Elitist Government: Is America Still a Democracy?
22 February 2011 4 Comments
Ray McGovern’s assault by police at Secretary Clinton’s February 15th speech should awaken Americans to a repeatedly demonstrated trend in Washington. Since 9/11, Americans have seen their civil liberties eroded. The US Patriot Act, the taxpayer-funded bailouts, the recent tax cut for the rich, massive stimulus spending, and the contentious issue of TSA pat-downs illustrate a civil society in decline. While it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint our government’s agenda, I think we all know by now that our rights no longer fit within its framework. The implications are staggering, for this means that whatever our government’s policies, they are not to be trusted. Adam Smith stated nearly 250 years ago in his monumental treatise on political economy that “The proposal of any new law or regulation….comes from an order of men who….have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public” (The Wealth of Nations p. 174). This book guided global commerce and politics for nearly two centuries and is still considered a fundamental text in our nation’s top schools. From it – along with Locke’s Two Treatises of Government - came the spirit of American capitalism and liberty. Yet, the growth of government over the past few decades speaks to the contrary.
Our education system still teaches the traditional story of the Founding Fathers as patriots who had the people’s best interests at heart. Our children do not learn, however, that the majority of the founders were acting on behalf of their positions at the zenith of society. The founders rationalized a representative government not because they felt that it was best for the people, but that their interests could be safeguarded from the masses only via representation by a small elite. Democracy, they believed, is better achieved without mass participation in the daily affairs of government. The idea that participation be limited only to electing representatives is the basic tenet of elitist doctrine, and was born from an antiquated and feudalistic sense of aristocratic privilege. Political Scientist David Truman in “The American System in Crisis,” stated of elites, “Being more influential , they are more privileged; and being privileged, they have, with very few exceptions, a special stake in the continuation of the system in which their privileges rest” (cited in The Irony of Democracy, p. 2). It is from this conception of privilege that our government still acts today.
Between political action committees, lobbyists, and special interest groups, it becomes self-evident that much of privilege is derived from economic prowess, and economic prowess shaped the very Constitution upon which our liberty rests. Indeed, Howard Zinn speaks of the economic interests behind the development of the Constitution and how elites reconciled the conflict between their power and the people’s liberty.
“When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.”
A People’s History of the United States, p. 97
The Founding Fathers were only interested in a degree of liberty agreeable with the maintenance of their power and privilege. Zinn concludes, “In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time” (p. 101). Revisionist interpretations of history such as these are conveniently left out of America’s classrooms; this is not by accident. Indeed, I learned in my undergraduate studies that democracy is saturated with irony. That is, its survival, according to the doctrine of elitism, hinges upon the apathy of the general public.
“It is the irony of democracy that democratic ideals survive because the masses are generally apathetic and inactive. Thus, the capacity of the American masses for intolerance, authoritarianism, scapegoating, racism, and violence seldom translates into organized, sustained political movements.
The survival of democracy does not depend on mass support for democratic ideals. It is apparently not necessary that most people commit themselves to democracy; all that is necessary is that they fail to commit themselves actively to antidemocratic movements.”
The Irony of Democracy, p.114 (my emphasis)
There is a problem with this, however, according to traditional democratic theory because it maintains that democracy gains its legitimacy only through participation of the citizenry. And here lies the quandary: many Americans see our democracy for what it is and choose not to participate, leaving the political party a vessel of the state instead of the people. Zinn claims the party system has always served the interests of the state over the people, because “electoral politics drain the energies of the resisters into the channels of the system” (A People’s History, p. 232). Moreover, Zinn saw this as a constant throughout both the Revolutionary and Civil War eras. The latter was also the eve of American industrialism, when much of the nation was still agrarian and hostile to industrialism’s effects on wealth inequality. To help advance the business interests of elites in the north, “political parties took positions, offered choices, [and] obscured the fact that the political system itself and the wealthy classes it represented were responsible for the problems they now offered to solve” (Ibid., p. 233). By manufacturing a perpetual level of internal dissension among the polity – whether such disagreement is based upon issues of class, nationalism, or ideology – elites remain positioned to offer solutions to the very problems they create. Their chief asset in this endeavor is the political party, which is highly divisive along ideology, yet, uses a common rhetoric by which to engage the people.
