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Is America a Post-democratic Society?
How to Preserve Our Republic

Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 1.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in September 1787, a citizen approached Benjamin Franklin and asked what sort of government the assembled statesmen had given them. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin is reputed to have replied. 

Can we keep it? That is an urgent question that needs to be asked anew today, more than two centuries after the American Republic began. The Roman Republic lasted but two centuries, and then it was supplanted by the Roman Empire. Has the American democratic republic, too, become so fragile that its survival is in doubt? 

This gnawing question is being raised again, as we face ominous terrorist threats and as demands for security preempt concerns for civil liberties, at least in the minds of many. America has faced awesome challenges in its past. Slavery engulfed the young republic in discord, for it contradicted the very premise of the new democracy—that each person was equal in dignity and value. Only the Civil War could resolve that conflict. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the Cold War that followed World War II also posed awesome challenges. Similarly, the exclusion of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities from full participation in American democracy aroused bitter controversy. 

There are ominous threats to our democratic republic today, and I wish to examine some of these trends. Many democrats are disturbed by the implications of the “War on Terror,” the enactment of the Patriot Act, the tightening of our borders, xenophobic fear of the “enemy,” and the severe reduction of civil liberties. But there are still other threats to democracy. Most of these have been building for decades—well before the confrontation with the new Islamic jihad. As a result, American democracy has eroded so seriously that perhaps we have already become a post-democratic society. The United States has just undergone a drawn-out and acrimonious, even bitter, national election. As we go to press, Mr. Bush has been declared the winner of the presidency; and the Republicans have maintained control of the Congress.

Now, I do not wish to be a Cassandra of doom. Many people may say that the candidates squared off vigorously during the campaign, indicating that democracy is still alive. In my view, much of this campaigning was pure façade; for neither of the two major candidates addressed some of the basic issues that confront American society. There are, of course, differences in degree, if not in kind, between the two parties—and no doubt Mr. Bush’s victory means that our democratic institutions will continue to erode more rapidly than if Mr. Kerry had gained the presidency. These trends will most likely continue in the future—and they can only be turned back if there is massive public recognition of the grave dangers to democracy that we now face. But as we shall see, given corporate control of the media, this is difficult to achieve. 

The erosion of democracy is especially disheartening to the humanist outlook, which has been intimately tied to the democratic philosophy. Indeed, humanist and liberal philosophers have contributed to the intellectual underpinnings and theoretical justification of democracy.

Beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Locke, the French philosophes of the Enlightenment, and the founders of the American Republic (especially Paine, Jefferson, and Madison) paved the way, establishing the Right of Revolution, declaring the Rights of Man, and designing the American constitutional system (influenced of course by Montesquîeu). Democracy was not based upon divine fiat but upon the rights of the people to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to limit the power of monarchs. John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century eloquently defended liberty, the free market of ideas, and the rights of minorities against any tyranny of the majority.

Twentieth-century thinkers, including John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Karl Popper, continued democratic philosophy’s development. John Dewey presented a new defense of liberal democracy. He argued that the “method of pooled intelligence” was the best way of solving social problems and achieving necessary reforms. This presupposed the primary importance of education, as the best guarantee of democratic freedom and an informed citizenry capable of making wise judgments. Humanist philosopher Sidney Hook argued that the democratic philosophy presupposed certain ethical principles: the centrality of human freedom, which a democratic society should enlarge and enhance; and the principle of equality—each person in society was guaranteed equality before the law and entitled to an equality of concern, the poor person no less than the rich. Hook’s defense of democracy is unique. It did not draw upon a metaphysical doctrine of inherent human rights (though it demanded that the rights of citizens be recognized and defended); rather, democracy was to be justified empirically by its pragmatic consequences. Democratic societies tended to engender less cruelty, duplicity, and fear than undemocratic ones, and they tended to contribute to more peaceful, freer, and prosperous societies with greater opportunities for cultural enrichment than did nondemocratic authoritarian or totalitarian societies. Hook was indefatigable in his battle against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s and against communist totalitarianism from the 1930s through the 1980s. Karl Popper, in his influential book The Open Society, argued that the open pluralistic society was essential for a functioning democracy, in contradistinction to closed totalitarian societies. 

