Sunday, May 19, 2024

Will American Democracy Perish Like Rome’s?

A recent The Economist cover pictured the 46th US President Joe Biden in front of the White House with a cleaning mop. The lead, “Morning after in America,” projects that “The outlook for America looks grim, but that could quickly change.” The venerable publication proclaimed from its powerful pulpit that Biden “should stick to his folksy brand of dogged centrism which is so well suited to the moment.” That gives him the “best chance of success.”

The Economist sees good reasons for Biden to succeed. With interest rates so low, the government can virtually borrow for free. This means the Biden administration could roll out a $1.9-trillion stimulus. This could fund a polio-style vaccination program, extend unemployment insurance and expand child tax benefits. An infrastructure bill and investment in clean energy to combat climate change could create new jobs for the 21st century.

Held Together With String, Can America Hold?

The Economist’s ebullient optimism might come from the fact that it has been on the winning side of history since its inception in 1843. For more than 178 years of its existence, it stood for Pax Britannica. For the last few decades, this blue-blooded British publication has pivoted to be a trumpeter of Pax Americana. This has led to errors in judgment such as its infamous support for the 2003 Iraq War. 

In January this year, The Economist may be making a similar misjudgment. It is prematurely heralding America’s journey to what Winston Churchill memorably termed “broad, sunlit uplands” by using shoddy facts and specious reasoning just as it did in 2003. Its assertion that the US banking system looks sound is not backed by evidence. Its claim that “the economic pain is not widespread” is ridiculously untrue.

On Capitol Hill

On Wednesday, January 6, I read about a mob besieging Capitol Hill as I sat at my desk less than four miles away. Against the advice of my American friends, I left to see firsthand what was going on. They told me the white supremacist mob would beat me to a pulp. I ignored their advice because I was curious. I got off at the Archives metro stop and mingled with Donald Trump’s supporters. Some were heading to the Capitol, while others were walking away from it. Prima facie, the people walking around were not much different than at other Trump demonstrations.

Although I lost count after 23, I am sure that I spoke to more than 50 people. They were all friendly, sociable and deeply distressed. They told me repeatedly that I was the first journalist who had cared to speak with them. They said that mainstream media was filming them but did not want to listen to them. They asked me whether elections were rigged in India. When I responded that India solved the problem of rigging by creating an independent election commission, some piped in that the US should have one too. That is certainly not what I expected to hear.

To be sure, I met the saner members of the crowd, a mix of what Douglas Murray has called “the strange, the sincere, the silly and the sinister.” I stayed on Capitol Hill grounds talking to one person after another. At some point, tear gas bombs started going off on the terrace and the curfew hour started drawing nigh. I finally beat a retreat and started walking down to the L’Enfant Plaza metro station. Someone stopped me, exchanged words and offered me food. I took a sandwich, granola bars and water while declining the chips. Instead of getting beaten, I had been welcomed and even fed. Even as I sat in the metro and later worked at home, the images and the words of the day stayed with me. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. In fact, I was so troubled that I hit writer’s block and was unable to put down my thoughts on paper coherently for days.

Even though I have long been a critic of Donald Trump, I have been cognizant of the power of his appeal. While explaining Trump’s victory in 2016, I gave facts and figures about increasing income and wealth inequality in America. I also pointed out how social mobility has been falling. For most Americans, life is tough, and prospects for their children increasingly bleak. In 2017, CNN reported that 6 in 10 Americans had savings of less than $500. The great American dream has become a terrible American nightmare for far too many families.

Every Trump supporter I met on January 6 spoke about being left behind. One supporter claimed to be a Catholic bishop from Kentucky. He proudly posed for a photo at my request and blessed me when we parted. The bishop had done missionary work in India and had been to my ancestral hometown of Varanasi. He waxed lyrical about how the political system was broken. The man in holy robes said those on Capitol Hill have long stopped caring about the American people. Instead, they now represent special interests with money. 

The Pain

When I think about what the bishop said, I find it hard to disagree. As per CNBC, the 2020 election spending was nearly $14 billion, more than double the 2016 sum. It is an open secret that members of Congress spend more time raising money than legislating. There are numerous studies about declining congressional oversight and surging presidential power. Such has been the divide in Congress that it has been impossible to pass meaningful legislation for a while. Too often, legislation is bloated, poorly drafted and caters to those who can lobby hardest for their interests. Like many other democracies, the US has turned disastrously dysfunctional.

