The End of American Democracy

by A. Jay Adler on October 31, 2012
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A dissenter will call it hyperbole, an opponent hysterical, some of its targets sensational. We will all or we will not find out – any of us today, I mean, for confirmation may take far longer to receive than the length of our short lives. Rome, you know, word is, was not built in a day, but it did not decline in a day either. Likely, there was no Roman in 290 CE who felt the shift, a start in the earth’s movement or a diminution of the light, and said, “This is the moment,” even though Rome would not be sacked until 410 or Romulus Augustus deposed until 476. The Eastern Roman Empire survived another thousand years, and no doubt its leading lights thought not that a fall had occurred but only the inevitable transformations, in continuity, over time. Which is to say that such a “fall” is really a matter of understanding, not an event – an insight, a recognition, a knowledge acquired that historical developments have left more behind in their occurrence than whatever may have been gained.

I say the election of Mitt Romney to the Presidency, if it occurs, will be that moment for the United States, when the shift could be felt if one cocked one’s head to attune for the vibration. I say it for two reasons. One reason is the programmatic effect on the American nation that Romney’s policies will have, both in representing the values and policies of the contemporary GOP and in extending the “Reagan Revolution.” The other reason, more emblematic, is what it would mean that such a man as Mitt Romney could be elected to the Presidency and that he could be elected in the manner by which Romney will have gained the office.

Of course, there are those to the left and right, different from those who would belittle what they think my excess, who will snort their contempt at so late a recognition. For them, the neoliberal corruption, and the plutocratic charade – the fundamental capitalist crime – were committed long ago, or the opposing loss of our liberty to the unchristian alien socialist hordes suffered just as far back in time under a conspiratorial eye of providence. These contradictory contentions are the curse of unruly democracy – the perpetual confusion of claims with conclusions, of intricate phantasms with arguments. The speaker’s corner of the public square is the think tank for loopy autodidacts and distempered experts. In a healthy system, the vocalizing of these crackpots and agitant spirits demonstrates the breadth and depth of our liberalism. But what Mitt Romney will lead, should he come to lead it, will be no healthy system.

What a Romney presidency will finish, especially were it to extend to two terms, as most presidencies do, is the comprehensive reversal of the liberal American polity that has its roots in the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and that was firmly established by Franklyn Roosevelt. By the time Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society seemed to cement that liberalism into the bedrock of the nation, the reaction against it that has ruled the country since was already mounting toward the Reagan presidency.

As I wrote in “From the People Who Brought You Richard Nixon & George W. Bush,” when considering the historic significance of the Richard Nixon win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, from 1968 until Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans held the presidency for 28 out of 40 years. Were Romney to defeat Obama and serve two terms, those numbers would extend to 36 of 52, an overwhelming preponderance and duration of Republican presidential power lasting more than half a century. The only domination in the history of the country exceeding it is the 72 year period from 1860 until 1932 – from the election of Abraham Lincoln to that of FDR – when Republicans held the presidency for 56 years against the Democrats’ 16 years (counting Andrew Johnson’s term as a continuation of Lincoln’s). This was the period that made the New Deal necessary.

For this era of GOP domination the numbers are everywhere available – I do not need to repeat them. The three decades of mushrooming income inequality, of wealth inequality. The stagnant wages for the middle class. The dismissal from pragmatic political calculation of any discussion of poverty. The sweeping assault on, and decimation of, organized labor. The increasing political rule, via unchecked lobbying power, judicial decision, and massive wealth expenditure of corporations. The bureaucratic government rollback of legislated environmental protections. The present open concentration – even as liberal America is pleased by the rapid advance in Gay rights – on undoing four decades of progress in women’s and reproductive rights. The conservative transformation of the Supreme Court that will extend this conservative reaction for decades past any end to its domination of the presidency.

Internationally, the United States has remained strategically unreoriented to the end of the Cold War. Over two decades after communism’s demise, the U.S. has retained the worldwide bulwark erected against it transformed into an uncritical and arrogant assumption of imperial right. Finally, President Obama has made the first genuine moves to alter this course in response to world currents. But Romney’s GOP would reassert the claims of unchecked American prerogative – confirming the claims of many of the nation’s critics – even in the absence, into another century, of a Cold War enemy.

