Is the US actually a democracy?
Law professor Ganesh Sitaraman explains why America has never achieved true democracy—and how it can.
GANESH SITARAMAN: Part of the reason that we're in this moment of crisis for democracy is that we've largely misunderstood what democracy is. Democracy isn't just about voting in elections, even though that's important. And it's not just about constitutional norms and institutions, even though that's important too. Democracy has always required much, much more.
Since the ancient Greeks and Romans, philosophers and statesmen recognized that democracy could not persist in a society that had too much economic inequality. They thought that either the rich would oppress the poor, creating an oligarchy; or the masses would overthrow the rich with a demagogue leading the way. Either way, you would lose democracy if you had economic inequality. So what was essential to democracy was an economic democracy; a measure of economic equality, no one having too much economic power.
Similarly, when a society becomes deeply divided by race, religion, clan, tribe, or ideology, democracy also becomes difficult to sustain. And the reason why is that democracy requires us to determine our own destiny together, but when we're so divided that we aim to oppose futures, democracy can't succeed.
Lincoln said that "A house divided against itself cannot stand." And this is why social solidarity, a united democracy, bringing people together across differences, across race, across the barriers that seem to be between us, that is so important to democracy. At the same time, neither economic democracy nor social solidarity is going to be possible without having an actual political democracy; a government that is responsive and representative of the people. But, we don't have that today, either.
In study after study, political scientists have shown that our government is responsive, primarily, to the wealthy and interest groups, not to ordinary people. A system of government that is mostly unresponsive to the people is not a democracy at all.
The core challenge today is that we've never actually and truly achieved what democracy requires. Democracy was severely restricted before the liberal era in the mid-20th century, but the people of that era reined-in economic power during the New Deal. They expanded economic opportunity through the GI Bill and investments in the New Frontier. They fought a war on poverty to promote economic equality and build a great society. And in the midst of all those reforms, they struggled fiercely to end Jim Crow, integrate the nation racially, and promote equal rights for women and people of color because they knew that segregation could never mean equality, let alone solidarity.
These efforts, of course, caused massive upheaval. Real democracy was visible on the horizon—but what happened then is that the late '60s and the '70s brought warfare and economic and social and political crises and, with them, the end of the liberal era and the beginning of the neoliberal one. And the neoliberal era's individualistic, market-focused ideology prevented the realization of democracy.
It put economic growth above a strong middle class and that led to century-high levels of inequality. It emphasized individuals over communities. It divided us by race, and class, and culture. And because it preferred markets to democracy, it looked away as the wealthiest people and corporations increasingly rigged government to serve their own interests, even at the expense of everyone else.
So what I think is that if a new era of democracy is going to take hold, what we're going to need is a big agenda; an agenda that will actually create a united democracy by building social solidarity across race, and by incorporating justice into every aspect of our public policy. It's going to require creating an economic democracy that breaks up economic power and expands economic opportunity for people all across America. And it's going to require reclaiming political democracy from lobbyists, from interest groups, and from wealthy donors while ensuring that everyone can participate in the political process. That agenda is what we're going to need not just to save democracy, but to actually achieve democracy.
One of the problems with neoliberalism is that by elevating the idea of the market as this thing that is independent from democracy and from government—and even if it's not independent, preferencing it as opposed to preferring, say, public programs—is that it tells people that you really don't have that much to get out of government and that the market is the thing that provides goods, provides services, and that the market is independent of the choices that we make as a society.
But, in fact, the market is not independent of the choices that we make as a society; it is totally dependent on the rules that we set, through democracy, and on the laws that we create. So, I think one of the challenges of neoliberalism is that by pushing forward the market ideal it actually reduces some of the scope for democracy when, in reality, democracy is the thing that creates markets in the first place.
- Three essential components of democracy are economic equality, social unity, and a government that acts in the interest of the people. America lacks all three of those components, says Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Ganesh Sitaraman.
- "In study after study, political scientists have shown that our government is responsive primarily to the wealthy and interest groups, not to ordinary people," says Sitaraman. "A system of government that is mostly unresponsive to the people is not a democracy at all."
- Sitaraman argues that the neoliberal era is what divided America and continues to prevent the country from realizing a true democracy. In this video, he explains the problem with neoliberalism and how a new agenda could create far better opportunities.
- With our low voter turnout, is America still a democracy? ›
- How deliberative democracy could depolarize the US - Big Think ›
- Dissatisfaction with democracy in the developed world hits record high ›
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.