After the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago, liberal democracy reigned triumphant. Understood as one person, one vote, exercised in periodic elections, constitutional rights, and a market economy, democracy spread around the world.
Today, the liberal democratic compact appears to be breaking down—democracy, we often hear, is in crisis. Recent research reveals that democracy, defined by the preceding attributes, has weakened worldwide over the last decade or so. According to one well-respected annual report, “seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties” in 2017, leading to an overall decrease in global freedom. “Democracy continues its disturbing retreat,” The Economist warned in early 2018—not long after the magazine’s yearly Democracy Index officially downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one.
Democracy, however, doesn’t retreat either of its own accord or by some organic or immutable process. It is undermined, attacked, or allowed to wither. It falls into disrepair and disrepute, thanks to the action or inaction of human beings who have lost touch with or, in some cases, sabotaged the tenets, responsibilities, and possibilities that a system of self-government entails.
In order to determine what a progressive agenda to repair and revitalize democracy should be, we need to understand what has gone awry. Unfortunately, conventional narratives too often get things wrong. Consider, for example, the common refrain that “populism” is to blame for our current predicament. We live in a “populist moment,” pundits including Yascha Mounk tell us, and Brexit, the rise of ethno-nationalist parties in Europe, India, and Brazil, and the election of Donald Trump all lend credence to this view.
Under this view, the crisis of democracy is caused, in effect, by an excess of democracy. Such was the premise of a piece published in New York magazine in 2016 by Andrew Sullivan, who argued that “hyperdemocratic” society was eroding vital “barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.” Regular people, we are told, can’t be trusted to appreciate and protect democratic principles and procedures.
Progressives need to push back against this explanatory framework. In contrast to what Alexis de Tocqueville long ago dubbed the “tyranny of the majority,” the threat today comes from a tyrannical minority. Hard-won democratic reforms are being eroded by an entitled, affluent elite, who are doing their utmost to stymie progressive reforms and suppress broadly shared democratic sentiments.
In 2016, the majority of American voters preferred a Democratic President, but they were blocked by the outdated Electoral College. Today, six in ten U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but the U.S. Supreme Court may soon decide otherwise and overturn Roe vs. Wade. Research by Data for Progress and others shows that liberal positions on everything from labor unions to gun control to public health care to the climate catastrophe and the Green New Deal are held by the majority of Americans—with positions generally pushing further left the younger the demographic polled.
And yet, time and again, the American people’s progressive policy preferences are ignored, the will of the progressive majority subverted. The national agenda, studies show, is set by oligarchs and well-organized special interests. The rest of us have virtually no impact on public policy.
Liberal democracy is in crisis not because the masses have suddenly become illiberal, as some claim, but because economic elites have abandoned any pretense of concern for the common good. This is the true crisis of democracy, and it is a problem with deep roots. The inequalities that plague us today are not an aberration or the result of whichever party happens to be in power but a logical consequence of our political system’s initial Constitutional design, which aimed to benefit a privileged minority, namely propertied white men. If democracy is to survive and thrive, this country’s foundational inequities must finally be redressed.
To do that, we must be clear: The primary threat facing democracy today is not one of populism but rather plutocracy. The solution involves putting equality—political and economic equality—at the center of the democratic project.
Over the course of human history, democracy sprung up in all sorts of places and times, taking a variety of forms: citizen assemblies in the ancient Middle Eastern city of Nippur, the Mesoamerican collective republic of Tlaxcalla, African village councils, the Icelandic Althing, Swiss cantons, and so on. The ancient Greeks, in other words, did not invent the practice of democracy, but they did give us the word we use today, one made up of two component parts: demos and kratos. The people hold power.
In the fifth century B.C., the celebrated Athenian statesman Pericles famously praised the political structure of Athens: “It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.” Given the existence of slavery and the exclusion of women, Athens failed to meet the bar by modern standards. Yet, as Plato and Aristotle noted, the overwhelming majority of people who made up the Athenian demos were not wealthy. Rule of the people, they observed, by definition means rule of the poor, since citizens of modest means are bound to vastly outnumber the rich.
This basic insight has been negated in our time as neoliberal capitalism and the massive financial inequities it creates dismantle hard-won democratic gains. As historian Quinn Slobodian has shown, one of the primary goals of neoliberalism is to insulate economic matters and financial decision-makers from democratic accountability, to cleave economics from politics. The result has been a system where markets, not people, rule, and where a lucky few amass almost unfathomable affluence.
Today, three billionaires—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett—possess as much wealth as more than half of all other Americans combined. Year upon year, the vast majority of the income generated globally flows into the pockets of the top 1 percent of the world’s population, while the incomes of ordinary citizens have remained stagnant.
If the last fifty years have demonstrated anything, it is that formal political equality, exemplified by the right to vote, is not enough to ensure democracy, as the wealthy have many avenues to exert disproportionate power within an ostensibly democratic system. Under a legal order where money qualifies as speech in the context of campaign spending and lobbying, the richest are able to purchase influence while everyone else struggles to be heard. In a system where the affluent can pass their assets to their offspring virtually untaxed, inherited wealth ensures the creation of an aristocratic class.
