Turns out the election of 2016 was a declaration of war. America is at war with itself and it’s not clear who is winning. We Americans didn’t recognize it for war at the time, but it’s clear now and clearer every day—with each childish act, each transgression by the populist president and the blind allegiance to him by those who turn the cheek to his lies, indecency, and hypocrisy. They’d rather not see the truth. It doesn’t conform to the reality they’ve invented.
Instead, they make excuses. They claim that journalism is their enemy; and in a way, they are right. Journalism is a purveyor of news—news is the running narrative of the current state of the world. Most news organizations rely on facts and truth to inform the public, to check authority and keep it from running wild with abandon. But these people are not concerned with facts and truth. Perhaps they never were.
They converse in small circles of their own, unable to communicate beyond their self-imposed borders. Their ideas are small; their speech hateful. To them, the mind is not a tool or weapon, but a liability. Their weapons of warfare: guns and faith in a god that would not recognize their warped idea of that god’s intended purpose or morality. Somewhere along the way, they decided their god had a white face and carried an assault rifle.
The religious right got the president they think is a crusader for their religion. But he’s not—he’s lying about being a practicing Christian just as he lies about everything else. The Christians think they have god on their side. I am a reformed Christian, so I know their sad story well. It’s a story in which they have owned the last two thousand years. Yet history is not on their side.
God and guns are their hallmarks, despite their lord and savior’s abhorrence to violence. If their Jesus were alive today they would not recognize him. They would ridicule him, persecute him, expel him, torture him, imprison him, murder him. Those on the Christian Right have deluded themselves. They look out at the world through veiled eyes and do everything possible to avoid seeing what’s really, truly there. They have the vision of a bat—their eyes do not work, and noise guides their focus. But whereas bats were cursed by nature with lack of eyesight, the blindness of the Christian Right is self-imposed.
The two sides prepare for battle in opposite ways. I prepare by improving my eyesight—by reading the sages, by keeping myself informed through reliable, proven news sources (not commentary). Most importantly, I prepare by thinking. As a journalist, I feel the declaration of war more intimately or personally than most. This is a war on truth and decency. The president and his blind followers bring their guns, their anger, their certainty that they are right to the battlefield. Where I come from, only people who couldn’t fight carried guns.
I bring the lessons of history and the sages who have lived through such battles and emerged victorious. Wisdom and open mindedness will always prevail against lies, intolerance, false patriotism, hypocrisy, violence, and indecency. I study the lessons of the past and sharpen my sword by lamplight every night. I urge you to do the same, and above all to participate in the civic discussion by spreading the truth you see all around you.
“Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.”
“The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.”
“In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways…The fact that capitalism has until now managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; […] we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its security may fail to show up.”
“Why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When Communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph.”
“My answer is that having no opposition may be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”
“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint…We are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself.”
On oligarchic redistribution and the outcome of the economic crisis of 2008: “The possibility as provided by a global capital market of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.”
“German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere, and at all times; not only was it NOT distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based NOT on a desire to get rich on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling, and to a rational organization of life…Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an “industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where the revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption.”
“The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.”
“The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption, and international anarchy. What is to be expected, based on capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay, intensifying frictions, fragility and uncertainty, and a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.”
I returned to my room to find my belongings disrespectfully strewn about. The nurses had dumped the contents of my dresser onto the bed, drawers included. Nothing of my wardrobe remained neatly hung. Books lay scattered like debris in the room, some of the titles lying open and visibly damaged—one page in particular tattooed with a dirty shoe print.
I snatched my suitcase from the closet floor and began packing it, first with books but then removing some titles to pack clothing and other necessities. The two male nurses entered the room as I worked. The quiet one remained quiet.
The other one said: The director wants to see you.
