Chris Hedges: Stop Pretending US Is a Functioning Democracy

There are no institutions, including the press, an electoral system, the imperial presidency, the courts or the penal system, that can be defined as democratic. Only the fiction of democracy remains.

End Game. (Mr. Fish)

By Chris Hedges

There is a fatal disconnect between a political system that promises democratic equality and freedom while carrying out socioeconomic injustices that result in grotesque income inequality and political stagnation.

Decades in the making, this disconnect has extinguished American democracy. The steady stripping away of economic and political power was ignored by a hyperventilating press that thundered against the barbarians at the gate — Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, ISIS, Vladimir Putin — while ignoring the barbarians in our midst.

The slow-motion coup is over. Corporations and the billionaire class have won. There are no institutions, including the press, an electoral system that is little more than legalized bribery, the imperial presidency, the courts or the penal system, that can be defined as democratic. Only the fiction of democracy remains.

The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism calls the U.S. system “inverted totalitarianism.” The façade of democratic institutions and the rhetoric, symbols and iconography of state power have not changed. The Constitution remains a sacred document.

Collective Self-Delusion

July 4, 2019, Washington, D.C. (Joe Lauria)

The U.S. continues to posit itself as a champion of opportunity, freedom, human rights and civil liberties, even as half the country struggles at subsistence level, militarized police gun down and imprison the poor with impunity, and the primary business of the state is war. 

This collective self-delusion masks what America has become — a nation where the citizenry has been stripped of economic and political power and where the brutal militarism practiced overseas is practiced at home.

In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, economics was subordinate to politics. But under inverted totalitarianism, the reverse is true. There is no attempt, unlike fascism and state socialism, to address the needs of the poor. Rather, the poorer and more vulnerable you are, the more you are exploited, thrust into a hellish debt peonage from which there is no escape.

Social services, from education to health care, are anemic, nonexistent or privatized to gouge the impoverished. Further ravaged by 8.5 percent inflation, wages have decelerated sharply since 1979. Jobs often do not offer benefits or security.

[You can watch an interview I conducted in 2014 with Sheldon Wolin here.]

In my book America: The Farewell Tour, I examined the social indicators of a nation in serious trouble. Life expectancy in the U.S. fell in 2021, for the second year in a row. There have been over 300 mass shootings this year. Close to a million people have died from drug overdoses since 1999. There are an average of 132 suicides every day. Nearly 42 percent of  the country is classified as obese, with one in 11 adults considered severely obese.

These diseases of despair are rooted in the disconnect between a society’s expectations of a better future and the reality of a system that does not provide a meaningful place for its citizens. Loss of a sustainable income and social stagnation causes more than financial distress.

Diseased Society

Evicted from their homes, Seattle. (Joe Lauria)

As Émile Durkheim points out in The Division of Labor in Society, it severs the social bonds that give us meaning. A decline in status and power, an inability to advance, a lack of education and adequate health care, and a loss of hope result in crippling forms of humiliation. This humiliation fuels loneliness, frustration, anger and feelings of worthlessness. 

In Hitler and the Germans, the political philosopher Eric Voegelin dismisses the idea that Hitler — gifted in oratory and political opportunism but poorly educated and vulgar — mesmerized and seduced the German people. The Germans, he writes, supported Hitler and the “grotesque, marginal figures” surrounding him because he embodied the pathologies of a diseased society, one beset by economic collapse and hopelessness.

Voegelin defines stupidity as a “loss of reality.” The loss of reality means a “stupid” person cannot “rightly orient his action in the world, in which he lives.” The demagogue, who is always an idiote, is not a freak or social mutation. The demagogue expresses the society’s zeitgeist.

The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s, as I write in America, The Farewell Tour, created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to devise a new political paradigm, as Stuart Hall explains in Policing the Crisis. Trumpeted by a compliant media, this paradigm shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime and law and order.  It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from rampant militarism and corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity.

