My 30 minute talk about liberal democracy and the ethos of comedy, followed by a 30 minute discussion, was last night (February 17th). You can view the talk on YouTube by clicking on this link.
After the 2016 election, David Runciman in the London Review of Books wrote a prescient piece about how democracies die when we take them for granted. I do think (but, then again, what do I know—and I certainly don’t have any way to influence what happens) Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th.
Republican twaddle about a stolen election will collapse as the next two months unfold because their lack of substance means no court in the land will credit that narrative. But counting on the courts is a thin reed when so many judges are right-wing nut cases.
Ninety percent of Republican politicians and government officials know that cries about a corrupt election are unjustified. They are only spouting the narrative because the Trump base is now their base, their source of power, and they alienate that base at their peril.
The trouble, of course, is that the base does not have this cynical relation to the stolen election story. The base believes. The last four years (nay, the last ten; ever since the rise of the Tea Party) have shown the extent to which the base drives the party, not the other way around.
A digression: I understand that the full story is more complicated, since the Tea Party is only partially a true base, grassroots phenomenon. But it would be a bad mistake to deny that a true populist base exists for the Republican party—and that that base stands at some odds with the party officials. Perhaps it is simply more accurate to say that the far right wing of the party has now taken it over, and not speak in terms of “base” versus officials. The trouble with dropping all references to the “base” is that it discounts Trump’s ability to enthuse voters, among them many who have rarely voted before. Leftist Democrats would like to mirror that right-wing success—in taking over the party and bringing many new voters to the poll.
The party hacks are counting on the courts and our other democratic institutions to hold the line—just as they have counted on the taboo against political violence to keep their inflammatory rhetoric from inspiring wide-scale actual violence. They believe their words will have no serious impact, will be seen as the empty rhetoric they are, just what a politician has to say to curry favor. That’s why their words are cynical; those words are designed not to effect what they say, but to manipulate those to whom they are addressed.
But Trump’s words have never been cynical; he is at one with the base in believing in the corruption, malfeasance, and devilry of his opponents. And to the extent that he has transmitted those convictions to 40% of the American populace, it would be foolish to think it will all blow over, that our democratic institutions and norms will somehow keep that genie bottled up. The bottling up will work until it doesn’t—and then we will have not the slow erosion of norms that the punditry keeps bemoaning, but full-scale collapse.
When the hacks cynically parrot Trump’s non-cynical words they place a faith in our democracy that is touchingly naïve. They think that democracy is not vulnerable to their attacks, which aren’t, after all, sincerely meant. They still think they can contain and control the beast of the anti-democratic, authoritarian right, using it as a lever to obstruct and oppose anything the Biden administration attempts to accomplish. But by making our government utterly dysfunctional, utterly hamstrung in its efforts to even begin to address our society’s (and world’s) multiple crises, they feed the notion that we need a different kind of governance altogether—a strong man, authoritarian kind.
The next four years are going to be ugly as Biden tries to ride the whirlwind. Right-wing media and a fair number of right-wing politicians are going to push the illegitimate government line hard. Biden may be able to undo some of the administrative, executive level damage that Trump has done, but his scope for action beyond that will be extremely limited.
And the prospects post-Biden are even grimmer. The roused right wing is not going away—and its fury at losing will be even more frightening than its triumphant displays during the Trump years. It is no rhetorical hyperbole to say that American democracy is at risk. And one of the risks is a complacency about its strength and resilience in the face of attacks, no matter if those attacks are made cynically or meant sincerely.
The friends of democracy are going to have to fight long and hard for it. And their fight will be handicapped by the right wing’s hold on the courts and on the majority of state legislatures. Gerrymandering and voter suppression will proceed apace, with nary a checkpoint to curtail these practices in the whole governmental apparatus. The hounds of the right-wing media will continue their hunt. Please, oh democrats, don’t be deer in the headlights.
I wrote most of this post three days ago, then held on to it because it assumed Joe Biden’s victory and I didn’t want to jinx that outcome by anticipating it. The wait, it turned out, had a positive effect on my mood. Having it all hang in the balance for so long made the victory that much sweeter when it came. And the pleasure, nay joy, of my friends and family made this sourpuss give way a bit. Let’s appreciate what went right for a day or two.
