I am waiting, ever more impatiently, for my fellow citizens to wake up, to confront that it is happening here and now, that fascism with a reality TV face is upon us. Even though the situation appears ridiculous and often comic, it’s ominous.
I am not ready to declare that “The American Experiment is over,” as Laura Cronk does in her poem pitted against the banality of our evil. Yet, I do recognize a crisis when I see one, and I fear we Americans are not acting accordingly. Cronk declares it’s time to quit, so that we no longer in the course of our daily lives feed the beast. But I see gray alternatives, informed by an understanding of politics as the proper vocation of leaders and citizens opposing post-truth authoritarianism and working to revive democracy. I have in mind Republican and Democrats, leaders and followers, and critical observers beyond two-party identification.
I know that responsible Republicans should play a key role in defending the Republic, but I am skeptical that they will. They perplex me. Their core principles are not mine, but I work to understand them. Their beliefs in limited government, a free market, entrepreneurship, the wisdom of propriety, tradition and religious belief, and “the right to life” are not mine, but I can and do appreciate that they have cogent arguments for their opinions. As I oppose them, I respect them. (Guns are beyond me, though even then I recognize that it’s a cultural thing.) Patriotic fervor concerns me: “My country right or wrong,” “Love it or leave it” and the like are not only not my cup of tea; they attacked the core of my being during the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, I know that Republicans genuinely believe that American democracy is supported as they act according to their convictions.
I, therefore, am bewildered by how readily Republican politicians are abandoning their key principles. As they perceive that a significant segment of their constituents, the Republican core voters, support Trump no matter what he says and does, Republican politicians calculate that they can’t cross him. His vulgarity, libertine lifestyle, naked materialism and bullying have somehow not offended his base, and Republican politicians have thus been reluctant to stand up and be counted. His attack on free trade and the free market, picking winners and losers as his interests and sentiments dictate, has led to expressions of concern, but no action. And these past weeks, as he kowtowed to a Russian dictator and severely criticized democratic leaders, and continued to break just about every norm of foreign policy procedure and undermined the international order that the U.S. created in the pursuit of its interests, there were some expressions of concern, but no opposing action. The most clear and precise Republican opposition has come from one Senator who is dying, from those who are retiring, and from Republican-supporting conservative commentators who have consistently defended principles, but have nothing to lose, and have thus far been inconsequential. Congressional Republicans have revealed a consistent reluctance to support any actions against Trump.
I am surprised and disappointed, but not astonished: after all, politicians calculate what they need to do to stay in the political game. They know that there is great peril in getting ahead of their supporters. Cynicism is tempting. They are apparently all in it for themselves, before anything else. But, I think, as I re-read Max Weber’s classic lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” and watch some principled action, yesterday, prominently Dan Coats’s, that all may not be lost. Republican politicians are trying to balance their responsibilities to their constituents with their fundamental principles. It seems to me that to this point, they are doing so by abandoning their principles, but it is not certain that this pattern will hold. Ironically as Republican voters go, so go their “leaders.”
Weber notes that the successful politician balances an “ethics of responsibility” with an “ethics principle,” that all who take on politics as a vocation must engage with this balancing. Presenting his lecture at a time of revolutionary upheaval, in the aftermath of World War I, in Munich, which was then briefly the capital of the Bavarian Socialist Republic, he was immediately concerned with the dangers of the politics of true belief, of those who “live for politics” and focus on their ultimate political end and ignore the consequences of their actions. This was a presciently appropriate concern given the subsequent horrors of the twentieth century. But Weber worried as well about political actors, who “live off politics,” who lose sight of their principles in pursuit of effectiveness, and their supporters’ narrow interests. Such a situation leads to responsive actions, but potentially without principles.
I see this as the most fundamental manifestation of the social condition of politics, the fundamental dilemma of political action that has no clear solution, as I put it last week, when I offered three cheers for taking responsibility and committing to principle. The Republican leaders’ ability to ignore principle is noteworthy, but I can’t imagine that it is limitless. Voters – Republicans, Democrats and independents – matter.
Republican politicians’ cowardice would be ended if Trump’s support evaporated among registered Republicans, if pro-Trump Republicans were defeated in the polls, or if social and global opposition to Trump became decisive. With this in mind, a few weeks ago I called for a popular front, solidarity and participatory democracy, echoing slogans from the twentieth century. Here I want to add some texture to the call.
Among Democrats, leaders of the party and its supporters, with fundamental principles and the immediate responsibility to move against reality TV fascism, pursuit of fundamental principles is as important as it has ever been, but it must be balanced with the responsibility to act in such a way that the American experiment in self-governance does not come to an end. As Jeffrey C. Isaac emphasized this requires timing, knowing when to give priority to principle and when to give priority to responsibility. The link between the social condition and art, music and much more, is revealed here, as Dominique Suberville has explored. When to confront fellow Democrats for the limitations of their principled commitments, and when to support them despite their limitations: these are the vocational questions for democratic leaders and citizens.
This applies as well to those beyond the two parties, both in foreign and domestic arenas.
I cringe when I observe democratic leaders trying to play Trump, both because it encourages him, and it is so strikingly futile. Trudeau, Merkel, Macron and May, among others, have learned this, evidenced by Trump’s treatment of them and the Trump regime’s treatment of international pacts on climate change, trade and mutual defense. I understand why they make the attempt, given the global role the United States has played, but I also appreciate the need to confront him. It is a matter of timing, they know, but time may be running out.
I also cringe when my friends on the left view recent events as proof that liberal democracy has come to an end. I understand the attraction of utopian projects, of anarchism, radical democracy, socialism and the like. I appreciate “the radical faculty to question what is given,” as Chiara Bottici, Judith Butler and Aris Komporozoz-Athanasiou, the editors of Public Seminar’s series on imaginal politics put it. But I know from my studies of modern barbarism, with Hannah Arendt as my guide, and from the insights Weber emphasizes, that it still is necessary to be responsible to the challenges at hand and not only to the dreams ahead. And I just don’t see any possible positive political alternative that doesn’t start with liberal democracy and then moves beyond it. I ask my friends, am I missing something?
Clearly there is a negative alternative ahead that seems quite possible, illiberal democracy, which is not democratic at all, no matter how you view this, as has been explored here.
As we look ahead at this possible future and reflect upon past experience, then, I hope we act informed by Weber. With this in mind, I note with deep appreciation Martin Heisler’s “Steps outside of the echo chamber” reporting on “the importance of engaging with different perspectives in the age of Trump.” He reports on his efforts to speak to two groups sympathetic to Trump in his hometown outside of Portland, Oregon. He notes that he could exchange opinions and engage in civil conversation, even as he didn’t report any conversions, either of his or of his interlocutors. Yet, it is clear to me that in order for there to be a democratic aftermath of the current crisis, such exchanges are required. Civility is certainly not the only way to resist, militant activism is necessary, as Dan Royles emphasizes. People have to wake up and notice what’s happening and be motivated to act. But for resistance to yield a democratic aftermath the kind of project Heisler embarked upon is required.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.