Someone Tell Krugman: We Don’t Even Have a Paper Democracy

Photograph Source: David Shinbone – CC BY 3.0

I am as horrified as Paul Krugman at the authoritarian threat posed by Donald Trump and his supporters, but in different ways, with a different understanding. Listen to Krugman’s following dialogue with Anderson Cooper on CNN last week:

Cooper: “You write that it’s very much up in the air whether America as we know it will survive.”

Krugman: “Institutions depend upon the willingness of people to obey norms, and occasionally to say, okay, ‘this is not how we do things in our country.’ …This didn’t start with Trump. There’s been a steady erosion of those norms. This has been building for a long time, and we’re very close to the edge right now.”

Cooper: “When you say close to the edge, what does that mean to you?”

Krugman: “You know, on paper, we’ll stay a democracy, but I worry very much about a sort of Hungary-type situation where you have on paper the institutions of democracy. You even hold votes, but the system is rigged, and in fact, it’s become effectively you have a one-party rule…”

Cooper: “You really believe that.”

Krugman: “Oh, we could have this conversation two years from now and say that it happened. Or maybe we couldn’t have this conversation because the media would be muzzled. But we’re very close. If Trump is re-elected if the Republicans retake control of the House, what are the odds that we will really have a functioning democracy after that?”

Cooper: “I mean, that’s a pretty terrifying idea”

Krugman: “If you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention” (emphasis added above)

Yes, people should be terrified at the prospect of Trump getting a second term and a Trumpified Republican Party taking back full control of Congress in 2020. The orange fascist mother of all assholes could run rampant, wreaking new unimaginable havoc at home and abroad.

One-party rule is an ugly thing when the party in power is a white-nationalist atrocity like the contemporary GOP. The Constitution’s “checks and balances” are devoid of democratic (or even just republican – more on that below) meaning when the same party holds all of the United States’ famous Founding Fathers’ three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. (The Founders foolishly thought they had devised a scheme of government that would pre-empt the formation of partisan political parties. They did no such thing.)

What Democracy “On Paper”?

Speaking of those absurdly revered Founders and their holy Constitution, who told Krugman that the United States is a democracy even on paper? Democracy, it is worth recalling, was the Constitution’s aristo-republican slave-owner and merchant capitalist framers’ ultimate nightmare. They viewed it as a threat to property and equated liberty with the protection of property (that is, those who owned large amounts of it) from the dreaded egalitarian sentiments of the popular majority. They constructed a constitutional republic crafted to shield the propertied elite against what it dreaded most: popular sovereignty. Their supposed “democracy on paper” Constitution – the hallowed parchment that continues to reign as the nation’s sacred legal-institutional rule-book – encoded multiple crippling checks on popular self-governance.

To this day, more than 230 years after it was implemented, the Constitution mandates that U.S.-Americans don’t elect presidents or allot Congressional representation on the basis of popular majority and one-person, one vote.

Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life and hold the God-like power to invalidate any legislation, executive action, or lower-court ruling deemed contrary to the interests or view of the propertied elite.

Presidential and Congressional elections are absurdly time-staggered and scheduled to prevent mass electoral rebellions in response to real time events and developments.

The legal constitutional processes for removing criminal, malevolent, and/or incompetent presidents, other executive branch officials, judges, and Congressional representatives between elections are exceedingly difficult to use with success. The same goes for the processes created for amending the Constitution itself (please see Paul Street, “Impeach the Constitution,” Truthdig, June 11, 2017, and “Time to Stop Playing ‘Simon Says’ with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton,” Counterpunch, July 13, 2018).

What “Functioning Democracy”?

Parchment aside, who told Krugman that the U.S. is or has been a “functioning democracy” now or at any time in recent decades?

Who told U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) the same thing? The senatorial staff-abuser Klobuchar went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday to accuse Russia of “invading our democracy” in 2016. It “wasn’t an invasion with bombs and missiles,” Klobuchar said, but it was an “invasion” nonetheless – an “invasion of our democracy.”

How interesting that she chose the word “invasion.” No country has come remotely close to Superpower America when it comes both to literally invading other nations and to more figuratively invading other nations’ political processes. The essential goal behind these multiple and serial invasions (which have led to the toppling of dozens of foreign governments since 1945), both literal and figurative, was summarized in the title of Noam Chomsky’s majestic history of 20th century U.S. foreign policy: “Deterring Democracy. U.S. support of “democracy” abroad has always been severely constrained by the rather restrictive and indeed contradictory requirement that it be aligned with Uncle Sam’s combined and interrelated economic, geopolitical, and world systemic interests and world view. .

I’m no fan of the Vladimir Putin regime or of Russian interference in U.S. elections, but what just “functioning [U.S.] democracy” got “invaded” or otherwise attacked by Russia or any other foreign power in 2016? Just what grand U.S. model of American popular self-rule is and was there for Russia to undermine? It doesn’t exist. It’s a phantom.