Political democracy is a precondition for a just democratic society. In a political democracy, the basic policies of a nation and the actions by key officials of its government to carry them out depend upon the freely given consent of a majority of the population of adult citizens voting in free elections. Representative democracy presupposes (a) the legal right of opposition; (b) civil liberties; (c) the right to petition the government for redress of grievances; (d) widespread participation of citizens at all levels of decision making; (e) the rule of law (a just legal system with open trials); and (f) a strong civil society.

For democracy to function fully, not merely formally but in actuality, it is essential that at least four other basic preconditions be fulfilled:

First, economic democracy: (a) a large middle-class with rising expectations of improved living standards; (b) some measure of equality of opportunity for the sons and daughters of the disadvantaged—their ability to rise to the top, creating a meritocracy, not a plutocracy based on wealth or conditions of birth; (c) some fairness in the distribution of income for the fruits of one’s labor; and (d) the ability of ordinary people to accumulate savings and own property.

Second, social democracy: (a) nondiscrimination based on class, race, religion, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or age; (b) the nonexclusion of anyone from public facilities and amenities; (c) educational opportunity for all children and adults and broad access to cultural enrichment in the arts and sciences; (d) the right to leisure, rest, and relaxation; and (e) a peaceful and harmonious society without excessive fear, intimidation, or coercion. 

The American experiment in democracy was unique in adding two further preconditions: third, that there would be no establishment of religion, entailing the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. Freedom of conscience was thus guaranteed by the First Amendment. Fourth, especially in recent decades, has been the recognition of the right of privacy of each person to follow his or her own moral values and fulfill goals, as long as these do not prevent others from fulfilling theirs.

These theoretical principles are no doubt familiar to advocates of the democratic philosophy, and the American system has functioned remarkably well as the land of liberty, equality, and opportunity. Wave after wave of new immigrants has “made it in America.” Virtually every racial, religious, and ethnic group is represented here, and individuals have been able to pursue their diverse careers and lives in relative freedom. Formerly repressed groups are being gradually emancipated—blacks, women, gays, handicapped people, and other groups—and they are taking their rightful places in American society.

There are many serious threats to this democratic framework that now confront us. Because of a lack of space, I will touch on only four of what I consider to be the especially dangerous trends.

Plutocracy

The first danger is the growth of plutocracy, which I define as “government of, for, and by the wealthy class in society.” Ours is hardly the first time in American history in which the moneyed classes have held great power: the Founding Fathers were well-established men of wealth and influence; the plantation owners of the South controlled much of its wealth and held inordinate power (they would be defeated only by the Civil War); during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, “robber barons” amassed great wealth and power, unburdened by income or estate taxes; then consider the roaring 1920s stock-market boom (followed by the 1929 crash) and the Reagan-Clinton go-go years of the 1980s and 1990s. It is this latter phenomenon that should bother us. Between the booms of the 1920s and the 1980s came the New Deal and the Great Society, a time of great strides toward equality. Average workers after World War II improved their economic standing dramatically. These gains now seem to have been curtailed, even reversed, especially since the Reagan years. For more than two decades, we have been deluged by the libertarian mantra: that government is evil, that regulations and taxation have stifled the free market, that welfare is abused and needs to be drastically reduced, and that the amassing of wealth is the basic American virtue. A form of plutomania has overcome us, as, for example, during the speculative stock-market bubble of the 1990s. Many Americans considered this period of exponential growth to be sanctified by God. I have called the reigning sacred cow “Evangelical Capitalism.” Marxism has been virtually defeated, and all too few critics have risen in its place to decry the excesses of capitalist greed or to defend social justice and the principles of fairness.

