This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.
The first lesson that must be learned to have a healthy democracy is this: there are those in society who, intentionally or not, are enemies of democracy. There is always an elite that believes itself better able to rule than everyone else, that holds self-government by the people in contempt, and that tries to acquire predominance of control through force, fraud, ideology, money, and other forms of power. Maintaining a vibrant democracy that creates good lives for all its people requires that the common people use power to constrain the authoritarian-minded, control-seeking elite.
Aristotle, who had a habit of categorizing everything, classified governments according to which part of society ruled: one person, an elite few, or the many common people, and whether that class governed in its own interest or in the interest of all. He believed that there could be a good form of government by one person, led by a wise and gentle ruler, and he called it monarchy; he called the bad form of rule by one person tyranny, when the ruler governed arbitrarily according to uncontrolled impulse. The good form of government by an elite, consisting of the best and most experienced people that society had to offer, was aristocracy; the bad form was oligarchy, government by the avaricious, self-interested wealthy few. Government by the common people, or the demos, was called democracy, and Aristotle thought, as did many other premodern political thinkers, that it was an unstable, impulsive, and incompetent form of government. Aristotle called the good form of popular government polity, but it was a mixed government that had a role for all classes, so the interests of all could be expressed. It served as inspiration for later civic republican thinkers. Aristotle also believed that an economy that supported a strong, large middle class was best: too much inequality put the rich and the poor at odds, almost as if they belonged to different societies, for their interests and experiences are too different to be reconciled.
The point is that Aristotle was right: there are different classes in society, they have fundamentally different interests, and they inevitably enter into politics. If we are to defend the self government of all the people, then we must prevent the dominance of rule by an elite few or a single person. Over the last forty years the oligarchs have been gathering more and more wealth, privileges, and power to themselves, and the principle political challenge of our time is to prevent and reverse this trend.
Terms change their meanings with time, and I want to he clear that when I use the term "democracy" I am not using it in the derogatory sense used by premodern political philosophers like Aristotle. I am referring, ideally, to egalitarian, authoritative deliberations by all people, regardless of social status, privilege, wealth, or other differences, to govern the institutions of political, economic, and cultural life. Speaking less ideally and more practically, it means at a minimum a liberal representative democracy of the modern kind: widespread public participation in free, competitive elections, the protection of basic rights, and public institutions and programs to provide the economic and educational basis for all to fully participate in public life as equal citizens.
Since we have not yet established an egalitarian society which flattens or eliminates class differences, we still are afflicted by the traditional struggle that Aristotle noted between different class groupings with fundamentally different interests. The mid-20th century saw some degree of class flattening in advanced societies as working people achieved increased access to the voting franchise and programs of social democracy that improved their standards of living and education. During this period, one could legitimately say that democracy was trending upwards in terms of economic class (although inequalities in terms of race, sex, and gender had yet to be addressed). Since the mid-1970s, however, oligarchy has been on the upswing as the trend towards economic class flattening was halted (this was done deliberately, but that is a story for another time). Indeed, in today's era giant multinational corporations dominate, having gained almost complete control over public policy on most issues through lobbying and advertising, such that we can say that most political systems are highly oligarchic with only a residuum of democratic control remaining. The government response to the Great Recession, which continued to protect the rich and left everyone else vulnerable, shows that economic policy no longer responds at all to the interests of the demos but is entirely oligarchic.
The government that the United States currently has is, too, in all but name an oligarchy, and in fact is the most effective oligarchy in human history: public policy is mainly made of, by, and for the rich. Only occasionally now does the people's will determine public policy. Can you remember the last time there was a vote or election where the interests of the rich truly lost out to those of the regular people? It may only be a matter of time before even the pretense of democracy is dispensed with and oligarchy becomes explicitly and openly the standard form of government.
The interests of the elite sometimes, by accident, run in parallel with those of the common people. But most of the time the interests of the oligarchs those of the common people conflict, putting them into a continual state of low-grade political conflict - although the demos rarely recognizes that it is actually being harmed. This conflict does not usually consist of open fighting, but is a struggle for control that is political, ideological, propagandistic, and emotive. Sometimes the ruling class still resorts to naked and even brutal violence, as when Occupy protesters were forcibly removed from public places, or when people in other places become the target of imperial adventures.
The elite comes in many forms - military, bureaucratic, technocratic, media - but there is always an economic elite that has more of society's resources than everyone else. These days the main institutions that the wealthy elite use to keep control are economic corporations, large and small. Since their activates are often averse to the public interest and are designed to perpetuate the elite's existence, its power, privileges, and wealth, they must be beyond the accountable democratic control of the people. This means that they are indeed out to control you, exploit you, take your stuff, pinch your life to make it narrow and unfulfilling; they are willing to see your life end if that accords with their more important purposes.
Now, on the whole they are not drooling brutish psychos. A disproportionate number are sociopaths and narcissists, but the majority are normal, and in most cases are just following the logic of power. Many are misled by an ideology that helps to justify to others, and to themselves, their actions, power, privilege, and wealth. They often even believe that they are good people and have the public interest at heart, even when they clearly do not, or have not consulted the general public to see what its interest is.
Part of the problem is size: they have power and authority over large institutions, both public and private, and tend to think about those institutions as objects to be used, manipulated, controlled, rearranged. But if course those institutions consist of people, sometimes millions of people, for an institution consists merely of people, organized by rules to coordinate their actions for some common purpose, plus the material objects they use. Thus treating an institution as a thing is to treat its component parts - mainly people - as things, not as moral persons. So what happens is that instrumental rationality sets in, and we, the faceless masses, end up as small tools whose lives depend on the decisions (and sometimes the whims) of the elite. This way of thinking about institutions can only be countered by the strong and real democratic participation of the people in deciding the affairs of the institutions of which they are a part, for this humanizes them in the eyes of the ruling class, and in their own eyes, too.
In short, an oligarchic elite consisting of a privileged, powerful, and wealthy few exists, and regular people would be much better off if they recognized that fact and set out to bring the existence of that class to and end and fold its people into the common body with everyone else.
Defending democracy first requires seeing that there is an elite of the few that wants control, and that they really don't want to share it. They do not have your interests at heart. They have their own interests, they know how to pursue them, and they are good at it. For a people to be truly self-governing, they must take control for themselves, and exert power over the upper class in order to control them and make them act in the interest of all. That is a key point often forgotten by peace-loving, conflict-averse progressives: democracy involves ruling, the imposition of binding rules and laws, and enforcing those rules and laws. The people must reverse the usual relationship and treat bosses like employees, masters like servants, rulers like the ruled. If you want to have a free democracy and good government, then you must first see clearly that there is an elite class, and then willingly take the necessary steps to rule over it it.