A guide for the perplexed
The country faces a systemic crisis. Daniel Lazare argues that ‘Repocratic’ politics inevitably leads to chaos
American politics can be confusing, and here are just a few examples why:
- January 2017: Democratic Congressman John Lewis calls Donald Trump illegitimate a week prior to inauguration day, on the grounds that “the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton”. The New York Times happily agrees, as do Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But then just last week, a Times editorial assails Republicans for questioning Biden’s legitimacy, because by doing so they “are undermining the rule of law”.1
- November 2018: Liberal media outlets slam Republican congressman David Nunes for issuing a report charging the FBI with deliberately misleading a top-secret national-security court with regard to its explosive Russiagate investigation. The New York Times dismisses Nunes’s findings as a “nothingburger”, Vox says, “There is absolutely nothing here”, while Rolling Stone magazine describes him as “Trump and Putin’s most useful idiot on Capitol Hill”. Less than 12 months later, Michael Horowitz, the department of justice’s highly regarded inspector general, releases another report about the FBI’s dealings with the national-security court, and, lo and behold, it turns out that Nunes was largely correct after all. Even Jeff Bezos’s Trumpophobic Washington Post is forced to admit that Horowitz “vindicated … a fair amount” of what Nunes had to say.2
- October 2020: Pro-Democratic media outlets are outraged when Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post reveals that emails found in a laptop owned by Hunter Biden indicate that he used his father’s name to drum up business in China and the Ukraine. The neocon journalist, Anne Applebaum, says, “There’s no ‘there’ there”, tax-supported National Public Radio says it will not “waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions”, while the corporate press in general applauds, as Facebook and Twitter block the story and shut the Post out of its own account. But, when Hunter discloses that he is under investigation for tax fraud, the tune changes. Instead of dismissing the story as “Russian disinformation”, the Times sombrely notes that the investigation into the younger Biden’s business affairs puts the president-elect in “a no-win situation that could prove distracting at best and politically and legally perilous at worst”.3
Where liberals once decried censorship, in other words, they now cheer it on. After years of lampooning Republicans as head-in-the-sand isolationists, they engage in the sort of anti-Russian xenophobia that would make Joe McCarthy blush. While questioning Trump’s legitimacy at every opportunity, they cry foul the moment Republicans question Biden’s.
All of which is perplexing, to say the least. After all, American ‘progressives’ agree that Democrats, for all their faults, are the party of relative sanity, while Republicans, according to no less an authority than Noam Chomsky, are possibly “the most dangerous organisation in human history” due to their know-nothing attitude towards global warming.4 But how can Democrats be better when they engage in cover-ups, misinformation and outright lies? And how can Republicans be worse when people like Nunes struggle to tell the truth about FBI malpractices despite a liberal chorus of abuse? How can Americans tell the good guys from the bad guys when they’re constantly switching sides?
But if little of this makes sense, it is because people are looking at US politics the wrong way. Americans are encouraged - even mandated - to view them through a ‘Repocratic’ lens, in which a ‘not totally awful’ party is forever doing battle with one that is far worse. Or so bien-pensant intellectuals remind us. But the viewpoint is misleading. For one thing, it is far from clear that the Republicans are worse. While talking a good game when it comes to climate change, for instance, Democrats are just as wedded to fossil fuels, while, in terms of foreign policy, they have emerged in recent years as even more aggressive and bellicose.
But, in any case, the viewpoint is misleading, because it suggests that one or both of the parties are driving the crisis, when events are driving them. The American political crisis is not partisan, but systemic. Instead of Republicans or Democrats undermining society, it is a case of a structural crisis undermining society and everything in it. Rather than causative, Repocrats are reflective of a larger process of constitutional decay.
This is the only way to understand the charges of illegitimacy that are constantly flying about. If the parties are illegitimate, it is because legitimacy in general is in short supply in a constitutional structure that is impossible to change, that has never been debated in full since its adoption more than 230 years ago, and which frustrates democracy at every turn, by subordinating it to a growing minority dictatorship. Rather than confronting such questions, bourgeois politics are configured so as to avoid them. They allow Americans to argue over this or that Supreme Court nominee, while discouraging them from asking why appointments are for life or how justices can pretend to interpret a constitution whose meaning is lost in the mists of time. (It’s just not relevant, you see.)
It enables them to root for candidates in various swing states without questioning why swing states exist in the first place or why the Electoral College is allowed to distort politics by tripling the weight of lily-white ‘rotten boroughs’ like Vermont and Wyoming, while short-changing multi-racial giants like California and New York.
