Our democracy is slipping away and only the people can assure its future. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a social political philosopher wrote “The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom”. Some on the political right dismiss Schlesinger as too far left to add any value to the discussion of the politics of freedom. This is exactly the point Schlesinger addresses: freedom cannot exist without conflict and conflict leads us towards the middle which allows us to progress as a nation. Rather than dismissing other political or social views, we must understand them and personally embrace our responsibility to ensure freedom for all. Without conflict in society, we are destined to become a totalitarian government — this is as true today as it has been throughout our history. As Schlesinger states:
So long as society stays free, so long will it continue in its state of tension, breeding contradiction, breeding strife. But we betray ourselves if we accept contradiction and strife as the total meaning of conflict. For conflict is also the guarantee of freedom; it is the instrument of change; it is, above all, the source of discovery, the source of art…the source of love. The choice we face is not between progress with conflict and progress without conflict. The choice is between conflict and stagnation. You cannot expel conflict from society any more than you can from the human mind. When you attempt it, the psychic cost in schizophrenia or torpor are the same.
What lies between democracy and totalitarianism is capitalism. As a nation, we focus on how to produce the most at the “lowest cost” which does not consider the impact on labor, the environment, or long-term outcomes of production or consumption. As individuals, we judge ourselves by our employment status, power, and earnings compared to others.
We raise our children to desire the highest education possible so they can obtain the best jobs that offer the most income while disregarding the personal or financial costs of investing in this education or achieving this economic status. For those who cannot afford or achieve the advancement of education, society says “there is always vocational school” or a rote productivity job. After all, capitalism cannot survive if everyone is primed for the corner office.
Capitalism is considered by many to be the backbone of our freedom. Therefore, everything is invested in capitalism. Free market advocates say public good should be privatized and profitable, including education. Higher education tuition should be priced so that the privileged can attend and graduate with minimal debt and those who do not share in that privilege should lower their expectations or pay off their educational debt for years in their adult life. Capitalism depends on this educational and class divide.
Libertarians consider themselves to be the stalwarts of freedom…free everything and everyone for themselves. But is this really freedom? The bulwark of this freedom is no regulation of anything, including totally free markets where only the fittest survive (producers and consumers). However, there is a cost to this total freedom — if free markets really worked, industrialism would only be made of monopolies. This was a fear early in our country and why Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Monopoly Bill in 1890. The fear of the government by some was based on too much power in the hands of too few. Ultimately, the Sherman bill did not prevent future monopolies in the communications, banking, and oil industries among other industries.
Are monopolies bad? Monopolies use capitalism to suppress freedom. With no competition, these companies control the marketplace including production quality, levels, distribution, and labor. There is little incentive to innovate. Lower quality products produce higher profits that are paid for by both the consumer and the worker.
So, is capitalism bad? Capitalism is critical to our democracy. It provides products and jobs that a society needs to prosper and grow. But like our democracy, if it is not regulated with rules, distribution of power, and checks and balances — it becomes a similar form of totalitarianism in society. When we give industry the power to influence our government and elections, government becomes even more biased against the consumer — or simply put, every American.
On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United. V. Federal Election Commission reversed a century old campaign finance restriction enabling corporations and outside groups to invest unlimited funds into political elections. This “dark money” has led to corporations controlling the candidates, messaging, and elections in a republic that was built on the founding concept of a government for the people.
Companies now have more rights than individuals in our society by setting the conditions of our economy, labor market, social goods, the environment, and our politics. While many on the right applaud this decision — believing industry knows more than individuals, we have essentially given up our democracy by the people to a totalitarianism of industry and the top 1% earners.
Our country is almost as divided as before the Civil War, and some believe a civil war is needed to resolve our differences. This is because we have lost our individual voices and our ability to have civil discourse on our differences. The United States greatest asset is the diversity of our population — not just ethnically, but culturally, socially, and politically. We are quick to dismiss, criticize, judge, humiliate, and even threaten others with different views. Our society has become a bubbling lava that is burning all that makes a democracy strong.
There is no one political view that is all-knowing or best for our country’s future. Instead of attacking our co-Americans, we should be providing opportunities for those who have felt ignored…or the majority of the country. Whether young or old, middle class or poor, farmer or small businessperson, religious or agnostic, white or non-white, educated or uneducated, rural or urban…you may believe your voice has not been heard and you are probably right. Rather than turning on each other, we should be looking at who and how our voices our being stifled. Our political picture includes signs of a developing totalitarianism government including dark money, banning basic human and civil rights, and restricting education curriculum and access.
Our nation’s fight is for our democracy which should recognize individuals over corporations. Industry benefits when we fight amongst ourselves. It reinforces the social and class divide that benefits stockholders. This division results in followers rather than leaders that blame individuals and groups rather than industry. This approach breakdowns our democracy and kicks the door wide open for totalitarianism. We must find ways to unite ourselves to save our democracy. It starts with your vote.
Schlesinger, A.M.,The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. United Kingdom: Transaction Publishers, (1998).