American democracy can help fix America’s broken society

Political, economic and cultural power is concentrated in a new national oligarchy that creates resentment. Responsible leadership, of the kind seen in the mid-20th century, is needed to repair the damage.
A construction worker in Washington, 1962, framed by the Capitol Building. Credit: Underwood Archives / Getty Images.
A construction worker in Washington, 1962, framed by the Capitol Building. Credit: Underwood Archives / Getty Images.
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Far from being an organised coup d’etat  or putsch, the shocking invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January by pro-Trump protestors was an unplanned event that only took place because security was inadequate. Trump has never been a potential American Hitler or Mussolini, but rather the Republican Party’s Jimmy Carter—a weak, unpopular, one-term president who campaigned as an outsider and rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.  

Just a few months ago, many Democrats claimed that the US Senate and electoral college were so rigged in favour of Republican-leaning electorates that they might never win the White House and Senate again. Then they won the White House and the Senate, along with the House, giving them control of all of the elected branches of government.

America’s democratic institutions are not perfect, but they are performing well by the normal measurements of liberal democracy—free and fair elections, uninterrupted transitions of power, alternation among rival parties, checks and balances among different branches. American democracy is working. Unfortunately, however, American society is broken. 

Anti-establishment populism, of the kind channelled in different ways by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016, is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.  The problem afflicting American society is oligarchy. Power of all kinds—political, economic and cultural—is more concentrated among fewer people than at any time in the 245 years of US history.  

The concentration of political power

Between the 1830s and the 1970s, the major parties in the US were federations of state and local parties with mass membership. Since the 1970s, the parties have ceased to be mass organisations for multiple reasons, including the primary system in which voters rather than party officials select candidates, the replacement of party patronage by bureaucratic social service programmes, and the eclipse of neighbourhood communities by anonymous cities and suburbs.

No longer mass-membership, grass-roots organisations, the Democratic and Republican parties are mere labels, which can be captured by politicians and donors – and self-financed politicians like Donald Trump. Party loyalty has been replaced by personal loyalty to individual personalities. The cult of the ‘rock star’ Obama preceded the personality cult around Trump. 

In the old days, local party officials would knock on doors and explain the positions of their party. But the neighbourhood party machines have withered away. In their place, the factions that capture the national party labels rely on single-issue campaigns in many localities like the Tea Party on the right and Black Lives Matter on the left to ramp up voter enthusiasm through theatrical protests. Non-profit organisations on the left and right, often funded by the same billionaire donors behind political candidates, do the work of formulating policies and advocating them that the now-moribund parties once did. 

All of this translates into a massive upward transfer of power from ordinary American citizens to the tiny class of major political donors. Trump, a donor to both parties before he sought the presidency, is one example. An even better example is Michael Bloomberg, who simultaneously controls a major US business and personal media empire, Bloomberg Media Group, and a major charity, Bloomberg Philanthropies. Having leveraged his outsized influence in the economy, the media and philanthropy to become mayor of New York, Bloomberg failed to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. But the very fact that it was conceivable that one billionaire businessman from New York, Michael Bloomberg, might have battled for the White House in the 2020 election with another billionaire businessman from New York, Donald Trump, illustrates the extent to which American politics is turning into a game of thrones among super-rich oligarchs.

The concentration of economic power

The term ‘oligarchy’ describes the American economy as well as American politics in the third decade of the twenty-first century. Giant corporations emerged as the US industrialised in the late nineteenth century. But their power was checked by what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the ‘countervailing power’ of government and trade unions. Government regulations turned some formerly predatory monopolies into tame public water, electricity and gas utilities, supervised by public utility commissions.  In the manufacturing sector, the violent wars between labour and capital that took place between the Civil War and the 1930s gave way to an uneasy truce between unions and management.

In the 2020s, however, American business has shattered the restraints that bound it during the golden years that followed the Second World War. De facto monopolies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and Amazon control whole areas of American economic and social life, with no regulations other than those their owners or executives decide to adopt. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, the decision of Twitter and Facebook to lock him out of his accounts, and the mass purge of moderate conservatives as well as right-wing militants that was then carried out by numerous digital firms, including Amazon, Apple and Spotify, was a shocking demonstration of where real power lies in the twenty-first century United States.

At the same time that essential public utility industries like online search engines, online retail, and online banking are more or less unregulated and allowed to purge their users at the whim of their executives, organised labour is weaker than it has been in the US for a century. While public sector unions survive, in the private sector fewer American workers, around six per cent, belong to labour unions in the 2020s than did in the 1930s – before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pro-labour New Deal.         

A century ago US industries could only flourish if most Americans (not necessarily their own workers) flourished. In 1953, General Motors president Charles E. Wilson famously said ‘for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.’

Today, however, many US-based multinationals can prosper whether the country does or not.  Apple assembles most of its iPhones in China, with a few ingredients from the US, and avoids paying US taxes with the help of offshore tax havens.  Even though the COVID-19 crisis exposed the startling dependence of the US on China for many basic medical goods and drugs, according to one poll most US businesses with operations in China plan to keep them there.  What is good for American business is no longer necessarily good for America, and vice versa.  

