American Democracy
as a Legitimating Device

excerpted from the book

The Democratic Facade

by Daniel Hellinger and Dennis R. Judd Brooks

Cole Publishing Company, 1991, paper

American Democracy as a Legitimating Device

The Oldest Democracy

Thomas Jefferson, 1786
" ... a little rebellion now and then is a good thing....It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government....God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion....The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

From the early nineteenth century to the present, school textbooks have functioned as catechisms to teach a civic religion whose central article of faith is that America's government is the most perfectly functioning democracy humans have thus far devised.

In colonial America the top 20 percent of wealthholders owned 68 percent of total assets, and inequality in wealth distribution was about the same in New England as in the slave-holding South. In 1771, the top 10 percent of Boston's population held 63 percent of the wealth-and the lowest three-tenths held less than one-tenth of one percent of taxable assets. On the frontier, in contrast to the cities, a considerable equality prevailed, but this was because almost no wealthy people were living there.

The founders were an aristocratic group; several of them were the richest individuals in all the colonies. The merchant and landowning elites gathered in Philadelphia were keenly aware of the threats that faced them. Many white Americans had been brought, often forcibly, to the British colonies as indentured servants (three out of four persons in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia at the time of the Revolution). They had filled the ranks of the revolutionary armies, risked their lives, and were armed. For elites, it was urgent that a new government be founded that would elicit a widespread sense of legitimacy. Democratic symbols were crucial for accomplishing this purpose. But it was equally important to the founders that their own wealth and political power be preserved. This is not to say that most of the founders were antidemocratic per se, or that they were cynical about the limited democracy they were creating. They were, however, unable to distinguish the preservation of their own property from the establishment of democratic principles. Thus it should occasion little surprise that, as Charles Beard observed, "The overwhelming majority...were to a greater or less extent economic beneficiaries from the adoption of the Constitution."

Elites and Their Strategies

Elites in every society employ strategies to keep themselves in power, but it IS not necessary to think that they must, or ordinarily do, engage in conspiracies for this purpose. At times, of course, elite groups do act conspiratorially: The founders did so when they drafted the Constitution and plotted to get it ratified; Richard Nixon and his advisors did so in the 1972 presidential campaign (but then all election campaigns are partially, by their nature, conspiratorial). Corporations constantly engage m conspiracies; the term accurately describes a strategic plan or a product advertising campaign. But it is usually more accurate to consider the political strategies employed by elites as instinctive responses to threats to their political power and economic privilege rather than as conspiracies. It would be illogical to expect elites not to try to maintain their position in society. And it also would make little sense to believe that elites would respond to threats to their power in completely chaotic, ineffectual fashion. Elites share common interests, and they likewise share perceptions about how to respond when these interests are threatened.

The composition of elites has changed markedly during the nation's history reflecting changes in the American economy and social structure. Consequently, the challenges to elites' autonomy and power, and the political options available to them have changed. In the past two hundred years three elite "constellations" have dominated the U.S. economy and polity. The constitution of 1789 constituted a compromise between merchant elites in New England, who derived their wealth from banking, trade, and land speculation, and the owners of large estates in the South whose wealth depended on a slave economy based on agricultural products-principally cotton, rice, and tobacco-that were traded on the world market. The delicate balance struck among the elite factions involved, among other things, an agreement by the merchant elites to count slaves in calculating representation in Congress (the three-fifths compromise), and an agreement not to abolish the international slave trade until 1808. Westward expansion eventually strained the compromise to the breaking point, at which point Southern elites tried to secede from the union

By the 1870s, a new class of industrial capitalists consolidated their grip on economic and political institutions. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally transformed the nation's social composition and economic structure. Soon after the Civil War, the value added from industry exceeded that of commerce and agriculture. The nature of business organizations also changed. By the late nineteenth century, corporations accounted for 60 percent of value in manufacturing. In 1896, twelve firms were valued at more than $10 million, but by 1903 fifty of them were worth more than $50 million. The giant corporations that formed between 1896 and 1905 included (among others) U.S. Steel (now USX), International Harvester, General Electric, and American Telephone and Telegraph. These firms concentrated legal expertise, accountants, a growing army of white-collar workers, and finance capital into huge enterprises.

