The anti-democracy movement in America

Democracy means rule of the people. But the Gilens-Page study of 1779 legislative initiatives in 1981-2002 showed that chances of success were strongly correlated with the desires of the affluent, but not at all with average citizens.

For example, polls show a majority of Americans want Wall Street banks to be brought under control, according to Martin Gilens, a co-author of the study.  They want a higher minimum wage, better unemployment benefits and more spending on education.  On the other hand, they are less supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage than the economic elite.   But the political system follows the economic elite, not them.

In other words, the United States is a democracy in that we have freedom of speech and contested elections, but in terms of outcomes, we are an oligarchy, ruled by the rich.

This is not an accident, a matter of how things happen to play out. It is the result of a deliberate campaign that has been going on for decades.   It is not something that began with Donald Trump and it will not end when he is out of office.

The anti-democratic movement has three elements:
• Use the power of money to dominate political discourse.
• Use the power of money to dominate politics and government
• Restrict the right to vote and other democratic rights..

I recently read a good book, DARING DEMOCRACY by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and a young friend, Adam Eichen, that ties all this together.

I do have a few reservations about it, particularly the fact that they let Democrats off too nightly, which I’ll get to at the end.  But I’ll first summarize their main contentions.


The famous Powell Memo—written in1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—called on U.S. business to mobilize to counteract anti-business sentiment in the news media and the educational system.

Right-wing billionaires responded by funding the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

They of course have a perfect right to present their point of view.  The problem was that these organizations are dedicated to political warfare, and get to be treated as equivalent to groups who, whatever their unconscious biases, are serious scholars and researchers..

When I was a newspaper reporter, and had to write about something I didn’t know much about, the first thing I’d do was phone experts on various sides of the issue.

When I phoned the Brookings Institution, the person I’d reach would give me a carefully worded opinion, quoting sources and taking into account arguments on both sides.

When I phoned the Heritage Foundation, I’d talk to some young guy who had talking points down pat, but couldn’t back them up. Yet by the rules of my game, I had to treat them as equal authorities.

The Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers, consisted of sincere libertarians, who sometimes came down on the side of peace and civil liberties. But when their views closed with corporate interests, the Koch brothers purged the staff.

You have a parallel situation with the news media. Most of the so-called mainstream newspapers and broadcasters, whatever their biases, accept the status quo and have some minimal standard of professionalism.

The right-wing media—I’m thinking especially of Breitbart News—regard themselves as combatants in an ideological war.

Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine means broadcasters don’t have to give both sides of an argument. Back in the 1950s, when Edward R. Murrow broadcast his famous attack on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, CBS gave McCarthy equal time to reply. There’s no such safeguard now.

The idea was that the Fairness Doctrine was unnecessary, because diversity of ownership would allow conflicting opinions to be heard. But there’s no cap on the number of broadcasting stations a single company can own, so you have outfits such as Sinclair Broadcasting

Then there is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes pro-corporate draft laws to be introduced by right-wing state legislators under their own names, and the Federalist Society, which has been working for decades for appointment of conservative and pro-corporate judges


In any capitalist democracy, there are two sources of power – money power and people power. Most politicians depend on corporate donors to finance their companies. Court decisions such as Citizens United have negated legal limits on campaign spending.

The result, as Lappé and Eichen point out, is that:
> Those without corporate support are screened out.
> The debate is limited to issues acceptable to corporate donors.
> Legislative focus is more on pleasing the donors than pleasing the public.
> Since this is never discussed, the public is kept in the dark about the reality of politics.
> Americans become increasingly disillusioned with democratic politics.

Lobbying meanwhile has increased enormously. In 1971, the year of the Powell memo; there were 173 companies with lobbyists in Washington; there were 2,445 by 1982.

Corporate spending on lobbyists increased from $! billion in 1998 to $2 billion in 2010, adjusted for inflation; in 2016, corporations spent more than $3 billion on lobbying.

Side-by-side with the political parties are the corporatist political organizations.  The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is a bigger operation than the Republican National Committee.  Staff members move back and forth between jobs in the two organizations.

In the 1990s, Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay formed what he called the K-Street Project. The deal was that congressional Republicans would work with business lobbyists to craft legislation, and the congressional representatives and their staff would be given jobs with the lobbyists after they left office.

Lappé and Eichen report that about half of members of Congress who retired in 2012 joined lobbying firms. The figure in the 1970s was 3 percent.

Staff members of regulatory agencies also commonly wind up working for the industries they once regulated.

It is easy to see understand why the concerns of the average person with average income do not register.


