The massacre in Tucson, Arizona, is a worrying indication of fundamental problems in American society and in American political life. The overheated rhetoric of the right, with its violent imagery is the least of the problems, though much debated in the past 24 hours. I think that Vince Carducci presciently got to the heart of the matter in his reply to Martin Plot’s latest post. Vince agreed with Martin that the pursuit of complete security presents a fundamental challenge to democracy in America. I also agree, perhaps contrary to Martin’s expectation. Vince cites Orwell as one of the author’s who illuminated the problem. I believe that Orwell also reveals a connection between this general problem and the assassination attempt on Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six others.
Orwell in 1984 imagined in his dystopia a never ending war, such as the one in which we are now engaged, “the war on terrorism.” He depicted a language, newspeak, which concealed and manipulated, rather than revealed, such as the language we use. This kind of language is now broadly applied. On the legislative agenda this week is the bill to kill “Obamacare,” actually formally named ‘‘Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.’’ Newspeak is not only used to defend against hidden villains, foreign and domestic, but also political opponents who propose modest social reforms.
And as I am struggling to write this most difficult week in review, I came across a story that compactly indicates how bad things are. Two members of the House of Representatives, one Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, one Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, told Politico that they will be carrying guns to protect themselves in their districts. “You never think something like this will happen, but then it does,” Shuler said “After the elections, I let my guard down. Now I know I need to have [my gun] on me. We’re going to need to do a much better job with security at these events.”
Gun toting Congressmen meeting gun toting constituents at public rallies. Is that what democracy . . .
Read more: DC Week in Review: In the Wake of the Tucson Massacre
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 . . .
Read more: Security versus Democracy in America
We at DC have considered a number of political cultural controversies over the last months concerning: a new political correctness, domestic workers’ rights, celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving, the Tea Party, the problems of a Jewish and democratic state, identity politics, fictoids and other media innovations, the elections, the lost challenging conservative intellectuals, political paranoia in the U.S. and beyond, Park 51 or the Ground Zero Mosque, Healthcare Reform, and the continuing but changing problems of race and democracy in America, among others.
In just about all these controversies, there has been a basic split between two different visions concerning democracy and diversity, and more specifically two different visions of America. One sign that democracy in America is alive and well despite all its problems, is that the past Presidential campaign was a contest between these two visions, clearly presented by the Democratic candidate for President and the Republican candidate for Vice President, and the citizenry made a choice. Recalling how Obama and Palin depicted the two visions is an appropriate way to end the old and look forward to the New Year.
In Palin’s Speech at the Republican National Convention, she introduced herself and what she stands for:
“We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,” [quoting Westbrook Pegler]
“I grew up with those people. They’re the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, and run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.
I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town. I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA.
I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.
So I signed up for the . . .
Read more: DC Year in Review: Democracy in America
Is democracy in America fundamentally flawed? Do our political parties offer significant enough political choices? Do they actually engage in consequential political debate, offering alternative political policies? Are we so accustomed to inconsequential elections that our major newspaper confuses real consequential politics with authoritarianism? . These are the questions posed by Martin Plot in the past couple of weeks at DC. I think they are important questions, and I find insight in the answers he presents, but I don’t completely agree with Martin’s analysis. He thinks the democratic party in America may be over. I think it has just begun. Tonight, I will bluntly present my primary disagreement. Tomorrow, I will consider the implications of our differences and add a bit more qualification to my commentary. I welcome Martin’s response and anyone else’s.
First, though, I must acknowledge the insight of his media criticism. I think the Times reporter is inaccurate about politics in Argentina for the reasons Martin presents in his post, and further elaborated in his reply to the post. The reporter may very well hang around the wrong people, listening to critics who are far from unbiased and with questionable democratic credentials. And he may not fully appreciate that fundamental change can occur democratically, with radical changes in social policy, because this has not a common feature of American political life since the 1930s. Such a reporter can’t tell the difference between the democratic, and the authoritarian and populist left.
And when Martin notes that factual lies can persist because they are left unopposed in our fractured media world, in response to my concern about the power of fictoids, I think he is onto something very important.
But I do disagree with Martin’s overall appraisal of Democratic politics and the Presidency of Barack Obama, thus far. Put simply, I am not as sure as Martin is that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have not offered a significant alternative to the Republican Party and the Presidential leadership of former President George W. Bush, both in terms of platform and enacted policy. I don’t deny that “mistakes . . .
Read more: The Democratic Party’s Over?
Although I mostly teach graduate students, I teach one course a year in the liberal arts college of the New School, Eugene Lang College. In my course this year, we have been closely reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, freely discussing his topic, the American democratic experience. My goal for the class is to go back and forth, between close reading and informed discussion.
Of the two volumes in Tocqueville’s classic, I enjoy most reading and discussing Volume 2, which is more a critical examination of the promise and perils of democracy and its culture, less about the institutional arrangements and inventive practices of the Americans, which Tocqueville celebrated and which is the focus of Volume 1 of his masterpiece. But this year, Volume 1 has become especially interesting to me. I hope for the students also.
I have taught the course many times. The way it develops always depends upon what’s going on in the world, who is in the class, and how they connect their lives with the challenges of Tocqueville. We don’t read Tocqueville for his insights and predictions about the details of American life, judging what he got right, what he got wrong. Rather, we try to figure out how his approach to the problems of democracy can help us critically understand our world and his, democracy in America back then and now.
Assigning the Constitution
This semester, indeed, for the past two weeks, the course has taken an interesting turn. As we have been reading Tocqueville on the American system of government, political associations and freedom of the press, i.e. Volume 1, Parts 1 and 2, I felt the need to assign an additional shorter reading, The Constitution of the United States of America. I did this not because I feared that the students hadn’t yet read this central document in the story of democracy in America and beyond (they had), but because I judged that it was time to re-read the text, to note what is in it and what is not, to critically appraise the use of the document as a confirmation of the . . .
Read more: The Constitution and American Political Debate