"Democracy, Incorporated:
Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
Sheldon Wolin
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008)

(Real News Network) Chris Hedges interview with Sheldon Wolin: Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist? Full Version (November 20, 2014)


Preface to the Paperback Edition

“Democracy Incorporated describes certain tendencies in American politics and argues that they are serving to consolidate a unique political system of “inverted totalitarianism.” p. ix



The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstal’s famous (or infamous) propaganda tribute to Hitler, memorialized the 1934 rally of the Nazi Party at Nuremberg. It begins with a dramatic, revelatory moment. The camera is trained on a densely clouded sky. Magically, the clouds suddenly part and a tiny plane glides through. It swoops down, lands, and The Leader, in uniform, emerges and strides triumphantly past the salutes of admiring throngs and the party faithful. As the film draws to a close, the camera becomes riveted on a seemingly endless parade, row on row, of uniformed Nazis, shoulder to shoulder, goose stepping in the flickering torchlight. Even today it leaves an impression of iron determination, of power poised for conquest, of power resolute, mindless, its might wrapped in myth.
    On May 1, 2003, in another tightly orchestrated “documentary,” television viewers were given an American version of stern resolve and its embodiment in a leader. A military plane swoops from the sky and lands on an aircraft carrier. The camera creates the illusion of a warship far at sea, symbolizing power unconfined to its native land and able to project itself anywhere in the world. The leader emerges, not as a plain and democratic officeholder, but as one whose symbolic authority is antidemocratic. He strides resolutely, flight helmet tucked under his arm, outfitted in the gear of a military pilot. Above, the banner “Mission Accomplished.” He salutes a prearranged crowd of uniformed military personnel. Shortly thereafter, he reemerges in civilian garb but without discarding the aura of anti-civilian authority. He speaks magisterially from the flight deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, now cleared with the military carefully ringed about him. He stands alone in the ritual circle expressive of a sacrament of leadership and obedience. They cheer and clap on cue. He invokes the blessing of a higher power. He, too, has promised a triumph of the will. pp. 1-2


Both spectacles are examples of the distinctively modern mode of myth creation. They are the self-conscious constructions of visual media. Cinema and television share a common quality of being tyrannical in a specific sense. They are able to block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue, anything that might weaken or complicate the holistic force of their creation, of its total impression.
    In a curious but important way these media effects mesh with religious practice. In many Christian religions the believer participates in ceremonies much as the movie or TV watcher takes part in the spectacle presented. In neither case to they participate as the democratic citizen is supposed to do, as actively engaged in decisions and sharing in the exercise of power. They participate as communicants in a ceremony prescribed by the masters of the ceremony. Those assembled at Nuremberg or on the USS Abraham Lincoln did not share power with their leaders. Their relationship was thaumaturgical: they were being favored by a wondrous power in a form and a time of its choosing.
    The underlying metaphysic to these dreams of glory, of an “American century,” of Superpower, was revealed in the musing of a high-level [Bush] administration official when he or she attributed a view of “reality” to reporters and then contrasted it with that held by the administration: reporters and commentators were “in what we [i.e., the administration] call the reality based community [which] believe[s] that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not what the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors and you, all of you , will be left to just study what we do.” pp. 2-3

Chapter One: Myth in the Making

Chapter Two: Totalitarianism’s Inversion: Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War

“Since [9/11/2001], the reality of that day has been reproduced in a variety of guises and practical applications that are, in their own way, as amazing as the event evoked to justify them.
    The nation was immediately declared to be at war against an enemy whose nature, number, and location were largely unknown. … The powers of government were expanded and made more intrusive, while simultaneously its social welfare functions were radically scaled back. …the less wealthy and poor remained politically apathetic, unable to find a vehicle for expressing their helplessness.” pages 8-9

“The mythology created around September 11 was predominantly Christian in its themes. The day was converted into the political equivalent of a holy day of crucifixion, of martyrdom, that fulfilled multiple functions. as the basis of a political theology, a communion around a mystical body of a bellicose republic, as a warning against political apostasy, as a sanctification of the nation’s leader, transforming him from a powerful officeholder of questionably legitimacy into an instrument of redemption, and at the same time exhorting the congregants to a wartime militancy, demanding of them uncritical loyalty and support, summoning them as participants in a sacrament of unity and in a crusade to ‘rid the world of evil.’ Holy American Empire?” pages, 9-10

“Myth presents a narrative of exploits, not an argument or demonstration. It does not make the world intelligible, only dramatic.” p. 10