At first I didn’t do anything. Then I nodded and smiled, stepping slowly toward them. I raised the arm without the suitcase in a gesture of acquiescence and surprised them with a sudden charge forth in which I knocked them both out of my way and ran out the door to the hallway, sliding on the tile with my suitcase flailing in my left hand. I heard one of the nurses fall on the tile and then I heard them both scrambling after me. I ran past patient rooms with doors closed and some open to the sound of televisions playing too loud, I ran past faces turning too late to behold the humanoid blur speeding through the hall. What were the blur’s intentions? I turned right at the hall’s end toward the cafeteria but slid into a small depression made for an alarmed exit door. I waited for the nurses to run past me into the cafeteria and perhaps out the cafeteria doors onto the back lawn, but they did not. Perhaps they saw me slide into the depression or perhaps it was a poor decision, premature to try and trick them. The quiet one was there reaching for me with thick fingers, his forearms fertile with black hair. I punched him almost square in the chin with my right. It surprised him and he staggered back into the arms of the talkative one, who regarded me with eyes wide and full of violent delight.
The talkative one said: You’re fuckin dead.
I stepped forward and swung the suitcase up in a wide arc toward his face but it was too heavy and slow and he dodged it easily. The quiet one dove downward and got hold of my legs. I dropped the suitcase and with my hands clasped together brought them down forcefully on the back of the quiet one’s neck. I was able to bash him that way three times before the talkative one tackled me down. The quiet one had fallen asleep from the blows to his neck and only the talkative one remained. He was big and strong. He tried to wrestle me to obtain a dominant position but I slipped from his grasp and quickly got back to my feet. He stood and we squared each other up. He seemed amused but serious. He was wiry and had the composure of someone who’d fought many fights. A small crowd began to gather around us, murmuring like cats. Time seemed to slow so that passing seconds were audible disturbances. I had only been in two or three fistfights in my life, all of them during childhood. But my anger outweighed any trepidation or fear—my lack of fighting experience had been kidnapped by adrenaline. He swung for my face with his left and I dodged it. Then he swung with his right and he was too quick. He got me on the nose and my eyes welled with water. I tried to kick him and he dodged it easily. He laughed and re-centered himself with his hands by his cheeks, moving laterally like a boxer in a ring. I tried kicking him again just to keep some distance while my eyes stopped watering. He lowered his head and charged, tackling me into the wall with a thud and prompting an audible gasp from the observers, now numbering at least a dozen. We fell to the ground with him on top. He pushed himself up and raised his right hand toward his ear and I looked into his eyes to regard pure vacant fury. Then he blasted his hand into my face just under the right eye. My head bounced off the tile to another audible gasp from the onlookers. The nurse raised his fist up near his ear again.
GIBSON! screamed a voice from afar.
The nurse looked from me up to the source of the voice, his eyes wide as clarity and reason began to resurface. He dropped his hand, his chest heaving with air.
Director Hitchens’s shoes clicked on the tile as he ran toward us. A dull pain like a bruise began to spread at the back of my head. My lungs yearned for air but it was too difficult with the nurse atop me. I pushed him off, aware of swelling and extra blood below my eye, hot like lava beneath the skin.
Hitchens slid on the tile as he came to a stop. He seemed tired and haggard. He’d had a long day. He looked at me and then the quiet nurse coming to on the tile next to me and said: What the hell is going on here?
From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.
Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.
Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.
A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.
Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.
Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.
While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.
It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.
Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
democracy: a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
post-democracy: a society or state that possesses democratic systems but does not fully practice them
theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
The election of 2016 marked the fifth time in U.S. history that a president was elected without receiving the people’s vote. Some trying to understand what the election results mean in the context of history have turned to Colin Crouch’s idea of post-democracy from his 2004 book of the same name. Crouch argues that Western democracy is in a post-democratic state due to several causes, including globalism, post-industrialism, and the failure of electoral systems, among others. But what does it mean if the U.S. and much of the West is currently post-democratic? Can we define what we are in hopes of seeing where we are going?
The reality is that America is several different “things” at once that lack a cohesive identity. In part one of this series in which I search for a post-democratic American identity in 2017, I argue that the United States has always been part theocracy, and the inequality wrought of our government’s romance with religion has alienated much of its populace, creating distaste, distrust, and dissent.
