Friday , July 10 2020

State of the Union Circa 2020 – Part IV

Continued from Part III

I

I believe that Steve Bannon identifies the rise of populism with a democratic impulse of sorts, and he may be right about this to an extent.  Indeed, one needn’t look any further than the founders: Guided as they were by the political philosophy of John Locke et al, all were quite leery of according voting rights to the demos – principally a propertyless class residing mostly in the cities – and were dead set against majority rule which they regarded as mob rule. But of course, democracy wasn’t high on their agenda – republic was! Right or wrong, it was purely an elitist viewpoint, clearly at odds with the spirit of democracy.

As a matter of fact, Mr. Bannon makes his anti-elitist sentiment abundantly clear when he cites, for example, the 2008 bailout of our financial institutions by Obama & company as the single most egregious example of our political class at work: it disregarded overwhelming public opinion to the contrary, for fear that to abide by that opinion would estrange its most prolific class of donors. Given such a stance, it’s no wonder that populism, any kind of populism, must have seemed to Mr. Bannon a welcome sign of relief, especially when contrasted with what had become in effect a rule of meritocracy, a rule, in other words, by the professional/technocratic elite – America’s presumptive visionaries.

In this connection, Thomas Frank’s recent book, Listen, Liberal, is highly instructive. Frank argues that the Democratic Party’s virtual abandonment of the middle class and its eventual realignment with  professional elites as its mainstay, a paradigm shift that’s been in effect since the Clinton presidency, is the single most important determinant of its present day ineffectiveness verging on irrelevance. (See, for instance, Frank’s video presentation on the subject.)     

II

So where, then, does Mr. Bannon go wrong? Simply put, it’s in failing to distinguish between the kinds of populist movements that may ensue. Some may be quite in line with his rather indiscriminate definition, others quite deleterious to the body politic at large and the general well-being of a civil society. 

Indeed, just because any given sentiment may be popularly held, it doesn’t make it right for the fact. Nor does it make it democratic, as the example of the old South, keen as it was on preserving the institution of slavery even at the risk of incurring civil war, clearly demonstrates. And the same goes, naturally, for any white-supremacist movement, past or present. 

How are we to improve then on Mr. Bannon’s rather footloose definition of populism without endangering its desirable status as an expression of democracy pure and simple – its voice or will if you like?

It would seem that we must avail ourselves here of some independent standard by which to judge the underlying intent of the populist movement under scrutiny; and that intent must align itself somehow with the aim of benefitting the entire body politic and the civil society at large if we’re to regard its public expression as bona fide democratic. 

For lack of a better term, the standard in question has got to be a moral standard of sorts, and a universal one at that, if possible – which suggest a rather intricate connection between true democracy and (universal) morality. And the intent or the motive underlying a truly democratic populist movement can therefore be none other than moral itself. It cannot be whatever’s merely reasonable or prudent; and it definitely cannot be self-serving.

These deliberations underscore another important point of note, namely that democracy is an ideational concept, a concept towards the realization of which we can only aspire – democracy itself being the ideal. Which, in turn, doesn’t detract any from the authenticity of a democratic practice for being less-than-perfect, since no democracy has ever been perfect; to the contrary, it should only encourage the quest. 

III

What are the preconditions then for a genuine democratic practice to unfold and to prosper, imperfect though it may be? To answer this question, we can do no better than go to the source itself, the very cradle of democracy both as a concept and as a practice – pre-Periclean Greece

Granted, the conditions in Athens and the lesser Greek city-states (e.g., in terms of the demographics, the density of the population residing for the most part in the cities as cultural, semi-industrial and eventually political centers, surrounded by the less well-populated suburbs with agrarian economies to provide the former with material sustenance, etc.), were indeed unique and most conducive to the emergence of direct, i.e., participatory democracy – conditions which are unlikely to be replicated ever again. But irrespective of whether a direct or a representative democracy is our object of interest, the Athenian experiment is instructive.

As part of this experiment, along with polis (a city-state) – itself derivable from hoi polloi, meaning “the many” or “the people” (while demos is the people in its most radical, political moment)the concept of a citizen as the rightful resident of a city-state and therefore a potential member of the demos, is of central importance. And the single most important characteristic of a model citizen, aside from having first and foremost the interests of the polis in mind – presumably his utmost concern – is that in the course of being engaged in a democratic process, he’ll have become educated or well-informed enough to make the right kind of decisions. 