After George W. Bush and with only a four-year Obama interregnum, a Romney presidency, at home and abroad, will produce a nation many of its inhabitants will neither recognize nor embrace as theirs. A hard truth is that in its moral pride the United States has been living off only a few very great accomplishments, beginning with its founding ideals and documents, for a very long time. The last of them, the American lead in winning the Second World War and in rebuilding Europe is now over six decades old. What followed, the resistance to the world communist movement was a moral, was a necessary struggle to engage, but in its countless lesser and greater particulars, was not remotely ennobling.

Any continuing claim to American Exceptionalism, residing not in nature or God, but in the enactment of national ideals, rests in the liberal social progress of the American twentieth century – a progress more than equaled by many liberal democracies. And this is precisely what the Republican Party, since Ronald Reagan and through the election of Mitt Romney, seeks completely to undo.

There is more, however.

Wise critics of democratic charades, with their dog and pony shows of free elections never again repeated – in Venezuela or Gaza or Russia, and of which, in fact, there is a horrific history – properly instruct us that democracy is not a single event, a performance of a script – but a spirit and a process, of repeated performance institutionalized and revered over time. To believe that, in the end, how one pursues and gains political power is separable from how one exercises it is a fool’s self-deception. It is a fool’s self-deception to believe that our democratic nature is untouched by a corruption of the republican spirit meant to adhere to a democratic process and the liberating enactment of free and genuine debate.

Against all this, Mitt Romney is the Orwellian candidate of Newspeak, of RomneySpeak. In RomneySpeak, Anti-Obama is pro-Obama. Opposition to unfettered reproductive rights is support for women’s rights. Advocating letting the auto industry fail was advocacy for saving it. Championing universal health coverage is demonizing it. Pro big business is pro middle class. Moderate is “severely conservative” is moderate again. War is peace. “Etch-a-sketch.”

Beyond the lies, however, and the complete absence of any authentic public identity and character (it matters not to the culture of the polis how much Mitt Romney loves his family and gives to his church), the willingness to say anything and alter his identity the way a snake shucks off skins, is the astounding reality that Mitt Romney has told us and shown us on every day of his pursuit of power exactly who he is. He has run for the Presidency of the United States like a wolf with a chicken feather sticking out of his mouth – and the farm hands all the families have relied on to protect the livestock – our self-important and self-satisfied political media – have thought it their meaningful work to marvel at his speed, analyze his stealth, and consider the odds of his making it into the main house without getting caught.

The sad truth is that while politicians as a class are cynical opportunists in the pursuit of power, the journalists who cover them make the same short sale of democracy for the modest reward of a little recognition and inclusion in the game. They have acquiesced to the cynical rules of the game, and beyond the casual obligatory nod to the game’s essential lie, they proceed to analyze policies they know are fake and dress political lies in the cover of acceptable tactics and strategy. When they should be blowing the lid off Romney’s whole, stinking long con of the electorate, they review it, instead, like legitimate theater.

It’s all a show, and everybody’s an actor, don’t you know. Grow up.

Mitt Romney did not invent political opportunism and evasion. The history of the political lie told in a handshake to gain a vote is the history of politics. But the merger of politics with lobbying and billion-dollar, third-party advertising and polling and consultancy and spinmeisters from Dick Morris to Frank Luntz, and all of those with journalists who cover them and consider their hands around the tables they now share has degraded the process and the outcome beyond all worthwhile democratic recognition.

The truth is captured in the final scene of the Mike Nichols film version of Primary Colors. In it, the Bill Clinton character offers the essential argument in defense of his career and of the fundamental dishonesty of the campaign process. It is all the “price you pay to lead,” he tells his young aid, who is still susceptible to conscience. “You don’t think that Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a President,” he argues. But once you’re President, he claims, ah, but once you’re President, “that’s where the bullshit stops.”

Then you can do good, because you are better than the others who would not stop bullshitting and would not do good, and you know you are different from those who would lie their way to power and then not do good because, well, you are you, and you know you would never bullshit the people, not when it really counted, not like when looking them in the eye at a news conference and shaking your finger, or on a witness stand contextualizing the presentness of the present tense – or when running for President of the United States in lying theft of every vote you gain.

