“At the parliament of animals, the rabbits demanded equal rights, and the lions replied, ‘But where are your claws?’”
We often hear it reported that in some benighted countries the people believe that “Democracy is a nice idea, but it’s not for us. We need a strong guiding hand.” So convinced of this are these people that, given the opportunity, they will in fact vote for this strong hand and all that comes with it, making democracy an oxymoron.
We tend to think that these foreign skeptics just don’t understand, and so some of us think that we ought to help them to understand. As my representative, freshman Republican Darin LaHood, said during a recent visit to a local high school, “The goal of our foreign policies is to try to make the world more like us.” (LaHood, son of Ray LaHood, was elected to the seat vacated by disgraced Republican Aaron Schock, he of the Downton-red office walls.)
A default neocon, LaHood wants to bring democracy to the heathens, an even worse idea than trying to convert them to Christianity. The appeal to democracy, coming from the lips of politicians like LaHood, is a paternalistic fraud—at the best! At the worst, it is no more than what it was in the colonial Middle East after World War I: the preparation for a “great looting.”
There are also times when I think that the U.S. is one of these benighted countries, especially when we decide that we need a president who will “stand up” to the nemesis of the hour, i.e. will without hesitation use military force in order to—high irony if not comedy—“make the world safe for democracy.” As David Gergen said of Donald Trump, “There is this extra dimension working in Trump’s favor: Americans are looking beyond particular policy for the personality that looks like somebody strong enough, tough enough, big enough to provide security.”
This is worse than an oxymoron, it is a tale told by an idiot.
What politicians like LaHood are incapable of contemplating is the idea that democracy is fractured by fateful ironies that tend toward its own failure. The first of these ironies is the idea that democracy is the expression of a “we”—the demos, “the American people,” as politicians like to say. If the American people that Barack Obama refers to are the same American people that Ted Cruz refers to, then the American people have a personality disorder. Among the conspicuous realities of social life in the United States, this reality should be the most conspicuous: we are not one and never have been. There is no We. There are no Americans.
Not only are we divided by those things that divide most regions of the world—tribe, sect, class/caste, race, sex—we are also divided by something that feels unique to us, almost genetic. It is our founding psychopathology, first animated by the mutual dislike of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Historians refer to it as our first national crisis, the conflict between Republican and Federalist, and it more than once led Jefferson to contemplate secession for Virginia and likeminded states.
Perhaps we inherited our psychopathology from ancient Rome and its division of senatorial oligarchs from republican populares (led by the brothers Gracchus and Julius Caesar), but there is a uniquely American cast to our everlasting dilemma. This dilemma currently expresses itself as urban liberalism versus the evangelism, guns, and hatred for all things federal that presently enlivens those gathered inside the Tea Party’s sanctimonious Tiny Tent. If there is a word for a country permanently divided against itself, we should use it, because the truth is that for the last 150 years we have lived in a Cold War continuation of the Civil War.
What hath Jefferson wrought?
In spite of this, we hear from all parts of the political spectrum the passionate appeal to “we.” This appeal is especially loud when it comes from social conservatives, although it is perplexing to consider who it is outside of their own tawdry numbers that they can be thinking of. We “real Americans,” one assumes, the usual ad hoc moral majority. Even Cliven Bundy and his 15 or 20 patriot soldiers claim that they level rifles at federal agents in the name of “the American people.”
But we also hear this rallying of “we” coming from democratic socialism, whether Bernie Sanders or the pages of "In These Times" (disclosure: I have written for "In These Times"). Socialists say, “Inequality, climate change, and racism can be corrected if ‘we’ have the will. It’s ‘up to us!’” The bumper-sticker-ready slogan “US means all of us” is the high-water mark for political naiveté.
