The Economy Affects Democracy


A high degree vindictiveness runs through political discourse today and I think it is a direct outcome of our stalled economy and declining prospects for a stronger future.  Democracy doesn’t do so well when the base of economic progress and opportunity shrinks.

And the problem isn’t blameless.

Today we have an economic plutocracy controlling political discourse that favors its already established and successful interests.  Those fortunate to be in positions of opportunity — which increasingly is a privilege for the few — or simply hold access to power through wealth and connections have gained substantial economic benefit in recent decades, even in the short “post-recession” years.

Government economic policy has been reformed to align with the existing power and wealth interests of the status quo.  Therefore it should not be surprising that political choices which would shake up those policies and raise economic growth for the majority is not a priority of the already well-established and powerful few.

In America today, wealth literally buys a voice in our democracy.  The Supreme Court saw to it that money speaks louder than people. and increasingly our political discourse isn’t about helping people, it is about helping business, free enterprise, and a mythical group called “job creators.”  Conservatives and liberals alike kneel before the altar of free market principles as if it — and not the people who live and work and vote — represent their constituency.

1_worlds-highestThe result is a depression of political consciousness and the destruction of national community.

In the short run, anyone in roughly the top fifth of income earners might benefit from the policies catering to the very wealthiest and so people in that group might go on supporting those policies.   But in the long run, protecting the interests of  the few over the interests of all, is a short-sighted allegiance that will bear bitter fruit.

Policies that benefit the few come at the cost of our global competitive advantage.  What made the United States strong was its progressive access to opportunity and a shared benefit from economic growth.  These advantages supported the greatest advantage of all:  A strong and engaged democracy.  But as the United States becomes more economically divided, it becomes more divided in the ideological realm as well.  Democracy falls victim to this kind of divide.

Recession in Extended AD AS ModelI believe economics and politics are directly connected and social progress evolves out of a connection that serves the most citizens fairly and objectively.  When you look at the world’s democracies, the don’t emerge from economies plagued by chronic poverty and inequality, they emerge from prosperity.  I think we can draw the conclusion, therefore, that the rise of incivility, the failure to govern, and an overall decline in American social well-being and prosperity that we see today is at least in part an outcome of a society that is increasingly an economically divided and for many a less prosperous society.

There will always be differences in wealth and achievement.  In fact, we celebrate wealth and achievement in this country perhaps like no other.  So it is important to understand that fairness is not about condemning success but it should be about maintaining rules and systems that truly do reflect shared obligations as well as opportunities.

Today, much like we experienced in our country’s history a century ago, the very fortunate have an unbalanced political and economic advantage through the sheer wealth they have amassed and the power it accrues.  It allows them to maintain a system which is out of balance with the economic realities faced by most Americans.  This is the threat to civil society and democracy that threatens from the shadows of our economic crisis.

The free market respects growth and profits, but not necessarily social well-being, equality, or even democracy.  These are values that arise from convictions of people, not the incentives of free enterprise.

peasants-for-plutocracy-by-michael-dal-cerro2As standards of living stall or decline, as the outlook for a better future becomes less promising, and as we become less willing to invest in our common good, social and political decline will grow worse, not better.  This is the risk that we face today.

So what is the solution?  A more sophisticated, better-informed voter, one who understands his or her best interests.  But greater equality and shared prosperity in economic growth is likely the seed to engage the voter’s interest in the first place.  One serves the other.

In the end, this is a very troubling chicken or egg dilemma that requires informed leadership to reset priorities and it is the responsibility of the people to elect those leaders.

It is a mess.


One thought on “The Economy Affects Democracy

  1. Gary Farland

    This is good commentary on the separation now occuring in our society. But I think what separates liberals from real leftists is that the latter sees a conscious conspiracy on the part of the economic powerful to gain international wealth and power by converting the USA into a military base of soldiers and servants. Very similar to the Roman Empire and the Third Reich.


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