In 1991 I went to Haiti looking for the past and discovered the future. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide—the “radical priest,” as the foreign press never tired of calling him, though his radicalism must have seemed only reasonable to the $2-a-day demographic that had elected him in a landslide—was three months into his term and already embroiled with the opposition that would soon oust him in a bloody coup d’état. Among the political battles I followed on that first trip was Aristide’s proposal to raise the minimum wage, which at the time was H$3 a day, or about US$1.11. Even then Haiti wasn’t a particularly cheap place to live, which raised the question of how a person could survive, much less support a family, on wages of less than US$12 for a forty-five-hour workweek.
The answer, of course, was that you couldn’t. Aristide’s audacity in pushing for a minimum wage of H$5 a day, or somewhat less than US$2, would be a significant factor in his fall, but that audacity was why 67 percent of the Haitian electorate had voted for him. They were literally dying for lack of basic economic rights: jobs, a decent wage, a fair say in the terms and conditions of their work. They’d gotten a taste of democracy, but they wanted and needed what the sociologist Alex Dupuy has called “maximalist democracy,” in which a meaningful degree of economic equality is as integral to citizenship as civil and political rights.
Aristide posed an insupportable challenge both to Haitian elites and to the US-led New World Order of globalization and so-called free markets, a complex of interests so jealous of its prerogative, so hell-bent on maximizing profits, that it perceived an existential threat in the prospect of paying Haitian workers US$1.85 a day. Aristide lasted all of seven months, and as the coup and its aftermath played out, I realized I didn’t know how to see what I was looking at. I needed some education; needed, for instance, to learn about a “minimalist” version of democracy that allows for periodic elections, political parties, a free press, free expression, and so on, but in which ultimate control rests with powerful actors who operate outside the popular will.
In November 2000 a Haitian friend was staying at my house in Dallas. After watching the news one night he said, “Ben, if you love your country you will get in your car right now and drive to Florida. Because there is a coup d’état happening in the United States.”
We didn’t have coups in the US, I thought. Nor did we have—at least not then, not to the extent that comparisons with Haiti sprang to the mind of a white, middle-class American male—extreme wealth inequality, a caustic politics of intractable polarization, a highly politicized judiciary, a disastrously degraded environment, rampant disease, a dysfunctional health care system, an abused, beleaguered, and grossly underpaid workforce, an economy dominated by transnational corporations and monopolies, or a frustrated and skeptical, even cynical, electorate that was vulnerable to the siren song of fascist demagoguery.
Now that the future has arrived I find myself looking to the past. “Necessitous men are not free men,” Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1944 State of the Union speech. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” that would guarantee a standard of living sufficient to allow individuals a meaningful degree of agency in their lives—sufficient not only in wages, health, security, and dignity, but, crucially, to enable the meaningful exercise of their civil and political rights. The interdependence of economic rights with civil and political rights would be elaborated several years later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and again by Martin Luther King Jr. in the final years of his life, when he deemed economic equality to be on par with political and civil equality. The Poor People’s Campaign, which King conceived but didn’t live to see, was intended to pressure Congress to enact a five-point economic bill of rights.
Roosevelt and King, and in our own time Bernie Sanders, the Occupy movement, and the Reverend William Barber II and the renewed Poor People’s Campaign—they all have the economic rights of maximalist democracy as their goal. What have the past forty years of minimalist democracy gotten us? “The system is rigged,” candidate Trump bellowed over and over in 2016, and he spoke a powerful truth. The Covid pandemic has exposed just how careless of the general welfare our polity has become, and Joe Biden showed proper appreciation for the scale of the crisis when he invoked Roosevelt’s New Deal in his virtual-convention acceptance speech. Might the past be the future? We could look back even farther, back to Lincoln, who recognized the importance of economic rights in a democracy when he wrote, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy” (emphasis added).
We’ve slid far down the rails toward that ultimate minimalist democracy of de facto slave and master. To an “extent,” as Lincoln might put it, that cannot be sustained, not if we mean to keep the country’s best possibilities alive.