[Prefatory Note: This essay appeared in its original form as an editorial in TRANSCEND Media Service, #654, on 31 August 2020. The text below is enlarged and somewhat modified.
I regard TMS as the best curated online weekly gathering of worthwhile writing from a progressive standpoint. It is inspired by the remarkable scholarship and leadership of Johan Galtung that has stimulated peace researchers and public intellectuals for more than six decades. TMS is brilliantly edited each week by Antonio C.S. Rosa, working from Porto, Portugal.]
The 2020 Election and its Aftermath
I share the view that the 2020 election in the United States is above all a referendum on fascism, and for this and many other reasons I hope it produces a Biden landslide, including control of the U.S. Congress by the Democratic Party. As well, it is my fervent wish that this outcome will be followed by a smooth transfer of political power.
From the perspective of the present, this kind of benign political scenario seems unlikely to materialize. Instead, we can more realistically expect a close election, which means that if Trump wins the fascist threat grows beyond control, while if he loses, he seems poised to refuse the result, charging voting fraud, and clinging to the presidency despite being rejected by the voting public. This prospect would provoke an unprecedented constitutional crisis and could be resolved by the first coup in American history, an unthinkable scenario until Trump came alone. Even if Trump is coercively removed from the White House, the fascist cause is likely to flourish as his more ardent followers seem ready to incite civil war rather than accept a political defeat, however warranted.
And even should these horrors be avoided, or dealt with in a responsible manner, the aftermath is likely to be deeply unpleasant, raising the question, above all, whether Donald Trump’s multiple crimes shall be shielded from prosecution, and a massive gift of impunity bestowed. If accountability and the rule of law are chosen, there would be myriad trials and calls of political martyrdom. Maybe the best solution would be asylum for Trump in Putin’s Russia. This kind of ‘retirement’ arrangement would have the delicious irony of having Trump share his place of refuge with Edward Snowden. There is a kind of political poetry present as Snowden told the world damning secrets about the U.S. surveillance regime while Trump is trying his hardest to keep his nefarious doings as secret as possible for as long as he can.
Deeper Structural Concerns (1) Reimagining U.S. Federalism
Even in the unlikely event that all goes well procedurally, it is no time to gloat about the vindication of the American version of constitutional democracy. Should Trump upset present expectations, and win in November, he will almost certainly again have the perverse, and now anachronistic, peculiarities of the Electoral College to thank. Trump will have little trouble putting out of mind the awkward fact that he prevailed although he once again as in 2016 won fewer votes than his defeated opponent. In 2020 there is no sufficient justification for counting a vote in Idaho or Montana as more valuable than a vote in California or New York. Since the winner in each state gets the whole of its Electoral College vote whether the margin of victory is one vote or one million votes. Democracy as a political system loses legitimacy whenever it cannot dislodge such anachronistic quirks of its electoral system, and the real mandate of a voting majority of the citizenry is denied the fruits of victory.
Of course, there is an important riposte to the effect that the large populations of the two coastal states, with it greater attachment to liberal values, would dominate the electoral process, and do not reflect the country as a whole. It is also claimed that this kind of direct citizen voting framework would further marginalize the relevance of the ‘flyover’ states, and in this sense undermine the federalist character of the republic, which was integral to the envisioned constitutional balance between unity and decentralization that informed the vision of the founders. As such what is put in relief are two distinct questions: was the electoral college a clever solution to this challenge of empowering and protecting diversity while creating a desirable level of unity when the United States was established as a mega-state in the late 18th century? Has this ‘solution’ become in recent decades an outmoded model of federalism given digitized re-framings of people, ideas, and consciousness that has so far occurred in the 21st century. Such re-framings exhibit a variety of tendencies toward localism and centralism, with diminished relevance to the units constituting the sovereign state as political actor? Put differently, is not the country at a stage of political development that federalism needs to be reimagined from ecological, cyber, temporal, humanist, and cosmopolitan perspectives? Reimagining would lead to a deemphasis on the spatial compartmentalization of 50 distinct political entities in the context of national elections as well as acknowledge the deterritorialization of sovereign states, and especially the United States, as the sole ‘global state.’
A further concern is with the impact of federalist arrangements on the wellbeing of peoples is its dual character. Federalism has given a safe harbor to the ugliest forms of racism and bigotry, but it has also given space for sanctuary and humane values when the central government turns against vulnerable parts of society in a regressive direction. The Trump phenomenon has confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that all political arrangements are fragile, subject to lethal manipulation when the self-restraint and decency of ruling elites is replaced by narcissism, greed, criminality, and demagoguery.