Whether left or right, the idea that we are one is a delusion at best, and a perilous dishonesty at worst. It is perilous because it hides the fact that what is really being appealed to are the ideas of an impassioned faction. To say “we Americans” is to indulge in what Nietzsche called “civic narcissism.” This narcissism says, “Everyone should live through our ideals because our ideals are self-evidently the best. We’re bewildered that others don’t share our ideals, and we’re indignant that these others are not persuaded when we loudly explain them. As a consequence, we would impose our ideals by main force if the opportunity presented itself. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest.”
This is why appeals to “the people” are so dangerous. Beneath the call to communist solidarity and the reign of the people’s Party Congress, Stalin understood that there is no “we,” no “people,” no “everyone” and got on with the execution of “right-Trotskyite” plotters, and generally on with egg breaking for his invidious omelet. What Stalin understood that we try to keep hidden from sight is the certainty that the bedrock of every form of mass social organization—including democracy, including our democracy—is force.
The second of democracy’s fateful ironies is the “fooled again” syndrome (as The Who expressed it some time back). Let’s say that some scattered fragment of a deeply committed “we” struggles at great cost through an antagonistic election, or a revolution, or a civil war to put “our man,” the people’s champion, in a place of power, but then the friend of the little guy betrays his people and becomes “just like the old boss.” Consider the disappointment of Greek workers with the conduct of their anti-austerity prime minister Alexis Tsipras. He now enforces austerity measures and attends military exercises wearing a military jacket—he might as well be George W. Bush. And I would hope that there’s no need to mention Mr. Putin, a World Historical Figure of ever-larger betrayals of Russian democracy.
Oddly, Tea Party advocates feel more or less like the Greek Left. Their disappointment is the reason that they send one version or another of their own private Attila to congress: the conservatives they’d previously elected turned out to be establishment clones, merely members of the “Washington cartel.” They earnestly believe that Eric Cantor and John Boehner betrayed them.
Unfortunately, in order to find someone of sufficient ideological purity, they must support candidates who in any other context would be considered sociopaths (I give you the Republican party’s roster of presidential nominees). And if they’re not really crazy, they have to pretend to be if they want to be nominated, or at least I hope that’s what Jeb Bush is up to. The point would seem to be that in order to find someone who won’t betray them, conservatives must find someone who has little respect for reality (I’m lookin’ at you Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson, Mr. Cruz). But even the purest of these candidates will end by betraying their deranged base because… they have little respect for reality. So what gets said in Iowa stays in Iowa. Then it’s on to New Hampshire, where new things will be said.
The poet William Carlos Williams wrote that, “The pure products of America go crazy.” That perception would seem to apply here. But think of it in these more sympathetic terms: Rural conservatives sent people to congress not only to fight against abortion, gay marriage and immigration, they also intended that they should fight the banks, the Fed, Wall Street and, in a word, the oligarchs, the oft-cursed “elites.” But, once elected, instead of fighting the oligarchs, these representatives joined them. Perhaps a more discerning electorate might have realized this from the first, given that business interests and billionaire overlords like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson were paying for the campaigns. However that may be, any Leftist should be able to understand the Tea Party’s grievance. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Roger Hodge seemed to capture a similar disappointment among liberals with his book "The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism."
I won’t belabor the point because the examples are many. The more difficult task is to think of a leader who hasn’t betrayed his first constituency (Vaclav Havel?). Of course, there’s nothing new about political betrayal. As Cicero wrote of Julius Caesar, “He surrounds himself with an armed guard, and emerges as a tyrant over the very people who elected him to office.” It’s difficult not to feel that nothing much has changed since the Romans: the oligarchs get money and power, while the plebes find no satisfaction beyond a weekly sack of corn, courtesy of the largesse of the Empire. (Perhaps that has changed: I believe that Paul Ryan’s budget eliminates the sack of corn.)
