The truth is that capitalism and democracy have never been the best roommates. Not only have there always been “business-friendly” politicians whose job it was to argue for companies and against individual rights. As early as the early 19th century it was recognized that there was a fundamental conflict between social welfare and any system that is geared towards individual profit. Even Adam Smith’s classic work, which defined many of the concepts behind what we now consider market capitalism, recognized that the common good was a pre-eminent cause, that taxation and regulation were required to achieve that end, and that there were forces who would always resist. (Smith also argued that any area unwilling to help support the goals of the entire nation should be sacked.)
It is also not uncommon for capitalism – which, after all, has the most important means of communication at almost any age – to use these “kegs of ink” to propel the nation towards its own ends. These goals could include deregulating banks or maintaining the gold standard or waging war against Spain. But from the beginning there has been an opportunity for individuals and companies to put their own good above that of the nation. And from the beginning, some took advantage of this opportunity.
So it is absolutely not surprising that there is a war going on every day between the forces trying to keep the experiment of representative government going and those who want it to be subjected to the market. What could be unique at this time is the directness with which the opponents of democracy have made it their business to search directly for the most basic institutions that are necessary to operate even a hardly adequate republic. They are against democracy and they really don’t care who knows.
For decades, radio demagogues from Father Coughlin to Paul Harvey to Rush Limbaugh have drawn on centuries of racism and anti-Semitism to promote the view of political opponents of capturing subhumans who want to take away what they deserve. This topic is still so ubiquitous and full of anti-intellectualism, racism and xenophobia like never before. But the new comment that seems to be emerging is that not only is it acceptable to undermine democracy, it is a good thing. Not only is it a look back at the civil rights era and an enjoyable resumption of politics by Jim Crow, it’s an open argument that democracy is bad. A claim that it is perfectly okay to just ignore their votes, even when millions of Americans are voting more for one candidate than the other, provided they overcome racial and structural barriers built into the system.
This is not the normal partisan division stuff. It is the substance of the national dissolution.
At the center are not just waving their fist fascists like Trump, but a large part of the communications industry that has discovered a simple truth: It is more profitable to attack democracy than to support it. Thanks to the rules that people have built into this democracy, who have put openness of political expression high on their list of values, there is no adequate answer. People who want to close free speech use the protection of free speech to achieve their goals. And you get rich in the process, thank you.
Capitalism is not only bumping into democracy at the moment, it is also at war. Because it thinks another system – the one where things like security, pollution and rights are off the table – sounds pretty good. This is not just a consequence of companies’ ability to generate more revenue through the old system of privatizing profits and socializing losses. It is also massively affected by the unprecedented concentration of wealth. This consolidation makes it more and more tempting for the few to simply cancel the rights of the many … for dollars. It turns out that they managed to get a large percentage of the people whose rights would be lost for the low, low cost of some rallies and for everything Tucker Carlson eats.
If democracy survives this attack, it had better find a new partner. One that is not that abusive.