(2) Rigging the Results
As others have observed, Joe Biden will need much more than a simple majority to win the election. He will need a landslide that overcomes not just the impacts of the Electoral College, but also that neutralizes the distorting effects of Republican gerrymandering and widespread voter suppression practices designed to keep persons of color, the poor, and those living in progressive urban neighborhoods from voting. Because Republicans are so focused on winning and upholding privilege whatever the consequences, they have been using their extensive control of state legislatures and governorships throughout the country to disenfranchise their adversaries while organizing their bases of support to participate in vital elections.
Again, the Democratic Party has its own inglorious past, which includes a past shameless reliance on machine politics featuring city hall political manipulations of voting patterns and electoral results. The great game of American politics has always been to varying degrees a game played by unscrupulous actors with many dirty tricks up their soiled sleeves. Political parties are formed to protect interests and win elections, which means that principles tend to be put aside, and the truly virtuous potential leaders tend to be repulsed by the game or excluded by the party leadership. Bernie Sanders is a perfect case in point, being too virtuous, too principled, and too independent to represent the Democratic Party, and this despite showing his relative popularity with the citizenry, surely greater than the candidate chosen by the gatekeepers. In this illuminating respect, there are certain considerations that outweigh winning elections. Concretely, the Democratic Party establishment would rather go with the weaker candidate than go with a stronger alternative who would threaten the donor-driven consensus.
(3) The Erosion and Debasement of Choice: Breaking the ‘Bipartisan Consensus’
There are further related reasons for humility about the functioning of democracy in the United States that extend beyond the electoral system and the disturbing behavior of political parties. The most glaring shortcomings are associated with the absence of alternative approaches made available to the voting public on the most crucial issues confronting society. It relates to the failure of the two-party system when neither party possesses a willingness to support candidates who are willing to advocate overcoming the distortions on the quality of life and governance being wrought by plutocracy, global militarism, predatory capitalism, climate change, and systemic racism.
The current American version of two-party democracy has steadily decayed due to the embedded bipartisan consensus that was originally a functional feature of the political landscape during World War II when the country was productively united in support of an anti-fascist war. This consensus became substantially and more dubiously reconstituted as the ideological foundation of an anti-Communist global crusade that set boundaries on political diversity during the long Cold War. Among the harmful effects of this two-party consensus was curtailing mainstream political debate, discrediting socialist thought, making the outcome of national elections count for far less, making a war economy and militarized state permanent fixtures of governance, generating ‘a deep state’ entrusted with sustaining the consensus, and instrumentalizing respect for international law and the authority of the UN.
It might have been hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Soviet collapse a few years later would have encouraged taking stock, a national turn toward peace, and a greater openness to progressive political ideas. Nothing of the sort occurred during the 1990s, a wasted decade of world order opportunity. The West won the Cold War, but lost the peace by its embrace of consumerism and an economy guided by efficiencies of capital rather than the wellbeing of peoples.
First, attention was redirected to the plutocratic benefits accruing from the absence of an ideological alternative to market-driven economic policy, which meant that the ethics of greed could be practiced without adverse political consequences. Accordingly, with the support of both political parties, the U.S. Government focused its attention on making the world safe for predatory capitalism, a set of policy priorities reflecting what became known as either ‘the Washington consensus’ or more politely, ‘neoliberal globalization.’ This economistic orientation, in effect, a capitalist version of Marxist materialism, encouraged consumerist orgies and environmental irresponsibility. This reflected civilian and most private sector priorities. It was not satisfactory for the militarists and arms dealers who also wanted, and maybe required, an enemy to make the case for continuing with wartime scale military budgets and for restoring their self-esteem as guardians of national and global security.
The first candidate to be a post-Communist enemy was Japan, with its disciplined work force and booming economy that was seen as a growing threat to American ascendancy, at least in the Pacific. This candidate to be the new enemy seemed rather implausible as Japan was the principal U.S. ally in the Pacific region since its defeat in World War II, and was impossible to cast as a security threat to Americn geopolitical primacy.
