Tag Archives: republicanism

Will Democracy Survive?

7 Apr

Will ‘Democracy’ Survive? How? Whether? Hard Questions in Dark Times

 

As demagogic leaders with popular approval or at least acquiescence dominate the political process of several important ‘democratic’ states questions need to be asked about the core or indispensable content of democracy. Other states seek the imprimatur of ‘democracy’ but limit drastically the choices open to the citizenry or proclaim themselves ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘an Islamic Republic,’ and are more accurately regarded as an ‘ethnocracy'(Israel) or ‘theocracy'(Iran).  The legitimating impact of being a democracy should be based on something more objective than the language of self-identification, that is, claiming that we are a democracy because we describe our governing arrangements as a democracy, nothing more, nothing less.

 

Procedural and Republican Democracy

The idea of ‘free elections’ is certainly a prerequisite. It is not possible to think of a political system as democratic if it does not allow its citizens to choose without fear or interference among a wide range of candidates of their choice whether the process is filtered through political parties or primaries or otherwise. What qualifies as a free election can be debated endlessly, but it seems enough to suggest that candidates representing significant divergent societal viewpoints compete for support, and that votes are counted honestly. A state should not necessarily lose its democratic credentials if it disqualifies candidates and parties that deny basic human rights to segments of the citizenry or espouse fascist agendas, or if rights are somewhat abridged during periods of national emergency as during wartime. This dimension of democratic governance can be discussed in relation to specific instances by reference to the acceptable limits on the practice of procedural democracy. Such a form of government is sensitive to the dangers of abuses and corruptions of power, invoking ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ as institutional bulwarks of restraint on ‘the tyranny of the mob’ or the predatory behavior of the tyrant, and can be better identified as republican democracy.

 In the contemporary world, due to technology and government ‘secrets’ the constitutional constraints on war making by leaders even if present, tend to be increasingly inoperative. Without democratic accountability in the war/peace agenda democracies lose legitimacy, especially considering the risks and dangers of the nuclear age. It may be that only the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of all countries can restore a semblance of substantive reality to a procedural or republican understanding of democracy.

 In its liberal versions, democracy in its republican form almost always includes a guaranty and judicial protection of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right of assembly, but not necessarily, and likely not at all, social and economic rights. In this sense, the tensions between neoliberal versions of capitalism and political democracy are of paramount importance in many societies widely regarded as ‘democratic.’

 

Normative Democacy

 To achieve an inclusive political order a substantive commitment to deal with social and economic basic rights is essential, although infrequently acknowledged, which raises questions about the compatibility of real democracy with contemporary forms of capitalism. The protection of social and economic rights are necessary so as to satisfy the material needs of all people under sovereign control, especially with respect to food, health, shelter, education, environmental protection, responsibility to future generations. Yet a market-driven ethos is not challenged in principle by large-scale homelessness or extreme poverty so long as the gates of opportunity are available to all. This dimension of democratic governance is rarely realized, and is best considered by reference to values-driven, inclusive, and normative democracy. A society also should be protected against war-prone leadership that defies transparency by relying on claims of secrecy and national security.

 

Somewhere in between selecting leaders, upholding rights, and ensuring a minimal standard of living that entrenches human dignity and enables a humane society are considerations of internal and external security. Meeting the threats from within and without while avoiding hysteria, paranoia, and different forms of suppression is a fundamental responsibility of every legitimate state, including those that claim a democratic pedigree. There is no satisfactory label, but since a state unable to protect sovereign rights and political order loses the respect and lacks the discipline of its citizenry, the security dimension can be associated with effective democracy, as without political order and a capability to address external threats and internal order, no form of governance can avoid chaos and foreign penetration, although assessments of this kind involve subjective appreciations of capabilities and political will.

 

There are increasing critiques of democratic states as having weakened the bonds between what citizens seek and what the government does. In the United States, for instance, special interests inflate pharmaceutical products to astronomical heights, insulate gun control from public opinion to absurd degrees, and allow corporations and banks to contribute unlimited amounts to (mis)shape political campaigns. Markets are further distorted by corruption of various kinds that undermine the capabilities of government to serve the people. This dimension of democratic governance can be considered under the rubric of responsive democracy. Without a high degree of responsiveness on central policy issues, a governing process will steadily lose legitimacy, especially if seen as deferring to special interests.