The 2020 election has been a disaster for Democrats (and for liberals and the left more generally) and an uplifting delight for Republicans, especially the wonderfully named Vichy Republicans, the party hacks who have enabled the Trump presidency.
Not an unmitigated disaster, since getting rid of Trump is all to the good. But Biden takes office unable to govern. He will be thwarted at every turn—and the multiple problems afflicting the United States (climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a dysfunctional heath care system, economic inequality, racial injustice, the kleptocracy of our tax code and subsidies to big ag, big pharma, big oil and others) will go unaddressed for another four years. And the vote reveals that more than 70 million of our fellow citizens could witness Trump’s antics, ineptitude, corruption, and cruelty for four years—and ask for more.
The Vichy Republicans, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted out of Trump: massive tax cuts and a lock-hold on the federal judiciary. And now they get to see him out the door, and replace inflammatory tweeting with their quiet entrenchment of minority rule to benefit the already rich and powerful.
Trump has served their purpose and now they can reap the benefits of having the courts on their side as they go back to doing what they do best: nothing. They will return to the 2010 to 2016 playbook: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. While insuring legislative gridlock, they will use the courts to enhance corporate power, and voter suppression/gerrymandering; and they will mobilize “religious freedom” to enable discrimination, and to make abortions inaccessible (and perhaps illegal). It’s all about unaccountability. Corporations and politicians and the police are to be beyond the reach of the people—as are, of course, judges appointed for life.
The Republicans have learned that there is no price to be paid for the insider baseball stuff. Game the system in any way you like to undermine democratic processes—and the vast majority of the public does not respond. Winning is everything, the rules of the game nothing. If there ever were “norms,” there are no longer. Most likely, the norms only had some grip in the past because there was a centralized, elite media that actually did have some power in shaping public opinion. Now we have ten million “influencers” and the resulting cacophony has blasted any chance of commonly adopted standards.
Meanwhile, the Democrats must come to grips with how successfully the Republicans have used fear and hatred to mobilize voters. The cry of “socialist” works with significant numbers of non-white voters (refugees from Cuba or China or Vietnam or Central America), while (as is evident here in North Carolina) significant numbers of white voters hate (the only appropriate word) “liberals.” As they have in every election since 1968, a majority of white voters went for the Republican candidate for president.
The Democrats cannot depend on demographics to get them out of this hole. This election demonstrates that non-white voters are not automatic Democratic voters. And younger voters have a nasty habit of becoming more conservative as they get older (and more likely to actually vote).
Against all evidence, the left wing of the party is going to argue that Biden was an uninspiring candidate and someone like Sanders or Warren would have done better. That argument ignores the record turn-out for this election, as well as the resonance of the charge of “socialism” with many voters. There simply are not enough non-voters out there who would have voted for Sanders to have won this election down-ballot for the Democrats. Sanders (or some theoretical candidate of his ilk but younger, more dynamic, and sexier) would not have done better than Biden—and most likely would have done worse. But that won’t stop those who will argue otherwise.
So the Democratic civil war will continue, and the activists might well get their chance to run a more progressive candidate in 2024. Obviously, I don’t think that will go well.
Fintan O’Toole (characteristically brilliant, if uncharacteristically long-winded), in his post-election piece, considers how deep and permanent are the anti-democratic forces that Trump tapped and amplified.
My only consolation—and I will admit to be being baffled by this fact—is how strong the taboo against political violence remains in the U.S. In a country awash in guns, where gun violence is a regular occurrence and you only need to sneeze in the public square to receive hundreds of death threats in your email inbox, no one crosses the line over into directly political violence. Yes, we have the lone shooters who are inspired by the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump and of the right-wing web sites. But organized violence directed at influencing political outcomes is still unknown in this country—despite posturings in that direction. The gun-toters at the polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia back in September, and the militia thugs occupying the Michigan state house in the summer turned out to be one-offs, not harbingers of general attempts at intimidation or of any actual violence. Maybe now, in defeat, that line will get crossed as Trump continues to claim he was robbed. But I don’t think we will see violence, even though we will have the lingering rot deep in the national psyche of at least 30% of Americans believing the election was stolen. We know the power such grievances hold for right-wing politics.
