The lessons from America are stark

Apr 17, 2023
The United States capitol building in Washington DC on a summer day with its flag waving in the wind.

From his stronghold at Princeton University, Sheldon Wolin watched his political system collapse. In the latter days of his life, Wolin erupted into utter despair. His final testimony was heartbreaking: America had become ‘the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.’ No opinion critical of the set-up is in any way acceptable, and no change will be tolerated. The lessons from America are stark.

The popular American philosopher Martha Nussbaum once wrote that John Dewey, the guru of education for democracy, worked ‘in a thriving democracy’ (p. 65) [Nussbaum, Not For Profit, 2010].

He wrote in the age of the notorious robber barons, and racial discrimination when America was well on the way to the trenching inequality that has all but destroyed its society. This delusion is widespread among Americans because they have little idea what a democracy is. They have Lincoln’s resounding detonation that it is ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’. It was all very well for Lincoln to resort to a noble definition in justification of a bloody civil war, but it had little basis in reality. Continually the propaganda machines whirl out slogans to convince people that they live in a land of freedom, and that the individual person is sovereign in the land. Little matter that more than 37 million Americans live in dire poverty, and that all individuals are convinced that each must own a gun(s) to protect their life and limb; and that the US is the prison capital of the world, housing twenty per cent of the world’s prison population.

George Clooney’s character, Governor Morris, is running for President in the movie, The Ides of March. On the campaign trail, Morris declaims: ‘I am not a Christian or an atheist. I am not Jewish or Muslim … my religion is written on a piece of paper called the Constitution …’ It was a patchy document to found a religion on. The famous political scientist, Robert A. Dahl, was deeply sceptical about its democratic credentials, or about any claims on reverential deference. To him, the ‘government they set up [was] both feeble and irresponsible’. He puns that they were flounderers rather than founders. ‘They were a group of baffled and confused men who finally settle on a solution more out of desperation that confidence’ [Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution?, 2001]. They had ‘little understanding of how their solution would workout in practice. If anything, they were a bunch of slaveholders and wealthy northern landowners determined to protect their own interests for all time.

The Founders ‘did not believe in man, but they did believe in the power of a good political constitution to control him’ (sic). They therefore devised a constitution meant to deprive ‘the people’ of every opportunity of influencing the course of policy [Hofstadter, ‘The Founding Fathers’ in Horwitz, The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, 1977]. This verdict on the Constitution is echoed by several noteworthy commentators, besides Robert Dahl, Benjamin Barber, and Sheldon Wolin. Wolin’s verdict is that the Constitution was the ‘naked empowering of minorities’.

Wolin once had a spirited stoush with another distinguished political philosopher, Leo Strauss. In the early nineteen-sixties both were expressing their disapproval of the engulfing of political theory in ‘behaviourism’ – a pretence to objective science and the impossible ‘value free’ observation. Voting studies and systems theories were in vogue. Yet Wolin took umbrage when Strauss denounced the character of the ordinary voter: political ‘science’ was based on ‘observations which can be made with the utmost frequency and therefore by people of the meanest capacities’. Moreover, Strauss pontificated that ‘it frequently culminates in observations made by people who are not intelligent about people who are not intelligent’. Certainly, Strauss’s elitism was not in tune with Wolin’s strong preference for a democracy of educated citizens [Barber, ‘The Politics of Political Science’, 2006]. Rightly or wrongly, the neocon warmongers of George W. Bush’s administration, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, claimed intellectual descent from Strauss. They thought he had given them licence to perpetrate the ‘noble lie’ on the population.

From his stronghold at Princeton University, Wolin continued to educate students in America and around the world on the wonders of political thought in history. Through it all he upheld his vision of a vigorous liberal democracy. Yet towards the later part of his life he saw first, the liberal drained away from democracy, and then the subversion of a threadbare democracy itself. In fact, the United States has never been a democracy since the early days of its colonies on the eastern seaboard, where small communities governed themselves through industrious involvement of the people.

As he watched his political system collapse, Wolin erupted into utter despair. His final testimony was heartbreaking: Democracy Incorporated. The Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, 2008). ‘Totalitarianism’ had long been the dreaded enemy of the land of the free; it had been examined up and down by such as Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Hannah Arendt, Michael Curtis and Benjamin Barber, who later also impugned America as a totalitarian country. It was unspeakable that anyone should name the USA as a totalitarian state. As Wolin said, his action was bound ‘to invite outrage tempered by disbelief’. America had become ‘the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.’ Capitalism, he argued, was a structure of ‘organised aggression’. Instead of submission to a single tyrant, ‘inverted totalitarianism’ is ‘rule by diverse powers which have found it in their interests to combine while retaining their separate entities. The key components are corporate capital, the very rich, small business associations, evangelical Protestant leaders, and the Catholic hierarchy’ (p. 185). ‘Democracy’ expanded to entrench social inequalities. The republican structure of the state was ‘the counterforce to demotic power’. Socialism became ‘the blood relative to communism’ — together the heinous threat to the American way of life. Superpower at war rebounded on the home community with ravaging inequality. The market ideology consumed and smothered all contrary opinion.

Despite the apparent growing despair of the author, Wolin’s discussion was always conducted with gentlemanly detachment. The writing is temperate and graceful. Yet the response to his work was aggressive neglect. Its alarming conclusions were shunned by all but a few supporters. The (non)-reception of his work was the precise demonstration of his thesis. No opinion critical of the set-up is in any way acceptable, and no change will be tolerated. The lessons from America are stark.

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