This article is part of a 13-question interview about American society that Jaime Ortega, president of "The Daily Journalist" conducted with me by submitting questions in writing. The essays with the first 11 questions are published below.
12. Jaime Ortega: If a third party ascends to power is it doomed to be become an autocratic conundrum since problems cannot be resolved with democracy alone shown by liberals and conservatives? Is the US destined to become a dictatorship if things started to crumble within the pillars of its own society?
JVK: There are those, including former president Jimmy Carter, warning that the US is not a democracy because of “big money” dominance in elections. Others point to the US “surveillance state”, curtailing on human rights and civil rights in the name of national security, increased reliance on military solutions to overseas crises and a militarized state that subordinates democracy to national security. A country can be engaged in all of those things and have a government ranging from Fascist to social-democratic. The American reality is not as simple as many critics dismiss it and it is important to consider the sources of anti-democratic aspects in a society that was founded not on political, social and economic equality for that would socialism, but equality of “opportunity” to become integrated into the bourgeois mainstream for the white male population that dominated institutions at the end of the 18th century.
On the one hand, the US has aspects that include police-state methods used both in Guantanamo prisoners as well as blacks in Homan Square detention facility in Chicago, both violating human rights and civil rights according to US laws and international conventions. On the other hand, the US is a society where there is legalization of gay marriage and marijuana, free speech and freedom of petition and dissent. In other words, the categorical labeling of the US as authoritarian runs into trouble considering that in many domains the US remains committed to certain fundamental freedoms and it cannot possibly compare to Fascist Italy in the 1930s, or South Africa before Nelson Mandela.
Categorizing American society becomes complicated and very complex behind the veneer of existing freedoms and rights of citizens, even as stipulated in the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions handed down through the decades. In the absence of economic freedom all other freedoms are necessarily limited as much in the US as in any other part of the world, more or less democratic than the US. The large question is the degree to which sovereignty rests with the majority of the people rather than with a small rich minority enjoying control of mainstream institutions. If indeed sovereignty rests with the majority and there are empirical indicators pointing to it, then critics of America as undemocratic are wrong. If the US is a “corporatocracy”, then critics may be correct.
Corporatocracy is rule by corporations, or at least preeminent influence of corporations in all aspects of society from government to health and education, thus obviating the role of the people as sovereign under what they understand their role in the social contract. This phenomenon is not limited to the US, but it is prevalent in many countries considering we live in a world of multinational corporate domination that international financial institutions like the IMF, World Bank and others support to remain dominant. The neo-corporatist phenomenon that has taken hold under contemporary capitalism projects the image of democracy because it maintains certain rights of citizens while dominating the key institutions from government and media to health and education.
The existing American political structure operating within the neo-corporatist model is set up so that it only permits for a two-party system that the entire institutional system supports explicitly or implicitly. The political, economic, and cultural elites are an integral part of the two-party system that starts from local politics all the way to the national level. The Liberal-Conservative duality in American politics is not nearly as heterogeneous as the politicians present it. Both major political parties represent the same institutional neo-corporatist structure and both work within a given framework. As domestic and international conditions may change, the political parties make policy changes toward the right on economic and foreign policy, and adjustments on the left when it comes to social-cultural issues such as gay marriage and marijuana laws. This provides people with the illusion that “democracy works”.
A third party coming along would need a popular base, a constituency that is crying out for structural reforms as was the case in 1932 when Roosevelt ran on a reformist platform amid the Great Depression that would in essence strengthen the central government and absorb surplus capital from the private sector to use for the state to stimulate growth and development. FDR did all of this within the confines of the Democratic Party and as an extension of the Progressive Era Democrat policies that Wilson has started. Instead of creating a third party, he absorbed the leftists into his own party.
In today’s corporatocracy world, the only way that a third political party would receive a wide appeal and not encounter nearly as much opposition from entrenched political and socioeconomic elites and media is if “objective” societal conditions are such that the third party is then able to overcome such obstacles.
The scenarios under which a third political party could emerge are as follows: 1. Left-leaning progressive party that tries to restructure society on the model of social democracy not much different than FDR but reflecting contemporary conditions; and 2. Extreme rightwing that could conceivably result in an outright authoritarian government. Considering the US resorts to police-state methods justified in the name of law and order and counter-terrorism, the rightwing scenario would not be far from today’s realities; and Both a left-wing and a rightwing political parties challenging the mainstream and reflecting the socioeconomic polarization of society as the rich-poor gap widens and the middle class becomes weaker results in one-party neo-corporatist state under “national emergency” conditions. This would be a form of authoritarianism and unlikely to emerge except under extreme conditions of sociopolitical polarization tasking place against the background of foreign crisis or crises.
The scenario of authoritarianism that took place in interwar Europe not just Italy and Germany experiencing a crisis of their mainstream bourgeois political parties amid very deep economic crisis, but all of Europe from Spain and Portugal to Eastern Europe during the 1930s. While the US does not have a tradition of Fascism, it does have a very long history of rightwing politics based on racism, xenophobia, anti-Communism, Islamophobia, religious fanaticism, and above all militarism and police-state methods, all of which are elements that a third political party could combine to mobilize sufficient popular support to take over local and state government positions initially, and eventually national government.
