This slow yet frightening imperial devouring of American democracy flows from a lethal combination of free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. Free market fundamentalism—just as significant as religious fundamentalisms—not only posits the unregulated market as idol and fetish; it also devalues and demeans nonmarket activities like critical thought, compassionate temperament, and laughter at self and society. No democracy can survive without these precious commitments. No vital sense of public interest and common good can be sustained without these humanistic convictions.
Plutocratic economic arrangements—in which elite greed runs amok—create an unhealthy hemorrhage of wealth at the very top of society. This top-heavy inequality puts a premium on instant success and short-term gain by any means and at any cost. It also erodes the fragile democratic trust between classes and groups. Needless to say, it sends an explosive message to the most vulnerable that they neither count nor matter. Democracies reap social chaos when such plutocratic seeds are sowed.
Aggressive militarism—whether abroad, as in armed invasion in Iraq, or at home, as in police violations—heralds force as the desirable means of resolving problems. It demotes diplomacy and degrades dialogue—two crucial pillars of any democratic regime. And, as with Sophocles’ Creon in Antigone, the preoccupation with might easily leads to myopic arrogance and hideous hubris of nations and persons. As the mechanisms of deliberation and modes of cooperation weaken, unchecked power reigns supreme. No democracy can thrive without legitimate forms of accountability containing such power.
Escalating authoritarianism feeds public paranoia and cuts off the democratic lifeblood of any society. The curtailment of liberties and the repression of rights make the hard-won rule of law suspect. The subtle censorship of media and narrowing of political discourse disempowers citizens and discourages novel approaches to pressing problems. The ideological monitoring of schools and universities dampens the imagination and ingenuity of talented and creative young people. Freedom of expression is the indispensable precondition for any democratic experiment.
The perennial battle between empire and democracy—that reaches from Athens to America—sits at the center of human efforts to preserve decency and dignity, excellence and elegance, freedom and equality. We not only ignore it at our own peril; we also must acknowledge that the very moral grounds of our prosperity are at stake.