Friday, October 26, 2018

Neoliberalism and Fascism: the stealth connection

William E. Connolly
Author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (2017) and Aspirational Fascism (2017).

Neoliberalism is not fascism. But the fact that many famous neoliberals have been moved to support fascism to protect a regime from social democracy or socialism does give one pause. Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, among others, took such a turn under duress. They also had highly expansive views of what counted as a “socialist” threat. Neoliberalism is a set of practices that favors entrepreneurs and corporations, supports--often below the radar--massive state subsidies for the corporate estate, presses for radical deregulation of private markets, treats labor as an abstract factor of production, celebrates the authority of courts governed by a neoliberal jurisprudence, hates collective social movements on the left, protects imperial drives, strives to render democracy minimal, and moves to dismantle or weaken unions, social security, public schools and universal voting if and when the opportunities arise. Fascism is a form of capitalism that dismantles democracy, pushes intense nationalism, pursues racism, deploys big lies systematically, attacks vulnerable minorities to energize its base, corrupts courts, drives to make the media its mouthpiece, places police and intelligence agencies under its wing, colludes with foreign dictatorships, welcomes vigilante groups beneath a veneer of deniability, and jacks up the intensity of cultural ruthlessness.

So the two are different. Are there, however, enough affinities between them to help explain how the former—both in its leadership and its base of support--can migrate rapidly toward the latter during periods of stress? Stress that it often enough creates by its own hubristic market practices? Bearing in mind those noble neoliberals who today call out and hold out against Trumpism—they are on welcome public display on the Nicole Wallace show on MSNBC--recent experience in the United States suggests that many other neoliberals, in a situation of public stress, too easily slide toward the latter. A whole bunch of neoliberal Republicans in the American Congress, after all, now support or tolerate policies and belligerent practices they did not before the era of Trump. Many do not merely do so because they are cowed by the danger of threats to them in Republican primaries—they could, for instance, quit politics, or join the Democratic Party to stop aspirational fascism, or staunchly support the principles they embrace in those very Republican primaries and elections.
 The recent book, Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, allows us to discern more closely how such slides and gallops can occur. It is focused on the life of a Nobel Prize winning neoliberal--who often called himself a libertarian--loved by the Mt Pelerin Society by the name of James Buchanan. I used to teach critically his book The Calculus of Consent in the 1980s. But MacLean's book, through a close review of an archive not studied before, reveals how the public neoliberal pronouncements by Buchanan between the 1970s and 2000s were soon matched by a set of covert plans and financial funding designed to bring neoliberalism to power by “stealth” strategies. Buchanan had come to see, as had others, that the neoliberal agenda was not apt to be enacted by democratic means. So he adopted a two track model.
 That two track model is revealing. So is the fact that this refugee from Tennessee—a former slave state and one that then imprisoned Blacks systematically to replace lost slave labor--seldom mentioned the specific conditions of Blacks or women as he articulated his abstract defense of liberty. So, too, is MacLean’s review of the ruthlessness and narcissism that marked the private and public persona of Buchanan, a review that invites attention to character affinities between him and Trump. Neither Buchanan, Trump, nor Charles Koch--the latter another key figure in the Buchanan story--thought highly of compromise. They play a hard ball game.
 The story starts, really, in Pinochet’s Chile, where Buchanan helped that repressive regime impose economic reforms backed by constitutional changes that would make it next to impossible to reverse them. They were called them constitutional “locks and bolts”. Buchanan never publicized the extensive role he played with Pinochet in Chile. Nor did he ever express public regret over its fascism, replete with prohibitions of free speech, practices of torture, and decrees making it illegal to organize dissident social movements.
