Some years ago, during the administration of Bush II, I read a book about Emperor Justinian. It was mildly interesting about Justinian but what stuck most firmly in my memory was author James O'Donnell's attitude toward the Middle East. He seemed to regard it as a boiling cauldron of violent hate destined to consume all its residents while spitting the occasional hot bubble of fury at the rest of us:
The strangest section of The Ruin of the Roman Empire comes next, in which O’Donnell ponders the shape of empires and asserts that Rome was really the wrong configuration all along. The right sort of empire, in his view, is one like the Ottoman Empire or Alexander’s, that is, one that controls the entire Near East from Persia to the Aegean. O’Donnell does not really say why this would be better, beyond some unconvincing stuff about natural connections and different modes of transportation. The reason seems clear enough, though: O’Donnell longs for an empire that would encompass all the dangerous religious fanatics whose boiling anger threatens the modern world. If the Israelis and Palestinians were both under the thumb of some great ruler like Mehmet the Conqueror – a favorite of O’Donnell’s, it seems – we would not have to worry about boundaries between them or terrorist attacks by one on the other. Under these wise emperors, tolerance was the order of the day, and people of different religions and ethnicities lived harmoniously together in great cities like Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus, and Istanbul. But we moderns have “failed to build a society that could bring together Europe, Africa, and reaches of Asia in neighborly respect.”
Complaints about democracy are of course as old as democracy. Today I want to focus on one: the dissatisfaction with democracy as a means of achieving equality and peace between people of different ethnic groups. Many people of our own age seem to have little regard for democracy and much more interest in “neighborly respect,” and I often read things implying that democracy not accompanied by racial equality and harmony is at best a sham but more likely something far more sinister. To people like James O'Donnell, the fact that Israel is a democracy is a ludicrous distraction from the looming crises of religious strife, terrorism, and war. Better a tyrant like Mehmet who oppresses everyone equally than a bunch of squabbling, ethnically defined democracies.
If you followed the debate that led up to the Brexit vote, you might have noticed that it was mostly about identity vs. openness, with a lot of speculation about economic benefits or harms thrown in. What is to me the real reason to oppose the EU, that it is undemocratic, got little attention. It especially got little attention among the young and liberal, for whom the vote was all about openness vs. racism. Better, to woke Britons, to be part of a multi-national empire than a small democratic state tainted by xenophobia.
One of my themes here has been the growing contempt on the left for the American Revolution. The establishment of a white man's democracy is something that just doesn't impress many people in the 21st century. For many of my contemporaries, it would have been better to remain under the thumb of King George than to establish an independent state founded on racial oppression. I regularly read articles by people who seem to know only one thing about British history before 1900, that the empire abolished slavery in 1833.
I have to admit that the record of US democracy on racial issues is bad. Our framers are celebrated for, among other things, the spirit of compromise that led to the founding of a nation encompassing diverse societies and economies. But the basis of that compromise was anti-slavery forces accepting slavery in any state that wanted it, and on counting enslaved people as 2/5 of a human for apportioning votes. Many Americans now believe that wasn't worth it, and that people opposed to slavery should have rejoined the United Kingdom or tried to form their own nation rather than compromise with enslavers. It's hard to imagine how this alternative history would have worked out, but it at least would have spared whatever free America eventually emerged from the taint of slavery.
Early American politics was very much dominated by elites, partly by constitutional design and partly because all societies used to be that way. When populism really emerged as a political force, under Jackson, its chief aims were breaking the power of financial elites, displacing Indians, and extending slavery. More power for regular white men was explicitly framed in opposition, not just to elites, but to people of other races. It is an old story, going back at least to the first Democracy we know much about, in ancient Athens.
It is of course routine to read that Athens was no democracy – the Greeks may have invented the word, but why should we take their word for what it means? And now it is becoming routine to say that the US was no democracy until the 1960s, if it even is today. What other word we should use for a system with 50 million voters, I don't know; seems like a lot for an oligarchy. But to many people a system that excludes any group of adults from the vote is not rule by the people.
It also strikes me that the remarkable achievement of bringing women fully into our political life seems to have very quickly lost its power to uplift. (Young, college-educated women overwhelmingly backed Obama over Hillary.) In fact all of the things we have achieved – much greater rights for women, gay people, and black people, along with the effective disappearance of any bias against or limitations on Asians – strike many Americans as pathetic compared to the distance we still have to cover. In 1924 we banned all immigration from Asia, something we did not do for Africa or the Caribbean, but in 2020 people openly said that Andrew Yang did not count as a minority candidate. Many leftists seem to be completely discounting this transformation. Because it isn't everything, it is nothing. Or maybe less than nothing, since celebrating Asian achievement seems to come with the implication that blacks ought to be doing better.
Narratives of progress on racial issues are now opposed by people who see no change that matters, just eternal, unchanging racism. Compared to this wrong, democracy seems like a sad distraction, a way for white people to secretly voice racist ideas they are ashamed to express in words.
And on the right we have Trumpists nursing grievances over the election they believe was stolen, their friends in state legislatures putting in place what look like mechanisms for undoing any vote that goes against them. Immigration is routinely portrayed as a Democratic plot to subvert the country by diluting the votes of "real Americans." Come to think of it, I don't remember ever hearing a single Republican complain that Bush v. Gore was undemocratic; their guy won, and that was that.
It's the Fourth of July, but nobody seems much in the mood to celebrate America. The Times is running an essay today about this ambivalence, taking off from the story of a man who painted a big flag on the broken-down truck behind his vegetable stand only to have many of his customers assume he was right wing. (Even worse, to me, is the unstated assumption that this ought to influence whether people shop there.) American democracy, it seems, is not something anyone much cares to celebrate for its own sake. Elections are only good and valid so long as they deliver the right result, hence "not my President." What used to be symbols of America are now taken to be signs of angry ethno-nationalism.
I can't imagine that this is good for anyone. Anger unmoored from hope seems to me a recipe for riot, destruction, and hate, whether at the Capitol or on the streets of Portland. I understand frustration with our world, which could be a lot better. But to look back across time and see no progress, no hope, and no reason to believe in democracy, seems to me utterly sad and politically defeatist.