Our entire political system has been polluted by corruption. Lobbyists run amuck at all levels of government—from the Congress and the White House to state legislatures and county and municipal governments. Pork-barrel perks are doled out to favorites with abandon. A key element of this corruption is the disproportionate influence of campaign contributions upon elections; both major political parties are guilty on this charge, as Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky have pointed out. The Democrats no less than the Republicans drink deeply at the well of corporate largesse, and both have wealthy men and women in positions of leadership. The Bush dynasty is very wealthy. Senator Kerry (though undoubtedly sympathetic to the poor and disadvantaged) is also wealthy, due to the inherited wealth of his wife. Why are members of the Congress and the state legislatures predominantly businessmen or lawyers? Why do so few teachers, professors, nurses, computer specialists, housewives, scientists, philosophers, artists, and labor union people represent us in our nation’s highest legislative bodies? It costs money to run for office, and this prevents ordinary persons from serving. 

Undoubtedly, Democrats are more amenable to social-welfare policies than are Republicans. Yet both parties bear responsibility for the present crisis, in which forty-five million Americans lack health insurance; retirement coverage has been cut; an adequate minimum wage has not been enacted; American workers work an estimated 350 more hours per year than their European counterparts (this is being amended somewhat by German and French firms that are attempting to increase the work week), and they enjoy less vacation time; and the United States has the highest ratio of two-income households including women with children who need to work (64 percent). All too few radical reforms are enacted by our legislative system, because the plutocrats control it and they assiduously protect their interests—with all too few notable exceptions. In one sense, the heated debates between candidates serve as a cover, for the basic interests of those who control the country are very rarely in contention.

Kevin Phillips, in his remarkable book Wealth and Democracy (Broadway Books, 2002), points out that the United States now has the highest degree of inequality of income and wealth of any of the major affluent democracies. An entrenched plutocratic class has emerged, and its power is growing. Phillips presents statistics showing that “between 1979 and 1989 the portion of wealth held by the top 1% nearly doubled, skyrocketing from 22% to 39%” (p. 92). At the same time, average Americans were falling behind, even during the Clinton years. He shows that in 1999 “the average real after-tax income of the middle 60% of the population was lower than in 1977” (p. 111). Even during the Clinton years, these disparities continued. The stock-market boom of the 1990s perhaps inflated these figures. But, ever since the presidency of George W. Bush began, these trends have accelerated, and the gap in wealth continues to widen.

One can scan the Forbes 400 every year to see who the billionaires are; new billionaires enter the list each year as emerging industries shoulder aside the real estate, oil, and heavy-industry fortunes of the past. Phillips shows that the plutocratic classes pass on their wealth to their families in the form of trusts (such as the Rockefellers and DuPonts), which provide income for future generations; these fortunes often continue to grow, even into the fourth and fifth generations. He estimates that at least 100,000 families (1/10 of 1 percent of the population) doubled or quadrupled their wealth between 1982 and 1999. But there are also multimillionaires who are part of the top 1 percent. The top 1 percent share of household wealth had grown from 19.9 percent in 1972 to 40.1 percent in 1997. This inequality is greater than in France, England, and other class-ridden societies. 

Indeed, we are today in danger of developing a hereditary aristocracy of absentee landlords and shareholders. This trend will dramatically solidify if the taxation-reduction policies of the George W. Bush administration are not repealed. I am referring here to (a) estate taxes (“death taxes,” as falsely labeled by the Republicans), which are being reduced annually and will disappear entirely in a few years (if this is allowed to stand, huge fortunes will compound untouched), and (b) the rollback of higher tax brackets for the wealthy, including the reduction of capital gains and dividend tax rates (the current rate is 15 percent).

Bush’s latter tax-reduction plan, supported by a significant number of Democrats and virtually all Republicans, was enacted in order to bolster the faltering stock market and to increase the “wealth factor.” Three caveats are in order. First, the bulk of these tax perks went to the wealthy. Second, why is unearned income taxed at a lower rate than income earned by labor or services? The entire socialist critique of capitalism—now largely discredited—was based on the “labor theory of value.” It held that laboring workers (industrial, technological, or service) are unable to buy the goods and services they produce with their wages. Social-democratic critics today maintain that is unfair to tax profits, dividends, and capital gains (often based on purely speculative growth) at a lower rate than money earned by labor, particularly for those who inherit their wealth, by paying reduced taxes on dividends and capital gains even into the second, third, or fourth generations. Third, the gradual undermining of the principle of progressive taxation is thus deplored on moral grounds.

