Prof. Oren M. Levin-Waldman will discuss this article, “Can We Avoid a Revolution? By OREN M. LEVIN-WALDMAN, Ph.D.”, on Wednesday, June 21, 2017th at 10am DST on the Westchester On the Level radio broadcast. Listen “Live” or “On Demand”. Use the following hyperlink … http://tobtr.com/s/10058599
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Despite a widening gap between the haves and have nots and the shrinking middle class, it is probably a foregone conclusion that there won’t be a serious revolution in the streets of the U.S. any time soon. And yet, given the multitude of democracy models, this is counterintuitive. These models actually suggest that the more inequality there is, and the fewer opportunities there are, circumstances are only more conducive to violence.
We certainly have seen enough protests from the left over the election of Donald Trump with some attendant violence. Some on the extreme left have even justified the shooting of a Republican Congressman on the grounds that he and his party intended to harm 25 million Americans with their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Arguably violence along these lines may be regarded as low-level forms of revolution, but they are so small in scale that they cannot really amount to much. It is the full scale revolutions where masses take to the streets and violently overthrow a repressive regime (which in some cases may be defined as simply indifferent) and replace it with a new regime supposedly more attuned to the needs of the people which usually captivate us.
One of the standard questions asked of practically all PhD students in political science is why there never was a revolution in the U.S. similar to the revolutions of Europe. It certainly has not been for a lack of poverty in the streets of the U.S. And it certainly has not been for the lack of indifference of governing and monied elites towards those at the bottom of the distribution.
Many on the left dismiss as simple minded when those on the right talk about “American exceptionalism.” For some it means that America is better than other nations and therefore needs to lead. But that is what it historically meant. America was an exceptional nation because of the circumstances of its birth. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America was born free. In the 1950s political scientist Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America echoed de Tocqueville to explain why revolutions were not likely to occur here.
To say we were born free meant that we born free of the feudalistic baggage of the old world. In the feudal world where people were born into caste like classes, the only way out was through either death or revolution. In America we only had economic classes with the promise of upward socioeconomic mobility. Everybody could potentially make it in America. The American dream held out the hope that one born poor could die rich.
So long as there was a belief in the potential for upward socioeconomic mobility, there would be no need for violent revolution. Moreover, if people believed that governments could be changed through the electoral process, it became clear to most that the peaceful transfer of power was indeed real. And yet, the question remains: what happens when there is no longer opportunity?
When de Tocqueville made his observations of American democracy, there was considerable opportunity. The country was expanding westward. Jefferson had made the Louisiana purchase for the express purposes of expanding an agrarian economy so that ordinary Americans could become independent yeoman farmers. While most might not have had much, they were at least roughly equal in what they did not have.
The first real threat to that, of course, was the Industrial Revolution which left in its wake the extremely wealthy at the top and extremely poor unskilled working classes at the bottom. One might even say that the potential for revolution, especially during the Great Depression, was staved off through the non-market intervention of government. By creating labor market institutions to assist workers and bolster their wages, government was ironically preserving the capitalist marketplace.
Now we come to the current threat of the increasing global economy where the gap between the top and the bottom are ever widening. By all rights, the situation is ripe for revolution. There is little opportunity left. In the face of growing inequality we get the same bromides from both sides. From the right, greater deregulation is necessary, taxes need to be cut, and workers have to be less rigid in their wage demands. They actually need to learn to live with less because we do, after all, live in a dynamic market place.
From the left we get the usual calls for more redistribution, more programs, and of course more government investment into human capital. Both sides actually speak past each other that its easy to conclude that not only does one side not listen to the other, but that neither side really cares about the plight of those at the bottom. They are more of a nuisance.
Instead we get the standard distractions with the cultural wars. Donald Trump was elected by those who felt dispossessed and ignored by the elites in Washington. Why would they feel this way? Because the elites responded with “Yes, yes we know you are suffering, but the real crisis is the war on women or the war on women’s reproductive rights. The right, after all, wants to ban gay marriage and transgender bathrooms.” But the only ones that can really care about these issues are the ones who have the leisure to because they remain secure financially.
What, then, is the crisis today? In a global economy where opportunities, especially for those lacking in skills, are shrinking, we have to accept that we are essentially living in an age of scarcity. During the 1970s into the early 1980s there was quite some discussion of the impact of scarce resources on the health of a nation’s democracy. The Club of Rome concluded that scarcity would lead to greater social strife and possibly violent revolutions.
The answer to scarcity, which might be the same to shrinking opportunities due to globalism, has been participatory democracy, which is the idea that people have to have a say in all those factors that affect their lives. That is, it isn’t enough to just have a voice in political matters, but in economic matters too. After all, the decision to close a manufacturing plant in upstate New York will have a much more profound effect on the lives of that community’s residents than what will strike most as an abstract debate in Congress over whether government should offer protected status to another group.
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Dr. Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D., Professor at the Graduate School for Public Affairs and Administration at Metropolitan College of New York, Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, as well as faculty member in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. Direct email to: email@example.com