The concentration of cultural power

In modern societies, cultural power is influenced by the mass media, universities, and the educational system. In the twenty-first century United States, the major cultural institutions have been captured by ideologues who are hostile to the traditional patriotism and religious values shared by much of the working-class majority of all races.

What has been called ‘the great Awokening’ is America’s version of the destructive Cultural Revolution that took place in Mao’s China in the 1960s. In each case, an elite faction sought to purge dissidents while altering the nation’s iconography and artistic traditions to align them with ideological goals.

In the US, what began with the entirely defensible removal of Confederate statues from public squares has escalated into an attack on symbols of the American past, from Christopher Columbus to Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. The public rationale for campaigns of woke iconoclasm is provided by antiracism and antisexism. But they are really exercises of raw power by activists who want to rewrite national history to support their own causes.

The toppling of statues has been accompanied by the targeting of reputations. In today’s woke witch-hunts, the merest accusation of sexism, racism, or other bigotries can lead risk-averse employers to fire the accused, without due process and with no redress. The purges of deviants from woke ideology in prestige media like the New York Times and major universities is creating a new national elite orthodoxy that is lacking in intellectual diversity, however demographically diverse the new elite may be. America’s college-educated ruling class is creating its own dialect to distinguish its members from the high-school-educated working class majority – ‘LatinX’ for Hispanic or Latino (a term rejected by most Americans of Latin American descent), ‘birthing parent’ for mother, ‘enslaved person’ for slave, and ‘undocumented person’ for illegal or unauthorised immigrant.

Inevitably this increasing consolidation of political, economic and cultural power in America’s new national oligarchy, consisting of highly-credentialed individuals clustered in a small number of major cities like Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, has inspired frustration and bitterness on the part of the majority of Americans of all races, native and immigrant, whose educations end with high school or some vocational training. They find themselves with no real political power, other than a possibly ineffectual vote every few years, and lack bargaining power or rights in their non-unionised workplaces. Many find that their values are not reflected either in commercial mass media or in the ‘woke’ subculture that is being diffused from elite universities through the media and the world of business.

American presidents and presidential candidates themselves have often failed to hide their contempt for many non-elite Americans. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama patronisingly attributed the concerns of millions of voters about policy issues to personal pathology, saying ‘it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’ During his presidential campaign in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney told a group of donors that ‘47 percent of the people’ were ‘dependent upon government… believe they are victims… believe the government has a responsibility to care for them… these are people who pay no income tax.’  In 2016 Hillary Clinton inadvertently hurt her own presidential campaign by describing a quarter of American voters as a ‘basket of deplorables.’ For his part, after some of his followers ransacked the US Capitol on 6 January, President Donald Trump is reported to have complained to aides that they were ‘low class’.

Democracy can only work in a country if power in that country is diffused and divided. If, as in the proverbial Central American ‘banana republic’, a small number of families own most of the land and business sector and the media, then formally free and fair elections might result merely in an alternation of power among cousins and in-laws who belong to the same oligarchy. If this statement seems hyperbolic, consider that in 2015, before the startling rise of Trump and Sanders in the polls, many political observers expected that the 2016 presidential race would pit Hillary Clinton, the wife of a recent US president against a candidate, Jeb Bush, who was the brother of one recent president and the son of another. Stalin spoke of ‘socialism in one country’. American politics has become so nepotistic that it seemed possible a few years ago that the US would have democracy in the form of  two families – Bushes and Clintons – alternating in power.

If American democracy suffered from purely formal institutional problems, those could be fixed in a straightforward way. New states like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and Guam could be added to balance the Republican tilt of the electoral college and the Senate, for example. The number of Justices on the Supreme Court could be expanded. 

But there are no quick and easy legislative fixes for the social problems afflicting America – in particular, for the growing class divide between the college-educated managerial-professional overclass in both parties, and the high-school-educated working class of both parties. The 2020 elections showed that the class divide is growing while the racial divide is weakening. Notwithstanding the narrative that Trump voters are all white nationalists, Biden and the Democrats won control of the government thanks to white voters, many of them affluent and educated former Republicans fleeing Trump’s party. Although most nonwhite voters supported Democratic candidates, a startling number of Hispanic, Asian-American and Black voters dumped the Democrats for Republican candidates across the country.

The situation is not hopeless. A century ago in the 1920s, the US suffered from similar problems: an extreme concentration of wealth, powerless workers, bitter racial, ethnic and religious divisions. Ultimately in the next generation social peace and national unity were obtained under Roosevelt Democrats and Eisenhower Republicans. Workers gained power through unions and collective bargaining. Suffering family farmers shared the wealth of industrial America through farm programmes and farm lobbies. Poor immigrants and their descendants joined the mainstream through education and home ownership. Responsible and visionary leaders in both parties, working with leaders in labour and civil society, turned former outsiders into insiders – at least for a few decades.

American democracy, for all its flaws, is working better than American society as a whole. With proper leadership from above and below, American democracy can help fix America’s broken society.

Michael Lind

Michael Lind is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is 'The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite'.

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