The purpose of this essay is to assess whether or not the United States is a polyarchy. We will look at the Bush Presidency and the characteristics it possessed which are suggestive of a polyarchical system, the media as a possible system of support for a polyarchy, and the economic structure as symptomatic of such a system. A single essay cannot prove conclusively that the political system is a polyarchy, but it will no doubt be thought provoking.
First of all, we need to accept a definition of polyarchy. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, once said that the role of the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” In other words, the government should protect the wealthy from the poor. Madison’s vision is not far from it, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that Robert Dahl described the concept: polyarchy, a system in which two or more political parties – who represent powerful interest groups – who compete with one another to govern. These powerful groups usually exercise influence on the two parties through their capital and act egoistically. The public does have a role in this system, which it would not in a dictatorship, the role of voting. In such a system, politicians face a dual constituency – the needs and wants of the poor versus the needs and wants of the rich. Dahl’s theory of a polyarchy may explain why voters have to choose between the Democrats and Republicans and nothing seems to change no matter who they elect.
Although, it was in the 1950s that Dahl introduced the concept, it could be argued that in practice polyarchy is nothing new to the US. It has been said that the “Founding Fathers” feared dictatorship, but that they also feared democracy. A polyarchal system may have seemed more practical and realistic to the “Founding Fathers” than a dictatorial or a democratic system. The flaw of democracy, as Madison saw it, was that it might lead to the majority of the population, specifically the poor, using their voting power to initiate land reform. Such reform was viewed as an infringement on the rights of the wealthy minority to own and accumulate private property. This was not the first time that people had faced this dilemma. Aristotle considered the same dilemma. In his book Politics, Aristotle considers the different forms of government and evaluates them. He concluded that democracy was the “least bad” option. Aristotle noted a problem with democracy. If the poor of Athens could use their voting power, they might seize the property of the rich. But Aristotle proposed that inequality should be ended, so that the flaw of democracy would be no more. Madison, on the other hand, proposed that we should limit democratic procedures without becoming tyrannical.
It could be argued that a lack of political pluralism is symptomatic of a polyarchical and undemocratic, partly because it lacks the genuine political pluralism that is essential to democracy. Without a wide range of political parties, the people of the country could lack viable options in changing society in accordance with their needs and wants. In a sense, it is also more likely that the two parties are unrepresentative of the majority of Americans. Though, there is an objection to this claim.
Even though, the two main political parties appear to represent a narrow political spectrum, they are comprised of powerful factions, and thus may not be homogenous. It could be argued that, the Democrats consist of several factions, most famously liberals, social democrats and progressives, as well as moderates and a conservative wing. Similarly in the “GOP”, which is known primarily for its conservatives both fiscal and social, there are also libertarians, the Christian Right, moderates and neoconservatives. Therefore, the United States political system may not necessarily be polyarchal and could be representative of the American people. Because the two main parties consist of a multitude of factions, it could be argued that there is pluralism internal to the two main parties. It may be added that in an advanced democracy the political factions most popular with the civilian population may be lumped together into two or three main parties. The plurality internal of the two parties could reflect a degree of choice which would not exist at all in a totally undemocratic and possibly polyarchical system.
It could be argued that these two parties are not monolithic, but that does not mean the US isn’t a polyarchy. As the plurality of factions could exist in a polyarchy, these factions are not parties and are subject to the same influence of political donors as the rest of the party. Even when taking into account these factions, the political spectrum that is represented by the two parties is still narrow. Where the political spectrum in Europe would consider a politician such as John Kerry firmly right-wing, the American political spectrum would place Kerry on the centre-left. Most politicians in the US are labelled either “liberal” or “conservative”. Occasionally, moderates and libertarians are mentioned. Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader are deviations from this set of vague labels and are usually referred to as “far-left”. Labels such as “socialist” and “fascist” come up in discourse and are usually used by politicians to vilify each other. But the use of these terms in bouts of “mudslinging” is deceiving, leading many to believe that there is a great deal of diversity. Even if the likes of Ron Paul and Kucinich as examples of the “diversity” of US politics, such diversity may not contradict the concept of a polyarchy. But only two parties remain dominant and their members are predominantly “liberal” and “conservative”, it could be said that there is little diversity. In practice, it could be said, Bush and Kerry did not differ greatly on policy.
