Managed Democracy and the Illusion of Politics

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now that another sordid election cycle is almost behind us, the pundit class has begun to issue the customary pleas for reconciliation. We are told that we must “come together” after the votes are counted. We must “unite behind our new leader” and help affirm the “peaceful transition of power.”

At the end of the day, the narrative goes, we can all celebrate the stability and integrity of our democracy.

Such platitudes offer a fitting conclusion to an election season designed to entertain and hypnotize ordinary Americans, distracting them from capitalism’s escalating crises of social decay.

Appeals to civic virtue cannot conceal the ugly truth: American democracy is a hollow shell devoid of substance or meaning. It is a festival of ignorance whose purpose is to empty the skulls of an already benumbed and manipulated populace.

The corporate media’s endless coverage of the gyrations of the candidates ensures that few civilians escape the spectacle or recognize its inanity. We are bombarded with accounts of the vile behavior of manufactured political personalities. Yet we remain oblivious to social realities, unable to perceive or confront the forces that actually shape our lives. This is the point, of course: the political carnival exists to control thought, to prescribe acceptable discourse, and to protect the ruling class from the threat of real democracy.

If nothing else, this election offers compelling evidence that we have entered a new stage in the permanent crisis of monopoly capitalism. The system can no longer maintain even the semblance of legitimacy or decency. The empire is not only declining. It is imploding.

Let us face facts. America is not a democracy—a system in which people have the ability to participate meaningfully in the construction and governance of society. This is so not only because a militarized police force, bent on crushing dissent and containing oppressed populations, routinely monitors, represses, brutalizes, and slaughters us. It is so not only because the major political parties conspire with their corporate masters to manipulate the electoral process. It is so not only because insular political clans (from the Bushes to the Clintons) hoard power within an oligarchical, dynastic elite.

America is not a democracy because, at the end of the day, its political system is incapable of producing the structural changes that must occur if human beings are to live with dignity on this planet.

Who truly believes that this election—or any election under the current arrangements—will restrain our bloated warfare state? Or restore the social safety net? Or end state terrorism against black and brown people? Or defeat mass imprisonment? Or rebuild unions? Or transform our energy system?

Yes, genuine policy differences divide the Republican and Democratic parties. But both organizations are giant business syndicates. And on questions most vital to the survival of Earth and its inhabitants, they are united in their contempt and indifference.

So let us stop viewing presidential campaigns—this quadrennial feud between rival wings of empire—as opportunities for real political expression or advancement. The people who actually run the system are bankers and plutocrats and architects of the international trade agreements that ravage our economies and destabilize our lives. And none of them are elected.

Vote if you wish. But do so knowing that a new social order will emerge only when the current capitalist regime is replaced with a more humane system.

If we want an end to war, white supremacy, and mind-boggling inequality, we must rely on ourselves. We must build popular movements able to storm the structures of power while offering people positive social alternatives. Only a permanent revolution of the oppressed can bring about meaningful change. Democracy cannot be orchestrated from above. It must be engineered from below.


Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of 'We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.' A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “Managed Democracy and the Illusion of Politics

  • “America is not a democracy because, at the end of the day, its political system is incapable of producing the structural changes that must occur if human beings are to live with dignity on this planet”.
    Well said….. sad but true

  • My only criticism of this essay (& of many texts) is referring to the United States as “America”.
    Whether there is democracy in any of the many countries of this continent is another question.

  • This article is completely fair, though I personally disagree with it. I believe in Hillary! But one President (Clinton or Trump) cannot fix our problems, no matter how excited we get.

    I have been fantasizing about something. Imagine if we CONTINUED to care after November 8th? Imagine that instead of getting daily requests for money from our candidate, we got a schedule of upcoming congressional votes and governmental budgets? Imagine if we kept up our energy and being involved in civics would be as natural as being involved in watching reality television? Imagine if we knew who our local congressperson was?

    Imagine…

  • Thank you!

  • Your last comment is the most significant. I would say the hyperbolics of what we have just faced for a year plus, was and still is excrutiating. The real and only work has to happen at our neighborhood and city levels.

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