Liberal Democracy is Under Attack

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Steve SwayneFile:O Partenon de Atenas.jpg, originally posted to Flickr as The Parthenon Athens

April 15, 2019 (Analysis) Liberal Democracy is under attack. This is not just happening in the United States. Nor is this limited to the American president. We can speak of this phenomena in countries as diverse as Brazil, the United Kingdom, Israel, and yes, Mexico. There are good reasons why we are at this historic moment. This is one pregnant with danger for democracy and our collective future. The last time the West adopted far right (and left) ideologies, it faced the greatest test of that generation. A global war is one that could involve nuclear weapons. That was the last good war, world war two.

Out of that global disaster, institutions emerged to try to avoid the rise of extremism. These institutions have created new ways}of dealing with international affairs They have given us a way to understand and accept the world as is, and maintain the peace, for the most part. Whether this was the North American Treaty Organization or the United Nations, they meant to help people improve their lives or be safe from an attack from another form of extremism. This was the Soviet system, which came out of similar economic and social forces like fascism.

We are living through a similar historic moment. Extremism is taking hold due to the desperation of working class people suffering from a deep-seated fear that others will replace them in society and for jobs. They are not alone. Middle class and even upper-middle-class Americans are also embracing some of these radical views. Why? Salaries are stagnant. Services they need are outpacing inflation, such as college and medical care. And even their jobs are not safe. They are next in the automatization frontier. They know the robots are coming, and even doctors and accountants are at risk of replacement. We know the media itself is facing this fate as well. China is already experimenting with a robotic news anchor, as in a virtual entity.

In an age of distrust of the media, anchors made to order will not think, and will not question. These are ideal news readers for states who want full control of the media. We will face this test ourselves soon enough.

There is a deep malaise sine we are facing a series of crisis that threatens life as we know it. While change is inevitable, we seem to be facing this with fear, and not hope. Partly because we have built an underlying economic system where conspicuous consumption is the order of the day. Americans know that their children are destined to have the worst economic life than they did. The promise of the American dream is over.

This is not limited to the United States. Whether it is Russian President Vladimir Putin or Brexiteers, we are facing the rise of toxic nationalism and fascism. Some of the old ways of understanding the world as nation-states against each other are back. These include theories of race, such as White Supremacy, as well as theories of economics and social evolution. The idea that we are all in this together is rapidly giving way to something different that is very toxic and turns people against each other.

American society has become a caste system, with very little upper mobility, for all intents and purposes. This is increasing the tension since the American myth speaks of a fair society with opportunities for all. We have feedback loops that prevent the poor and middle classes from getting wealthier and ensure the extremely wealthy remain even more so. These loops start with banking and housing. While red-lining is forbidden by law, we effectively have it. It’s done in a different way than the old property covenants where people were forbidden outright from buying a property. For example, you could find these prohibitions in La Jolla, CA back in the 1950s and 60s. You could not sell to Jews, Blacks or Irish. It was right there in the deed.

These days this is enforced by other means. For example, trying to get a loan to open a business in certain areas of town, or buy property, is difficult if not impossible. So accumulating wealth for people of color, or who live in certain zip codes is difficult at best. This is not accidental. It is done to prevent some groups from gaining any economic, or political, power. The people who represent them in elected bodies, tend to have less of a voice because they represent the poor who cannot afford to donate large amounts of money to these politicians. Ergo, their voices are diminished, even if they should not in theory.

The rate of foreclosures is also higher in communities of color. And there are other issues, as the National Fair Housing Organization noted in a white paper.

There are other loops that come with politics. Running for seats anywhere from city council on up is not cheap and corporations donate to them. While pay to play is illegal, they owe favors. And corporations and wealthy people know that the capture of government bodies has a very high return on investment. So many times these legislators vote for legislation that goes against the interest of the people they represent.

The next feedback loop is schools. We pay for our schools using property taxes. The inner city, which has not been red-lined in theory, has a lesser tax base than the white suburbs where the poor and lower working class cannot afford a property. Ergo, these inner city schools are less well funded. While some teachers do yeoman’s work, and we hear from them in Hollywood productions, generally speaking, these schools are substandard. It is no coincidence that these school districts have higher drop out rates, and lesser rates of college attendance. Given that college is essential for good jobs these days, and the differential over a lifetime of earnings is over a million dollars it’s easy to see how this feedback loop works. With the movement to privatize education through charter schools, this loop is harder to break. Some charters are better than the average school, especially in inner city school districts. In general, charters are not better but take money away from public schools, where it is already at a premium. In many cases, they are far worst. No Child Left Behind did not help either, and has punished many inner city schools trapped in feedback loops where failure presupposes less funding and more failure.

