James K. Galbraith

Corporate Democracy, Civic Disrespect


With the events of late in the year 2000, the United States left behind constitutional republicanism, and turned to a different form of government. It is not, however, a new form. It is rather, a transplant, highly familiar from a different arena of advanced capitalism.

This is corporate democracy. It is a system whereby a Board of Directors–read Supreme Court–selects the Chief Executive Officer. The CEO in turn appoints new members of the Board. The shareholders, owners in title only, are invited to cast their votes in periodic referenda. But their franchise is only symbolic, for management holds a majority of the proxies. On no important issue do the CEO and the Board ever permit themselves to lose.

The Supreme Court clarified this in a way that the Florida courts could not have. The media have accepted it, for it is the form of government to which they are already professionally accustomed. And the shameless attitude of the Bush high command merely illustrates, in unusually visible fashion, the prevalent ethical system of corporate life.

Gore’s concession speech was justly praised for grace and humor. It paid due deference to the triumph of corporate political ethics, but did not embrace them. It thus preserved Gore for another political day–the obvious intention. But Gore also sent an unmistakable message to American democrats: Do not forget.

It was an important warning, for almost immediately forgetting became the media order of the day. Overnight, it became almost un-American not to accept the diktat of the Court. Or to be precise, Gore’s own distinction became holy writ: One might disagree with the Court, but not with the legitimacy of its decision. Press references from that moment forward were to President-elect Bush, an unofficial title and something that the Governor from Texas (President-select? President-designate?) manifestly is not.

The key to dealing with the Bush people, however, is precisely not to accept them. Like most Americans, I have nothing personal against Bush, Cheney, nor against Colin Powell and the others now surfacing as members of the new administration. But I will not reconcile myself to them. They lost the election. Then they arranged to obstruct the count of the vote. They don’t deserve to be there, and that changes everything. They have earned our civic disrespect, and that is what we, the people, should accord them.

In social terms, civic disrespect means that the illegitimacy of this administration must not be allowed to fade from view. The conventions of politics remain: Bush will be President; Congress must work with him. But those of us outside that process are not bound by those conventions, and to the extent that we have a voice we should use it.

In political practice, civic disrespect means drawing lines around the freedom of maneuver of the incoming administration. In many areas, including foreign policy, there will be few major changes. In others, such as annual budgets and appropriations, compromises will have to be reached. But Bush should be opposed on actions whose reach will extend beyond his actual term.

First, the new President should be allowed lifetime appointments only by consensus. The 50 Senate Democrats should freely block judicial nominations, whenever they carry even the slightest ideological taint. That may mean most of them, but no matter. And as for the Supreme Court especially, vacancies need not be filled. The Court can be rebuilt later, when properly elected government returns.

Second, the Democrats should advise Bush not to introduce any legislation to cut or privatize any part of Social Security or Medicare.

Third, Democrats should furiously oppose elimination of the estate tax–a social incentive for recycling wealth to the non-profit sector, to foundations and universities, that has had a uniquely powerful effect on the form of American society. Once gone, this ingenious device will never be reenacted.

Fourth, the people must unite to oppose the global dangers of National Missile Defense–a strategic nightmare on which Bush campaigned that threatens for all time the security of us all. (On this, the Democrats’ position must be made to change.)

Fifth, Congress should enact a New Voting Rights Act, targeted precisely at the Florida abuses. This should stipulate: mandatory adoption of best-practice technology in all federal elections; a 24-hour voting day; a ban on private contractors to aid in purging voter rolls; and mandatory immediate hand count of all under-votes in federal elections.

With those steps taken, Democrats must also recognize and adapt to the new political landscape that emerged from this election. Outside of Florida, Democrats are finished in the South. But they have excellent prospects of consolidating a narrow majority of the electoral college–so long as, in the next election, there is no Nader defection.

What can prevent such a thing? Only a move away from the main Clinton compromises that so infuriated the progressive left. Nader’s voters were motivated passionately by issues like the drug war, the death penalty, consumer protection and national missile defense–issues where New Democrats took Republican positions in their effort to woo the South. Clinton the Southerner succeeded at this–but against Republicans who were only weakly “Southern” at best.

Gore, on the other hand, was principally a Northern candidate, strongly backed by the core Democrats, who ran against, and defeated so far as ballots were concerned, a wholly Southern Republican. Future Republicans will almost surely also be “Southern,” for that is where the base of the party now lies. And future Democrats, if they are Northern candidates too, can beat them.

Many Democrats are at the moment bitter toward the Greens; they cost Gore support among environmentalists that he should not have had trouble holding. But Nader cost Al Gore the election only in a very narrow sense. Al Gore won the election. Gore beat Bush in almost every state that Nader might have tipped: Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin. The “narrow sense” was small New Hampshire, where Gore lost by 5,000 votes and Nader got 22,000. The tragedy, of course, was that Nader’s New Hampshire votes, and the four electors they could have delivered, would have made Florida irrelevant. But Gore actually won Florida, too.

In short, Al Gore’s campaign proved that there is an electoral majority in the United States for a government that is truly a progressive coalition, and not merely an assemblage of sympathetic lawyers, professors and investment bankers. Rather, Americans will elect a government that firmly includes and effectively represents labor and minorities–and greens. This is the government we must seek to elect–if we get another chance.

And for that, the first task is to assure that the information ministries of our new corporate republic do not successfully cast a fog of forgetting over the crime that we have all just witnessed, with our own eyes.

James K. Galbraith is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, U.T.-Austin. He is author of Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, and co-editor of Inequality and Industrial Change: A Global View.