“Forget politics as you’ve come to see it, as electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans. Think power. The underlying contest is between a small minority who have gained power over the system and the vast majority who have little or none.”
—Robert Reich (1)
Pay Attention to Social Class
Americans are not used to thinking in terms of social class. There are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, social class is not a concept about which social scientists agree. Social class refers to a group of people in a society with similar levels of income, wealth, education, and type of job. That’s a deceptively simple definition that hides a truly messy concept that can be difficult to operationalize. In order to sidestep the mess, we tend to simplify it by dividing the population into income quintiles—the top 20 percent of income earners, the next 20 percent of income earners, and so forth. At the time of this writing, a simple class structure for America looks like this:
- $233,895 Average family income: Upper class—Top 20 percent
- $101,570 Average family income: Upper middle class—Next 20 percent
- $63,572 Average family income: Middle class—Middle 20 percent
- $37,293 Average family income: Lower middle class or working poor—Next 20 percent
- $13,775 Average family income: Lower class, the working poor, or the precariously employed—Bottom 20 percent (2)
Notice the disparity in family income. Even this breakdown of the numbers under-represents the gross disparities in America’s class structure, because the top 20 percent category has an astronomical upper end. In 2018, a small group of 211 families—out of 167 million families in the United States—each earned more than $50 million a year. That’s just their wages and doesn’t count their investment income. (3) The prospects for American families have diverged. The incomes of the top 20 percent of families have grown faster in the past 50 years than have the incomes of all the families below them, and incomes of the top 5 percent of families have grown even faster still. (4)
Another consideration is that our media and schools go out of their way to portray America as a classless society—as if such a thing ever existed. It’s a form of capitalist propaganda that is very effective. Richard Reeves has written that America is “a society that likes to think of itself as classless—or, more precisely, one in which everyone likes to think of themselves as middle class.” For decades, more than 80 percent of Americans have described themselves as middle class. (5) No matter how far down the economic ladder and no matter how difficult upward mobility is in this country, many Americans see themselves as soon-to-be-rich. The truth is that Americans have much less of a chance of climbing the economic ladder than do people in other wealthy democracies. (6)
Paying attention to social class is important because Robert Reich’s quote at the start of this chapter is spot on. The struggle today has become one in which the upper class is accruing wealth and political power at the expense of the lower classes. Focusing on class also unites Americans across our racial, gender, and religious divisions. Gross inequality of wealth and political power is not a natural phenomenon; it is created by the way we structure our economic and political systems. Outrage at our current state of inequality does not mean that anyone is arguing for complete equality. Such allegations are an example of the reductive fallacy. A vigilant citizen in an attenuated democracy simply argues for less economic inequality and for greater political power for middle- and lower-class Americans who make up the majority of the population.
Uphold Democratic Values
To be a citizen in an attenuated democracy, one must continually uphold democratic values. To begin with, citizens need to be vigilant about two things: All adult citizens should have an equal ability to vote, and all ballots should be counted. Attempts at voter suppression, voter fraud, and election fraud must be resisted any time they occur. But there are other values that are essential to a democratic republic, and citizens need to vigorously defend them. Specifically, citizens should do the following:
Embrace Tolerance Except of Ideas and Practices That are Themselves Intolerant or Destructive—Tolerance is a willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them. In a diverse republic such as the United States, it is commonplace for one group of people to engage in behaviors and espouse ideas that are strange to other people. As long as those behaviors or ideas are not destructive and do not attempt to negate the possibility of others’ innocuous behaviors or ideas, they should be tolerated. Sometimes, however, we encounter ideas and behaviors that are themselves intolerant or destructive. Democracies do not need to tolerate people and groups that are intolerant, that preach hatred, or that practice violence.
Uphold science and fact—Defenders of democracy would do well to also defend science. Celebrated science writer Timothy Ferris has argued that the democratic revolution that began in the eighteenth century “was sparked . . . by the scientific revolution, and that science continues to foster political freedom today.” He argues that both science and democracy require freedom of speech, travel, and association, and that scientific skepticism is a perfect companion to democracy but is “corrosive to authoritarianism.” (7) Science and democracy are equally dependent on facts. Unfortunately, facts are under assault in the United States. The public sphere has intentionally been flooded with so much bullshit and so many conspiracy theories that we face what David Roberts calls an epistemic crisis. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy dedicated to understanding “how we know things and what it means for something to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate.” An epistemic crisis is when a society cannot agree “who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know—what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.” (8) Not only do we need to believe in facts, but we have to believe in the processes—e.g., science, good journalism, public investigations, testimony, academic debates—that are likely to produce facts. We must also turn away from processes—e.g., talk radio bloviating, people passing as journalists who do not adhere to journalistic standards, pseudoscience, deferring to corporate-funded shills—that are leading us to a new Dark Age.
