In a democracy, power becomes an “empty place,” to use an expression of French political philosopher Claude Lefort. This does not mean that nobody occupies the place of power. Rather it means that those who occupy the place, do so circumstantially, and as a result of the periodic outcomes of the democratic, electoral struggle. That power is an empty place means that nobody can occupy it permanently, that nobody can “embody” it, and that no social group can claim to be entitled to rule.
My question is: in America, can we still consider political power to be the circumstantial result of the democratic electoral struggle?
Obama’s short political journey so far has proven two apparently contradictory facts related to the empty place, in my judgment. On the one hand, he has shown that the American electoral process is still able to make room for unexpected victories, for political actors defying political machineries and early financial disadvantages. On the other hand, however, his victory, together with his party’s victory, giving them ample majorities in both chambers of Congress, have indicated, in my opinion—and in that of most of those behind the famous “enthusiasm gap” between the parties—that neither decision-making nor legislative processes seem to be closely related to the electoral outcomes any longer.
The New York Times’ columnists Frank Rich and Nicholas Kristof have been using the word “plutocracy” in their columns to describe the problem I see. Would it be too strong of a claim to say that we have to take seriously the hypothesis of an at least partial plutocratic re-embodiment of power in America?