Over the past half century, another elite "constellation" has replaced the industrial capitalists. The idea of the "postindustrial" economy describes several phenomena: Individual wealthy industrialists have been replaced by professional managers and executives who run far-flung multinational corporations, though some families still control great wealth and institutional power, such as the du Ponts in Delaware and the Bushes and Danforths in Missouri. Families in the top 10 percent income bracket own 72 percent of all stock holdings and 65 percent of all bonds; the top 2 percent of families own 50 percent of stocks and 39 percent of bonds.

Corporate institutions control an overwhelming proportion of America's productive, financial, intellectual, and governmental resources. The executives of the one hundred largest industrial corporations controlled 58 percent of all industrial assets in 1984, and the fifty largest banks held half of all banking assets. The three television networks produced 90 percent of television news, and the fifty richest foundations presided over 40 percent of all foundation assets. The 7,300 persons holding the top positions in the institutions of the economy, government, and private foundations and in research and higher education institutions were in a position to make the key decisions about "war and peace, wages and prices, consumption and investment, employment and production, law and justice, taxes and benefits, education and learning, health and welfare, advertising and communication, life and leisure." A few hundred individuals with leverage in the largest private and public institutions make the decisions that decide the well-being and life chances of all Americans.

All of the elite constellations that have dominated American life have been confronted with challenges, and in response they have employed a variety of strategies to maintain their political control. From time to time they have resorted to repression. The application of repression however, is costly and full of risk The brushfires of rebellion must be constantly put out. Intrigues and divisions within the ranks of the rulers are more or less built into repressive regimes, and thus they are frequently short lived. It is far preferable for elites to find a way to elicit the voluntary acquiescence, loyalty, or, if possible, positive support of groups that are not in power. America's elites have always attended closely to the processes that nurture and build legitimacy, and they have been remarkably successful. Otherwise, repression would have been more frequent and more violent than it has been in our national history.

For elites, it is imperative that citizens embrace their rule as necessary and just. In a polity with democratic political processes, legitimation is necessarily based on the idea of the consent of the governed (as opposed, for example, to the "divine right of kings"). Therefore, elites must ensure that the institutions of socialization carry the message that the government in power represents "the people." Schools, media institutions, and elections themselves have been crucial socializing mechanisms organized and run by America's elites.

Despite the application of huge political and economic resources to the institutions of legitimation, America's elites have evinced a chronic anxiety about their position. Therefore, they have employed a panoply of strategies to manipulate democratic processes. They have successfully controlled the composition of the electorate and restricted political discourse, with the consequences that elections concern "safe" political issues and voters are able to decide only between candidates who represent elite preferences.

Since the Second World War, elites have invented a new set of strategies to supplement and amplify the effect of those inherited from the past. Whereas elites historically resorted to tinkering with the electoral system to keep it operating within narrowly circumscribed limits, in the past decades they have taken decisive steps to insulate government policy making from elections altogether. Government officials now possess an unprecedented capacity to manipulate information and shape public opinion, both at election time and in the periods between. The presidency and the executive agencies have vastly expanded their ability to define and control the public agenda, with profound effects. Most domestic policy is now made within the confines of hidden "subgovernments" made up of congressional career incumbents, key executive branch agencies, and relevant industries and corporate lobbyists. In a sense, government policy has become privatized, a state of affairs that has proceeded even further in foreign policy making than in domestic policy. Postwar foreign policy has been moved behind an impenetrable Veil of secrecy and deception insulated almost completely from democratic processes.

Repression As a Political Strategy

The fact that repression is always available to elites, even as a last resort, exerts a powerful influence on the political activity of ordinary citizens. From time to time it has flared to ominous levels, rising during wars and periods of popular discontent receding into the background when elites have felt more secure. When other strategies have proven insufficient, repression has always been readily available, and elites have made much more liberal use of it in American history than the mainstream textbooks will ever reveal. Coercion and the threats of force against political enemies were used as instruments for keeping elites in power even before the Constitution was drafted. During the American Revolution, the estimated one-third of the population that opposed the revolt faced retribution from supporters of independence. Those who sided with the British faced confiscation of their property and physical violence including Iynching, and they either fled to Canada or retreated into silence. In the eighty years between independence and the Civil War, slavery laws were enforced Native Americans were annihilated, and labor organizers were fired, harassed, and sometimes murdered. Today these events normally are treated as unfortunate episodes that have little or no connection to the present. Never would a term like genocide be introduced in a school textbook, regardless of the appropriateness of the term as applied to the experience of indigenous Americans. To use such an expression would be to raise troubling thoughts about America's identity and obligation to the victims better to treat such events as sidebars in a history whose main plot involves the extension and consolidation of freedom and democracy for all.