University of Kentucky history department chair Ronald Formisamo’s study  American Oligarchy: The Permanence of the Political Class (University of Illinois, 2017) gives a detailed account of how U.S. politics and policy are under the control of a “permanent political class” – a richly bipartisan “networked layer of high-income people” including Congressional representatives (half of whom are millionaires), elected officials, campaign funders, lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, television celebrity journalists, university presidents, and executives at well-funded nonprofit institutions. This “permanent political class,” Formisamo warns, is taking the nation “beyond [mere] plutocracy” to “the hegemony of an aristocracy of inherited wealth.” It “increases inequality by its self-dealing, acquisitive behavior as it enables, emulates, and enmeshes itself with the wealthiest One Percent and .01 percent” and “abuse[s] positions of power to emulate or rise into the One Percent.”

The distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Marin Gilens (Princeton) showed in their authoritative, exhaustively researched text Democracy in America? (2017) that “ the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy.  Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups – especially business corporations – have had much more political clout.  When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless.”

What does Krugman mean by “a functioning democracy”? As his comments to Cooper suggest (“you even hold votes”), he’s probably channeling the conventional political science wisdom that regular elections with competitive contests for citizens’ votes are all that is required for a nation to be a democracy. But that is a profoundly stupid thing to believe. “Elections alone,” Page and Gilens note, “do not guarantee democracy.”  Majority opinion is regularly trumped (no pun intended) by a deadly complex of forces in the U.S. The list of interrelated and mutually reinforcing culprits behind this defeat of popular sentiment in the U.S. is extensive.  It includes but is not limited to: the campaign finance, candidate-selection, lobbying, and policy agenda-setting power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups; the special primary election influence of full-time party activists; the disproportionately affluent, white, and older composition of the active (voting) electorate; the manipulation of voter turnout; the widespread dissemination of “distracting, confusing, misleading, and just plain false information;” absurdly and explicitly unrepresentative political institutions like the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the over-representation of the predominantly white rural population in the U.S. Senate; one-party rule in the House of “Representatives”; the fragmentation of authority in government; and corporate ownership of the reigning media, which frames current events in accord with the wishes and world view of the nation’s real owners.

We “even hold votes”? Wow! Concentrated wealth rules anyway in the United States, where “government policy…reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office” (Gilens and Page). (For a detailed discussion of how the U.S. American ruling class rules in the fraudulent name of “democracy,” please see Chapter Five, titled “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed-Class Power,” in my 2014 book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy).

Saying that Russia has undermined American democracy is like me – middle-aged, unblessed with serious skating ability, and defenseless before cross-checks – saying that the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Russian left-winger Artemi Panarin stole my potential career in the National Hockey League.

Corporate Liberal Death Dems

Big oligarchic and plutocratic money gives us candidates like the dismal, elitist, arch-corporatist, and (imagine!) highly unpopular (though not with Krugman) Wall Street Democrat Hillary Clinton, who Krugman backed over the minimally decent social democrat Bernie Sanders in 2016. If public opinion ruled in accord with the elementary democratic principles of majority rule and one-person, one vote, the current U.S. president would be Sanders. Alone among the serious 2016 candidates, Bernie ran in accord with majority progressive public opinion on core policy issues like Medicare for All, progressive taxation, an increased minimum wage, government green jobs programs and more. That is why Sanders – who Krugman opposed in a very mean-spirited and slanderous way (consistent with Krugman’s joking description of himself to Cooper as “evil”) in 2015 and 2016- was more viable than Mrs. Clinton against Trump in 2016.

Sanders is the most viable against Trump of all the Democratic candidates today. But the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, with which Krugman is affiliated, is doing everything it can to defeat him. That is surprising only to people who think the Democratic Party is about fighting for democracy, social justice, and winning elections. It isn’t primarily about any of those things – not even the last one. It’s mainly about serving corporate and elite financial clients and joining the oligarchy ala Formisamo’s study. It would rather lose to the nation’s ever more fascistic Republican Party than lose to the left, even the mildly social democratish neo-New Deal left in its own party.

One-party-rule is a scary and authoritarian thing. But so is the rule of capital across both major U.S. parties, who function very much as Upton Sinclair described in the original serial edition of The Jungle in 1904: “two wings of the same bird of prey.”

The threat represented by Trump and the now chillingly Trumpiefied Republican Party is something more and worse than one-party and capitalist rule. Trumpism is a species of authoritarian, patriarchal, ethno-centrist, and frankly fascist politics that is on the rise around the world – in Europe, in Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere. It is most clearly and obviously aligned with the rightmost of the United States’ two reigning capitalist parties, but it has arisen in the vacuum of a neoliberal surrender in which Goldman Sachs and Pentagon-Council on Foreign Relations Democrats like the Clintons and Barack Obama have led the way.

Krugman is right to observe that “the steady erosion of [democratic] norms” has been “building for a long time” in the U.S. and that “this didn’t start with Trump.” True that! But top members of Krugman’s party have helped lead that “steady erosion” since at least the Jimmy Carter administration. The neoliberal Democrats’ allegiance to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of class and imperial rule – a key part of what Chris Hedges has called “the death of the liberal class” – has delegitimized what’s left of liberal democracy in the United States. The ever more dangerous Republican Party of the last half-century has thrived in the lethal popular/populist void created by the Democrats’ abandonment of workers, the poor, minorities, social justice, and livable ecology. Bad as the current Republican-fascist presidency is, its ascendancy and perpetuation and possible even likely winning of a second term cannot be properly understood without factoring in the abject center-right corporatism of the dismal dollar Dems.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).