Democracy and complete security cannot exist in the same society. This harsh reality fundamentally challenges the future of democracy in America. I make this bold assertion aware that Jeff has a more positive view.
In some of his recent posts, Jeff has acknowledged some of my criticisms of the current state of American democracy. Although he considers them to be relevant, he nonetheless also considers them to be somehow exaggerated, since democracy is not in such a peril, according to him.
Moreover, I admit to having been particularly harsh on Obama, to which Jeff has responded with accurate and fair points. As Hannah Arendt used to say however–exaggerating can serve a good purpose: it highlights the point you want to make.
And my point is that in the United States the political order has become much less democratic than many of us, including Jeff, would like to admit. Inspired by that motto, I will now address another dimension of the current state of the regime that I consider to be in serious need of critical inquiry: what the war on terror has done—not to the Iraqis, not to the Afghans, not to the hundreds, probably many thousands, of extra-legally detained since 9/11—but to the American political regime itself.
Building again on Claude Lefort’s notion of democracy—a normative point of view I consider particularly useful as an ideal type against which to contrast American actually existing democracy: modernity is characterized by the dilution of the markers of certainty proper to pre-modern forms of society. This modern dilution of the markers of certainty means that equality has become the generative principle of society; social roles, positions, and boundaries are no longer permanently distributed and assigned (a central characteristic of social orders based on the generative principle of hierarchy). What I thus want to suggest here is that certainty regarding personal and collective security is one of those “markers” diluted in modern societies.
In modern democracy, there can be no certainty that there are no risks and no threats to be confronted in social life. When the basis of power, law, and knowledge get disentangled—as Lefort postulates happens in modern democracy—Hobbes’ Leviathan can no longer offer complete protection in exchange for unconditional obedience.
Post-9/11 America has clearly reacted against this dimension of the modern dilution of the markers of certainty. Democracy cannot guarantee total security. When the rule of law strictly limits what political authorities can do in the name of protecting its citizens from others and from each other, there will always be a risk involved in everyday life. In short, I suggest that after 9/11, Americans became obsessed with the fantasy of certain security—a concept that is at its best an illusion.
In the war on terror, there has been a convergence of the exercise of power, the claim to knowledge and the generation of ad-hoc law.
Regarding the sphere or power, the traditional system of checks and balances has accepted the situation of war declared by the former president after 9/11 and has withdrawn to the spheres of social life discretionarily left untouched by the executive.
This withdrawal of the legislative and judiciary branches from all matters executively determined to be related to the war on terror, has generated a void of knowledge and law to be filled by the security forces and the president as commander-in-chief.
And I say the president-as-commander-in-chief because the system of checks and balances is indeed a system, therefore relational. The executive branch defines its functions and roles by intermingling its areas of competence with the judiciary and legislative branches.
When the interplay of this system is suspended, the presidency mutates into a significantly different institution; one defined, precisely, by its self-proclaimed—but also broadly recognized—status of being unbounded by normal law and unchecked in its claim to knowledge on the nature of friends and enemies.
And I also say the president-as-commander-in-chief because I choose to use the expression already used by our political culture to refer to this phenomenon.
If we pay attention to the discourse on the presidency articulated by most in the Republican Party or Fox News, it is clear that, from their point of view, this institutional mutation should be regarded as permanent. On the other hand, it is also clear that those predisposed to oppose this institutional mutation are unable to find a strong position from where to do so. We see this when Democratic candidates bolster their resumes with strong positions that indicate potential as the future commander-in-chief.
From a normative perspective such as Lefort’s, and from a comparative perspective such as the one I introduced a few weeks ago with the current state of South American democracies , these post 9/11 American transformations do not look good.
The pursuit of certain security and the permanent war on terror fundamentally undermine democracy.