Beyond Piketty: The Democratic Conundrum

By Zoltan Zigedy

In a country where sports stars are offered as role models and actors aspire to political office, celebrity intellectuals are a rarity. Thus, the meteoric rise of economist Thomas Piketty to celebrity status comes as a surprise. The English language edition of his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, sold out swiftly while reaching best-seller stature, a unique achievement for a book originating from an academic press. Possessing charm, wit, and youthful good-looks, Piketty toured the US, generating demand from myriad talk-show hosts and magazine interviewers.

A month before its release, sensing that Piketty had something fresh to offer, I wrote:
"Piketty's argument is a welcome antidote to the paucity of explanatory theory presented by the liberal and social democratic punditry. The controversy stirred by Piketty's argument well before its English-language availability is a sure sign that he offers something beyond the conventional... Closer examination of Piketty's interesting thesis must await publication of the book." (ZZ's Blog, February 11, 2014)

Little did I suspect that Piketty-mania would spawn a sustained discussion penetrating the highest reaches of the mass media. Piketty's argument has shattered the navel-gazing of academic economists, while demonstrating an intuitively obvious fact in a way that even the most thick-headed pundit can understand: capitalism produces and reproduces inequality. Unfortunately, Piketty timidly hesitates to draw an equally compelling conclusion: the only way to eliminate unjust inequality is by eliminating capitalism. It's as though a researcher has discovered the cause of cancer, but is reluctant to endorse its cure.

My own thoughts on Piketty's provocative, stimulating book are posted on Philosophers for Change.

The Piketty phenomenon overshadows what may well be an even more provocative, suggestive study by two US professors, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. Their paper, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics), offers results that could shake the complacency of political theory in much the way that Piketty's book rocked bourgeois economics. Unfortunately, Gilens and Page lack Piketty's panache and insist upon writing in the arid, formal style of academic political science. Consequently, few have commented upon it, notably excepting a column by Margaret Kimberley aptly entitled Democracy is Dead in the inestimably incisive Black Agenda Report.

Democracy or “Democracy”?
For the apologists for capitalism, “democracy” is the sure and sole path of escape from the grip of economic inequality -- capitalism's tendency to produce and reproduce wealth and income disparity. Outside of the revolutionary left, liberals and social democrats promise to harness the legislative system and existing political institutions to tame, regulate, reform, or manage the capitalist system.

They argue for a strategy that would engage citizens, coalitions, and interest groups in lobbying and electoral politics in order to shift the balance of power into alignment with the people's will. Taking the existing political institutions as adequate for change, as sufficiently democratic, they opt for a road that will supposedly trump economic power with people's power through bourgeois democracy.

It is to test this perspective, and ones like it, that researchers Gilens and Page ask the following pertinent questions:  "Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?" (p. 3)

They are querying whether “democracy” as we know it is really democratic: Does it generate or realize the will of the people? Or does it only give the appearance?

As they acknowledge and document, these are questions that have animated scores of philosophers, social scientists, and political activists. But in this case, Gilens and Page actually engage an empirical study to determine what others have only speculated. The results of their study are telling:
"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." (p. 3)

As with Piketty's findings, these results cohere with what any honest observer of recent history would expect. They are consistent with what a Marxist analysis predicts. It is only the social science establishment that continues to believe that bourgeois democratic institutions function democratically. Gilens and Page make this point in academese: “...a good many scholars – probably more economists than political scientists among them– still cling to the idea that the policy preferences of the median voter tend to drive policy outputs from the U.S. political system.” (p. 5).

Credit the authors for calling out the various schools of thought that provide intellectual cover for the myth of the US as the world's model for democracy. The smug intellectual foundation that supports US intervention in places where US elites claim a surfeit of democracy crumbles under the weight of hypocrisy.

Without a shred of irony, Gilens and Page offer the following caveat to their picture of the failure of US democracy:
"...the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence." (p. 22)

In other words, average citizens do see their desires heeded provided that they want the same thing as elites! It is only in that case that bourgeois democracy works for the average citizen.

