay in politics. He writes:
"Resources that might be used to improve health care, education, and environmental protection are instead directed to defense spending, which, by far, consumes the largest percentage of the nation's annual budget. Moreover, the sheer size and complexity of imperial power and the expanded role of the military make it difficult to impose fiscal discipline and accountability. Corruption becomes endemic, not only abroad but at home. The most dangerous type of corruption for a democracy is measured not in monetary terms alone but in the kind of ruthless power relations it fosters in domestic politics. As many observers have noted, politics has become a blood sport with partisanship and ideological fidelity as the hallmarks. A partisan judiciary is openly declared to be a major priority of a political party; the efforts to consolidate executive power and to relegate Congress to a supporting role are to some important degree the retrojection inwards of the imperial thrust" .
Wolin suggests that, with such power realignments now its principal concern, American politics have, for the most part, come to substitute bluster between two corporate parties for intelligent debate over issues that directly affect the well-being of the citizenry. Campaigns for national office have been largely reduced to spectacle, entertainment and marketing.
A Democratic Vision for the Future.
Wolin's hope for the future is that, while elite rule may be here to stay, the people themselves can nevertheless take steps to make their own voices heard. As a first step, he says, we need to roll back developments in our elite politics that have brought us to the stage of inverted totalitarianism. An agenda for such an undertaking includes:
" " rolling back the empire; rolling back the practices of managed democracy; returning to the idea and practices of international cooperation rather than the dogmas of globalization and preemptive strikes; restoring and strengthening environmental protections; reinvigorating populist politics; undoing the damage to our system of individual rights; restoring the institutions of an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and checks and balances; reinstating the integrity of the independent regulatory agencies and of scientific advisory processes; reviving a representative system responsive to popular needs for health care, education, guaranteed pensions, and an honorable minimum wage; restoring government regulatory authority over the economy; and rolling back the distortions of a tax code that toadies to the wealthy and corporate power" [273-74].
Still, Wolin warns, even if such roll-backs are undertaken and successful, the government institutions affected will not necessarily be democratized. Only to a limited extent, he says, "can the citizenry itself [in its present form as a collection of individuals] " inject democracy into a political system permeated by corporate power. It can provide the initial impetus but not the sustained will" .
To make their voices heard in the political process, Wolin proposes, the people must first assume a conscious identity as a demos -- as a political force independent of, and opposed to, the corporate elitist state. This will not be easy, Wolin writes, as the entire population is now so caught up in the rapid pace of technological, political and cultural change that it is losing the capacity to stand back and reflect on the democratic principles that might be reclaimed from the past.
Yet, for democracy's sake, Wolin urges, the attempt must be made. In our time, as in all times, he argues, "We the People" must overcome the natural tendency to cede political power to the Few. But this time, cut off as we are from the past, the "demos" must create a new democratic vision for the future, conceiving of itself as a political counterforce to its ancient nemesis, elitism. Moreover, since this popular counter-elite will be by definition outside the elite power system, it must pursue its interests through the practice of a kind of "fugitive democracy" -- through a part-time political activism by various groups that will take many forms at different times in pursuit of both particular and common needs, reforms, and goals.
Wolin points out that this form of democratic involvement was in fact characteristic of ordinary Americans throughout the 18th century, both before and after the Revolution. He cites:
" " the extraordinary political activities of working-class members, small farmers, women, slaves, and Indians during the period from roughly 1690 throughout most of the following century. [Those activities] took several forms: street protests and demonstrations, attacks on official residences, petitions, mass meetings, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. Virtually without exception the motive animating these actions was to protect or advance interests that the existing system ignored or exploited unfairly ". Democracy, in this early meaning, stood for a politics of redress, for common action to alleviate the sharp inequalities of wealth and power that enabled the more affluent and educated to monopolize governance. By it they sought to wrest a place in the political power structure and make it responsive to their own needs" .
Similar popular activism in the 19th and 20th centuries helped bring about further advances in equality and justice. These included federal offices for ordinary people under Andrew Jackson; the abolition of slavery; women's suffrage; trade unions; control of railroad rates; trust busting; civil rights for African Americans; ending the Vietnam War; women's rights and gay rights; environmental protection; and student power at universities.
ADVANCING POPULAR DEMOCRACY