Public opinion polls indicate that the percentage of citizens that have confidence in their government is relative low in the mid-30s vs. the number angry at their government in the low 70s. These public opinion polls do not reveal whether these disgruntled citizens would support and left-leaning or a rightwing government under certain conditions, but they reveal the absence of support for the “middle-of-the-road” politics under neo-corporatism. There are many reasons why people are at best apathetic to angry with their government, but this is fertile territory for a populist rightwing political party trying to mobilize this segment into a coherent political force, backed by a segment of the business community, churches, and other segments in society.
The scenario of a third party rooted in rightwing politics is much more likely in America because a segment of the mainstream Republicans are already there ideologically as is a large segment of the media and businesses and a segment of churches and educational institutions dependent on the generosity of conservative benefactors. One ought not to jump to conclusions that all capital favors rightwing politics, just because it favors perpetuating its role in society. Capitalism is indeed unified in its goals but capitalists are at odds with each other. This makes the argument about what kind of regime would emerge in the future more difficult because there were capitalists who vehemently fought against FDR as there were others who went along with him, just as they had done with previous presidents in the Progressive Era. Capital under the neo-corporatist model has common interests but that does not necessarily mean that it has a common strategy of how to achieve its goals.
While a leftwing orientation is indeed a leap of faith, it would hardly be a leap of faith for America to go from the current status quo to an outright of authoritarian system that would of course continue to claim it is “democratic”. Such a system would be needed to impose social conformity of the masses to an economic system that would benefit fewer and fewer people and an institutional structure that would be largely for the economically-privileged in society. Again, there are those who argue this is where America is today, but this is a stretch at this point despite strong evidence favoring the thesis. However, if neo-corporatism continues under neoliberal policies and the corporate welfare state and militarism, then America will have some form of authoritarian government and this may come from within the ranks of the Republican Party as a third party alternative.
13. Jaime Ortega: Where do you see the US in the next 10 years?
JVK: People judge the future on the basis of the present. Their predictions are really revealing about what they see today. Besides examining the past, there are empirical indicators pointing to changes in the next ten years. As a larger percentage of Americans will be older – 16-18% as compared with 13% today – and as the white population will decline while the Hispanic population will increase, society will be demographically different in ten years and very different in 30 years when the convergence of demographic, economic and political changes will result in a new society trying to assert its identity based on its legacy rather than future prospects. According to public opinion polls, Americans are not optimistic about where the country will be in ten years, with about an equal number indicating it will be worse off as better off. This is not to say that European feel much better about their future, especially considering the uncertainty of integration, the reality that Germany has imposed its hegemony over the rest, and the prospect that China and Russia pose a threat to their historic political, economic, and strategic preeminence in the world.
Most Americans believe that the growing sociopolitical division will continue to grow for a number of reasons. College education will not be affordable for the majority that has been experiencing downward social mobility and will not improve in ten years. The economy will not be as good as it once was to lift the majority toward the middle class as was the case after WWII. Just one-fifth of Americans are confident their children will have good employment opportunities and 80% are pessimistic as they expect the rich-poor gap to increase and the top income earners to dominate politics. As the media and most analysts are constantly reinforcing the idea that China will replace the US as the world’s superpower, this is also reflected among the majority of Americans who do not believe the US will perform as well in ten years because it is a superpower in steady decline.
While Americans see tangible evidence in daily life of the rich-poor gap and political divisions, they are convinced these will become sharper as the nation’s global standing will decline.
They are optimistic that new technology will continue to improve as would biotech and pharmaceutical advancements but those would be expensive and affordable only by the rich. There is also a sense that heavy private and public borrowing of the last two decades will continue to put downward pressure on living standards. Thus, the prospects for raising living standards are also hindered by debt. Not surprisingly, there is more pessimism among whites than minorities because whites know demographic changes are rapid and will change society to their detriment. It is significant to stress that Hispanics are the most optimistic about their future in every respect, followed by blacks, because they too see demographic changes but to their advantage. Whether this actually becomes reality or the white majority mounts a racist/xenophobic political movement of major proportions remains to be seen.
There are aspects of the larger picture that public opinion polls miss. For example, the role of the US in ten years will depend to some extent on the rest of the world. The decline of Europe and Japan as a result of WWII necessarily meant the ascendancy of the US to world power status, although the foundations for such a role were established in the last quarter of the 19th century and during the Progressive Era. It is entirely possible that a political crisis in China and/or other major power sinks them into chaos and that lifts the US status, despite the incredible interdependence of the world economy. More likely, the rapid development of some countries, including Brazil, India, Russia, and Iran all siding in a bloc with China that will have much of Africa and Asia integrated, would entail a considerable weakening of the US in every respect. Capital is international and the US-China interdependence cuts both ways, but current trends indicate more in China’s favor than the US.
