Changing a Political System That Is Rigged Against You

In a recent post titled “The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History” I suggested that observing which parts of the American people could break laws with impunity and which parts were certain to be punished for doing so can shed light on the inner workings of American society during any particular period of her history. Men disregard the rule of law only when they have the power to do so. During the antebellum it was common for small, white agricultural communities to work well outside the legal bounds of the law. In contrast, today it the exorbiantly rich and well-connected that can break laws with impunity. This inequality before the law is strong evidence that America is host to a corrupt “ruling class.”[1]

Changing political regimes of this type is difficult. Michael Lotus (who blogs at ChicagoBoyz under the tag “Lexington Green”) quotes Victorian historian Augustus Freeman to explain why: 

And it is certainly plain that the man who gains by maintaining corruption is likely to make great habitual efforts to keep up a corrupt system, while the man who opposes it, who gains nothing by opposing it, but who gives up his time, his quiet, and his ordinary business, for the public good, is tempted at every moment to relax his efforts. This failure of continued energy is just what Demosthenes complains of in the Athenians of his day; and experience does seem to show that here is a weak side of democratic government. To keep up under a popular system an administration at once pure and vigorous, does call for constant efforts on the part of each citizen which it needs some self-sacrifice to make. The old saying that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business becomes true as regards the sounder part of the community. But it follows next that what is everybody’s business becomes specially the business of those whose business one would least wish it to be. (emphasis added)

Lexington Green then adds:

Of course, we are faced with the exact same problem today, except it is now much worse because the corruption occurs at the national level, and frequently under color of law. It is indeed a perpetual “weakness of democratic government. 

What concrete steps can we take to mitigate this weakness, especially under modern conditions?[2]

This is an important question. How do you drive corruption and abuse out of a system that is “rigged” against you?

American history provides a precedent.

Using the rule of law as our metric we find another example in American history where one class of Americans clearly ruled another. The place was the American South; the period stretches from the end of Reconstruction until the beginning of the Civil Rights era. Here the dividing line was not wealth or political connections, but race. Black men were held to a different standard before the law than white men were. Black men had no say in selecting the men who governed them. White men could commit crimes with relative impunity if their victims were black.

A scene from To Kill A Mockingbird where a mob gathers to storm the jail and kill a black man accused of raping a white woman. 

The victories of the Civil Rights movement permanently changed this state of affairs. While racism and abuse persisted after the movement had run its course, it largely succeeded in obliterating the sort of institutionalized supremacy that allowed the white populace to control Southern blacks. African Americans of the Civil Rights era succeeded in changing a system that was rigged against them.

What lessons can we learn from their example?

In Revolt of the Elites Christopher Lasch explains some of the reasons why the movement was so successful: 

“It was the strength of the civil rights movement, which can be understood as part of the populist tradition, that it consistently refused to claim a privileged moral position for the victims of oppression. Martin Luther King was liberal in his social gospel but a populist in his insistence that black people had to take responsibility for their lives and in his praise of the petty bourgeois virtues: hard work, sobriety, self improvement. If the civil rights movement was a triumph for democracy, it was because King’s leadership transformed a degraded people into active, self-respecting citizens who achieved a new dignity in the course of defending their constitutional rights…. 

Those who feared or resented black people found themselves disarmed by the moral heroism, self discipline, and patriotism of the civil rights movement. Participants in the movement, by their willingness to go to jail when they broke the law, proved the depth of their loyalty to the country who’s racial etiquette they refused to accept. The movement validated black people’s claims to be better Americans than those who defended segregation as the American way. By demanding that the nation live up to its promise, they appealed to a common standard of justice and to a basic sense of decency that transcended racial lines.” (emphasis added[3]

Lasch highlights several lessons from the Civil Rights movement that can be applied to any modern day attempt to reform our corrupted political regime:

  • To transform a system of corruption and injustice you must convince the “degraded” class that the responsibility to change the system rests with them and that they truly have the power to do so.
  • These types of struggles are inherently a moral contest, and the usurpers cannot win if they cannot claim the moral high ground.
  • When the system is rigged against you it is logical to work outside of it (the Civil Rights movement did not win any of their battles by way of the ballot box), but the movement will lose the moral high ground if it cannot prove its commitment to the institutions it seeks to reform (as Civil Rights activists did when they went to jail peacefully)
All of this requires a long term vision and quite a bit of strategic planning. Carefully defining what needs to change and what actions can be taken to reach that point is just as central to non-violent conflict as it is to a military campaign. This ends-and-means discussion is one worth having. However, the entire discussion is quite useless if the first step detailed above – convincing the ruled that they have the power to change the system – is not attained.