I always planned to stand outside a rural NC polling place on election day—and figured I would do so in the presence of guns. I spent fourteen hours outside of Creedmoor Elementary School on November 3rd, passing out the Democrats’ sample ballot. Creedmoor is about 45 northeast of Chapel Hill. The three of us working for the Democrats were Chapel Hill imports; the eight people manning the Trump tent were all locals and they greeted by name most of the white voters and were polite to the African-American voters (whom they obviously did not know). No guns and we had sporadic, cheerful conversations during the long day with the Trumpistas. No overt hostility. But it was also clear that every white voter was going for Trump.
As Fred Kaplan says in a short essay in Slate and Wallace Shawn argues in a short piece in the New York Review of Books (links provided below; Heather Cox Richardson style): maybe this is just who we Americans are. (My colleague Kumi Silva has said “stop saying this is not what American are.” The vote shows that racism and its cruelties are embedded deep in the American soul.) Our better angels have been put into storage; Americans see that we live in a harsh, unjust, dog-eat-dog world and are determined to get ours, letting the devil see to the hindmost. Trump gave us permission to put all that do-gooder liberal stuff behind us. No American exceptionalism—just the unalloyed freedom to be selfish without shame or guilt.
I don’t want to live in this society. But it seems to be the society I am stuck in.
I have now read two recent pieces by Roberto Unger: the essay “The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View” and the transcript of a session at the OECD in Paris, entitled “Inclusive Vanguardism: The Alternative Futures of the Knowledge Economy.” (Both are available as PDFs on Unger’s website: http://www.robertounger.com/en/).
Here is a quick outline of his basic project: the knowledge economy names a significant shift in the mode of production. Specifically, it changes the Fordist model of the mass production of exactly identical products into the machine-driven production of customized products. Thus, the new automatons change the dynamics of scale—and have the potential to upset entirely the “law” of diminishing returns. (Each now copy of a digital product costs almost nothing to produce; so the millionth copy of Microsoft Word produces a larger profit than the first 10,000 copies.)
Interestingly, Unger (unlike so many others writing on this theme) does not think the human race is about to reach a condition of post-scarcity. Perhaps this is because he comes from the global South. Because he still believes scarcity is a problem, he is in favor of “perpetual innovation” and increasing the productive powers of our machines. Utopia, in his view, is having humans only do the work that cannot be done by machines (which might be characterized as “care” work—teachers, health care providers, child and elderly care, environmental protection etc.)
To unleash both the full productive and full utopian possibilities of the knowledge economy requires, in his view, the full-scale involvement of all in the work of innovation—hence his focus on “inclusive vanguardism.” We need to structure our societies to encourage constant experimentation as we search for the technical solutions to our many needs and problems.
In focusing on the mode of production and in what can only be called his technological optimism, Unger looks very much a disciple of Marx. I think many readers would share my sense that the biggest lacuna in his work is any attention to environmental concerns. He talks (in the OECD session) a lot about Brazil, yet never once mentions the subjection of Brazil’s land to extractive processes that are an environmental disaster. The knowledge economy (this statement is me, not Unger), no less than Fordist production, is a vampire with a seemingly endless appetite for “natural resources.”
“Perpetual innovation” in and of itself is no answer. Innovation has to be in the service of ends that are not destructive and/or unjust. Yes, we must experiment with and try to develop innovations that alleviate the severity and costs of climate change. But to believe (and invest and pursue) only technological fixes to environmental degradation is to trust the very mind-set that got us into this mess. We need also to re-think the whole obsession with “productivity” and “growth.” Unger appears utterly committed to the promotion of growth as the correct goal of our economics.
Having lodged that (fundamental) objection to his project, I want to dwell on what I found inspiring in these two pieces. Unger is advocating for radical social changes, but he argues forcefully that change is always piecemeal. You must begin where you are, experimenting with what is possible in this set of circumstances, even as you have an eye on the long-term, larger transformations your local action is aiming toward. On the other hand, this focus on the local (which includes an endorsement of “radical devolution” in federalist arrangements that permit substantial regional divergences) does not neglect the considerable power of the state. For starters, the state must permit those local experiments—and enable them through institutional/legal orders and with financial resources. But there also has to be a national (at least) vision that enlists the state in the project of inclusion, of breaking down the hierarchies that establish the division between the “knowledge workers” and the drudges.