 Another key epiphany occurred in the 1980s in the States. Reagan’s massive tax cuts, which were promised to spur rapid growth to pay for them, instead created deficits three times larger than those Jimmy Carter had bequeathed. A public reaction set in as the regime proposed to make radical cuts in Social Security and Medicare to make up the shortfall. But those plans failed. After that failure Buchanan concluded, consonant with advice by Milton Friedman, that such entrenched programs could only be weakened and dismantled through disinformation campaigns. Democracy had to be squeezed. Why? The majority of “takers” will never accept open plans to curtail their benefits to reduce taxes on a minority of “producers”. The takers, let's call them for starters workers, the poor and the elderly, don’t even believe in “liberty”--meaning above all the freedom of entrepreneurs to roam freely in the market. So, you must pretend you are trying to save the very system you seek to unravel. Talk incessantly about its “crisis”. Divide its supporters into older, retired members, who will retain benefits, and younger ones who will have them cut. Celebrate the virtues of private retirement accounts. Propose to have the wealthy be removed from the system, doing all these thing until general support for the social security system weakens and you are free to enact the next steps—steps not to be publicized in advance. Once you finally eliminate the system, people’s general confidence in the state will wane more. And new initiatives can be taken—again in a stealth manner—with respect to Medicare, pollution regulations, climate change, unemployment insurance, and democratic accountability.
 Buchanan, to make a long story short, first increasingly bought into disinformation campaigns and later joined the main financier of his Center at George Mason University, Charles Koch, to support a series of voter suppression programs, neoliberal court appointees, anti-labor laws, and intensely funded political campaigns to shift the priorities of the state. The guiding idea was not only to change the rulers but to change the rules which govern districting, court jurisprudence, voter access and the like. Liberty is for producers, not takers, as Milt Romney also said later when he thought he was speaking only to a closeted room full of producers.
Buchanan's abstract concern for market liberties, and the slanted liberties of association and speech they carried with them, never brought him to speak of the subjugated conditions of Blacks, women and other minorities in this society. The reason seems clear: their living grievances threaten abstract claims about a market system of impersonal rational coordination. The danger, to him, is mass democracy, which enlarges the power of “the state”. When Buchanan worried about the state he didn't seem to mean Pinochet. He meant democratic processes through which the state is moved to support a collection of minorities who have been closed out of equality, participation, and representation. Buchanan, as did his hero Hayek, loved to think in abstractions, the kind of abstractions that cover up specific modes of suffering, grievance and care under shiny terms. As MacLean also notes, Buchanan came to see that neoliberal (and libertarian) propaganda must aim at men more than women, because, on average, the latter are less predisposed to such messages.
 The Koch/Buchanan alliance, consolidated through an Institute at George Mason University, soon became a Center to fund movements and generic models of reform on the Right as it informed American movers and shakers how to create constitutional “locks and bolts” in states and the federal government to secure desired reforms from dissident majorities once they were pushed through and their real effects became apparent. A stealth campaign, followed by opposition to "mob rule". Wisconsin, for instance, became a key laboratory under the regime of Scott Walker, both enacting draconian policies and pursuing constitutional changes to secure them from future majorities. To discern the severity of the stealth activities, consider how one of Buchanan’s lieutenants, Charles Rowley, eventually turned against them. He became upset when a new Chair of the economics department summarily fired all untenured economists to replace them with a single breed of libertarians. As summarized by MacLean, two things above all dismayed Rowley, who retained his neoliberal outlook but opposed the stealth practices. “First the sheer scale of the riches the wealthy individuals brought to bear turned out to have subtle, even seductive power. And second, under the influence of one wealthy individual in particular the movement was turning to an equally troubling form of coercion: achieving its ends essentially through trickery, through deceiving people about its real intentions to go to a place which, on their own given complete information, they would not go.” (p. 208) It’s like saying "repeal and replace Obamacare", while planning only to make the first move. And then turn the same trick again in several other domains. Eventually Buchanan himself grew wary of Koch, in a setting where two narcissistic, authoritarian men struggled to control the same Center. The money man won out. In Rowley’s own words Koch, the billionaire donor, “had no scruples concerning the manipulation of scholarship.”