A Long Romance
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedoms but also ensures that religion has no place in government. Religion is exclusive by definition—believers set themselves apart in their beliefs from those who believe alternately or do not believe at all. Conversely, democratic government must be inclusive of its citizenry. It must uphold the rights of all citizens, regardless of belief or social stature. Everyone participates in a democracy. Only some are religious.
But the First Amendment couldn’t completely protect the infrastructure from religious infiltration. America has flirted with theocracy since before the Union was legitimized. The word GOD is printed on currency, purposefully placed to penetrate the daily vernacular. John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2 before the Constitution was ratified: “Providence has given this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”
The founders were all religious. Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson were Deists, but most were Christians. Quakerism was rampant. The men who drafted the Constitution believed in free practice of religion without fear of persecution, but they also understood the necessity of a divided church and state for a healthy democratic system. Madison wrote to Congress in 1789: “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” Nevertheless, almost every president has been Christian.
Presidents Obama and Trump are Christian. Ninety-eight percent of the Members of the 114th Congress (2016) were reported to be affiliated with a religion. Of the 98%, the vast majority (92%) were Christian.
Equality is at the forefront of the ideals of liberal democracy. But equality is a vague and broad term, and those who wield it must respect its power. Ask five men what equality means to them and each will describe something different. But if those same men were to compare the main tenets of theocracy to the tenets of liberal democracy they would undoubtedly notice the gaping abyss between the two.
Since god was always present in American language, was it necessary for him to be? Theocracy is government by god and for god—god is the primary concern in structuring laws and social institutions. Conversely, the people are the primary concern in a liberal democracy. The people are the sole weapon in the system.
But America in 2017 is not a true liberal democracy. Perhaps it never was. There is proof enough in its flawed electoral college, which has failed the American people again. But there is further proof in its disproportionately Christian-American government. Are Americans as Christian as their government representatives? Are they as religious in general? Can citizens be represented fairly and equally when they subscribe to another religion or to no religion at all, and can this be proven in theory and in practice?
The answer to all of these questions is no. As stated before, Americans have always been religious. The pilgrims of the Mayflower were Protestant Christians from the Old World who sought the New World as a place for peaceful worship without persecution. I point again to the founders and the words they deliberately set in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them …” At its inception, America’s greatest architects placed equal value on man’s natural abilities and those abilities provided to him by god. But do Americans still feel that way?
A 2014 Pew study found that 89% of Americans believed in god, with 70.6% of those identifying as Christians. Pew identified at least nine other active religions in America, illustrating a more diverse populace than its representatives. Further, many Americans do not practice a religion. Religiously unaffiliated Americans—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans (22 percent) today. The populace is not as Christian as it once was, and its government fails to reflect this. A lynchpin in liberal democracy is equal and proportionate representation, and the American system must either verify equal representation for all citizens and amend itself to account for them, or the people will need to “dissolve the political bands” as their founders did 241 years ago.
Belief and Equality
Life after death is a common theme in religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western civilization. “In the Judeo-Christian conception, death is real and fearful. [Death is not] thought to be like walking from one room to another. Only through the sovereign creative love of god can there be a new existence beyond the grave.”
Though Jewish people have diverging views on the afterlife, the Talmud—a sacred religious text in Judaism—describes a life after this world in which believers must prepare their souls. Likewise in Islam, the souls of believers in this world are resurrected by Allah, or god, to be judged for assignation to heaven or hell, with either eternal punishment or reward for their actions and beliefs in this world.
Christians also believe in an afterlife. As with the resurrection of Christ in Christian lore, so too are believers resurrected to an everlasting paradise of emotions and sensations upon their earthly demise. The Christian’s struggle in this world is rewarded in the next. Just as with Jews, Muslims, and many other religions, Christians believe that true reality—true salvation—lies in a reality beyond that in which you read these words.
