The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, at the start of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, like many people I was elated. At the time it seemed that the Republican Party, with its aggrandizement of economic elites and undisguised deployment of arbitrary power, had been completely discredited. In light of the shenanigans of Wall Street and the mess in Iraq, the Democrats were able to take control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress – and then they botched it. The election of 2010 ushered in a new wave of right-wing recklessness and now some of our most cherished principles and programs are at serious risk.

(c) 2012 Ralph Bakshi

While the Republicans are primarily to blame for the economic situation we currently face – for causing it, for refusing to work with the Democrats on solutions, and for advocating policies that will make things worse – over the past four years, I have also blamed Obama. Like many on the Left, I am disappointed with Obama’s job performance during his first term for an array of reasons. The stimulus was too small and was undermined by his budget cuts. He took single payer off the table before even beginning negotiations and then failed to fight for the public option. And he capitulated way too much to Republicans during the manufactured “debt crisis,” instead of explaining why you should not try to balance the budget during a recession. For me, the problem is not that Obama was unable to get a progressive agenda passed; it was that in many cases, he never even tried. Instead, he often seemed to have a pathological desire to pander to the right, even in the face of their professed desire to destroy him.  And, strangely, he seems to have little understanding of Keynesian economics.

Even more problematic, however, are some of the policies Obama has actively pursued. I am still angry about his refusal to hold Bush Administration officials responsible for the war crimes they committed and outraged at his continuation of many of Bush-era tactics in the so-called War on Terror. After four years, we are still at war in Afghanistan, we are still illegally imprisoning people in Guantanamo Bay, and we are now assassinating people, including American citizens, with drones.

Yet despite these significant short-comings, I would argue that progressives should strongly support Obama in the 2012 election because what we are facing from the Republicans is a monumental attack on the fundamental principles that underlie not only progressive politics but also democratic self-government itself. Indeed, this year the Republican Party called into question principles and programs that most people probably thought were completely secure. With their fabricated invocation of voter fraud, the GOP has launched a major attack on universal suffrage, attempting to systematically disenfranchise minorities. With the Republican “war on women,” they have introduced a shocking array of misogynist agenda items into the political discourse – voting against equal pay for equal work, standing opposed to contraception, cutting women’s health programs, advocating for vaginal probes, and suggesting that “legitimate rape” cannot result in pregnancy – all of which undermine the human dignity of women and erode gender equality. In addition, the Republicans in general and Romney/Ryan in particular have stated their desire to privatize essentially all public institutions and programs, which will destroy what remains of the commons and result in the further immiseration of the American people. Finally, the Right seeks to exacerbate the already extreme level of economic inequality that threatens the very existence of the middle class, which has been seen, from Aristotle through contemporary political economy, as the necessary foundation for democratic self-government.

The right-wing agenda is outrageous, but it is not enough to simply react to it piece by piece. What progressives need is an overarching vision that has wide appeal. The basic principles that should animate left-wing discourse and activity are the same today as they have always been, but they need to be integrated into a coherent vision, rather than simply arising ad hoc. Personally, I favor framing progressive principles in terms of American republicanism, because that tradition is recognized as legitimate by most Americans, since it was a founding tradition of our country. Consequently, using a republican frame for progressive ideals demonstrates that we are not attempting to impose a “foreign” discourse on the United States – like “European socialism” or “Kenyan anti-colonialism.” Instead, we are appealing to the best of our own tradition of democratic republicanism.

You don’t often hear progressives lay claim to American republicanism. While the Right makes frequent reference to the founding, most often their depiction is either needlessly narrow (as illustrated by the Tea Party) or downright erroneous (as when Glen Beck invokes Tom Paine). Instead of letting these distortions lie, it is my contention that American progressives should actively reclaim the political philosophy of republicanism and clearly articulate its radical implications. Republicanism is not alien to the Left. Indeed, Marx and Engels considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the republican legacy of the French Revolution and used its principles to espouse social democracy, as did the “economic republicans” of nineteenth-century America.

Because republicanism constitutes America’s heritage, it provides a narrative that ordinary people can latch onto. However, it is important to note that my invocation of republicanism involves teasing out its fundamental principles and applying them in a way appropriate for contemporary times, not trying to resuscitate outmoded or exclusionary interpretations from the past. Republicanism, in its essence, presents an array of important political principles. It constitutes a political philosophy that is equally committed to both popular sovereignty and the rule of law. These principles are important because together they help protect liberty for the republic and its people. Popular sovereignty means that ordinary people, rather than just elites, should participate in passing laws and setting public policy, and elected representatives must remain accountable to the people, all of which helps prevent tyranny. The rule of law protects people from arbitrary power, whether stemming from the government or from other members of society. Moreover, as a form of collective self-government, republicanism aims at the common good, not just the advancement of particular individual interests.

