Reading Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic in the Age of Trump: A Symposium

Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic is not so much a book as a collection, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1972, of three essays and an interview that first appeared, individually, in the years between 1969 and 1971. Three of the pieces were first published in The New York Review of Books, and the fourth, the essay on civil disobedience, was first published in the New Yorker. Even though the words “crisis” or “crises” do not appear in the titles of any of these pieces, all of them clearly address what Arendt considered to be a constellation of forces that together represented a severe test of “the American Republic.”

This symposium contains essays by Mary Dietz, William E. Scheuerman, Christian Volk, Seyla Benhabib, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that engage with the obvious and meaningful resonances between Crises of the Republic and the present. They were originally presented in August at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Boston, in a panel organized by William Scheuerman and moderated by Cidgem Cidam.

In Crises of the Republic (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1972), Hannah Arendt, the refugee from the Weimar Republic, casts a weary eye on political developments in her adopted republic. The turmoil of the sixties and the seventies, ranging from the Civil Rights to the Anti-Vietnam War movements, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, widespread civil and criminal conflicts and riots in urban city neighborhoods, lying and deception in politics culminating in the Watergate break-in, the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the spread of the Vietnam War, led her to the dire premonition that the American Republic may not survive the end of the twentieth-century.

Nearly half a century later, the United States is in a perpetual state of hostility in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, in defiance of the War Powers Act. The vituperations of a not-particularly clever Spiro Agnew against dissenters of yesteryear, whom he called “vultures” and “parasites” and which so upset Arendt (pp. 74-75), have been replaced by the sewage idioms of Donald Trump against immigrants from “shit-hole” countries, the free media, producer of so-called “fake news,” and against “low-lifes” and “dogs” who have once served in his administration. The disrespect for the rule of law and judiciary independence displayed by this administration makes Richard Nixon — who had the decency to resign — pale by comparison. In its separation of families seeking refuge in the US, the government has not only violated international human rights law but has also condoned state-sponsored sadism.

The crises of our republic, which Arendt predicted, are real, and the transformation of US democracy into an oligarchy of plutocrats or a form of autocratic presidentialism is no longer impossible.

This justified sense of alarm has given rise to a scholarship that reads like an obituary: How do democracies die? The eclipse of democracy, post-democracy, the death of classical liberalism. Add to these funeral declarations the claim that all this terminological dance is avoiding the real phenomena, namely the return of fascism or the rise of new forms of fascisms, and not only the crises but the doom of our republics appear as imminent.

Thinking with Arendt, I want to argue that to characterize the crises of our republics as one of democracy, is misleading and harmful to progressive politics. It is not democracy as a form of government, as a regime type or as a specific institutional path for the peaceful negotiation and resolution of power conflicts that is the cause of the crises we are witnessing. That democracy itself is responsible for crises is the diagnosis of the current malaise spread by authoritarian leaders.

In my opinion, liberal democracies are caught in the maelstrom of dislocations caused by wider transformations of our age such as the weakness of representative institutions, financialized globalization, contested boundaries of the demos, and the fragmentation of public sphere. The crises of our republics are not only national but trans-national and global, and their solution requires, without neglecting the specific blockages in the constitution of the American republic, new forms of thinking that envisage a democratic cosmopolitanism.

Weakness of Representative Institutions

Carl Schmitt’s The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), in which he juxtaposed democracy by “acclaim” to the dysfunctional bodies of liberal parliamentary democracies, pointed to the path which all populist leaders, and increasingly President Trump, would follow in our times. Executive presidentialism, in which parliament is rendered increasingly impotent by threats and denunciations, is a regime type common to Russia, Singapore, Turkey and Hungary. Democracy by acclaim merges state institutions with the ruling party organization, and builds a more or less militant movement of followers who propagate racist, xenophobic, anti-gay, and in some cases, anti-Semitic ideologies. When and if these movements acquire arms and become vigilantes of the regime, then we can call them “fascist.” Turkey is certainly well advanced in this direction.

