The Greeks said that the peak is the moment of descent. Making progress means the arrow of change points up. If things go wrong, at a critical time it turns around and points down. How soon can you know through experience that the peak has been reached? It requires awareness of decline. One must resist smiley-face optimism, believing that improvement is still continuing. It comes to this: Can Americans face facts about our democracy’s decline and get democracy’s arrow turned up again?
No democracy is perfect. At any time every democracy is getting better or getting worse, because democracy is not a state, but an intention and process. In Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Palestine, and other countries, democracy is clearly ascending. Not so in Russia, or the United States.
For a long time, American democracy was getting better. That was comfort enough for accepting a less-than-perfect democracy. We could be proud of being on the path toward reaching our noble constitutional vision. Now, it is getting worse.
Historians will eventually debate exactly when the deflection point occurred, when American democracy peaked and then started to decline. But it clearly had happened late in the 20th century. In 1964, an impressive 76 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what was right nearly always or most of the time. You would expect this in a great democracy. But this dropped to just 38 percent in 1997, as more Americans felt that politicians were dishonest, were only out for themselves, said one thing and did another, and didn’t represent the people. Call that progress? Moving from a trusting to a distrusting majority helps define the turning of democracy’s arrow downward.
Pushing democracy downhill was the loss of competitive races for the House of Representatives, because of hyperpartisan redistricting. In the last three elections, the incumbent reelection rate was over 98 percent. Not what our founding fathers envisioned. Such low turnover is not a sign of great public servants; it signals democracy dishonor. That level is what “we expect to see in countries like North Korea or China, not the United States,” decried Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity.
Patriotism demands we turn the arrow of democracy from down to up. Before that can happen, there must be broad public recognition that American democracy is undeniably declining. After all, you don’t fix what is not broke.
Aldous Huxley said: “The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.” Politically correct silence about declining American democracy is ruinous. This is a painful truth that we must not be time-blind to. Because if we are, then democracy’s arrow points downward toward a fake democracy.
Corporate corruption of politicians and government has steadily shredded our democracy. Sadly, there is a long history of corporate corruption of American government, but at some point it produced the deflection in democracy’s arrow. Complicating perceptions is that American corruption is different than in other countries. We have democratized and institutionalized corruption. We have equal opportunity corruption – all it takes is money. It is bipartisan, open, and legal. Americans are used to it – making it part of the accepted status quo, part of a dollar-driven, cheating culture.
Three of America’s greatest politicians shared the same basic fear.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless… …We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to bid defiance to the laws of our country.” We did not listen, so our democracy has become more like a corporate theocracy and fascist feudal state in which “we the serfs” serve the corporate state as workers, consumers and docile, distracted citizens. Misrepresentative government and corporatism oppress citizens.
President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country…corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” Guess what? That crisis has arrived. Americans should be trembling. Corporations have been enthroned. We are in an era of corruption in high places. The money power of our country does effectively prolong its distortion of our representative democracy. Most wealth is in the hands of a few. That saddles us, today, with the responsibility to prevent our Republic from being destroyed.
Decades later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed this fear: “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That is, in essence, fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling power. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.” Half a century later, corporate power is still growing.
Today’s most powerful political leaders do not talk this way, not because we have escaped the danger that Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt contemplated, but because we have succumbed to it. Only a few blunt truth-tellers are speaking this kind of candor – none in public office. Our elected “representatives” are silent about what is most disturbing and destructive in our society. Especially Republican conservatives, who do not walk the talk of democracy.
What hypocrisy. Exactly when President Bush is so focused on spreading democracy to other nations, U.S. democracy is declining. One way to understand the successful Bush and right-wing political strategy is to see it as deliberate distraction. The Iraq war, social issues, social security reform, and now the doctrine of spreading democracy, keep attention away from the most important problem – the unraveling of our own democracy. In political physics, distraction destroys democracy. Jefferson saw the need for “making every citizen an acting member of the government.” But Americans are too busy and distracted by nearly every aspect of our culture, from living the suburban sprawl lifestyle that makes them time-poor to compulsive consumerism that keeps them time-blind. Meanwhile, Republicans seek to strengthen one-party control of government, another sure sign of ailing democracy.
Public distraction makes it hard to convince people that cherished American democracy has already peaked and now is in serious decline. Such truth must overcome cognitive dissonance. No patriotic pain, no gain. But democracy’s decline is exactly what Democrats should be talking about. Democrats for democracy – now there’s a political wakeup call. Of course, Democrats must first rid themselves of corruption. Alas, as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. observed, “the Republicans are 95 percent corrupt and the Democrats are 75 percent corrupt.” If the two-party duopoly continues to fail democracy, then we will need our own insurgency for democracy, right here in the land of freedom and opportunity.
Joel S. Hirschhorn’s current book is 'Sprawl Kills – How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money.' His next book is “Fake Democracy – Status Quo Busting to Save Our Republic.” He can be reached through www.sprawlkills.com