Nature of American Democracy. Except in times of crisis, capitalism’s normal political system, whether competitive or monopolistic, is liberal democracy, which Marxists may call bourgeois democracy. Votes are the nominal source of political power, but money is the real source.
The political system, in other words, is democratic in form but plutocratic in content. Lord Bryce even recognized this, who talked about the enormous power that money wielded in American elections. All the political activities and functions, which characterize this system, such as indoctrinating, and propagandizing the voting public, organizing and maintaining political parties, running an electoral campaign, are managed only using money, in fact, lots of money. And since in monopoly capitalism, the big corporations are the source of big money, they are also the main sources of political power.
There is indeed an inherent contradiction in this system. The voters, who do not own much property but constitute an overwhelming majority of the population, may form their own mass organizations, such as trade unions, political parties, etc., raise funds through subscriptions, and become an effective political force.
If they win formal political power and then threaten the wealthy oligarchy’s economic power and privileges, then the system will face a crisis unless the oligarchy gives up peacefully. Since no privileged class has been had this way in history, we can discount this possibility.
It is more likely that it will abandon democracy and adopt coercive ways of fascism—such a breakdown of liberalism. Democracy may occur for other reasons such as war, economic crisis, or political instability. Laski has argued in the American Democracy that a fascist solution is not unthinkable in the American political system in a period of intense economic or political crisis.
In general, the United States’ moneyed oligarchy prefers democratic rule to any authoritarian government. The stability of the system is enhanced by periodical elections, which give legitimacy to plutocratic rule. Popular ratifications of capitalist, oligarchic rule enable it to avoid certain genuine dangers of personal or military dictatorship, which plague many Latin American countries’ presidential political regimes.
Hence in the United States and other advanced capitalist democracies, wealthy oligarchies, as a rule, do not resort to the authoritarian method in dealing with opposition movements. They devise more indirect and subtle means for achieving their ends.
The capitalists make concessions to weaken and soften trade-union militancy and political radicalism of the working-class. They buy off their leaders with money, flattery, and honors; when such leaders acquire power, they remain within the system’s limits and try to win a few more concessions to keep their electoral supporters content.
They never challenge the real bastions of oligarchic power in the economy and the state apparatus’s coercive branches. The oligarchy also shapes and alters government machinery to check the deadlocks and stalemates, which might lead to the breakdown of democratic procedures. For example, the number of political parties is deliberately limited to prevent the government’s emergence by unstable coalitions.
By these methods, democracy j is made to serve the capitalist oligarchy’s interests far more effectively and durably than authoritarianism. However, the possibility of a shift to authoritarian rule remains embedded in the constitutional system.
Indeed, like other democratic constitutions, the American constitutional system makes provision for such autocratic rule in times of emergency. However, this is not the favored form of government for normally functioning capitalist societies.
The United States also preferably maintains a system of liberal democracy. In constitutional theory, the people exercise sovereign power; in actual practice, a relatively small moneyed oligarchy rules supreme. But democratic institutions are not merely a smokescreen behind which sit a handful of industrialists and bankers making policies and issuing orders.
Reality is more complicated than that. In fact, the nation’s founding fathers were conscious of this latent contradiction in the democratic form of government, as were most political thinkers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Many writers such as Charles Beard, Harold Laski, and D.W. Brogen recognized the possibility that the propertyless majority might use its power to vote to tum its nominal sovereignty into a real authority and thereby the security of property, which the capitalists considered as the basis of civilized society. The framers of the constitution, therefore, devised the well-known system of checks and balances. Its purpose was to make it as difficult as possible to subvert the existing system of property relations.
America’s capitalist democracy later developed in a context of several conflicts among various groups and segments of the wealthy classes, which unlike Europe, had never united by a common struggle against feudal power because the United States had no feudal class to contend with for the reasons, the state institutions in the United States have been terribly anxious to protect the privileges of the property-owning minorities against the people.
We know how the separation of powers was written into the Constitution, how state’s rights and local autonomy became fortresses for vested interests, how political parties evolved into vote gathering and patronage-discussing machines without program or discipline. The United States became a sort of utopia for the private sovereignties of property and business.
The very structure of the polity prevented effective action in many areas of the economy and social life. City planning is the worst casualty of the chaotic number of authorities that rule American cities; Robert C. Wood, in his 1400 Governments, refers in its title to the number of Separate governmental authorities that are operating within the New York metropolitan area.
Each of these authorities is the repository and representative of vested interests. There is no overall authority to co-ordinate and control their policies. It is ridiculous to talk about planning in such circumstances.
The political representation system and the absence of responsible political parties have given effective veto power to short-term and long-term coalitions of vested interests. Moneyed classes in America have united only on one program, i.e., an extension of territorial sovereignty (that is how thirteen original colonies expanded into fifty contemporary states through war, purchase and conquest, and protection of American investors’ interests and traders abroad (U.S. economic imperialism).
In fact, these two activities have been the first concern of the federal government throughout the nation’s history. In The Rising American Empire, R.W. Van Alstyne highlights this aspect of America’s developing capitalist democracy.