Before examining the actions of the Bush administration, it is imperative that we first look at the circumstances which ushered them into office and the similarities between the candidates of the 2000 Election. The Democratic candidate was Al Gore and the Republican candidate was George Bush. Both of them stood in opposition to universal health care and strict controls on environmental damages. Neither proposed a plan for extensive low-cost housing. Both candidates favoured a strong military establishment and protectionist economic practices. The death penalty and the growth of prisons were opposed by neither Bush nor Gore. Al Gore had made a name for himself as a supporter of environmental causes and chose Joe Lieberman, a well known conservative, as his running mate. For instance, Lieberman voted to limit punitive damage awards in cases of product liability. Lieberman was popular with the military industrial complex, which received $8 billion in contracts for a submarine during his stint as senator for Connecticut. On the other hand, Bush was primarily known for his connections in the oil industry and his unprecedented record for executing convicts while he was the Governor of Texas. Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate, who had been involved in the administrations of Bush I, Ford and Nixon.
A polyarchy would feature a skewed representation of wealthy groups, as opposed to being subjected to the will of the people at a grass-roots level. Because such groups have access to the capital required to have an effect on the political process, through lobbying and campaign funding. In the election of 2000, it could be said that, even the voting machinery was “skewed” in the favour of the wealthy. The electoral vote was so close that it was left to state electors to decide the outcome of the election. Gore had received hundreds of thousands of votes more than Bush, but this did not result in a landslide victory for Gore. Victory had to be determined by the electors of each state, due to stipulations in the Constitution. But many votes in Florida had simply not been counted, voting ballots and machines had been disqualified on technical grounds. Most of these votes had been made by poor African-Americans. There was a recount, which was rushed and did not take into account every one of the disputed ballots, which concluded Bush had won the election by over 500 votes. This is evidence of the inadequate representation of blacks in America, and a testament to the neglect of the poor in the country, which points to a system tilted to whites of wealthy backgrounds. The Republicans took the case to the US Supreme Court – which consisted of five conservatives and four liberals at the time – who in turn overruled the Florida Supreme Court and prohibited anymore recounts. Possibly, the conservative judges acted to elect the politician favoured most by “Corporate America”, as opposed to the candidate favoured by the people.
It could be argued that the American people have a disposition towards conservatism. It is imperative that we look at the Election of 2000 from a conservative point-of-view. What people have forgotten is that at that time Al Gore represented, what was widely regarded as a discredited administration. The Clinton administration had been elected on a mandate for “hope” and it was seen to have accomplished little in two terms. Not only had the administration failed the American people, but it was viewed as an embarrassment by many. This would have had an influence on the voters at the time. Even without the record the Clintonites had, it is a rarity in American politics to see the people give a third-term to a party. This is especially true when the candidate was a member of the administration throughout its tenure. Bush, on the other hand, was a “new face” and appeared folksy to the public. Bush ran on a platform of compassionate conservatism, which may have appealed to many moderate as well as conservative voters. At the same time, Ralph Nader ran for President and proposed far more progressive policies than Bush and Gore. It has been argued by the Democrats that Nader’s candidacy had created a “spoiler effect” during the election and may have cost Gore the election. Nader won a little less than 97,500 votes in Florida, therefore it could be that Nader cost Gore the election since Bush won by 500 votes. If the voting system had not been for the fiasco surrounding ballots in Florida it could be argued that there may have been a clear cut Republican victory.