Neoliberalism, its critics know so well, periodically spawns the economic crises its hubristic devotees promise will not happen. It also works to foster voter suppression, unlimited dark campaign contributions, extreme gerrymandered districts, take away worker benefits, appoint judges at state and national levels governed by neoliberal jurisprudence, treat voter suppression tactics to be needed to eliminate phantom voter fraud, oppose affirmative action, to weaken labor unions, and attack universal health care.
 How many neoliberal Republicans called out Donald Trump, for instance, when he launched his presidential campaign by pretending insistently for six long years (with absolutely no evidence) that the first African American President held office illegally. Obama was guilty until proven innocent, according to that Donald Trump. How many stepped to the plate to acknowledge galloping climate change in the face of those who have called it a hoax against all the available evidence? What about the appointment of a judge who lied about his previous record, had trouble with his drinking and temper, and probably tried to rape a young girl when they were in high school? What about Trump's constant suggestions that minorities are guilty until found innocent, punctuated by assertions that men applying for high government positions and accused of harassment must be treated as innocent unless a court of law finds them guilty. Quiet whispers from neoliberals of regret and suspicion against Trumpism on these issues, by the way, do not cut the mustard. Neoliberal stealth tactics and neofascist Big Lies have moved too close together for comfort.
 One thing that emerged out of the long term two track campaigns of neoliberalism is a powerful wealth/income concentration machine joined to a series of precarious and suffering minorities, including so many urban Blacks and poor whites. With labor unions, too, caught in a squeeze. Donald Trump, could then play on the prejudices and insecurities created; he thus found himself in a position to incite large segments of the white labor and lower middle classes to return to the old days, while retaining the support of a huge segment of the wealthy, donor class. The disinformation campaigns of the old neoliberal vanguard can too easily slide into the Big Lie campaigns Trump pursues in the service of White Triumphalism, intense nationalism, misogyny, the reduction of critical social movements to mob rule, and militant anti-immigration campaigns. The long time con man and money launderer has not, then, merely cowed a neoliberal elite that had pointed in a different direction. He has pulled its stealth campaigns into channels that most find more palatable than other social visions in circulation.
 The memories of Hayek and Friedman in this respect return to haunt us. It need not surprise us, given MacLean’s archival history, that the latest Trump Supreme Court appointee supports neoliberal policies in the domains of corporate deregulation, medical care, restrictive voter laws, limits on civil rights, gerrymandering and like while also trumpeting notions of a sovereign president so dear to the dark heart of Donald Trump---the aspirational fascist who conspired with Russia to win an electoral college majority in 2016. We must light a candle for those noble neoliberals who resist the slide we are witnessing before our very eyes, as we also keep both eyes open with respect to the wider crossing between neoliberalism and neofascism.
  The old, all so familiar, Hayek story of how socialism and social democracy are always on the “road to serfdom” is a fairy tale that has not in fact occurred. The transition, however, from neoliberalism to virulent fascist movements has occurred before and could do so again. The current fascist electoral campaign rallies by Donald Trump are designed to up the ante of charges against liberals and the Left by several decibel levels so that people will temporarily forget all the horrible things he has done and will do if Republicans keep both houses. They include halting or weakening the Mueller investigation, eliminating transgender rights, consolidating Trump control over intelligence agencies and the courts, reversing the remaining shreds of ObamaCare, upscaling attacks on universal voting, weakening the media, creating horrendous immigration laws, encouraging vigilante drives, and many other things yet. Drive someone to a voting precinct on election day and give them a copy of the MacLean book a week before you do.
Continue Reading →

