Politics & Law

The tragedy of internal power politics

29 May, 2024

An unequal and politically divided America cannot provide leadership to the world at a time when democracies are under pressure to defend liberal norms and principles. How did this happen and what are the potential remedies?


By Darryl Lupton


Division. Lack of social unity. Culture wars. Countries are fractured along economic and politically ideological lines. The centre cannot hold and instead, extremes of the left and right on the political spectrum dominate party politics. Compromise and civil dialogue are becoming the exception rather than the norm and statesmanlike behaviour is rare when the opposition can score political points. This has become prevalent in many countries, though our test case will focus on the United States (US) as it boasts the world’s largest economy, military and ranks first in soft power. Yet, despite these overall advantages and though we may be transitioning from a US unipolar power to a multipolar world, America is at risk of being a house divided against itself and pulling politically in different directions when unity is desperately required in a decidedly hostile world. The globe’s largest economy by purchasing power parity, China, and the largest country by land area, Russia, are leading the charge against American hegemony. However, a greater threat to the US is from within. Wealth inequality is a major problem and protesters against this phenomenon surfaced in 2011 with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Protesters also rallied against the influence of money in politics and corporate greed. Because these problems are not unique to the US, the movement spread to other cities around the world, but by the following year, the movement had lost momentum. These are interesting times for humanity and a great shift is in progress. There is the green transition to clean energy, electric vehicles seem to be the future with autonomous automobiles and trucks looking to supersede human drivers. There is also the AI Revolution that is disrupting industries and threatening jobs. Having lost so many jobs to manufacturing being outsourced to China, the US is trying to ensure that employment in the green energy sector and new energy vehicles (NEV) is preserved or created. Despite this urgent need to be politically cohesive and find economic solutions to twenty-first century problems, economic inequality is not being properly addressed and neither is the political impasse. This article will examine how the US (and other countries) ended up in this predicament and what possible remedies there are. An unequal and politically divided America cannot provide leadership to the world at a time when democracies are under pressure to defend liberal norms and principles. After analysis of the existing problems facing the US, a secular solution from ‘the father of modern philosophy’ will be proposed with additional practical recommendations.


How have countries like the US reached a stage of stalled political progress where the government is often dysfunctional, for example, in passing the federal budget? The historian Edward Gibbon suggested that Rome’s decline began internally with corruption and the erosion of civic virtue due to its wealth and success. History illustrates how great powers rise and fall in an endless cycle – they are undone by their very success and cannot sustain the purity of the ideals and qualities that ensured their initial rise. One of these core issues is economic inequality within society. The US, like many of the world’s economies, has a marked wealth inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient. In contrast, European countries, especially in the Nordic region, have citizens who are economically more equal. When wealthy elites dominate the halls of power and ensure that their entrenched positions are maintained, then meritocracy and opportunity are stifled and the interests of the average wage earner are neglected. However, a key question is how the ‘one percent’ of wealthy elites manage to control politics and ensure the system stays favourable for their interests? There are well-known criticisms: a system that only really has two political choices that wealthy donors equally court through special interest groups and the road to political office requires enormous financial backing. This suggests that a wealthy oligarchy has disproportionate power over government policy; this has been illustrated by the revolving door between Wall Street and government positions. Nevertheless, this powerful minority manages to garner support from the ‘third estate’, many of them blue-collar workers who support billionaire candidates. What explains this?


Intellectuals have advanced theories to clarify this seeming anomaly. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist philosopher who posited the theory of cultural hegemony. This explains how the ruling capitalist class leverages institutions like schools, the church and the media, among others, to push their norms and values and convince the general populace that the ruling class’s model of society is common sense and beneficial for all. The working class are convinced that they too can aspire to and reach the level of the elites through hard work and fealty to the current order. Another theory that builds and adds to this is from Noam Chomsky’s book, ‘Manufacturing Consent’. It focuses on how mass media produces content that aligns with the interests of the wealthy and powerful rather than serving the public interest. Chomsky’s key points are: the concentration of ownership of mass media is in the control of a few corporations, advertising revenue encourages bias, sources of information are derived from the government or vested interest sources, lawsuits or harassment help keep wayward media in step (Singapore is a good example of this) and dissenting voices are marginalised from mainstream discourse. The result is that public opinion is manipulated to accept the ruling elite’s version of reality and policy preferences.


Surveillance Capitalism is a book by Harvard Business School professor, Shoshana Zuboff. It details how AI and machine learning algorithms are used to capture people’s behaviour, predict who they are, and then this information is sold to companies who want to influence how people act, think or feel. This information can be used to manipulate people’s behaviour and by doing so, extract profit. This new business model is used by technology firms to commodify personal data and deviates from traditional capitalism. This collection of data doesn’t always involve consent due to regulatory oversight; in addition, she claims this practice is insidious as it is not only an erosion of privacy but also undermines individual autonomy (free will) and democracy. An example of this was the Cambridge Analytica scandal where users’ data was harvested from Facebook profiles and used to assist candidates in the presidential campaign of 2016. This manipulation of voters to better target them with campaign advertising highlights how vulnerable people are in the digital and now AI age.