A functioning democracy presupposes a strong middle class. Unfortunately, we are today dismayed by the exportation of jobs overseas (outsourcing) and the increased “Wal-Marting” of the workforce in America, with lower-paying jobs and benefits doled out at home. 

Mega-corporations

This brings to the fore a second danger to the democratic state: the emergence of corporations as dominant players in the marketplace. This economic reality has been well over a century and a half in the making. Two implications flow from it. First, it degrades the classical Adam Smith model of a free market, which presupposed small firms and independent entrepreneurs, consumers, and working people. Smith’s focus on supply and demand presumed a free market undistorted by powerful and entrenched interests. Yet, in many industries today, just two or three major corporations (oligopolies) dominate production and distribution. And these companies are almost always incestuously intertwined with politicians, legislatures, and the courts. In response to corporations’ vast scope, industrial unions attempted to counter their power in the earlier part of the twentieth century by bargaining collectively. The labor movement has since declined in the percentage of the labor force it represents, and many of its members today work in government rather than the private sector. In earlier days, the role of government was to act as a countervailing force between labor and management; today, government is more like a handmaiden of business interests.

Thus, the regulative role for government has been drastically curtailed. In part, its power has been blunted because powerful corporations eager to reduce costs can simply threaten to move out of a community or country if government fails to do its bidding. The same bargaining chip is used by management against labor to reduce workers’ benefits and hold the line on wage increases. The key new factor is that corporations have become global; the largest of them are larger in financial power and political clout than most national governments. These are transnational mega-corporations, such as General Electric, General Motors, Daimler-Benz, Sony, Exxon-Mobil, Lever Bros., and Citicorp. In the United States, municipalities and states compete with each other in order to have companies stay in their area or to relocate from another region or state. All sorts of incentives are offered—lower real estate, utility, or tax rates, investment in the infrastructure for the company by local and state governments, and other inducements. Corporations, not governments, hold the upper hand.

For many conservative thinkers, as Calvin Coolidge said, the business of government is business, and business takes precedence over all other considerations, such as preserving the environment, reducing global warming, strengthening the health-care system, building viable transit systems, or providing affordable housing in the inner cities. Democratic legislatures can enact whatever they want, but not if it means that corporate employers will depart for lower-tax havens. In the last analysis, all too often, economic forces trump political considerations.

To see one result of this trend, consider what has happened to U.S. corporate tax rates in the past two decades. From 1996 to 2000, 63 percent of U.S. corporations paid no taxes at all, while 94 percent paid taxes equal to less than 5 percent of their net income. Moreover, the CEOs of corporations paid themselves huge salaries plus bonuses and stock options, even if their corporations had no increase in profits; this at a time when millions of jobs were lost through outsourcing and wages increased slowly if at all.

What is the upshot of my argument? Neither classical democratic theory nor the economic theory of the marketplace are able to accommodate huge transnational mega-corporations and conglomerates that have amassed inordinate power and are able to compete with the power of the state; these make decisions that governments, executives, or legislatures are unable to control or circumvent. Is America already in a post-democratic stage of development, in the sense that political leaders and the public at-large are impotent in controlling corporate power?

Theodore Roosevelt introduced legislation to break up huge trusts and monopolies at the beginning of the twentieth century; later presidents, including Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, struggled to restrain corporate power. Today, it is difficult to regulate the activities of mega-corporations, though the European Community attempts to do so, as do, fitfully, the castrated Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission within the United States. Transnational in scope, many of today’s mega-corporations have no single national homeland; they are beyond the power of any one country to restrain. The mega-corporate sector is in significant ways beyond the power of states to control, and this constitutes a major problem for national democratic governments.