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The old consensus that buttressed New Deal programs and the welfare state was attacked as enabling criminal Black youth, “welfare queens” and other alleged social parasites. This opened the door to a faux populism, begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith and the return to a mythical past, at least for white Americans.

The Democratic Party, especially under Bill Clinton, moved steadily to the right until it became largely indistinguishable from the establishment Republican Party to which it is now allied. Donald Trump, and the 74 million people who voted for him in 2020, were the result.

Political Theater

Biden speaks in Philadelphia. (White House Photo)

It will do no good, as Biden did on Thursday in Philadelphia, to demonize Trump and his supporters in the way they demonize Biden and the Democrats. Biden, raising clenched fists, backlit by Stygian red lights and flanked by two U.S. Marines in dress uniforms, announced from his Dantesque stage set that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.” 

Trump called the speech the most “vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president” and attacked Biden as “an enemy of the state.” 

Biden’s frontal assault widens the divide. It solidifies a system where voters do not vote for what they want, since neither side delivers anything of substance, but against what they despise. Biden did not address our socioeconomic crisis or offer solutions. It was political theater.

Anti-politics masquerades as politics. No sooner does one money-drenched election cycle end, the next one begins, perpetuating what Wolin calls “politics without politics.” These elections do not permit citizens to participate in power.

The public is allowed to voice opinions to scripted questions, which are repackaged by publicists, pollsters, political consultants and advertisers and fed back to them. Few races, including only 14 percent of congres­sional districts, are considered competitive. Politicians do not campaign on substantial issues but on skillfully manufactured political personalities and emotionally charged culture wars. 


The Pentagon. (Joe Lauria)

The militarists, who have created a state within a state and who plunge us into one military debacle after another, consuming half of all discretionary spending, are omnipotent. The corporations and billionaires, which orchestrated a virtual tax boycott and gutted regulation and oversight, are omnipotent.

The industrialists who wrote trade deals to profit from unemployment and underemployment of U.S. workers and sweatshop labor overseas are omnipotent. The insurance and pharmaceutical industries that run the healthcare system, whose primary concern is profit not health and who are responsible for 16 percent of the worldwide reported deaths from COVID-19 although we are less than 5 percent of the global population, are omnipotent.

The intelligence agencies that carry out wholesale surveillance of the public are omnipotent.

The courts that reinterpret laws to strip them of their original meaning to ensure corporate control and excuse corporate crimes, are omnipotent. The courts gave us Citizens United, for example, which permits unlimited corporate financing of elections by claiming it upholds the right to petition the government and is a form of free speech.


July 4, 2019, parade in Washington, D.C. (Joe Lauria)

Politics is spectacle, a tawdry carnival act where the constant jockeying for power by the ruling class dominates the news cycles, as if politics were a race to the Super Bowl. The real business of ruling is hidden, carried out by corporate lobbyists who write the legislation, banks that loot the Treasury, the war industry and an oligarchy that determines who gets elected and who does not. It is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, the fossil fuel industry or Raytheon, no matter which party is in office.

The moment any segment of the population, left or right, refuses to participate in this illusion, the face of inverted totalitarianism resembles the face of classical totalitarianism, as Julian Assange is experiencing.

Our corporate overlords and militarists prefer the decorum of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But they worked closely with Trump and are willing to do so again.

What they will not allow are reformers such as Bernie Sanders, who might challenge, however tepidly, their obscene accumulation of wealth and power. This inability to reform, to restore democratic participation and address social inequality, means the inevitable death of the republic.

Biden and the Democrats rail against the cultish Republican Party and their threat to democracy, but they too are the problem.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

Author’s Note to Readers: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waiver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at so I can continue to post my Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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25 comments for “Chris Hedges: Stop Pretending US Is a Functioning Democracy

  1. Ed Nelson
    September 8, 2022 at 23:24

    By your comment do you mean that Biden declared war on that very half of the American population that has declared war on the other half of the country? The half that includes liberals, progressives, socialist, minorities, and pro-choice women.

