This is not what democracy looks like: The long, slow death of Jefferson's dream

From Thomas Piketty to Cliven Bundy to GOP climate trolls, democracy is in deep crisis. What comes next?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 17, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

Marco Rubio, Thomas Jefferson                         (Reuters/Gary Cameron/Salon)
Marco Rubio, Thomas Jefferson (Reuters/Gary Cameron/Salon)

In the glory days of the anti-globalization movement, circa the “Battle in Seattle” of 1999, there was an oft-repeated street scene some of you will remember. A group of protesters would seize an intersection or a block for a little while, likely because the police were otherwise occupied or couldn’t be bothered or didn’t want to bust heads while the cameras were watching. The ragtag band would haul out the drums and noisemakers, climb the lampposts and newspaper boxes with colorful banners, and send out an exuberant chant: “This is what democracy looks like!” (Contrary to what you may have heard, smashing the Starbucks windows was not required, and not all that common.)

It’s easy to snark all over that from this historical distance: If democracy looks like a noisy street party involving white people with dreadlocks dressed as sea turtles, count me out! But the philosophy behind that radical-activist moment was not nearly as naive as it might look from here, and much of the problem lies in that troublesome noun: democracy. In those post-Communist, pre-9/11 days, the era of the “end of history,” democracy in its liberal-capitalist formulation was assumed to be the natural fulfillment of human society. It was the essential nutrient-rich medium for the growth of all good things: Pizza Hut, parliamentary elections, knockoff designer clothes and broadband Internet, not to mention all the wonderful gizmos that were about to be invented. Even anti-capitalist protesters were compelled to embrace the rhetoric of democracy, if only to suggest (as Gandhi did about “Western civilization”) that it was a great idea but we hadn’t gotten there yet.

A decade and a half later, democracy remains officially unopposed on the world stage, yet it faces an unexpected existential crisis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American-style liberal-capitalist democracy has presented itself to the world as “the only legitimate form of expression or decision-making power” and “the necessary first condition of freedom.” (I’m quoting an anarchist critique by Moxie Marlinspike and Windy Hart, which is well worth reading.) But it has abruptly and spectacularly stopped working as advertised: The broken American political system has become a global laughingstock, and numerous other Western countries that modeled their systems on ours are in chronic crisis mode.

This is what democracy looks like: grotesque inequality, delusional Tea Party obstructionism, a vast secret national-security state, overseas wars we're never even told about and a total inability to address the global climate crisis, a failure for which our descendants will never forgive us, and never should. Maybe I'll take the turtle costumes after all. The aura of democratic legitimacy is fading fast in an era when financial and political capital are increasingly consolidated in a few thousand people, a fact we already knew but whose implications French insta-celebrity Thomas Piketty and the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (of the “oligarchy study”) have forcefully driven home. Libertarian thinker Bryan Caplan sees the same pattern, as Michael Lind recently wrote in Salon, but thinks it's a good thing. In America, democracy offers the choice between one political party that has embraced a combination of corporate bootlicking, poorly veiled racism, anti-government paranoia and a wholesale rejection of science, and another whose cosmopolitan veneer sits atop secret drone warfare, Wall Street cronyism and the all-seeing Panopticon of high-tech surveillance. You don’t have to conclude that noted climate-change expert Marco Rubio and Establishment mega-hawk Hillary Clinton are interchangeable or identical to conclude that it isn’t much of a choice.

Most critiques of democracy as it currently exists, certainly those from the liberal left, assume that democracy can and should be fixed and that it's just a matter of switching off the cat videos and doing the work. They remain inside the conceptual and ideological frame mentioned above, the idea that democracy is the only legitimate expression of politics. This has the force of religious doctrine, and in fact is far stronger than any religious doctrines to be found in the Western world. Our democracy may be stunted or corrupted or deformed by bad forces of money and power, these arguments go, but it self-evidently remains the ideal form of government, and it is our responsibility to redeem it. If only we can build a third party around Ralph Nader (that went well!), if only we can ring enough doorbells for Dennis Kucinich, if only we can persuade Elizabeth Warren to run against Hillary – you’ve heard all this before. There are many versions of this strategy, some more plausible than others, but they all rest on the faith that the promised land of real democracy is out there somewhere beyond the horizon, waiting for us to reach it.

As the Italian political scientist Mario Tronti has noted, this faith in a golden future, with its implicit apology for the current state of affairs, may sound oddly familiar to those whose cultural memories extend back to the Cold War. It’s exactly what defenders of the Soviet “experiment” said over and over. Yes, “actually existing socialism” had its limitations, most of which resulted from imperialist meddling and ideological backwardness, but one day our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, would finish the task of building a communist society. That was hogwash, Tronti says, and so is the insistence that we should judge democracy based on some imaginary potential rather than what it is in practice. “This theoretical-practical knot that is democracy,” he writes, “can now be judged by its results.” What we see around us “should not be read as a ‘false’ democracy in the face of which there is or should be a ‘true’ democracy, but as the coming-true of the ideal, or conceptual, form of democracy.”