Despite the controversy surrounding the election, Bush was inaugurated as demonstrations were held in Washington and Florida rejecting his victory as illegitimate. Once in office the Bush administration began pushing for tax cuts for the rich and opposing regulation which could limit environmental damage. The administration sought increases in the military budget, which is beneficial to high-tech industry as a lot of the funding for the military is used to subsidise the private sector. The administration made plans to privatise Social Security, to put the retirement funds of American citizens on the stock market. It could be said that these policies are not representative of the people. The majority of the white working-class voted on two areas gun ownership and religiosity, policies on abortion and gay rights. At the same time, upper-class voters tend to vote on economic issues related to taxes and health-care. This is the dual constituency, as indicative of a polyarchy, we looked at previously. Bush tried to appeal to both classes, by opposing gun control and abortion while seeking vast tax cuts for the rich. It would appear that even if Bush’s first term was legitimate, it would be predicated on many people voting against their interests. It would also appear that this may be the way politicians aim to resolve the problem of the dual constituency – the rich and the poor – by ensuring that the electorate vote against their own interests.
The amount of corporate support a candidate for public office has is reflected by the sum of funding which was received during their campaigns. The Bush campaign managed to raise $220 million in funding, whereas the Gore campaign received $170 million in funding. In 2004, when Bush and Cheney were campaigning for re-election they received just over $367 million and spent around $345 million. On the other hand, John Kerry received over $328 million and spent around $310 million. If we look at the most recent Presidential election in the US, we can see that this trend continues. Obama received around $745 million in funding, spent around $730 million, while the McCain campaign received $368 million and spent less than $350 million on his campaign. There appears to be a consistent pattern in American politics, particularly over the last 30 years, that corporate funding of campaigns has increased and the winners of elections tend to those who received the most funding. In the case of the 2000 Election, this may have meant that even a politician not supported by a majority of the population could take office purely on a firm base of corporate support.
Many members of the Bush administration had been successful in the private sector. The five years Dick Cheney spent as a CEO, of the major corporation Halliburton, is perhaps the most infamous instance of this, but not an exceptional example. The President himself had been involved in energy companies, Arbusto Energy, Spectrum 7 and Harken, in the late 70s right up until the 90s. Condoleezza Rice had worked for corporations, like the Carnegie Corporation and Hewlett-Packard, but most notably the energy company Chevron. Donald Rumsfeld became involved in the pharmaceutical corporation Searle after leaving the Ford administration. After playing the roles of CEO, President and Chairman, Rumsfeld profited from the sale of Searle to Monsanto in 1985. All the while, he remained a part-time role in the public sector. He was involved in a string of corporations up until 2001 when Rumsfeld was made Secretary of Defence. Andrew Card, a member of the White House Iraq Group, had been the President of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association until the trade association dissolved. Then he was President of General Motors until joining the administration in 2001. Henry Paulson had been involved in Goldman Sachs for over 30 years by the time he was appointed to Secretary of the Treasury. Arguably, it is likely for such a government, consisting of people who have worked in business for decades, to be swayed by elite interests.
American foreign policy could reflect the way in which state-power can be swayed by elite interests. Despite massive opposition around the world, the US government led the invasion of Iraq with the stated aim of removing a brutal dictatorial regime, to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. Iraq is a major oil producing country, second only to Saudi Arabia, and many members of the administration had worked in the private sector, some specialising specifically in the energy industry. Oil is often the most cited reason the country was invaded today, and we now know that around 80% of Iraqi oil went to British and American energy corporations. Facts like these are unsettling for many, as they seem to imply a conflict of interest on the part of the Bush administration and “Corporate America”, as many members of the administration had been involved in the energy industry.
