Photo: The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse; public domain on Wikimedia Commons
There is a real possibility that American democracy will die come November. I hope not. I pray not. But I worry. Many scenarios that would have once appeared fantastic, now seem to be within the realm of the possible. One does not need a vivid imagination to wonder what would happen if the election was contested and its outcome was either unknown or unaccepted. Imagine that Russian meddling, creaky electoral systems and bungled counts, combined with Republican efforts to reduce access to the ballot, produced an outcome in which both Joe Biden and Donald Trump claimed victory.
What if in contested states, voters, still waiting in long lines to cast their votes, were told by their state courts that voting had already ended? What if Trump decried the whole election fraudulent? What if people took to the streets to support their favored candidate? What if some governors—Democratic or Republican—proclaimed one of the candidates to be the legitimate president? What if the military had to determine who is the legitimate commander-in-chief?
All this probably will not happen. The United States has a long history of running elections, and there is a process in place. Even at a moment like this, when our democratic norms seem stretched to their limit, they still exist. In local precincts, honest people will do the right things. But we also have a long history of voter suppression, especially of African Americans. And we have never had a president like Trump, who sows confusion and foments anger in ways that make us question the legitimacy of the regime itself.
If democracy in America were to die, it would not surprise our nation’s founders. They anticipated it. In fact, they expected it. History had taught them that few republics last for long. Corrupt leaders, and corrupt citizens, stop caring about the public good. Inequality leads to anger that can be tapped into by power-hungry despots. Deep social divisions prevent the emergence of a common good. Republics are fragile and, alas, temporary. Their gamble was that theirs, if properly constructed, would last. And for all our failings, the United States has endured. In a world where perfection cannot be expected, the United States has seemed too big to fail. But of course it’s not.
It is weird to imagine an authoritarian future. It is a reminder, to me, about how much being political is part of my subjectivity, my very understanding of what it means to be a human being and an American. But what does it mean to be political? It means that, at some deep level, I am part of the polity. As a citizen, I participate in the collective decision-making process that leads to laws and regulations. It means that, despite being busy and wanting more time for myself, I have an obligation to keep up with the news, to learn from my neighbors, to attend meetings, and to vote. It means that I cannot be me without being political.
I realize, historically, this sense of being political is exceptional. This is not because political power has not always mattered. In all regimes, whether free or tyrannical, whether governed by the people or a monarch, what those in power do affects everyone. Everyone, in this sense, had a stake in political affairs. But this did not mean that everyone was political. Many did not necessarily connect the actions of political power with themselves or see themselves as agents of and organic parts of the political.
My sense of being political is one of the legacies of liberalism. Liberalism has faced a lot of criticism lately, from the right and the left. Its commitment to individualism, critics point out, erodes people’s capacity to imagine collective goods and sustain shared norms. Although this criticism is true, liberalism did something so profound, yet so simple, that its implications long escaped me. When Hobbes, in the midst of the social chaos of the English Civil Wars, imagined the sovereign as a fictional leviathan composed of all the people in the polity, he made the political essential to the human condition (see image). Hobbes’ intervention was different from Aristotle’s famous line that human beings are political animals. Aristotle’s point was that we cannot flourish outside the city. Liberalism shares that assumption to an extent. But the liberal tradition added that it is impossible to imagine any legitimate political power without believing that each of us, as members of that polity, were also its source. Locke expanded on this in his social contract: if individuals in the state of nature contracted together to form the polity, then the polity was the product of our wills. We could never disassociate ourselves from the political.
Words were made flesh during the American and French revolutions. Both revolutions made citizenship fundamental to being human. Citizenship conferred new dignity on ordinary people because they became agents in their own rule. It endowed them with not only power and duties, but also, and more importantly, a new subjectivity. To be a citizen was to be a different kind of self, a self who could not exist apart from the polity, but also to be part of a polity that could not exist apart from oneself.
Yet, because politics consistently fails to provide for the common good, we have long imagined a world beyond politics too. Rousseau envisioned a pre-political paradise and sought to recreate its unity in the general will. Marx saw us transcending politics on the other side, at the end of history, when the contradictions of capitalism would be overcome, and we’d enter a world in which the state was no longer necessary, because it would no longer need to regulate class conflict.
But we know those dreams to be false ones, because the absence of politics does not mean the absence of power. That is what made the dystopias of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell so unsettling and fearsome. That is what makes reading Edward Bellamy’s utopian fantasy Looking Backward, one of the nineteenth-century’s best-selling novels, so agonizing today. Bellamy’s dream is our nightmare, in part because the communist regimes of the 20th century exposed the dangers of aspiring for a society without politics.