  2. John Zeigler
    September 7, 2022 at 19:23

    Thank you, Chris for context and perspective. Former President Eisenhower warned us against the military-industrial-(Congressional) complex, and the U.S. ignored his sage advice and plunged ahead with ever an ever-increasing military presence throughout the world. The DOD has not passed an audit since 1989, and for a number of years has simply told the GAO that it cannot provide numbers. We the people are so thoroughly screwed.

  3. DW Bartoo
    September 7, 2022 at 17:45

    That is not the definition of “demos” with which I am familiar, Leonard.

    It simply means the common folk, in Latin, for example, the term is “hoi paloi”.

    As to your preference for, apparently, a Republic, recall what Franklin said when asked what the “founding fathers” had created; “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

    Technically, of course, the U$ is a republic.

    Yet, that does not excuse corruption, empire, or the intentional destruction of civil society, not does it justify any of those things.

    Perhaps you yearn for a Republic, an empire, dominated by powerful families and a ruling elite?

    We already have that.

    So, if you prefer that the destruction of domestic trust and the collapse of a violent nation which threatens to “bomb you back to the Stone Age!”, or “turn your country to glass!”, be seen as the behavior of a republic rather than what has been a pretend democracy, from the beginning, go right ahead.

    Semantic squabbling will make not the slightest difference to the demise of U$isn hegemony.

    Nor alleviate the mean times which will ever more viciously befall the common folk, perhaps you among all the rest of us, as once happened to the Roman republic.

    It is much like insisting that it was not torture, simply “enhanced interrogation”.

    We could go full euphemism.

    And call a nuclear war, “a simple matter of adjustment”.

  4. John R Barker
    September 7, 2022 at 14:29

    Chris Wallace to V. Putin: “Americans are concerned that Russian interference in our elections will undermine our democracy.”

    V. Putin (calmly) to Chris Wallace: (Chris, do you think you live in a democracy?”

  5. September 7, 2022 at 14:02

    DEMOCRACY, n. from two Greek words: “demos” meaning an emotional crowd or angry mob, and “Kratia” meaning to be in charge or to have sway.

    How then is a “DEMOCRACY” better than a “REPUBLIC”?

    • Ed Nelson
      September 8, 2022 at 23:06

      That all depends on whose interest is served but the Republic. If the majority is served, then you have a Democratic Republic. If not, then you just have a stinking dictatorship of the wealthy minority. There is a significant difference between the two; wouldn’t you say?

  6. Alex Nosal
    September 7, 2022 at 13:06

    A great article as usual by Chris Hedges but as usual it also begs the question… “Is there any chance at all that a legitimate third Party could challenge corporate control in the U.S?” I completely agree that the U.S. is the most propagandized country on earth, yet many Americans recognize the stranglehold that corporate America in spite of the 24/7 barrage of misinformation. I still believe that if a real third Party arose that was structured for the sole purpose of eliminating corporate influence from government, that the Party would pose a serious threat to Wall Street and could possibly win. I have to believe this or else I have to admit to defeat and accept the imminent end of the human race.

  7. September 7, 2022 at 09:52

    Excellent article except for the delusional allusion to Bernie Sanders, a fraud who makes noise as he supports the DNC agenda, especially when directed as his followers. Now Tulsi Gabbard, that would have been an exemplary example.

  8. Jdog
    September 7, 2022 at 09:48

    The fact that this article fails to criticize the dictator Brandon for declaring war on half the American population is simply another example of how the left consistently avoids the inconvenient truth. What little credibility Hedges ever had, he has now lost.

  9. dave
    September 6, 2022 at 20:33

    “[V]oters do not vote for what they want, since neither side delivers anything of substance, but against what they despise.”

