Reposted from Medium
What Happens When (Enough of) a Democracy Doesn’t Want to Be One Anymore — and Never Really Did?
America is ripping itself apart. So much so that I couldn’t help but notice another strange, gruesome, and bizarre turning point in American collapse today. On the heels of Trump mocking Dr Ford, many famous and powerful right-wing extremists were bellowing, for the first time I can remember, in unison, a shared, loud, and explicit support of real, physical violence — “I love fighting!! What kind of man hasn’t been in a fight? Not a real one, I’ll tell you that!” Violence is virtuous, healthy, ennobling, in other words. My friends, this is far, far outside the lines of discourse we should expect from a civilized society. These are the kinds of things the sneering thugs and grandees who become the proud lieutenants and captains in the armies of dictators tend to say just before a democracy collapses. So while all that might strike you as inconsequential, I think it’s indicative of a deeper and truer malaise — because, of course, on the heels of the Kavanaugh debacle, it is a justification for the idea that anything should go. But can anything go in a democracy?
Americans don’t agree on two things anymore. Personhood and violence. They don’t agree that all people are people, or should be, or even can be — and therefore, many Americans appear to believe in many or most of the following things. It’s perfectly acceptable to rape women if you can get away with it, it’s perfectly fine to put children in camps, it’s perfectly desirable to suggest, believe, “know that” some groups are inherently superior to others, it’s quite alright to want to ethnically cleanse a society, it’s perfectly healthy to “debate” ideas like authoritarianism and fascism (as if two world wars hadn’t settled the question). Need I go on?
Agreements about these two things — personhood, the idea that all people are equal persons, and violence, the idea that because all people are equal persons, no one is to do violence to another — are the fundamental building blocks of a democracy. Unless people can agree on both, definitionally, a society will cannot remain a democracy — it cannot really forge a social contract through consent, because some people are not people, but inhuman, and the people who are will therefore have license to do violence to them. But that is precisely where America is today. So where will it be tomorrow?
Let me try to answer that question, by referencing another one. The question “will America break up?” is often seen as about differing political attitudes within a democracy. But I think it cuts much deeper than that. It is about differing attitudes to democracy — different attitudes to political systems entirely.
It seems to me that some, maybe many, Americans, simply don’t want to live in a genuine democracy anymore, at all, and never have. They want to live in something else entirely — I’ll get to what, precisely. The question then becomes a very different, and much more perilous, one: “can people who want to live in a democracy coexist with people who don’t — vehemently and absolutely? How much, and to what degree?”
For me to be a citizen of a modern democracy, I must believe that you are a person. The state holds a “monopoly of violence”, which means that I don’t have the power to harm you, unless you have transgressed a social contract I have consented to. Hence, your rights, remember, are “inalienable” — I have no power over them, and never can. And yet here America is, in a pitched battle not to expand people’s rights — but to strip away each others’ rights, to vanishing point. Should kids have to do “active shooter drills”? Sure! My right to a gun is absolute! Should people die without insulin? Why not! I’ll never pay a dime for anyone else. Should old people ever retire? No way! What do I care? And so on. But that was a mere month ago. What the Kavanaugh hearings reveal is a much, much darker truth.
Many Americans believe that a) many other Americans are not people at all, and b) therefore, violence against them is perfectly OK. They can and should be abused and harmed with impunity — systemically and institutionally — by those with the power to do so. The Kavanaugh hearings tell us that many, many Americans believe this about women, to put it bluntly. But it does not end there. Minorities, immigrants, children, the elderly — all this is what Trumpism is really about: removing personhood from them. But when we take away personhood from people, we legitimize violence against them, because personhood is all that gives us rights. And therefore, we cannot democratically “take away” anyone’s personhood — we are sidestepping democracy, and putting society on the road to regress, with stops at authoritarianism and fascism, most likely.
But to this section of America, that road to regress is exactly what is desirable — it counts as progress. To this regressive America, personhood — and the concomitant expectation that persons do not do violence to other persons — is a thing that belongs only, really, to white working-age males.
I want you to really see the point: this section of America wants to live in something like a classical, textbook tribal patriarchy — not a democracy — and they are perfectly happy destroying democracy to get there. Even many women and children and elderly people there are perfectly fine with violence being done to others just like them — in fact, they seem to accept such dominance, punishment, and control as the price of protection from other abusive males, which is precisely what tribalism, of which patriarchy is the major form, is. But then by definition, too, such people are both incapable of democracy — and do not see it as a fundamental good to begin with. They see it as a bad — something that is to be feared, maligned, and destroyed — which is precisely why that is what they are doing. They do not want to be equal and free — they want to be unequal and unfree. That is, they prefer being protected by patriarchs, who then therefore also have the license, like lords in feudal times, to prey on them — better having that level of status and power and rank, at least, because you are over the nonpersons — to being an equal person in a democracy.
