There have been varying concepts of democracy over time but millions of Americans believe that Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address expressed the highest ideals of democracy. He expressed the hope that democracy would deepen and always endure when he concluded by resolving that, "this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Significantly, in that same brief 10-sentence address, he asserted that our nation was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." An acceptance of that proposition is the basis for democracy. For if equality is accepted, then there is no reason to limit governing to a chosen few. But if heredity bestows a nobility or greatness on some that others lack, then precluding those in the lower caste from participation in government can be justified.
The democratic vision Lincoln expressed contrasts sharply with a view John Jay expressed. Jay (1745-1829), was president of the First Continental Congress, authored five of the Federalist Papers, and was the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He maintained that upper classes "were the better kind of people, by which I mean the people who are orderly and industrious."
This humorless man sought to establish order and authority; he wanted to limit the role of states to dependent corporations and greatly strengthen the power of the central executive when this nation was founded. He was strongly committed to the supremacy of the national government over the states. His simple view of government was: "The people who own the country ought to govern it."
Jay's view is a formula for plutocracy or government of moneyed interests, by moneyed interests and for moneyed interests.
Democracy and plutocracy are antithetical. The essence of democracy is one person gets one vote; the essence of plutocracy is one dollar gets one vote.
Plutocrats are dedicated to the proposition that people are unequal because they would lose power and prestige if society becomes more equal. Those at the top of hierarchy, pecking order, or chain of command, seldom want to see more equality.
Democracy has been under an intensified attack by plutocracy in this country since the late 1970s. A major reason plutocracy has been gaining on democracy is that the quantity of money involved in our elections has sharply increased.
The contributors of this money are rewarded with laws and policies which strengthen moneyed interests and further empower them to continue moving the nation in a plutocratic direction. The astronomical amounts of money involved in elections have pushed both major parties in a more libertarian direction and more to the right politically.
The tendency to the right is further promoted by the media, which is owned and controlled by moneyed interests. Plutocrats tend to favor privatizing Social Security, adopting school vouchers, promoting deregulation and tax cuts. Plutocrats want to weaken the power of workers so they will no longer be at the bargaining table -- except to appear on the menu where plans can be made to devour them.
Plutocrats promote plans to shift the wealth of the nation upward. They have been succeeding spectacularly.
Of course, the moneyed interests are served when everything is turned into a commodity and the quantity and quality of education, health care, justice and political influence a person enjoys depends on what he can afford.
Ultimately it's difficult to maintain a democracy in a highly polarized society, where wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of a few.
As Paul Sweezey pointed out, power and property will never be separated very long. Either the people with power will confiscate the property or the people with property will buy the power (as the plutocrat Koch brothers and others are doing.)
One would hope democracy will lessen the influence of moneyed interests before they shrink the domain of democracy.
Jones lives in West Haven.