Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

America’s Version of Capitalism Is Incompatible With Democracy

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Eric Levitz has a very interesting column in New York:

American democracy is unwell; on this much, President Trump’s detractors can agree.

But when they turn to the tasks of identifying our republic’s symptoms, naming its illness, and writing a prescription, different factions of “the resistance” produce divergent diagnoses.

One group — comprised of comparative politics scholars, liberal pundits, and NeverTrump conservatives — have their eyes fixed on Donald Trump. They see the moral cowardice of a Republican elite that declined to deny an illiberal demagogue their nomination, or to abandon him in the general election, or to let the investigation into his campaign proceed unimpeded. They observe a president who relentlessly assails the independence of federal law enforcement, the legitimacy of adversarial media, and the veracity of official election results — and a conservative base that takes his lies to be self-evident. And, pulsing beneath it all, they discern the rise of a hyperpartisanship that’s leading each party’s elected officials to eviscerate informal constraints on their authority — and each party’s voters, to believe that the other side has no legitimate claim to power.

In these complaints, the democracy movement (as my colleague Jonathan Chait has dubbed it) sees all the telltale signs of a bad case of norm-erosion. Democracies can’t live on laws alone; they also require adherence to certain informal rules that correct for the inevitable flaws in any Constitution’s design, and protect against the threat of charismatic leaders consolidating power. Thus, to heal our republic, and immunize it against future strains of the same virus,several liberal thinkers have called for the formation of bipartisan coalitions, united in defense of democratic norms and the rule of law. In their view, the threat that Trump poses is so grave and unique, ideologues on both sides of the aisle should now prioritize maintaining a rule-based order over winning policy battles, so as to safeguard their freedom to settle such disputes democratically in the future.

But there is a second opinion.

Several social democratic (and/or, democratic socialist) thinkers, examining the patient from a few steps to the democracy movement’s left, have had their eyes drawn to a different set of symptoms. They see state and federal legislators who routinely slash taxes on the wealthy, and services for the poor, in defiance of their constituents’ wishes; regulatory agencies that serve as training grounds for the firms they’re meant to police; a Supreme Court that’s forever expanding the rights of corporations, and restricting those of organized labor; a criminal-justice system that won’t prosecute bankers for laundering drug money, but will dole out life sentences to small-time crack dealers; a central bank that has the resources to bail out financial firms, but not the homeowners whom they exploit; a Pentagon that can wage multitrillion-dollar wars that exacerbate the very problems they were supposed to solve — and still get rewarded with a higher budget — even as the Housing Department asks the working poor to pay higher rent for worse accommodations; and, seething beneath all of these defects, disparities in the distribution of private wealth so vast and consequential, the nation’s super-rich have come to enjoy an average life expectancy 15 years longer than its poor.

In these grisly conditions, social democrats see a textbook case of malignant capitalism. Democracies cannot survive on norms alone. When markets are left under-regulated — and workers, unorganized — the corporate sector becomes a cancerous growth, expanding until it dominates politics and civil society. An ever-greater share of economic gains concentrates in ever-fewer hands, while the barriers to converting private wealth into public power grow fewer and farther between. Politicians become unresponsive to popular preferences and needs. Voters lose faith in elections — and then, a strongman steps forward to say that he, alone, can fix it.

All this contraindicates the democracy movement’s prescription: If our republic’s true sickness is its inegalitarian economic system, then that illness won’t be cured by cross-ideological coalitions. Quite the contrary: What’s needed is a movement that mobilizes working people in numbers large enough to demand a new deal from capital. Thus, if the liberal intelligentsia wishes to save American democracy, it should devote the lion’s share of its energies to brainstorming how such a movement can be brought into being — and what changes that movement should make to our nation’s political economy, once it takes power.

Why this argument matters.

It’s important not to exaggerate the division between “normcore” liberals and “radical” leftists. Jedediah Purdy, the Duke University law professor who wrote a much-discussed critique of the former, has condemned Trump’s (norm-defying) lies about voter fraud as a dire threat to “self-rule” in the United States. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose book How Democracies Die is the bible of the “normie” center, argue in that very text that “addressing economic inequality” could help inoculate America against future populist demagogues. Each side recognizes that both our economic system’s tendency to concentrate wealth at the top and Trump’s assault on democratic norms are serious problems; they just disagree about which of these represents the more fundamental threat to American democracy at the present moment.

But there are real stakes to that dispute. Beyond the aforementioned implications for how the anti-Trump opposition should be organized, the goal of preserving norms, and that of redistributing economic power, can — and, if Democrats ever regain power, will — come into conflict.

Let’s say Chuck Schumer becomes Senate Majority Leader next year. If restoring norms is the paramount objective, then . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2018 at 4:51 pm

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