 

Majoritarian Democracy 

There is, increasingly evident, political systems where free elections occur, demagogues participate, often prevailing in recent elections, and a majority of the citizenry is either submissive or supportive. In this kind of atmosphere toxic, win/lose polarizations develop, with extremist and paranoid rhetoric justifying suppression and demonization of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers, walls are proposed and built, borders are militarized, and exclusionary ideas of political community gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. One result is that the values, views, and security of those vulnerable or opposed are ignored, condemned. Genuine news is dismissed as fake news, and vice versa, creating fact-free political leadership. This kind of political order can be termed majoritarian democracy.

It tends to rest its claims on passion and a perversion of Rousseau’s ‘general will’ rather than reason and evidence, and is contemptuous of limits on the exercise of state power on behalf of the nation, especially if directed against foreign or domestic ‘enemies.’ As a result of the rise of such forms of governance, the rule of law has weakened, and especially, respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations while deference to the ruler increases, coupled by claims of indefinite tenure atop the political pyramid, ratified by periodic votes of approval. Such leaders as Putin, Xi, Trump, Erdoğan, Modi, Abe manifest the trend, treat ‘citizens’ as if ‘subjects’ thereby blurring the distinction between democracy and monarchy when it comes to state/society relations.

 

Aspirational Democracy

 In opposition, are more humanistic concerns that focus attention on the protection of human rights, especially of those who are vulnerable and poor. The idea of ‘democracy to come’ as depicted by the deceased French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, and recently developed further by Fred Dallmayr is being taken more seriously. This idea centers on the belief that democracy in all its manifestations, even at its best, remains an unfinished project with unfulfilled normative potential. It represents a call to work toward an inclusive democracy based on the serious implementation of ‘the spirit of equality’ (Dallmayr) the goal of humane governance as associated with Montesquieu. Such a political order goes beyond upholding the rule of law by seeking to promote justice within and without of sovereign borders. Such a democratic political order would now subordinate, as necessary, national interests to human and global interests in relation to climate change, nuclear weaponry, migration, disease control, peace and security, and the regulation of the world economy. No such democracy has so far existed, but as a goal and ideal this political possibility can be identified as aspirational democracy.

 

Concluding Comments

 These different forms of democracy overlap, and are matters of degree, but do call attention to various and variable features of political life that rest on the shared proposition that ‘the people’ should be regarded as the source of political authority and legitimacy. Yet such a mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people, superseding God-given authority figures anointed by ritual and reinforced by claims of a monarchical or divine aura of absolutism, is in many societies again being scrutinized. Many informed and concerned persons are asking whether democracy is any longer the least bad system of governance, yet seem at a loss to propose an alternative. In this setting, the question posed for many of us is whether democracy, as now practiced and constituted, can be revitalized by legitimating reforms. As engaged citizens we must accept this challenge in forms sensitive to the particularities of time, place, challenge, and opportunities.

 Because of globalization in its manifest forms, it is no longer tenable to confine the ambitions of democracy to national spaces. Global democracy has become, is becoming, a matter of ultimate concern. Issues raised concern transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness of global policy processes, and of course, how the global is to be linked with the regional and national so as to pursue the goal of global humane governance: equitable, stable, sustainable, peaceful, compassionate, and above all, mindfulness. These concerns will be left for contemplation, and discussion on another day.

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The Flawed and Corrupted Genius of American Republicanism

15 Oct

Trump as President makes us think as never before about viability of the American version of constitutional democracy, that is, the ‘republic’ that Ben Franklin promised the people at the time of Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

We often forget that Franklin replied to the question by adding several words, “if you’ll keep it.”

