Tuesday, October 9, 2018

How DOES a Democracy Die?

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017)

Within minutes after Judge Scalia's death in February, 2016, a Federalist Society leader tweeted, "If Scalia has actually passed away, The Senate must refuse to confirm any justices in 2016, and leave the nomination to the next President." (Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, p 145). Within a day Senate Leader Mitch McConnell announced there would be no hearings on any Obama nominee. This is a prime example of partisan flouting of a longstanding norm. Old democracies die, Levitsky and Ziblatt assert, when elected officials and political parties become highly polarized, break tacit norms of democratic governance, and refuse to enforce democratic guardrails. This time the Republican Party blocked Obama and soon confirmed a right wing Supreme Court justice nominated by President Trump. The argument: proliferation of such breakdowns presages an end to democracy, even when the formality of elections is retained.

The book is replete with such examples; it explains their sources largely in the political polarization and breakdown of guardrails by political elites. It is a fine study as far as it goes. Clearly, addiction to norm breaking has taken a huge toll on the ethos of democracy, as we can readily see in the latest Judiciary Committee treatment of the Kavanaugh hearings. The book should be read closely; its examples must be pondered; and its comparisons between countries are important. Nonetheless, the book does not reach far beyond a political science study of electoral politics to probe deeper sources of the contemporary threat to America. Consider a few pertinent issues.
 First, I did not find reference to the high probability that Donald Trump conspired with Russia--a hostile foreign country--to turn the election in his favor. If true, that would be the most extreme "norm breaking" of all, amounting to treason or at least “high crimes and misdemeanors” ; it would result in Impeachment, unless the Republican Party broke yet another norm and failed to convict. It does not suffice to say that the juridical evidence was not settled when the book was in production. The authors are not jurors in a trial. Political analysts must weigh the evidence and consequences of such a dark attack on democracy. Well before this book appeared I said in print in 2017 that Trump collusion "was highly probable”, reviewing available evidence at the time. (Aspirational Fascism, 2017). Others made similar judgments.

Second, while representational politics and free, competitive elections are absolutely critical to democracy, they do not suffice. Another essential side of democracy involves social movements by activists who press the state, corporations, churches, localities, bureaucracies, and universities to act upon grievances and suffering below the radar of public normality and electoral politics. Numerous things the authors now support—open voting laws, racial equality, gay rights, women's rights, religious diversity, and action to respond to rapid climate change--were pressed first by vibrant social movements that challenged the embedded norms, disciplines, interests, and vigilante violence that had blocked them. Parties and political elites wheeled into action later. That means that norm protection and revision cannot be trusted to elections, elites and political parties alone. There is too little appreciation in this book of the vital role of social movements, hence insufficient respect for the bi-focal character of democracy itself. This omission is doubly important today, since Trumpites, if they were to succeed in quashing the Mueller probe and last vestiges of Republican integrity, would soon move dramatically to block social movements on the left. When Trump roars every day that CNN and MSNBC report "fake news"-- stealing the phrase from those concerned about evidence-free Facebook implants—he also signals the desire to take more repressive steps, if the opportunity arises. Note Kompromat, and the surveillance glasses worn by police in China today. Indeed, several of Trump's Big Lies against others provide tells about his own ambitions. Take the charges of “fake news”, a "rigged election" a "deep state", and a climate "hoax" for starters. His own hoax is that there is no accelerating climate crisis and that it is rational to return to an extractive industrial system of the nineteen fifties.

Third, no citations appear in the Index to either neoliberalism or capitalism. That is unfortunate. For decades now dispersed white working and lower middle classes have been caught in a bind between the neoliberal wealth/income-concentration machine and noble movements by the pluralizing left. Its wages have stagnated; it has suffered underwater mortgages due to neoliberal collapses and harsh bankruptcy laws aimed at low income earners; it is hard pressed to send its kids to college in an economy organized around higher education; its public schools have declined; its labor unions are weakened by neoliberal courts; it has felt closed out of affirmative action. And on and on. If you define the white working class through the cluster category of relative income level, wealth, education level, life-time earning prospects, inheritance, retirement assets, access to health care, and the ability to make ends meet within a neoliberal infrastructure of consumption, it is clear that a time bomb has been waiting to explode. Some of us have warned about this for years. It is absolutely critical to say that other constituencies have been doing even worse. But this, too, is a minority in need of attention. Unless and until social movements and the Democratic Party attend to this constituency things will be precarious, to say the least. Yes, the racism and misogyny in sectors of it must be adamantly exposed and opposed; but as its dispersed geographical distribution and Trump's ugly incitements reveal, a larger segment of it must be drawn into any dynamic movement to promote pluralism, democracy, and egalitarianism together if these goals are to progress. This, too, is a neglected minority.
 Fourth, after voicing suspicion that courting the white working class would mean discounting other minorities, the authors do note a few "universalist" policies to reach across constituencies. Social Security, Medicare and a minimum wage are included. Good. But that list needs enlargement to include real job security, protection against corporate authoritarianism, legislation to strengthen labor unions, free public college tuition, better retirement prospects, and fair bankruptcy laws, just for starters. Reverend William Barber, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other activists have been fomenting such cross-minority movements even as we speak. The institutional conservatism of the authors inhibits them on this front.
 Fifth, the authors say that democracies often die slowly. Yes they do. However, we now face rapid aspirational drives toward a distinctive type of American fascism. Drives to create the deep state Trump purports to expose, to intimidate the media, to entrench white triumphalism, to promote misogyny, to merge with Fox News, to suppress poor and minority voters, to further weaken labor unions, to flood courts with right wing judges, to whip up anti-immigration frenzy, to demean and discourage women, to test public tolerances of new cruelties by a right wing state, to collude with urban police to intimidate and attack Blacks and other minorities, to encourage vigilantism, to build a Supreme Court majority to support an expansive view of Presidential sovereignty, and to use real or fake security threats to intensify the base. Things are moving fast. Seeing it this way, we must ask ourselves what to do if Trump either closes down an inquiry that is boxing him in or a Republican Congress refuses to impeach and convict if evidence of conspiring with Russia to sabotage an election becomes overwhelming.

We are living through an attempt to assassinate democracy. I certainly do not say things must necessarily break that way. Other possibilities are real, though they probably will involve public mobilization on several fronts. However, the authors do not advise what to do if or when things take such a sinister turn. My own sense is that if they do concerned citizens need to foment a nonviolent, general strike: withdrawing from work, minimizing consumption for its duration, flooding town halls, taking to the streets, and lobbying institutional leaders intensely. I hope it does not come to that. But if it does the magnificent recent actions by women activists against Kavanaugh provide one superb example in action.
 So I disagree with the two authors in some ways. I also appreciate their attention to the norms or ethos of democracy. I trust that, across these differences, we will be aligned to resist efforts to assassinate democracy.


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