By Jason Stanley
This essay appears simultaneously in Aeon Magazine and is republished with permission in our Election 2016 series
Citizens of the United States are quite taken with the vocabulary of liberal democracy, with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, which conjure key democratic values and distance the nation from the Old World taint of oligarchy and aristocracy. It is much less clear, however, that Americans are guided by democratic ideals. Or that ideology and propaganda play a crucial role in concealing the large gap between rhetoric and reality.
In truth, the Old World systems have proved extremely difficult to shrug off. In their 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that, as in an oligarchy, ordinary US citizens have no ‘substantial power over policy decisions [and] little or no independent influence on policy at all’.
Moreover, the US regularly subscribes to a form of managerial aristocracy. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder successfully replaced the mayors and city councils of several cities with ‘emergency managers’ supposedly able to negotiate financial emergencies better than elected officials. In the current presidential race, Hillary Clinton advertises her managerial expertise via the language of policy, while Donald Trump parades his via the language of business. Neither language is democratic. Neither invites self-governance.
Why is there no outcry about these oligarchical and aristocratic methods? Is it because plutocrats have power over the mechanisms of representation and repression? Is it, in short, about power? In my view, power can’t explain why voters are so enthusiastically voting for the very people who promise the least democratic outcomes. Nor are Americans knowingly rejecting democratic ideals. Instead, I see an anti-democratic ideology at work, inverting the meaning of democratic vocabulary and transforming it into propaganda.
Consider the example of mass incarceration in the US. Black Americans make up around 13 per cent of the population, but around 40 per cent of country’s ballooning prison population. Even if we assume, falsely, that black American crime rates justify this disparity, why is the state so punitive? Shouldn’t citizens instead be motivated to address the underlying socio-economic conditions that lead to such dramatic differences in behaviour between equals?
In The New Jim Crow (2010), Michelle Alexander argues that a national rhetoric of law and order has long justified mass incarceration. President Richard Nixon used it to crack down on black Americans under the cover of an epidemic of heroin use; this continued in the 1980s, as a merciless ‘war on drugs’ whose victims were all too often black men. In the US, the ideology of anti-black racism takes the view that blacks are violent and lazy, thereby masking the misapplication of the ideals of law and order.
Compare the ‘war on drugs’ to the current heroin crisis among middle-class white Americans, which has led to a national discussion of the socio-economic distress facing this class. Law and order doesn’t come into it. ‘The new face of heroin’ is new because, unlike the old face, it calls out for an empathetic response, rather than a punitive one. Now that heroin is ravaging white communities not black ones, the language of law and order (deemed appropriate to keep blacks in their place) has been retired. More significant still is that while the ideals of law and order preclude their unequal application, the propaganda of law and order does not: Americans were thus prevented from seeing the disguised gradient of law and order by racist ideology.
But what is the flawed ideology masking the misapplication of democratic ideals? Let’s bring it out by exploring the most cherished US democratic ideal, the ideal of freedom – popularly embodied in attacks on ‘big government’. Voters are repeatedly told that ‘big government’ is the primary source of coercion that limits freedom, which it certainly sometimes does, as the Patriot Act reminds us. But corporations also limit civic freedom in significant ways.
For example, corporations are leading direct attacks on the freedom to collectively bargain. Via outsourcing, free trade agreements allow corporations to move jobs to countries where labour is cheap; meanwhile, as a result of pressure from the conservative non-profit Citizens United, corporations can fund political candidates, thereby increasing corporate control of government. The weaker a government is, the more power corporations have over it. Across the political spectrum, there is anger that government is too influenced by industry lobbyists.
Voters concerned about government – as opposed to corporate – constraints on freedom are under the grip of what I will call a free market ideology. According to that ideology, the world of capital is by its nature free. All other substantial freedoms, including political freedom and personal freedom, are made possible by the freedom of markets.
Why do citizens who cherish freedom as an ideal vote to constrain their own freedoms by increasing the power of corporations? It’s because free market ideology masks the ways in which corporations deploy undemocratic modes of coercion. When a corporation bans employees from expressing, outside of work, opinions it disapproves of, this is seen as a legitimate protection of its economic interests. If workers have to sign non-disclosure contracts that silence them after they are employed elsewhere, it’s accepted as the cost of doing business.
The contradictions here are telling. If our most basic freedoms are self-expression and choiceful action, then corporations frequently limit our most basic freedoms. In liberal democratic theory, it is government that is regarded as the protector of such rights. But it’s precisely because government is attacked in the name of freedom that corporations have vastly greater power to constrain and shape it.
Free market ideology uses democratic vocabulary as propaganda, obscuring a non-democratic reality. Take education. In a liberal democracy, education equips citizens with the tools and confidence to weigh in on policy decisions and play a role in their own self-governance. Hence, democratic education is at the very centre of democratic political philosophy, as the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W E B Du Bois, John Dewey and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attest. But the US rhetoric surrounding education is explicitly anti-democratic. Citizens prefer ‘efficient’ education systems that train children to perform vocational tasks, rather than education that fosters community, autonomy and civic participation.
The rhetoric politicians use when running for office is usually explicitly anti-democratic. Managerial culture is paradigmatically undemocratic: a CEO is like a feudal lord. But if markets are zones of freedom, then CEOs ought to be its representatives. Free market ideology also explains why, when politicians with great wealth run for office, voters are not put off by the threat of oligarchy: wealth is acquired in markets – which are the source of freedom. Finally, free market ideology explains why voters so easily give up their right to hold institutions accountable to experts who promise ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is the ideal of business, and business is the engine of the market – again the source of freedom.
Free market ideology has perverted democratic vocabulary, transforming it into propaganda that, in turn, obscures an anti-democratic reality. Yet there’s hope that voters have wised up to this and begun to challenge party elites. Such moments of awareness feel dangerous but offer great opportunities. Voters are using the proper tool – elections – to make their concerns heard. Will anyone listen?
Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How. His latest book is How Propaganda Works, recently released by Princeton University Press.