GEORGE W. BUSH says he likes to put things in simple terms. Let’s adopt his strategy and ask: Do Americans want to struggle to create a rich democracy, or are we going to roll over and accept a democracy for the rich?
Never has the question been placed in front of us more starkly. Let’s run down some of the "highlights" of the Bush administration’s first year:
Tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the most wealthy. Environmental regulation gutted in favor of "voluntary" efforts by corporations. An obsession with an unnecessary and unworkable national missile defense, which will defend little except the profits of the weapons industry. An energy policy plotted with the companies that will profit, through a consultation process the administration wants to keep secret.
Could there be a pattern here? Could it be that politicians, who are supposed to represent we the people, sometimes pursue agendas that benefit only the few people and corporations with the resources to put (and keep) them in power?
Could the obvious be true – that a country with an economy dominated by large corporations will find itself stuck with a politics dominated by those same corporations – and that ordinary people don’t fare very well in such a system?
Perhaps we should ask the question from the other angle: So long as corporations rule the economy, how could it be any other way?
When the Enron debacle broke, politicians eager to distance themselves from the mess argued it was a business scandal, not a political one. One lesson of Enron is that there is no distinction: A business scandal involving a large corporation is by definition a political scandal in a nation where corporations dominate the political sphere.
By law and tradition, corporations exist for one reason only: to maximize profit. Neither history nor logic gives any reason to think that profit-maximizing leads to meaningful democracy. Corporations are undemocratic internally and usually hostile to democracy externally.
As anyone who has ever worked in one knows, there is no such thing as democracy within a corporation. Authority is vested in the hands of a small number of directors who empower managers to wield control. Those managers on occasion might solicit the views of folks below; it is usually called "seeking input." But input does not translate into the power to effect change, implement policy or control our own lives.
U.S. corporations do their best to subvert meaningful democracy at home through bribes to politicians, commonly called campaign contributions. They have shown repeatedly in other countries that they prefer dictatorships and oligarchies to real democracies; authoritarian governments are much easier to cut a deal with.
Although politicians and pundits are often very good at avoiding the obvious, it’s hard not to notice that this concentration of economic power in the hands of a few has long had a corrosive effect on democracy. In the Bush administration, that corrosion has accelerated. It’s not that Bill Clinton was – or the Democrats, in general, are – fundamentally different, only that the Bush boys and many of today’s top Republicans are so brazen about it.
Looking back at the 20th century, we can see two powerful trends: the growth of democracy and the growth of corporate power. People of conscience and principle fought to enrich democracy in the United States by expanding the franchise to women and non-white people, carving out space for free expression and organizing popular movements to pressure politicians. At the same time, corporations went about the business of enriching themselves by expanding their powers through the strategic use of laws and politics. Let’s celebrate the expansion of people’s formal rights, but not be naieve about how concentrations of wealth and power have made those formal rights increasingly irrelevant as corporate money saturates the system.
Borrowing one more time the Bush simple-and-to-the-point style: Are corporations and democracy compatible?
A Business Week survey during the last election showed how clearly people are coming to understand that the answer is no. Nearly three-quarters of the Americans surveyed said business has gained too much power over too many aspects of their lives. The trick now is to use those rights – speaking, organizing, voting – and take back democracy from the corporations.
Campaign-finance reform, while a reasonable first step in and of itself, won’t solve the problem. Like water that finds cracks in a dam, corporate money will find a way to pervert our politics until we deal with the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the corporations.
At its core, democracy is about spreading power as widely as possible, while corporate capitalism is about concentrating power. That means the struggle to make American democracy ever more democratic in practice will have to be a struggle against corporate power.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.
His pamphlet, "Citizens of the Empire," is available at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf. Other writings are available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~r
jensen/freelance/freelance.htm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.