The “Democracies” We Deserve
By Andrew Levine
Photo by Ken Jones | CC BY 2.0
In today’s so-called democracies, elections seldom bring about changes for the better, except in rare instances when they ratify progress achieved outside the electoral arena. This is one of several reasons why the very long electoral seasons we suffer through in the United States are so disabling. They channel potentially constructive political energies into dead-end electoral pursuits.
On the other hand, elections often do make things worse. An obvious recent example was the presidential election in the United States in the year 2000. That election set George W. Bush and Dick Cheney loose upon the world. More than anyone else, including Osama bin Laden, those two broke the Greater Middle East.
Nothing that Donald Trump has done – yet – comes close to that, though Trump certainly has it in him to do worse – not so much by design as by ignorance, incompetence, and flagrant emotional immaturity.
This is why it is so grotesque that ostensibly respectable cable news networks and National Public Radio are now trotting out former Bush administration functionaries to expound upon Trump’s awfulness. What they say isn’t wrong, but in a less preposterous possible world, they would now be wearing orange jump suits and living at Gitmo.
There is no doubt that the 2016 presidential election will also have catastrophic consequences, but, so far, Trump and his minions have had more of a deleterious effect on the atmospherics of our political culture than on actual policies. For that, we have the Trump administration’s cluelessness about governance to thank. Even with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the billionaire “populist” has been unable to make much happen. Also, it would be too soon, in any case, to inventory the damage.
If and when Trump goes, we will be stuck with Mike Pence, a bona fide reactionary. His awfulness would have to be factored in too, since it was Trump’s election that brought him out of obscurity and empowered him.
This is not just an idle consideration. As Trump’s troubles mount, the Republican leadership may find it expedient to turn against their standard-bearer. Pence, after all, is one of their own, and, lacking a personality, he is likely to generate a lot less “resistance” than the Donald.
Or Trump might come to the realization that his brand and his bottom line would be better off if he would just disappear into one or another of the over-the-top monstrosities he had built to enrich and glorify himself. In the end, it may come down to which he loves more: his and his family’s businesses or his deluded sense of his own powers and abilities.
The main thing, though, is that we don’t yet know what the consequences of the sore losers’ efforts to vilify Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, and the country he leads will come to.
The outlook is not encouraging. What started out last summer as a Clinton campaign ploy has, by now, won over the hearts and minds of the entire political class at the national level, with leading figures of both the more and less odious of our two semi-established neoliberal political parties leading the charge. Worse still, corporate media have taken up the campaign with a vengeance.
His reasons were probably more nefarious than common sensical but, on this matter, Trump’s was actually a voice of reason compared to Clinton’s. However now, under pressure, he too seems to have jumped on the Russophobic bandwagon.
At the very least, he has let his generals escalate America’s involvement in the civil war in Syria to a point where an armed conflict with Russia has become a distinct possibility.
It bears mention that, having been invited into Syria by that country’s internationally recognized government, the presence of Russian forces in Syria is legal under international law, while the American military’s activities – directed as much against the Syrian government as against ISIS — plainly are not.
Barack Obama several times pulled back from the brink of war in Syria – thanks to his own inveterate cautiousness and to the skillful diplomacy of Putin’s government. Trump may be less innately Russophobic than leading Democrats and Republicans nowadays, but he seems unwilling or unable to resist the pressures the War Party is applying. It is therefore much less likely than it used to be that Putin would be able to stave off disaster yet again.
We are therefore now in a more dangerous place than we were when Obama was still in charge, and when the force of Clinton’s warmongering had yet to come to fruition.
It is hard to process because, under Trump, the political scene has taken on such a nightmarish aspect, but the fact remains that the younger Bush did a lot more harm than the Donald so far has, and is therefore still by far the worst American President in modern times. Therefore, the toxic consequences of the 2000 election are still worse than those of the election we just lived through. If events spin out of control, however, that could all change on a dime.
That this is even possible speaks volumes about the shortcomings of our ostensibly democratic institutions, a point brought into sharp focus by the juxtaposition of our election with the recent watershed elections in France and the UK.
There too, there is very little government of, by and for the people. However, from the perspective of (small-d) democrats in the United States, their electoral institutions are enviable.
Even so, at a more basic level, on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed everywhere else, the fact remains: that in today’s “democracies” – that is, in countries democratic enough to hold generally free and fair competitive elections — voters deserve what they get.
For Plato, the virtue of a thing is that which makes it perform its function well; thus sharpness is the virtue of a knife and justice is the virtue of the soul. Conceptual fastidiousness is a virtue of philosophers, or so respectable professional philosophers think.
Having made my living for a while in that line of work, and having been socialized to its norms, I am therefore surprised to find myself thinking, in connection with those elections about a celebrated passage in one of political philosophy’s canonical masterworks, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1763). I am surprised because that passage would seem to have no direct relevance to those elections at all.