    "For the wartime imaginary spawned by World War II contained one embarrassment: the alliance with the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, without whose contributions and horrific sacrifices the Allied victory would have been highly problematic. Distrust of this ally had its beginnings as far back as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the ‘red scare’ of the 1920s. The motive at that time was not solely geopolitical worries about the Bolshevik regime but that regime’s candidacy as an alternative to capitalism.
    The wartime imaginary was not abandoned after 1945 but reconceived as a "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union, a showdown between capitalism and anti-capitalism. The undeclared stake concerned domestic policy. Would the egalitarian tendencies encouraged by the New Deal and its accompanying faith in governmental regulation of the economy be resumed after World War II? The policy-makers of the Cold War would decide that issue by assigning a huge proportion of the nation's resources to defense [war] rather than welfare.
    The Cold War consolidated the power of capital and began the reaction against the welfare state but without abandoning the strong state. What was abandoned was all talk of participatory democracy." p. 26

“... what attracted decision-makers to choosing 'war' is that Americans of the twentieth century had no direct experience of it and hence were receptive to having warfare imagined for them – and Hollywood happily obliged with 'war movies.' Save for actual combatants sent overseas and economic shortages at home, World War II was unexperienced. After 1945 'war' was a tabula rasa on which opinion-makers and government decision-makers were free to constitute its meaning in terms that pretty much suited their purposes, allowing them to set the character of public debate and to acquire a vastly enlarged range of governmental powers – powers that, when they did not violate the Constitution, deformed it. ... The meaning of war was given a plasticity that allowed the new image-makers to set its parameters as they pleased.” p. 32

“The development of an extended relationship between the military and the corporate economy began in earnest. National defense was declared inseparable from a strong economy. The fixation upon mobilization and rearmament inspired the gradual disappearance from the national political agenda of the regulation and control of corporations. The defender of the free world needed the power of the globalizing, expanding corporation, not an economy hampered by 'trust-busting.' … The ultimate merger would be between capitalism and democracy. Once the identity and security of democracy were successfully identified with the Cold War and the methods of waging it, the stage was set for the intimidation of most politics left of right.” p. 34

“... Nationalism and patriotism, rather than ideology, sufficed to control the population and gain its support. Patriotism required no collective self-examination, only the spontaneous response to the simple fact that we had been attacked.
    This changed dramatically with the advent of the Cold War when the power imaginary turned inwards. … The appearance of a new set of political actors … marked a new form of governmental power: thought policing to enforce ideological conformity.” p. 35

Chapter Three: Totalitarianism’s Inversion, Democracy’s Perversion

“ … but it was the Cold War itself that lent resonance to “McCarthy's] antics and an inward turn to what seemed primarily a matter of foreign policy. Many of the public officials, trade union leaders, intellectuals and academics who were vilified or purged actually adhered to the social democratic ideals and programs of the New Deal; this suggested that a domestic power struggle was in the making that would redefine American politics for the next half century or more. Put simply: New Deal values of social democracy were effectively purged from the power imaginary. Notable casualties of that drama were Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, both Democrats who believed deeply in social programs but found themselves forced to shoulder a Cold War that had turned hot in Vietnam and left little or no public resources for social spending. The populist surge of the 1930s that had carried over into support for the democratized effort of World War II was reconfigured.” p. 38

“All of the elements aimed at the ‘mobilization’ of society … spelled the transformation of popular participation, from New Deal experiments in participatory Democracy to a populism exchanging socioeconomic power for loyal conformism, hope for fear.” p. 39

“The significance of the African American prison population is political. What is notable about the African American population generally is that it is highly sophisticated politically and by far the one group that throughout the twentieth century kept alive the spirit of resistance and rebelliousness. In that context, criminal justice is as much a strategy of political neutralization as it is a channel of instinctive racism.” p. 58.

“The fact that politically organized interest groups with vast resources operate continuously, that they are coordinated with congressional procedures and calendars, that they occupy strategic points in the political process, is indicative of how the meaning of ‘representative’ government has radically changed. The citizenry is being displaced, severed from a direct connection with the legislative institutions that are supposed to ‘stand in’ for the people. If the main purpose of elections is to serve up pliant legislators for lobbyists to shape, such a system deserves to be called ‘misrepresentative or clientry government.’ It is, at one and the same time, a powerful contributing factor to the depoliticization of the citizenry, as well as reason for characterizing the system as one of anti-democracy. p. 59

Chapter Four: The New World of Terror

Chapter Five: The Utopian Theory of Superpower: The Official Version

Chapter Six: The Dynamics of Transformation

“Small wonder that ever since those days conservatives and hawks have waged their own relentless “culture war” against the sixties. The effort to overcome “the Vietnam Syndrome” involved more than a wish to exorcise the shame of a military defeat; it aimed to discredit the democratic and constitutional impulses of that era as well, an aim consistent with totalitarianism, inverted or not.” p. 104

