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Corporate Democracy, Civic Disrespect

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With the events of late in the year 2000, the United States left behind constitutional republicanism and turned to a different form of government: corporate democracy. This is a system whereby a board of directors — read Supreme Court — selects the chief executive officer. The CEO in turn appoints new members of the board. The shareholders, owners in title only, are invited to cast their votes in periodic referenda. But their franchise is only symbolic, for management holds a majority of the proxies. On no important issue do the CEO and the Board ever permit themselves to lose.

The Supreme Court clarified this system in a way that the Florida courts could not have. The media have accepted it, for it is the form of government to which they are already professionally accustomed. And the shameless attitude of the George W. Bush high command merely illustrates, in unusually visible fashion, the prevalent ethical system of corporate life.

Al Gore's concession speech was justly praised for grace and humor. It paid due deference to the triumph of corporate political ethics but did not embrace them. It thus preserved Gore for another political day — the obvious intention. But Gore also sent an unmistakable message to American Democrats: Do not forget.

It was an important warning, for almost immediately forgetting became the media order of the day. Overnight, it became almost un-American not to accept the diktat of the Court. Or to be precise, Gore's own distinction became holy writ: one might disagree with the Court but not with the legitimacy of its decision. Press references from that moment forward were to President-elect Bush, an unofficial title and something that the governor from Texas (President-select? President-designate?) manifestly is not.

The key to dealing with the Bush people, however, is precisely not to accept them. Like most Americans, I have nothing personal against Bush, Dick Cheney, or against Colin Powell and the others now surfacing as members of the new administration. But I will not reconcile myself to them. They lost the election. Then they arranged to obstruct the count of the vote. They don't deserve to be there, and that changes everything. They have earned our civic disrespect, and that is what we, the people, should accord them.In social terms, civic disrespect means that the illegitimacy of this administration must not be allowed to fade from view. The conventions of politics remain: Bush will be president; Congress must work with him. But those of us outside that process are not bound by those conventions, and to the extent that we have a voice, we should use it.

In political practice, civic disrespect means drawing lines around the freedom of maneuver of the incoming administration. In many areas, including foreign policy, there will be few major changes; in others such as annual budgets and appropriations, compromises will have to be reached. But Bush should be opposed on actions whose reach will extend beyond his actual term.

First, the new president should be allowed lifetime appointments only by consensus. The public should oppose — and 50 Senate Democrats should freely block — judicial nominations whenever they carry even the slightest ideological taint. That may mean most of them, but no matter. And as for the Supreme Court especially, vacancies need not be filled.

Second, the Democrats should advise Bush not to introduce any legislation to cut or privatize any part of Social Security or Medicare.

Third, Democrats should furiously oppose elimination of the estate tax, a social incentive for recycling wealth to the nonprofit sector, to foundations and universities, that has had a uniquely powerful effect on the form of American society. Once gone, this ingenious device will never be reenacted.Fourth, the people must unite to oppose the global dangers of National Missile Defense — a strategic nightmare on which Bush campaigned — which threatens for all time the security of us all.

Fifth, Congress should enact a New Voting Rights Act, targeted precisely at the Florida abuses. This should stipulate mandatory adoption of best-practice technology in all federal elections, a 24-hour voting day, a ban on private contractors to aid in purging voter rolls, and mandatory immediate hand count of all under-votes in federal elections.


James K. Galbraith is an economist at the University of Texas, Austin.

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