I wish to conclude this section with one further observation, and that is the warning of President Dwight Eisenhower that Americans should be cautious of the growth of the military-industrial complex and its great influence on public policy. I wish to reiterate this warning and add technology to the description of the complex. America’s overwhelming power in the world is made possible because of its military-industrial-technological capacities: American foreign policy is intimately related to its economic power and its global military capability. This enormous power has led to American triumphalism and the trappings of empire. We are afforded great opportunities to spread our democratic ideals worldwide, but there are also great dangers inherent in the military adventures that we embark upon—not the least is the fact that we are now extended worldwide beyond our means.

Media-ocracy

This brings us to a third threat, which some consider to be virtually a “clear and present danger” today. The central principle upon which liberal democratic society rests is arguably its dependence on a free market of ideas. John Stuart Mill argued that a democratic society encourages the free exchange of ideas. John Dewey held that the method of pooled intelligence enables the public to make reflective judgments. Popper extolled the open society.

This concept had some meaning at a time when individual citizens could speak out on a soapbox at Hyde Park or Union Square or distribute pamphlets and leaflets on street corners, when many voices could be heard in the town hall, and every major city published several newspapers.

Today, the public square has been inundated by mass communications media, which all too often drown out dissenting viewpoints. Secularists and humanists opposed totalitarian societies, because the ministries of propaganda spewed forth the official party line and squelched opposing viewpoints. We are surely not at that point yet, but a kind of iron curtain is closing American society; a quasi-official propaganda line is too often the only one heard. For example: it is widely held that capital punishment is the only way to deal with murderers; that violence is the most effective response to evil; that long prison sentences are necessary for drug dealers and heavy users; that government is wasteful; that the free market is the only way to get anything done; that we need to privatize everything and judge all services by the bottom line; that we should consider those who possess great wealth to be role models (e.g. Donald Trump); and that self-righteous chauvinistic nationalistic patriotism, which venerates God, country, and the flag, is the only posture to assume, ad nauseam!

In the media, too, we see again the influence of mega-corporate domination. Today, there are fewer and fewer large players: General Electric (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC); Time Warner (CNN); News Corp (Murdoch’s Fox network); Disney (ABC); and Viacom (CBS). Mega-corporations dominate television and radio, and they own most of the cable networks and movie production studios. 

But mega-corporations also gobble up the print media and book and magazine publishers. I am familiar with book publishing, where I have seen independent publishers, in the thirty-five years since I founded Prometheus Books, undergo acquisition by mega-corporations. Similarly for book chains, distributors, and wholesalers. Five companies now control 75 percent of the U.S. book market. Two of these companies are transnational: Bertelsmann, a German mega-corporation, publishes 30 percent of the trade books in the United States; Pearson, a British company, dominates 30 percent of the American textbook market. In the United States, increasingly, chains own newspapers and magazines. In France, only two corporations, Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassaut and Lagar- dère, own 70 percent of the French press.

This phenomenon is true in other capitalist countries: for example, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, head of state and mega-corporate tycoon, dominates the television mass media. Media moguls in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries do the same, though in these countries the consolidation of corporate broadcasting is somewhat mitigated by the presence of alternative public television and radio networks—the United States still lacks a truly effective public broadcast system, despite the efforts of PBS and NPR.

The principal danger in this is a worrisome shift in the focus of programming. Media mega-corporations are interested first and foremost in profits; hence, they produce media programs in terms of their marketability. The criterion is what will sell, not what is true. Entertainment outmatches information and education. Inevitably, diversity in ideas and values dries up, and the parameters of the open, free, and democratic society are constrained. I am not overlooking the role of the Internet, which we all use. Once the Net was hailed as an anarchic domain of free expression; I suspect that a limited number of main players will come to dominate this medium as well. Granted that there is a modest split between the owners of Fox and NBC on the one side and ABC, CBS, and Time Warner on the other. But even here all such media conglomerates very rarely criticize their own power.

