“We live in a democracy, therefore the government represents us.”

(I’ll be adding this to my socialism FAQ, but for now I think it deserves it’s own post.)

The logic here is what fascinates—the mechanical formality, starting with rigid definitions and proceeding step by careful step to absurdity. The old scholastics of the middle ages would certainly have approved, but if we don’t want to do our political analysis using the method of  St. Thomas Aquinas, we need to do better.  Here’s how the logic works:

1. We live in what is called a democracy (or a democratic republic, if you want to be fussy).
2. By definition, this means we elect those who govern us, and can thus elect anyone we want to carry out our will.
3. Therefore, those in office are carrying out our will.
4. Therefore, most Americans are in favor of massive income inequality, genocide, making the Earth uninhabitable, right-wing censorship, pseudo-left censorship, a barbaric health care system, murderous police, the loss of democratic rights, homelessness, letting COVID kill us by the hundreds of thousands, and continuous war.

That there are those who follow this chain and believe—or act as if they believe—that it represents reality continues to astound me. But it is common enough that it is worth taking a look at.

..1 In a bourgeois democracy, the bourgeois always takes precedence over the democracy. Theoretically, we know that if the rights and privileges of the ruling class are threatened—particularly the right to make unlimited profit—democracy narrows, shrinks, and becomes more limited. In practice, we are watching it happen before our eyes.

The whole world saw what happened when Senator Sanders dared to suggest that capitalism could become not quite so mean all the time. That he was never a real threat to capitalism and would in fact have done nothing significant for the working class made no difference; his pretensions had to be crushed using legal and quasi-legal means. He isn’t the first to discover the ruthlessness of the American bourgeoisie and the Democratic Party in particular when it comes to making sure Wall Street never feels the least pinch! Gene McCarthy (honestly or not) spoke for those who wanted an end to the Vietnam war and was destroyed. Bill Clinton, swine though he is, made tiny, halfhearted efforts toward improving health care and suddenly a sex scandal emerged. &c &c,

..2 The media are part of the capitalist system, controlled by a few (and getting fewer) mega corporations, all of whom have, at the top of their agenda, convincing us that there is no possibility of any political change outside of the two capitalist parties. Billions and billions of dollars go into this every year (whether conspiratorially or simply by natural selection of editors and publishers is irrelevant). While I disagree with those who believe propaganda is all-powerful, it is silly to think that propaganda on such a massive scale is without effect.

..3 At the very least, one ought to reflect on the significance of the fact that every political gain since Reconstruction—unemployment insurance, civil rights, medicare, welfare, &c—has come as a result of direct struggles by the working masses, not by selecting the right candidate.

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38 thoughts on ““We live in a democracy, therefore the government represents us.””

  1. Thanks, man! I was just sharing a similar analysis with a coworker today!

    I don’t think you’ll disagree that Clinton also did more than anyone up to his day to crush the welfare system and build prisons in its stead. I just feel it’s important not to rank him with Bernie, who, despite his tactical weakness — i.e. not breaking from the DP and helping us lead the fight for a workers’ party — his goal was to move the DP to the left whereas Clinton’s was to move it to the right.

    That said, I 100% agree that pointing out the incongruence between political results at the top and popular attitudes from the bottom up is paramount! The despair a hear among so many of my people is rooted in this belief that they are alone in their lefty aspirations. “Turn off the news!” I implore them. “Get out into the streets!”

    “It’s not in the paper it’s on the wall.” — thanks, Bradley. ✊

  2. “I don’t think you’ll disagree that Clinton also did more than anyone up to his day to crush the welfare system and build prisons in its stead.” Absolutely agree. We differ on Senator Sanders, but I don’t want this discussion to get carried off in that direction right away, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

  3. I don’t believe that most people really believe these things are true. This is just the dogma we agree upon so that we don’t have to face the ugly truth that within the workings of the system, the common person is essentially powerless in our so-called democracy–sure, we can re-arrange the deck-chairs somewhat, but not ever change things in a way that threatens the basic structure of our situation.

    The myth that we live in a democracy is the blue mud we rub in our belly buttons, because everyone else does it. The alternative is to be the fellow who rocks the boat, sticks his neck out, and thereby gets it chopped off by the powers that be. Oh, but be sure to get out and vote. It’s important to vote so that you feel invested in the system that oppresses the poor and powerless–and so that you can always blame those who didn’t vote, or voted “the wrong way” for how the outcome at the polls didn’t result in the systemic change you’ve been hoping for every November.