In order to properly identify with American political debate, one must take account of a fundamental shift in political rhetoric since the late-nineteenth century. The primary shift occurred within the realm of “liberal” ideology, which explains much confusion associated with the term. Milton Friedman explains the fissure between classical liberals and neoliberals in Capitalism and Freedom. While the nineteenth-century classical liberal fostered the political ideals of freedom and the individual along with free market capitalism to minimize the role of the State in economic affairs, the twentieth-century neoliberal reverted back to the state as the primary authority in all matters. Such a shift ushered in the welfare state we see today.
“The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom. The nineteenth-century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought….He will resolve any doubt about where power should be allocated in favor of the state instead of the city, of the federal government instead of the state, and of a world organization instead of a national government.”
Capitalism and Freedom, pp. 5-6
In today’s political arena, the classical liberal is more closely associated with conservatism. Moreover, when we speak of liberals today, we are speaking of a relatively new ideological paradigm within American government, one characterized by state intervention and the erosion of individual rights.
Although the term rhetoric is typically assigned a negative connotation, it serves the purpose of communication. This is important because the elite agenda is built upon such rhetoric, as it provides the only platform – albeit false and growing in transparency daily – from which to speak to the people. We must therefore take this into account when judging our political leaders by their actions, for it provides us with a standard by which to gauge not just the words of our elected representatives, but the state of our democracy. Ray McGovern’s assault illustrates the importance of recognizing Washington’s hypocrisy, as there are few other incidents that contrast so poignantly rhetoric with policy. What we see today is that the health of American democracy is in decline, and this is recognizable by the degree to which government policies contradict their political eloquence. Moreover, the fissure between policy and eloquence seems to keep pace with the growing size of government itself.
This growth in power takes on a frighteningly new dimension in the realm of civil liberties litigation. Elitism argues that the heart of the Constitution is not the Bill of Rights, but is instead the supremacy clause of Article VI:
This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.
There was a general consensus at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in favor of the supremacy clause because elites viewed it as a rule of rules so to speak. They designed it as a federal trump card to play when state and federal laws conflicted. Consequently, it gave enormous leverage to the national elite because it ensured their interests over local elites throughout the Union. Such conflicts are raising heads among scholars today. Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent discusses a trend whereby federal prosecutions are redefining much of criminal law and threatening First and Fifth Amendment rights of free speech and due process. The lack of clarity in federal statutes often leaves citizens wholly ignorant of what constitutes an illegal act. Mr. Silverglate discusses this threat to liberty in his recent article for the Cato Institute.
“The lack of guidance afforded by federal criminal statutes should not be the basis for an intellectual game susceptible to different outcomes that depend on the political disposition of either the citizen or the government (or, for that matter, the judge). The inability of average intelligent citizens to understand modern federal criminal statutes is a growing problem that interferes not only with Fifth Amendment due process rights but even First Amendment speech and associational rights.” (p. 237)
The issue, then, is one of vague statutes written into law and used by federal prosecutors to target – often from political motives – public figures and ordinary citizens. And because federal law is backed only by statute, as opposed to state or common law backed by precedent, the legality of any given action becomes severely blurred. Moreover, without the doctrine of stare decisis to guide litigation, Courts are relying more on interpretation of law rather than its implementation. This highlights a disturbing reality to which all citizens must quickly awaken. Whereas law backed by precedent acts to protect the individual by deterring actions that impede liberty, the inherent instability and vagueness in statute law is capable of deterring one from exercising that liberty. Consequently, as federal law supersedes state and local legal customs, citizens become targets of the law rather than its benefactors.
The elite philosophy of government was never intended to represent the general interests of a society. Growth in the influence of government over the private lives of citizens suggests not only an erosion of civil liberties, but a more tangible manifestation of elitist doctrine. While its tenets are passively enforced by misleading educational institutions and the rhetoric of political parties, the doctrine itself stems from an antiquated and feudalistic sense of aristocratic privilege. We see the results more today than ever as government expansion is characterized by encroachment into education, economics, and law. These aspects of society must be safeguarded at all costs, for they are the pillars of liberty. To allow government control in these areas is to act as consulate to a tripartite of tyranny. The question we should all be asking ourselves is what this mean for our children’s liberty? We would not stand idly by while our sons or daughters were deliberately mislead, unfairly taxed, or unlawfully prosecuted. Yet by allowing these crimes today, we are in fact, committing the crime of neglect to future generations.