In my view, we need to apply the Sherman antitrust laws to media conglomerates, bring back the Fairness Doctrine (killed off during the Reagan years), and establish at least one other independent public radio and television network to stand alongside PBS and NPR and ensure a broadcast outlet for genuine dissent.

Theocracy

The fourth major danger to our democratic republic is the frightening possibility that the United States is becoming a theocracy, or at the very least a quasi-theocracy. Major assaults are being made on the First Amendment; and the fairly widespread public support that the principle of the separation of church and state enjoyed only two decades ago is now being rapidly eroded.

Major assaults have been advanced by the Religious Right. Should this powerful force further consolidate its alliance with religious conservatives, we are in for a fundamental challenge to our view that the United States is a secular democracy, that it should be neutral about religion, and that it should not favor religion over nonreligion. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is being reinterpreted by Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas to mean that Congress shall not favor—or establish—any one sect or denomination of religion over any other; but this does not mean, they say, that the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion. There seems to be strong public support for civic monotheism (even among many liberals)—that is, for those religions that emanate from the Book of Abraham (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)—at the very least, some form of ceremonial deism is being established. Inasmuch as there are millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists in the United States, it is difficult to see what legal argument any future conservative Court may introduce to deny them equal protection under the First Amendment. But there are determined forces that make no bones about their desire to do so. The effort by the Bush administration to support faith-based charities, vouchers, and provide public monies for religious organizations is an ongoing battle. This of course draws on the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. The continued effort to appoint religious conservatives to the courts in the future will solidify these trends. Positively, Democrats in the Congress have opposed these efforts, though regrettably most Democratic politicians have expressed their piety in public (including Mr. Kerry) and almost none has been willing to admit any nonreligious identity. 

The assault on the First Amendment by the right wing has not been taken sufficiently seriously in my judgment by the humanist movement in the United States. When the label “secular humanism” entered popular parlance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Religious Right maintained that “secular humanism is a religion,” and as such, they maintained it must be extirpated from the public schools and universities, the courts, and all other governmentally supported institutions. The legal argument for this is rather convoluted. If secular humanism is a religion, they say, it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Council for Secular Humanism has denied that secular humanism is a religion, though other humanist organizations maintain that humanism, as they practice it, is religious in character.

This challenge took two forms in the early 1980s. First, in Mobile, Alabama, Federal District Court Judge Brevard Hand banned forty-five books from the public schools (by authors ranging from John Dewey and Abraham H. Maslow to Richard Hofstader), claiming that they espoused “the religion of secular humanism.” I was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way to represent the view that secular humanism was not a religion. I maintained that Judge Hand’s ruling smacked of a New Inquisition. Fortunately, it was overturned in the Appeals Court. It was never taken to the Supreme Court. If this challenge were re-introduced today, it is doubtful that it could be turned back again.

A second series of legal challenges sought to have “creation science” taught in the public schools alongside evolutionary theory, which the Religious Right again represented as a tenet of “the religion of secular humanism.” None of these challenges was successful; and by the 1990s most liberals and humanists thought that these legal arguments had been defeated—at least until the year 2000.

For concurrent with the election of George W. Bush, similar outcries were again being heard. These challenges were ignited by Tim LaHaye (author of the Left Behind series of novels, the most popular ever published) and David Noebel, head of Summit Ministries. The gauntlet was laid down in their book Mind Siege (World Publishing, 2000). This book even hit the New York Times best-seller list. In it, the same litany of charges is recycled; namely, that secular humanism is a religion and that millions of evangelical foot soldiers need to root it out from all walks of life, including the public schools, but especially the colleges and universities. A campaign is now underway in tens of thousands of churches. Hundreds of thousands of books have been distributed free on college and university campuses to help to rout secular humanism.

Should this challenge be taken seriously, or should it be dismissed as nonsense? Regrettably, Tim LaHaye and his cohorts have had strong influence on the Bush administration; New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and others have pointed out their powerful influence in the corridors of power. Will the Religious Right continue to intimidate those in power and force everyone to invoke the deity, no matter which political party they represent? 