The next enemy candidate was a resurgent anti-Western Islam. Samuel Huntington’s thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations’ attracted political attention but it still was not plausible as a threat, given Western military dominance. The clash thesis did come to enjoy a dysfunctional credibility after the 9/11 attacks. These attacks produced ‘the war on terror,’ and did have the desired galvanizing effect of re-securitizing American foreign policy with a special emphasis on the Middle East where the energy future of the world seemed to be at risk. What ensued were several disastrous military interventions that resulted in geopolitical setbacks, while causing the devastation of a series of countries subjected to strife and chaos as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Next comes China, which seems to be a more familiar and plausible geopolitical adversary, but on further examination its role as ‘enemy’ is problematic. China has not attempted to challenge the West militarily or ideologically, but seems to be winning the competition for markets, economic expansionism, and technological innovativeness, and is now being cast by both wings of the American political establishment as a geopolitical adversary worth confronting. Not surprisingly, the Biden people seem as ready as the Trump autocracy to confront China and Iran, and even readier when it comes to Russia, although maybe in a more measured manner, but also one that may be more disposed to invite serious long-term engagements reinforced by a hypocritical solidarity with Hong Kong protesters and Uyghur struggles for human rights.
An America disgraced at home and abroad by its terrible performance in response to the COVID-19 challenge, is a wounded animal that has never been more at odds with the wellbeing of humanity, which urgently requires refocusing on human security, which needs to be concretized by reference to climate change, nuclear weaponry, global migration, food and worker security, demilitarization, global health, and strengthened procedures for global cooperation. This can only happen if the militarist/plutocratic consensus is challenged from outside the party framework, by a movement rather than a political party.
The persistence of this dysfunctional bipartisan consensus represents an unauthorized redrafting of the social contract that continuously reshapes state/society relations to retain its status as a legitimate democracy. It is a political and moral scandal that a considerable fraction of the citizenry lacks health care, affordable higher education and housing, and the society as a whole endures acute inequalities, unjust taxation, infrastructure decay, and climate change without mounting a serious challenge within the two-party framework. Bernie Sander bravely tried twice to push the Democratic Party to the outer limits of the bipartisan consensus, but in the end both in 2016 and 2020 he was bloodied by the DNC establishment that refused to be pushed anywhere near the brink. It is notable that Sanders, like Trump from a rightest direction, sought to alter the outer limits of the consensus but never mounted direct assaults on the structural features of militarism or capitalism.
The Trump phenomenon is an extreme national example of the global populist drift away from democracy by alienated citizenries around the world who cast their votes for demagogues, that is, for individuals who are taking advantage of democratic procedures and institutions to hollow out democracy so as to move particular societies toward autocracy. Such a drift reflects the distinctive features of national narratives as well as reflects a certain set of global conditions that express alienation from what ‘democracy’ bestowed upon their lives. To distract and divert, scapegoating becomes a core tactics of these moves away from democratic cohesion. In a world of inequalities and global warming, there has arisen a frightening receptivity to blaming the stranger or the other for the unfairness being experienced in the forms of inequality, economic displacement, and erosions of national identity.
(4) Disenfranchising the World
A final concern involves the disenfranchisement of the peoples of the world. I would maintain that a legitimate U.S. democracy in the 21st century should enlarge its writ to heed the political will of those who reside beyond the territorial boundaries of the country and owe traditional allegiances to another country. These foreigners are deeply affected by the extra-national influence exerted by the United States on their lives and livelihood, and yet are without representation or any means to register formal approval or disapproval. The U.S. by virtue of its global reach, mainly through a network of military bases, naval forces patrolling the high seas, claims based on cyber and space security, and diplomatic leverage, often has more impact on foreign societies than their own government.
Should not consideration be given to some form of non-territorial enfranchisement (not necessarily a full and equal vote) that is more congruent with the realities of a networked, digital world than is the territorial sovereign state? It is time that we deploy our moral and political imagination to envision non-territorial democracy that takes account of geopolitical configurations of power as well as ecosystems that cannot function properly if subject to no source of governance with precedence over the claims of national sovereignty. The statist territoriality of life on the planet has declined to the point where only multi-leveled democratic governance can hope to address humanely the multiple and diverse challenges directed at humanity as a whole. Europe has pioneered such a development on a regional level, and although paused at present, gives us existential strivings toward new forms of political community and governance.
In essence, we cannot be hopeful about the future unless we commit ourselves to the hard work of deterritorializing democracy, demilitarizing the state, pacifying geopolitics, empowering people, and strengthening the United Nations and international law. As well, time as well as space must become integral elements of national, transnational, regional, and global policy formation and problem-solving. This means that short-termism must be supplanted by time horizons that are congruent with the nature of global challenges.