Reposted from The Medium
Today, for once, was a strangely good day in these troubled times. On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy asserted itself. In the UK, the Supreme Court ruled that suspending parliament to ram through a no deal Brexit, and in the US, Congress announced, finally, impeachment hearings.
Phew. For a moment there, I’d bet you were thinking — as I was — is this thing broken? By which, of course, I mean society, democracy, civilization. It was as if we were banging a collective fist against a TV or computer that showed, maddeningly, no signs of life. And hen suddenly, faint, flickering signals emerge. So there’s cause to rejoice. To hope, even. But we’re not out of the woods yet — by any stretch of imagination.
For the last half decade or more, what I’ll call the elements of democracy seem to have vanished from the two major Anglo societies altogether. Think of them as gold, silver, and titanium. Strong in some ways — but fragile, and therefore, precious, in others. Gold never rusts — but it’s malleable. Silver shines — but tarnishes. And so on. The elements of democracy, too, because they’re so fragile, can be easily melted, shattered, corroded, or destroyed. And with them goes the power of what democracy truly is — self-governance, self-determination, self-rule. Or, more simply — impeaching the bad man is how we give the nice lady with all the plans the power to put her them into practice after we elect her — but I’ll come to that.
Let’s contrast the two societies to begin with. The UK’s got something that the US doesn’t — a working Supreme Court. By “working”, of course, I mean one that isn’t just captured by a single political party, in the name of regress — which is more or less where the US is right about now. But the US also has something that the UK doesn’t — an opposition.
And that matters. Because for the last three years, what’s plagued both of the Anglo speaking nations isn’t just fanatical right wing extremist movements rising to power, predicated on colossal half-truths and disinformation, helped along by Russia, funded by billionaires, all of whom make a killing as these societies die…but also supine oppositions that refused to, well, oppose anything much. But a democracy without a functioning opposition is…just an autocracy (or maybe an autopsy). Which is exactly how the Trumpists managed to push through outrages that dropped the jaw of the world — like concentration camps, “raids”, ethnic bans, and so on — at light speed.
But take the UK, to make the example crystal clear. Americans don’t quite understand who the head of the opposition is there — Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party — as a personality. So let me try to distill him. He’s the kind of dude that used to annoy everyone in college by being the resident communist. Nothing was ever good enough. He was full of obnoxious sanctimony and bitter condemnation. He worse a hair shirt — so why the hell were you wearing decent shoes? Didn’t you care about those poor kids in some godforsaken country? But the solutions he offered to any social problems were as outlandish as they were childish. Hence, in the UK, the Labour Party is currently proposing things like…abolishing private schools…while they still don’t oppose Brexit. What the?
I’m as much of a social democrat as the next thinking and sane person. But even I draw the line at…abolishing private schools. That’s ironically…childish. The kind of infantile logic one might expect from a man who’s never outgrown sophomore-year communist chic. Surely there are greater causes of a society in such steep, sharp decline than…private schools. But that’s where the UK is — lacking a real opposition when it needs one most. To really (wait for it) oppose the things the fanatical extremists on the right want: Brexit, no healthcare, no retirement, no taxes for corporations, endless money for hedge funds, a class of neo peasants, etcetera.
And that’s where the US, was, too, until recently. Maybe just in a different way. America lacked an opposition, too — when it needed one the most urgently and badly. Not by way of tragicomic communist chic, not by way of left-wing extremism, as in the UK — but by way of just plain wimpiness, sometimes known (wrongly) in America as “centrism.” Democrats had been brutalized by neofascist Republicans for so long…they ended up trapped in kind of learned helplessness…prisoners with Stockholm Syndrome…who believed their captors were the good guys, and their beliefs the only possible ones.
Why is it that the Democrats have spent decades fighting for…exactly nothing? It’s hardly a surprise the US got taken over by a series of more and more extreme right wing movements, from Reaganism to the Tea Party to Trumpism…the Democrats literally stood for nothing whatsoever. Obama — the great hope — did flatly nothing to really address American collapse. I know, I know — you probably “disagree.” But if you do, you need to grow up a little. The numbers don’t lie, and under Obama’s tenure, incomes, savings, and life expectancy — the big three — all began to flatline and fall. A society can’t be mismanaged harder than that.
No — it wasn’t “all Obama’s fault.” But it was his responsibility, and his party’s too. To really have a compelling vision, a transformative agenda, a series of…plans. Hey, wait — isn’t there someone who finally has those? What’s that nice lady’s name? Why, Elizabeth Warren.
And that brings me to another element of democracy the US has that the UK doesn’t — a transformative leader in waiting. A number of them, in fact. There’s Warren. But there’s also AOC, Ilhan, and many, many more where they came from. With just the same fire, determination, and incandescent intelligence. That’s an eminently good sign for America — to have transformative leaders. Who was the last one you can remember? Have there been any in our lifetimes? Perhaps just one — JFK. And he was assassinated. A cautionary note, perhaps, as to how high the stakes really are.