Likewise, episodes of repression of workers are represented in official history as unusual deviations from a democratic heritage. Of course, such an interpretation ignores the inconvenient fact that America's history of violence against workers is , one of the bloodiest among Western nations. Between 1880 and l900, there were ,' almost 23,000 strikes in the United States, and even more over the next several ~ decades. Repeatedly, federal troops, state militias, and hired thugs were used to break strikes. In 1877, railroad workers across the country called a strike rather than accept a second 10 percent cut in wages imposed within an eight-month period. The national and state governments mobilized 60,000 troops against the workers; in less than two weeks, almost one hundred strikers were killed. A few years later, in 1886, a national strike for an eight-hour day led to a police massacre of union organizers in Chicago, then prosecution, trial, and death sentences for several unionists. In the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike against Carnegie Steel in 1892, a gun battle broke out between Pinkerton agents and strikers in which nine workers and seven agents died. Ten thousand state militia were mobilized. Two years later, during the Pullman railroad strike, state militias were sent against workers in seven states and federal troops poured into Chicago and Pullman, Illinois. Thirty-four strikers were killed. In 1914, in a dawn massacre near the coal fields at Ludlow, Colorado, state militia soldiers fired into the tents of striking workers and their families and killed twenty-six men, women, and children.

The government also targeted political radicals in the labor movement without waiting for strikes. Workers who joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were singled out for furious repression. In the years before the First World War, vigilante mobs organized by corporations and state politicians attacked IWW members ("Wobblies") all across the country. The level of repression escalated when the United States entered the war. Congress used the war as a pretext for passing the Espionage Act of 1917, which was nominally aimed at spying activities. Relying on this legislation, the government sent more than 900 people to prison in one year for their political views, including the entire leadership of all the socialist organizations in the United States, as well as hundreds of labor union leaders. The states and the federal government worked with employers to ferret out "traitors." In 1917, the Department of Justice founded the American Protective League; within a year there were local chapters in six hundred towns and cities. The Post Office Department refused to handle magazines and newspapers it considered politically unacceptable. The repression continued for years after the war had ended. In 1920, raids coordinated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer rounded up hundreds of Wobblies. Government agents ransacked IWW offices and confiscated or destroyed their records. In scores of trials, some lasting only a few minutes, defendants were tried en masse and convicted for conspiracy, treason, and other "crimes." After midnight raids and secret deportation hearings, the federal government deported more than 4,000 people in less than a year. There is little question that a well-orchestrated government repression from 1915 to 1920 effectively destroyed the socialist movement and almost eradicated militant labor leadership in the United States.

World War II provided the pretext for a new wave of restrictions on civil liberties. Hundreds of pacifists were jailed for their political beliefs. Newspapers and movies were censored. Over I00,000 Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and interned in detention camps sprinkled throughout the western states. In the years after the war, congressional committees, federal agencies, state governments, and private employers hounded thousands of citizens in search of the "enemy within." The litmus test for disloyalty was defined as previous membership in any of several dozen civil rights, union, or left-of-center organizations that had flourished in the 1930s-or family or friendship connections to suspected individuals. In less than five years, the American left was decimated.

During the civil rights campaigns of the l950s and 1960s, FBI agents infiltrated civil rights organizations and harassed and intimidated activists. All groups identified as "leftist" were similarly targeted. During the 1960s, for example, at least 10 percent of all members of the Socialist Workers' Party and about 8 percent of the Young Socialist Alliance actually were FBI informants. The FBI's activities continued until the late 1980s, possibly ceasing in 1988 as a result of a federal court injunction (though, more plausibly, these activities continue but have become, once again, wrapped in a cloak of secrecy). The FBI infiltrated meetings, photographed people attending demonstrations; searched the household garbage of individuals working for peace in Central America; ran checks on license plates of cars parked near meetings and demonstrations; confiscated personal notes and books from people returning from visits to Latin America; and interviewed family members, landlords and employers. The investigation embraced dozens of organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Federation of Teachers.