Conversely, the non-believer places no credence in any reality other than the reality in which she lives each day, the reality in which she routinely participates in civic life. It is her right to vote for equal government representation in a fair and just electoral system. She lives in the here and now and values her immediate world and its reality over any other. She would rather choose for herself than place trust in elected officials with alternative views of reality. She does not need her Christian neighbor to decide the legality or legitimacy of her actions because her Christian neighbor is living for another time, another place. She is burdened by the weight of a government that does not value her reality, but a potential future reality in which she plays no part. Just as the Muslim and Jew, the non-believer is alienated—disconnected and distrustful of those chosen to represent her.
Conclusion – Disarmament
Post-democratic America has no identity, but several sub-identities that make up the whole. Its religiose government has forged theocratic ideals into daily reality, sweeping the legs from democratic principles and alienating (and often persecuting) a growing number of citizens with alternate views. America is a diverse populace and the people’s worldly religions are supposedly welcome, free to practice, but always under the eye of Christian scrutiny.
Further undermining the democratic system is the broken electoral structure, which has failed (for the fifth time) to appoint the people’s choice for president. Sabotage of the election by rival states and the impotency of the people’s vote begs for a dramatic overhaul of the electoral infrastructure. Until then Americans float in post-democratic limbo, without a central identity. The time is ripe for faction, which Madison warned about in Federalist No. 10:
Complaints are heard everywhere […] that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are often decided not according to the rules of justice and the rights of minor parties, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
The post-democratic reality now facing many Americans has led them to look not within the system to repair it, but elsewhere to disarm it.
The snow was more than a meter deep without drifts. Each step was a victory earned by the breath in our lungs, every muscle in the body straining up the spongy incline rutted with tree and rock. Quickly we discovered we would not make it unless we helped each other, provided leverage where man substituted tree, an outstretched glove covered in snow in a world fiercely against us, its gravity, calm, and vastness too much to meet alone. Lungs aflame and breaths before us like clouds where above there were none—a sky impossibly blue and vast just as our steps from the Jeep grew impossibly numerous. I looked back to our path up the mountain, a manmade seam in an otherwise undisturbed natural kingdom. Twice we stopped to rest. The exertion elevated my body temperature but my feet and hands felt frozen. Brandon stopped moving again but it wasn’t to rest. With the breath pumping in and out of him, he said: This is it.
He looked down the mountain and up to the sky then pointed to the tree nearest me. Should be right there, he said, then knelt and began digging with his hands, shuffling the snow away from the base of the tree. A bird cawed. I knelt to help Brandon, keeping my eyes trained on him and the woods around us. The digging brought him to rustling plastic and he carefully extracted a bulky black trash bag, brushing the snow from it. It’s in here, he said, handing it to me. I could feel the contours of the boot box inside, heavy with paper. Hope it’s not damaged, I said.
A doe startled me to my left. She watched us with interest, two tall figures limited by two legs, shrunken by their voyage up the mountain. She’d studied our journey the entire way, from our vehicles on the bluff to a point not halfway up the mountain, where the doe, amused and aware of our admiration for her combination of elegance and power, took leave swift and light to a place beyond the trees.
Notes from Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance:
“The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. Philosophical activity, by which I mean the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by militant resistance to nihilism. That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our values are meaningless and require a Nietzschean ‘trans-valuation.’”
“The human being has a reflective attitude towards its experiences and towards itself. This is why human beings are eccentric, because they live beyond limits set for them by nature by taking up a distance from their immediate experience. In living outside itself in its reflective activity, the human being achieves a break with nature.”
“Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is guided by one imperative: conscience-less free trade; a life of open, unashamed, direct, and brutal exploitation.”
“Some wrote in the 1970s that capitalism was over. On the contrary, capitalism under the guise of globalization is spreading its tentacles to every corner of the earth. If someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and distribution rights.”
“Politics is not rare or seldom, and to adopt such a position is defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, but they also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, an invitation for our ethical commitment and political resistance.”
“No revolution will be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do is what we must do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning. No ontology or eschatological philosophy is going to do it for us.”
Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, London, 2012.