On “True Democracy”

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On January 5, 2021, one day before Trump sparked his fascist Attack on the Capitol, the liberal New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called for Americans “to defend democracy” by “investigating” Trump and wrote these words:

True democracy in America is quite new; you can date it to the civil rights era. If Trump’s Republican Party isn’t checked, we could easily devolve into what political scientists call competitive authoritarianism, in which elections still take place but the system is skewed to entrench autocrats.”

That was a remarkable two sentences.

One must be an abject ignoramus to think that the United States became a “true democracy” in the 1960s and 1970s (“the civil rights era”).

Five and a half decades after Bloody Sunday and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the nation still doesn’t elect its president through a nationwide popular vote but rather through a bizarre Electoral College system designed to appease slaveholders in the 18th Century. Under the nation’s ancient, deeply conservative Constitution, the American presidential election system is skewed to overrepresent that most reactionary parts of the country. It is next to impossible to remove a criminal sitting president prior to one of the nation’s strictly time-staggered quadrennial and undemocratic elections. And even after losing an election he clearly tried to subvert, a deranged right-wing president like Donald Trump is insanely but constitutionally granted seven more weeks wreak havoc from the seat of the most dangerous office on Earth.

The nation’s system for apportioning representatives to the powerful upper body of its legislature is even more absurdly skewed towards the absurd overrepresentation of its most right-wing regions. It boldly violates the elementary democratic principle of one person, one vote by giving every state just two U.S. Senators regardless of each state’s total populations. The problem has worsened thanks to a significant shift of population from rural and interior areas to metropolitan and coastal regions over recent decades.

The House of Representatives and most state legislatures are badly skewed to the right by widespread partisan and racial gerrymandering.

Further skewing the system to the starboard side, the American “citizens” of half-Black Washington D.C. (which has more residents than two U.S. states) lack U.S. Senators and full representation in the U.S. House. The American LatinX “citizens” of Puerto Rico (home to 3 million people, a larger population than 18 U.S. states) don’t have voting members of Congress and don’t vote in presidential elections.

The nation’s voting system has been further skewed rightward by racist voter suppression for many decades. It doesn’t help that the Supreme Court gutted key protections formerly to Black voters granted (under the Voting Rights Act) in the 2013 Shelby Count v. Holder decision.

The right-wing federal court system, appointed for life, holds authoritarian policy-vetoing power via constitutionally mandated judicial review. It skews well to the right of majority public opinion.

As if all this isn’t bad enough, the judicially sanctioned domination of American politics by the superior campaign finance weight of concentrated wealth (under two plutocratic Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United [2010] and Buckley v. Valeo [1976]) combines with numerous other mechanisms of ruling class domination (please see the chapter titled “How They Rule” in my 2014 book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy) to further ensure that the policy preferences of the nation’s working-class majority are regularly trumped by those of the wealthy Few.

By numerous rigorously researched political science accounts[1], the United States is a corporate and financial oligarchy whose “democratic” political and policy contests typically amount to battles between “competitive authoritarian” blocs of capital.

Democracy? “True democracy”? Really? When did that happen in America, exactly?

The great majority of Americans opposed the Trump tax cut of December 2017. So what? It went through anyway.

Seven in ten Americans now back Single Payer health insurance, hardly surprising amidst an epic pandemic. Who cares? As we hold our breath waiting for the beginning of Wall Street Democrat Joe Biden’s presidency, universal national health insurance isn’t remotely on the policy table.

Corporate “No Empathy” Joe suggested as a candidate that he would veto Medicare for All if it came to his desk. This was consistent with his promise to elite financial backers in 2019: “nothing would fundamentally change” – there would be no downward distribution of wealth, income, and power – when he became president.

“We must make our choice,” onetime Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

The choice was made long ago, from the top down. As the great American philosopher John Dewey observed in 1932, U.S. “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly predicted that U.S. politics would stay that way for as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

Eight decades later, more than three decades into the arch-capitalist post-New Deal Neoliberal era, Noam Chomsky put it very well: “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”

Even before the disgraced and demented fascistic oligarch Trump started his revolting reign, the top tenth of the nation’s upper One Percent had as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent. That’s not just an economic fact; it’s also a plutocratic reality.

This is a capitalist country, to say the least. Capitalism and democracy, falsely and absurdly conflated with each other in American ideology, are not merely different things. They are fundamentally opposed to one another, for an ever-present democracy-cancelling tendency towards the greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands is a central characteristic of capitalism, as Thomas Piketty has ably demonstrated.

I wonder if Michelle Goldberg has ever toiled at the wage-earning, nickel and dimed bottom of one of America’s capitalist workplaces, the unapologetically despotic environments in which most working-age Americans spend the majority of their waking hours. Always largely authoritarian, American workplaces are more tyrannical now than they were five and a half decades ago, thanks in no small part to the decimation of organized labor. A third of the nation’s workers belonged to unions in 1965; the current union density rate is barely 10 percent.

Globalization, automation, de-unionization, and the shredding of the social safety net have made American worker-citizens considerably more defenseless and powerless on and off the job than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rule of autocratic capital, the dominance of the investor and employer class, has deepened in America across the long and ongoing Neoliberal Era that arose in the late 1970s. It is truly entrenched in the U.S., the self-declared homeland and headquarters of popular self-rule.

So much for the rise of “true democracy” in the wake of “the civil rights era”!

It’s good that Ms. Goldberg fears and loathes the Republican Party. She should. It’s a white nationalist, fascistic, and even eco-cidal nightmare of an organization – the most dangerous political party on Earth. But Goldberg and other influential commentators would do well to deepen and radicalize their understanding of democracy if they want to help vaccinate the world’s most powerful and dangerous country against authoritarian rule. We must not defenestrate Trump only in order to clear the ground for a more disciplined, intelligent, and competent far right Dear Leader.

American elites who habitually describe the American corporate and financial oligarchy as a “democracy” help generate mass cynicism and confusion about the democratic ideal. Democracy is drained of authentic and solid meaning when it is falsely conflated with – and enlisted as cover for – the rule of the wealthy Few. The dollar-drenched denigration of democracy feeds disrespect for egalitarian visions of the common good, the general welfare, and popular sovereignty. With the currency of democracy debased, drowned in the icy waters of capitalist calculation and commodity rule, the unelected dictatorship of money, the way is cleared for the transition to full-on authoritarianism, with Trump’s failed coup remembered perhaps for turning Marx on his head by prefacing tragedy with farce.


1. Good starter works are Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (University of Chicago Press, 2017); Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (Simon and Schuster, 2011); Ronald Formisano, American Oligarchy (University of Illinois, 2017); Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Routledge, 2011).

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