The ferocious creationist challenge has resurfaced again, but this time clad in sheep’s clothing, repackaged as “intelligent design,” with new allies. Evolution is being challenged in state after state to provide equal time for “intelligent design.” Since Bush will no doubt appoint more conservative judges, these challenges most likely will be waged in the courts anew. Given the shift in the public square in favor of pious religiosity, we have no guarantee that the Religious Right will not prevail. Even if Mr. Bush fails in his bid for a second term, I am afraid that this battle will not go away and that the challenge to defend secularism—even the integrity of freedom of inquiry and science—will be ongoing. Remember, Michael Newdow’s challenge to “under God” in the pledge of allegiance could find no friends in the United States Congress. The public square is no longer “naked,” but seethes with religiosity and piety—what a shift in the attitudes of public officials, none of whom dare to defend the right of dissent.

It is time to draw some conclusions from my analysis. I submit that American democracy is endangered because of (1) the growth of an entrenched plutocracy with enormous wealth and power; (2) the emergence of global mega-corporations allied with the military-industrial-technological complex; (3) the virtual domination of the media of communication by media mega-corporations (a media-ocracy); and (4) the danger that we are becoming a quasi-theocracy: one nation under God while unbelief is considered un-American. 

We need to ask: are we already in a post-democratic stage? Is it still possible to stem this tide and restore American democracy? In my optimistic mood, my response in the short- and mid-run is “Yes, we can,” but we face enormous political battles. In the long run, we need to embark upon a New Enlightenment, defending reason, science, free inquiry, and nonreligious ethical alternatives—if there is still time to do so.

In my pessimistic mood, I recognize yet another source of danger to democratic institutions. It is virtually impossible for any one nation-state (democratic or nondemocratic) to solve its economic, cultural, social, and environmental problems alone. Neither France nor Germany, China nor Brazil, Britain nor the United States is capable of dealing with these problems in isolation from their impact on others in the world. For the problems we face are planetary in scope. The Europeans have discovered this truth, and they are working hard to strengthen new European institutions—a European Parliament and a new Constitution—and of course the World Court.

Only the present leadership of America stands in haughty isolation, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the World Court or to abide by treaties; only the United States has abandoned the principle of collective security and the United Nations; only the United States assumes for itself the role of policeman to the world. Possessing a preponderance of weapons of mass destruction, it seeks to impose its will on others. Incredibly, among the major powers only the United States is fixated on a premodern theological worldview. Whether a future Democratic administration could change this trend is at this point questionable—unless there is a genuine realignment of the centers of power in the United States.

These developments provide a great challenge for liberal humanists to lead the way—in recognizing and working for a global democratic world. American foreign policy had been a beacon in the past—Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and others worked for democracy and human rights on a planetary scale. And this battle seems to augur a great opening for planetary humanism. We need to intensify our efforts in favor of new, transnational democratic institutions: a democratic World Parliament, the World Court, collective security, an environmental monitoring agency, a world income tax to stimulate development in the underdeveloped portions of the globe. In particular, we must establish some global institutions with the capacity to regulate the activities of mega-corporations. 

The key ethical principle enunciated in Humanist Manifesto 2000 is that every person on the planet should be considered to have equal dignity and value. Thus we should do what we can to defend and extend democracy to every country and region of the world, on a decentralized basis. But we also need uniquely to build new, viable democratic institutions on the planetary level. In my view, this is the daring new frontier for democracy in the twenty-first century.

Thus, the battleground is not simply to restore democracy in the United States, but more importantly to expand democratic institutions on the global scale. If this noble goal is to be achieved, we need to overcome intolerant xenophobic, racist, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious prejudices. We need to vigorously criticize religious fundamentalism on all sides with courage and determination. We need to define and defend planetary ethics, to strive to build a new democratic humanistic civilization based on shared human rights and values. This battle both at home and on the planetary scale is awesome, but we have no viable option but to strive to bring it about.


Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.  


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