What Does This Mean?
Gilens and Page are showing us that elites wield a veto over US political institutions. The collective will of the majority cannot trump the will of the privileged minority. Nor does the collective will organized into interest groups: “...existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.” (p. 22) Thus, unions and other mass organizations fail today to effectively advance the political interests of the majority against wealth and power when those interests are in conflict.

Couple this empirical conclusion with Piketty's findings and we are presented with a seeming inescapable conclusion: growing inequality and the diminishing power of the majority are inevitable. The remedies for inequality can not be realized when the interests and will of the majority are locked out of democratic discourse. The path towards economic justice is blocked by undemocratic institutions only posturing as democratic.

While Gilens and Page refrain from explaining the causes of the failings of US democracy, they are not difficult to adduce.

The US two-party system that consistently bends towards money and influence surely explains much of the corruption of democracy. As grass-roots organizing has been supplanted with costly media campaigns, the power of wealthy contributions has been amplified accordingly. The two US political parties have long since scorned the mass participatory model for a model constructed solely around fund raising and regular electoral campaigns. Aided by a legal system that establishes near insurmountable barriers to third-party efforts, the two parties are largely insulated from any external shocks to their narrow field of operation. At the same time, corporate interests control the internal life of both parties.

Aiding and abetting the two-party system, the mass media in the US are nearly entirely owned and directed by monopoly corporations. The limits of discourse are shaped by both the interests of wealth and power and the programs of the two parties. No fresh air enlivens the public debate except on the fringes. Under these conditions, the interests of the majority and arguments for those interests are marginalized.

A Way Out?
Surely, the Gilens and Page study offers compelling reasons that continuing on the same road will not lead to significant change in favor of poor and working people, the vast majority of US citizens. Those who insist upon data-driven, fact-based evidence now have what they want; they must face more than impressions, more than speculation, but ugly facts: capitalism tends to generate inequality and choke off the democratic process.

What road is the same road? The dead-end road?

The road that brings failure leads through the two-party system, particularly the false friend, the Democratic Party. Those who remain faithful to securing change through the Democratic Party must ask themselves and others how that has worked for most of our lifetimes. If it had worked well, Piketty, Gilens, and Page would not have raised the alarms that their works bring forth.

And those who hold out hope for changing the Democratic Party must surely see the unlikelihood of that prospect after six years of a disappointing Democratic administration. Surely, the euphoria of 2008 is now replaced with a justified skepticism.

Instead, advocates for change must add their endorsement and support to third-party movements and extra-electoral action. They must fight to overcome the barriers to democratic expression in the US and the inertia fostered by the occasional electoral circus. Public demonstration of advocacy energizes political life and counters the passivity of purposely narrow electoral participation. Agents of change must understand that defining electoral life merely as marginal campaign engagement and dutiful voting serves well the ruling elites. The lack of a vocal, militant, and disruptive peace and anti-war movement, for example, has given US militarism a free hand throughout the world.

The potentially most game-changing mass group-- organized labor-- cannot lead us to a new road without undergoing substantial change. Business unionism, class collaboration, partnership-- call it what you like-- has shortchanged working people, contributing to the erosion of US democracy. The Gilens and Page study shows that economic elites like monopoly corporations do not compromise their interests -- they insist on and get what they want through the US political system. With both enormous economic resources and unfettered political clout, US corporations are not inclined to “negotiate.” They are equipped for and disposed toward class struggle, even if the trade union leadership is not.

Only through a radical change in the ideology and tactics of organized labor will an answer to expanding inequality and shrinking democracy be found.

History shows that the socialist option -- a movement to sweep unjust inequality away by strangling capitalism -- serves as an ever useful prod to “liberalizing” bourgeois democracy and engaging social justice. The progressive gains laid claim to by the Democratic Party in the US were forced upon the political agenda by Communists, socialists, and other radical critics of the capitalist order. Republican and Democratic leaders are not inclined to fault or correct capitalism without organized anti-capitalist pressure. From the New Deal to the War on Poverty, concessions to the masses, to democracy and social justice, were accepted to counter the internal or external influence, pressure, or leadership of a radical left.

The revitalization of the movement for socialism, therefore, counts as a vital and urgent component of the fight for social justice and democracy.

May 8, 2014

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