“The people of England,” Rousseau wrote, “regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.”
Rousseau was discussing political representation and its relation to a notion of freedom — autonomy, obedience to laws one has legislated oneself — that he effectively “discovered” (according to Kant and Hegel and many others, including myself), and then went on to put to philosophical use.
Except in the sense that his arguments pertain to elections in representative governments generally, there was nothing about them that directly engaged the points he was making. Why then would those elections bring Rousseau’s remark so forcefully to mind?
I would venture that the reason has mainly to do with the quip at the end about the English getting what they deserve.
An eighteenth century Francophone audience would appreciate that rhetorical flourish. Rousseau was not French; he was a citizen of Geneva. But, for most of his life, he lived and worked in France, and was as astute an observer of the French scene as any of his contemporaries. He knew well that Anglophobic asides would bolster support for his case.
The irony is that now it is the French who could have advanced freedom, but who instead deserve what they will get, while the English, though suffering under the yoke of their institutions, are at least fighting the good fight.
We Americans who find life in the Age of Trump increasingly intolerable suffer under the burden of our institutions too – more even than the English do under theirs.
In unprecedented numbers, Americans are fighting the good fight too – but so far with more limited success thanks mainly to a sad truth: that our electoral institutions, and the party system they support, are even more disabling than theirs.
Our political parties are worse than theirs as well.
Everyone who is not a billionaire or a fanatical free marketeer or a Republican Supreme Court Justice knows that one thing that is truly exceptional and also deplorable about what we call “democracy” in America is the role that money plays in our elections.
Wealth inequality spills over into political inequality everywhere, but nowhere as much as in the United States. Dialecticians, inspired by Hegel, used to talk about quality emerging out of quantity. This is as good an example as any of what they had in mind.
But the absence of meaningful restrictions on “campaign contributions” is by no means all that stands between democracy and us. The contrast with the French election puts the point in sharp relief.
The election that put means to destroy the world in Trump’s hands was a contest between two candidates most voters despised. Yet, in retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that it would have come to this.
Among the scores of Republicans who were vying for the nomination at the outset of the primary and caucus season, there was not ridiculous.
Meanwhile, on the other side, the fix was in; corporate America wanted Hillary and the Democratic Party was eager to oblige.
Many actual or potential Democratic voters had a different view of what ought to be done; they had a candidate too, Bernie Sanders. Had the Democratic National Committee not quashed opportunities for deliberation and debate, and had its media flacks been less servile to the party’s leaders, Sanders could have become the nominee.
But, in the real world of Democratic Party politics, he never had a chance.
He could have split the party, however. Had he done so, he would have done a world of good. He would also be blamed for Clinton’s defeat, notwithstanding the fact that, as we now know, she was more than capable of assuring that on her own.
And so, despite the wishes of most of the electorate, we had a Clinton v. Trump election. There is not enough plague in the entire world to wish on both their houses. But that is not the worst of it.
The worst is that we are stuck with the winner. With great difficulty, Trump can and probably will be removed from office – if and when the GOP establishment decides that their party would be better off without him. If he had any sense, Trump would cut and run on his own initiative, but if he does have sense, he has so far shown no sign of it.
In either case, the Vice President Trump chose, and the administration he put in place would then be in charge. This would largely relieve humankind of the fear that the man who ultimately controls America’s nuclear arsenal would take a notion to destroy the world in a fit of pique. But it would also be a disaster – because the people he empowered are even more reactionary than he.
They could be dismissed, of course, but the people a President Pence would appoint in their place would likely be at least as bad. In short, until there is another presidential election three and a half years from now, we are stuck with the results of the last one.
How much better the French have it! Useless parties expire there, and new parties gain ballot access with ease. The electoral landscape can therefore change in the blink of an eye, as it did last weekend – when Emmanuel Macron’s brand new political party, En Marche (later renamed, République En Marche), won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections.
But then, with apologies to Rousseau, we would be justified in saying that in view of the use that they made of their more democratic electoral arrangements, French voters deserve what they will get. They deserve what Macron is: an epigone of neoliberal ideology, a later-day Gallic version of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton.
True to form, Macron’s first order of business is to strike a blow against the French labor movement by dismantling one of the most advanced labor regimes anywhere in the world.
Upon assuming office, Margaret Thatcher went after the unions too; so did Ronald Reagan. She had her coal miners and he his air-traffic controllers. Back in the day, prescient observers called that “friendly fascism.” Now the mantle has been passed on to the French – in the name of anti-fascism.
But, not to worry; Macron is a (social) liberal who speaks English well and who loves Silicon Valley. That our media like this is hardly surprising; that the French people – enough of them anyway to give Macron an absolute parliamentary majority – do too is distressing to say the least.
The “old Europe,” as it was known in the Donald Rumsfeld days, at least had the decency to be snooty; the new old Europe, championed by Macron, honors trans-Atlantic silliness by imitating it.