    Which is just the way the true rulers of our society want it.

  4. Magicjon: No real disagreement. I didn’t mean to imply that most people believed that; it was addressed to those who do (or say they do).

  5. Yeah, that’s the logic chain in play. It breaks in step 2, of course, but proceeding from false axioms is rather the whole point of the facade.
    Unfortunately for those of us in this interesting time, things are looking scarier and scarier the longer harder the tilers of power are pushed towards capitalism.

  6. It’s actual worse. One party has become expert at coopting popular movements for social and economic reform, bringing them within a formalized structure, then neutering them with the exception of some superficial improvements, often related to identity politics.

    That party even sat back and allowed women’s fundamental right to control her own body and reproductive process, causing great harm to millions of women, because it was determined that the change could benefit the corporate candidates from that party during the mid-terms.

  7. The dictionary says bourgeois means middle class. You and I are middle class. It is the wealthy and corporations that are deliberately destroying democracy, in search of ever more profits. As if being a billionaire is insufficient.

    Marx uses bourgeois to mean “the property owning class”. Many people in the US own property, but are not lords over peasants. So I think it is good to point out that it is the wealthy upper classes and corporations that have the political power today. Not some small business owner or farmer. I agree entirely on your sentiment, I just think you are using outdated terminology that confuses and drives away people who fear communism.

  8. You bring up a couple of interesting points, David. First, yes, “bourgeoisie” means middle class–or, rather, what WAS the middle class when the term was coined, when the ruling class was the aristocracy. It’s origin has to do with those who lived in the city (burgess, see also borough) in a period when the working class as we know it did not exist. The term has continued to mean “that social class that owns property in the means of production.” The small business owner or independent farmer is today known as petit or petty bourgeois, which is where by my profession I fall. I do not think anyone—or, to be more precise, any worker—is driven away from Communism because Marxists use precise language–at least, I’ve never met anyone who said, “Wow. You guys think the small businessmen are in control of the government? I’m out of here.” I hope that helps.

  9. Looking at the online English dictionaries, at least, they seem to have an almost willful misdirection of bourgeois to middle class, implying a link to current definitions of middle class. This isn’t the case in French dictionaries.
    It’s almost like the producers of the dictionaries had some sort of goal in misdirecting people’s understanding of that term in particular.

  10. I would argue that your chain of logic in a sense is perversely correct. Most people are distracted at so many levels that they are focusing on either daily subsistence or “culture war” topics and leaving little room for thinking about things more deeply, like income inequality, etc. Especially since we’re all just temporarily frustrated wealthy elites waiting for our lottery tickets to show up. So many people support the inequality because they dream of becoming one of the wealthy & powerful. Thinking otherwise causes dissonance.

  11. The notion that poor or working class Americans see themselves as temporarily embarrassed rich people, to the extent that it was ever true, is at least 20 years out of date. The growing anger among the working class (and its inverse—the turn of the ruined petit-bourgeois toward Trump or other fascists) is a reflection of this. If your point is that there are masses of people who have not thought through what is actually forcing them to “focus on daily subsistence,” then I very much agree with you. But they are more and more looking for answers. Providing those answers, and showing that there is a way forward, is exactly the role of the most conscious sections of the working class.

  12. “2. By definition, this means we elect those who govern us, and can thus elect anyone we want to carry out our will.”

    I don’t know if I’s thinking this through correctly or not, so please help me out and poke holes in my ideas as necessary.

    We no longer, by definition, elect those who govern us. The RNC and DNC vet, and then choose the people they want on the ballots, endorse them, fund them, and then finally, give us an either/or vote for their choice of candidates. These candidates are not our choices. By “our”, I mean the regular voting public, ordinary people.
    Regular people cannot just decide to run for office as a Republican or a Democrat without getting that parties’ endorsements and funding. A new Republican/Democratic candidate needs to go to the local, county, state, federal party headquarters, register and apply, get checked out, etc., and then the party decides if they are a suitable candidate or not. Then the party will choose among the applicants who they like best and put that person on the primary ballots and work them through the system(s) to get elected.
    At no point in that process are regular voters and people choosing their own candidates.
    The RNC and DNC local, city, county, state and federal party officers are choosing who we will vote for.
    We are not electing who we want for elected office. We are choosing who the RNC/DNC Parties want us to choose from. That means we are electing from candidates who will carry out their will, the will, the agenda(s), of the DNC/RNC. Not the will of the American people. (Mitch McConnell said it on camera that he is not here for the American people, he is here for the Republican Agenda.)
    We are no longer a democracy because we do not choose our representatives. Our representatives are forced onto us by the ruling Parties- the Democrats and the Republicans. The Parties choose who we vote for. And the people we vote for are there not for democracy, the American People or the Constitution. They are there for their Party. The Parties elect who We-the-People get to elect to govern us.