Repression and threats of repression remain important guarantors of elite rule and governmental power. Too much or too blatant a use of violence, however, may provoke protest and opposition from elites more willing to accommodate change more committed to democratic ideals, or fearful of the backlash that frequent resort to violence might generate. Such a backlash occurred in the early 1960s, when state and local law enforcement authorities brutalized civil rights marchers in the South and again in 1968, when Chicago police went on a rampage against demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. Repression has helped to preserve elites and governments in power in America because it has been applied selectively within the context of a political system that is widely regarded as legitimate.

Legitimacy and the Democratic Facade

Strategies for creating a popular sense of legitimacy have been far more important to America's elites than have strategies of repression. However, legitimation through a democratic ideal of rule "by the people" has often posed serious problems for elites because populist groups have repeatedly tried to use the electoral system to change the political balance of power. When confronted with such threats elites have adjusted the rules of the game: They have expanded or reduced the size of the electorate, pushed for new campaign and election laws, and regulated the political parties. Invariably, reforms have been justified as necessary for improving democratic processes. Elites have expended a great deal of energy to fine-tune the day-to-day rules and procedures of the political system to protect their interests. If they are so troublesome to elites as to require constant tinkering, why have democratic processes been tolerated at all?

The delegates who convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 agreed that there was an urgent need for a central government strong enough to contain popular discontent and protect property. Though it was not clear to all of them that democratic symbols were the answer, they faced the problem of creating a new government that would not soon be overturned. The landowner and merchant elites had just enlisted farmers and workers to overthrow British rule. The citizenry was now well armed and, as was so convincingly shown by Shays' Rebellion, it was capable of challenging the indigenous aristocracy. The Constitution was a brilliant solution to a practical problem. It legitimated aristocratic control by articulating a language of democratic participation.

The idea of democracy is immensely powerful. The measure of its symbolic value can be seen everywhere in the world: in the habit of dictators who hold rigged elections to prove their popularity (e.g., Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines), in the one-party elections that prevailed until recently in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, in the U.S. State Department's routine application of the label "democratic" to authoritarian regimes and military juntas that happen to be allied with the United States. The idea of democracy is irresistible. It would be odd indeed-even perhaps impossible-for American politics to proceed without the manipulation of the symbols of democracy by all who take part in it. These symbols are essential to elites as a means for preserving their political hegemony.

The term hegemony comes from the Greek word hegeisthai, meaning to guide. To speak of the hegemony of the elites means to speak of their capacity to "guide," in particular to have the rest of us accept as "common sense" that the economic and political system that perpetuates their rule is the best and most just. This production and reproduction of what people come to think of as truth and common sense is not carried out through some grand, well-organized conspiracy, but by a variety of institutions, controlled by elites, that specialize in the production and distribution of ideas.

Political socialization takes place in a wide variety of settings, including the family, workplace, and church. But there are three principal arenas used by elites for the express purpose of political communication and socialization. The first arena is comprised of the institutions presiding over the process of schooling. These institutions assume the crucial task of inculcating in each new generation apolitical ideology that legitimates the state. This is accomplished in a straightforward, expensive, overt, meticulously organized manner: approved curricula, civics and history courses, textbooks, class discussions, and exams. By the age of eighteen, an American student has run an impressive gauntlet of political indoctrination. Schools have been regarded by elites as essential institutions for teaching Americans that their democracy is the "one best" system and that capitalism is essential for its success. Every generation of schoolchildren has been taught loyalty to the flag and the nation. More specifically, for most of our national history a great deal of energy has been expended to teach schoolchildren that America is governed by "We, the people," that all groups can easily assimilate into American life (if they want to), that Americans are prosperous and free, and that America is the beacon of freedom for all the world.

