Some Schmittian reflections on the election

This post is a thought experiment and a hypothetical. I am not recommending any particular course of action or way of thinking about the disaster that has befallen us. I want to use Schmitt as a lens for a couple reasons. First, even more than the theory of sovereignty or friend/enemy politics, I see Schmitt’s core conviction as a desire to preserve the state as such — an exceedingly rare position in a world where most people think of the state as a terrain or instrument for advancing partisan goals. So to that extent, the particular Schmittian lens I want to use here serves as a potentially interesting limit case for how to look at the election. Second, Schmitt’s personal conduct in the service of saving the state as such can show us that sometimes the attempt to stave off the worst leads us to the very worst.

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Worthy Opponents


Jay Rosen has written a summary of the reasons that the traditional model of campaign reporting has broken down. The old approach envisioned the political process as involving “two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage” — in other words, a struggle between two worthy opponents who recognized each other as such. Now that symmetry has broken down as Republicans increasingly view Democrats, along with the entire traditional field of battle (Constitutional constraints, journalistic balance), as fraudulent and illegitimate. To use Schmittian terminology that Rosen does not, the Republicans shifted from viewing the Democrats as enemies to viewing them as foes. Unfortunately, in Rosen’s view, journalists were too complacent about this process and wound up getting blindsided by Trump, who is the logical outgrowth of this asymmetrical dynamic.

I agree with Rosen’s overall analysis, and I would add that the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in specific, also seem to be in denial about this dynamic. The Democrats have become the party, not of some specific ideological agenda, but of the traditional system as such. One of Obama’s major goals has been to rehabilitate the Republicans and force them to act as a worthy opponent rather than an implacable foe. This approach was naive and in many ways dangerous, as shown most vividly when Obama tried to “leverage” the Republicans’ unprecedented brinksmanship on the debt ceiling to engineer a “grand bargain” on the deficit, but it fits with the view that the system only works if there are two worthy opponents locked in an eternal struggle with no final victories. We can see something similar in Clinton’s controversial decision to treat Trump as an outlier rather than letting him tar the Republican brand as such. It works to her political disadvantage — showing that her centrist opportunism is weirdly principled in its own way — but from within her worldview, the most important thing is to restore the traditional balance of forces.

The situation we are in shows the intrinsic instability of party democracy. An eternal struggle between worthy opponents is not possible in practice. Eventually, one of the two teams is going to decide that they want to win in the strong sense, to defeat the opponent once and for all. And if that desire cannot be achieved immediately, it will inevitably lead to a long period where the old enemy is treated as a foe — as intrinsically evil and illegitimate. Within the American system, with its baroque structure of constraints and veto points, that will lead to a period where government is barely functional, because the natural tendency will be for the radicalized party to refuse to go along with the system until they have full control over it.

One possible outcome would be for the Democrats to recognize the Republicans as a foe and seek their final defeat, a crushing victory that delegitimizes the party entirely. Given the Republicans’ strangle-hold in many regions of the country, though, such a final defeat is not likely in the near term. Without something like the Republican party to channel these groups’ demands through the political system, the only alternative is an impotent frustration that can easily issue in violence, particularly in a gun-saturated culture like our own. From this perspective, we could see police shootings and mass shootings as the first signs of a fragmentary but intensifying push toward civil war.

What Hillary Clinton is offering us is one more chance to put a lid on it, kick the can on the road, and hope that the Republicans somehow get it out of their system and go back to being a “normal” party. Trump, by contrast, is pushing for a solution that we might characterize as more — final. The latter agenda is sure to be hugely destructive, not least because it is delusional. A final victory in the political sphere is impossible because the eternal struggle between worthy opponents is an attempt to intermediate and render survivable the implacable conflict at the heart of American society — a conflict that already resulted in one of the most destructive civil wars in world history.

The fundamental problems of America are not fixable via the traditional political system, which has only served to deny and yet paradoxically maintain the conflict that provides the subterranean energy necessary to keep the eternal struggle between worthy opponents going. Short of a total revolution and refounding of American society (or some number of societies to replace what we currently know as America), somehow rebooting the eternal struggle is probably the only option to prevent the outbreak of civil war and total collapse. Rarely have we been confronted so starkly with the choice between the katechon and the man of lawlessness in the voting booth.

And rarely has it been so uncertain whether the election of another would-be katechon will lead to the collapse or the intensification of the forces of chaos. In retrospect, it may have taken a once-in-a-generation political talent like Obama simply to manage to kick the can down the road. An uninspiring technocrat who has been the subject of a generation-long demonization campaign — who virtually embodies the image of the Democrats as foe for a critical mass of Republicans — may prove to be too fragile a reed to master the forces that have always been tearing America apart.

Bringing Carl Schmitt into the world

This week, I read Schmitt’s Political Theology II and was reminded of the epic labors that are necessary to bring a text of Carl Schmitt into the world. First of all, although most of his works are quite short, each one must be packaged separately, in its own attractive volume. Each must be outfitted with its own translator’s introduction, indicating the ways in which the translator tried and ultimately failed to capture the unique nuances of Schmitt’s German, as well as a historical introduction situating the text at hand in Schmitt’s career, in the political circumstances that gave rise to it, and in the history of the political as such. In some cases, more than one such introduction may be necessary. Each short text is then equipped with a full scholarly apparatus, including an index.

It’s amazing how much packaging is necessary even for one text of Carl Schmitt to come into the world. This is especially remarkable given how short the texts generally are — I read Political Theology II in a day, for example — which would seem to invite publishers to save effort by packaging them together. Indeed, my estimate is that the amount of Schmitt that is already translated into English would fit, if shorn of the obligatory introductory guidance and apparatus, into a space of around 400 pages.

Think how much labor this would save! Instead of multiple 20-page essays situating each text in its historical context, a single essay could briefly relate them all to their context. Instead of being told how a given text fits into Schmitt’s thought, one could have a representative sample ready-to-hand and come to one’s own conclusions. Instead of having a superfluous index for every short volume, one could have a unified index allowing cross-referencing of key concepts and figures.

Such a setup would be worthy of an important legal theorist with an enduring influence, rather than, say, a trend that publishers were trying to milk for all its worth.