This is the central problem facing those who want to “mitigate the weakness of democratic government [under] modern conditions.” It is the central crisis of modern American democracy. Augustus Freeman is correct to warn that democracy requires a large group of citizens devoted to the common good if it is to survive. Sociologists like Robert Putnam have amassed volumes of research that a devotion to the common good and sense of common identity is exactly what Americans have lost. Three generations of Americans have largely given up on self governance. Ibn Khaldun would call it a decline in asabiyah, Alexis de Tocqueville described it as the despotism of individualism, modern sociologists call it a crisis of social capital. [4] No matter what we name it, is strikes at the heart of the American people’s ability to work together to solve their own problems or to fight back against ruling class power.

Concrete steps to fix the weaknesses of democratic government must start here. Resurrecting civil society and local autonomy will do more to change the character of American democracy and empower her citizens than any sweeping changes at the top could. The power to rig the system from the top is what we are trying to eliminate, after all. That means there is no universal answer. There is no quick fix. Each concerned observer must turn to his or her own community and its local concerns to see what could be done to give its members practical experience with real citizenship. Until subjects learn to be citizens real progress will not be made. 


[1] T. Greer. The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History.” The Scholar’s Stage. 4 March 2013. 

[2] Lexington Green. “The Perpetual Difficulty of Opposing a Corrupt Political System.” ChicagoBoyz. 10 March 2013. 

[3] Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company). 1993. p. 83; 136.

[4] Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon and Schuser). 2000; T. Greer “The Death of a Nation” The Scholar’s Stage. 10 March 2010; Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. trans. Gerald Bevan.(New York: Penguin Books). 2003. p. 805-807 ; Ibn Khaldun The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History Translated by Franz Rosenthal. (Princeton: Princeton University Press). 1958. p. 45-49.

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Putnam is a political scientist, not a sociologist.

A mistake at this level may sound trivial. After all, Putnam’s recent work has a distinct sociological cast, so you can be excused for thinking he’s a sociologist. The problem is that he isn’t, and repeatedly calling him one sends a bad signal about you and about your readers. When I see you making the same mistake over and over, it makes me think either: a) you know better, but are careless about basic facts; or, b) you don’t know better, because you are reading Putnam casually, without digging into the context that motivated him, or checking out his more serious critics. Whatever the cause, that you keep making the same mistake makes me worry that I can’t trust you on the basics when it comes to books or ideas that I don’t know as much about.

(FWIW that you seem to have read Putnam’s first book makes your calling him a sociologist makes the problem worse.)

I say this as someone who is generally a fan of your blog.

PS I’m only writing this as a comment b/c I can’t find an email contact for you. I hope you’ll fix your mistakes and delete this comment.

PPS That’s one of my real emails.

Thank you for the heads up, but why exactly should I not call a man whose most famous work (Bowling Alone), as well as almost everything written in the twenty years that followed, by the sort of research he does? American Grace is not a work of political science. It is not even a work of political sociology. I don’t see exactly what the issue is here?

Re-reading this blog post, I’m struck immediately by how nonsensical the argument is with, neo reactionary? Revisionist? whatever the correct word is, interpretation.

Namely, that civil rights was the triumph of the Underdog for equality. This was so common so recently, but now this story of the civil rights just feels so much less unbelievable.

That the the civil rights was the strong crushing the weak seems more truthful in hindsight: the side with the 501 airborne on side is quite likely the stronger side, not the weaker one. That the black activism was lobbying the Yankees (the strong) to crush the Dixies (the weak) harder and faster than they were otherwise inclined to.

And when bussing can about so quickly after the initial big civil rights victories, how many open communists and revolutionaries were involved, and how black supremacist many civil rights organizations have turned out to be, it just seems so much less believable that it was ever really about equality, but simply a fight over who got the whip hand. Which as this point the Democrat federal civil rights vision seems to have utterly won, like you pointed out in the culture wars are long wars.

But, if civil rights is the powerful rigging the game against the weak, what story is there as some point of hope for any victory?

You just are left with the melenian dialog, that the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.