Perspectives: Plutocracy, Oligarchy, Demagoguery: America Abandons its Democracy


Age of Folly: America Abandons its Democracy by Lewis H. Lapham, Verso, London/New York, 2016 ($29.95)

 What Kind of Creatures are We? by Noam Chomsky, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016 (Chapter 3: What is the common good?)

 Early in the new republic George Washington warned against extreme domestic factionalism and foreign entanglements, seeing them as dangers to domestic tranquility and good government. In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower, in his “farewell address” cautioned against the rising corporate “military-industrial complex” and the new “scientific-technological elite” that were rapidly assuming control over public policy on many fronts. And in his farewell address in Chicago, outgoing president Barack Obama gave the American people a new take on trends against democracy. In the background, shadowing everything happening today, is the rise of a tide of elitism, factionalism and foreign entanglements that no longer threatens tranquility, but is actually causing widespread distaste with government and the rise of a new populism devoted to racism, xenophobia, division, rancor and the kind of extreme partisanship that sees Mitch McConnell devoting his entire effort to seeing an administration fail, a party that saw then its duty to obstruct and nullify, and a corporate power structure firmly in control of the levers of power, not to mention a society bereft of economic justice and beset buy racial division.

President Obama, in Chicago, placed the blame partly on ourselves: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life,” he said. And further, “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

One can hear this as a call to political arms, against Trumpism, against economic inequality, and against apathy and name-calling. But Obama did not quote from Washington’s most relevant passage: Washington said in farewell, “It (demagoguery) agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally a riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.”  Now that we have a demagogue in the White House, we should all heed these words of George Washington’s.

It is worth keeping in mind that America never had much of a democracy from the beginning. The “Founding Fathers” were “much concerned about the hazards of democracy,” according to Noam Chomsky, in his new book “What Kind of Creatures are We?” In the Constitutional debates, much was made of the history of the English experience with democracy, a history replete with Civil War and acrimony. James Madison warned, “In England at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place, undermining the right to property.” It was the primary duty of an oligarchic government to protect the “minority of the opulent against the majority.” The threat to democracy was dire because of demographics. Because, “the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings,” there was a leveling spirit that ought to be protected by suffrage laws and other gateways. Madison was clear that the Senate, the main seat of power in the government, “ought to come from and represent the wealth of the nation” and “ the more capable sett of men”, not to mention other constraints on democracy—like an Electoral College and voting restrictions. Leaders too should be drawn from the opulent minority, thus making it possible to “secure the rights of property agst. the danger from an equality of universality of suffrage, vesting complete power over property in hands without a share in it.” As late as 1829 Madison observed, “without property, or the hope of acquiring it, (they) cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights, to be safe depositories of power over them.”

To be fair, Chomsky notes that Madison and the other “fathers” were actually men of honor who considered themselves “benevolent philosophers”, men of intelligence, patriotism, property and independent circumstances” and in holding office would constitute a chosen body of citizens who may best discern the interests of their country and thus “refine” and “enlarge” the public views guarding the “public interest against the “mischiefs of the democratic majorities.” Chomsky notes that Aristotle faced the same conundrum in ancient Greece—what to do about the rabble? In Aristotle’s case, he decided it best to reduce inequality, whereas Madison and the “fathers” opted to reduce democracy in favor of oligarchy. Like Aristotle, Jefferson contemplated the fate of democracy. Interests were divided, he noted, between “aristocrats and democrats”. It was the aristocrats who feared and distrusted the people and wished to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes. “The democrats, in contrast,” he said, “identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the honest and safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interest.”

In Chomsky’s view, the struggle of American democracy against oligarchy was almost a doomed struggle. Technocrats, elites of all kinds, aristocrats entrenched in power, a military-industrial complex able to lobby at will and to elect puppets, each served to entrench the upper classes who distrust, manipulate, and trample the people. For Chomsky, the alternative is what he calls “libertarian anarchism”, a particularly flavorful variety of syndicalism—free individuals organizing their own communities and establishing their own local rules.


Every American should read Lewis Lapham’s new book “Age of Folly: America Abandons its Democracy.”

Lapham, long-time editor of “Harper’s Magazine” and the founding Editor of “Lapham’s Quarterly”, makes a trenchant case that America’s democracy, long in decline, has finally reached a bottom with the emergence of Donald Trump, whose “smug and gloating face is the face of the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter century.” The essays in this book are collected from the period 1990-2015, a period of desultory despair for democrats who look to an informed electorate, enlightened politicians, vibrant civic institutions, a failing shrinking press and a sniveling profit-mad media, common sense and morality; and cultural progressivism to ensure that the “people” are served above the interests of the wealthy and privileged. Lapham adheres to the view that history must serve as a guide to the present and that those ignorant of its lessons are doomed; he adheres to the view that our schools, churches, unions, bowling leagues and city councils should be educational melting pots for virtue; he adheres to the view that the rich are dangerous in council with corporate and financial power; he adheres to the view that we the people are the guarantors of our own independence.

The overview given by Lapham in the preface: “Over the course of twenty five years form point A to point B, America changes regimes; a weakened but still operational democracy gives way to stupefied, dysfunctional plutocracy.” The causes of this change of regimes are many: Stupefied voters, the power of money to influence elections, constant warfare, prideful ignorance of truth, a powerless media (including the death of real journalism), ghostlike enemies seeding baseless fears, nationalism, militarism, racism, a loss of national memory. Lapham points to many follies: the “Defense Strategy for the 1990’s”, appointing America the chief keeper of World Peace; the smug Washington Consensus; Bill and Hillary Clinton—Bill’s stupendous abandonment of working people and Hillary’s “remorseless selfishness”; a “Right Wing” full of loathing and pride. Pretty soon history gets lost and the old virtues die as a New Rome emerges, bathed in falsehoods that are pretty and useless. “Individuals deprived of memory lose track of where they’ve been or where they might be going; a nation denied knowledge of its past cannot make sense of its present or imagine its future.”

Surrounded by imaginary enemies, America is now controlled by shadow plutocrats fronting for a deranged and deluded demagogue. The rollcall of our troubles can be heard on every morning show in the land. Lapham views the world of now from the lens of the end of World War II, when John Foster Dulles, American Secretary of State, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian, both served on the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace. Dulles dived the world between the forces of good and evil, the threat to America “headquartered in Moscow’s onion-domed towers of hideous strength.” According to Lapham’s view, Niebuhr was more clear-sighted and better informed.

Niebuhr believed, “If we should perish (this is 1952, mind you), the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

We Americans are now strangled by hatred and vainglory.