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.
A very interesting and fair essay. I would point out that democracy has always faced the issue that many people are only interested in it if the people they disagree with on fundamental issues are too weak to win. You can see this among the Founders, who were very concerned to ensure that "the mob" couldn't win, and many of whose spiritual heirs were deeply distressed by Jackson's presidency--as you are obviously aware. So dissatisfaction with a democracy that allows people one doesn't want to win, to in fact win, is an inherent concomitant of the form.
I would add that the one unfair part of your essay is the polemical suggestion that folks like O'Donnell have a preference for tyrants ("better a tyrant who oppresses everyone"). No, this isn't really the issue. I think they could best be described as valuing personal freedom over democracy. This puts a tyrant who oppresses everyone out of the running.
At bottom, what they want, I think, could best be described as an identityless, technocratic, administrative state that respects the rule of law and allows for plentiful individual freedom while confining people with strong sectarian/nationalist identities to small communities that can live under their own rules but can't keep cosmopolitans from roaming freely and enjoying the benefits of order, wealth, culture, global connections, etc. This is why, for example, there's a noticeable movement of liberal, cosmopolitan Jews who are leaving Israel and moving to Germany. This is also why such folks support the EU, which for them was supposed to be about allowing talented, well-educated people to live and work anywhere on the continent and have the administrative state protect them from local militants.
I would add that I think one could liken at least some of today's liberals, including myself, to 1st century Hellenizing Jews: if freedom from Caesar meant rule by the Zealots, then they were happy to bring in Caesar.
One thinks also of the feeling of many Athenians of the 4th century BC. Democracy might well seem to them to be beside the point: the best system of government was whatever brought in people like Pericles and kept out people like Alcibiades and Cleon. If Philip of Macedon looked like the closest thing on offer to Pericles, so be it. Yes, one can debate how all these ancient Greek persons should be characterized; my point is simply to illustrate the mentality of many of today's liberals. Democracy is working as long as it keeps out people like Trump or Bush II. One president like Bush II can be passed off as an episode. For Trump to follow so soon after looks like we've got a problem.
That all seems fair to me; I think we agree on most of this. What do you, David think? I am intensely suspicious of all undemocratic regimes, even the EU, which I feel in my gut are bound to work against the people's interests. Even looking around the world at democracy's many failures, I still want it. I would rather have Trump in a democracy than dictator Obama. You?
I think that, at bottom, for better or worse, I sympathize with the liberals I've described (as I suggested with the reference to 1st-century Judaism). Of the elements of the Anglo-American tradition, I tend to value the rule of law, personal freedom, and due process at law more than I do electoral democracy itself, taken in isolation. If I had to choose between due process at law or electoral democracy, there's no question I would take the first. I suppose that is why I'm less excited about the American Revolution than you. It's certainly why I was never bothered by the EU's non-democratic features (still less by the fact that its officials sometimes held dinners in Baroque chateaux). To put it yet another way, if I had to choose between an unelected, liberal technocracy, and a generation of elected rule by the likes of Trump, Bibi, or Nigel Farage, I'd choose the first, probably by going into exile (like those liberal Israelis of Berlin).
I guess I would probably agree with O'Donnell that the Middle East was better off under the Persians or the Ottomans than it has been under the nation-state, including Israel, which has become a democracy of, by, and for a militant, sectarian nationalism. Likewise, in light of, say, Bela Kun, Admiral Horthy, the Arrow Cross Party, 40+years of Communist sclerosis, and now Orban, the Habsburgs start to look pretty good.
All that said, I think the greatest threat to both democracy and good government in the US today is the right, not the left. I just don't see how leftist concern over racism is going to become a threat to American democracy. The left simply doesn't have the power to defy an American election (unless one regards the Justice Department suing red states when their elected legislatures pass anti-democratic legislation as itself anti-democratic, which I don't). But the possibility that, say, one or more Republican state legislatures would insist on awarding their state's presidential electoral votes to the Republican candidate regardless of the outcome in their state is, I think, very real, and much more dangerous than some leftists refusing to voice unalloyed pride in the Revolution.
Thinking further, I might say I would like there to be room for the sort of balancing of Power against Power thinking of the Founders. In this conversation, the two Powers in our society we're considering are the liberal technocracy and its organized rationality on the one side, and the Right=the angry-populism-mobilized "people" on the other (which in practice is maybe about 40% of the electorate, hardly "the people" but very, very powerful and numerous). Each of these is dangerous if it gains an excess of power. At this moment in history, I would say Trump has given the latter forces an elan that makes them both unhinged and more dangerous than their rivals. In this situation, I don't think anti-democratic measures are going to help the liberals keep the Right populists from having too much power (again, unless one is the sort who thinks that taxes per se or all Justice Department investigations of local practice are acts of tyranny, in which case so be it).
Incidentally, I don't think anyone actually trying to establish an empire in the Middle East would be a good idea. We've seen how that worked out when the US has tried it. I've long thought the best thing that could happen in the Middle East is for someone to put Valium in the water.
I don't know much about American politics or history, but I still much enjoyed your post. Shows you are conservative deep in your heart :D
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