“The Myth of Mass Democracy”

There is a persistent and largely unquestioned myth that the United States is a “democracy” in that its government is of, by, and for its people. This myth resides in the idea that there is an “American people” that has a will, which it exercises by voting in large-scale elections to elect officials who will adopt policies that reflect this will, and that the people can hold these officials accountable by replacing them if they fail to enact the people’s will. Instead, the government of the United States is of, by, and for the public and private elites that wield political power. The mass public, as I have written elsewhere, lacks the non-state cultural institutions to resist penetration and control by the elites who rule. Thus, there is not a “people” to govern itself.

Democracy u2013 The Go... Hans-Hermann Hoppe Best Price: $24.77 Buy New $37.61 (as of 09:25 UTC - Details) The myth predicts that the federal government does what popular majorities want it to do. Of course, this does not actually happen. In fact, the federal government consistently disregards public opinion and adopts policies that advance the interests of elites and special interest groups. It is these political formations to which politicians are principally accountable. Politics is expensive in terms of time, effort, and money, and elites and special interests are better situated to mobilize government on their behalf that are ordinary Americans. It is not simply the expense of campaign donations that render elites and organized interests more politically powerful, though this certainly helps. But more than this, it is the amount of money spent on lobbying activities, which is enormous in Washington politics, that empowers better organized and well-healed interest to wield power. It is not simply money, either, but position and connections that make elite interests powerful. Government responds to bureaucratic and corporate interests that control resources important to governmental and economic performance, such as the military-industrial complex and the financial industry. The demands of these interests are disconnected from those of the ordinary American and are instead those of the managerial class, represented in both in large publicly-traded enterprises and the public bureaucracy, whose interests lay in the preservation of concentrated power.

Millions of Americans are generally aware that the government does not serve them, and evidence for this awareness lies in declining trust in government. There are multiple reasons for declining trust in government in the United States, but among them are that people are more cognizant that government is neither accountable nor responsive to them. In fact, diffuse support for democratic government in the United States is declining, and while that may sound promising to antistatists, it reflects a growing number of Americans who would not reject government by “strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.” Antistatists do not want to bother with those either, but not to replace them with a plebiscitary dictatorship, and increasing concentration of power in a federal government responsive to elites, combined with declining general support for the regime, places something like that on the horizon of possibility.

We’ve arrived at this juncture in part due to the mythological nature of “our democracy.” Participatory decision making can be meaningful in small communities, and it had meaningful moments in some ancient democracies and ancient, medieval, and Renaissance republics, though participation in those political systems was in fact highly restricted. Mass “democracy,” however, is another matter altogether. Mass man, a resident of mass society shorn of traditional social structures that give shared cultural and moral contexts in which people can interpret and apply common values, is an observer of an arena in which elites compete for power with one another. Mass man is not a member of a “people,” but is instead part of a disconnected aggregate rather than a community with traditional social bonds. Mass man participates in ritualistic behaviors, such as voting, that serve as a form of legitimation of elite rule. The choices offered in these legitimation rituals are determined by elites, and the ideas mass man considers are regulated by government schools and shaped by the mass media that largely control the narratives that form the range of mainstream discourse. Because mass men have no real influence over the results of elite struggle, they lack a rational incentive to be informed about the conflicts of the day, so, as Schumpeter noted, their articulated thoughts about politics are essentially infantile, even if they are otherwise intelligent and competent in other endeavors. Thus, there is no popular “will,” because individuals in mass democracies do not exercise judgment, but instead select from the limited choices presented to them by elites. In the large societies created by states, it will not be otherwise, because, as Robert Michels observed a century ago in his classic Political Parties, the leaders of competing mass parties have more in common with their competitors than with the people they purport to represent. Mass “democracy” is thus misnamed, because it is simply one more form of elite rule. Great Wars and Great L... Ralph Raico Best Price: $7.50 Buy New $12.95 (as of 05:45 UTC - Details)

Does the phenomenon of right-wing populism refute the idea that major political parties with different brand names all represent elite interests? No. Robert Michels’ showed how left-wing labor parties in Europe evolved from working class movements to organizations led by elites who had more in common with the leaders of competing parties than with their constituent party members. The same is true of say, Donald Trump in the United States, who has much more in common with Democratic and Republican elites alike than he does with blue collar American voters. Even if such leaders are in the beginning charismatic founders of movements, we can expect their charisma to be “routinized,” as Max Weber put it, so that a movement they create will eventually become a bureaucratic structure. This structure will then be subject to Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” and led by elites who are different than their followers, and whose interests lie in preserving their own power.

The views expressed are his own and not those of any organization or institution.