  13. 61% of US citizens own stocks or shares, 71% are in full-time employment, with the median value owned being higher than the median full-time salary salary. However, there is enough bias in the electoral system that the former group are more politically significant.

    The median voter is a net purchaser of labor. Hence the current general perception that ‘the economy’ is bad because wages are increasing.

    This is what makes the USA a ‘bourgeois democracy’ in the sense used by Marx, when he was arguing against explicit property qualifications for voting, and in favor of a universal franchise. The key difference is the more widespread levels of capital ownership in the modern USA means that a lower level of electoral distortion is required to get the same result.

    This does mean that a relatively small degree of reform could change things a lot. You could start by extending voting rights to all resident taxpayers, including those in US colonies like Puerto Rico.

  14. James: You are correct. I was expressing the logic of certain people there, not how the world actually works.

  15. Richard: Thank you for the taking the time to make a thoughtful comment.

    With all due respect, “61% of US citizens own stocks or shares” is a deeply misleading figure. Unless those stocks and shares are a significant enough portion of the individual’s income as to reduce or eliminate the need for that person to sell his or or her labor power, it has no effect either on that person’s life, or on the political landscape.

    I’m curious how you are arriving at “The median voter is a net purchaser of labor.” “Median voter” is a strange phrase in and of itself, and I’m not sure what it means. “Purchaser of labor” is also unclear. If you mean “net purchaser of labor-power” (ie, their income is tied to hiring people to work to create value), then that is a tiny fraction of the population. If that is not what you mean, then I do not know what “net purchaser of labor” means.

    The perception the economy is bad is a result of prices rising (I’ve had to significantly cut back on some of my grocery purchases, and I seriously worry about those who are in worse shape than me, or have families) and homelessness having just reached it’s highest point in US history according to official figures. I am personally convinced, seeing the increase in homelessness around me even in the last year, that those official figures are low.

    Finally it is worth noting that the fight for reforms has been going on for decades, during which things have continued to deteriorate in terms of basic human rights.

  16. Any retiree is going to currently be a net purchaser of labor, whether they inherited, acquired or worked for the capital they live on.

    Median wealth of US households in 2023 was over $160k. Because of electoral bias, the median voter will be richer than that; say $250k. That much money will purchase about 17 full-time years of labor at the federal minimal wage of $7.25 per hour. And a lot of goods are produced by those making rather less than that.

    With a retirement age of 67, that makes a _lot_ of 50+ voters net labor purchasers too, considered over their remaining lifetime.

    Increasing homelessness is just the other side of this coin, as it requires an inordinate amount of hours worked to join the capitalist class, where rent is zero and work is optional. Any issue with physical or mental health that interrupts progress towards that goal could be a failure cascade that leads to homelessness.

    It was Bill Clinton who effectively abolished publicly-provided housing for those who can’t afford it. The fact that that was broadly popular in electoral terms tells you what you need to know about what the word ‘electorate’ means.



  17. Richard: My goodness. Where to begin? To refer to a retiree—particularly one living on social security and watching its buying power dwindle—as a “net purchaser of labor” is meaningless at best and disingenuous at worst. So let’s go with meaningless. It has no effect whatsoever on any of the issues in the OP–it does not change the social class of the individual, nor his inability to have a meaningful role in policy through electoral means; it is at best a word game with no substance.

    Your “median” wealth requires statistical juggling, and thus is also meaningless. Roughly half of the US population live paycheck to paycheck or worse–either below the poverty line or one illness or broken car from it. This, in the real world, means infinitely more than statistical ideals.