It fairly condemns Americans to remain perched on the edge of their seat during the upcoming January 5 special elections in Georgia, which will determine whether the Senate remains in Republican hands or falls under the control of the Democrats. At the same time, it effectively ‘disappears’ the question of why the Senate exists, why equal state representation has been allowed to continue, and how it has turned into perhaps the most undemocratic major legislative body on the face of the earth.
US politics are structured so as to prevent Americans from straying from the proper path. They do not make sense because they are not supposed to. They are designed, rather, to disorient and confuse. America’s two-party system is likewise constructed so as to keep politics in a state of permanent underdevelopment. By now the oldest such system in modern history - even older than the Tory-Whig system that prevailed in Britain from 1687 until the mid-1800s - it is the only one in which the two parties have switched sides, with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and anti-slavery, drifting to the right and Democrats, the party of racism and state autonomy, moving to the pseudo-left, as they jettisoned their pro-segregationist ‘Dixiecratic’ wing and embraced the rhetoric of feminism and civil rights. The results are beyond exhausted. Yet, while poll after poll shows America’s huddled masses yearning for an alternative, it only grows more entrenched, as voting and registration laws continue to harden. As the social democratic magazine Jacobin pointed out in 2016,
Over the three decades following US entry into World War I, as working class and socialist parties burgeoned throughout the industrialised world, American elites chose to deal with the problem by radically restricting access to the ballot. In state after state, petition requirements and filing deadlines were tightened and various forms of routine legal harassment, unknown in the rest of the democratic world, became the norm.5
The process continues to this day, as Republicans and Democrats do everything in their power to deepen and extend their duopoly. The more they do, the more unscrupulous, unresponsive and corrupt the system grows and, paradoxically, the more partisanship intensifies. The result is a generation of gridlock that is now heading in the direction of outright civil war, as neo-fascist brawlers like the Proud Boys take to the streets in growing numbers.6 After enduring three years of hell due to Russiagate, Republicans are salivating over the prospect of using Hunter Biden’s troubles to subject Democrats to similar torture. Indeed, conservatives are already calling for the appointment of a special counsel, so that an investigation can proceed “free of political interference”, as one Republican congressman put it.7 This will render the incoming administration all but helpless, while, of course, raising political interference to a higher level still.
Politics will be both more poisonous and more ineffectual. Democrats may have won the presidency, but after losing at least 10 House seats, the power structure will be more divided than ever. A clean sweep in Georgia may redress the balance to a degree, but it will still leave the Dems with a 50-50 tie, with vice-president Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote. This will put them at the mercy of centrists like Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia - a self-proclaimed “moderate conservative”, who is closely tied to the coal industry and has voted with Trump more often than not, and Republican Susan Collins of Maine - another ‘moderate’ who supported the back-to-back invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, opposed the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, co-sponsored a bill imposing up to a 20-year prison sentence on anyone encouraging or participating in an anti-Israel boycott, and who infuriated feminists in 2018 by voting to confirm rightwing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
A Manchin-Collins partnership, if that is what shapes up, will dash progressive hopes all the more. And that is if the Dems win a clean sweep in Georgia. If they do not, the combination of a Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican near-majority in the House will leave them writhing in agony. The ‘correlation of forces’ will favour rightwing Democrats like Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger - famous for declaring last month that “we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again”. She will end up in the driver’s seat, while left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wind up more marginalised than ever. But Spanberger will be on a road to nowhere, as the structure continues to go downhill.
The symmetry is striking. At the height of Russiagate, Democrats whispered to one another that collusion was all for show and that the only thing that mattered was driving a racist authoritarian out of the White House by hook or by crook. Today, Republicans are no doubt whispering the same thing, as Trump continues to insist against all the evidence that he won by a landslide. Tales of massive voter fraud are also for show, so that Republicans can cut their enemies off at the knees. The more the crisis intensifies, the more vicious, short-sighted and confused American politics will grow. Republicans and Democrats will continue grappling and clawing at one another, as they tumble off a cliff.
nytimes.com/2020/10/15/us/politics/giuliani-russian-disinformation.html; and nytimes.com/2020/12/10/us/politics/hunter-biden-investigation.html.↩︎
S Ackerman, ‘A blueprint for a new party’ Jacobin November 8, 2016: jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman.↩︎
Saturday December 12, saw the Proud Boys’ largest rampage in Washington yet: see youtube.com/watch?v=C9Z6JKXLNDs.↩︎