Chapter Seven: The Dynamics of the Archaic

“The demotion of science has had severe public consequences. It means that the ideal of a disinterested arbiter, of a forum where partisan claims might be tested objectively, is as much a relic of the past as is the ideal of an independent judiciary. In its place we have “virtual reality,” imaginary weapons of mass destruction, democracy as a cover for market forces, an ideological rendering of terrorism that transforms its reality into a theological problem admitting of no solution.” p. 127

Chapter Eight: The Politics of Superpower: Managed Democracy

Chapter Nine: Intellectual Elites against Democracy

“Elitism might be defined as the political principle which assumes that the existence of unequal abilities is an irrefutable fact. … A small number of U. S. institutions select, groom, train, and certify a small number of individuals as exceptionally talented and warranting privilege.” p. 162-163

“The high costs of elite institutions convert attendance into an investment. The expectation is that there will be a “return” in the form of a prestigious career.” p. 163

“Elitism functions as a self-sustaining enterprise.” p. 163

Chapter Ten: Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire

“In a one-party state, politics is, in effect, "privatized," dissociated from the practices of citizenship and confined within the party, where it takes the form of intramural rivalries for the privileges of power and status. It is a politics that never goes public except to orchestrate unanimity." p. 184

"The Republican Party is not, as advertised, conservative but radically oligarchical. Programmatically it exists to advance corporate economical and political interests, and to protect and promote inequalities of opportunity and wealth." 187

“Vietnam marked a crucial turning point. A fitful, stupid imperial war remarkable not only for the American defeat but for the fact that, unlike earlier imperial ventures, it was vigorously and successfully opposed at home. The reassertion of constitutional limits on executive power and the successful mobilization of a demotic protest movement meant that military defeat was actually a democratic victory – over its own imperial power.” p. 190

“That victory was short-lived. Two decades later the first President Bush declared triumphantly that the importance of the (first) Gulf War was achievement of a double victory, over Saddam and over the 'Vietnam Syndrome'.” p. 190

“The results of a weakened social democracy and, conversely, a concentrated political economy are writ large in the shocking character of a tax structure that heavily favors the very rich while damaging most other classes. The favored group can then translate the windfall into political power. They become “a political donor class” that raises millions for the Republicans and throws a few crumbs and broad hints to the Democrats.” p. 195

“Inverted totalitarianism is the result of an acceleration of two strategies. One, the politics of reversal, was launched in earnest in the Reagan counterrevolution. It aimed at eviscerating the social programs vital to political democracy, either by dismantling them or, alternatively, assigning them to private entrepreneurs, thereby expanding the dependence of ordinary citizens upon unaccountable “private” powers.” p. 195

“Instead of collectivism, inverted totalitarianism thrives on disaggregation, on a citizenry who, ideally, are self-reliant, competitive, certified by standardized testing, but equally fearful of an economy subject to sudden downturns and of terrorists who strike without warning. Classical totalitarianism mobilized its subjects; inverted totaliarianism fragments them.” p. 196

"Yet the same citizen who is told to follow the instructions of authorities has had it drummed in that 'big government' is the enemy who threatens to take away his money and freedom. The citizen is left with no political ally responsive to his economic fears. Unlike classical totalitarianism, which boasted of the unanimity of its citizens, inverted totalitarianism thrives on ambivalence and the uncertainty it breeds." p. 198

“Antipolitics is expressed as patriotism, antiterrorism, militarism – subjects that brook little or no disagreements, provoking fervor while stifling thought. … Big government may be the problem; big military is the solution.” p. 198

"That the patriotic citizen unswervingly supports the military and its huge budgets means that conservatives have succeeded in persuading the public that the military is distinct from government. Thus the most substantial element of state power is removed from public debate. Similarly in his/her new status as imperial citizen, the believer remains contemptuous of bureaucracy yet does not hesitate to obey the directives issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the largest and most intrusive governmental department in the history of the nation. Identification with militarism and patriotism, along with the images of American might projected by the media, serves to make the individual feel stronger, thereby compensating for the feelings of weakness visited by the economy upon an overworked, exhausted, and insecure labor force. For its antipolitics inverted totalitarianism requires believers, patriots, and nonunion 'guest workers.'” p. 199