Oil could have been one reason for the invasion, it could be argued that there were many other reasons. Once the invasion had been completed, and fighting continued throughout much of the country, the American government, through the Coalition Provisional Authority, initiated economic “shock therapy” consisting of a series of free-market reforms. The mass-privatisation of industries and services in the public sector, followed by the deregulation of the markets, the aim was to create an ideal market economy. The Iraqi people were denied the freedom to unionise, as they had been under Saddam Hussein. Corporation tax in Iraq was lowered from 40% to 15%, to encourage investment, and such corporations were also allowed to transfer 100% of their profits out of the Iraq tax free. Corruption had became a serious problem in the country, as over 10% of the $350 billion in funds allocated for reconstruction were siphoned off by American corporations. If there was a functioning polyarchy in the US, at that time, these facts could be viewed as signs of the exertion of state-power for the benefit of multinational corporations. Possibly, a further indication that the US is a polyarchy.
The awarding of no-bid reconstruction contracts, in some cases by executive agreement, have been viewed by some as a form of this use of state-power, for the benefit of private companies. Halliburton and Bechtel are two corporations that were awarded no-bid reconstruction contracts. Bechtel was awarded $35 million contract, a condition of the contract stated that it could provide for funding up to a sum of $680 million. Though, Halliburton is the most infamous case, as it was once run by Dick Cheney. Halliburton received numerous no-bid reconstruction contracts through executive agreements. By 2004 Halliburton had around $10 billion worth of contracts in Iraq. There were also allegations of corruption against Halliburton, as well as claims that the corporation had sought excessive charges from the government to cover costs. In 2006 the Pentagon’s auditors found over $250 million were potentially excessive or unjustified charges. Nevertheless, all but $10 million of those contested costs were covered by the American government.
The purpose of the media is supposed to be that of an impartial distributor of important information to the public on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is possible that media can act as subservient institutions to private-power. The manner in which the media acted under Bush, in the run-up to the Iraq war is important, as the coverage appealed to the average American’s need for security and safety. The media widely disseminated the idea that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass-destruction” and failed to challenge the Bush administration on the accusations they were making – all of which later turned out to be untrue. In doing so, it could be said that the media supported the invasion, which would later see 80% of Iraqi oil go to the energy corporations. The behaviour of the media in the run-up to the war could be viewed as symptomatic of a polyarchy. This is so because political parties, in a polyarchal system, would have to at least appeal to the population on some level even though their policies are skewed toward serving the interests of wealthy groups. In a dictatorship there would be no need for even the pretence of representing the people, as government can do as it pleases and simply repress any dissent.
Fox News was the first news channel that declared Bush the winner in the contested election. Although, the Fox News channel is often criticised for it’s consistently right-wing slant on social and economic issues. Though, as Christianity has been politicised, the discourse has been turned towards “moral issues” like abortion, gay rights etc. and away from issues like health and wages. Rival news channels soon fell in line with Fox and declared Bush the President-elect. These news channels probably did so in order to avoid losing ratings and to avoid the common accusation that they represent a “liberal bias” in the media. In the early days of the war with Afghanistan, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly called on the military to "bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble—the airport, the power plants, their water facilities, and the roads." Whether or not it is right to bomb the infrastructure of a country there should have at least been debate regarding this tactic, as opposed to simply its advocacy. We might expect this kind of conduct from Fox News, a channel with a reputation for supporting conservatives, but it is also media outlets that are often accused as having a “liberal” or “left-wing” bias that have behaved in similar ways to Fox in the past. It was the New York Times and the Washington Post that are supposedly liberal news outlets and yet they did not oppose either the Iraq war or the invasion in Afghanistan.
If we take the view that the American people tend to lean towards conservatism, and that this is the reason behind the lack of political pluralism rather than polyarchy, we should acknowledge that the same could be said of the media. The reason for the conservative slant on many stories, even in papers with liberal reputations like the Washington Post and the New York Times, maybe that the readers identify with the conservative viewpoint. Newspapers and news channels with right-wing dispositions are more popular. The forces of the free-market would remove any media outlets that are unsuccessful, leaving only the papers and channels providing the information that the public favours most. Consequently, media outlets with such leanings are more successful and outdo competing media firms that do not share these leanings. As a consequence, there are more channels with a right-wing perspective than there are with a left-wing slant. In this view, this is the reason left-wing commentary is confined to outlets dependent on public funding. On the other hand, right-wing commentary has flourished in the private sector since the late 1980s. But this begs the question, do the media reflect public opinion?
