The Demise of Democracy

Stephen H. Unger
September 11, 2018

The ugly side of American history features the genocidal assault on the American Indian, slavery, and aggression against many countries, starting with Mexico, progressing to Spain, other countries in the Americas, North Korea, Indochina, and, more recently, our "War Against Terror", targeting Middle East countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. One of our closest allies is Saudi Arabia, the world's least democratic nation.

What is a Democracy?

The usual definition of a democracy is a country in which political power is in the hands of the people. It is usually assumed, tho seldom spelled out, that all citizens have equal power, i.e., one person--one vote. But this definition is inadequate. Even if every citizen has exactly one vote, it does not follow that all citizens have the same political power. A person able to spend $100 million on an election certainly has vastly more political power than someone able to spend only $100. As an example of the extent of economic inequality in the US, consider that the wealth of the Walton family (owners of the Walmart chain) exceeds the total wealth of the least wealthy 130 million Americans. [1]

Substantial economic inequality greatly weakens democracy, and, an undemocratic system amplifies economic inequality. The US in 2018, in which 585 people have assets exceeding a billion dollars each, is not really a democracy [2]. The US is now the least egalitarian of the Western democracies--to the point where one could reasonably question whether it is really a democracy.

The media

In dictatorships of the past, such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco Spain, Communist China, Imperial Japan, Czarist Russia, and the Soviet Union, the media were under the direct control of the government. The media in the US are not controlled by the government. Free speech and freedom of the press is greater in the US than in any other country, but ordinary people do not have the means to exercise this freedom to any significant extent. The media are owned and controlled by the rich, who use it as a tool for controlling the government.

Political dominance by the rich is attained via the use of money in a variety of ways. Clearly, ownership of the media (e.g., TV networks and newspapers) is a major factor. But there are additional ways in which wealth translates into power. These include control of political parties, direct payments to organizations for influencing the population, and direct payments to individuals for taking positions favoring the rich. Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision eliminated nearly all restrictions on campaign contributions, control of elections by the rich has increased further.

The role of education

Life for ordinary Americans has been deteriorating for many years. Consider the experience of my father, who, at the age of 7, was brought here from Poland in 1905. Tho not able to speak English, he was plunged into the NYC public school system. Nevertheless, his experience there was such that, for his whole life he remembered, with gratitude, and talked about, many of his teachers. He attended the High School of Commerce, then considered one of the elite high schools, where the quality of the education he received was such that, after graduation, while attending (at no charge) evening classes at CCNY (the City College of NY), and working for an accountant for less than a year, he was able to pass the state exams required to become a certified public accountant. A generation later, the High School of Commerce had deteriorated to become a third rate school, and CCNY was no longer tuition-free.

The education situation deteriorated further. I obtained a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn Polytech while living at home and paying most of the tuition via a NY State Regents scholarship. I then went to MIT with a full tuition scholarship, and then a research assistantship, receiving a masters degree and then a doctorate. As a result of the assistantship and having had summer jobs (GE, Bell labs, and IBM), rather than being in debt, I had money in the bank by the end of my formal education.

A young person today would find it almost impossible to duplicate this experience. In real dollars, college tuition has increased by a factor just under 5. (MIT tuition today is $24,790 per semester. In 1956 it was $550. The inflation rate from 1956 to 2018 is 9.26. So, after taking the inflation into account, MIT tuition in real dollars has increased by a factor of 24790/[9.26 x 550] = 4.867). This is why it is common for graduating students today to be in debt to the extent of tens of thousands of dollars.

Public schools

Unlike public schools in Western European countries, which are funded nationally, American public schools are generally funded by local taxes. So schools in poor neighborhoods are almost always inferior. E.g., Patterson, NJ public schools are clearly inferior to schools in Ridgewood, NJ. Furthermore, children from wealthy families are usually sent to private schools. A consequence of this is that wealthy people generally oppose higher taxes to fund public schools.

The medical industry

A major financial problem today for many Americans involves medication. It is relatively easy for a tennis player to determine whether a particular brand of tennis ball is a good buy. So tennis ball manufacturers have every incentive to produce a good product that can be sold at a reasonable price.

Unfortunately, that is not the case for pharmaceutical products. Even physicians often have difficulty in determining whether a new medication is effective and safe. So pharmaceutical companies are generally able to maximize their profits by marketing ineffective, sometimes dangerous, products at exorbitant prices [3].

Threat of violence

An inherent characteristic of our free enterprise economic system is that it is unstable--there are booms and busts. There are reasons to believe that this system may be headed, in the not distant future, for a particularly severe crash that will badly hurt the great majority of the population. This could lead to violent behavior by large numbers of people, which would provoke an even more violent response from the government, likely including a major loss of civil liberties. A strong non-violent response, on the other hand, along the lines associated with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, tho unlikely to occur, conceivably could turn things around.

Another possible solution

Getting decent people elected to office is an almost impossible task due to the ever growing importance of money in our corrupt political system. A good argument can be made that we would be are better off under a sortition system, whereby legislators are chosen by lot [4]. The case for sortition is based on the idea that the great majority of people are reasonably honest and decent, whereas most of those successful in the political arena tend to be corrupt. Sortition might be tried out initially in one or more small cities. Then, if successful, in larger cities, or in some states.


[1] Nicholas Fitz, "Economic Inequality: It's Far Worse Than You Think", Scientific American, March 31, 2015

[2] Luisa Kroll, Kerry Dolan, "Meet The Members Of The Three-Comma Club", Forbes, Mar 6, 2018

[3] Stephen H. Unger, "How Pharmaceutical Products Differ From Tennis Balls", Ends and Means, July 2, 2014

[4] Stephen H. Unger, "Sortition: Government by Jury ", Ends and Means, May, 23, 2018

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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