    Your comments about Clinton are true and false. Yes, he effectively abolished publicly-provided housing for those who can’t afford it. But calling it “broadly popular in electoral terms” is sheer nonsense, as most people were unaware that it was happening, and of those who knew, most of them (guided by the press handling) didn’t actually understand its significance. Neither they nor Clinton said, “We are going to increase homelessness by throwing poor families out in the cold. How do you feel about that?” It was presented in vague terms that insured it wouldn’t be understood, and simultaneously under-reported, just as when President Obama cut SNAP benefits for hundreds of thousands of poor people, and deported immigrants at record levels, including breaking up families.

    To blame the electorate for these crimes is either nonsense or cynicism.

  18. I think you are losing track of the argument you are making a bit. Noone deserves especial blame for voting for their class interests. Especially those who membership of that class is insecure or marginal. The blame accrues to those who create and run a system in which property owners are an artificial plurality.

    That system is bourgeois democracy; that’s what the term means. If you actually mean something else, perhaps you should use a different term.

  19. It’s not possible for 99% of US Citizens to vote for their class interests in 2024, because no one representing them is on the ballot.

  20. Steven: My apologies.
    I misunderstood what you were looking for in the original posting. I only looked at the individual point, rather than understanding that you are looking at the logic chain of how people are going from #1 to #4 with a straight face.
    Funny, isn’t it, since that’s what you say right off the bat. Guess Point #2, being a trigger for me, made me ignore the rest.

  21. For what it’s worth, Hellenic democrocies, like Athens, chose all public officials with lotteries. It worked surprisingly well. Perhaps the average Athenian was smarter than the average US citizen; but we’ll never know, will we?

  22. Can you imagine the ruling elite of today’s world ever allowing something like a lottery to determine representatives? One of their only remaining skills from that dwindling pile is the ability to cultivate “leaders” who can disguise the ruthless nature of empire behind the formal rhetoric of universal human values.

  23. The “people” of Athens were the property holding elites. They had a more democratic structure than the Roman Republic, but if anything, a shallower voting population.

  24. What about Sanders’ pledge to deliver a free health care system? THAT would have been a great and s progressive benefit for the vast majority of Americans! Worth voting for that alone!

  25. @Kragar IF you had something like a lottery choose public representatives in the USA, you might end up with a situation like the movie Idiocracy.

  26. Respectfully disagree. If a lottery was used to pick representatives, there would be a chance for a candidate who is thoughtful and compassionate. By contrast, our vetted candidates are almost universally vapid and physically attractive. Above and beyond those qualities, they are utterly reliable servants of the ruling class.

  27. Athen’s lottery chose executives, not representatives. Citizens represented themselves when the Assemby met.

  28. In The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror 7 (Oct. 26, 1996) the aliens, Kang and Kodos impersonated Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and ran against each other in the 1996 election. After convincing Americans that voting for a third-party candidate would be a waste of a vote, Kang was elected president and enslaved all human life. Are we sure this didn’t really happen?

  29. @majikjohn But, of course, quite often, people DO vote the wrong way! They certainly do in the UK where I am from. Brexshit, anyone? THEN voting in BoJo the Clown to “get it done”.

    Of course, in the USA, the major parties are so close together, that voting for Hillary would have made little difference. (American blue collar workers are still mad over her husband’s NAFTA anyway: and with good reason.) The USA Democrats have been offering very little to the working class for decades. Whereas Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, had a very GOOD manifesto, many of the policies of which were popular in polls… But STILL they voted BoJo.. Due to a mixture of Brexshit, Israeli propaganda lies concerning “antisemitisn”. BBC lies, and Rupert Murdoch lies.

    Still think people voting the wrong way (when it would have made a difference) isn’t the problem? :-)

  30. @@Kragar Ooh but actually, to an extent, I think this desire on the part of the voters for someone who is “different” facilitated the rise of Trump. Shows you you can’t get a genuinely “different” person through the (US) electoral system though. In America, the most important thing in politics is money. You have to be rich to get in. You don’t in the UK…

  31. I would argue that the conclusions stated in item 4 are true. A majority of Americans do support all of those things especially if it means maintaining comfort.

  32. 1) I dispute that intensely. No, most Americans do not support those things. Most emphatically, most American workers do not support those things, but then, we never hear from them in the media.
    2) If you think most Americans, particularly most American workers, are comfortable right now, I would strongly suggest you investigate further.

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