As is well-known, the US Constitution includes two major institutions that do not operate according to the principle of majority rule. The first is the Senate, where both California and Wyoming receive the same representation despite their vast difference in population. The second is the Electoral College, which in our young century has twice delivered the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Critics of these institutions emphasize their obvious anti-democratic character, while defenders point to the special role of the states in the federal structure set up by the Founders. Though the system does go against our majoritarian instincts, the story goes, these so-called “laboratories of democracy” are crucial to America’s unique form of constitutional democracy.
Lost in this debate between democratic intuitions and the Founders’ intentions is the empirical question of whether the states as they currently exist actually fulfill a legitimate role in our system. One way to answer that would be to ask what states would have to look like to justify providing them with special representation even if it meant overriding the popular majority at the federal level. Clearly the states would need to have robust and meaningful democratic legitimacy on their own. They would need to represent coherent communities with identifiable and distinctive interests and values, and they would need to display an engaged political culture among their citizens.
Though each of our existing states would fare differently, it is clear that almost no actual-existing state meets those minimal standards of democratic legitimacy. Continue reading “Abolish the states!”
On Election Day — you know, the day when millions of Americans showed up to stand in line and cast their votes — Hillary Clinton won a commanding plurality of the vote. The fact that Trump was installed as president despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes is a profound injustice that delegitimates everything he has done and will do. The fact that the loser has been installed as president twice in as many decades, after a century where the Electoral College had been a purely empty formality, is a crisis and an outrage. We also know for a fact that the Republicans have rigged the vote for the House of Representatives so that Democrats would need to win a double-digit landslide to get even a narrow majority in that chamber. It so happens that the Republicans narrowly won the popular vote this time around, but they could have lost 10 more percentage points and still clung to power. And we can all surely recall when the Republicans stole a Supreme Court justice from Obama and installed one of their own choosing, after their illegitimate loser president was installed. All of this appears against the background of systematic voter suppression by Republicans, explicitly targetting racial minorities who tend to vote Democrat.
This means that all three branches of the US government, and the underlying electoral system, are operating in open defiance of the popular will. And all we hear about is how the Democrats need to change their strategy or message to start winning again. I share the view that the Democrats need to change their strategy and their message, but such commentary fails to grapple with the reality that they are facing. The system is rigged against them and is poised to grow even moreso if the Republicans manage to control a second round of redistricting and continue purging voter rolls.
But the Democrats can’t say that, because the Democrats can’t or won’t risk undermining the legitimacy of the system as such. In a very real sense, Democrats are no longer a political party. They are the party that is in favor of continuing to have constitutional structures and norms and something like the rule of law. They are the party of de-politicization, in an era when the Republicans are intent on politicizing literally every institutional lever of power until there is no remaining ground that is even nominally neutral. And this leads to obvious pathologies, where they avoid taking action that would look too “partisan” — for instance, prosecuting Bush-era torturers and war criminals, or alerting the public to Russian interference in the election as it was happening. So great is their commitment to institutional neutrality that they will not even use their institional power to counter obvious abuses by the other party.
Hence even if they are swept back into power, the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. Any effort to restore the electoral system to neutrality will appear as a partisan power grab, given that the Democrats have failed to educate the public about the reality of gerrymandering and voter suppression. More generally, every time Democrats dutifully accept a new built-in advantage for Republicans, they set up a scenario where taking it away appears as an attempt to give an unfair advantage to Democrats. And so we are subject to an endless racheting up of Republican advantages and extremism, with Democrats occasionally sweeping in to clean up the worst messes caused by the other side — and being demonized for it.
Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for that option — even the thinnest veneer of legality holds open the prospect of taking back power peacefully, whereas delegitimating the system risks triggering a civil war that Democrats would surely lose. But you have to wonder how long a party organization can persist when its only apparent goal is to cover for the de facto tyranny of their opponents.
Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.
The Trump budget proposal is a nightmare — petty and vindictive, short-sighted and cruel. Inexpensive programs that literally save lives are being cut, apparently out of sheer spite. Surely, we are in the terminal phases of what I once called the society of go fuck yourself. Why do we need a travel ban? Why do we need to turn away refugees? The official reason is that they may pose a threat, but surely the real reason is that they are not our problem, so they can go fuck themselves. Similarly, why do we need to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans? Supposedly they’re stealing our jobs, leeching off our public services, and committing crimes. But come on: the real reason is that we don’t owe them anything and they can go fuck themselves.