    “The public is allowed to voice opinions to scripted questions, which are repackaged by publicists, pollsters, political consultants and advertisers and fed back to them. Few races, including only 14 percent of congres­sional districts, are considered competitive. Politicians do not campaign on substantial issues but on skillfully manufactured political personalities and emotionally charged culture wars. ”

    ^ One of the most concise, accurate descriptions of American politics I’ve read!

  10. Dfnslblty
    September 6, 2022 at 19:21


    >> The Germans, he writes, supported Hitler and the “grotesque, marginal figures” surrounding him because he embodied the pathologies of a diseased society, one beset by economic collapse and hopelessness<<

    Your presentation of oppositional thinkers above guides me to do research on our plight, and to speak reality to fear.

    Keep writing …

  11. DW Bartoo
    September 6, 2022 at 19:14

    If we haven’t actual democracy (where citizens vote for policy, not personality),
    Then exercising one’s franchise, as we are all constantly exhorted to do, dutifully, only legitimizes the ongoing enterprise of pillage, plunder, and profit (more of the same, if you please, sir/madam).

    We cannot vote our way out the “spot” we are in, because it is not the result of fickle fate or outrageous fortune, but of deliberate, intentional policy designed to further enrich and empower the pathological few at the expense and wellbeing of the many.

    Doubtless, what I have just shared will, very likely, soon be termed a “threat to democracy” – akin to advising the young not to go to war.

  12. Realist
    September 6, 2022 at 19:07

    Ever advancing science and technology has made it increasingly possible to track, control and contain ANYONE within our highly developed society. Mr. Hedges has touched all the bases of where exactly in our quotidian human interactions we humans are forcibly interfaced with this high tech command and control and thereby stripped of our humanity and consigned to nothing more than easily manipulable data files. He quite tersely and accurately noted that there are “no institutions” escaping the clutches of central control by our government and its corporate partners run by fascists just as ruthless and driven as the fanatics serving Hitler and Stalin but with a LOT more advanced technological tools at their disposal to micro-manipulate potentially all of us with much greater finesse and finality than all generations that have come before us throughout history. Of course the “anyone’s” who are by far the most targeted are those without money, property, education or social connections and therefore without agency in this hyper-capitalist and, ergo, hyper-fascistic civilisation.

    It’s just the nature of the beast (the evolution of human societies built upon thermodynamics and information theory, i.e., the control and flow of both order [dS] and energy [dG]) that wealth and power accrue more wealth and more power. Such development is autocatalytic. The more you have the more you get. Even the uneducated person can see that. Now our current maestros of vision, insight and all the power that money begets–Messrs Musk and Bezos–stand on the brink of spreading the human virus to other worlds with their lavish space programs that have come to outstrip the enormous national efforts formerly affordable only by the likes of NASA and Roskosmos. So, with great power comes great responsibility, right? Is that how you describe launching a Tesla roadster into solar orbit? Or is the end goal merely the enhancement of one man’s ego no matter how much in limited resources from the commons must be squandered? This greedy effect had a cause, which was the decision by a president from the “egalitarian” party, which struts around as the “Democrats” (implying the nostrum that we luv “democracy”) that space research and development should be privatized (but funded by ginormous federal grants) and its blessings will trickle down to all. Ronald Reagan said the same things within the sweep of the entire economy and got dumped on (rightfully) by the “traditionalists” trying to futilely retain the spirit of “equality, liberty and fraternity” imbued by the original constitution (the hypocrisy of the founding fathers duly noted for the sticklers who will insist on making that easy layup).

