Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Democracy and the Democrats

Thanks to our founders’ convictions, American political institutions have a (small-r) republican character that time and capitalism cannot entirely erase. As in seventeenth and eighteenth century republican political philosophy, they are designed around a conception of politics that aims to discover and implement a common good, pursued in deliberative institutions that arrive at collective choices through democratic voting procedures. Nevertheless, the real world of American “democracy” pulled in the opposite direction from the beginning – not just because slavery and the requirements of what was essentially a settler state rendered notions of a common good otiose, but also because capitalist development and all that followed from it, including modern manufacturing and the immigrant labor force it required, turned the regime over to competing interests, controlled ultimately by the requirements of capital accumulation. Democratic theorists endeavored to grapple with this paradox. Some abandoned notions of deliberative democracy, coming to model ideal political arrangements on the so-called free market – turning voting into a method for aggregating competing individual and group interests. Thus deliberative ideals intended to promote a common good gave way to procedural principles that operate like bargaining, in which various “interests” compete for comparative advantages. Others came to identify “democracy” just with the institutions in place in the United States and other so-called liberal democracies. To the degree that there was any sense at all to the long discredited but still menacing neoconservative plan to “democratize” the Middle East, this is the sense of “democracy” the necons had in mind.

Thus there has always been a sharp disconnect between normative democratic theory in the United States and the real world of American democracy. But, in recent decades, thanks to John Rawls’s enormously influential accounts of justice and political legitimacy and to an on-going revival of small-r republican political philosophy, the gap has grown wider than ever. The best democratic theorists today promote deliberative ideals; real world politics makes a mockery of the very idea. This was plainly the case in the (Bill) Clinton era. Under Cheney and Bush, the disconnect has increased many-fold. The problem is not just their disregard for fundamental (small-r) republican ideals like the rule of law. It is also that the Democrats, ever cowardly, have gone along with their undeclared war against these ideals – turning our already enfeebled deliberative institutions into parodies of the representative bodies they are supposed to be.

It is no longer just the far too quiescent peace movement or even the so-called Democratic base that opposes the Iraq War; according to every poll, more than two-thirds of the American people now do. Nevertheless the Democratic Congress won’t end the war by defunding it, as is their constitutional prerogative; instead, they posture with faint measures sure to be defeated or vetoed. They promise to exercise oversight over administrative, military and intelligence agencies that parade their lawlessness and wreak of incompetence; but then they only go through the motions, permitting the perpetrators to get away with murder. A majority of the American people desperately want to defend and, where necessary, restore what was so dear to our republic’s founders, our traditional liberties and privacy rights, notwithstanding the endless promotion of fear (lately of Islamic terrorists) emanating from the Bush government and the mainstream media. Here too, the Democrats only gesture – endorsing marginal changes to Cheney/Bush policies that they cannot or will not pass into law. Americans are fed up as well with war profiteering and financial shenanigans undertaken at their expense. Democrats say they’ll do something about these “excesses,” but then they find that they just don’t have the time – as Harry Reid explained recently in response to questions about the Democrats’ failure to take on the egregious tax break, “carried interest,” given to hedge fund managers. The list goes on. This was not what people had in mind when they voted the Democrats into office in 2006. What went wrong?

It became clear, as “the coalition of the willing” was being coerced into being, that our problem also afflicts other countries – where the people opposed the war while their leaders went ahead anyway. But their governments at least had the excuse that a (hegemonic) bully made them do it; and, apart from Blair’s Britain, they were mainly “with us,” as per Bush’s admonition, only for appearance sake. Still, the phenomenon is not exclusively American. What does have a distinctively American flavor is what the Democrats in Congress have been up to, their constituents’ wishes notwithstanding.

Part of the problem is that, by design, our institutions have never been very democratic. Small-r republicans feared “the tyranny of the majority,” and sought, from the beginning, to guard against it. This part of their project succeeded too well: not only are democratic majorities non-tyrannical; they are all but powerless. Part of the problem too is that the leadership of the Democratic Party is cowardly by inclination. This is, after all, the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity; it seems to attract such people. Its Pelosiite leadership is also still in the thrall of the “strategic” vision that made the Clinton administration possible, and that then led the party even further to the right in the (Bill) Clinton days. But this is not the whole story. We could do better, even with our institutions; and the Democratic Party need not be as feckless as its leadership has made it, especially after the 2006 election. Why hasn’t this happened?

The short answer is that the Democrats and the Republicans, from the Clintons (and those just to their left like Barack Obama and maybe, if he isn’t better than that, John Edwards) to the Bushes and Cheneys (and those who have managed to be even more right-wing than they), are not that far apart. To be sure, each party depends on different constituencies for their core voters; and, despite a significant (and alarmingly worrisome) overlap, they draw on somewhat different funding sources. Democrats, under Clinton, were vastly more competent than Republicans under Cheney and Bush; they were also “nicer” (and therefore more “progressive” on cultural issues that have no place in politics anyway). But their overarching political vision is the same. Democrats and Republicans both want a pax Americana enforced by the world’s mightiest military machine; they both want the United States to call the shots, whether unilaterally or, if possible, under the cover of multilateral institutions. They both want the U.S. to control strategic resources, especially oil, throughout the world. Most of all, they both want American corporations to be free to enrich themselves without significant impedances. Democrats and Republicans alike will do whatever is necessary to make these things happen -- no matter what the people (the demos who are supposed to rule in a democracy) want, no matter who suffers or how much, and no matter what the consequences for (small-r) republican notions of a good or even just plain decent polity might be.

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