Defend the Rule of Law—We’ve talked about the rule of law, which refers to the related ideas that no one is above the law; that all of us are equally subject to the laws that we collectively make together and that decisions are reached by following pre-established procedures. It is essential that citizens demand that elected and appointed office holders as well as government staff uphold the rule of law in all that they do. This is especially important in crisis or heated situations, when people most often argue to set aside the rules. Defenders of the rule of law know that cronyism, favoritism, nepotism, and corruption have no place in a functioning democracy.
Defend Institutions—Democracy and the rule of law require robust, professional institutions upon which people can depend. This encompasses governmental institutions like Congress, the presidency, the federal courts, and the myriad of federal agencies that do the work of the government. It also includes other societal institutions like colleges and universities, legitimate news media, and churches. A politician who labels news outlets as “enemies of the people” are only doing so because they wish to undermine factual but critical information about them or their administration. They are going after the free press as a vital institution in a democracy. Historian Timothy Snyder suggests that you “choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.” (9)
Take an Interest in Your Congress Members
Remember that your elected officials are public servants. They should be serving the broad public good. Take an interest in them. The first step is to find their websites and bookmark them on your browser. Typically, you can just search for their name and location—e.g., Ben McAdams, House of Representatives—and then make sure you are getting Representative McAdams’ official website. The official website of each office holder will have a contact form in which you can paste a letter. Typically, they will also have a calendar of townhall meetings back in their state or district. You should also check the Town Hall Project. The website of the U. S. House of Representatives has a list of representatives. From that site, you can see which representative is sitting on which standing committees. The same thing applies to researching the U. S. Senate and its standing committees. If you want to officially confirm how your representative or senator voted, you can go to the Congress.gov site and look it up. Note, however, that it helps to have some distinctive keywords for the measure that interests you or have the number of the bill, like H.R. 1158 or S. 1332. Another place to look for rollcall votes in Congress is the Govtrack site. You should also see which individuals and organized interests are funding your elected officials’ campaigns. The Federal Election Commission collects information such as this, but the Center for Responsive Politics makes it more accessible at its Open Secrets website. From the menu there, you can browse through recent congressional and presidential campaigns and learn a great deal about who finances our politicians.
One can always choose to be an uninformed participant in a democratic polity. That would be a shame, for you run a high risk of being misled or worse, acting against your own interests. Your first step is to get a formal education. If you are getting a college degree, make sure that it has a robust general education component that will give you broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, by which we mean arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. When you finish with your college degree—or if you don’t have one—you have to continue to educate yourself. Focus on American history, political issues, and the political process. Get in the habit of reading books as well as articles on those topics.
Your second step is to avail yourself of credible media sources that report on politics, history, economics, and society. You should also read well-written political commentary and watch political documentaries. The first thing to note about your possibilities for media sources are that they are distributed along an ideological continuum. The second thing to note is that people disagree about the political leanings of various publications. One recommendation that might help you is to read widely from sources that differ in their ideological positions on issues and events. There’s no such thing as “reading too much” when it comes to informing yourself. You can find media bias guides online that will help you understand the general ideological perspectives of major publications. AllSides has one, as does Ad Fontes Media.
Understand Political Language
Political language is such a minefield that it’s difficult to give cogent advice about how we might approach it. As citizens of an attenuated democracy, we have to be on guard against powerful people using language to get what they want at the expense of ordinary people. We have to avoid being manipulated into joining their project. Here are four things you should learn to spot in political language:
- In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” (10) People in power often defend the indefensible by using euphemisms when they speak. A euphemism is when a person substitutes “an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.” (11) During war, the military uses the euphemism “collateral damage,” which sounds like maybe a tank accidentally bumped a farmer’s shed. In fact, collateral damage typically means that a military strike killed and maimed innocent men, women, and children. Political language on all sides of the ideological spectrum is full of euphemisms. Try to cut through euphemisms so you understand the reality of what people are saying.
- Beware also of big lies and obvious lies, repeatedly told. In Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler articulated “the sound principle that the magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility,” and that people “more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one.” (12) The same can be said of an obvious lie. When a politician tells a big or an obvious lie—particularly when they tell it repeatedly and publicly—some people tend to believe it simply because it is told so openly. It must be true, they think, because why would anyone lie about something so big or so obvious?
