Many US citizens take comfort in the conviction that progress toward democracy has been steady even if stalled or even periodically reversed. History is on our side. Early in the post Revolutionary period the right to vote was extended to all white men, even those who held no property. Women achieved the same privilege early in the twentieth century, and the Civil Rights movement of the sixties completed the work Reconstruction had left undone. The arc of the universe is long, but “it bends toward justice.” I would argue, however, that SCOTUS decisions like Citizens United challenge that easy faith. Nor are they aberrations within the fabric of a generally supportive culture and polity. Our citizens are facing a broad, multifaceted attack on democracy itself. Support for this attack on democracy is also bi- partisan in the sense that some members of both parties, albeit often quietly, support and benefit from this attack.
Confidence that there is no going back is hard to maintain in the face of political controversies today that in many ways replay issues of Reconstruction. To take just one example, the Fifteenth Amendment declares that the right to vote will not be abridged on the grounds of previous condition of servitude.
Radical as the Fifteenth Amendment may seem in the post Civil War context, it represented a compromise. Some representatives of northern states, where in many cases black males were not allowed to vote, did not want to force a change in their own political practices. They rejected a proposed amendment that would have granted the right to vote without regard to race, nativity, property, education, or religious belief. The version of the amendment as enacted says nothing about voter discrimination based on other criteria, such as literacy, or a poll tax.
In the years following Radical Reconstruction most Southern states had in effect availed themselves of the exclusionary practices not constitutionally sanctioned. Some northerners were unwilling to endorse or allow the level of federal intervention that would have been necessary to enforce truly egalitarian outcomes. Many northerners, for their part, turned their attention toward economic expansion in the west and toward industrial development. That development had encouraged and been facilitated by readings of the 14th amendment as granting corporations the status of personhood. Late 19th century decisions protecting the intangible and physical assets of corporate bodies helped encourage a process of corporate consolidation that many saw as a threat to democracy. (I am drawing on Eric Foner’s superb work on Reconstruction)
How did we get to this second Gilded Age and what lessons can we infer regarding our democratic prospects?
Fast forward from one Gilded Age to another. Citizens United, granting unions and corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates, is often regarded as a singularly dangerous challenge to our democratic norms, especially with its infamous assertion that money is speech. Less attention, however, is pad to the context in which this decision occurred, including corporate consolidation in most sectors of the economy, obscene levels of economic inequality, and near religious reverence for deregulated markets. Media consolidation itself has played an enormous role in driving up the cost of political campaigns. How did we get to this second Gilded Age and what lessons can we infer regarding our democratic prospects?
The post World War II decades saw white working class gains in income made possible by unionization, the GI bill, and a federal commitment to full employment. Positive as these gains were, they carried with them unintended consequences. Workers and employers, having less fear of depression, periodically drove wages and prices up. Bursts of inflation and an unprecedented profit squeeze led to unemployment even in the midst of inflation, an unprecedented and unexpected circumstance. Blacks had been left out of the full benefits of the New Deal welfare state and raised demands not only for political equality but also for economic opportunity, one of Reconstruction’s forgotten promises.
These events provided an opening for a group of academics who had long despised the New Deal welfare state. Notre Dame University ‘s Philip Mirowski Never Let a Serious Crisis G to Waste has provided a careful and detailed analysis of this neoliberal movement in American politics.
These neoliberals shared with their nineteenth- century predecessors a faith in markets, but with an important difference. Adam Smith and JS Mill saw markets as non- coercive means to allocate resources and produce goods and services. Neoliberals regarded markets as perfect information processing machines that could provide optimal solutions to all social problems. Hence a commitment not only to lift rent control on housing but also to privatize prisons, water and sewer systems, and to deregulate all aspects of personal finance and treat education and health care as commodities to be pursued on unregulated markets. An essential part of this faith in markets is the post Reagan view of corporate consolidation. Combinations are to be judged only on the basis of cheap products to the consumer. Older antitrust concerns about worker welfare or threat to democracy itself are put aside. Corporate mergers and the emergence of monopoly are seen as reflections of the omniscient market. In practice, however as we shall see, such a tolerant attitude is not applied to worker associations.
Neoliberals differ from their classical predecessors in a second important way. Market is miraculous and a boon to many, but paradoxically only a strong state can assure its arrival and maintenance. Sometimes it may appear that the market is yielding iniquitous or unsustainable outcomes, which my lead to premature or disastrous rejection of its wisdom. The answer to this anger is more markets, but that requires a strong state staffed by neoliberals. They would have the capacity and authority to enact and impose these markets and distract the electorate and divert them into more harmless pursuits. Recognition of the need for a powerful state stands in partial contradiction to the neoliberal’s professed deification of pure markets and was seldom presented to public gatherings. As Mirowski put it, neoliberals operated on the basis of a dual truth, an esoteric truth for its top scholars and theorists and an exoteric version for then public. Celebration of the spontaneous market was good enough for Fox News, whereas top neoliberal scholars discussed how to reengineer government in order to recast society.
The signs of neoliberalism are all around us. Worried about student debt? There is a widely advertised financial institution that will refinance your loan. Trapped in prison with no money for bail. There are corporations and products that will take care of that. Cancer cures, money for funerals and burial expenses can all be obtained via the market. Any problem the market creates the market can solve. The implications of this view have been ominous for democracy and social justice.
The neoliberal deification of markets has many parents. This mindset encouraged and was encouraged by a revolt against democracy. The wealthy had always been concerned that a propertyless working class might vote to expropriate them, but neoliberalism gave them further reason to bypass democracy. Markets were seen as better indicators of truth than democratic elections, though that point was seldom expressed as directly. Here is FA Hayek’s oblique expression of this concern: “if we proceed on the assumption that only the exercises of freedom that the majority will practice are important, we would be certain to create a stagnant society with all the characteristics of unfreedom.”