Equality is absolutely central to the maintenance of republican self-government for multiple reasons. First, the concept of popular sovereignty is based on political equality, currently actualized through universal suffrage. Second, the rule of law requires equality before the law, regardless of wealth, status, race, or other particulars. Third, now that women are recognized as citizens, the republican tradition must recognize gender equality as a fundamental principle. Finally, republicanism requires a certain level of economic equality because high levels of inequality erode solidarity and reciprocity, which form the basis of public-spiritedness, also known as civic virtue. In the American context, while the imperative of economic equality, problematically, underwrote the original property requirement for voting, it subsequently led to policies designed to prevent the emergence of a new aristocracy, including the inheritance tax and progressive taxation. In other words, while republican principles have been implemented in different ways in different historical eras, the basic principles remain the same and continue to be useful for us today, and the republican frame allows us to appeal to values most Americans accept as legitimate, even if they are not students of political theory.

The issue of extreme economic inequality has come to the fore in the 2012 election, partly due to the intervention of the Occupy movement. As both Obama and Romney have asserted, this election really does pit two diametrically opposed philosophies against each other. Whoever originally said Romney wants to be “King of the 1%” has it exactly right. The phrase nicely encapsulates the dual threat presented by the Republican ticket. “1%” refers to the interests of economic elites that stand opposed to the common good, while “King” signifies arbitrary power. Augmenting the arbitrary power of elites directly undermines the republican tradition of democratic self-government, which is based on popular sovereignty and the rule of law. And since the Republicans have made it a priority to attack universal suffrage, the backbone of contemporary democracy, calling the Republicans anti-democratic cannot be dismissed as hyperbole.

There has been a lot of excellent commentary criticizing the extreme inequality that pervades our society. Very often these critiques focus on basic fairness, which is compelling. But I would like to see more attention to the ways in which the creation of two polarized classes undermines the possibility of working together to pursue the common good, which is what republican self-government requires. That is to say, if two diametrically opposed interests are allowed to develop, and no common interest exists, there is little chance of cooperation, and society can fracture. We need to maintain some commonality among the people, so we have an interest in working together for the common good. Collectivism is not a foreign concept. Republicanism is a theory of collective self-government. It attends to what we share in common. Indeed, res publica means public thing.

What we also don’t hear enough about in today’s political discourse is the concept of arbitrary power. The political institutions of this country were created to constrain the arbitrary power of government, to fracture large concentrations of political power. Casting governmental overreach – in foreign as well as domestic realms – in terms of arbitrary power connects the critique to our shared republican heritage and frees it from the standard libertarian framing. In addition, however, we also need to pay attention to the arbitrary power of economic elites, to large concentrations of economic power. This terminology recasts the concept of class
struggle in republican terms.

Thinking in terms of republican principles, we can see that while Obama could have been more effective in advocating for a progressive agenda – and the Left could have been more effective in demanding that he do so – clearly the President stands opposed to the destruction of self-government and the plundering of the commons by elites. While his healthcare plan leaves something to be desired, his professed goal is the common good of universal healthcare. While I found it outrageous that Obama would put Social Security and Medicare on the table during the manufactured “debt crisis” negotiations with Boehner, the President does not contest the very existence of a public institutions. And while Obama clearly violates the basic tenets of republicanism when he shamelessly exercises arbitrary power in the military realm, he is so much better than Romney in terms of most other important issues that he is worthy of our support. In any event, a vote for Obama pushes us further towards a vision of Left republicanism, than does a vote for Romney, and the risks to all we hold dear as a country are much too great to justify a protest vote in 2012. That is why I am voting for Obama and the Democratic ticket on November 6.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jeff Madrick: The Reluctant Vote

By Benjamin Barber: Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

By Stephen Eric Bronner: The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

By Judith Stein: The Day After Election Day

By Rogers M. Smith: Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

By Lauren Langman: Why Obama Will Win the Election . . . and the Left Should Hope So

By John Ehrenberg: How to Kill a Vampire

By Claire Snyder-Hall: The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

By Steve Early: Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

By Chip Berlet: Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

By Richard Meagher: Founding Principles

By Alyson Cole: What’s Wrong with Victims?