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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Republican Assault on Democracy, Part Two

There’s two additional features of liberal democracy that appear threatened currently. I’m going to present the first one today, and the second on Friday, and then my run as a guest on this site comes to an end.  Michael will be back next week.

Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference.  Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers.  And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits.  (A social benefit, as opposed to an individual benefit, is a good that can only be produced as the result of the aggregate of many individual actions, not by any individual acting on his or her own.  And, ideally, social benefits would accrue to all of the individuals who contribute to its creation, although that is hardly always the case.)

Except for what are generally weak claims for the benefits of diversity (weak not in the sense of being unconvincing, but weak in the sense that no very major social benefit is claimed and some costs are acknowledged), the liberal argument for non-political interference, for privacy and individual autonomy, is primarily negative.  Conflict is the result of trying to tell people what to believe and what to do, so we are better off cultivating a talent for resisting our inclinations to insist that others see the world and run their lives the way I do. 

But liberalism also provides a positive response to pluralism.  It guarantees—through freedoms of speech, the press, and association, and through the institutional mechanisms of election, jury trials, and legislative deliberations—the active engagement of citizens with one another. Liberals should, I believe, promote in every way possible the existence of a vibrant, accessible, and uncensored public sphere (or, to use another term for it, civil society).  In short, liberalism proliferates the occasions where citizens of different opinions, backgrounds, creeds etc. mingle with one another, express their views, and argue about specific issues.  And, in some but not all cases, these settings have to move to a decision that is then accepted, even when not very satisfying, by all the parties involved.

The key point here is that democratic procedures of decision-making—which guarantee to all interested parties their chance to say their piece (their chance to sway others by argument) and use the vote and majority rule to adjudicate differences—is a vital liberal expedient for keeping the peace.  That’s because democracy, amazingly enough, has proven an astoundingly effective way to get people to accept peacefully the fact that they have ended up on the losing side of a political debate that was resolved by a vote.  (I will return to this part of the liberal miracle—is it smoke and mirrors? Are the losers dupes?—in Friday’s post.)

Today my focus is on the process, rather than the result.  “Having a say” is so crucial because it both underwrites the legitimacy of the decision-making and it moves the eventual decision toward trade-offs and compromises that many, although hardly all, the participants in the debate can accept as a reasonable response to different desires and beliefs.  Liberalism, we might say, relies to some extent on the desire of all the participants to maintain the social peace.  But even more fundamentally, it expects that the process of deliberation will move participants to an appreciation of the others involved and the desire to come to an eventual decision that satisfies as many of the participants as possible (with the understanding that no one will get everything they want.)

The simplest way to describe how the Republicans have abandoned this liberal ethos comes from a comment I read somewhere (I’m afraid I’ve lost the exact source) that Senators used to judge the merits of a bill by the size of the majority they could get to vote for it.  But the right today thinks that the best bill is one that wins 52 to 48.  Only a very narrow majority proves that you have gotten as much as you could have possibly gotten on that issue. 

More widely, can we doubt that the Republicans have done everything they can—from restricting access to the debate to disempowering any input from participants with whom they do not agree—to destroy the deliberative process and its tendency toward building large majorities?  In Congress alone, the way the Republicans have used conference committees, have allowed lobbyists to write legislation, and have prevented various issues from ever coming to the floor for debate make their desire for one party rule evident.  The spectacle of the President using tax payer money to go out to “the people” to sell his Social Security scheme and then restricting his audiences to those who will be sympathetic to his views would be funny if it weren’t so frightening—and so casually taken for granted.

The larger point, however, is the decline of the commons.  I want to be very careful here—because I hate “decline” arguments.  John Dewey wrote one of his best books, The Public and its Problems, in 1927 to bemoan the sad state of the American public sphere.  So I am definitely talking about a perennial problem in all liberal democracies.  Liberalism is always kicking against the pricks, is always struggling against power’s desire to exclude, to consolidate, to have it all its way.  Establishing and maintaining a vital public sphere is never easy.  But the form the problem currently takes is unique to our time—and worth our understanding.

The first and most obvious feature of the current configuration is that money talks.  We are in a second Gilded Age, with the corruption of our federal government akin to the Grant to McKinley era.  Even more troubling than the seizure of government by business (with its astounding, even awe-inspiring, insatiability—no widow too abject that we can’t screw another mite out of her) is the class segregation in our society as a whole.  We all know about growing income inequality, and a recent spate of stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (on May 15th and following) have made it clear that the chances for upward mobility have diminished precipitously over the past fifty years.  But also consider how, from gated communities to private schools to ludicrously expensive vacation retreats, the rich have separated themselves off from the non-rich in contemporary America.  The Bush strategy of only facing friendly crowds and yes-saying subordinates simply reproduces the lifestyle of the rich. 

The Democratic elite is no better in this regard.  And here’s where I’ll end today. I think the historical bases for these changes reside in American race relations.  To a large extent, the comity between Democrats and Republicans pre-1960 was based on the white gentleman’s club.  A less cynical explanation would also point out that the depression and World War II were the last events in America to be experienced collectively.  Poverty was not a stigma in the 1930s; a belief that sacrifices were generally shared prevailed during World War II.  So the 50s, to a certain extent, relied on a sense that Americans should collectively benefit from the fruits of victory, from the return of economic prosperity.  But we cannot underestimate how much race solidarity contributed to that bonhomie.  Just look at the response when Truman integrated the military in 1948.  Strom Thurmond ran for president; Truman wasn’t even on the ballot in Alabama and Mississippi; and we had the first inkling of the “Southern strategy” that would end Democratic Party rule.

So the short (and so a bit crude) version of what happened to the commons is that blacks were admitted and whites fled.  That’s what destroyed our public schools.  The whites wouldn’t stay and they wouldn’t pay.  They left the schools and then consistently underfunded them.  The same can be said of our downtowns.  Since not all whites could afford to flee, what had previously been racial segregation became segregation by wealth.  The commons became such a disaster that even blacks who could afford to flee did so.  But, of course, it is not as if racial segregation went away entirely.  The separation of white from black housing and the end of legally enforced school-integration schemes means that public schools in the North are more racially segregated now than in 1960.  We just added wealth segregation on top of racial segregation—and pretty much shut down the places in America where different people could not just mingle, but actually interact, actually engage in a process of deliberation, decision-making, and collective action.

It’s a sad story.  To up the ante, as the Republicans have done, with their continual high-pitched identification and denunciation of enemies internal and external is to play with fire.  Civil peace is among the most precious goods in this world.  We have enjoyed it so long in America that we seem to think the fabric of our society is beyond ripping.  Legitimate a fraudulent election; send soldiers from the lowest economic classes off to fight a war based on lies; rewrite the tax code to abet the transfer of wealth upward; allow businesses to rewrite environmental and regulatory safeguards; undermine all the mechanisms that grant workers any leverage against their employers; and dismantle the safety net for those hurt by economic fluctuations and global economic forces.  How long can you tear apart the very bases of commonality without the divisions thus created becoming noxious?  So far, a flag-waving patriotism has served the Republicans as their substitute for a commons that they vehemently hate and have done everything possible to destroy.  There is another way—but only if we understand and enact a liberal commitment to constant engagement with our fellow citizens. 

Posted by John McGowan on 06/08 at 09:54 AM
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