Although most people I met were white and working class, I ran into members of minority communities as well. A preacher of South African origin was singing paeans to Jesus and to America. I ran into two ladies who had immigrated from Vietnam and the Philippines. They believed that Trump was the only leader who could stand up to China and bring back law and order. When I asked if I could photograph them, the Vietnamese lady bolted, taking her friend along.

Later that evening, my friends were referring to the crowd as a “bunch of pigs.” They were appalled by the scenes they had seen on television and what they had read on their smartphones. In their eyes, those in the crowd were not protesters. They were rioters, seditionists, insurrectionists, terrorists and perpetrators of a coup. They were guilty of breaking down democratic institutions, if not treason. They deserved arrest, trial and punishment. Given that the day’s attack on the Capitol was the first in the nation’s history — bar the British invasion of 1814 — their indignation at this assault on their democracy was understandable.

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But they were not on Capitol Hill that day. What I saw is that President Trump, his son, Donald Jr., and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, played pied pipers. They riled up the crowd that turned into a mob and overwhelmed Capitol Police. Most people in the mob were misguided instead of malevolent. When I spoke to them, it was clear they had no plan of action unlike those who actually plan a coup. As historian Timothy Snyder observed in his tour de force for Amid news, “The American Abyss”: “It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around.” At the end of the evening, the mob inevitably melted away. I met families on their way back to Alabama, truck drivers returning to Texas, old ladies headed back to Georgia and even plumbers returning to Democrat-run New York. They had come to Washington, DC, to be heard, stormed what they saw as a modern-day Bastille and were going back to their daily lives.

What struck me most was that everyone I spoke to was convinced that they did not matter to the system and their votes did not count. Since that fateful day, a question has played repeatedly in my mind: When people genuinely believe their votes do not count, what stops them from taking up arms?

A Strange New World

After January 6, I have followed my father’s advice and gone back to the past to peer into the future. A 1987 edition of The Republic with crinkling yellow pages and my brother’s fading notes has made me think. In the words of the late classicist Sir Desmond Lee, Plato was living in “an age which had abandoned its traditional moral code but found it impossibly difficult to create a new one.” Athenian democracy had forced his tutor Socrates to drink hemlock. It had degenerated into chaos and dissension. Needless to say, it did not survive.

A few centuries later, the Roman Republic perished too. At some point, oligarchs took charge. They controlled almost all the land. Form triumphed over substance, and democratic institutions decayed. Populists emerge to lead the mob. One of the better known was Tiberius Gracchus, who attempted agrarian reform, assembled a mob on the Capitol but was clubbed to death in the Senate.

Unlike that long-forgotten Roman revolutionary, Trump did not bring in any radical reform for the people but, like the ancient populist, he has overreached. After years of profiting from Trump’s mass following, Twitter not only silenced him but terminated his account. A political leader who had just got over 74 million votes was obliterated from his favorite public platform by a private company in a jiffy. For all its faults, Amid news is considered the “newspaper of record.” Its support for the CIA-led 1953 coup in Iran or the case the newspaper made for the 2003 Iraq War is in the public domain. By deleting Trump’s profile, Twitter has demonstrated that a corporation now arbitrates over what constitutes the public domain.

It is not only the question of what constitutes the public domain but also the issue of freedom of speech that is problematic. America’s fabled First Amendment “protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” For years, internet giants have claimed to be platforms with no editorial responsibility. The First Amendment has been their first defense against allegations that they were letting falsehood, hate and toxic propaganda run amok. Unlike traditional newspapers, these social media platforms did not restrict what people could say. Suddenly, they have changed tack.

After Trump evaporated from Twitter, more was to follow. Amazon Web Services abruptly kicked out conservative social media platform Parler from its servers. Google and Apple also banned the app. They argued Parler incited violence, breaching their terms and conditions. Like Trump, Parler was effectively shut down in minutes. The companies might have had good reasons to do so. However, the action raises uncomfortable questions. Who decides what is free speech? Is it the legislature, the executive, the judiciary or a billionaire-controlled Silicon Valley company?