When faced with an acknowledgement of all that is wrong with current arrangements, Unger insightfully tells us that any suggested remedial actions usually are felt to be “too trivial” (not substantial enough to effect the “real” change we want to see) or “utopian” (not remotely feasible under present conditions; just fantasies that we have no way of getting to from here). This strikes me as completely accurate—and it has a chilling effect, is a formula for hopelessness, exhaustion, and apathy.
My own sense (derived from Arendt) of how to combat this dilemma is to say that any kind of political or social activism must combine immediate rewards with “eyes on the prize.” Change is slow, uneven, prone to set-backs, never matches the full utopian vision, and a source of painful conflicts and compromises. Plus it is very hard to see the effectiveness of any single action in bringing change about. For all those reasons, the participation in any social movement must involve the excitement of working creatively with a set of people toward a common end. It is that experience of immersion in a collective project that sustains long-term political movements.
Unger is an advocate of what used to get called (I guess still is, although this theme has retreated from much recent work in democratic theory) “participatory democracy.” He calls for “a high-energy democracy that makes change less dependent on crisis because it increases the level of organized popular engagement in political life . . . and combines the possibility for decisive action on the part of central government with opportunities for radical devolution to states and towns—the creations, in different parts of a country, of countermodels of the national future” (68-69 in the Knowledge essay).
Unger has some sharp critiques of social democracy along these lines—basically arguing that it turns citizens into passive recipients of benefits handed out by the central government instead of active shapers of their civic life. He doesn’t want to see citizens as “consumers” that the government must serve. Unlike the conservative critique of the “nanny state” (even as Unger’s worries about passivity chime with some conservative views), the idea here is to have citizens actively engaged in the provision of those services. Unger favors mandatory national service; along with paying taxes to see that children and the elderly are cared for (to take one example), citizens would be expected to provide that care for some portion of their working life (either as a two year service period or as a periodic—one month a year—seconding.) This service would increase trust and empathy, both of which are in short supply in today’s world, even as it would also increase a sense that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all our fellow citizens and actively engaged in both thinking about and participating in the best ways to insure that welfare.
Multiple ways to promote citizen interaction, as well as citizen involvement in the shaping of policy, would also be needed. Most crucially, perhaps, is the need from workplace democracy. The whole notion of an “inclusive vanguard” is built upon breaking down the hierarchies in the workplace that reserve expertise to a small minority. Everyone should be invited to participate in developing innovative ideas and experimental projects—and everyone should be provided with the education that makes such a democratization of expertise possible.
Unger understands that experimentation cannot take place where people have no economic security. Necessity, it turns out, is not the mother of invention. The absence of fear, the knowledge that one’s daily bread is secure, plus immersion in high-energy, collaborative (yet also somewhat competitive; Unger is fond of the phrase “cooperative competition”) environments is what stimulates the imagination and makes it possible to take risks. Make the cost of failure too high—and very few will take any risks. So, far from those conservative cowboys who adopt the macho line of letting the fittest survive in the jungle of the “free market,” Unger describes a political/economic regime that underwrites innovation and experimentation by providing the resources that make sure such experiments are not matters of life and death.
Why the focus on experiments? Three reasons, I think, all of which resonate with the project of “social choreography.” First, we don’t know in advance (through some kind of theoretical thought) what actually works. There are always unanticipated and unexpected consequences of any course of action—just as there are always unanticipated obstacles and (if we are lucky) serendipitous successes.
Second, experiments undertaken collectively are a site (and a very non-trivial one) of happiness. Participation can be—and often is—a joy. And it is the energy of that joy that carries the project forward even as it encounters difficulties and even as its contribution to a larger social transformation is not clear. Participation (and this is the Arendt piece) can be an experience (in miniature but in the real time of the present) of the kind of society we are aiming to produce. In short, participatory democracy in action, here and now.
Third, if we accept that change is piecemeal, then our experiments are “exemplary actions” (the phrase is Unger’s), demonstration projects that show what is possible. We don’t have to—and should not—wait upon total transformation to begin living the lives we desire to live. We can find the others who are willing to experiment with us—and begin to dance.