Populist movements that respond to the crises of representative institutions by mobilizing left or right-wing forces share certain assumptions: first, qua democratic sovereign, “the people” is identified with the electoral majority of a particular electoral cycle; second, as the embodiment of the people, the electorate is given constituent power (i.e., to change the constitution); third, only one legitimate interpretation of the common good is said to exist, factions are viewed as detrimental to the people and the people are increasingly treated as a homogeneous mass. Although left-wing movements can also mobilize populist sentiments, in the long run populism is an authoritarian and homogenizing ideology that buries democracy as well as liberalism.

Jason Frank is quite correct, however, in warning us that the term populism should not be used to elide “the more enduring sources of democratic decline.” Surely the sclerosis of the party system in many liberal democracies and the emergence of movements such as the Cinque Stelle in Italy are indicators of democratic decline. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their influential book How Democracies Die, see parties as essential “guard rails” to prevent authoritarian takeovers, but are quite silent about the crises of representation afflicting the current party systems. Arendt bemoaned the bureaucratization and professionalization of the party machines which stultified citizens’ sense of the political. She probably would have been aghast at how big money is awash in political campaigns since the benighted “Citizens United” decision.

My goal here is not to resurrect the old debate between representative versus participatory democracy, but to encourage us to think of new models and paradigms of representation to meet the authoritarian challenge. The “council” model favored by Arendt, which is inadequate for complex societies, has found new homes today in the municipalist movements in Barcelona and among the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Rojawa, among many other initiatives. Cities and urban centers are the most important sites of resistance against nativist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant movements, as well as laboratories for ecological, social and convivial living. They are not substitutes for representative institutions but they do act as sites for the revitalization of citizens’ mobilization and engagement, as Benjamin Barber suggests with the idea of a global parliament of mayors.

Neo-Liberal Financial Globalization

Not only the frustration with representative institutions gives rise to populist disquiet in our times, but also the ubiquitous phenomena of globalization. In its neo-liberal financialized form, globalization increases interdependence while also augmenting national vulnerability. It is the right of the people to expect that their representatives can and will act to protect their collective interest. But when the so-called “national interest” — itself an anachronistically holistic term—is so interdependent with that of others, what range of action is left open to representatives?

The increasing world-wide reach of financial institutions such as credit cards, has upended traditional consumption patterns in less developed economies as well as creating dangerous levels of individual indebtedness in developed societies through housing, educational, medical and recreational loans. In 2010, 40% of all profits in the US came from the financial sector. Financialization also shifts the burden from public institutions to private individuals. As private indebtedness piles up, the public provision of services shrinks and is replaced by fee-for-service models. Cheap credit enables national economies to keep wages low, and even in times of relatively low unemployment, individuals find themselves unable to earn a living wage and have to work multiple jobs. One of the most insidious consequences of financialization is that national parliaments act in anticipation of rating agencies’ and hedge funds’ reaction to a country’s credit-worthiness, undermining the government’s ability to undertake redistributive politics.

Since it is neither likely nor desirable that the world society of states will become less interdependent in the future than it currently is, we have to imagine new institutions and principles for cosmopolitan as opposed to neo-liberalplutocratic and market-fundamentalist patterns of global co-operation. I will define cosmopolitanism as respect for human rights, republican self-government and a world society of states organized along principles of international law. Such a vision is the only alternative to two of the most dangerous developments of our world: the galloping spread of financial liberalization destroying national institutions via the hegemony of multi- and transnationals; and the spread of reactionary nationalisms among hegemonic powers in search of markets, land, water and mineral resources.

Contesting the Boundaries of the Demos

The movement of peoples across borders, whether as immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers or undocumented, has emerged as a burning issue across the globe. This is particularly daunting for liberal democracies, because it tests the resolve of such regimes to uphold international human rights as well as their citizens’ concerns. The frenzy created by nativist and ultra-nationalist movements in Europe, Australia, the UK and the US has fed the symbolic politics of resentment against the stranger.