A second crucial arena of socialization is made up of institutions of the mass media. Americans are literally bombarded by images and words carried by the electronic media. Because most of our information, ideas, and opinions are derived from these media sources, the mass media industry has become a principal arbiter and interpreter of mass culture and political opinion. A survey conducted by the Roper Organization in l 983 asked Americans what appliance they enjoyed owning the most. More than half of the respondents mentioned their television sets. Which activity did they enjoy or look forward to during a day? Nearly one-third answered, "Watching television." The average American is exposed to l,000 commercial messages each day-about l90 on television alone. Per capita media consumption in the United States exceeds that of almost every other nation on earth.

How do Americans cope with this information flood tide and what role do media play in shaping political behavior? The question is not easy to answer because there is a key difference between exposure and consumption. People screen information. On average, people read only about half the stories they notice in a newspaper, and many of these only partially. They read less than one-fifth of the stories in full. Similarly, of the fifteen to eighteen stories reported in a typical television newscast, viewers retain only one "sufficiently well so that it can be recalled in any fashion shortly afterwards." But the details are less important than the abstract messages. The media sustain and reinforce cultural values and political beliefs. Media institutions are pivotal for socializing mass publics into accepting sanctioned versions of political and economic reality.

Electoral processes make up a third crucial arena used by elites for political indoctrination and communication. Campaigns and elections have become elaborate pageants experienced by most citizens vicariously through television. The "key linkage now in American democracy is the spectacular presentations of the electronic media," which mediates national politics and culture as "sound bites and film clips on the screen." 5 As a result of this development, a lucrative industry of media consultants, pollsters, advertising agencies, and professional campaign managers has evolved, skilled at applying the techniques of persuasion borrowed from product advertising and applied to political campaigning. In the United States elections do not mainly serve the purpose of allowing voters to choose their political leaders. Rather, they are invested with the crucial legitimating symbols of democratic rule. They provide ritualized opportunities for people to participate, as individuals and as members of a collective citizenry, in the political process. When people vote, they reaffirm their belief that the political system listens to their voice.

Manipulating Democratic Processes

If socialization were a perfectly efficient process, elites would comfortably allow democratic processes faithfully to represent popular preferences about leadership and public policies because all political expression would be entirely predictable. Dissent would be literally unimaginable. However, as evidenced by the political turbulence that has characterized U.S. history, the values, opinions, and actions of ordinary people have been far from predictable. Populist movements have repeatedly been mobilized to challenge ruling elites, and in each historical period elites have responded to these challenges by taking steps to ensure that the political system cannot be used to upset existing social, economic, and political relationships In short, democratic processes have been rigged to produce acceptable outcomes.

The Constitution can be regarded as the new nation's first successful attempt to rig the rules of government and democratic participation in favor of elites. Having won the war for independence, the creditors, merchants, and landowners now faced serious threats. State taxes imposed to pay the debts incurred to fight the war were resented by farmers and workers. In New England, farm foreclosures were common and the courts made matters worse by frequently jailing farmers who could not pay their debts. Between 1784 and 1786, almost one-third of the farmers in one Massachusetts county had been hauled into court to force them to pay their debts as well as the new taxes imposed by the Massachusetts government. Shays' Rebellion was a reaction to these conditions.

Had the delegates to the Constitutional Convention been representative of the people instead of the merchants, bankers, and plantation owners who composed it in secrecy in 1787, a much more democratic document would have emerged. In 1776, for example, backwoods farmers, laborers, artisans, and small tradesmen had taken control of Philadelphia and drafted a constitution that extended popular control to an extent "beyond any American government before or since." It created a single-house legislature and a weak executive (composed of twelve elected members of a Supreme Executive Council). Representatives had to stand for election every year before an electorate made up of anyone, propertied or not, who paid taxes. Compared to this plan, the Constitution should be regarded as a conservative, even counterrevolutionary document.

American history and civics texts reflexively praise the ingenious structure of the government that the Founders produced, yet the result was hardly democratic. Only the members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by the people. With each legislator representing a small geographic constituency, an effective check was placed against what James Madison called the "sudden passions and impulses" of the mass electorate. Senators were chosen by the states. Electors who chose the President were selected by state legislatures. Aside from the checks on popular democracy written into the Constitution, electoral participation was strictly controlled. From the constitutional period to the late 1820s, the states imposed property restrictions that limited the number of eligible voters, which had the effect of excluding from the electorate riffraff like Daniel Shays and his ilk.