It is possible that the world’s population will reach nine billion in fifteen years and it will need an additional 50% more food than it does today to meet those needs. Expected to experience 10 to 15% percent population growth (as high as 350 million), the US, which was the breadbasket of the world from the late 19th to the late 20th century, will lose its preeminent status. All indications are the Russia will capture that position, as it will also become a major producer of minerals and energy.
One reason for the East-West struggle over Ukraine is that it could become well integrated with the West, and it could provide food security the West will need, although this is a prospect that does not look promising so far. Monsanto Corporation has already started working on genetically modified food production in Ukraine as a backdoor to penetrate the European market. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill have also been very prominent in Ukraine’s primary sector of production.
With US government support, the IMF and World Bank are working in the Ukraine to make sure it moves toward greater integration with the West to provide US multinational corporations the opportunity to dominate key markets through which companies will remain dominant in Europe. The Ukraine-type struggle for commodities markets will continue in the next ten years. However, the price the US will pay for this kind of intervention is more reliance on overt and covert military solutions to regional crises it creates and greater drain of the US economy.
It is possible that the combination of the US energy independence and new technologies could provide an impetus for the economy, only if the state acts to absorb the surplus capital from the top 10% of income earners to invest and develop human capital and human security as I have stated above in relation to another topic. New scientific and technological advances will do absolutely nothing except cause more problems than they solve for society at large. America will remain in a mode of expansion that further concentrates capital and expansion that further weakens the middle class and the national economy. In other words, the expansionary cycles will not result in income distribution toward the middle and lower classes because the FED steps in to raise rates and slow down the economy that is overheating (inflationary), thus keeping structural unemployment high.
I hope that America in 2025 will not have a repeat of 1925 when everything seemed just great but the Great Depression was around the corner because serious structural problems in the banking system, Wall Street speculation without any government regulation, and the government’s role in the economy leaving business unchecked as they demanded so they could make greater profits. The social structure in America a decade from now will be about the same with even lower living standards for the bottom two-thirds of society and even greater capital concentration, given current trends.
I am also cautious that in the next ten years there will not be a repeat of the deep recession of 2008, which was cyclical but helped along by banking deregulation amid a trillion-dollar war-bill from Iraq and Afghanistan. Having lost its preeminent global economic status, the US will continue to use its military might as political and economic leverage through alliances and bloc trade agreements that could trigger conflict at the regional level. Looking at current international relations, the future looks promising for creation of economic blocs that will both cooperate and compete with each other and may even clash.
Though in a diminished form, the US will maintain its global power status and it will continue to have one of the world’s top 20 living standards for its population. However, the expectation that Pax Americana will once again experience its glory days of the early Cold War is only real in the defense sector where American politicians will be focused as the country will experience what some scholars view as a “Third World effect” within the country. This is to say that conditions similar to those in underdeveloped nations will dominate in pockets of American society as the political class – Democrats and Republicans – will refuse to use the fiscal structure to absorb surplus capital to centralize government in the manner that FDR did so that there are not three America’s - one for the top richest ten percent, the other of about 20-25 percent making up the middle class, and the majority trying to make ends meet or hovering near or below the poverty line. There is no doubt that as housing, education and healthcare become more expensive, and as good paying jobs are limited to an ever shrinking percentage of the labor force, more people will live in substandard housing, excluded from good schools and hospitals, excluded from the American Dream.
Contrary to what many agnostics and atheists believe about religion playing a lesser role in the future, I am convinced it will play an even greater role, although different religions will reflect different views. Pope Francis is the most recent prominent leader to have joined the struggle for social justice, though from within the context of faith. “Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste.’ If a computer breaks it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people end up being considered normal.”
The views of religious leaders for social justice may converge with those of political and community leaders demanding not just reform within the system, but systemic change to overthrow the system. While I do not see even a slight chance of revolution in America in the next ten years, I do expect the increased socioeconomic gap and political alienation of the majority to present fertile ground for a grassroots movement that could rely on a variety of voices of authority, including those of the Catholic Church and others that have historically been the pillars of the status quo.
There will also be a sharp rise in convergence of rightwing political elements, business people, and Christian extremists. This is something that has deep roots in American society. The US war on terror combined with Islamophobia that the media, Hollywood, talk-radio, and politicians have been propagating religious rightwing activity is likely to rise as people seek answers for calamities in society from those presenting themselves closer to God, the flag and Wall Street. Religious violence is also a possibility in isolated incidents. More likely is the prospect that Republicans will continue to co-opt the religious right to justify the combination of militarism as a solution to foreign policy problems and neoliberal and corporate welfare as solutions to the economy. The polarization of America will be a major issue and the challenge will be to forge consensus somewhere in the middle, which will be more of the same without any solution to ending downward socioeconomic mobility. The result will be a direction to the right more than it will be to the democratic center and this means toward greater authoritarianism that will serve to protect the privileged status of the wealthy and maintain American military preeminence.