By ABE ASHER
In 2008, decorated American political theorist Sheldon Wolin published a book arguing that United State’s democracy was failing. He called it Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.
Wolin died, in Salem, in 2015. But his premise of nine years ago — that our democracy, subverted by corporations, is leaning towards totalitarianism — has only grown in relevance and importance.
Wolin pointed to a cavalcade of evidence to support his central argument: our abysmal voter turnout rate, the rampant wire-tapping of citizens, preemptive wars, corporate control of mass media, corporate funding of elections, widespread economic depression, and more.
He cited rampant deception at the top, writing, “Self-government is, literally, deformed by lying; it cannot function when those in office assume as a matter of course that, when necessary or advantageous, they can mislead the citizenry.”
Sound familiar? The Donald Trump presidency, an unfettered bacchanalia for corporate America, has been a democratic nightmare.
Consider: the secretary of state was the president of Exxon Mobile. The treasury secretary was a Goldman Sachs executive. The head of the National Economic Council led the financial giant as it helped bring down the world economy in the mid-2000s.
The secretary of education is a billionaire. So is the commerce secretary. So is the deputy commerce secretary. So is the person in charge of the Small Business Administration.
The corporations that made these people are already starting to see results.
Over the last several months, Congressional Republicans — with the White House’s blessing — have been working to roll back Obama administration protections of net neutrality.
Net neutrality, in short, is the idea that internet service providers have to treat all content on the internet equally — that they cannot slow down access to or manipulate in any way certain sites.
Why is that important? It ensures that the internet is, for all intents and purposes, a free marketplace for its contributors and consumers.
Al Franken, who has championed this issue in the Senate, gave this example to Vox on Monday: “When YouTube started,” Franken said, “there was a thing called Google Video. Google Video wasn’t very good, and because YouTube was carried at the same speed as Google Video, they beat out Google Video. Then Google bought YouTube for billions of dollars.”
If the Republicans succeed in scaling back this country’s net neutrality laws, Comcast, for instance, could chose to limit access to one website or another, depending on, say, how much that website is paying Comcast.
Considering how reliant we are on the internet for our information, that is a distinctly terrifying possibility. It would give for-profit corporations — especially in the many areas serviced by only one internet provider — near-total control of what we read and see online.
It was this kind of corporate media control that was one of the primary planks in Wolin’s thesis.
Consider this: In May, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group struck a deal to buy Tribune Media. When the sale is approved, Sinclair will own more than 230 local television news stations in some 80 markets — reaching more than 70 percent of American homes.
Sinclair is, to put it mildly, right-wing propaganda. The company frequently forces its stations to run conservative commentary segments, had close ties with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, and has, over the years, donated extensively to Republican political campaigns.
Before the 2010 election, Sinclair stations in swing-states ran an informercial claiming that President Obama took money from Hamas and had urged an audience to “kill some crackers!” in a speech. It ran a similar hit piece in swing states just before the 2012 vote.
Eight years previously, Sinclair scuppered plans to run a 90-minute special pillaging John Kerry’s military career two weeks before the 2004 presidential election after 20 Democratic senators wrote a letter to the FCC in protest.
Sinclair has just hired former senior Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst. That’s who the nearly 50 percent of voting-age Americans who rely solely on local TV for their news will be fed for the foreseeable future.
This is the state of the union — and it’s a vital, urgent window into understanding the 2016 presidential election.
Hillary Clinton and Trump were not, as the last six months have made clear, equally bad choices to be commander-in-chief. Trump’s victory has already had and will continue to have immediate and devastating consequences for our country and world.
But would Clinton have taken a swing at illiberalism in America? She would not have. Obama, for the most part, didn’t either — to the applause of the Andrew Sullivans of the right, and to the ire of the Cornel Wests of the left.
The appeal of a Bernie Sanders, or, for the more desperate among us, a Jill Stein, is the idea that the country as we’ve come to know it — corporatist, consumerist, fearful, apathetic, and unequal — needs to be dramatically, uncomfortably altered.
Clinton — who, compared to her predecessors, likely would have been a decent president — did not subscribe to this line of thinking. In fact, she appeared completely baffled by its existence.
After she was shockingly upset in the Michigan Democratic primary in March — a preview of the shocking upset to come — Clinton reportedly told her staff, “I don’t understand what’s happening with the country. I can’t get my arms around it.”
Makes sense all the sense in the world, then, that the country couldn’t quite get its arms around her candidacy either.
Wolin wrote that our elections are “choice[s] of personalities rather than choice[s] between alternatives” — echoing the late, great Gore Vidal, who wrote in 2004 that “we have only one political party in the U.S., the Property Party, with two right wings, Republican and Democrat.”
There are parallels in this thinking to the pre-inauguration piece penned by David Frum — George Bush’s former speechwriter — detailing how, under Trump, the United States could devolve into autocracy.
In that essay, Frum pointed chillingly to the defeat of liberal democracy in nations like Hungary, South Africa, and Venezuela. He might even have mentioned Japan, whose ranking the Press Freedom Index has, in the last seven years, fallen from 11th to 72nd.
If our democracy is failing, we’re not alone. Totalitarianism is a looming threat across the world, as it has been for centuries. Here, against the backdrop of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, that threat is inverted.
In classical totalitarianism, the state has total control. Inverted totalitarianism is different — less obvious, more insidious. “Inverted totalitarianism is only in part a state-centered phenomenon,” Wolin wrote. “Primarily it represents the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.”
It’s a crisis that reaches far beyond our politicians. Trump, after all, is not in and of himself the problem. He is a George Saunders character. A symptom. An outsize, grotesque, perverse symptom, yes, but a symptom all the same.
The point is that the politicians have, thanks to the greedy among them, been driven out of power. It’s big business that runs the show. Economics trumps politics; neoliberalism is dominant.
How do we stop this democratic decay? Wolin was not a Marxist. He did not believe that economics alone can stop suffering. Instead, his plea was for us to recommit to our democratic values at the micro level — in our neighborhoods, our cities, and our states.
The consortium of governors, mayors, business leaders and university presidents pledging their continuing commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement over the last week is, in this light, promising. It is not impossible to fight back. Jeremy Corbyn, ridiculed for two years straight, proved that Thursday in Britain.
To save American democracy, everyone who can will have to give everything they can. Time, as Wolin warned us, is running short.