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Democratic Torpor?



Authors as Published

This past week saw at least three significant events for the American regime, which were overshadowed, understandably, by the Boston Marathon bombing in news coverage. All three occurrences, while not obviously directly related, suggest lessons for self-governance and the profound importance of democratic political choices.

First, the so-called Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of England and a leading proponent of neo-liberalism, was laid to rest. The doppelganger of our own nation’s former president, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher pressed for vigorous enlargement of the role of the market in virtually all dimensions of her country’s life. In so doing she went so far as to contend famously that there was no such thing as “society.” Only individuals counted in Thatcher’s calculus.

Second, the nonpartisan Constitution Project’s task force on the brutal interrogation and detention programs carried out during the George W. Bush years (2001-2009) released its independent assessment of those efforts and forcefully declared them violations of international law and treaties and lacking any substantive rationale ( The report of the 11-member group, chaired by two former congresspersons, a Democrat and a Republican, was predicated on an exhaustive sifting of evidence and a wide ranging set of interviews with many of the principals involved.

Finally, The United States Senate refused to pass any meaningful effort to secure a more thoroughgoing gun ownership registration system despite the American population’s overwhelming support for such measures, and as a direct consequence of the strongly mobilized opposition of the gun lobby, especially the National Rifle Association (NRA). Each of these occurrences deserves further consideration.

The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg succinctly summarized the consequences of Thatcher’s successful institutionalization of neo-liberal policies for Great Britain in this week’s volume of that periodical:

‘Thatcherism’-small government, privatization, meager public services, regressive taxation, monetarism, hostility to trade unions, indifference to unemployment, austerity as a matter of principle, nationalism, military pride, and Victorian social values, all with a sheen of Murdochian populism--leaves a mixed legacy. The rumpled, cozy Britain of the postwar decades … gave way to a Britain of pitiless dynamism and poisonous inequality.

One might describe the import of Reagan’s nearly identical program for our own country very similarly, particularly its consequences for inequality, for broad intolerance of government action among many and for Labor, which now offers little meaningful resistance to corporate power in the American political economy. In addition, Hertzberg’s description likely should be augmented for both the United States and the United Kingdom by acknowledging the fact that privatization has created massively complex structures of governance that are difficult for citizens even to fathom, let alone to understand and hold accountable. The implications of these regime realities are still unfolding decades later, but in both nations they have resulted in corrosive patterns of delegitimization of public institutions and, especially in the United States, too easy paranoia among some of public authority. There is surely vitality in each country, but it is increasingly an energy associated with the few while many citizens languish in the equivalent of economic and political quicksand. The implication of these trends for self-governance has been massive and growing inequality, increasing public attacks on the poor for being poor by many public officials, decreasing citizen understanding and engagement in governance and unprecedented willingness among public leaders to assume that markets can substitute for the hard business of democratic governance.

Turning to the Constitution Project’s findings, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have each publicly and harshly criticized opponents of the torture regime both oversaw during the Bush presidency by arguing the necessity of their efforts and the naiveté of their critics. Cheney especially has demeaned any who disagree with his embrace of torture as an essential policy tool. The upshot of the claims of both men has been a continuation of the “debate” about America’s turn to brutishness as a means to address widespread public fears created by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. While the Obama administration has rightly ceased all such activity, it remains unclear, given the intransigence of these and other former Bush administration officials and Hollywood’s continued glorification of such horrific practices, that a future presidency might not revive such acts. The result would be both morally outrageous and ethically indefensible. So it is important, as the New York Times noted this week, that the Constitution Project’s thoughtful effort receives wide attention. As the task force itself noted, “as long as the debate continues, so too does the possibility that the United States could again engage in torture.” Few policy steps have done more to diminish this nation’s standing in the world and to undermine its very foundational principles, than the Bush administration’s turn to torture. Such practices, undertaken with knowing malice, cannot be permitted to return under any circumstances. The Project’s patiently detailed critical analysis of the emptiness of their supposed justification deserves wide attention.

Finally, the Senate vote not to embrace even minimal gun registration in the wake of the Newtown tragedy and too many other gun-related violent incidents to relate, reminds analysts, were any reminder needed, of the power of mobilized minorities in American electoral politics. While some of the critical phalanx of GOP senators and small number of Democrats who voted against reason in this case (notably, not on the merits, but on whether the bill could withstand a GOP filibuster) likely did so for ideological reasons, most were well aware that the claims of the NRA and other gun ownership groups denouncing the proposed legislation bore little relationship to reality. But these organizations mobilized a group likely to vote and posed the peril for many elected leaders of challenges from their right if they voted “wrong” on the gun registration proposal. So the nation continues as the most violent in the Western world and with powerful weapons readily available without sufficient accountability to virtually any persistent would-be purchaser. This outcome of America’s current curiously shrill form of interest group advocacy politics is especially sad and perverse. Proponents of an odd form of individual absolutism have once again mobilized sufficiently to defeat a reasoned claim for common action. This has become a frequent outcome in American politics in recent years. Only time will tell if this penchant can be reversed in the present case, but as I write, such a shift seems unlikely.

One thread that joins these apparently disparate events of the week is that all are the product of democratic action. An oil-shocked and stagflation weary America turned to ideological claims in the late 1970s and thereby enlivened a democratic politics of profound marketization, governance complexity and crisis and public division in the span of a single generation. The policies resulting from that turn have created a new and increasingly corrosive politics of deep economic and social inequality that threatens not only the capacities of the American regime, but now also the very foundations of the nation’s moral standing and legitimacy with its citizenry and in the world. That said it is worthwhile remembering that these implications arose directly from democratic action. Ultimately, only the American population can address them, as it was that citizenry that embraced them.

Publication Date

April 21, 2013