- Be concerned by political leaders who scapegoat one or more groups. Scapegoating refers to improperly placing blame on a person or group for bad things that have or are happening, either to fit a political narrative or to displace blame from the real culprit. For example, saying that crime is caused by undocumented immigrants, or blaming a past administration for a current administration’s inability to solve a problem.
- Pay attention when politicians frequently need to show how strong they are by using macho, brutal language. Do they encourage their supporters to assault their political opponents? Do they threaten to bomb other countries back to the stone age? Do they bully their opponents and expect complete submission from their supporters? Do they—like domestic abusers—use a “you made me do it” language style that blames the victims of their abuse or policies? People who are frequent users of that kind of language are unlikely to uphold democratic principles while in office.
If you agree with the theme of this text that America’s political system represents an attenuated form of democracy, you might be tempted to throw up your hands in despair. That should not be your main takeaway. If you agree with the text that corporations and a small circle of very wealthy families exert disproportionate power over public policy, you might be tempted to conclude that conditions are unlikely to improve for ordinary people. To do so would be a mistake. American politics is a struggle between the oligarchs and the public, between a small minority and the rest of us. As we’ve seen, the small minority has structural advantages, but the rest of us can use collective action and our votes to effect positive change. We have to be vocal. We have to be active. We have to sustain that pressure for years.
America’s history shows us that positive change is possible. Robert Reich nicely summed up this comforting reminder, and it’s worth quoting him at length:
“In the early twentieth century, progressives reclaimed our economy and democracy from the robber barons of the first Gilded Age. Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette instituted the nation’s first minimum-wage law. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan attacked the big railroads, giant banks, and insurance companies. President Theodore Roosevelt busted up the giant trusts. Suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony secured women the right to vote. Reformers like Jane Addams successfully pushed for laws protecting children and the public’s health. Organizers like Mary Harris “Mother” Jones spearheaded labor unions. The progressive era welled up because millions of Americans saw that wealth and power at the top were undermining American democracy and stacking the economic deck. Millions of Americans overcame their cynicism and began to mobilize.” (13)
Be Active on Two Fronts
Citizens in an attenuated democracy should vote, speak, write, organize, and engage in collective action. They should focus their political engagement on two fronts. The first is to take decision making power from the elites by electing politicians who are beholden to ordinary people or by supporting existing politicians who already act on behalf of ordinary people. If there are no such candidates for local, state, or federal office, then become one. The second focus should be to change the rules of the game so that ordinary people can have a greater voice in the American political system. Change the way campaigns are financed—perhaps by putting a tax on corporate contributions to incumbents, the proceeds of which go to challengers. Argue for citizens’ councils to address political issues. Push for changes that take away politicians’ ability to gerrymander electoral districts for partisan advantage. Change the way elections are conducted and make them less restrictive with respect to which citizens can participate. For example, prioritize vote by mail systems and automatic registration. Amend the Constitution so that corporations are not considered people.
Politics is not a spectator sport. Despite the predominant ethos of the media coverage, elections are not merely horse races between candidates for whom we passively root. They have life and death consequences for us and our neighbors. They determine the future of the republic. Remember political scientist Eitan Hersh’s admonitions: “Politics is for power” and “power is derived from serving others.” (14) Collectively organize and pool resources to serve neighbors and show them that local action pays immediate dividends and can show the way to larger changes. Be more than a consumer of political news. Be an actor, a person who convinces neighbors and friends and family that collective action can swing the balance of power in American politics away from corporations and the wealthy elite and toward ordinary people.
- Robert B. Reich, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. Kindle edition. Page 6 of 198.
- Tax Policy Center. March 24, 2020.
- Jim Wang, “Average Income in America: What Salary in the United States Puts You in the Top 50%, Top 10%, and Top 1%,” Wallet Hacks. March 10, 2020.
- Katherine Schaeffer, “6 Facts About Economic Inequality in the U.S,” Pew Research Center. February 7, 2020.
- Richard Reeves, “The Dangerous Separation of the American Upper Middle Class,” Brookings. September 3, 2015.
- Katie Jones, “Ranked: The Social Mobility of 82 Countries,” Visual Capitalist. February 7, 2020.
- Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Kindle edition. Pages 1-2 of 374.
- David Roberts, “America is Facing an Epistemic Crisis,” Vox. November 2, 2017.
- Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Kindle Edition. Crown Publishing, 2017: New York. Page 22 of 128.
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Page 231. Originally published in 1925, and the quotes are in Volume 1, Chapter 10.
- Robert B. Reich, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. Kindle edition. Page 95 of 198.
- Eitan Hersh, Politics is For Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. New York: Scribner, 2020. Page 212.