Consistent with the central focus of the Occupy protests, most of the pieces written by Stanford faculty over the past two weeks have addressed the various forms of inequality that characterize the contemporary United States. I too am concerned by the extent and variety of inequities that we see around us, but as a political analyst, I am just as concerned by:
• the politics that have enabled these inequities to develop over the past 30 years and which sustain them in the present;
• the political divisions—the greatest since the Civil War—that have hollowed out our political institutions and undermined prospects for bi-partisanship at the very moment we need it most desperately;
• the threats to the viability of American democracy that are everywhere evident today.
With respect to the last of these concerns, there are three threats to American democracy that I see as the most pressing. First is the corrupting influence of corporate money in the electoral process. This is hardly a new problem, of course, nor a peculiarly American one. But to the extent that political influence can be bought, today’s extreme material disparities perpetuate growing political inequities as well. In the past it has been possible, of course, to insulate electoral politics from the influence of money by imposing constraints on who can donate to campaigns and in what amounts. However, by ruling in Citizens United that restrictions on corporate giving to electoral campaigns violate the right of free speech, the Supreme Court effectively removed whatever safeguards existed in this regard, making it easier for wealthy individuals and corporations to buy political influence.
The 2010 mid-term election introduced a second, more idiosyncratic, threat to democracy: the narrow ideological commitment of several dozen new Tea Party–backed Republican Congressmen committed to eviscerating the “socialistic” Federal government. This turn has already resulted in the disastrous “debt ceiling” debacle of last summer and contributed to the failure of the so-called Congressional “Super Committee” to reach agreement on a plan to cut the federal deficit by another $1.2 trillion. In the latter instance, the sticking point was once again the “threat” of new taxes on the richest individuals and corporations in the U.S.—taxes that some two-thirds of the American public support. The committee’s failure triggered another $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, many to entitlement programs already ravaged by earlier rounds of reductions.
When large and growing segments of society lose faith in the political system, the claim that we are a vibrant, healthy democracy rings hollow.
In the end, however, nothing threatens the viability and vitality of American democracy more than inequality itself. It is worth noting that for decades, one of the guiding principles shaping U.S. foreign-aid policy has been that economic development is a prerequisite for establishing democracy in the developing world. Absent a decent standard of living and a reduction in gross material disparities, the prospects for democracy are thought to be poor. And yet rarely, if ever, have we heard such inequalities in the U.S. described as threatening the health and well-being of our democratic practices. But they certainly are.
I have already highlighted one way in which inequality has undermined our democratic practices and ideals: the influence of corporate money on our electoral system. But there are many others. For example, gross material inequality contributes to a growing “civic gap” in this country—that is, a dramatic imbalance in the rates of civic participation—especially among young minorities whose shared cynicism, pessimism, and distrust of politics has reached epidemic proportions (Cathy Cohen, Democracy Remixed. Oxford University Press, 2010). When large and growing segments of society lose faith in the fairness and legitimacy of the political system, the claim that we are a vibrant, healthy democracy rings hollow. What Jonathan Kozol called the “savage inequalities” that characterize K–12 schooling in the contemporary U.S. pose yet another clear threat to democracy. Even as we celebrate the U.S. as the birthplace of public education, we would do well to remember that the proponents of the idea saw schools as civic institutions as much as vehicles of individual advancement. But decades of deep cuts to educational budgets, combined with the preoccupation of “teaching to the test,” have undermined the civic function of the great majority of the schools serving disadvantaged youth.
The litany of our society’s inequities and their distorting effects on our nominal democracy are daunting. Are they too dire to change? Absolutely not. To the extent that they are products of specific political trends that stretch back 30 years, they are amenable to countervailing political processes. And what might those political processes look like? I will take up this question in detail tomorrow.