    The point is, no newly discovered advantage (especially in the form of brutally efficient technological advancements) will ever be ignored or forsaken in the name of fairness, freedom, democracy or good sportsmanship. Has cheating with new waves of pharmaceuticals in big time sports every few years ever been effectively stifled to this purpose? Or, isn’t the American way of sorting out the “talent” from the “useless eaters” simply the most innocuous way of accomplishing what, frankly, MUST be done to maintain our place as top dog in the firmament of world powers? Since, as the fairy tale goes, every other nation on this planet, except for ourselves and our loyal vassal states within Nato who voluntarily and repeatedly sacrifice for the greater good of all humanity, WILL lie, cheat, steal and otherwise abuse our generosity and trust. Such evil, we are told by our top men in government and the military, is inherent in the very genetic make-up of the inhabitants of these nefarious countries that must be stopped, not merely from aggressing upon the “free” world, but even from emerging as major powers and players in the world economy. By this frequently propagated logic, Washington is doing the whole world a favor by crushing the aspirations of “tyrannical” states like Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, Syria…you know the list.

    To be sure, Russia uses some of its top technical talent to develop hypersonic missiles to “needlessly” defend against American nuclear-tipped missiles mere hundreds of kilometers from their largest cities. China builds up its navy to “needlessly” keep the South China Sea and the Moluccan Straits open for its critical trade with the outside world, while Uncle Sam merely objects to losing its rights to freely navigate and impede those Chinese merchant ships whenever it feels its “national interests” might possibly be threatened in some suicidal move by China. Iran likes to pontificate about all the ways its sovereignty is being abused by Israel car bombing its top scientists and strafing its soldiers stationed in Syria at the request of that government, completely neglecting Israel’s conspicuous need for what they used to call “Lebensraum” in the good old days before everyone ganged up against Washington and Tel Aviv. Just in general, lots of countries today are simply being unfair and abusive of these two magnanimous peoples, including India, Pakistan, half of Latin America, most of Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. By what right do all these places have to create an INTERNAL system of highways, railways and a few inland waterways to maintain trade and robust economies–for many of these populations for the first time ever in their histories!

    Advancement in those societies must be stopped if it were to impinge upon American hegemony in ANY way whatsoever. After all, they are backward, we are advanced, evolved as I said at the start, which is how things must remain. Never mind that China, in its own way, is falling into some of the same traps that caused Americans to lose their freedoms and democracy. At least the Chinese aren’t losing something they never had, however, they ARE most definitely garnering much that is new and desirable in terms of wealth and living standards. Their middle class is now larger and actually wealthier than our own. Why, those inscrutable (that used to be the term of art) Chinese are using their own super fast, fancy new computers to keep a “social score” for every member of their 1.4 billion population, some system that probably outdoes even Santa Claus when it comes to a record of everyone’s “naughty” and “nice” deeds for purposes of deciding who stands where in the long queues for any of the perks (such as foreign travel or admission to university) that the government has control over. This, of course, is very bad, an affront to freedom and democracy everywhere, which is probably why very many believe that it is something that Washington will itself implement, along with the digital dollar, elimination of cash, a guaranteed (but very limited) income, bail-ins using your money on deposit to keep your bank afloat after it collapses in the upcoming depression, and a complete and uninterrupted record of your whereabouts throughout you entire life using the chip they already implanted along with the covid vaccine. I said many believe these things. I don’t yet, but probably will when they happen. Then I will have to reconcile why such things are bad for the Chinese but wonderful for us Yankee Doodle Dandies, eh?

    • DW Bartoo
      September 7, 2022 at 10:24

      Superb comment, Realist.

    • Common Sense
      September 7, 2022 at 17:48

      Well written (not the 1st one) ^^ Thank you.

  13. Clonal Antibody
    September 6, 2022 at 18:25

    Re Biden’s speech, I think he was setting the stage for this – “Why Assume there will be Another Election? The 1934 Bankers Coup Revisited” – Powers of the President were greatly expanded in the Defense Authorization Act of 2022

  14. September 6, 2022 at 17:51

    We should always put “democracies” and “democracy” in quotes. This is because I can’t think of a single democracy in this world and referring to the US or any European nation as one seems to me to indicate an ignorance of facts and history, especially the monetary history, the story of power.