“Instead of reflecting love of the nation’s democratic heritage, patriotism has become xenophobic; fixated on might, preemptive war, and hatred of terrorists; suspicious of Muslims and liberals alike; and contemptuous of former allies. The new militarism, glorifying war and sacrifice, and boasting an imperial reach, is being made an integral element of the public piety so conspicuous in American politics.” p. 199

“Militarism is not only a distraction from social problems but confirmation that warfare is now a joint undertaking (sic) of corporations and state. Government soldiers fight side by side with enterprising corporate warriors who, fittingly, are paid thousands of dollars more than GIs. The United States remains the world’s biggest arms dealer. It is no surprise that ever since the Reagan administration, the Republican party, which successfully pinned the label of ‘big spenders’ on the Democrats, should be the prime mover for making [war] appropriations the largest item by far in the annual federal budget. It highlights a consistent inconsistency: big spending is anti-American when directed to social programs but patriotic if it is funneled to the beneficiaries/defenders of the corporate state.” p. 200

“All this suggests that inverted totalitarianism has evolved a politics to support its imperial ambitions.” p. 200

“While the transformed Republican Party reveals what a “party of government” might look like under inverted totalitarianism, the Democrats reveal the fate of opposition politics under inverted totalitarianism. The Democrats’ politics might be described as inauthentic opposition in the era of Superp0woer. Having fended off its reformist elements and disclaimed the label of liberal, it is trapped by new rules of the game which dictate that a party exists to win elections rather than to promote a vision of the good society. Accordingly, the party competes for an apolitical segment of the electorate, “the undecided,” and puzzles how best to woo religious zealots. Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. At best Democrats might repair some of the damage done to environmental safeguards or to Medicare without substantially reversing the drift rightwards. By offering palliatives, a Democratic administration contributes to plausible denial about the true nature of the system. By fostering an illusion among the powerless classes that the party can make their interests a priority, it pacifies and thereby defines the style of an opposition party in an inverted totalitarian system. In the process it demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness of inverted totalitarianism over the crude classic versions.” p. 201

While the Republican Party is ever vigilant about the care and feeding of its zealots, the Democratic Party is equally concerned to discourage its democrats.
    The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the party. By ignoring dissent and by assuming that the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves as an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.” p. 206

Chapter Eleven: Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents

"At present the national government is embarked upon a war in which our leaders first deceived the public about the threat to the nation and then followed a course of action that consistently evaded and violated constitutional limitations. Nonetheless, its actions and official justifications are in certain important respects compatible with some of the broad aims of some of the Founders of our constitution. The point is not whether the Founders had a totalitarian vision, but rather what forms of power they were bent on encouraging and what forms they were determined to check. What did they hope for and what did they fear?

The main hope of the framers of the Constitution was to establish a strong central government, not one hobbled at every turn by an intrusive citizenry or challenged by the several 'sovereign' states. They professed to be choosing a republic, but is closer to the truth to say that they were focused upon establishing a system of national power to replace what they considered the hopelessly ineffectual system of decentralized powers under the Articles of Confederation.

The new system, with its emphasis upon a strong executive, an indirectly elected Senate composed (it was hoped) of the educated and wealthy, and an appointed Supreme Court also represented the fears of the Founders. Theirs was a counterrevolution against not only the system of politics that had led to the revolution against Britain but against the democratic tendencies and populist outbreaks that had persisted from the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth." p. 225

"The American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either skeptical about democracy or hostile to it. The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before formal slavery was ended; another hundred years before black Americans were assured of their voting rights. Only in the twentieth century were women guaranteed the vote and trade unions the right to bargain collectively. In none of these instances has victory been complete: women still lack full equality, racism persists, and the destruction of the remnants of trade unions remains a goal of corporate strategies. Far from being innate, democracy in America has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered." p. 228

“The task of elitism in the so-called age of democracy was not to resist democracy but to accept it nominally and then to set about persuading majorities to act politically against their own material interests and potential power.” p. 234

“Under the present administration the president has claimed the authority to conduct secret wiretaps without the judicial approval required by law; to order the ‘secret rendition’ and detention of enemy combatants; to violate treaties despite the fact the Constitution declares that treaties passed by Congress are ‘the supreme law of the land.’ These and other sweeping claims have been defended as exercises of authority belonging to the president as ‘commander in chief’ and as ‘chief executive.’ Clearly, these broad assertions are related to the nebulous character of the ‘war on terrorism’ and to the thoughtless action of Congress when it agreed, unconditionally, that combating terrorism constituted a ‘war.’” p. 235

Chapter Twelve: Demotic Moments

Chapter Thirteen: Democracy’s Prospects: Looking Backwards

(Real News Network) Chris Hedges interview with Sheldon Wolin: Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist? Full Version