Jacksonian democracy, which resulted in the dropping of property restrictions and the vast expansion of the electorate, eventually presented problems to a new generation of elites. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, giant industrial corporations dominated the economy. After the 1860s, an agrarian and labor rebellion against the new capitalists waxed and waned, keeping time with economic cycles. The Democratic party channeled protests against "big money" into the electoral arena by constructing a fragile coalition of midwestern farmers, southern white populists and laborers. In the presidential campaign of 1896, William Jennings Bryan led the Democrats in a campaign against the "money interests" symbolized by such financiers and industrialists as Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, James Fisk, and J. P. Morgan. The Democratic platform advocated a reduction of tariffs to force eastern businesses to lower prices and compete with imported goods. Bryan called for a paper currency backed by silver as well as gold that would, it was presumed, benefit indebted farmers and small businessmen. The Democrats also proposed a graduated income tax, a government takeover of land grants previously given to the railroads and public ownership of telegraphs and telephones. In the campaign of l900, when he was once again the Democratic nominee, Bryan assailed trusts and monopolies, urged the direct election of senators, opposed court injunctions against strikes, and favored the creation of a Department of Labor.

Elites in the South reacted to populism by disenfranchising much of the t electorate. The South's defeat in the Civil War had given blacks the vote, but by the early years of the twentieth century voter registration laws, literacy requirements, and poll taxes had effectively taken it away. Working-class and poor whites were discouraged from voting by these same reforms. In the North, voter registration and other reforms adopted during the Progressive Era reduced voting participation by foreign immigrants and by people on the lower end of the social scale. The consequences of these reforms are still felt; compared to other democratic nations, voter turnout in the United States is abnormally low. Proposals to increase electoral participation by easing voter registration requirements still meet with resistance from political elites.

Elites also have successfully managed democracy by manipulating voter choice and political debate. Political scientists have often blamed the objects of this manipulation-the voters-for the sorry state of political discourse in American politics... voters are quite adept at linking their votes to issues they consider important-despite being presented with very little concrete information in campaigns, which in any case are conducted within very restricted ideological confines.

... campaigning has become a significant growth sector of the American economy, and its ostensibly public function-to give the electorate a choice among candidates-has substantially been eclipsed. Elections have been privatized. Candidates employ a campaign industry of consultants, pollsters, and media specialists. The escalating cost of these kinds of campaigns have cast wealthy individuals and corporate interests as arbiters of the electoral process. By their contributions they winnow out candidates in the "hidden primary" that precedes the official nomination primary contests. Favored candidates who survive this stage then use money to buy the powerful technologies of modern campaigning. Thus election campaigns have been made a straightforward extension of corporate America, a growth sector of the capitalist economy.

Historically, the political parties served as mechanisms for mediating political competition among elites and for facilitating political communication between elites and the mass electorate. The parties also engaged in coalition building on behalf of political candidates and political agendas... the political parties have been eclipsed as the gatekeepers of the electoral process by professional campaign specialists and financial contributors. The fact that parties no longer serve their historic functions means that elections have been reduced to media-managed passion plays for the voters by professional campaign specialists and financial contributors.

Insulating Government from Accountability

... America's policy-making institutions have become remarkably isolated from electoral decisions. Presidential power has expanded partly because the presidency has become the center (or object) of a continuous, sophisticated image-making industry. Presidents do not now campaign only for election and reelection. Pollsters and image makers work full time between elections to sell presidential policies to the public. No other institution has such a capacity for organizing such a well-organized, sustained public relations campaign. When selling policy does not work, presidents are able to insulate themselves from public accountability through covert, ad hoc agencies and groups that define and implement policies without the consent or knowledge of Congress, the courts, or the public. Since the Second World War, there has been a tendency for all presidents to expand their power in this way by exaggerating threats to national security.