All of these programs will thwart human potential at best and kill people at worst. Any idiot can draw those consequences, and my personal experience “interacting” with them has taught me that the license for cruelty is part of the libidinal charge of Trumpism for the most hardened followers. They will follow him to their death if he lets them hurt the people they hate along the way. The amount of pent up resentment and ugliness he has brought out into the open has already been more corrosive to our frayed social fabric than we can fully grasp.
But I still find myself holding out a small sliver of hope. Namely, I hope they don’t start publicly saying that the poor, elderly, and disabled should just die if they can’t fend for themselves. That is the logical implication of everything they’re doing. The most charitable spin is that they don’t want those people to die, but don’t actually care if they do. That’s where we objectively are as a nation, under the leadership of a cruel and vindictive man who has never let anyone trick him into doing anything kind or beneficial in his entire sick parody of a human life.
If they say it, though, that’s the end. Yes, people will recoil in outrage. Republicans who are only 95% right wing instead of 300% will distance themselves. Elzabeth Warren will get some good tweets out of it. But it’s a funny thing: once it appears on the CNN scroll, it’s a part of the public debate. It’s one position among others for the talking heads to debate. A society in which “the poor should just die” is one position among others — even if it’s an unpopular position that people argue passionately against! — is no longer a society. It’s a death camp waiting to happen.
Two fantasies have arisen in the wake of Trump’s unexpected ascension to the White House. The first is that the Deep State will save us. The second is that the media, fighting for its survival, will finally grow a spine and a conscience and, well, save us. Both fantasies are galling. Asking the CIA to save democracy is so ridiculous that I’m not even going to waste the effort of coming up with some clever analogy.
And the fact that CNN can portray itself as a heroic front of resistence makes me literally sick to my stomach. CNN has been a force for evil, full stop. Continue reading ““We could be heroes…”: The Deep State, the Media, and the Crisis of Legitimacy”
There’s a lot of common advice that amounts to political due diligence: know who your representatives and other elected officials are, hold them accountable by contacting them about important matters, support more progressive candidates wherever possible, vote tactically…. There’s one possibility that comes up so seldom that I wonder if it’s even thinkable for people: run for office yourself. That would be an extremely concrete way to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
No matter how much political pressure we put on these politicians, there’s no replacement for actually being the person with decision-making power. And particularly for academics, it’s clear that no one is going to stand up for us and our values except, you know, one of us. But academics especially seem uncomfortable with the idea of actually wielding institutional power.
Part of it is surely the sense that it’s hopeless, but that may stem from an excessive focus on the federal level. Yes, we can’t jump straight to being a US senator. But the Republicans have shown over the past decade how amazingly powerful state and municipal offices can be. They are not expensive offices to campaign for — indeed, many are uncontested. Republican gerrymandering has done a lot of damage, but so has the Democrats’ failure to even show up to the fight.
I suspect it’s not just fatalism, though. For academics especially, but also for many with convictions to the left of the Democratic party, there is a serious distrust of the political structure as such, a gut-level rejection of the idea of becoming part of it. And there is also the fact that doing this seriously would mean disrupting one’s life — something that is equally unappealing whether you are thinking of interrupting the trajectory toward full academic privileges or whether you already enjoy them.
Obviously this is not something that I’m doing or planning to do in the near future. I write this post not to pass judgment, but to ask why the option of actually seeking political office seems to be so radically absent from the common political wisdom of “how to make a difference,” especially in lefty academic circles. So: what do you think?
I remember back the last time the Electoral College delivered us an incompetent overreaching fool — one of our watchwords in those years was that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And so, on November 9, Obama should have said, “We all know the Electoral College is nonsense, and so I am going to begin the transition process with President-Elect Clinton.” I’d rather the bit about the Electoral College be a dead letter than the emoluments clause, for example.
Is it a dangerous precedent? Not as dangerous as the precedent that the person who loses the election takes office and we all act like it’s God’s fucking will.