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Redeeming Democratic Possibility

I have argued in recent essays that the ongoing democratic governance crisis confronting the United States is the product of long-term economic and social trends exploited by the Republican Party for electoral purposes by scapegoating minorities. That predicament is now also fed by a solid phalanx of GOP faithful who profess to believe Donald Trump’s Big Lie concerning the election and who have been supported in that stance by their Party and its leaders. Those officials have overwhelmingly backed the former president’s vacuous claim that he won the November 2020 election and many GOP leaders in Congress and state legislatures alike have gone much further in recent weeks to support the individuals who engaged in the Capitol insurrection on January 6, to lie about those responsible for that riot and to press to abridge the voting rights of millions of Americans on the basis of nonexistent voting fraud.  I have noted that most of those GOP leaders do not appear personally to believe these assertions, a fact that makes their anti-democratic stance all the more cynical and its public embrace even more indefensibly immoral.  

Rather, those officials appear to be driven foremost by a desire for power and, to a lesser extent, a hatred of self-governance borne of decades of asserting that markets are sufficient to govern the nation. There is no evidence for this last claim either, but its adoption as a policy prescription serves specific elites who have long decried the limited welfare state the nation created in the 1930s and who have sought to reduce it by supporting Republican leaders prepared to scapegoat the nation’s minorities and poor for the suffering and difficulties their preferred policy decisions have created. That is, many of the concerns now animating the Republican faithful originated and have been sustained by the political choices of their own Party’s officials. Perversely and cynically, those leaders continue to make decisions that either exacerbate or do little to mitigate those human costs. Put more broadly, the Republican Party has long been engaged in a Ponzi scheme of lies that now threaten to undermine the nation’s very capacity to govern itself, even as the Republican National Committee and the Party’s elected officials at all geographic levels attack the civil and human rights of a substantial share of America’s citizens as a means to mobilize others to support its continuing assault.

Michael Gerson, a long-time Republican and a writer for The Washington Post, has been one of the most acute analysts of this evolving situation. In a recent essay he argued that the GOP is now simply the party of white grievance. His analysis was trenchant:

One of the poisonous legacies of Donald Trump’s presidency has been to expand the boundaries of expressible prejudice. Through the explicit practice of White-identity politics, Trump has obviated the need for code words and dog whistles. Thus his strongest supporters during the Jan. 6 riot felt free to carry Confederate battle flags and wear “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts without fear of reproof from their political allies. …  

All this should create a tremendous philosophic tension within the GOP. The party has been swiftly repositioned as an instrument of white grievance. It refuses to condemn racists within its congressional ranks. Its main national legislative agenda seems to be the suppression of minority voting. Trumpism is defined by the belief that real Americans are beset by internal threats from migrants, Muslims, multiculturalists, Black Lives Matter activists, antifa militants and various thugs, gangbangers and whiners. … [And] this viewpoint implies and requires dehumanization; resisting our animal instincts is the evidence of political correctness. The whole Trump movement, and now most of the Republican Party, is premised on the social sanctification of pre-cognitive fears and disgust.[1]

That disgust as Gerson noted, is ultimately predicated on dehumanizing members of minority groups, especially Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, immigrants and refugees.[2] As he also observed, one Capitol insurrectionist heinously demonstrated that a significant share of those devoted to Trump and the GOP imagine that invoking Auschwitz and the incalculably cruel and barbarous aphorism at its entrance constitute a badge of pride. This is insanity, but it is an insanity, as Gerson also noted, that is now not only tolerated, but also encouraged by GOP party officials by their refusal to condemn it and by their embrace of a torrent of lies that send signals to supporters that such behavior is acceptable. Nonetheless, such conduct never can be tolerated in a democratic, not to say, human, society.

The Capitol insurrection and the long-term Party and Trump behavior that underpinned and spawned it, are evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the GOP. Since the lion’s share of Republican elected leaders have now indicated they are prepared to continue to embrace a daily stream of lies, to work actively to deny millions of American citizens their civil rights, and more broadly, to turn one segment of the population against governance and other Americans in the name of electoral mobilization, the pressing question now confronting the nation is not whether those officials can be brought to behave differently. It is instead whether the voters supporting them can be persuaded to reconsider their “pre-cognitive fears,” in Gerson’s memorable phrase.

Because those citizens are not acting rationally, one cannot expect simply to offer them the facts and expect them to shift course. Were that so, millions would not have supported Trump’s lies and cruelty in 2016 or 2020 or in the years in between, and millions would not continue to do so. A new book by University of Texas historian Peniel Joseph tackles this central concern as it addresses the life course and thinking of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in their shared quest to secure full civil rights and dignity for African Americans and the poor in the United States. While these two great leaders famously differed in their approach, Joseph argues persuasively that each moved closer to the other’s philosophic stance as their lives progressed. Neither man lived long enough to see the continuing power and fruits of their efforts, but Joseph contends that both surely grappled with the relative intractability of humanity’s capacity for self-deluded and empty-minded hatred. Indeed, confronting that fact was the life’s work of each. Joseph described the continuing power of King’s work and thought this way:

Martin Luther King Jr’s enduring legacy is the commitment to and introduction of what I call radical black citizenship, … which encompassed more than just voting rights. … King came to realize that that in addition to voting, true citizenship included a good job, living wage, decent housing, quality education, health care and nourishment. … His life also provides a framework for resistance against rising levels of inhumanity, racism and injustice that he would find all too familiar today.[3]

Joseph meanwhile characterized Malcolm X’s enduring contribution to democratic life as,

His unapologetic insistency on what I call radical black dignity [which] marked him as prophetic visionary in the eyes of a global black community and as a dangerous subversive to the American government. Malcolm defined black dignity as a collective goal that required bold leadership and the ability to confront America’s tragic racial history.[4]

It seems fair to Joseph’s nuanced argument to suggest that both leaders understood the singular challenge racial and ethnic pluralism has posed to the nation’s democratic experiment since its inception, and both likewise understood on the basis of deep personal experience and, in King’s case, long study, just how difficult securing human dignity and democratic possibility can be for those who can be feared and labeled as different or lesser (including the poor, irrespective of their skin color or perceived heritage). The nub of the matter is that the GOP has sought to exploit this human propensity to inflict cruelty on the basis of difference for decades in order to secure an otherwise unpopular policy agenda. Today, the Party is aided in its efforts to deprive a share of the country’s citizens of their citizenship and dignity, in King and Malcolm’s terms, by a national entertainment network that profits handsomely from inflaming animus, and by web platforms led by extremists who profit similarly from galvanizing their audiences to falsely focused grievance, anger and hatred.

In a thoughtful essay concerning Joseph’s book in The New York Review of Books, Brandon Terry argued that the enduring challenge to democracy and justice represented by today’s Republican Party cannot be overcome with business as usual. This is so in part because the power of the ongoing Trump/GOP scam rests in the very real fears and anxieties confronting many of their supporters, who have, in lieu of seeking ways and means collectively to address those issues, instead long been encouraged to focus responsibility for their concerns on those who are, in fact, innocent of creating them. Terry argued that King and Malcolm X decades ago captured the grave challenge that now once again confronts our nation:

King’s question, given renewed urgency by the collapse of American education in the pandemic, is whether a tighter knitting of our ‘shared garment of destiny’ can generate a spirit of solidarity and civic experimentation capable of resisting the opportunity-hoarding, fiscal absurdities, and simple discrimination that subject vulnerable Black children to ‘injustice and waste.’ Malcolm’s equally significant retort is whether such programs might avoid Black humiliation and achieve participatory parity in decision-making.[5]

While the Biden administration’s much heralded return to decency and normalcy, and its stated intent to support the rights of all citizens and to offer them succor and support when necessary, constitute a major step in a much-needed direction to address these signal democratic imperatives, they are unlikely alone to prove sufficient to secure them. The administration can surely provide an essential moral example, but such is now occurring in the face of united GOP opposition predicated on lies that work both to delegitimate all governance and to abrogate the rights of targeted groups. In the face of this mendacious and intransigent stance against democracy and freedom, the question is whether the Biden administration can work with the majority of concerned Americans to kindle, or perhaps to undergird, a social movement capable of highlighting the anti-democratic and contra-constitutional character of Trump and the Republican Party’s lies, racist demagoguery and voter suppression efforts. Malcolm X and King charted the goals of such an initiative and, until they were murdered, both led efforts to realize those aims. The nation now needs a fresh and broad-gauged movement to combat the GOP’s continuing initiatives to undermine self-governance and the civil rights of members of the country’s minority group citizens and those who do not belong to the party, regardless of whether or not they are from underrepresented minorities. Many of the recently introduced Republican bills are expressly aimed at reducing the number of Democrats who vote.  King and Malcolm X provided both the moral and political foundation for such a movement and King, particularly, demonstrated powerfully how it might be pursued. Those now willing to curtail the freedom of their fellow citizens on utterly false premises must be persuaded to reconsider the ugly origins and outcomes of those views and, more deeply, to adopt a conception of the American union that recognizes the rights of all who comprise it. Democracy requires no less and its survival in the United States cannot be guaranteed until that aspiration is attained, as both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X understood. 

Notes

[1] Gerson, Michael. “The GOP is now just the part of white grievance.” The Washington Post, March 1, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-gop-is-now-just-the-party-of-white-grievance/2021/03/01/67679480-7ab9-11eb-85cd-9b7fa90c8873_story.html, Accessed March 4, 2021.

[2] Nakamura, David. “Attacks on Asian Americans during pandemic renew criticism that U.S. undercounts hate crimes,” The Washington Post, February 22, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/asian-american-hate-crimes/2021/02/21/c28a8e04-72d9-11eb-b8a9-b9467510f0fe_story.html, Accessed March 1, 2021.

[3] Joseph, Peniel. The Sword and The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Basic Books, 2020, p. 16.

[4] The Sword and the Shield, pp. 16-17.

[5] Terry, Brandon. “What Dignity Demands,” The New York Review of Books, (LXVIII,4), March 11, 2021, p.14.

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