Ira Katznelson reminds us that, during the Great Depression, American democracy passed a test that other developed democracies of the time failed. Could democracies respond to the concentration of economic and political power in unregulated industrial capitalism? Could democracy address the suffering of ordinary people when the wealthy and the powerful opposed doing so? The New Deal responded to these challenges successfully and, in so doing, reinvented democracy for the industrial age. It became the foundation of American economic dominance in the second half of the twentieth century.
And now we have to do it again.
Because, as Katznelson recognizes, we face a similar crisis in the ability of democratic institutions to respond to the problems of the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, while Katznelson appreciates the essential nature of the challenge, he misunderstands some fundamentals of democratic societies. As a result, he mistakes signs of strength for signs of weakness. He pleads for a reinvigoration of representative democracy without an understanding of why it has broken down.
Successful democracies do not construct barriers between politics and economics.
At the heart of Katznelson’s mistake is his idea that “the legitimacy of mass democracy came to depend on strong barriers between unequal wealth, on one side, and equal citizenship, on the other.” This is completely wrong. There is no way to erect such barriers once disparities of income and wealth reach the level of the Gilded Age, the level of today.
In fact, successful democratic societies do not construct barriers between politics and economics. In successful democratic societies, democratic politics produces sustainable prosperity and distributions of wealth and income that do not threaten democracy itself. Successful democracies integrate politics and economics; they do not try to wall one off from the other.
When I travel this country and talk with the twelve and a half million women and men of the labor movement, I hear two things over and over again—“our economy does not work for people like me, and our politics does not represent people like me.”
But in Washington and in the centers of America’s elite political discussions, there is a real failure to understand how inequality and economic dysfunction threaten our democracy. It is not just an issue of the accumulation of political power in the hands of those who have built—or, more often, inherited—wealth. It is the rising cynicism and despair of a public that understands what is going on but feels powerless to do anything about it.
As Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out at the AFL-CIO’s convention in 2013, there is a widely popular economic agenda, but it can’t get traction in Washington because it is not in the interest of either party’s economic elites. The public wants an agenda of economic renovation, an agenda for raising wages and economic security for the people who do the work. Instead we get falling wages, decaying infrastructure, overcrowded schools, bank bailouts, and tax breaks for giant corporations bent on outsourcing jobs to tax havens and countries with weak labor rights.
The result is a cynical, disengaged, disempowered public. When the public becomes convinced, for good reasons, that democratic institutions are façades behind which plutocrats operate, then people become open to authoritarian solutions. This is the climate in which appeals to racism and hatred of all kinds can flourish. This is the climate in which an authoritarian personality such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker can mobilize anti-intellectual sentiment against the funding and independence of his state’s prized public university system. And in Europe, where the problem is far worse, the authoritarian, racist right is back for the first time since World War II—winning followers by promising to do something about economic insecurity and joblessness.
At one level, the threat of plutocratic power demands structural reforms in response—campaign finance reform, laws aimed at stopping the revolving door from Wall Street to government jobs, and the like. But as the New Deal showed, the deeper solution to the decay of democracy—and the public’s confidence in it—is passionate, visionary leadership with a concrete economic plan that will produce better lives for working people.