Liberal Democracy Is a Spectacle

In the vast warehouse of insufferable chestnuts that comprises popular American political wisdom, few are more cloying and useless than “democracy is not a spectator sport.” Not just for its thick-headed, football coach motivation-speech optimism, but because, by point of fact, American democracy has always been a spectator sport. It has always feared the mob, always relied on passivity to get its business done, and – if you’ll indulge another stupid sports metaphor – has always viewed the voting public as an inert crowd watching while the real action happens on the field.

Latest example: the expectation, the hope, that should Donald Trump refuse to leave office upon losing the 2020 election, the military will step in and escort him from the White House. Leaving aside that members of the brass have openly stated that they will not be interfering no matter what the outcome in November, does it really speak highly for this country that the fate of its democracy relies on the actions of an unaccountable, undemocratic body?

The edgelord in the cheap seats will be pointing out by now that there’s an element of poetic justice in all of this. After all the elections the US has meddled in abroad, after all the governments overthrown by its military, perhaps it’s fitting that as the decline of the empire begins in earnest, the last government it intervenes in is its own. Maybe there’s something to this, but it’s an argument more designed to make someone feel smug and smart. In any event, bringing in the army doesn’t bode well for a Biden presidency. Nor for any movement – from Black Lives Matter to the confused-but-still-growing socialist left – that will surely have to square off with him.

Look, there are plenty of good reasons to vote for Joe Biden. Absolutely none of them have to do with him. If it were a more conventional incumbent, if Trump hadn’t unleashed such a vicious wave of reaction, capable of everything from gunning down protesters to running cars through marches to forming checkpoints in the middle of wildfires, I might be soft-pedaling this mean, bumbling old man (Biden I mean) a lot less. The fact is though, that this wave of reaction has been unleashed. A Trump defeat might create a small bit of breathing room, but it could just as likely result in armed Proud Boys and soldiers of Q resorting to even more violent tactics. That Biden will almost certainly be avoiding a confrontation with these elements won’t make them feel any less backed against the wall. One step closer to the boogaloo.

Different times and different balances of class forces might have seen our side preparing for this in a better way than we have. We might be planning for this great mythical “general strike” we bandy about so much, or building on the capacity we’ve seen during BLM marches to bring cities to a halt, the actual expansion of democracy into every workplace and neighborhood that can actually stop coups. Perhaps I shouldn’t be unfair: given the relative youth and inexperience of our movement, it’s understandable that we are nervous given the target being painted on our collective backs. What’s more, the past months have shown us more than willing to hit the streets when we need to, to improvise and show dazzling creativity in defense of our own lives. Many of us have never stopped, particularly in places like Portland. And the resistance in Louisville since the refusal to charge any of Breonna Taylor’s killers with her murder is remarkable. These show the way forward. It’s treacherous in its own way, but it’s pretty much the only way.

Nowadays the main form of resistance being hawked is the kind with a hashtag in front of it: the kind that sees the vote as the pinnacle. It’s democracy of a sort, but the kind of narrow and limited democracy that got us here in the first place. The kind of democracy we all learned in civics class as its ultimate form: liberal. And while the economic liberalism of the 17th and 18th century has different stripes than contemporary American liberalism, what both have in common is faith in the market and the belief in protecting it from meaningful democratic control. Hence the individual solutions sold to us for social injustice and climate change. Hence the progressive handing off of economic decisions to institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank over the past thirty years, trade deals that shuttered factories in the Midwest and devastated farms in Mexico, the people of Argentina and Greece ground mowed under by debts they had no say in.

Hence Trump. And yet those of us who are terrified of his coup are being told to invest our energies in the very system he and his supporters have essentially already subverted. We look at the polls, we see that Biden is up, and suddenly our skepticism fades. We forget that the polls also said the same thing about Clinton in 2016 (Nathan J. Robinson’s recent Current Affairs article does a good job unpacking this), and we let our excitement overtake us. “Look!” we say. “I’m one of them! I’m one of those in the polls that are helping Biden win!”

Except you aren’t. Let’s be clear about something. The polls aren’t interested in you. Or at least they aren’t interested in you as a whole person. You who has a soft spot for McDonald’s chicken nuggets even after you found out how they were made. You who secretly likes the new Taylor Swift but won’t admit it to your friends. You, who can’t wait for the next time you get to do the crossword with grandma. You, buried in student debt, uninsured, working or looking for work but who ultimately just wants to do something meaningful with your life. You, capable of critical thought and subjectivity.

No, these polls are only concerned with the parts of you that are needed to cast a ballot. If the pollsters could get the information they needed without having to deal with all of this messy human agency crap, by just asking their questions of your fingers and the part of your frontal cortex in charge of basic motor functions, they would. Polls are static, inert by their nature. They give us nothing more than an impression of where a certain part of the electorate’s heads are at in a given moment. And in a system hemmed in by such institutions as the dreaded Electoral College, they are next to useless.

Trump knows this. It’s little wonder that he and his army of lawyers have figured out how to so blatantly flout democratic norms when those norms were so flimsy to begin with. His supporters also know this, and it’s why they’re so much more dangerous. A version of democracy designed to keep the economic structure intact is easy to exploit for people who view you and people you love as worth less than their property. These are people who have found ownership in social life entirely through the prism of, well, ownership. They see that democracy and rights are already functionally privileges in this country, and they want it kept that way. In fact, if they can get away with tightening the circle of privilege, they will eagerly do so.

These ghouls are the ones with the initiative. They are in motion, and therefore better able to affect events. We can clutch our pearls as much as we want about that, hoping that it isn’t all that bad (it is), that the numbers aren’t lying (they did last time), and that history will somehow correct itself (it never has without a push). These are very civil, level-headed reactions. They are also suicidal.

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