IV 

Informed and well-meaning citizenry emerges thus as the very foundation of any authentic democratic practice, whether direct or indirect – a foundation in the absence of which any purportedly democratic practice should be rightly criticized not just for being imperfect (since no democracy has ever been perfect) but most importantly, for being a pretense, a make-believe. The “well-meaning” aspect we must regard as a given, which brings us to the “informed” part. And here we must ask: How exactly does a general citizenry become sufficiently educated, or well-informed, if you like, in state matters?

This we can only surmise. Consider, however, that even at its peak, the Athenian democracy was only 5,000-men strong. It excluded women, non-Greeks, and slaves, of course, from any kind of participation in the polis‘ affairs. In a manner of speaking, it was a club, a club, to be sure, in which each and every member was equal to every other member, but a club nonetheless – an elitist club, if you like. 

That was the fault-line. What follows, however, is that a great many members of the demos were men of sufficient means and, thus, of considerable leisure, too. No doubt, many may have sought a more formal kind of education, whether in the Lyceum or the Academy, but that’s less important than the kind of education we’re talking about, namely civic education. In this respect, the ancient Greeks were dead-right to take it for granted that civic education and well-informed citizenry are simply bound to result from active participation and engagement in the affairs of the polis.

V

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Rousseau’s notion of the general will, the cornerstone of his political philosophy, makes use of the exact same, perfectly reasonable assumption: that civic education is the direct result of active participation and ongoing engagement on the part of the citizenry in state affairs. Just as interestingly, the notion also addresses, however obliquely, the question of the well-intentioned electorate, with its eyes first and foremost on the well-being of the polis; and in so doing, Rousseau hints thus at some real though highly-elusive connection between true democracy and a kind of morality that aspires to universality.

Comparison with Immanuel Kant, very much influenced by Rousseau’s thought, is instructive, too. Though Kant lends support to the notion of universal morality as such, as based on “pure reason” (in that “a reason for one is a reason for all”) and the categorical imperative, he fails to apply it to Rousseau’s concept of the general will (which he thought self-contradictory) and direct democracy as the proper context for its exercise. Kant regarded the latter as a form of “despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which ‘all’ decide for or even against one who does not agree.”  

VI

It ought to be clear by now where exactly Mr. Bannon’s near-total and unqualified identification of a populist movement with democratic impulse falls short of the mark: The analysis fails to distinguish between the kinds of populace at hand, in particular between, generally speaking, a well-informed and well-meaning citizenry and that part of the general electorate which is clearly not.

If you think these distinctions purely subjective or arbitrary, think again: In whose interest was it to maintain the institution of slavery? The South, the North, the Union? 

There is, of course, the economic argument that North’s interest in abolition stemmed mostly from its need to procure an easily accessible labor pool in order to man its rapidly growing industrial base, and there may be some truth to that. But surely, there was also a larger issue at hand, an issue concerning human equality and social justice; and for most abolitionists that was the issue that mattered. And the same goes for any supremacy movement, whether white, black or yellow, in that the interests that are served by any such movement are strictly parochial or tribal; and they’re most definitely self-serving. 

Without passing an offhand judgment on whether strictly parochial or tribal interests are in themselves worthy of pursuit, it’s best that we contrast them with interests that are more inclusive in scope – interests that take into account the general well-being of the polity at large. And when subjected to this litmus test, the former clearly fall short off the mark.

VII

Mr. Bannon’s apparent aversion to all forms of elitism and rule by a technocratic/professional class, a class that is represented de facto by our politicians – indeed, his very opposition to representative democracy as it’s currently practiced – is well taken: All are an affront to the spirit of democracy as it was originally intended. Naturally, Mr. Bannon seeks a remedy in the emergence of a pervasive populist movement, a movement from the ground up and with a potential, besides, to become widespread. 