Monday, October 22, 2018

Democratizing the Court—and the Entire Body Politic

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and teaches at Acadia Senior College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell treats the exercise of the democratic right peacefully to assemble as mob rule. This exercise in democratic liberty that McConnell abhors has been necessitated because our democracy is seriously flawed—thanks in part to the anti-democratic coups McConnell’s party and its allies have orchestrated. 

The Supreme Court, though still the most respected of our institutions, is a major force adding to systematic injustice. How the Court has become so influential  and so dangerous is a topic deserving much more attention than it receives.—especially if we hope to mitigate the damage.

One perhaps fortuitous outcome of the Kavanaugh confirmation may be the recognition that the Supreme Court is inherently political. The Court has inordinate power now, but we have chosen to give/allow that power. Potentially the view five justices hold regarding “interstate commerce” or “due process” could determine the fate of vital regulation for a generation to come. No serious democracy can surrender so essential a policy matter to five lifetime appointees to a tiny body largely shrouded in mystery.

Democrats themselves played a high price for so much reliance on the courts to achieve their goals. This was especially the case regarding abortion. Initially enacted in a few states, activists pushed successfully for a Supreme Court ruling to extend reproductive rights to all states. Nonetheless as Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig pointed out: “Disempowered by their that the law had settled the issue without remainder, they failed to engage the concerns of moderate citizens who harbored doubts about the morality of abortion leaving them and their doubts to be mobilized by those who had no doubts about the practice’s immorality…”  Honig goes on to add: "…the always imperfect closure of political space tends to engender remainders and that, if those remainders are not engaged they may return to haunt and destabilize the very closures that deny their existence” (Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p. 15). I would only add that in a political culture that professes its faith in democracy remainders denied their day in the political arena are likely to become more intense and dogmatic and able to attract some support based on their exclusion alone.

Abortion along with other social issues helped politicize a whole generation of formerly apolitical fundamentalists, and reliance on the courts has left pro- choice liberals the necessity of playing catch-up ever since. In any case abortion rights won through the courts still cannot assure provision of the whole infrastructure of services and abortion alternatives needed if women were to have the resources and options to make a truly free choice. Republicans have been masters at chipping away those necessary prerequisites.  Their performance reminds me of Andrew Jackson’s s line in a Native American land case: "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

In pursuit of all their political goals Republicans have generally been more aware of the crucial role played by the states and other power centers in our federal system. They always pursued a multi- front strategy, relying on the courts as backstop for their corporate agenda but also systematically targeting state government, media, university boards, and federal legislative agendas. 

Yale Law professor Sam Moyn argues: “According high stakes decision making to judges is most definitely not inevitable. The contingent situation of the United States where conservative and liberal elites jockey above all for the power of constitutional fiat the better to encode their policy views in fundamental law — saving themselves the trouble of popular approval and entrenching them against it — is not working well for progressives. Our response to Kavanaugh is therefore to abandon all hope that the empowerment of the higher judiciary serves good outcomes, or even provides a bulwark against terrible ones.

The neoliberal courts will be especially useful in sanctifying incursions by Republican ground troops. It is a mob if your ideological, partisan political opponents are protesting, however peacefully. It is “there are some good people on both sides” if your partisans and ideological supporters are roughing up your political opponents. I don’t remember any condemnation of the rough stuff Republican ground troops employed to block the 2000 Florida recount. George W Bush was the beneficiary of a coup staged by five Supreme Court justices and a group of paid thugs.

Pundits today talk of gridlock, and some see this gridlock as providing an opening for or demand of those two independent, largely opaque bodies, the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court, that they enact a constructive, “moderate” agenda. I see both as instruments of a neoliberal consensus shared by most centrist Democrats and business- friendly Republicans. This consensus is the source of desperation and anxiety of many poor and working class citizens. This consensus includes insurance industry sponsored health care, military expansion, corporate controlled labor markets, financial deregulation, further corporate consolidation, Social Security and Medicare privatization, and bank bailouts., fossil fuel subsidies, further tax favoritism of the rich, and deregulation and decriminalization of environmental and workplace abuses. All these are to be backed by a heavily militarized police.