Adam Eichen and Frences Moore Lappé

Along with the increase in money power comes a deliberate attempt to restrict people power.

The Republican State Leadership Committee in 2010 waged a campaign called RED-MAP that gave them control of both houses of state legislatures in 25 states.

They used this power to redraw state legislative and congressional districts so as to lock in their power, and it worked.

In 2012, Democrats got a majority of votes cast for congressional representatives in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but Republicans won a majority of the contested seats.

Republicans in state legislatures also moved to restrict the franchise.  One technique was to require voter ID, and then create obstacles to getting ID.  Mississippi, according to the authors, requires a cp[u pf a birth certificate in order to issue a voter ID, and requires a voter ID in order to issue a copy of a birth certificate.

Voting rights are suspended for arbitrary and bogus reasons.  You can lose your right to vote if you are a convicted felon, which isn’t new.   You also can lose your vote if you happen to have the same name as a convicted felon in another state, or just the same name as an out-of-state resident, which is new.

The infamous CrossCheck system (not mentioned in the book) is based on the assumption that if you have the same name as someone in another state, this is evidence that you vote in two different states in the same election.  You lose your vote.   The number of Wisconsin Michigan, Arizona and North Carolina voters who were stricken from the rolls under this system was larger than Donald Trump’s margin of victory in those states.

State legislatures are increasingly preempting local laws—overriding local minimum wage laws, for example, or bans on hydraulic fracking.

In Michigan, local governments with financial problems are put under state-appointed emergency managers, who cut public services and raise taxes. That’s what happened in Flint. Residents drank untreated toxic water because the emergency manager refused to pay for treated water.


Lappé and Eichen think public financing of elections would help a lot. They say experience shows these benefits:
> Candidates are motivated to meet with constituents
> More diversity among candidates and elected officials
> More citizens feel like “players” in the field of poetic
> More campaigns are fueled by small-money donations
 > The number of people running for office increases

They want financial disclosure of political activity, elimination of the government-lobbyist revolving door and an end to gerrymandering.   hey see the solution in grass-roots political activity, such as the Rev. William J. Barber’s Moral Monday movement, the Movement for Black Lives and their own Democracy Initiative, as well as many independent local efforts.

The situation for American democracy is not hopeless.   Human action brought about the situation we now are in.   Human action can create a new situation.


I think what they have written is true and important.   And I recognize that it isn’t possible to cover everything in just one short book.   But they do leave out some significant things.

Lappé and Eichen focus on the sins of the Republican Party, which are great, and let the Democrats off too lightly.   Republican leaders may have been the instigators, but Democratic leaders were certainly enablers.

Wall Street financiers played as big a part in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations as in the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations.

It was House Speaker Newt Gingrich who initiated the “pay to play” system, in which committee assignments were based on the amount of money raised for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did the same thing for the Democrats, and she put “posted prices” on the committee chair appointments.

Lappé and Eichen ignore foreign policy.  As I said, you can’t write about everything in one book. But if democracy is your main concern, you can’t ignore the fact that the country is on a permanent war footing.


The Lewis Powell Memo complete text.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University.

Scholar Behind ‘Oligarchy’ Study Expains What It Means, an interview of Martin Gilens for Talking Points Memo.

Fifty Shades of Green: High Finance, Political Money and the U.S. Congress by Thomas Ferguson, Jie Chen and Paul Jorgenson for The Roosevelt Institute.

Need Proof that Corporate Money Controls Politics?  This New Study Has It by Charles Austin for In These Times.

Why the Koch Brothers Coup of the Cato Institute Is So Dangerous by Alex Pareene for Salon.

The Republican Plan for a One-Party State by Rick Perlstein for the Washington Spectator.

How the nation’s largest owner of TV stations helped Donald Trump by Paul Farhi for the Washington Post.

‘Classic Propaganda’: Sinclair Broadcasting Pushes Aside Fox News To Become ‘Trump TV’ by the staff of Common Dreams.

The Election Was Stolen—Here’s How by Greg Palast.

Posted Prices and the Capitol Hill Stalemate Machine by Thomas Ferguson for the Washington Spectator (2011)

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One Response to “The anti-democracy movement in America”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Thanks, Phil. I’ll look up the links. I’m to the point that I don’t think the earth can support life much longer anyway, so all this evidence of horrendous double-dealing and corruption is interesting, but perhaps not as frightening as I would have thought a few years ago. If the ocean was 85 degrees plus as Hurricane Irma passed over it, we are all close to death. I doubt that there is anything we can do about it now.

    Liked by 1 person

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