The former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton once said if the U. N. headquarters lost “ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Conservatives tend to be skeptical of international organizations that are not democratically elected which intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations even if they were created with the best of intentions. This skepticism conservatives have of international organizations extends to the United Nations and the European Union, among others. These organizations threaten the right to self-rule which depends on national sovereignty. It is in this sense that conservatives view democracy as a fundamental component of the American Project.
But conservatives also support reducing regulation on multinational corporations like BP and Goldman Sachs and giving them an unlimited ability to spend money to influence elections. This threatens national sovereignty in unprecedented ways. We see this tension in George Will’s opposition to international organizations and nation building, on the one hand, and his support for lifting limitations on the political spending of multinational corporations, on the other. This tension is shared widely by conservatives and it inhibits the country’s ability to realize the democratic ideals we claim to represent and defend around the world.
Russia’s efforts to help elect Donald Trump in the 2016 election have heightened this tension to a point now that is unprecedented. This tension in the Republican party between a respect for democracy and a belief in allowing corporations and now nation-states to undermine it, has led the American people to question the legitimacy of the U. S. democracy. This essay attempts to explore the roots of this tension and uncover some of the assumptions upon which it is based.
The United States should not try to make Iraq democratic
In a provocative and undeniably prescient article entitled, “Can We Make Iraq Democratic?” George Will lays out his case for why the United States should not and cannot make Iraq democratic. He takes this stand in opposition to his party three years before the surge (2004).
The United States should not try to make Iraq democratic because self-rule is dependent upon the legitimacy of the nation-state. The sovereignty of nation-states is undermined when organizations from outside the nation unilaterally impose their will on it. Will views the Iraq war and the European Union as threatening the sovereignty of the nation-state,
“The vitality of democracy everywhere is imperiled by the impulse behind the increasingly brazen and successful denial of the importance and legitimacy of nation-states. This denial is most audacious in Europe. But because many of America’s political ideas arrive on our shores after auditioning in Europe, Americans should examine the motives and implications of European attempts to dilute and transcend national sovereignty.”
Will describes the European Union as moving more and more political decisions “beyond the reach of majorities. Beyond democracy.”
Will sees the same spirit at work in the Versailles peace conferences (1919). He notes that the “Laconic Arthur Balfour, who rarely seemed deeply stirred by anything, was angered by the spectacle of ‘all-powerful, all-ignorant men sitting there and partitioning continents.’” Will’s concern is that when nations or international organizations undermine the sovereignty of nation-states, it is “an assault on self-government—the American project.”
This assault transfers “political power from national parliaments to supranational agencies that are essentially unaccountable and unrepresentative.” “Today there is a slow undoing of the elemental human right of self-government, accomplished by the attack on a necessary concomitant of that right—the sovereignty of the nation-state.” “The American Revolution was, at bottom, about the right of a distinctive people, conscious of itself as a single people, to govern itself in its distinctive manner, in nationhood. Here was a great eighteenth-century insight: popular sovereignty is inextricably entwined with nationality.” This is why the United States should not try to make Iraq democratic; it should allow Iraq to decide when and how to become democratic on its own. To do otherwise threatens the sovereignty of the nation-state on which democracy depends.
The United States cannot make Iraq democratic
The United States cannot make Iraq democratic because democracies require a democratic culture. He writes that, “it is a historical truism that the Declaration of Independence was less the creation of independence than the affirmation that Americans had already become independent. In the decades before 1776 they had become a distinct people, a demos, a nation—held together by the glue of shared memories, common strivings, and shared ideals.” This culture cannot be imposed by external powers; it must grow from within and, “Iraq lacks a Washington, a Madison, a Marshall—and it lacks the astonishingly rich social and cultural soil from which such people sprout.” Iraq lacks a “democratic culture.”
Before we go further, we should take a moment to appreciate how subsequent events have justified Will’s concerns about the prospects of building a successful democracy in Iraq. These concerns were ignored by many in both parties and in the media. Here we get a glimpse of the insight and intellectual integrity that distinguish Will’s work.
From Plutocracy to Democracy
I am sure Will would agree with one correction. Actually the culture that gave birth to the United States was not democratic. Initially, only white men who owned property could vote in most states. Such restrictions were not removed in some states until 1860. The term democracy comes from the Greek language. It means ruled by (kratos) the people (demos). The term plutocracy means ruled by (kratos) the wealthy (ploutos). The culture that gave birth to the United States was plutocratic.
The United States has been on a long journey toward democracy. African American suffrage began to be realized in some places in 1870 with the ratification of the 15th amendment. In practice, limits on African American voting persisted until the 1960’s. Women’s suffrage came in 1920 with the ratification of the 19thamendment.
This journey toward democracy is nowhere near its end. Enormous challenges remain and we have recently taken a provocative steps backward. In terms of challenges, think of the importance of war chests: the large sums of money politicians raise to get elected. The candidates who are unable to raise enough money are unable to make it through the primaries. Consequently, the wealthy who can afford to spend more money supporting candidates have a greater ability to influence the decisions about which candidates are able to run for office.
