For political and economic elites in a capitalist society, that is, from their perspective, democracy is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a process whereby people organize and vote for political leaders that represent their organic class or other interests. Democracy practiced this way does not serve their interests. It would mean that power was somewhere else, and that would mean they couldn’t have what they always want: everything.
For capitalist elites, democracy is an exercise in legitimation, the engineering of popular consent around their broad agenda, which is, in most respects, the antithesis of the public interest. By dissimulating class power through ideological and practical hegemonic control techniques, elites rule society by convincing a majority that elite interests are popular interests.
It therefore behooves elites to dissuade citizens who would organize voters on the basis of organic interests and deter those who would be alternatively organized and vote on the basis of their material situation. Elites accomplish this through control over the political process (the key advantage here is established property arrangements), ideological command (patriotism, militarism, religion, racism, etc.), and production and distribution of information (as well as disinformation). Fear mongering is a obvious part of this strategy, with imagined threat sources to be “found” in both domestic and foreign spheres.
Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, published in 2010, identifies another source of misdirection of popular consciousness in the American system. “Inverted totalitarianism [his characterization of the American system], although at times capable of harassing or discrediting critics, has instead cultivated a loyal intelligentsia of its own,” He writes. “Through a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation fronts, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamless integrated into the system.” He concludes: “The Academy has become self-pacifying.” This conclusion echoes conclusions in Paul Diesing’s 1992 How Does Social Science Work?
Noam Chomsky anticipated this interpretation by observing that the target of sophisticated propaganda campaign is not the eighty percent of the population that is apathetic, marginalized, or terrified into either non-participation or participating in a prescriptive way out of habit or ignorance, but rather it is the twenty percent of society that is relatively affluent and reasonably well-educated that draws the most attention from elites. This stratum must be specially cultivated, Chomsky contends, since it serves as a network of functionaries charged with keeping the rest of the population occupied with apparent-popular opinion (one of these opinions being that it is elitist to be told what’s going on). These are the so-called experts who claim authority in various fields of knowledge. (That Chomsky has, from a capitalist point of view, carried out this function admirably does not obviate the point he is making.)
As Chomsky puts it in the documentary Manufacturing Consent (released in 1992):
We can get into more detail, but at the first level of approximation, there’s two targets for propaganda. One is what is sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe 20 per cent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate. They’ll play some kind of role in decision making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life, either as managers, or cultural managers, like, say, teachers, and writers, and so on. They’re supposed to vote. They’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now, their consent is crucial. That’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe 80 per cent of the population whose main function is to follow orders, and not to think, you know. Not to pay attention to anything. And they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.