According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world-wide number of refugees in 2017 stood at an all-time high, at around 67 million people: one in every 113 persons is displaced.

In the post-WW II period, such transnational movement is regulated in accordance with Articles 13 (emigration), 14 (right to seek asylum) and 15 (prohibiting denaturalization) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Refugees’ rights are further protected by the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocols. Increasingly, these international agreements are treated as dead parchments. Even initiators and signatories to the original refugee conventions, such as the United States, are brazenly violating their own commitments. Borrowing a page from the fascist regimes of the past the Trump Administration is even resorting to practices of denaturalization and revocation of citizenship against migrant felons.

Whether it is the Golden Dawn Party in Greece, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands or Donald Trump in the United States, nativist and nationalist parties harken back to some time when, supposedly, the stranger was not among us.They transform the fear of the stranger into a fear of the other as the enemy. It is this equation of the stranger with the other that is the most dangerous temptation for democracies.

Here, too, we face alternatives: the regressive nativism of our time is not only historically ignorant since there was never a time when strangers were not in our midst. But the logic of exclusion always generates its others: today it is the Muslim, tomorrow it is transgender people, the day after it will be all non-Caucasians. This is why defending the rights of others is inseparable from the defense of our own rights: because we never know when we could be defined and stamped as the other.

The cosmopolitan alternative begins with the anthropological as well as historical fact that humans are mobile; that they are curious about each other and seek contact with one another. Open societies are societies built on this insight: borders are there not to divide us but to regulate our access to one another. To criminalize migratory movements without considering how and why civil wars, poverty, desertification, ethnic and professional discrimination give rise to such movement is not only morally wrong but poor policy as well.

The Fragmentation of the Public Sphere

Communication, contention and debate are the essence of democracy but democracies, precisely because they must cultivate public opinion, are prone to rhetorical excesses and seductions. The proliferation, fragmentation, and privatization of the new media through the spread of the world-wide web have created a new political reality with which all political regimes, and not just democracies, are grappling. Citizens can document political lies, police brutality, and ethnic massacres with their cell phones, thereby contributing to the creation of a global public sphere that communicates less with words but more with images. As newspaper readership declines, images travel across global electronic networks in real time.

Yet while images inform, they also elicit more immediate and impassioned reactions and appeal to the gut more than the brain. This reduces the reaction time available to citizens, politicians and newsmakers, leading to the spread of inflammatory and rapid-fire type journalism. Public debate disappears along with the responsibility of citizens to be well-informed about the issues, to take the others’ standpoint, etc. Reasoned conversation is replaced by slogans, memes, and expletives!

The “tweeting” President is a novel phenomenon in the history of democracies. One thing that President Trump’s tweets share with other demagogues is the appeal to our lower and debased selves. Even more than fake news (lies and propaganda have always been part of politics even in the Middle Ages, haven’t they?), this new form of communication gives rise to dangerously quick reactions by spreading panic and causing violent reactions and stampedes. In today’s media world, neither the source nor the audience are identifiable; they can be fake or authentic; virtual or real; one or millions. There is no super-cop to control the new information highway. Only citizens’ discernment and judgment can do so. And this itself is a quixotic hope, since the same forces that are producing this world are also hollowing out citizens’ ability for discernment.

These phenomena—the weakness of representative institutions; the spread of financial neo-liberal globalization; the contested boundaries of the demos and the fragmentation of the public sphere — are giving rise to a plethora of crises. In Zygmunt Bauman’s terms, a sense of “liquid modernity” is spreading around us. By misdiagnosing the dislocations and challenges caused by these developments as if they were only a crisis of democracy, we give in to the autocratic fantasies of our times.

The question should be how to redesign cosmopolitan democratic institutions for a new age. We need institutional imagination, which is awfully short in supply these days, as well as cherishing democratic hope.

Seyla Benhabib is Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University.