As the 2016 presidential campaign shifts into high gear, my Facebook page has become a minefield of political rhetoric. People are choosing sides and a few are strident. Nonetheless, at a time when opinions appear to be pulling the country apart, Ronald Inglehart, professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, is downright hopeful about our future. (“Inequality and Modernization,” by Ronald Inglehart, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb, 2016, pgs. 2- 10.)
With more detail than I can present here, he traces the course of human history, beginning with hunter-gather societies which were relatively egalitarian and information was spread by word of mouth. Next came agrarian life. These societies were sedentary and people were scattered over large areas, requiring organizational structures to ensure the flow of supplies and information. Services, like armies, roads, scribes were the glue that held society together. That meant some of the population had to develop specialized skills.
The industrial age came next. Urbanization followed together with mass literacy. Unions emerged with demands for fair wages and those demands helped share the growing wealth.
The post Industrial age has brought globalization and decentralization. Unions have been undermined. Wealth has migrated into the hands of a few, and the country appears to be headed toward a two class society governed by an oligarchy.
Historically, workers in the early stages of our society tended take liberal positions. Communism and socialism are its offshoots. The bourgeoisie, or middle class, took more conservative views toward social structures. But, after the 1950s, as job security grew weaker, attitudes shifted. Workers became conservative, intent upon maintaining what they had, while the middle class began to look for social solutions from their government. (Ibid pg. 5) Unfortunately, Inglehart reasons, when money is pooled in a few hands, “Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.” (Ibid pg. 3)
In addition, he writes, technology threatens jobs at all levels, reducing the amount of work left for humans to perform. Lacking opportunity, the two classes, worker and middle class, are squeezed together. When they merge, a new political alignment will arise, one that won’t tolerate government paralysis. New economic and social reforms will arise. (Ibid, pg. 10.).
Is he right? I don’t know. But despite his lengthy argument, his thesis boils down to a simple truth. Democracy works when the people want it to. When they drift away, the institution stops breathing. As members of a democratic society, we would be wise to remember where real power resides, not in bank accounts, but in the ballot box.