The single most urgent and overarching priority of any progressive democratic agenda must be to address this conundrum. While earlier generations focused on expanding suffrage, today we face an arguably more formidable task: saving democracy from capitalism. Extending democracy from the political to the economic sphere is the great challenge of our age, and also the only way to protect our current system of representative government from the concentrated financial power that is proving to be its undoing.
Political equality buttressed by economic equality must be the basis of any truly democratic system. The Greeks, for all their shortcomings, understood this basic fact, and they employed a variety of ingenious strategies to prevent wealthy individuals from dominating their poorer counterparts.
For example, it was illegal to profit from politics in Athens. Going further still, poor citizens were actually paid to participate in public affairs, receiving a day’s wage for attendance at the Assembly, so farmers and artisans could afford to leave their fields and workshops and deliberate alongside the well-to-do.
Even more creatively, Athenians employed sortition—the random selection of citizens through lottery—for key roles in the city’s administration, because they observed, rightfully, that the rich and well-born tended to win elections. (Elections are aristocratic, Aristotle famously observed, lottery democratic.) For the Greeks, democracy meant to govern and be governed in turn. Thus, working citizens had to have meaningful opportunities to get involved in civic life, and that meant accounting for and addressing underlying material inequalities.
If Athenians somehow landed in contemporary Washington, D.C., they would be aghast that the average Congressperson is a millionaire while their constituents largely struggle to make ends meet. They would be appalled that it is legal for private interests to make financial contributions to politicians, and that those very public officials are allowed to leave office to work for the same companies that donated to their campaigns.
Finally, they would scoff at the idea that elections are widely regarded as democracy’s apex. With such a limited conception of democracy guiding us, they would be dismayed, but not surprised, we have a self-proclaimed billionaire serving in the White House, and a couple others vying for their chance to run the show.
As any regular reader of The Progressive likely knows, this is an age of intersecting emergencies: racism and xenophobia, precarity and poverty, workplace discrimination, unaffordable housing, unaccountable corporate power, mass incarceration, mounting student debt, mass extinction, and rising sea levels—the list goes on. In one way or another, all these issues relate back to the fact that we do not live in a system where democratic popular will can be translated into policy change that is efficiently and effectively implemented.
To have any hope of addressing this disconnect, we need an agenda that connects the political and economic spheres and a strategy for building popular power. We must seek to democratize our electoral system and economy, and by doing so loosen the grip of monied elites and corporate interests on our lives and futures.
On the electoral front, we can take inspiration from the past. Like the ancient Athenians, we must work to protect our democratic processes from the corrosive impact of wealth. This should include getting money out of politics, publicly financing elections, and eliminating all barriers to voting, which disproportionately impact poor voters, especially people of color.
Instead of “one person, one vote,” our motto must be “one person, one equally meaningful vote.” Our current arrangement, which weights votes based on geography, is deeply undemocratic, giving older, whiter, more conservative voters a substantial advantage and entrenching minority rule, a problem exacerbated when Republicans control the redistricting process. We need to restructure our democracy and move away from our winner-take-all system to a more proportional model.
On the economic front, reducing inequality must be a priority. We should do this by lifting the wage floor, but also imposing a maximum wage. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed precisely this, asking Congress to approve a 100 percent top tax rate that would have capped people’s after-tax income at what amounted to just under $400,000 in today’s dollars. (Congress compromised, raising the tax rate to 94 percent on all income in excess of $200,000.) “Abolish billionaires” has become a political slogan among young lefties; it would also be smart policy.
Closing the obscene gulf between the rich and the poor, however, is only the first step. We must also address issues of ownership and investment. Working people, not just the wealthy, should have a stake in the companies that employ them, and everyone should have a voice in determining investment. Indeed, that is the only way to rationally allocate capital.
Right now, corporate CEOs and shareholders are determined to prioritize the extraction of ecosystem-destroying fossil fuels or the creation of advertising-driven, privacy-violating digital platforms, even if they have devastating implications for the environment and for public discourse. Democratizing the economy—giving workers and the public as a whole more of a say—would mean we could invest in the things we all need, like solar energy and investigative journalism, not just the things that make a handful of people rich.
The task ahead is urgent. We need to roll back half a century of neoliberal austerity and restore the democratic rights that have been undermined. But we must also reimagine democracy itself—setting our sights on a more robust, inclusive, and egalitarian system than has ever existed.
A growing number of people are doing just that. Galvanized by social movements (Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and #NoDAPL to name a few) and the rise of figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, the phrase democratic socialism is emerging as the name for this new political horizon. Remarkably, a majority of young Americans report preferring socialism to capitalism—this in the country that brought the world Coca-Cola, Walmart, and Facebook. Putting their ideas into action, they are getting involved in electoral campaigns across the country.
Democratic socialists have contested and won seats at the state and municipal level from California to Georgia, running on bold policies such as universal health care and a Green New Deal. Democratic socialists understand that we have to engage the system as it is, while also working to transform it; they also know that the question of political equality cannot be separated from the question of economic equality.
This emerging insurgency is democracy’s best hope. Only by building on these vital campaigns, nationally and locally, will we have any hope of advancing a democratic agenda that lives up to its name—that is to say, a society in which the people, not the plutocrats, rule.
Astra Taylor is the author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, an organizer with the Debt Collective, and a Puffin Foundation/Economic Hardship Reporting Project fellow.
Co-published with The Progressive.