There have been other explanations proposed, to explain the tilt in media coverage, one being the “propaganda model”. Propaganda was once used openly to refer to methods of manipulating the public. The term propaganda developed negative connotations because similar methods had been utilised by Nazi propagandists. The PR industry used to be referred to as propaganda, until Edward Bernays invented the term “public relations”. Bernays believed that humans are driven by irrational forces. Therefore, it is likely that people can make “wrong decisions” and want “wrong things”. To Bernays, the public is a “bewildered herd” and that the only way to deal with them is by appealing to their unconscious desires and fears. In his book Propaganda, Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” Plausibly, these manipulative practices are undemocratic. Bernays dubbed this “intelligent manipulation” the engineering of consent. Years before he had done so, Walter Lippmann had given it another label the “manufacturing of consent”. A phrase later borrowed by Chomsky and Herman, in their book which presented the “propaganda model”. This model consists of five editorial filters, through which information passes before being presented to the public as news. These filters include: 1. The size, ownership, owner wealth and profit-motivated nature of the mass-media. 2. The dependence of media firms on advertising. 3. The reliance of the media on the government, business and experts funded by these primary sources of power. 4. “Flak”, the means of managing public information, negative responses to a media statement. 5. Ideological bias, for instance anti-communism. We can’t cover all of these so let’s look at the relevant filters – the second and the fifth.
The second filter, the dependency of the media on advertising revenue as a way in which media outlets interact with the business community which can affect the content of news. Advertisements cover the costs of writing and producing newspapers, which ultimately drove down the price of the paper. Without the support of advertisers, newspapers and channels are not practical to run. As a result of the increasing dependency on advertising revenue, the radical press has been weakened considerably since the mid 19th Century as it could not compete. The readers of such papers tend to be of humble backgrounds, the newspapers that had more advertising were cheaper for them to read on a regular basis. Most of the working-class press has either gone out of business because of this or has become dependent on public funding. In a sense, it is true that the right-ward leaning of the media is a product of supply and demand, but only in relation to advertising revenue and not sales revenue. The bias of the media may not simply be a partisan agenda, like that which Fox arguably has with the “GOP”, but an ideological prejudice that transcends parties. This brings us to the fifth filter.
The fifth filter is anti-communism as a control mechanism. The widely publicised and documented history of abuse in communist states had made anti-communism an ideological principle in Western politics. It could be said that communism was portrayed as the “ultimate evil” over decades. Chomsky and Herman argued that it was anti-communism that was used to mobilise the masses against enemies. Thus, leftists could be vilified by commentators, as on the side of the enemy, but social democrats and progressives also became the subject of this vilification. Michael Dukakis was called a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” during his campaign for office in 1988. The term “card-carrying” implies membership to the Communist Party. Though, it should be noted Chomsky and Herman were writing in the late 1980s prior to the collapse of the USSR. Therefore, it may be fair to assume that the kind of ideological bias today may differ greatly to that of the media during the Cold War. The Republicans accused Al Gore of appealing to “class warfare” in the election campaign and more recently there has been a spate of red-baiting during Obama’s campaign. Arguably, this is part of an ideological disposition to notions of freedom and individualism in general. Notions such as the free-market and social mobility, on the basis of merit, also appear to be prevalent. In fact, this disposition has a long history, predating the Cold War and possibly back to the Founding Fathers. The depth of this ideological disposition is reflected in speeches made by politicians, one such instance is Bush’s statement “I believe freedom is the future of all humanity.”