Mitt Romney did not invent what he is, and, in part, it does not matter what his policies are. If he wins the presidency, he will have been what he is better than anyone who ever came before him. He will have gained the leadership of the greatest democracy the world has ever known on the basis of a complete fraud, by lying without restraint about not only his opponent and the nation, but about himself, who he is, and what he believes. He will have corrupted the very meaning of democratic debate and contest and rendered the process that gained him office a meaningless pretense from which the nation will likely never recover.

AJA

 

 

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12 comments

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

SnoopyTheGoon November 3, 2012 at 11:25 am

I will not call this essay or its author names, especially while commenting on the author’s blog: it has been proven counterproductive. However, I shall remind you that similar, if not worse, sentiments, were expressed before GWB was elected. Many of them recorded in modern literature, movies etc.

My dissent with this article comes from a totally different perspective: you, AJA, in your support of the current POTUS, tend to disregard the fact that his presidency is no more than a result of a brilliant PR campaign – maybe the most successful mass marketing campaign in the modern history, selling not the man but a brand.

But even this is not the main problem, as I (dare to) see it. The real problem, which stems from the power of the media and, esp., TV, is that the end result of the elections, aside of ruinous economics of the said elections, is that the elected person is becoming less and less important behind the thick smoke screen of the media campaign.

And eventually the mediocrity wins. I don’t know whether you are familiar with the story by William Ten:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/58707187/Tenn-William-Null-P

I promise its’ worth the 20 minutes or so of your time. And, unfortunately, this is precisely where it all goes, no matter the party affiliation.

Best.

Reply

A. Jay Adler November 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Snoop, you don’t want to call me anything but landsman.

For me, the hole in your presentation (you didn’t know there is a hole?) is “no more” – “his presidency is no more than a result of a brilliant PR campaign.”

I am not, of course, accountable for what anyone else has said about GWB. I never said the above. However, my argument has two prongs. The first is the campaign to undo twentieth century American progressivism, a campaign to which GWB made his significant contribution. Don’t value that progressive tradition? Don’t care if it is undone? Then this argument will make no impression. My second argument, however, is directed at a non-partisan intellectual and human standard: enlightenment conceptions of both intellectual and human integrity, that latter term intended in both its moral and structural senses.

All political campaigning is PR campaigning, with all the debased connotations that it and like terms that are used carry. The frequently unbridgeable divide between partisans is their divergent ideological inclination to minimize and excuse the “show” of their own side while maximizing the malice and moral failure in the show of the other side. That does not make things equal. The reality that all sides can and do make claims no more makes them equal than does the fact that some claims come from my side by just that virtue make them true. Either we are relativists or we believe that careful analysis by accepted intellectual standards can distinguish among better and worse claims just as between some range that encompasses normal political PR campaigning and something that has exceeded that range.

To say that Barack Obama is “no more” than a PR campaign, with no recognition of his various intellectual and political skills, and his presidential accomplishments – regardless of whether you favor any of these – is to offer an inarguable position, like refusing to acknowledge (I don’t say this includes you) the meaning of an overwhelming relevant scientific consensus on AGW. If the standards of objective consideration are no longer agreed to, and partisan ideology now trumps (to choose a term) belief in those standards, then formerly respected neutral bodies, like the CBO or the Congressional Research Service – or, on relevant matters, the scientific community – then we are forever lost in a foundationless swirl of indeterminable claims – and American conservatives have abandoned the Enlightenment and committed themselves to ideology above all no less than the far left postcolonialists you and I both oppose.

I have no difficulty recognizing Mitt Romney’s skills. He governed a state competently. I’m sure if he wins he can, in a technocratic manner, govern the nation within some broad range of competence. The contrasting need to turn Obama into the George Abnego of your recommended story becomes a means of avoiding the more meaningful issues. If one doesn’t accept my characterization of a potential Romney win based on political ideology, because one does not share my ideology, then there is my second argument, which is demonstrably – the link I offer at the end of my post, yesterday’s Washington Post editorial endorsing Obama (but even more, rejecting Romney) – beyond that which can be made of any candidate for president before Romney.