Democracy’s third fateful irony is that it promises that if change is needed, it will come through a plebiscite. But the reality is that any social agenda accomplished by the left (socialists to one degree or another) or the right (the Tea Party, evangelicals, white supremacists) will necessarily be bloody. The right gets that, eagerly gets that, and is locked and loaded. The Bundy clan demonstrated this once again in eastern Oregon, seizing a federal building in a wilderness area. There were few other human beings for hundreds of miles in all directions, but the watchtower was manned, the windows bloomed with rifles and choruses of "Amazing Grace," and Ammon Bundy said they were in it for the long haul. None of this makes much sense to me, but I think the remaining diehards can be taken down through their own boredom, or when they realize they might miss the Super Bowl.
More seriously, Texas is as close as a state can come to living in permanent preparedness for war with its own government, both in principle and in fact, as we saw in 2015 when Governor Greg Abbott activated the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. Army’s Jade Helm 15 exercises in southwest Texas. Of course, Abbott’s actions were redundant. Virtually the whole of rural Texas is one vast citizen’s militia, one great posse comitatus. (Was Abbott perhaps hoping to protect the Army from the Texans?)
The left, on the other hand, God knows what it’s thinking. If it is to have anything remotely like what it says it wants, it will have to fight, something it seems very much disinclined to do. You can hardly blame them (and by them I mean me). We think that in a democracy issues should be decided in the favor of whoever offers the best reasons. Good luck with that. When the New York Times ran a front-page editorial articulating the reasons why it supports gun control, right-wing commentator Erick Erickson forsook rebuttal and shot the page full of holes.
Still, you can’t fault the sense of urgency that rouses Bernie Sanders and his admirers. They see all too clearly that the Progressive dream of ever-larger egalitarianism is dead. The United States has returned to its oligarchic roots, and with a vengeance. Sure, gays can get married and pot is more or less legal; isn’t that progress? But the oligarchs don’t care about that stuff. Smoke pot and fuck yourself silly, they say. In the meantime, well over 50 percent of the population lives on an annual income of $30,000 or less. Making matters a lot worse, this sobering statistic does not include those who went on Social Security early because they couldn’t find work after the recession, those even younger workers who committed disability fraud after their unemployment benefits stopped, those in prison, or those vague and pitiable souls called the “permanently discouraged.” Meanwhile, wealth concentrates at the top, ever denser, as if the sad mass of the rest of the country were being used to make a diamond.
The oligarchs are hated by both left and right, as is right and proper, but democracy’s fateful ironies make it unlikely that there will be any positive consequences for this hatred. As for the oligarchs, they don’t have to live through democracy’s ironies because they don’t live in a democracy. They live in a plutocracy. When they say “we,” they know just who they are talking about. Their “we” is what they call the “rightful owners.” As the saying goes, “Money always returns to its rightful owners.” (And boy hasn’t it steadily flowed back for 35 years now.) When newly elected leaders betray the people who elected them, the oligarchs say, “Welcome! You’ll fit right in!” As for irony number three, the oligarchy is not much concerned about blood because along with everything else it owns, it owns force. As in every nasty, tin-pot dictatorship, the goons are ready to apply a beat-down when necessary. As always, the goons will apply this beat-down to their own communities, their own people. The oligarchs outsource all of the bleeding to their victims.
That irony is jaw dropping: the traitorous “new boss” has no need to repent to those who placed him in power because he has a police apparatus at his beck and call ready and willing to confront his erstwhile supporters. The occasional scene of mothers facing off with their own sons dressed in riot gear—as in the Kiev protests in 2014—testifies to this irony. (During the Chechen wars in the late ’90s, there was actually an organization working against the war called the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.) We’re more familiar with this phenomenon from images of black police officers on the front line of demonstrations in black communities, most recently in Baltimore, New York and Chicago.
I say these things because they seem to me to be obvious. And yet they are rarely said. We live in a society that makes no sense, but that we are not allowed to criticize. That makes delusion a requirement of citizenship: first a brainwashing, then freedom of speech.
Where does all of this leave us? It leaves us with the laughable democracy of the oligarchs, the best democracy money can buy.