Is democracy in crisis in America? This question must be posed with increasing urgency, as there has been increasing questions raised by scholars, public, and politicians regarding its viability. In the 1970s, there was an increasing belief that countries like the US, Great Britain, Japan, and West Europe will move into a form of dictatorship be it by the politburo or junta (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki 2). Thus, the pessimistic economic condition has led to a uncertainty regarding the future of democracy. The severity of the situation arises due to the homogeneity of American intelligentsia on the idea of democracy and the reported submissiveness towards all actions taken by the Government and capitalists to be right (Chomsky 77). The gradual desertion of the Western philosophies from the constitutional democracy has resulted in furthering socio-political factions within the country inciting self-interest. The law, which is supposed to a transcendence of political power, has evolved into a vehicle to promote partisan ambition and deriving obedience of the ‘Other’. Thus, the main problem that arises out of the crisis of democracy in the United States is how the Constitution is viewed.
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Presently American society is living in widespread doubt, especially of that of “free states” and in their ability to deal with the economic and political problems of the time. In most cases, it is observed that leaders of the democratic countries resort to autocratic methods to deal with demands of special interest groups in their bafflement of the modern life. Apparently, popular view suggests a declining sense of democracy in the country. This is widely associated with economic condition, society and environmental policy the US presently follows. Thus, American society, political condition, and environment have become a victim of the overt pessimism that the country faces due to the challenges that its democratic political condition faces. This essay will deal with the three major crises that the US is presently undergoing – the crisis of democracy, society, and environment.
Democracy is the US is in a crisis. A simple look at the electoral participation by the people during the presidential elections of 1996 when Bill Clinton was re-elected as the President of the United States, shows that half of the voters who were eligible stayed away from the poll, and those who voted, 49 percent of them chose Clinton over the lackluster opponent (Zinn). Samuel Huntington showed that in the 1960s the main crisis that the American democracy faced were lack of trust on the government: “The democratic surge involved a more politically active citizenry, which developed increased ideological consistency on public issues, and which then lost its confidence in public institutions and leaders when governmental policies failed to correspond to what they desired.” (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki 76) One reason for the lack of fulfilment of pro-poor or middle-class schemes by the government is due to predominance of ideological homogeneity even in American governance (Chomsky 80).
According to Gar Alperovitz writes: “If, on a rough assumption, individuals worked as hard in both periods, the extraordinary seventeen-fold increase is a rough measure of the contribution of inherited technology and capital accumulation in the United States over this time period. And—given the longer hours commonly worked in the earlier period—there is every reason to believe that this is a conservative estimate.” (Alperovitz 315) Thus, the fruit of the increased productivity that the US enjoyed was more due to the increase innovation in America. According to the estimates of Edwin Perkins the per capital income in the 1770s in colonial America was equivalent to $1,805 (in 2002 dollars). In 2002, the actual per capita income was $31,034, which when compared to the 1770s per capital income is just over 6% (Alperovitz 212). A similar view has been presented by Krugman who states “economy’s long-run growth rate—has not accelerated.” (Krugman, America the Boastful 35). Thus, the claim of the liberal democratic policy that it has increased the growth of American economy is flawed.
The concern over economic condition increases the fear of the crisis of democracy. Considering the case of the present economic crisis that the United Sates faces, the question obviously arises is what are the real cause of the crisis. The Obama government has provided stimulus packages to capitalist bodies like Ford and General Motor to help them out of the crisis and recover the economy. However, will the stimulus packages work? In addition, what is the cause of the crisis? Is it subprime lending by banks or the housing bubble, or the never-ending Wall Street greed? Well these factors are inadvertent factors for the downturn of all capitalist economies and here too these causes have played their fair share. If the US economy is considered after the Second World War, it can be observed that the country has faced a steady growth due to heavy increase in productivity (Schweickart 30).
Paul Krugman points out regarding the rapid growth of American growth that it trickled down on some in the society, majority remaining poor:
“Postwar America was, above all, a middle-class society. The great boom in wages that began with World War II had lifted tens of millions of Americans — my parents among them — from urban slums and rural poverty to a life of home ownership and unprecedented comfort. The rich, on the other hand, had lost ground. They were few in number and, relative to the prosperous middle, not all that rich. The poor were more numerous than the rich, but they were still a relatively small minority. As a result, there was a striking sense of economic commonality: Most people in America lived recognizably similar and remarkably decent material lives.” (Krugman 3)
The era was the epoch of the Keynesian economics that preached social democracy. Thus, the Marxist economic view was proven wrong and the new liberal consciousness brought forth the ideas of growth of productivity and capitalist innovation through public as well as private investment. However, this social democratic structure started revealing its loopholes by the mid-1970s. The crisis that arose was that of a classic case of overproduction. Thus, with the capitalists holding down the wage rates in America, the produced goods remained unsold. Thus, the recession began and remained until early 1980s. The US economy kept growing in the first terms of President Reagan and continued to grow with minor interruption until the recent recession.