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The First Amendment “guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.” Nothing restricts companies from curbing freedom of expression. When the constitution was drafted, big companies did not exist. Today, the situation is dramatically different, and no equivalent of the First Amendment protects Americans from censorship by big companies.

It is now transparent that the balance of power in the US lies with the big corporations. Its CEOs wield far greater power than governors, members of congress, senators and, at times, presidents. In 2008, Barack Obama won a historic election by getting nearly 69.5 million votes. In American history, only Joe Biden, with more than 81 million votes, has gained greater support in absolute numbers than Trump. Still, Twitter has summarily deleted his profile. Not only Trump supporters but also many of his opponents are uneasy with this decision.

The Left-Behind

Despite his crass, erratic and boorish behavior, Trump improved his voting numbers in 2020. He won 36% of the Latino vote, an increase of 4% compared to 2016. Despite Biden’s Catholic faith, Trump won 50% of the Catholic vote, with 57% of the white Catholics casting their ballots for him. The easy explanation is Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, the anti-abortion Catholic who studied at Notre Dame, to the US Supreme Court. However, something more might be going on. Trump increased his support among other minorities such as black men and Asians as well.

Why did so many Americans vote for Trump? I got the best answer from some militia members in West Virginia. In an article in November 2020, I mentioned how they conceded that Trump was an unsavory character who lies incessantly, but they credited him for telling one big truth: Things had turned much too ugly for far too many people like them. Far too many Americans have been suffering for much too long, and politicians from both parties have been pretending things are hunky-dory, denying grim realities.

When Trump speaks about making America great again, he is appealing to nostalgia by using one of Ronald Reagan’s lines. He is also acknowledging that things are not so great for many Americans. He is feeding off the anger many Americans feel for what his recently pardoned adviser Steve Bannon has called “the permanent political class.” Bannon is an Irish Catholic from a working-class family who voted Democrat. This Navy veteran graduated from Harvard Business School and worked at Goldman Sachs. Then he went rogue.

Bannon is the ideologue who threw his lot with Trump to smash the status quo. He entered politics by launching the right-wing news site Breitbart. Instead of targeting Obama and the Democrats, he went after the Republican establishment because he saw them as traitors to the American working class. Bannon masterminded Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, something Bernie Sanders tried but failed to achieve with the Democrats.

Bannon consistently makes the case that trade and immigration are two sides of the same coin. Both suppress workers’ wages. Companies can move factories from Michigan to Mexico for cheaper labor to improve their profits and share prices. When foreigners flood in, whether it is Latinos who mow lawns or Indians who write software on H-1B visas, companies do not have to hire Americans for the same jobs. They can and do pay foreigners less than their American counterparts. Companies do well and so do their shareholders. Executives do better: CEO compensation has soared 940% since 1978. American workers do not. Like Native Americans and African slaves in times past, they are now the left-behind.

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Many economists and politicians ridicule this argument. They stress that immigrants bring in skills that are in short supply. They point to the likes of me who turn entrepreneurs, raise capital, create jobs and boost the American economy. It is true that immigrants give the nation a unique strength. Like Rome, America can draw in the best and brightest of foreigners to give it an edge. Yet not all immigrants are necessarily terribly talented. Many of them are cheap cannon fodder for the unremitting American economic system, where people’s health care is tied to their job, holidays are rare, and 13 million work more than one job. These immigrants increase labor supply and decrease the wages of ordinary Americans.

To add insult to injury, it is these beleaguered workers who have bailed out banks after the financial crash of 2007-08. Both Republicans and Democrats sang from the same hymn book to prevent a recession from turning into a depression but did nothing to curtail or curb the financial class from behaving badly. Only one top banker went to jail. More importantly, taxpayer money ended up as bonus payments for some of the executives who had caused the crash. It was a classic example of capitalism on the upside and socialism on the downside. As a hedge fund manager told me off the record, the bailout was, Heads I win, tails you lose — with “you” being the American taxpayer.

Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements opposed these bailouts. They had different philosophies and belonged to two ends of the political spectrum, but they opposed what was a fundamentally unjust government policy. The bailouts were accompanied by quantitative easing, which in simple terms means the central banks cutting interest rates to virtually zero and then flooding the economy with money by buying bonds on the market. The rich have gotten richer. The poor find themselves priced out of the market. Many on both the right and the left have lost faith in the system.

