THE BIGGEST THREAT to democracy in the United States today
is economic prosperity.
That observation isn’t motivated by a desire to see people
suffer, but rather is a challenge to the celebration of a certain kind of
prosperity, distributed in a certain fashion, in the service of certain kinds of
institutions, in which it turns out lots of people don’t do so well after all.
In a real democracy, one would expect economic growth and
prosperity steadily to shrink the gap between rich and poor so that eventually
political equality is mirrored in a rough kind of economic equality that can
give people the space and security to maximize use of their freedoms.
In a real democracy, one would expect the workplaces within
which people spend a third of their day to be participatory and, well,
Neither is the case in the contemporary United States,
which means democracy is in trouble.
From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the average income
of the lowest-income families grew by less than 1 percent, while that of
middle-income families grew by less than 2 percent. But for high-income
families, the growth was 15 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau
data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy
One of the economists who helped write that report calls
the unequal distribution of wealth from the recent prosperity "our nation’s most
serious economic problem," pointing to evidence that societies with higher
levels of inequality grow more slowly. Our government’s only response has been
to push massive tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich.
The economy that produces the grotesque level of inequality
is dominated by huge corporations that internally are structured like
tyrannies-power concentrated at the top, hierarchal management systems, and no
freedom for employees at the bottom, except the "freedom" to leave to find a job
in some equally tyrannical competitor.
People, even those who often are loyal to corporations for
which they work, have few illusions about this, which is why a Business Week
poll last summer found that three-quarters of people agreed that "business has
gained too much power over too many aspects of American life." Apologists for
the corporations argue that the rich-getting-richer should be of no concern, so
long as the economy continues to grow and the poor-aren’t-getting-poorer. The
rich are doing their job, this argument goes, by creating a dynamic economy that
will, in the end, help everyone.
That’s a story that’s been peddled to working people and
the poor for a long time and is no more compelling today than it ever was to
folks at the bottom who are working longer hours to try to hold on to their
standard of living.
So, we have economic institutions built on anti-democratic
principles that produce inequalities that make democracy outside the workplace
There is no denying that this economic system is very good
at producing vast numbers of products. There’s also no denying that it is not
very good at producing free and fulfilled human beings. Work is, for most
people, something to be endured, not a site for individual development or the
enhancement of communities.
Though the overtly corporate-hugging Republicans and the
pseudo-populist corporate-hugging Democrats sometimes engage in rhetorical
clashes, neither is willing to speak to a simple question: How can we have a
meaningful democracy at home, or promote democracy abroad, if we live most of
our lives under the thumbs of authoritarian institutions that concentrate wealth
and power in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many? Working people
at the end of the last century understood this as they fought what turned out to
be a losing battle to stem the emerging power of large corporations. A century
later, the basic struggle to democratize America is no different.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of
Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other writings are available online at