We now regularly have candidates that are almost completely self funded: they use their personal fortunes to fund their campaign — Rick Scott, Jeff Greene, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump. These candidates do not need the donations of others to run for office. Because they are themselves wealthy, they can unilaterally decide whether they can run.
The reality is that most campaigns these days are dominated by television advertisements. Wealthy candidates and candidates that represent the interests of the wealthy can purchase more ads and get their message out more often and to more people. Rick Scott, the Republican nominee for Governor in Florida, earned millions of dollars running a healthcare company that was convicted of defrauding the government for millions of dollars. Because of his wealth, he was able to dominate television in Florida with extremely well produced ads that used the tag line—“Let’s get to work.” The consultant that came up with that line is a genius and I am sure she or he is well paid.
We also have evidence that the money spent on elections has an impact. The U. S. Representative from Texas, Joe Barton, has received more money from the oil and gas industry than any other member of the House of Representatives. He shocked the country when he actually apologized to BP after the BP oil spill. He felt President Obama treated the company too harshly when he encouraged the company to create a $20 billion dollar fund to compensate victims of the oil spill.
But our country took a big step backwards in the long road to democracy when, in a 5-4 decision, the U. S. Supreme Court rejected the longstanding ban on corporations spending money to influence elections. This surprising development is transforming the way elections are held. Corporations have far more wealth than individuals. They can influence elections to a far greater degree. Corporations are also “supranational agencies” that are not elected by or accountable to the citizens of a nation-state; they are accountable to shareholders that could live anywhere, like China , Saudi Arabia, or maybe even Russia.
When we reduce the regulation and taxation of multinational corporations like BP and Goldman Sachs and remove any limits on their ability to spend money to influence elections it transfers “political power from national parliaments to supranational agencies that are essentially unaccountable and unrepresentative”–it “dilute(s) and transcend(s) national sovereignty.” President Obama called the Supreme Court decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
“There was a vast carelessness,” Will writes, “an earnest carelessness—in the Versailles conference’s rearranging of the world.” Will has acknowledged there was a “vast carelessness” in BP’s “rearranging” of the Gulf’s ecological and economic systems. There was a “vast carelessness” demonstrated in Enron’s “rearranging” of the energy market in California. The “rearranging” of our financial system by several corporations in the financial services industry has obviously been devastating to the economy. The Supreme Court’s decision will give these “supranational agencies” more power to undermine the sovereignty of our nation-state in support of their efforts to rearrange our world.
If the “the vitality of democracy everywhere is imperiled by the impulse behind the increasingly brazen and successful denial of the importance and legitimacy of nation-states” brought about by the United Nations, the European Union, and International law, then the “vitality of democracy” is also threatened by “supranational agencies” such as BP and Goldman Sachs when they are given an unlimited ability to spend money to influence elections.
Republicans and Democracy in 2016
The “vitality of democracy” has never been “imperiled” like it is today. In 2016 George Will described Putin as following “Hitler’s playbook” by using overt and covert means to influence political processes all over the world. He outlines the ways Trump serves Putin’s interests: by undermining NATO and not opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He openly encourages his readers to consider whether Trump is “Putin’s Puppet.”
The U.S. intelligence agencies are in agreement that Russia engaged in cyber attacks intended to influence the U.S. election. The emails stolen by Russian hackers were leaked through Wikileaks. The lead to the resignation of the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. The Washington Post found evidence Russia was also involved in the circulation of fake news intended to hurt the Clinton campaign. The evidence demonstrates these efforts intended to hurt the Clinton campaign and help Trump. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes; but she lost the electoral college by less than 90,000 votes in three swing states: MI, PA, WI.
There is a “vast carelessness” that marks the way Trump has filled his team with individuals who have professional and financial ties to Russia: the first campaign advisor ,Paul Manafort, has specialized in advising candidates with ties to Russia; the campaign economic adviser, Howard Lober, is an investor in Russian businesses; Carter Page used to work in Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office and has personal investments in Gazprom, a Russian state oil conglomerate; Richard Burt sits on the Board of Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa Bank.
This tension in the Republican party between supporting democracy or the forces that undermine it has now come out into the open. On one side, you have republicans like senators Lyndsey Graham and John McCann. They are prepared to lead republicans in the senate to conduct investigations of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. They are also planning to visit NATO allies that border Russia before Trump is inaugurated to assure them that the United States is still prepared to defend the democracies in NATO. There efforts to defend democracy have been joined by top democrats and now by President Obama, who today ordered the U. S. intelligence agencies to deliver him a report on Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election before he leaves office.
On the other side of this tension, we have the president-elect, Donald Trump. He stated in the third presidential debate that our country “has no idea” who hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee. He made this claim notwithstanding the joint statement of the U.S. intelligence community on October 7th that concluded Russia was responsible for hacking the emails. He made this claim notwithstanding the intelligence briefings he has been provided that state Russian was responsible hacking the emails. Trump reiterated his doubts about Russian involvement in the election in a recent interview in Time magazine.
This tension in the Republican party with respect to democracy is going to play out over the next couple years in a way that could be decisive. If Trump gets control of the FBI and can begin investigating his enemies into submission and the Russians continue to act as his Cyber Super Pac, there is no telling where things can go. 25 years from now our country could be led by the Trump grandson Putin liked best.