A Very Modern Feudalism

During the COVID-19 pandemic, things have gotten worse. The central bank may be printing money, but it is only ending up in the hands of big boys. After the 2007-08 financial crisis, banks prefer to lend to large businesses or those with guaranteed incomes to reduce credit risk and avoid another meltdown. This means that cash flows into a few big rivers instead of many small streams. Even as small businesses are closing down, the stock market is touching the stratosphere. As William Shakespeare memorably penned in “Hamlet,” “The time is out of joint.”

Such is the state of affairs that even the Financial Times, a paper of choice for the financial elite, is sounding the alarm. On January 3, its Washington correspondent Edward Luce argued that easy money and fiscal gridlock were leading to populism. Today, the top 10% of Americans own 84% of all shares in the US, with the top 1% owning half. About 50% of Americans own almost no stocks at all. As pointed out earlier, they do not have $500 in savings. It is many of these Americans who form the support base of Trump and Sanders.

America today is in a similar situation as Rome during the era of Tiberius Gracchus. The rich were grabbing land from poor farmers and using slaves from Carthage to work their estates. The republic where all Romans were citizens with a say in the affairs of the state was fraying. Rome was creating an imperial economy where the elite grew richer through plunder of conquered territories like Spain and Carthage as well as cheap labor from newly enslaved populations. This made the Roman farmer and worker largely redundant. The Roman plebeian was so exploited and powerless, that he slipped to subsistence or below-subsistence levels of income. On the other hand, the elite grew wealthier and wealthier.  

Tiberius Gracchus and his brother Gaius Gracchus attempted reforms, but both were murdered. The Populares rose up to champion their reforms to redistribute a bit of land, ameliorate the plight of the urban poor and reform the political system. The Optimates emerged to fight for the status quo, which preserved the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebeians. This bitter discord was similar to the Athenian republic Plato found himself in. Roman divisions eventually led to the rise of Julius Caesar.

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This ambitious general believed the dysfunctional system to be leading to ruin. Taking sides with the Populares, he sought to reform the system and redistribute wealth to the plebeians. The Optimates did not budge, a civil war resulted, and the collapse of the Roman Republic ensued.

Both in Athens and Rome, rising inequality and deepening discord obliterated the common bonds that made democracy possible. In America, inequality has reached feudal dimensions. Technology is destroying thousands of working-class jobs while creating far fewer highly paid ones. The “frightful five” — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google — control the internet and large swathes of the economy. They are strangling the small and medium-sized businesses. 

Furthermore, Big Tech’s algorithms, filter bubbles and echo chambers have led to a post-truth world of fake news, conspiracy theories and more. People cannot even agree on basic facts. The constant deluge of data has put their minds in Brownian motion, and they have lost the ability to focus or sift fact from fiction. The irony of the current situation is that the leaders of these companies are self-proclaimed liberals, avowed philanthropists and cheerleaders for progress. Yet they have unleashed Frankensteinian monsters that have wrecked journalism, destroyed discourse and damaged democracy.

What Lies Next?

On Monday, January 18, I ventured into the city once again, again against the advice of my friends. I got off at L’Enfant Plaza metro station yet again to walk north and found the streets deserted and the National Mall sealed. I walked for an hour from one checkpoint to another. Eventually, a police officer told me that instructions were changing all the time and I was better off taking the metro. When I did take the metro, it stopped far away from the heart of town. Clearly, 25,000 troops and all the police were not enough to guarantee security in the capital. Authorities took the view that shutting down access to the heart of town was necessary too. The security arrangements seemed a bit of an overreaction but understandable given the events of January 6.

On January 20, I watched the inauguration with some American friends. Some were delighted to see the back of Trump and were celebrating with mimosas already in the morning. With Trump gone, many hoped that the populist genie could be put back in its bottle. I wish I had the same sense of American optimism. I simply cannot forget that despite a raging pandemic and thousands of deaths, over 74 million Americans voted for Trump. They are not going away.