Congress also has become remarkably insulated from electoral decisions, an outcome of the fact that elections have become less and less competitive. More than half of the representatives in the House elected in 1870 were serving their first term. By 1900, only about one-third were newly elected, and this proportion fell to about 15 percent by the 1970s. In the 1986 congressional elections, 98 percent of incumbents who ran were reelected, and 99 percent were returned in 1988. Most representatives and senators have served for several terms, a fact that is virtually institutionalized in an era of high-cost media campaigns, when incumbency confers a decisive advantage in fundraising. Congressional representatives and senators derive most of their campaign funds from political action committees (PACs) representing corporations and large interest groups; and they spend their money on expensive media campaigns. Senators and congressional representatives have become accustomed to conducting much of their business outside the public's scrutiny, through hidden subgovernments in which they can more or less continuously negotiate with executive agencies and corporate and interest-group lobbyists.

Elites and the Democratic Ideal

Except as a device for legitimating their control, elites in the United States have little attachment to democracy. At first blush, this assertion may seem indefensible. There are no cases in which these elites have abrogated democracy through resort to a coup d'etat. The Constitution has never been suspended (though during the Civil War and the Second World War some of its provisions were ignored). It would appear that America's elites have convincingly demonstrated their support for democratic processes; they seem to have met a two-hundred-year loyalty test.

Actually, however, on many occasions America's elites have demonstrated a distrust and disdain for democracy to the point where they have been willing to destroy it when it seemed inimical to their interests-that is, when it threatened their political hegemony and control over wealth-producing institutions... In its self-proclaimed sphere of influence, the Caribbean and Latin America, the United States has repeatedly destroyed democracy and protected repressive regimes. Democracies based on mass participation have consistently been opposed, often violently, by U.S. political and corporate elites. Conversely, political systems pasted over with a transparent patina of democracy have been both supported and sponsored. These ostensible democracies are often as far removed from popular influence as are the military dictatorships that they often replace, but they are enthusiastically embraced as "democratic" by U.S. foreign policy elites. These cynical manipulations of democratic symbols can be used as a mirror that faithfully reflects the ideal of democracy embraced by America's elites. They tolerate democratic processes only if these processes pose no significant danger to their autonomy and political hegemony.

Must Democracy in America Be a Facade?

In his textbook written for college students enrolled in courses on American government, the political scientist Robert Dahl suggested several principles that may be used to judge whether a political system is genuinely democratic. He asserted that every citizen must have "unimpaired opportunities" to formulate political preferences. For these opportunities to exist, a formal educational process and a communications (media) system must present significant political alternatives so that citizens can make informed judgments by engaging in lively political debate. Second according to Dahl, citizens must be able to express their preferences. This takes place in the voting booth but also in other contexts, such as demonstrations and associational activities. And third, citizens must have their expressed preferences "weighed in the conduct of government." Electoral procedures must provide access to alternative sources of information and genuine competition among candidates. Incumbent officeholders must always be at risk of replacement when citizens preferences are at variance from their own

Citizens in the United States have neither an education system nor a media system that provides "unimpaired opportunities" for them to formulate and signify preferences. Neither liberal/conservative nor the Democratic/Republican spectrum of alternatives is sufficiently broad today to merit much confidence that competition among leaders for votes provides either meaningful political debate or a mechanism for mass influence over government. The decay of political parties and their replacement by a private-sector campaign industry has transformed elections into exercises in electronic advertising and information management. And, in any case, most of the government institutions that make both domestic and foreign policy now operate outside and beyond the reach of electoral politics.

The American political system amounts to a democratic facade. It is important 3 to note that this label should not be equated with dictatorship or the kind of authoritarian government in which participation is prohibited, governmental power is concentrated into one institution or person, and only a few people are allowed a political voice. The American system does respond to well-funded and highly organized mass-membership interest groups. When energetic social movements emerge, whether or not they are encouraged by some elite sectors, they can wrest important concessions. In some circumstances, elections have taken on considerable significance. But recent national elections have become little more than symbolic exercises. They function mainly as mechanisms for conferring legitimacy on the elites that "win."

This situation need not persist. American politics is not and never has been quiescent. Beyond the world of the textbooks, American history is the story of political struggles. The symbols of democracy manipulated by elites inspire ordinary people to work for political change. The most significant reforms in our time would open up the political system so that democracy would not only legitimate government, but also keep it accountable.

The Democratic Facade

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