    I guess it depends on how one defines democracy, but I define it as a system of government in which every citizen is equitably represented in making public policy. We not only have no democracies, but we also have no sovereign nations! We are ruled by a global financial dictatorship that controls the money and banking systems. The politically active ‘power elite’ are the executive arm of the ‘ruling class’, which dominates public policy using the power of money. We live in a plutocracy, not a democracy. Calling our economic system a democracy is to ignore our own history which is why the present is not widely understood. It is time to stop referring to the western world as being democratic, it is such a lie.

    We must change the money system to a public function serving the general welfare if we want democracy. By doing that we can get the debt parasite of capitalism off people’s backs. The Greeks acknowledged 10 centuries before the CE that the most vital prerogative of democratic self-governance was to issue the money debt-free for the common good as its first use. Barely 2% of the money goes into our productive economy, the rest goes into speculation that produces nothing. Money like healthcare, education, police and fire protection, should not be a private for-profit business. Especially one that we never acknowledge or recognize or challenge! Instead, we focus on the ever expanding symptoms, never the disease.

  15. September 6, 2022 at 17:16

    It is the Kali Yuga indeed.

    • kiers
      September 7, 2022 at 22:19

      …a fancy way of saying “end times”. it is really bad.

  16. Afdal
    September 6, 2022 at 16:26

    Democracy wasn’t extinguished, it never existed to begin with. America was founded by explicit anti-democrats who chose the model of the oligarchy of the Roman Republic for a reason. At no point did it ever transcend this model to become a democracy, the only change that happened was the word “democracy” had its meaning twisted and inverted to mean the opposite of its historic usage. Elections are a fundamentally oligarchic institution and the ancient democrats understood this. You can get money out of campaigning, make elections competitive for more than two parties, break down the barriers to voting, get rid of the vermin in the deep state so that only elected officials run government, etc. You can do all these things and elections will still be an institution that selects for an upper social strata to the exclusion of society’s poorest, producing rule by the few. That is simply how elections function.

  17. Drew Hunkins
    September 6, 2022 at 16:21

    “as Stuart Hall explains in Policing the Crisis. Trumpeted by a compliant media, this paradigm shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from rampant militarism and corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity.”

    They were blamed for their economic precarity. Not only Blacks and Chicanos but also working class Whites. We were all told by the media, self-help gurus, and capitalist propagandists that if you’re struggling it’s your own dam n fault.

  18. Rudy Haugeneder
    September 6, 2022 at 15:57

    Ditto. OWS had the correct idea but was crushed by the establishment that included a middle class that still doesn’t know why they did not at least debate the reasons behind OWS — and currently support American direct military involvement in the Ukraine rather than examine their own back yard.

  19. Susan Siens
    September 6, 2022 at 15:36

    Chris Hedges might want to seek out the information that strongly suggests the banks had everything to do with deindustrialization, taking us from a productive economy to a debt economy. And now Germany seems willing to follow the U.S.’s lead.

    • J Anthony
      September 8, 2022 at 09:17

      Hell yes. Ignoring the root of almost every problem (inherently fraudulent banking/monetary-system) ought to be at the top of the list

  20. Deniz
    September 6, 2022 at 15:14

    While I agree with Hedges, I can’t reconcile the talking point that modern day Republicans currently live in a cult, when the majority of Republicans distrust the media and the majority of Democrats trust media (see Pew). The counterpoint is that Republicans trust Fox, but Roger Ailes is long dead, nobody listens to the Karl Rove ilk any more and the most trusted Fox voice is Tucker Carlson. Carlson frequently espouses some of the same dying democracy themes as Hedges, is the most prominent antiwar voice in media, and invites Greenwald, Gabbard, and the remnants of other independent media on his show. Cant we cut the demonization of Republican’s talking points and recognize we live in a new era? In the Bush era, Olbermann, Maddow and Colbert were fantastic, but now they have been bought and sold by the DNC, they have become bigger villains than those they once despised.

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