Hence, America’s broken political system, in which at this point roughly 15% of people, who are extremists by any definition, control enough of the Senate to drive the country kicking and screaming into the dark ages, because representation is based on land, not population. The problem is not just that they “disagree” on things which are democratically legitimate. They have taken democracy hostage — and are using democratic mechanisms to undo democracy itself. And so the question of America breaking up is also about why some Americans appear unable to reconcile themselves to what the citizens of a genuine democracy must, at a minimum, believe.
So: can a society really coexist this way? With somewhere between 30 and 50% percent of people ready to destroy democracy, because they want tribal patriarchy — and the other 50% committed, mostly apathetically, to a dysfunctional democracy? I doubt it — but you can judge for yourself. Let’s think a little more about how America got here, to make just that intellectual judgment.
If we are honest, the above is America’s curse. It tells the story of a kind of virgin birth at the hands of noble Founding Fathers — but the truer truth it was born like a bastard child out of hell, in a frenzy of just the two things above: violence, and the removal of personhood.
To make that point clear, let’s think about American slavery. It was an especially hateful — but also ruinous — kind of slavery. In Rome, for example, slaves weren’t always considered genetically inferior — they were disgraced, or conquered, or bonded to pay off debts. But for that reason, they could win their freedom, too, in quite a few ways. The point is that in Rome, like in much of the ancient world, slavery reflected a lack of virtue — but not always a lack of personhood. But in America, slavery was very different: it was a lack of personhood which produced not just a lack of virtue, but the impossibility of it. Since blacks were genetically inferior — who knew if they’d rape all the plantation owners’ wives and daughters? — hence, they were best put to use, and whipped and maimed the moment they attempted to win their freedom. Do you see the difference? You are welcome to disagree, but to my mind it is crucial in the story of a nation.
America was born, in other words, forged, if you like, through the removal of personhood from many — blacks, natives, women — and the concomitant violence against them that inevitably resulted. Soon enough, that violence was formally institutionalized — the government would pay slave catchers and enforce slavery laws, natives were marched off in genocidal “walks” to reservations, and so on. The point is that there is no America without two things — dehumanization and institutionalized violence.
Is it any surprise those are just the two things we see rearing their ugly heads again today? It is as if they never went anywhere at all — just hid under the rug for a few decades — and so here America is, contesting them yet again.
Just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, in historical terms — America is fighting just the same battle it always has been. It has barely made any progress at all. Are we to be a real democracy, a place made of persons doing no violence to other persons, or a tribal patriarchy, where some people are full persons, others lesser ones, and some not persons at all, and violence trickles, like a terrible flood, down a great, steep hill? So can this battle ever go anywhere — can it ever be won? If a war doomed to recur, forever — is it even still a war? That is the question.
For a full century and a half, the democratic forces in America have tried to conquer the authoritarian ones — the forces of civilization have attempted to shrink and wither those of dehumanization and depersonalization and institutionalized violence. They have tried every means they know of — that humanity knows of, really. First, bullets and soldiers. Then, schools and books and literature. Then, politics and universities and money and industry.
But what we see today — what we really see, if we are ready to learn something, that is — is that this mission to civilize regressive, authoritarian America has failed. The good in America hasn’t made an inch of progress, really, against the bad in America — despite using every single mechanism known to humankind. There is still a solid third to a half of a country that still believes democracy is fatal, bitter poison — and tribal patriarchy, in which the working age man is lord and master of the woman, child, elder, immigrant, servant, and has the natural right of untrammeled violence against them, is something like the Garden of Eden, to which we must all aspire and bow.
What does that tell you? Can such a society coexist? You were to be the judge — remember? Here is what it tells me.
Maybe, just maybe, a nation can’t beat what’s in its marrow. America was born in a boiling cauldron of hate and spite and fear and murder. It came to life in that witches’ brew, wearing a caul of inhumanity, covered in the blood of hatred. And maybe no society can outgrow such an unholy birth, really. Maybe nothing can atone for it, and maybe nothing can give us absolution from it. So maybe nothing can civilize that part of America, because violence and dehumanization are the most American things of all, deep in its bones. Maybe they are America’s curse.
But that also means three things. That America will never develop any further towards democracy, but only slide back into patriarchal tribalism from here — unlike, say, Europe, where rights are powers of greater and fuller personhood for all, which expand over time. Such an America will probably break up — as those who wish to live in a growing, maturing democracy must start anew. And finally, that the nation which remains America will be a strange and weird thing — a land forgotten by the world, a place lost in time, that never went anywhere at all, one where the tribe still rules over the weak and impure and the infirm, all because nobody yet in history has gleaned from the mountain the one secret the gods will never reveal: how to exorcise the curse of a devils’ birth.