Reposted from Medium
As I perused the headlines today, I was amused and saddened — a strange feeling — to see endless articles lamenting the death of democracy in America. They are perfectly right, of course — American democracy is taking its last few breaths, fighting for life. Now, those of how’ve studied and lived through social collapse have been warning of precisely such a thing for years (and if only those lamenting the death of democracy had listened to our warnings, but I digress.)
The real question isn’t whether America’s democracy’s dying (it is) — the real question is: why was it so easy to kill? After all, it didn’t take a single bullet. It seems to have fallen all by itself. How curious. How odd. Why, then, would that be?
The answer to that crucial question hides in plain sight. Americans don’t see it, or understand it, yet, though — because it conflicts with the foundational myths they have been taught to believe. The ones they are socialized into — educated about at school, hear repeated in the headlines, and come, all too soon, and without enough critical or reflective thought, examination of history, to proudly believe in — to accept as true. And now they are clinging to just those myths — even while their democracy implodes around them, like ashes pouring from a volcano of rage, fear, greed, and fury.
Which myths do I mean? That America was the land of the free and the home of the brave — that it was the world’s noblest experiment — that it was unique amongst nations in being a haven for the wretched — that people ever lived together in some kind of new Athens on the Atlantic. None of these things were ever true.
American democracy was so easy to kill because America did not really practice democracy much, or well enough, at all. Let me make this point to you backwards — and you are welcome to disagree with me, so long as you think about it.
Imagine a person born in the 1940s, 50s, or 60s. What kind of society did they grow up in? They lived in a country where “intermarriage” was illegal — where you could not love another person if they had the wrong color of skin, ethnicity, background. They lived in a place where “coloured” people were not allowed into the same restaurants, on the same buses, or in the same schools.
Are you beginning to see my point? Americans rebel at one precise thing, whenever I mention it — that until 1971, America was an apartheid state. This, they can’t bring themselves to accept that term, that idea. It triggers too much shame, fear, guilt — and resentment, perhaps, of the messenger. And yet, nothing about American history is truer. So let me put it a different way — an even more precise one.
Many Americans alive today grew up in a country where there was a strict hierarchy of humanity, of personhood. At the top were white men. Below them were white women. Below them were other kinds of men — Asian, Chinese, and so on. And then finally black men — and last of all, black women.
All hierarchies allocate things. So what was this hierarchy allocating? The three fundamental political goods — freedom, justice, and equality. You enjoyed them in precise proportion, more or less, to your position in this hierarchy — those at the bottom had none, and those at the top had them in abundance.
But such a society is not really a democracy, though it might call itself one (as Americans did — because in a democracy, these three goods, freedom, justice, and equality, are at a bare minimum, things which people enjoy in roughly equal proportions. When, though, was that ever the case in America?
This strict hierarchy wasn’t just a legal reality, of course. It was a cultural, social, political, and economic one, too. If you were an educated black person, or even an educated Latino, your chances would be far, far reduced compared to an average white. Hence, even once America legally desegregated — the norms and values that encoded this hierarchy of personhood never retreated. It never went away.
Old America’s hierarchy of personhood never really went away. Instead of ever really eroding, the one which allocated how much freedom, equality, and justice people really received, enjoyed, attained — it just went on being re-enacted, in the daily choices of Americans, over and over again — even if it was no longer legally formalized. Norms and values die much harder than laws, after all. And so wherever immigrants, blacks, and minorities came — whites fled from. Whenever it was asked that people invest in one another, whites especially refused. “Those dirty, lazy good-for-nothings won’t get my tax dollars!” The hierarchy of personhood is alive and well today — isn’t it just what we see the Trumpists and Kavanauaghs of the world not just hoping to resurrect — but, more grimly, relegitimizing and institutionalizing and formally structuring all over again?
Do you see the problem yet? Let’s go a little deeper. This hierarchy of personhood made America an especially weird, strange, bizarre society. What kind? A caste society — made of tribes. Tribes occupied different social strata, essentially, from which movement was nearly impossible. The elite white at the top, the working class white below him, a jumbled mass of immigrants and minorities in the middle, and finally, at the bottom, blacks — who’d always remained the equivalent, sadly, of untouchables. A society can either be a place made of tribes, sorted into castes — or it can be a democracy. But it cannot be both. America was never really the democracy it thought it was — and still believes itself to be.
(Americans tend to think that “democracy” is the exercise of voting every few years, and watching cable news in between. But it is no such thing. When we speak of “elections”, we merely mean the means of democracy. Democracy, more properly thought of, is the enactment — and the expansion — of equality, freedom, and justice. The daily practice, if you like, of these three great endowments — they are the fundamental democratic goods, the ends to which the means of democracy, elections, votes, and so on, merely exist to sustain and nurture. And yet it is precisely in these three ways that American democracy never really became much of a democracy at all. When Americans were busy sorting themselves into tribal castes, enacting their hierarchy of personhood — or being sorted that way, if you like — then it can’t be said that democracy was really occurring in any real way. Precisely the opposite was, in fact — a kind of flight from, corrosion of, refusal to consent to, genuinely democratic norms, values, and institutions.)