That’s his idea of an antidote, an antidote that would set things aright and restore political power to the people, the only proper repository of political power. Unfortunately, Mr. Bannon embraces the wrong kind of movement to serve his purposes, since a populist movement that is based almost entirely on a deep-seated anti-immigration sentiment is, as it’s been argued all along, anti-democratic at its core. For in espousing the politics of resentment and utter disdain if not hatred of all “otherness,” not only does it fly in the face any authentic democratic practice, concerned as it must be with the well-being of the entire populace; what’s worse, its voice can only be likened to what the founders feared the most, the voice of a mob, and its rule to mob rule.

VIII

So where are we in terms of the state of the union and of democracy and, generally speaking, the business of governing, under present conditions? 

In the final analysis, it all comes down to the composition and character of the voting public. It alone is the accurate barometer of the kind of government that ensues. But what do we find when we look at the general electorate circa 2020 if not a seemingly irreconcilable rift along such fundamental questions as our most basic values as a people and a nation. Can we possibly bridge this divide somewhat and restore the fractured demos to a quasi-functional condition, or must we resign ourselves to the present as the new status quo? What are our options?   

Let us state at the outset that denouncing one side or the other as “the deplorables” is no kind of solution at all, for it precludes any future dialogue and only reinforces the gap. Besides, we’re not talking here about some crazed fringe we could readily ignore, but a significant percentage of the voting public – at least a third by all known accounts. A regime change at both the executive and the legislative levels is also unlikely to produce any immediate results, since rarely if ever can you legislate morality or mandate a change of heart from the top down. 

What remains is time itself as the healing factor, and education of course – education prompted by a generational change perhaps – but we’ve already seen that this, too, is no foolproof formula that’s bound to produce the desirable outcome. The South has had a century and a half since the end of the Civil War to mend its ways, but it’s still up to its old tricks to this very day. 

All things considered, the best that we can hope for is a gradual change of hearts and minds, a change that would hopefully reduce the ranks of the opposition to a near fringe, but that’s a long time in waiting. And meanwhile? Meanwhile, it would seem that we’re stuck with a hopelessly bifurcated electorate, two parts roughly equal in size, an electorate that can’t even agree on what the facts are, let alone on any issue of substance.  

But an electorate that’s bifurcated to this extent can mean one thing and one thing only – namely, that there is no longer “We the People” or “the public” to speak of, no common ground or common denominator to appeal to, no public opinion that would be formidable enough to prevail on the powers-that-be to be responsive to the electorate’s will. And in light of this, there is no longer a representative democracy either, nor is there a republic for that matter. Instead, there’s only a power elite – the ghost of C. Wright Mills come alive – a dynasty whose reign is almost destined to be perpetuated election after election, ad infinitum.  

IX

Two items deserve mention before I close. First, the foregoing analysis makes no reference to African-Americans, Hispanics or Native Americans – all people of color and, naturally, in the eyes of the white-supremacist/anti-immigration coalition, classifiable as “the other.” Interestingly, only the Jews were singled out by that cohort during the infamous Charlottesville march. The anti-immigration folk, quite smartly perhaps, had stuck to its guns and targeted only the migrants and the asylum seekers. Perhaps better sense had prevailed in that the aforementioned minorities were already citizens in the eyes of the law, so there was no use crying over spilled milk.  Make no mistake about it, however: Latent racism is part of the nativist’s mindset.

Antisemitism, for one thing, is a special case of racism. And as to some of the gentler folk – well, one needs only be reminded here of references by our president to African nations as “shithole countries,” or of his call to the ultra-progressive members of Congress (aka “The Squad”) – all four women of color and, with the exception of one, native-born citizens – “to go back to where they came from.” Not surprisingly, the call was enthusiastically picked up in the course of Mr. Trump’s subsequent rallies, culminating in an endearing chant to the general merriment of all.

And second, we have limited our analysis thus far to conditions and circumstances peculiar to the United States. Whether these conditions and circumstances are indeed proprietary or merely accidental, whether they’re unique to the US or to some extent prevalent in other parts of the world – these questions remain to be addressed. Given a global perspective, we may be better able to understand not only what’s going on in our own backyard but also the kind of future we’re likely to face.

This I intend to do in a follow-up article.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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State of the Union Circa 2020 – Part III

The notion of the common good, the very aim of responsible legislation and sound government, is made obsolete by the fact that the public, such as it had become, no longer has much of anything in common.