It is not the ‘ignorant masses’, but rather obscene wealth that really threatens our democracy
It’s been said so often now that it’s becoming a bit of a truism, but 2016 was a bit shite. Whilst the doomsday clock may have been ushered closer towards midnight on a number of issues (minority rights, global economic stability, world war, climate change) as a result of some of 2016’s more questionable results, another, far less recognised victim also has a target on its back like never before: democracy.
This is not just due to the fascistic tendencies of some of those now enjoying power (or who soon will be): the very idea of democracy, our belief in it, is now under assault from a growing number of corners. More than ever now my Facebook feed seems to be full of talk, even from otherwise radical lefties, of the ‘ignorant masses’, blaming working class voters for Brexit or Trump and articles arguing that the last thing we need is ‘more democracy’.
This assault is all the more deadly because it comes at a time when democracy is at its most vulnerable. In the second half of the twentieth century, weary from the slaughter grand ideologies had reaped across the globe, many turned away from utopian thinking, burying themselves instead in the burgeoning consumer culture. The apparent breakdown of Keynesian economics and the rise of neoliberalism blew open the doors to wealth accumulation and infected hearts and minds with a rigid individualism and consumerism whilst simultaneously dismantling the state and therefore its ability to act, bolstering these post-war trends. Now, we are left with a crop of politicians that have broadly given up on the grand visions, of actually changing things beyond tinkering at the edges, and a society of consumers, seeing lifestyle and consumer actions as the only real means of influencing their world- politics in the traditional sense is largely bereft of meaning or hope.
Yet evidence strongly suggests that democracy- including elements of direct and participative democracy- as well as being morally right in itself, is also a more rational way to make policy. Just as we are continuing to turn away from democracy as we know it, evidence abounds of its utility. It shows that larger groups, as long as we ensure there is diversity and independence of opinion and a proper way to aggregate these opinions (PR rather FPTP), make better decisions than small groups of supposed ‘experts’. Numerous studies in political science document that a more politically and civically engaged populace also goes hand in hand with effective governance. Rationally speaking, we should be seeking more citizen engagement, under the right conditions, rather than denigrating the masses and turning to elite experts to make our decisions for us.
The poisonous influence of wealth on democracy, however, is real and well documented. Evidence shows that in US congressional elections, 9 times out of 10 it is the candidate that is most well-funded that wins the seat. The link is there in presidential elections too, and when you take a look at levels of party funding in the UK, it bears a remarkable resemblance to seats won too. Some argue this is simply a case of individuals and organisations betting on the right horse, but do those who argue thus really think a.) these people would pour money into something and not expect a tangible return and b.) that the posters, flyers, paid staff, air-time, equipment and analysis these donations buy really have no impact at all on election results?
Beyond this there is now an army of lobbyists that besiege Westminster, the White House and the European Parliament, not just pouring money into campaign coffers and offering well-paid jobs to politicians in return for favourable policy, but also at times directly aiding with and writing policy for over-worked an inexperienced politicians and departments. Authors such as Jeffrey Sachs and Naomi Klein have talked about the real impact this sort of close collusion between the elected and the wealthy has had, securing lucrative public service outsourcing contracts, corporation and income tax cuts and attacks on labour rights.
Klein also highlights the distorting role of wealth when it comes to organisations and think-tanks like the Heartland Institute. With money pouring in from fossil fuel companies and neoliberal magnates like the billionaire Koch brothers, such organisations are able to pour enormous resources into swaying government policy, media reportage and, most insidiously, public opinion away from substantial action on climate change. The reason there is even still a debate about the environmental catastrophe we face is because of the concerted effort and dogged funding by billionaires to cast doubt on what is solid science.
Press ownership in the UK is another way in which the obscenely wealthy can distort the public debate and public opinion, a key part of any democracy. Just two individuals control over 60% of our entire print news: Lord Rothemere and, you guessed it, Rupert Murdoch. Research that shows the gross distortions between public opinion and reality when it comes to the amount spent by the government on foreign aid, the amount of welfare claimed fraudulently or the percentage of foreign born living in the UK, all issues inflated by poisonous column inches and excessive coverage in the papers of the Mail and The Sun, is evidence of the real-word impacts this press oligarchy can have on public opinion and priorities. TV stations’ choice to hound the poor rather than hold a light up to the excesses and abuses of the rich also share blame for the gargantuan distortions in public perception.
The individual psychological impacts of owning vast wealth is a distorting influence on our democracy too. Abundant wealth has been shown in psychological research to reduce our levels of empathy and impair our moral judgements, undermining the respectful and communitarian underpinnings of democracy. It impacts society as a whole too, with high levels of inequality being associated with lower levels of social trust in societies (a prerequisite for civic and political engagement) and a number of social ills.
The end game here is what Jeremy Rifkin terms ‘cultural capitalism’- the ever-increasing commodification of human, social interactions and the control this hands over so many facets of our lives to a small cabal of transnational corporations. Not only does this hand unprecedented control of our lives over to corporations, but it also gets right down into our psyche’s, commercialising our very minds- perhaps one reason why younger generations are characterised as preferring lifestyle and consumer-based action to more traditional political routes. At its most fundamental, vast wealth has now pushed an ideological economic agenda into the hearts and minds of every citizen, transforming them into consumers and eroding the notion and practice of democracy in the process. It has, according to sociologist Simon Clarke “conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilised to realise the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital”.
Humans can be fickle, foolish and fatally ignorant, but we can also be dedicated, ingenious and compassionate. Which we are largely depends on our environment, in this case, our media reporting, our educational systems, our free time and our sense of efficacy in government.
It’s easy to lay the blame for, well, anything at the door of the marginalised and the disenfranchised (which is probably why as a society we so often do), but easy rarely equals correct when tackling entrenched social problems. It is much more difficult to tackle privilege, corrupt practices and obscene wealth and the power that comes with it, yet to truly fix not just our democracies but many more social ills, we need politicians and campaigners dedicated and courageous enough to do so. This won’t be a panacea, but it will empower people and drastically improve public debate, orientating our priorities towards issues that actually impact peoples’ lives, rather than those that serve the agendas of a few.
We’ll end with a reminder from American pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick of the moral power and beauty at the heart of true democracy: “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”