Let me put that more concretely.
New America has only existed for forty years — and in those forty years, it has faltered, stagnated,and collapsed. But old America — undemocratic America — existed for centuries. New America is a place where people could have possibly had equality, justice, and freedom, in equal measures — for the first time. But that country has only existed for forty years or so — and it never really made much progress towards those aspirations: it has barely been a democracy at all. Why not? The weight of history was too much. All the while that America was organized according to a hierarchy of personhood, it wasn’t really a democracy — not even in the most minimally genuine sense. Then, it was something more like a sham democracy, the fairy tale of one. It was not a place in which equality, freedom, and justice were things that everyone enjoyed a bare minimum, much less an equal proportion, of — the lowest bar we should really expect from and for a democracy. Instead, it was a place in which the status and position of some depended critically on the bondage of others.
So American went from non-democracy to barely-democracy — and only even accomplished that much in recent times. And it seems, my friends, to be heading squarely, swiftly back to non-democracy, again, even if by means of majoritarianism and Putinesque electioneering. Why is that, in the end?
Old America is not some dusty, ancient memory. It is very much a living one. And it seems to be a place that many Americans wish to return to. What do I mean? The foolish and strange myth of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave encourages, perhaps creates and nourishes, the illusion in us that an anti-democratic society, a caste society, its norms and values, its institutions — that old, hateful America — is some kind of distant history, an ancient memory, which existed long ago, like the Pyramids, forgotten in time, that can and will never again return. But it is a foolish myth because it is wrong.
Imagine the American who grew up in such a world — the white one, at least, perhaps the man. A segregated world, an apartheid state. He is still alive, isn’t he? He remembers a world of dominance and power and control — old America. It is a boyhood memory for him — a living thing, not a drawing of a long-gone age in a textbook. And it seems to me these days perhaps that he longs for it. He yearns for it. And least some hims do. He is wishing for a return to the stability and comfort and easy pleasure of that world — a world still within living memory. A patriarchal, tribal, subjugated place, where he and those like him were on top. Simply by inheritance, birthright, and blood.
Hence, Americans of a certain kind are doing everything in their power to resurrect old America. Which “hes” might I be speaking of? Go ahead and take a look at the old, sneering men who hold power. The Trumps and Kavanaughs and Grahams. For all of them, a legally, institutionally, structurally racialized, bigoted, misogynistic, one inflicting very real violence of women, minorities, blacks, the poor, the weak of any kind: such an America isn’t some kind of distant, ancient, hazy memory — it’s a fact of boyhood. Perhaps a wistfully nostalgic one, something to cherish and prize. Is it any wonder they seem to think they can resurrect it?
You see, unlike the rest of the rich world, at least, in America, original sins are not things which occurred centuries ago. America’s original sins of the violation of the sanctity of personhood did not even happen a lifetime ago. They happened in the very boyhood of the men who now lead it just back to that very place. Is this all a mere coincidence? Or is something more?
The men who long for old America only need to think of their very own childhood — and there, my friends, perhaps they see better times. Times when women knew their place, when blacks knew theirs, when those dirty, filthy immigrants kept to themselves. When they were lords and masters. Dominion over every body, every dollar, every muscle, every mind in the land was theirs. They look at their boyhoods, and they see total and absolute power. And that glittering temptation was not long ago enough to be far away enough to preserve democracy now.
It seems to me that enough of those who grew up in old America want to remake it — and it is very, very easy for them to imagine, begin, and join such an endeavour, because old America was never really a distant thing, like the Pyramids, in the first place, but a living memory. They want to create, all over again, just such a place of institutionalized hatred, of absolute power, of total domination and control. They have taught their own sons and daughters just such values and norms. And in that way, this stratum, this caste, this tribe never assented to democracy at all. They only waited, really, for the very first chance to shatter it.
The truth of American history is not that it is the land of the free — but that it never was. America had just a few brief decades to attempt being anything resembling a genuine democracy — from 1970, or thereabouts, to 2010 or so. And during those times, a certain kind of American never stopped longing for the world of their childhood — the ugly, hateful, divided world, in which a strict hierarchy of humanity, of personhood, define every single soul in society, and kept them apart. In that truest of ways, America was never really much of a democracy — perhaps not one, really, at all. The great and enduring myth of American exceptionalism blinded Americans to the great and terrible flaw in them — and let that flaw multiply, grow, like a crack through a mirror. Bang! Now the mirror is shattering.
American democracy is dying, that much is true. While it is a sad thing, it is not a surprising one. Because the memory of a society in which equality, justice, and freedom were things which only belonged to you in proportion to your position in the hierarchy of personhood — which is to say, not at all, to many — is still a living thing — as close as the fond boyhood memories of the men who think, even now, that women and minorities are not people at all. And so those who wistfully yearn for old America — it seems that the one thing they desire most is to resurrect it.
But like all resurrections, something must die, for old America to live again. And that thing is new America. And that, my friends, means that democracy is the brief period American had in between two dark oceans of apartheid and authoritarianism.