A Few Words on Democracy

This little essay will reference an article by Thomas B. Edsall, who until 2017 was Adjunct Professor at Columbia University School of Journalism.  In the NYT edition of Oct. 19, 2017, his article “Democracy Can Sow the Seeds of Its Own Destruction” appeared.  You know, thoughts about the kind of things people only whisper about huddled together in the night under the sheets.  Very ominous words at the beginning of the essay: ‘On a daily basis, Trump tests the willingness of the public to accept a president who lies as a matter of routine.  So far, Trump has persuaded a large swath of America [Edsall estimates later on in the essay that this figure is around 40 percent], to swallow what he feeds them.”  But Edsall sees Trump to be as much a symptom as a cause of our malaise:  “As democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely…” a bit further on he quotes a certain Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who writes on immigration backlash:  “Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies… but they also contain the seeds of their own destruction:  if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate…societies will become less open…” and at this point he cites an upcoming conference–“Global Populisms:  A Threat to Democracy?”  But to my mind there are various conflations confounding the issue here.  How could populism be a threat to democracy if the numbers voting are sufficient to register majorities in legitimately mounted elections?  This is the essence of democracy.  It seems to me that a more accurate wording of idea for this conference would be “Global Populisms: A Threat to Liberalism?”  For populism in its predominant form is indeed a threat to classical liberalism.  Liberalism is unthinkable without democracy, this much has to be acknowledged.  But this state of affairs only points up the basic confusion permeating debates on the nature of both democracy and liberalism.  And Edsall then does move to try to address this tension.  He again makes use of quotation from the hallowed halls of the university political science professorship, this time from Adam Przeworski, who teaches at NYU.  He says there is nothing undemocratic about the elctoral victory of Donald Trump.  The problem liberals have a hard time reconciling themselves to is that Trump won “legitimately”.  The People Have Spoken.  And, as we all know, because Jean-Jacques Rousseau has told us, “Vox Populi Est Vox Dei.”  “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”  This is the dimly acknowledged fundament (the ultimate claim to legitimacy) of all extant democracies.  Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong.  The problem has been there all along, as James Madison understood as the Constitutional Convention was making its draft.  Federalist Papers No. 10, for all you constitutional scholars out there.  There is an innate propensity in the democratic system for the appearance of demagogues, Madison says.  Factions can appear, and the weight of numbers can encourage a lowest common denominator. (He also admits after a fashion that the basic reason for the US Constitution is the protection of the landed class and its property, and that controlling faction is the best way to insure that the landed gentry holds on to what it’s got.)  So, Communism on the one side, Fascism, in its guise as xenophobia, on the other.  Once certain “liberal” ideas fall by the wayside, democracy is free to proceed with its inevitable tendency to mobocracy.  And that is what is happening now in America, as Edsall acknowleges.  He quotes Anna Grzymala-Busse, political scientist at Stanford (Edsall seems to like quoting people with difficult-to-spell names):  “Norms of transparency, conflict of interest, civil discourse, respect for the opposition and freedom of the press, and equal treatment of its citizens are all consistently undermined [in the current atmosphere], and without these the formal institutions become brittle.”  But how can one respect that which is contemptible?  We run up against the limits of tolerance.  All this points to one thing:  that both liberalism and democracy can no longer cope with current political trends.  It is far too weak to act as a bulwark against these kinds of forces now being unleashed.  Margaret Levi (Stanford again) thinks that there is no guarantee that right-wing populism “will not transform into the fascist and Nazi forms.”  It’s hard to disagree with her.

More quotation from tenured political scientists follows.  Don’t they stress in writing classes that one shouldn’t rely on such heavy use of quotation?  Just kidding, Thomas.  I understand and accept that one wants to be on relatively firm ground in making these inflammatory arguments.  The conclusions he points to are as unpopular as they are courageous.  You go, guy.

He does get into a bit of a contretemps with the (does it even still exist?) bohemian set by referencing the work of Paul Howe, yes, again a political scientist, at U of New Brunswick, Canada.  He writes about the “increasing size of the nihilistic segment of the American electorate”.  This “nihilistic” contingent is for all intents and purposes lumped in with the Trump faction as if there is no other contingent that might legitimately entertain such “nihilistic” beliefs as “a degree of contempt for social norms”.  Howe then argues, as Edsall interprets it, that “the broader constellation of transgressive and antisocial attitudes among a subsection of the public is an important force behind rising disregard for democratic norms.” One may want to refer back to my citing of Federalist no. 10 above at this juncture.  I will say at this point only that we are all transgressors.

By turns Edsall apparently wants us to shore up our belief in the democratic system and then undermines this confidence in subsequent examination.  This is what appears to be happening as he examines Ron Inglehart’s “The Danger of Deconsolidation:  How Much Should We Worry?”  Inglehart asks, what makes the US so distinctive?  (I guess he means as compared to other liberal democracies such as Germany or France.)  Then the familiar litany:  Democracy has become “appallingly dysfunctional”, involving governmental paralysis and massive increases of income equality.  It seems to me it would be understandable, from the position of those who are disincluded from the considerable riches of this earth, to have contempt for this state of affairs.  Who benefits in this growing disparity in material apportionment?  is the question that appears at this juncture.  (And then there’s Robert Michel’s work on oligarchy…in large-scale societies Michels pronounces oligarchy as inevitable in any democractic system.)

Edsall enters the home stretch with a bang:  Now it’s Daniel Bell he quotes, who wrote an essay 46 years ago called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”.  Edsall writes:  “American capitalism, Bell wrote, has lost its traditional legitimacy which was based on a moral system of reward, rooted in a Protestant sanctification of work.  It has substituted in its place a hedonism which promises a material ease and luxury, yet shies away from all the historic implications which a “voluptuary system”–and all its social permissiveness and libertinism–implies.  The conflict between ‘the principles of economics and economizing’ and a culture ‘rooted in a return to instinctual modes’ has produced a ‘disjunction which is the historic crisis of Western society.  This cultural contradiction, in the long run, is the deepest challenge to the society.'”  Bingo!

And now I think it’s time for another quote, from the socialist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who wrote in the thirties of the last century: “The crisis consists in just this–that the old has died and the new cannot yet be born.”

Edsall then returns to what he calls the idea of “the soft guardrails of democracy” to reemphasize the disintegrating norms bedeviling our society.  In Edsall’s estimation Daniel Ziblatt, professor of government at Harvard, is worth considering in his identifiying certain “master norms” which need to undergird democratic systems:  mutual toleration, that is, the acceptance of the basic legitimacy of our opponents, and institutional forbearance, the responsible exercise of power by those in office.  But if democracy, nationalism, liberalism itself are now being called into question, what is the fate of such ideas as the “master norms” which are undeniably direct products of this ideological contruct of political liberalism, in an era which so sorely challenges the feasibility of these norms?

One must face facts:  The liberal moment is over.  1787-2018.  A period amounting to three human lifetimes is enough for such a flawed system as this.  The era of the anarcho-psychological critique rushes in to fill the void, the last best hope of the civilized soul.

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