We have also moved a lot of the good paying union jobs out of the inner cities of places like Detroit. It’s not only through the export of jobs to cheaper labor markets, but also with automatization. However, the American working class has been trained to hate both foreign markets and immigrants. People rarely speak of the rise of the robots, that will kill millions of good paying jobs in the United States, as well as a large percentage of the service economy former factory workers rely on. For example, when self-driving vehicles come, it’s expected to remove millions of jobs from commercial driving. The same is expected to happen with logistics and Walmart is already experimenting with this. One place you can see this is at the checkout counter, and with the early experimentation in fully automated stores. Early adopters will make millions, if not billions. Unless we adopt policies that allow people to get money somehow, in a greatly reduced economy, we will hit a wall. Our economy relies on consumption, starving people cannot do that.

Mass Incarceration

This is a particularly nasty method to keep our caste society going. It also has made some people insanely rich, and they need bodies to occupy those beds in private prisons. Why prison reform is so difficult to do. Having people not commit crimes is bad for business. And as a society, we are in the process of criminalizing behavior that used not to be criminal. It’s a business after all. But it is also a tool of social control.

Some of the behavior that has been criminalized is common among people who are employed precariously. Meaning lowly educated workers, who mostly get day jobs. Loitering Is something people get fined for. Those fines can rarely be paid up in full which starts a cycle of fines to pay for the previous fines, trapping people in a nasty cycle. In some places, we have debtor prisons. Yes, it is not legal, but that does not mean it does not happen. Like red-lining it happens right under the noses of people who should know better but have an interest in keeping this going. One reason for Fergusson was precisely the habit of police of fining people for the most minor of offenses. It was a way for the city to meet its budget. Police also enforce the laws far harsher among the working poor than the rich. This is why we have such a terrible inequality in sentences rendered by judges, and the war on drugs became a tool of suppression.

This did not stop after the fall of Nixon with Watergate. The War on Drugs took on its own logic and has continued to the present. Bill Clinton made it far worst than even Nixon ever did. It affects people of color the most, with sentences that at times include life for relatively minor non-violent offenses. In the meantime, white collar criminals who are white and well connected, get away with a lot more, get lesser sentences, and their crimes affect far more people.

These sentencing inequalities are far from accidental They were designed to keep a group of people from gaining power or wealth. After all, many states do not allow people to vote after they paid their debt to society. Voters in Florida voted to restore voting rights, and the Florida legislature is slow walking the process.

If all these newly enfranchised citizens voted, they will shift the balance of power in the state. Hence, the white Republican majority is resisting the effort. It is not just about political power, but also about maintaining the social order. This degraded quite a bit after the civil rights movement era, and it has been a fight to restore this.

This is also an attack on democracy, because denying the franchise to people is also not liking democracy, or at least the type where more people have access to the ballot. And since the disparity between whites and people of color is so wide, white middle-class voters generally speaking don’t care. Florida voters were a very nice surprise.

Lack of Trust in Democracy

We have seen a rise of something else. This is a lack of trust in democracy itself.

This is dangerous and it allows for the further radicalization of people and the type of politics where close elections are the norm. This process is also well understood, as well as the rise of strongman and the grievance politics they bring with them. Think back to the election of Donald Trump and how he keeps speaking of groups that have little real power in the United States. This is the language of us v them and is the purpose of his politics. It is easier to blame Muslims, Blacks and Mexicans for the job flight in the midwest, and the mythical rise in crime rates. It is about fear. We still have the lowest crime rates in a generation but you would not know it from both our politicians and our news networks. They love the murder of the week, because they can take it national and create an illusion of crime This is doubly so if the perpetrator is from any of the designated groups that are on the outside, blacks, Mexicans and Muslims.

If you have noticed, an attack on a synagogue, is committed by an individual, and his allegiance to the extreme ideology of white supremacy mostly did not enter news coverage. However, to this day, we are reminded that the attacks of 911 were done by Muslims. Oh never mind most were Saudis, who the current administration goes out of its way to protect. There are strategic reasons for that, which is why previous administrations did as well.

However, this is not a coincidence either. Identified outsider groups in any society are far more easily labeled and portrayed as the other than the majority group. However, as our politics become far more extreme, so will our internal terrorism, which will reinforce the need for a strong man. Why you will hear the language of law and order far more often, even among those running against Donald Trump in 2020.

And as the effects of global warming become more obvious, that will also reinforce many of the loops. Why? We want it to be solved, but it is far easier to embrace the strong man than to embrace science since our education is substandard, to begin with. And we have seen the dangerous rise of anti-intellectualism and hate of elites. We live in dangerous times when the very fabric of liberal democratic institutions, ranging from education to media, to democracy itself are under attack. We have survived this in the past, but nothing assures us that we will survive the future.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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