I saw the bad place Bill Clinton took us with his lies; I can see the worse place Romney has taken us with his campaign, indeed, his whole political career. I’ll note, too, that William Tenn had Harry Truman in mind when he conceived George Abnego. Tenn ended thinking Truman a great president.

Reply

SnoopyTheGoon November 4, 2012 at 6:20 am

Thanks for the detailed reply, and (but of course) a few remarks:

My comment wasn’t in any way favorable to anyone or comparing Romney with Obama. Sorry if it may have sounded that way, but it wasn’t. Just as I had my doubts about Obama at the time, I have quite a few about Romney.

As for ” [Obama's] various intellectual and political skills, and his presidential accomplishments “: I think that responding to my remark about the brilliant PR campaign you have performed a neat “time transposition” exercise: at the time of the 2008 elections Obama could hardly have claimed any of that, being a fairly anonymous candidate with little political experience and hardly any accomplishments. His supposedly high IQ and personal charisma were his main – and far from decisive – contributions to the win.

I am not even going to compare the two – especially since in the foreign policy both have only a vague notion about dealing with accumulating troubles, and as far as economy goes: I still strongly suspect that a POTUS that succeeds in this is simply a POTUS that serves during a few good years, the accomplishment being more the one of the markets than of a person.

Now re progressivism: I would be all for it, but the recent example of almost bankrupt European economy makes me wonder. How far could borrowing in the name of social progress go before an economic disaster brings the dark forces from the bottom to destroy the democracy and to start another cycle of horrors?

And (for only too obvious reasons of background) appeals to ideology don’t sit well with me. To me naked pragmatism aimed to preserve the democracy at the expense of ideologies and religions looks like a safer harbor.

Reply

A. Jay Adler November 5, 2012 at 1:04 am

It was not clear to me that your criticism of Obama was of his 2008 campaign. In that, I think, you offer an example of what I wrote earlier:

All political campaigning is PR campaigning, with all the debased connotations that it and like terms that are used carry. The frequently unbridgeable divide between partisans is their divergent ideological inclination to minimize and excuse the “show” of their own side while maximizing the malice and moral failure in the show of the other side.

Here is the language of the Romney campaign web site two days before the election:

We have less than 96 hours to change the future of America.

We need a change. We need to reclaim the bright, prosperous future America deserves.

Change the future of America? Yes, we can.

All presidential campaigns offer this empty inspirational vision: “Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow” on that “bridge to the twenty-first century” with its “thousand points of light” above that “shining city on a hill.” Oh, my. Swoon.

Did Obama’s inspiration exceed the average? Perhaps – maybe on a par with Camelot. However, given the historic nature of the campaign, that inspiration and hope were not inappropriate reactions to what the nation was about to accomplish. How did the GOP respond to that historic national hopefulness? What shall be recorded in history as the infamous Inauguration eve meeting of GOP leaders committing to ruining the Obama presidency tells that story.

Yet none of this kind of empty PR show is the subject of this post. Rather it is a profoundly, empirically demonstrable and boundlessly cynical public dishonesty from Romney that exceeds what we have seen from any candidate before. From Obama, in contrast, who, of course, has oversold and failed to fulfill promises (for various reasons) as any president will, we have a pragmatic progressive whose fundamental beliefs are not a mystery. We both know the danger of closed system ideology of which you personally beware. On the other hand, to be pragmatic without some kind of guiding moral, intellectual and historical vision (an ideology) is to be the kind of amoral realist we had in Henry Kissinger.

In Romney we appear to have merely amoral ambition – and to think that there may be what its possessor thinks a genuine religious morality behind that amoral public self is even more disturbing.

Reply

SnoopyTheGoon November 5, 2012 at 12:08 pm

OK, we are getting somewhere, and thanks again for your reply. I shall not bother you for the next few days.

Only – re Kissinger: you forgot to add “self-serving” between his other titles ;-)

Lynn white October 31, 2012 at 8:46 am

Fantastic assessment ; so well-written.

Shall the Presidency forevermore…. go to the candidate who lies and dissembles “best”…. ?

Reply

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