These priorities are not shared by a majority of Americans. The priorities are being advanced by corporate lobbies and with the collaboration of a court system that has been packed with socially conservative neoliberals.  The fight over Kavanaugh is over, but absent progressive narratives and agendas more working class citizens will add fuel to the authoritarian demagogue’s dangerous coalition. It is time to learn from Republicans.  Winning the next election—at all levels – is crucial.  If Democrats win in 2018 and 2020, progressives within the Democratic Party should not hesitate to advocate packing the court. As with FDR in 1937 Left Democrats should argue: they are merely making up for prior Republican manipulation. And they could follow FDR’s assertion that “there is no basis for the claim made by some members of the Court that something in the Constitution has compelled them regretfully to thwart the will of the people.” It was necessary, he argued, to change the Court “to save the Constitution from the Court”–save it as a document of democratic self-rule (I am quoting Jedediah Purdy, who is quoting FDR).

The suggestion will doubtless be rejected by the party’s still dominant neoliberals. Its advocates will be reminded that the Court pack scheme represented a major setback for FDR. In fact the historical record is ambiguous. Following defeat of the Court reform proposal no subsequent New Deal legislation was declared unconstitutional. Merely planting the idea might remind citizens just how political that body is.  

The problem with the court is not that it is political. Its politics are antithetical to democracy. This rigidly reactionary bias, however, does not mean the Democratic left should pay no attention to the Court. Given the central, almost iconic place of the Court in popular consciousness, neglect of the Court would be as much of a mistake as exclusive reliance on it. Duke Law professor Jedediah Purdy argues: "the way to address politicization…is not de-politicization but counter-politicization, which I think is the lesson of history. I’ve argued for a jurisprudence that picks up new politically led awareness of the absolute importance of ballot access, the centrality of economic power to law and social order, and the urgency of addressing structural racialized inequality, the carceral state, and the special vulnerability of non-citizens."

Such a jurisprudence is more likely to assume prominence as part of a broad political movement operating in many venues and employing a range of nonviolent strategies and tactics. The Court can inflict its damage only if the many of us who will be injured by its actions fail to collaborate and organize against its destructive pursuits.
Continue Reading →

Monday, October 15, 2018

Without Rules, Boundaries, or Mercy

Thomas L. Dumm
Amherst College 

Every day we see new evidence of the deep corrosion of American politics. The hollowing out of democratic representation from the 1980s to 2016 gave rise to the availability of a Trump. Perhaps for a long time we were misled by the purloined letter aspect of this corruption, and saw Trump as a cause, not a symptom. But we are beginning to know better, if we did not sooner, that the systemic undermining of representative bodies into white corporate minority holding companies was the prelude to Trump. In retrospect, a certain inevitability, as we wearily check in on each new news cycle.

What Trump is, is one thing. What is that thing? We need not hesitate to name it any more. But simply calling it fascism isn’t enough. We need to be constantly aware of the madness underlying it. Here is a description.

He is a person who is impulsive in action, likely to do things without thought of consequences or future discomfort to himself or to others. He does not seem capable of learning from experience, and he shows an unusual pattern of intermittent periods of productive activity followed by patently irresponsible actions. He cannot tolerate feelings of frustration as a more normal person can, and he is poorly able to rid himself of feelings except through antisocial activity. . . His self-esteem is very low, and he secretly feels inferior to others and sexually inadequate. These feeling seem to be overcompensated for by dreams of being rich and powerful, a tendency to brag about his exploits, spending sprees when he has money, and dissatisfaction with only the slow advancement he could expect from his job. . . He is uncomfortable in his relationships to other people, and has a pathological inability to form and hold enduring personal attachments. Although he professes usual moral standards he seems obviously uninfluenced by them in his actions. In summary, he shows fairly typical characteristics of what would psychiatrically be called a severe personality disorder.
This is an excerpt from a psychiatric report not permitted to be admitted into evidence concerning the state of mind of Richard Hickock as he was tried, along with Perry Smith, in March of 1960, for the murder by shotgun of four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas on November 15, 1959. It is taken from the famous account by Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. (New York, Vintage, 1965, p. 295) The reason it was not allowed because of the M’Naghten Rule, taken from English common law, that does not allow for speculation concerning state of mind of a criminal actor beyond whether he or she knows right from wrong. 