This case study of the US and its political system has shown how an entrenched elite can control power using money and digital tools to influence people and back their preferred political candidate. There is certainly more depth to this and even recent scandals regarding a Supreme Court judge and undeclared ‘gifts’ show how all levels of government can be captured, even the venerable offices of Justice. Can this system be fixed to make sure checks and balances are more effective and the original intentions of the US Founding Fathers are re-established? Or is the only viable avenue of recourse a new system more suited to the modern age that is more difficult to ‘game’ and subvert?


In 2023, Daniel Chandler wrote a book that critiqued the political climate in the US and then provided some Utopian yet realistic proposals to alleviate the problems outlined. “Free and Equal” wished to remove money from politics, share the prosperity of the economy more widely and transcend the culture wars. The author applied principles from the philosophy of John Rawls regarding Liberal Egalitarianism, seeking a balance between basic political and personal freedoms and positing that inequalities are only justified if they benefit the least advantaged in society. Chandler makes achievable proposals though another option would be to completely overhaul the political system and base it on a meritocratic civil service that aspiring politicians enter and then progress through a ‘cursus honorum’, a succession of offices that test the individual while imparting skills across a wide variety of areas in the political arena. When candidates wish to serve in Congress, they would all get equal airtime, column-width and debate opportunities arranged by a state electoral commission. The public could vote via a secure voting portal on the Internet. All members’ financial affairs would be scrutinised and an independent public ‘watchdog’ committee would oversee public projects to ensure transparency. All the time and money wasted on campaign fund-raising would be spent on actual governing and a ‘report card’ would assess metrics like the amount of public housing provided, lowering income inequality in the district and quality of education available to lower income earners. Thomas Paine, the author and contemporary of Benjamin Franklin was famous for his pamphlet ‘Common Sense’. He did not rate politicians highly and had this opinion of them: “The trade of governing has always been monopolized by the most ignorant and rascally individuals of mankind.” Therefore a system immune to corruption with constant oversight and checks and balances that can’t easily be thwarted, is essential. Another philosopher considered the father of modern philosophy, could provide a guide to how politicians should approach the governance of the people.


Immanuel Kant was born exactly 300 years ago so it is chronologically fitting to examine his legacy and extract what might help guide our stuttering society and polarised political system. Within Kant's moral framework, the categorical imperative holds primacy. This principle prescribes a universal moral law, binding on all rational beings. An action's merit hinges on its potential to be universally adopted, ensuring consistency and fairness across all circumstances. This is a strict law with no exceptions, which is needed when dealing with politicians looking for ‘wiggle room’. There are no exceptions for politicians who consider themselves above the law. For example, if draft laws are implemented in times of war, then young people of all social statuses will be eligible, which might deter elites from starting wars unnecessarily. In Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative stands as the cornerstone of his argument for grounding moral obligations in pure practical reason. It transcends personal desires and societal influences, serving as the foundation for moral duty.


​​Another significant formulation of Kant’s is the principle of humanity, which commands: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” This perspective underscores the inherent dignity of human beings and rejects their use as tools solely for the advancement of personal objectives. An example could be an educational system that views students as more than just future workers and cogs in a machine. Instead, care for their personal development would also be prioritised and there would be an emphasis on how to think critically. Developing the individual’s intellectual and moral capabilities would respect students as ends. In the context of earlier concerns on how people are manipulated by digital media, instruction on being media savvy is crucial for students along with understanding cognitive biases and logical fallacies that can mislead one and help to promote false narratives. The digital age has heralded some wonderful devices giving us advantages in accessing knowledge and communicating with ourselves but together with this, a Pandora’s box of digital ills has simultaneously been opened. We can now be vulnerable to manipulation and fake news on a larger scale than before; it is thus our responsibility to educate citizens starting from elementary school on how to safeguard against malicious attempts to twist truth and negatively influence our minds.


Recognition of a problem is halfway to solving it. In many countries, and most certainly in the US, there are different camps with their beliefs and ideologies that are at odds with an opposing camp. Civility has often broken down and a lack of honest engagement means that better understanding is not achieved. Politicians and the media exploit these differences for their own gains. It is therefore paramount that individuals are educated, and educate themselves, on how to avoid being unwitting supporters of elites with selfish agendas. Guidance from philosophers like Kant can facilitate this process and help safeguard civil society. It was another great thinker, Bertrand Russell, who in 1960 was asked what two pieces of advice he would leave for future generations. The intellectual one emphasised that people should seek truth from facts and not be diverted by what they wish to believe. The other was moral and recognised that love is wise and as the world was getting more interconnected, we needed to tolerate each other. If we are to live together and not die together then tolerance is vital to our future success.


Dr Darryl Lupton is an Australian academic who was a 2023 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ research scholar affiliated with National Taiwan University.

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