So how did the American economy come out of the recession in the 1980s when the wage rates remained flat? The era saw the largest growth of multi millionaires and increase of the salary of the upper crust of the American society by 10 percent (Schweickart 31). The richer got richer. Nevertheless, the question still remains – how did the average people buy all those excess good? The answer to it is increased credit availability. The reason for this is increase in credit card debt. Thus, with increase in debts the average household debt increased from 47 percent of the GDP in 1975 to 100 percent of GDP in 2005 (Schweickart). Therefore, the present economic crisis of America is more due to the liberal economic policy of the capitalist philosophy than for any other reason.
The question then arises is if the Keynesian philosophy can bring back the economy on track? The solution to this problem according to the Keynesians would be reduce interest rates, and provide monetary stimulus to the banks that are bankrupt. But Paul Krugman poses the question that if the US can “handle recessions simply by printing more money” (Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics 58). The answer is no. the reason lies behind the capitalist institution’s power over the economy:
“In reality the Federal Reserve Board actively manages interest rates, pushing them down when it thinks employment is too low and raising them when it thinks the economy is overheating. You may quarrel with the Fed chairman’s judgment—you may think that he should keep the economy on a looser rein—but you can hardly dispute his power.” (Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal 59)
American democracy has largely subdued the subaltern voice. Apart from the lack of economic socialism in America, there has been a dearth of a single political party dedicated towards the betterment of the American working class. In a 1978 survey conducted by the New York Times and CBS News shows that “2 per cent of the Americans describe themselves as upper class, 8 per cent as lower class, the huge remainder as either belonging to no class or standing somewhere in the middle.” (N.A. 637-8) Here the country depicted a society, which was class less. This distinctly indicated at a society, which was not conscious of its class. However, with the advent of the present multiculturalism, a more complex problem has crept into the American society and that is the question of identity. A class-consciousness, which was almost negligible in a society, has increased over the years and has resulted in a xenophobic aversion towards anything alien. This is also indicative of the reason why US like most industrialized modern nation states never had any large-scale working class movement led by any socialist or communist party. The 1978 survey shows the lack of class-consciousness of the American people and how it has led to a non-active socialist or labor party in the country. Thus, American democracy has brought forth a great amount of passivity among the working class people, thus structurally repression their expression of rights.
In a more recent study, there has been a huge concern about the US becoming a two-class society with the middle class shrinking (Collado 1). According to the survey conducted only 38 percent of the household report that they live comfortably and 78 percent of the middle class state that it has become increasingly difficult to for them to maintain their standard of living (Collado 5). The number of Americans living in poverty increased from 5.7 million in 2000 to 37.3 million in 2007 (Collado 6). One out of three American workers in 2007 report that they have not saved for their retirement and American households have a revolving debt of $956.9 billion an increase of 70 percent since the previous decade (Collado 7). The shrinking middle class in America is indicative of a grave problem for the class, and society for the country. The increasing amount of poverty and inequality of income presents the problem of more power – economic, political, and social – in the hands of select few. Many believe that a shift of the American working class for the service class professionals has driven the middle class out of the class structure. Further with the departure of unionism from the US, has led the fall in the number of blue-collar workers while the new service sector is non-unionized, and therefore provide no wage or job protection (Collado 89). Thus, the lack of unionism and protection for the middle classes has shifted them to the lower class of the society.
Another reason for t he woe of the middle class in America is the massive consumerism. American society especially the middle class has spent more than it has earned (Collado 95). The massive consumption spree led to a rise in debt, which received a boost due to a rate cut by the Federal Reserve’s. Further, the housing bubble created by the Fed ensured employment in sectors like construction and financial firms and consequently increased the prices of real estate. This pushed the US consumers to spend more in order to create consumer demand. The upper class constitute the oligarchy in the American society who consistently aspire for “more” while organizing increasing extraction from society’s collective wealth, thus pushing middle class into a zone of inequality. The middle class, aping the upper class, strives to match the upper class consumption patterns, and when finds that they cannot and loose all hope of upward escalation, fall into the lower class. Therefore, the liberal capitalist policy practiced by the US made the society poorer.
