09/24/2014 10:45 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Exploding Inequality Is Threatening Our Democracy

In the course of human history, democratic governance is new, rare and exceedingly fragile. To keep it alive and healthy, we must be ever mindful of the dangers it faces. Although elections are only a part of the democratic process, they punctuate our attention. So how is democracy faring in America as we approach the fall mid-term elections? The answer is shocking. Soaring inequality has not only given ever growing shares of the economic pie to an elite, it is also slicing away at democracy. Its dynamics are taking away Americans' hard-won right to vote.

Throughout history until quite recently, a small elite controlled governments to protect their wealth and insure that they could capture any income beyond what the rest of the population required for survival. This outcome was the same whether workers were slaves, serfs, indebted peasants, or early capitalist workers. The promise of change came with the American and French revolutions. But it was not until the 19th century that factories and urbanization enabled workers to mobilize to demand a fairer share of the economic pie and the right to vote. This right evolved slowly, first granted to men, then women, and in the wake of the Civil Right movement, to practically all Americans.

The birth and expansion of democracy was vehemently opposed by the rich elites who had always held and benefitted from their monopoly control of government. They gave in only in the face of a more frightening prospect -- a revolution that might fully dispossess them of their wealth and privilege. The elite found it better to buy off workers with higher wages, better working conditions, and the right vote. Because of their far greater numbers, workers could, in principle, have used their new-found right to elect populist politicians who would enact laws to radically re-distribute wealth and privilege. However, the elite's command over society's dominant ideology has always dissuaded them from doing so.

The extraordinary hardship of the Great Depression significantly delegitimized the rich's contention that unbridled free-market capitalism was in everyone's interest. The consequence was that, between the 1930s and 1970s, workers were able to use the right to vote to create government measures that would tame the excesses of free markets, reduce inequality, and significantly improve the lives of most Americans. These included workers' rights to bargain collectively, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, public housing, rent subsidies, Project Headstart, Job Corps, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, by the mid-1970s, the free market ideology of the elite, wrapped in the mantle of supply-side economics, rose to dominance again. Thus began a rapid reversal of workers' hard-won gains of the four previous decades. Since 1980, as inequality has soared, programs designed to benefit the average American have shrunken. And now, the elite's ever greater wealth and their consequent disproportional control of ideology is being used to whittle away at democracy itself. Measures are being implemented to take away people's right to vote.

Behind the ideological ruse of fighting voter fraud, Republican state policy makers are setting up serious impediments to vote and curbing election accommodations for many of society's less privileged. These obstacles specifically target low-income, minority and young voters -- precisely the groups that tend to vote for liberal and progressive candidates.

Voter ID laws are the most prevalent. Twelve states have in place a law that requires a form of identification in order to vote. Another 20 states request identification, and if voters cannot produce it, they are permitted to vote on a provisional ballot, subject to verification by election officials. Additional laws target young and first-time voters, like college students, who face additional ID requirements. Ohio slashed the right to vote early, while North Carolina did away with one week of early voting, in addition to ending same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, Kansas created a two-tiered voter registration system that makes it difficult for registered voters to exercise their right if they used a federal voter registration form, as opposed to the state form.

With these measures in place, could voting rolls be whittled back so far that only the elite could vote? As unimaginable as this might seem, there's the haunting precedent that although the French Revolution granted all adult males the right to vote, in the wake of the 1830 revolution, the Orleanist monarchy used property restrictions to limit voting to less than one percent of the population. Of course, this could never happen in America. Or could it?

Exploding inequality is providing the elite with ever more resources to fund think tanks and influence higher education to perfect an ideology that seels to convince everyone that the policies that benefit the rich are to the benefit of everyone. In addition to greater material assets that enable them and the corporations that they disproportionately control to essentially purchase elections, the wealthy have the best educations, the most gifted friends and acquaintances, all of which make them on average more successful in identifying and attaining their interests than less-privileged citizens. This ideology enables them to capture every larger slices of the economic pie, which in turn provides them with greater resources to promote their ideology. A virtuous cycle for them, a vicious one for everyone else.

Progressives must mount a campaign to discredit this ideology and promote policies that benefit all people, not just the elite. However, they are fearful of the charge of class warfare. But as Warren Buffett has acknowledged, this is class warfare, being led and won by his class -- the super-rich. If democracy is to endure, it's time for the non-elites to recognize that class warfare is being waged against them and rigorously fight back. It isn't just their material well-being that's at stake, it is also their freedom and our democracy.