With the election of Trump in 2016 these prophetic cautionary words have come home to haunt the country with a cruel vengeance. Of course, arguably nuclear America had long abandoned the pretense of consensual government, and warmongering American had driven the point home with only a whimper of dissent from Congress, mainstream media, and the citizenry. Imagine currently engaged in bombing six countries and combat operations in many more, and the loudest sound from the citizenry or media is an all-encompassing silence. And then we must not forget about the potent ‘deep state’ that took shape during World War II, maturing and consolidating its hold on elected officials during the long Cold War. Or, I suppose, its more visible presence that Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address—the military-industrial complex (as abetted by a corporatized media and a wide array of cheerleading think tanks).

 

Yet Trump poses the challenge more bluntly, so crudely that many of us feel we can no longer sit back and hope for the best. So far even the deep state has lost some of its aura of invincibility to the Trump onslaught, although it is fighting back, stacking the White House upper echelons with national security state first responders (McMaster, Mattis, Kelly), and may yet have the last word.

 

The distinctive essence of American republicanism is a distrust of reason on an individual basis combined with a confidence in reason on the level of collective national action. That is the idea of checks and balances, separation of powers, the friction between equal branches of government, the rule of law, and the electoral powers of the citizenry are acknowledgements that the containment and disciplining of individual power and authority are more important than the efficiency of governance. But maybe confusing the efficiency of capital as embodied in the ideology of neoliberal globalization, ideas of restraint in the Executive Branch have gradually been pushed aside as the urgencies of militarism and geopolitics, as well as the preemptive imperatives of security have taken precedence given the time/space features of modern warfare, both in the form of non-state terrorism or in relation to weaponry of mass destruction.

 

In other words, the country has been stripped of any basis for confidence in the rationality of the system to check the irrationalities of the individual. This is where Trump entered the scene, somewhat unintentionally delivering a message: the end of republicanism is at hand, despite the Republicans having the upper hand in all three branches of government. The gap between republicans and Republicans has never been greater.

 

The system is now so flawed that even should the Democrats manage to claw their way back to power the gap would not greatly diminish. The system of republican governance will soon collapse unless the nourishing winds of revolutionary renewal soon arrive.

 

We should not put all the blame, or alternatively, give all the credit to Trump. An insufficient number of American people failed to identify a threat to the virtues of republican government. Neither political party was oriented toward restoring republicanism under 21st century conditions, which would necessitate at a minimum getting rid of nuclear weapons, insisting on Congressional participation in relation to acts of war, safeguarding the national interest by rejecting ‘special relationships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, conforming gun control to the true and sensible meaning of the Second Amendment, heeding the call of Black Lives Matter, leading the struggle against global warming, strengthening the UN and respect for international law, relying on ideas of common security, human security, protection of the poor, restorative diplomacy to address threats and disempower adversaries rather than coercive and militarized diplomacy, pursuing global justice by taking the suffering of others seriously, and dealing humanely with the crises of global migration and prolonged refugee status. In other words, the renewal of republicanism requires a new agenda, and undoubtedly requiring a new constitutional convention, and a constitution that might alone give republicanism a second chance.

 

In the meantime, Trump and Trumpism tell us more vividly than we could possibly have imagined about the collapse of 18th century republicanism, and the inability of the system to evolve to meet fundamental changes associated with a globalizing reality that shrinks time and space while stimulating a reactionary politics of ultra-nationalism, territoriality, and ‘gated national communities.’ We need to ask what are system requirements for 21st rationality in the designing of governance structures at all levels of human endeavor.

 

In my view, an ethics of human solidarity and empathy has never been more closely correlated with a politics of human survival, which itself is tied to the urgency of ecological sensitivity to our natural surroundings, including a dangerously deferred implementation of animal rights. When the American Constitution was formulated the guidance of reason was an inspired means to construct a durable government that balanced contradictory goals (admittedly incorporating a gross type of moral blindness in the form of slavery and the rights of native Americans), but now the path to a humane and sustainable future must be built on ethical and ecological foundations in which values are given priority over reason and rationality.

 

The odiousness of Trump’s presidency gives the people of America what might be their last chance to achieve political redemption for themselves, and for others now and in the future who will drawn into the circle of extreme victimization unless this dynamic of renewal suddenly takes hold.