We will now look at the economic system, as it has changed over the last four decades. The last 40 years are important as this was the time that a major change occurred, putting the social democratic ideas of Roosevelt behind and moving on to neoliberalism – which emphasises economic growth, a minimal state and a free-market. Milton Friedman, the leading monetarist economist, once said “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” Friedman’s words fit well with the ideals of the US, individualism and freedom, as well as his theories which have been highly influential in the years up to the financial crisis of 2008. This could be part of the ideological disposition we discussed previously. Debatably, this disposition may have left Americans ill-equipped to deal with the problems of inequality. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans shocked many, as the slow reaction from the Federal government drew accusations of negligence. Since a polyarchy is a system which functions to stifle radical political change and maintain the concentration of great wealth, from which the upper-classes derive their power, it would make sense that inequality would be a symptom of an economy suited to particular elites rather than the majority of Americans. The disaster highlighted the poverty rife, especially in the black community, in New Orleans and the lack of a sufficient safety net for lower class Americans.
John Maynard Keynes once said “that nothing less than the democratic experiment in self-government was endangered by the threat of global market forces.” As Keynes understood it, the deregulation of finance diminishes political pluralism and by extension diminishes the influence of grass-roots participation in elections, as greater power is placed in the hands of investors and lenders. Perhaps this is reflected by the consistent increase in corporate funding to political campaigns. But there are ways that corporations can exercise power over a state. Corporations have the power to abandon and ostracise a country where government policy is contrary to their business practices. The capital controls and fixed currencies of the post-war Bretton-Woods system, which was praised by Keynesian economists as it imposed financial regulation, served to enable political change such as the New Deal. The system was dismantled in the early 1970s under the Nixon administration. Since, the Bretton-Woods system was dismantled there has been a growing increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. Inequality increased during the Reagan years, slowing only slightly under Clinton, before increasing steadily under the second Bush administration. However, this trend began under Carter.
Over the same period of time, the implementation of neoliberal policies has led ultimately to the financialisation of the economy. Wages for people with a high school education have either stagnated or gone into decline over the last 30 years. All as working-hours have increased. Though, an economy based on consumption couldn’t maintain high levels of consumer spending as wages fell. This is the reason that household debts relative to income, doubled between 1982 and 2008. There was a massive surge in corporate profits from the early 1980s until the late 1990s, and by 2007 the ratio of financial assets to GDP had doubled since the early 80s. In 2000 that 1% of the population owned over 40% of stock, and the bottom 80% of the population own less than 10% of stock. This is indicative of the vast gulf between rich and poor in the US. At the same time, social benefits have plummeted and any attempt by American politicians to increase such benefits through government spending is dismissed as "socialism".
It was under Bush, that 1% of the populace made around $1.6 trillion dollars in less than a decade. Though, the tax cuts under Bush are not unique, they are part of a consistent pattern over the last five decades or so, which we might expect as a result of a polyarchy. The rate of tax on citizens earning over $400,000 used to be at 91%, until the Kennedy administration cut the rate down to 70% in the 1960s and increased tax breaks for those same high earners. After the Bretton-Woods system was dismantled, the rate was chiselled down to 50% by the Democrats in Congress and the Reagan administration soon pursued further cuts. By 1986 the rate of income tax on the rich had been chopped down to 28%. The common justification for such economic policies is the trickle-down effect, which was also utilised famously by the Reagan administration. The theory stipulates that by cutting corporation tax and the top rate of income tax, the government can encourage expansion by entrepreneurs, leading to job creation and thereby decrease unemployment. In spite of the popularity of this theory in Washington, these policies did not result in massive job creation. The result being the stagnation and decline of wages for working-class people, the loss of $840 billion in tax revenue and 1% of the population accumulating $1 trillion between 1978 and 1990.
After completing my research on this topic it would be easy to conclude that the US is a polyarchy rather than a democracy. As the intermingling of the political establishment, the mass-media and “Corporate America” appears to have resulted in an economic system structured to benefit a wealthy few. But a single essay cannot prove conclusively that the US is polyarchical. In spite of that, this has been a thought provoking look at American politics. We can say with confidence, that there appears to be a pattern during the Bush Presidency, as well as in the media and the economy, that elite interests are of great importance and may have been for a long time.
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