It is almost unnecessary to point out that this is an uncannily spot-on description of Trump. Whether one refers to narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, or even psychopathy, for many Americans it seems clear that there is something really wrong with the man. But for others, it may not be so clear, or perhaps it is that the form of Trump’s illness is something that is so widespread in American culture as to be understood as normal behavior by many. Maybe it is a Cold Blood world we are now living in.

In that sense, the pathological elements of Trump’s personality that have been refracted through the right-wing Fox-Breitbart media/fundamentalist Christian/capitalist resonance machine is no longer only an element of our politics, it may have absorbed so much of what we can affectively know about the whole of politics as it is now practiced as the national level, that we are confused as to how to respond. But one thing is clear -- we no longer need to speculate as to whether someone knows that what they do is wrong. We know that the elated hypocrisy of, say, a Mitch McConnell, is a clear indicator of his deep knowledge of the wrongness of what he does. They know what they do.

To follow upon Bill Connolly’s “How DOES A Democracy Die?”, the norm-breaking associated with a pathological personality disorder now is shaping the common sense of American politics. Everyone knows Trumpism is wrong. Everyone who embraces it does so anyway.

The examples abound, and have recently been highlighted by the sickening displays of grandstanding and hypocrisy that marked the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Those hearings were marked by the outrage of a wounded white male, in which the classic myth -- “A” students who captain the basketball team and do charity work cannot possibly be drunken rapists -- found its latest iteration (I experienced this phenomenon at work at Amherst College a few years ago – football players who write honors theses can’t possibly engage in sexual assault, argued the athletic director of the College in response to a column I wrote urging that we look into athletic culture as a problem…) . The outrage of Kavanaugh was immediately echoed by Lindsay Graham at a key moment – “I am a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up. But I won’t be shut up!” he raged. That Trump was able to pick up on this – “our young men are in danger” – and was able to reverse the accusation of the victim – women are destroying innocent men, the democrats are a riotous mob, etc., -- is no surprise. This is now a key element of the ongoing Republican playbook.

It may well be that it will soon be the same playbook for the mirror of the GOP, the Democratic Party.

Sometimes the smallest asides in an ordinary political column most importantly signal the depth of the degradation of party politics, in part because the writers of those notes assume that the fall has become complete. So it would seem, if one of the oldest and most conventional of political journalists is to be believed. I found it in the last line of an op-ed column in the October 11, 2018 New York Times, penned by Thomas Byrne Edsall. Edsall is perhaps one of the most conventional electoral politics reporters of the last thirty years, someone who has patiently traced the rise of corporate monies and their influence on both the Democratic and Republican parties, someone who has fervently believed in the conventions of party politics, and wrung his hands over the years as he has witnessed their fall from (relative) grace.  

In his column, “Is the Rust Belt Still Trump Country?”, he writes, in what feels like a throw away line, “No matter what happens in November, one thing is certain: For the Democrats to beat Trump in 2020, they will need a tough candidate prepared for battle in what has become politics without rules, boundaries or mercy.” In other words, the 2020 presidential election is to be a version of Thunderdome: “Two men enter, one man leaves!” In other other words, in response to the psychopathology of Trumpism, all politicians must become psychopaths.

This is not hyperbole. If Thomas Byrd Edsall is writing this way, it is the new common sense. Against which, we need to develop the resources of a new uncommon sense, one of mass protest, flooding of hallways, both real and virtual, and the sort of care of selves that will enable our traumas to become bearable as we seek the resources within ourselves and among ourselves to fight for democracy itself.

Continue Reading →

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.
Continue Reading →