As ancient republics demonstrate, populism flourishes when inequality increases. In tough times, people are also more likely to turn against those they see as threats or competition. In 1873, the US suffered its deepest depression to date. Cotton prices crashed and unemployment rose. A disputed election of 1876 led to the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the reintroduction of racial segregation through Jim Crow laws. A campaign of intimidation and violence kept black voters away from the polls for decades to come. Only in the 1960s did the historic civil rights movement end segregation, but black people remain poorer and die earlier than their white counterparts.

In addition to black people, another group suffered after 1873. The 1860s had been the time of the California Gold Rush and the First Continental Railroad. The Irish alone were unable to supply enough labor. Therefore, the 1868 Burlingame-Seward Treaty “ensured a steady flow of low-cost Chinese immigrant labor,” toiling primarily in goldmines and on railroads. The emerging trade unions saw Chinese workers as competitors who lowered everyone’s wages, and so opposed immigration. The Chinese worked for less money and worked harder. They also worked in areas where whites refused to work. White society at that time did not want people of color around. The labor movement was able to crystallize that latent racism.

The media played its part. William Randolph Hearst’s papers popularized the phrase “yellow peril,” and the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. This was the first legislation in American history to place broad restrictions on immigration. And this was the Gilded Age. Rapid economic growth led to millions of European immigrants streaming onto American shores. This lowered the price of labor, and workers suffered. At the same time, the concentration of wealth continued apace, with robber barons and speculators making fabulous fortunes.

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The Gilded Age also led to the emergence of a left-wing agrarian movement called the People’s Party. They came to be known as the Populists, a word that has stuck with us to this day. Despite doing well in the 1896 election, the party eventually disbanded, but some elements of its program were adopted by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It is important to note that this party drew support from white Protestant farmers who were losing out to industrialization, urbanization and mass immigration.

While they advocated many measures of public welfare, the Populists were anti-Semitic, conspiracy-minded and racist. They offer a good insight into what America’s near future might look like. As the predominantly white working-class suffers, some of its members are more likely to wave Confederate flags, blame blacks for sponging off welfare and oppose immigration from Mexico, India or elsewhere. This enrages many urban liberals who argue that the white working class is not the real oppressed. It is Latinos, blacks and Native Americans who have suffered much more. Instead of complaining, members of the white working class could just mow lawns, clean homes or serve coffee. Also, these liberals are furious that many members of the working class pick on poor Mexican immigrants, not rich Wall Street bankers.

This urban elite misses an important point. Many Trump supporters are acting in the same ways as Populists in the 1870s who focused as much on the Chinese as on the robber barons. Part of the reason is simple. Like the robber baron in the 19th century, the banker is not a tangible part of most American lives. He is a character from movies such as “Wall Street” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The aggressive banker and the ruthless entrepreneur are archetypes that American culture apotheosizes. They represent the Nietzschean Übermensch, who deserves devotion, not just admiration, in a cult of success that is deep-rooted in America. That cult explains why Harvard has a school of government, not of politics. Success is non-negotiable, a Socrates-style failure unacceptable.

In contrast to the Übermensch who controls the commanding heights of the economy but is rarely seen in the flesh, Mexicans are ubiquitous. They work longer for lesser pay. Every office or apartment building I have visited across the country has had Mexicans or other immigrants from Central America doing the cleaning or taking out the rubbish. They look different, smell different and speak a different language. They excite insecurity. That insecurity rises when increasing numbers compete for fewer jobs.

American elites like immigration for both emotional and practical reasons. After all, America is a land of immigrants. They provide America with cheap labor, technological talent and entrepreneurial energy. Those with capital enjoy having access to all three. It boosts returns on capital. In contrast, the left-behind want less competition and higher wages. 

Biden has his task cut out for him as president. An increasingly unequal America with declining social mobility is seething with rage. The rich have turned rentiers, profiting off quantitative easing and rising asset prices. Those without capital or connections can no longer move up in society. The stock market is a bubble waiting to burst. America cannot ignore the last four years, and a significant proportion of the 74 million who voted for Trump have lost faith in the system. Many of them have guns. This is no time for dogged centrism. It is time for bold political and economic reform that decreases inequality and increases social mobility. If Biden fails, a modern-day Julius Caesar will inevitably emerge to bury yet another dysfunctional democracy.

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