Several decades ago, when the so-called nouveaux philosophes were doing their best to make anti-Communism trendy, one wanted to cry out: “wake up Sartre, they have gone crazy.” These days one could as well cry out: “wake up, de Gaulle…”
Notwithstanding Macron’s professed dedication to the cultural and economic Americanization of Europe, and to its vassalage to the United States, there is something very old school French about his neoliberal enthusiasm. Call it the Paris fashions school of political thought and practice.
Post-War France had been the world capital of Western Marxism for more than three decades; seemingly overnight the nouveaux philosophes and other right-leaning intellectuals turned the tables on that.
They did it on the strength of warmed over arguments that had been concocted, in more artful and rigorous versions, by anti-Communist Cold War intellectuals in the U.S. and the UK decades earlier.
Macron’s proposed “modernizations” of French economic institutions are similarly atavistic.
For making such use of the institutional advantages they enjoy, the people of France, as Rousseau might have said, deserve what they will get.
Ironically, it is now the British, a sizeable minority of them, who have put their institutions to good use.
It all started when, thanks to an unlikely chain of events, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader of the Labour Party.
By the end of the Blair era, the Labour Party had become nearly as vile as the Democratic Party in the United States, as committed to that amalgam of neoliberal economic policies, “humanitarian” imperialist and neoconservative foreign policy, and bellicosity. But before it took that turn, the center of the party was less retrograde than its American counterpart; the party even had a viable leftwing.
This is one reason why, on domestic issues, an insurgent Corbyn can be more progressive than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The main reason, though, is that his politics is better.
On matters of foreign policy and war and peace, there is no contest. Sanders is a kinder, gentler Clintonite – not an internationalist or anti-imperialist. Corbyn is constrained by his position as Labour Party Leader, but there is no doubt that his outlook reflects the better instincts of the solidarity and peace movements of the past several decades.
Mainstream media ignored Sanders as best they could. Their British counterparts ganged up even more ferociously against Corbyn. And yet, under his leadership, the Labour Party went from nearly defunct and universally written off to almost victorious.
Corbyn made the Labour Party relevant again. Since the 2016 election, the Democratic Party has not been relevant at all.
And because — like their French counterparts, though not nearly to the same extent — British institutions are more democratic than ours, his remarkable near victory, in defiance of the odds, in no way betokens a deadweight loss.
To govern, Theresa May will have to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party, a collection of retrograde Northern Ireland cranks. That spells trouble ahead. Moreover, with the Grenfell Towers Fire, May now has a Katrina moment to add to her troubles. She and her party won the election technically, but she is in a far from enviable position.
In these circumstances, and as troubles negotiating Brexit mount, there will be all sorts of opportunities for the Labour Party Leader and others in a revived Labour Left to play an active role – to be, as Corbyn has said, not just an opposition, but a government in waiting.
Corbyn’s victory turns Rousseau’s quip on its head. The French now are the ones getting the democracy they deserve, while the British are on their way to deserving better.
We Americans will be getting our just deserts too – twice over and magnified a hundred fold. Under Trump or, if we are luckier, under Pence, a century’s worth or progress will be undone. And, unless we are very lucky, much of the “resistance” to Trump or Pence will be put to use by neoconservative ideologues. Their ill-conceived shenanigans could render the very idea of progress moot.
Do we deserve any of this?
Arguably the people Trump conned into voting for him last November don’t. They thought he would somehow make their lives better or they saw no other way to express their feelings about Clinton and the “ism” associated with her name. They ought to have known better, but with Democrats for an opposition party, their foolishness is almost forgivable.
The fools who still stand by their man are another story, however. After five months of life under President Trump, all the excuses that could be ascribed to them ring hollow. And yet, according to polls, more than one of every three Americans fall into this category. They deserve all the misfortunes Trump will rain down upon them.
More alarmingly, though, we now have an entire political class, with its media flunkies in tow, running a different con – one that started out as a Clinton campaign concoction but that got legs, as they say, because it tapped into hundred year old anti-Communist obsessions. No doubt, most of the perpetrators are innocent of deliberate deception, but, in the larger scheme of things, they are no less culpable on that account.
It is hard to say what the people who believe them deserve; in the face of such an onslaught, one would have to be unusually thoughtful, informed, and circumspect not to be taken in. But, in view of the stakes, resisting such a recklessly dangerous swindle ought to be an even higher priority than resisting Trump.
Therefore how posterity will judge those who believe the general line on Putin’s Russia, as it has evolved over the past year, remains to be seen; assuming, of course, that Doomsday is again evaded, so that there will be people around to do the judging.
Perpetrators of a con that could end with nuclear annihilation have a lot to answer for. If and when we finally get to a safer place, the first order of business therefore ought to be to hold them to account. For the time being, though, with the War Party plowing full steam ahead, getting to that point will be hard enough.
ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).