The elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court raises deep questions about the nature of American democracy. Kavanaugh is thoroughly unqualified for a lifetime appointment on our country’s highest judicial body. He is unqualified by temperament, lack of honesty, outrageous behavior and disrespect for ordinary people, especially women and workers. Kavanaugh’s appointment was vehemently opposed by a large share of the American people and by an impressive number of legal professionals. How could such a manifestly atrocious decision happen in a country putatively committed to democracy? Does the Kavanaugh appointment indicate an absence of democracy in the United States, or does it expose inherent flaws in the very idea of rule by the people (i.e. democracy)?
The institution of democracy has had many intelligent and well-meaning critics. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato vehemently opposed democracy. He thought it meant control by mercurial and incompetent masses and that it implied a system lacking in the foresight and stability required for effective governance. President James Madison wrote that the United States was fortunately a republic but not a democracy. Madison claimed that democracies were short-lived, turbulent, hostile to property and often oppressive to minorities. The European political scientist Robert Michels argued that democracy could not endure because of what he called the “iron law of oligarchy.” According to this principle, real power in any political organization inevitably gravitated to an oligarchy, and a largely unconstrained elite governed every nation state. Under capitalism, the oligarchy would usually be plutocratic (based on wealth), and the political elite would essentially serve the financial oligarchy.
The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh was surely not a case of either rule by the incompetent or the majority tyrannizing the minority. The backers of Kavanaugh knew exactly what they were doing. Kavanaugh’s promotion provides a classic example of a powerful minority riding roughshod over the majority. Michel’s assessment about the inevitability of oligarchy seems more on target. The capitalist oligarchy in the United States desires a judiciary that will consistently support its profit-making endeavors. Yet these enrichment endeavors are often at odds with the material interests of most ordinary people. Domination by the capitalist class thus faces a consistent problem of maintaining political legitimacy in the face of its highly elitist economic agenda.
Several strategies have emerged to mask the prejudicial character of capitalist economic policies. One strategy involves cultivating mass disinterest in political affairs, which are deemed to be hopelessly complex or inherently corrupt or invulnerable to influence. Things like spectator sports or the internet provide more accessible gratification for many people. Another strategy for diffusing opposition to capitalism attempts to fractionalize the electorate along race, gender, educational and/or geographical lines. Yet a third strategy for maintaining capitalist hegemony — and one particularly germane to the case of Brett Kavanaugh — polarizes the American population through volatile issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control. The capitalist class has no particular interest in the outcome of such controversies. But class leaders appreciate the effectiveness of these disputes in dividing the public and distracting attention from ugly economic realities like income inequality, unemployment, tax cuts for the wealthy and accelerating environmental degradation.
The capitalist class is not directly responsible for Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court. But this abominable outcome is surely a consequence of a political system established to curtail real democracy and protect capitalist economic supremacy.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.