In other words, we have to consider the possibility that the current state of American politics, with its bizarre combination of poisoned, polarized and artificially overheated debate along with total paralysis on every substantive issue and widespread apathy and discontent, is what we get after 200-odd years. It’s not a detour in the history of Jeffersonian democracy but something closer to a natural outcome. We also must consider that our version of a democratic system is not, in fact, designed to reflect the will of the people (a dubious concept to begin with) but to manipulate and channel it in acceptable directions. Another Italian scholar, Luciano Canfora, argues in his magisterial history “Democracy in Europe” that the extension of citizenship and voting rights to all in Western democracies arrived alongside a concerted, oligarchic program to limit “the range of the possible.” He means, among other things, the manipulation of the mass media, the collapse of a wide range of political opinions down to the generic “policy bundles” of a two-party system, and the shameless gerrymandering that remains acceptable and normal in our country.

In that reading of our democracy, for instance, meaningful policy change to address the planetary crisis of climate change lies outside the range of the possible, but not just because the Republican Party has retreated en masse to a know-nothing, anti-science position of total insanity and/or cowardice. In fact, that retreat to crazy-town isn’t half as crazy as it looks, and only happened because the oligarchs behind the GOP concluded that a major shift in energy policy and fossil-fuel consumption would inflict too much pain on corporate capital. They also understood that it was necessary to package this decision within the anti-elite, Christian-coded, hyperpatriotic messaging of the Republican brand. I have no idea whether Marco Rubio believes the ridiculous stuff he’s been saying on TV, but I know that if he wants to continue his political career in the Republican Party, he has no choice. This isn't limited to conservatives, of course; Barack Obama and his first-term Congressional majority never seriously considered a single-payer healthcare option, an idea widely supported by the public that fell just outside the range of the possible.

Is it time to look past the presumed naturalness and inevitability of democracy and consider other alternatives? Well, it’s an interesting thought experiment, though not an especially realistic one. Support for Enlightenment democratic ideals is such a central dogma of Western life in general and American life in particular that almost no one (myself included) is ready to walk away from it. That may stem from fear of the alternatives – or the epistemological difficulty of imagining non-scary ones – rather than from an overwhelming vote of confidence. In a certain light, however, the rejection of conventional liberal democracy is to be found all over the ideological landscape. You can see it in the secessionist tendency of Cliven Bundy and the “land rights” and “sovereign citizen” elements of the Tea Party, and also in the renegade info-rebellion of anarchist-hacktivist types, from Anonymous to Julian Assange to Edward Snowden.

No doubt most of those people, maybe even Bundy, would describe themselves as idealistic supporters of some “real” (i.e., imaginary) past or future democracy that is superior to the current debased model, not unlike the Seattle '99 protesters or their successors in the Occupy movement. But a strong intellectual tradition has emerged in recent years that's more than willing to interrogate democratic orthodoxy. Its most prominent members include Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Marxist political scientist Jodi Dean and author and filmmaker Astra Taylor, among others. These commentators have variously pointed out that in our current political context the rhetoric of democracy becomes an ideological cage we can’t see out of and don’t quite notice. It's something we take as natural and eternal that is really a recent historical invention.

Democracy has a long, fraught history as an idea; one could almost interpret its current problems as ideological karma, as if the contradictions baked into the modern democratic project by slave-owning hypocrite Thomas Jefferson and the murderous zealots of the French Revolution had surfaced at last. In the ancient world, Plato understood democracy as a destructive force that led to demagoguery, mob rule, cultural mediocrity and pointless nationalistic warfare, and based on the evidence of 21st-century America, it's tough to dismiss that altogether. Philosophers of later centuries most frequently saw democracy as fundamentally antithetical to liberty; that was essentially the position taken by Alexis de Tocqueville, who did not intend "Democracy in America" as an entirely positive portrait.

The countervailing notion that democracy and liberty are not opposed but inextricably bound together, each the essential condition of the other, is pretty much a modern heterodoxy. It was the result of many converging strands of 18th-century Enlightenment thought, but will always be associated with Jefferson most of all. In the modern American context, any skepticism toward the Jeffersonian legacy or the universal healing powers of democracy threatens to mark you as a deranged kook of the far right or far left, even though what Tronti would call our "real democracy" would be unrecognizable to any 18th-century American. In fact, the critique of democracy that begins with Plato and Socrates is a complicated tradition that embraces such diverse and influential figures as Locke, Kant, de Tocqueville, Thoreau and Nietzsche, who found democracy even more of a lily-livered, pantywaist abomination than Christianity. (Whatever political differences they may have, Zizek strikes me as the true modern heir to Nietzsche.)

Yes, the anti-democratic tradition led to some extremely dark places in the 20th century, and we're still recovering from that. America will no doubt claim to be a democracy, and cling to some vestiges of democratic form, as long as it continues to exist. If we had a real democracy instead of what Tronti calls "a weak idea ... in constant need of qualifying adjectives," then I suppose discussion of alternative political systems would not be such a powerful taboo. Even if we persist in pursuing the vanishing ideal of democracy in the face of its real-world limitations, the central lesson of the Piketty moment is that our political crisis is systematic and deeply rooted in history, and demands a systematic response. It's not just a matter of waiting for the nutso Republicans to die off or electing slightly more liberal Democrats (or at least those with cooler messaging). Whatever the next version of "change we can believe in" may be -- Elizabeth Warren's quixotic but inspiring presidential campaign? Some really awesome city council candidate? -- it won't change anything.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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