But the UK has nobody close. It just has Jeremy Corbyn, the sophomoric Che Guevara of his college dreams — and a coterie of his cronies and flunkies, who’ve stacked the Labour Party from top to bottom so that it resembles, now, a whole dorm full of sophomore year communists. Needless to say, all that’s caused a massive retreat from Labour, and now nobody much has confidence in them…hence, the right wing keeps winning, because there’s little alternative yet.
Let me sum all that up. The US and UK have been afflicted by several key weaknesses. The lack of a functioning opposition. The absence of transformative leaders. And the paralysis of working institutions. The US has the first two, all of a sudden, a tiny bit — and the UK has the last, in a Supreme Court that sided with democracy over autocracy. Progress — baby steps, anyways. So now let’s connect a few dots reaching into the future.
Remember those transformative leaders? That nice lady who has a plan for everything? You might not think so, but impeaching the bad man is how we begin to give the nice lady with the plans the power to…make them a reality. Why does it matter to impeach this President? Not so that he’s convicted. The Senate, ruled by the GOP, won’t convict. Congress, ruled by the Democrats, should impeach anyways. Because the future depends on it.
The reason impeachment matters — and I think every one of us should remember this in the days and weeks to come — isn’t so that political points are scored. It isn’t so that the “will of the people” is done. That’s got nothing do with it at all. Impeachment matters so that the rule of law matters again. It’s so that we say as a society there are red lines, which nobody should step beyond. It’s so that the phrase “abuse of power” means something again. It’s so that democratic norms and values of equality, justice, and freedom carry hard and real authority again. Impeachment matters so that power begins to flow in the opposite direction again — back from autocracy, and towards a democracy capable of healing its badly broken social contract, institutions, norms, and values.
That’s how we begin to give that nice lady — Elizabeth Warren — the power to put her plans into practice. If we can’t even impeach a man so embarassingly terrible the entire world is disgusted and scandalized…how do you think we’re ever going to rewrite a whole social contract? If we can’t impeach a man who’s literally given us an embarrassment of riches to count against him, so scandalous and horrific has his conduct been…how do you think a single one of those “plans” is ever going to get passed…not bogged down in endless, pointless, foolish, pretend “debates”? If we can’t make Trump’s litany of grotesquely disgraceful acts…formally disgraceful…as in disgraced by democracy…not normal and acceptable…do you think any of those plans will ever pass? How do you think institutions incapable of doing justice to democracy are going to repair it?
See the link? Impeachment, in technical terms, creates the institutional capacity and power for sociopolitical transformation. It is a very real test of whether Dems can get anything needful done. And if they can’t handle something as small as a single unhinged man…how do you think they’re going to fare when it comes to giving hundreds of millions healthcare, retirement, education, a future? Maybe you see the problem when I put it that way.
So remember that old high school idea of “checks and balances”? Where did they go, exactly? Why hasn’t anyone checked this lunatic President for years now? Ah — but why didn’t anyone check Bush Junior, when he started a fake war…or legalized torture? Why didn’t anyone check Obama when he began building the centers Trump would later turn into genuine concentration camps? You see, checks and balances have been missing from the American polity for decades now. The only check that really took place was…over consensual sex between a Prez and an intern. Once you get that, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how America descended into flirtation with autocracy. Checks and balances, my friends. We are seeing them re-emerge on both sides of the Atlantic, in different ways. But the idea is the same. That absolute power should belong to no single one. No single party, no single person, no single movement, not even any single idea or cause. When it does — then democracy begins to die.
That might seem obvious. Good. It should be. Here’s the part that’s not. Checks and balances create the possibilities democracies need to advance, too. When we check a President by impeaching him for being basically the world’s worst person — we create the possibility and the power to enact that nice lady’s plans to improve all our lives, too. They are flip sides of one coin of progress, my friends.
Democracy isn’t complicated. But it’s hard. It requires us to each submit, too, to being checked and balanced, when we cross the red lines of hatred, violence, autocracy, greed. Our societies struggle with that — because in them, there are constituencies who have held abusive power over the whole world for centuries…the much maligned elites, the white males, etcetera…and naturally, they don’t like being checked. They don’t liked being questioned or challenged or overridden. The result, though, is the last several years — two of the world’s most powerful and richest societies imploding by the day. But we cannot make progress any other way than by checking abuse, so that the room for progress is created. We can’t have both — the abuse of power, and the increase of the magnitude and scale of democratic power. We can only ever have one or the other. That is why the nice lady’s plans and the bad man’s impeachment are one and the same thing — or at least two rungs on the same ladder.
So these elements of democracy — checks and balances, transformative leaders with agendas for new social contracts, functioning oppositions, the rule of law, a culture energized to defend and promote democratic norms and ideals, and institutions which genuinely cherish and reward the exercise freedom, equality, and justice — all have seemed to be sorely missing in the two major Anglo countries for the last half decade or more. The consequence has been a staggering scale regress. The power of democracy has not expanded — it only shrank.
Let us then be a little thankful these elements of democracy seem to regaining their luster and their power. But let us also be wary enough to remember the trials we have been through, and how easily squandered those elements are, how easily they rust, melt, and shatter — and therefore, how fragile and precious those elements are. They are the gold, silver, and titanium of a healthy society, my friends.