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Environment in the US is another crisis area that the policy makers have been facing recently. The environmental crisis that the US faces is more profound than the recent economic crisis of the country. The global warming has reached an alarming rate and the earth’s ecology is continually altering (Bachtell and Macovich). Global warming is the:
“… use of fossil fuels such as oil, gasoline, coal, and natural gas (the foundation of the Industrial Revolution) is increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (C02). This increased C02 is allegedly trapping heat in the atmosphere through a greenhouse effect, which will allegedly cause the earth’s temperatures to rise to catastrophic levels.” (Ferrara 48)
The US is facing a continuous depletion of the fossil fuels, forests and fisheries, etc. the country is emitting a large amount of carbon dioxide and polluting the atmosphere (Schweickart 32). The presence of capitalism in the US has aggravated this present situation with increased use of automotive and other consumer durable objects. Capitalism in its quest for increased production has exploited the natural resources to the extent of extinction. Resources for capitalist society were not meant to be replenished. However, socialist ideology believes in catering to the needs of all in the society, and not for private profit. The US has 4 percent of the world population consumers 25 percent of the world resources (Ferrara 48). Thus, capitalist industrialization in the US has led to an alarming rate of increase in gas emission and scarcity of natural resources that it can be a serious threat to the earth’s eco-system. The present policy of the Obama government is to use “cap and trade” trade on the US economy in order to control emission rate: “Under this policy, every business involving C02 emissions will have to buy permits from the government for the amount of such emissions, which will be sold in open auctions, where the permit price will be bid up.” (Ferrara 48) This regulation is good for the ecosystem, but not so much for the common man. The consumers will have bear the burden of the increased cost of the licenses as traders will shift the extra cost over to the consumers. The idea is that with increased price of the product, products, which entail high rate of CO2 emission, will refrain from usage and thus cut emission. However, the real problem is not just a rise in cost, but a lowering of the living standard of the middle class:
“In addition to these costs, consumers will have to suffer decreased consumption of products involving C02 emissions, such as gasoline, electricity, home heating oil, natural gas, automobiles (particularly upscale vehicles), even farm products such as meat. The increased costs are supposed to cause this decreased consumption. This decreased consumption amounts to a decline in the standard of living of the middle class.” (Ferrara 49)
Apart from this, there is also the fear of job cuts. As costs increases, and consumption falls, there is an overall negative effect on the economy, thus driving down the total output in the economy. This will have a downward force on employment. Another side of the environmental crisis is in order to reduce CO2 emission and in case the alternative source of energy is not developed, then the US, especially the Obama government is not opposed to nuclear energy that does not emit CO2 (Ferrara 50). In such a case, the US environmental policy will expose humanity to the woes of negative usage of nuclear power.
What are the solutions that can be provided for the sake of the three crisis discussed in the essay? Definitely, the capitalist and democratic system prevalent in the US has led to the political, social and environmental crisis in the country. A simplistic solution to the problem is not possible as overspending and consumerism has already become a way of life for American Middle Class. The first problem that the US must look into is its economic condition and consumerism. First, there should be social control of the investments that are made in the country. Governance of the private sector companies who have been one of the root causes of the recent economic crisis, consumerism, and environmental crisis must be addressed. The predominance of the oligarch at the helm of the society is the reason for the environmental and social crisis in the US. These oligarchic forces that lobby in order to meet the capitalist interest of profiteering have little consideration for the societal development or environmental concerns. Further, the growth of the capitalist system also leads to also leads to the subordinations of the lower strata of the society and injustice for the social order. This is observable with the shrinking number of middle class in American society. The shrinking of the middle classes also implies that the subalterns are unable to use their democratic rights to uphold their political and social interests and to safeguard their wealth and freedom. When the democratic system is continually failing the subaltern to achieve their rights and keep their wealth, it is important that more centralized control over the working of the capitalist system is required. Another reason for the change in the societal structure of the America is due to the imitative quality that the oligarchs have on the subalterns, who in turn run into a trap of debt. As has been observed in the US the increased usage of energy like petrol, gas, diesel, etc. has been imitated by all the strata in the society, which has led to the environmental crisis due to rise in consumerism. Further, the capitalist mode of the society has led to the favor of the oligarchy and the inequality of the subaltern, which has affected by increasing the material consumption and led to an environmental crisis.
The solution to the rise of consumerism as the woe of the American society can be stopped by following Marxian ideology of accumulating the capital created by the producers and not squandering them over conspicuous luxury consumptions. This will directly reduce the economic problem of consumer indebtedness and the affluence of the middle class. Further reduced consumerism will also help in reducing the ecological problem, as reduced usage of luxury items like SUVs will cut CO2 emission. Thus, the interlinked crises of the US today are democracy, society, and environment that are all caused due to continuous capitalist consumerism.
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