Some years back, a colleague had recommended to me the book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991) by the Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić. Under communism, even when one avoided being particularly political, politics mattered—but not in the same way. It was about power. “In a totalitarian society, one has to relate to the power directly; there is no escape. Therefore politics never becomes abstract. It remains a palpable, brutal force.” In other words, power matters, but one is not, as one is in a democracy, an agent of the political. Whatever Marx may have hoped, under communism the state did not wither away, but instead political power was alienated from the people.
What struck me most about Drakulić’s personal essays, however, was not that communism failed. Instead, it was how, under communism, life still mattered. Drakulić writes that “life, for the most part, is trivial.” But she then made two major points. First, all the trivial aspects of life are, to some extent, shaped by the political regime. And, second, in the interstices of this life, one could find meaning outside of politics. One spent time with family, celebrated holidays, enjoyed conversation with friends over a home-cooked meal. One fell in, and out of, love. And, in company with those with whom one shared life, one could find joy, and perhaps even laughter.
Could I learn to live with authoritarianism and even laugh? I wonder. Even as people struggled to sustain human connection and meaning under regimes that threatened them, those regimes shaped their souls. Communism, Drakulić argues, was not just a set of institutions. It was “a state of mind. Political power may change hands overnight, economic and social life may soon follow, but people’s personalities, shaped by the communist regimes they lived under, are slower to change” because “their characters have so deeply incorporated a particular set of values, a way of thinking and of perceiving the world, that exorcising this way of being will take an unforeseeable length of time.”
If the American regime that I have known were to end on or around November 2020, could I adapt? Is my notion of my self flexible enough to find new ways of existing in an order for which it has not been prepared? Is my character, my identity, plastic enough? Should I worry more if it isn’t, or if it is?
I wonder whether my sense of being American can be separated from being part of a democracy. It’s a question that most of us have not had to ask, but obviously the answer must, at some level, be yes. The histories of almost every other nation-state involve multiple regimes. This is true even in France, which, more than the United States perhaps, unleashed the modern ideal of citizenship into the world. But the French Revolution failed, as did several subsequent republics. Yet one can still be French and still write French history.
The United States, for better or for worse, sees itself as having a continuous republic dating back to a founding moment, and governed by a document originally written in 1787. Thus questions of identity, history, and regime change have been at the margins of our national consciousness. After the American Revolution, we struggled to determine how to tell the story of our colonial past in relation to our postcolonial present. Was it a story of disconnect, or were the seeds of the American experiment first planted among early settlers? But, for the most part, we are comfortable imagining ourselves as the world’s oldest democracy, governed by an eighteenth-century charter that remains worthy of our admiration.
There are two major exceptions that offer contradictory glimpses of how Americans might tell their story following a regime change. First, we continue to struggle with the story of the Confederacy, when southern whites rebelled to create a slave-holding republic. After four bloody years, their revolution was crushed by Union forces. Since then, southerners have debated how to tell the story of their conquered region, a story that sits uncomfortably within the dominant narrative of a single, continuous American republic. The tense and emotional debates over Confederate monuments today exposes how Americans continue to disagree deeply over how to situate the Confederacy, as a regime, into our national story.
The second major exception concerns the experience of African Americans. From the perspective of African American history, there have been multiple American regimes, beginning with the regime of slavery. The Civil War produced a rebirth of freedom during Reconstruction. This second founding, alas, did not produce a lasting republic, but instead gave way to Jim Crow. With the civil rights movement there was hope that the arc of the moral universe was bending in the right direction, but that seems less certain today. Throughout, African Americans struggled for justice against the cruelty of a racist state, but also lived lives full of meaning and even laughed.
African American history, in this sense, is more like that of other nation-states, where there is continuity under changing regimes. But even this is not quite accurate, because African American history cannot be imagined outside the history of the United States, in which citizenship is fundamental. To achieve full membership in the polity has been central to African American struggles. DuBois documented the painful realities of ”two-ness”, of being American and being denied full membership in the polity because of one’s skin color. It granted African Americans, DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), second sight, but that sight came with real existential struggle. That is why we still turn to African American thought and the history of African American social movements to understand the possibilities of democracy.
But what if the democracy part of the story is gone? What if there is no democracy left? What if the existential angst of being denied is resolved by removing the thing to be desired? Could I, could we, flourish without political liberty? Could I stop thinking of myself as a citizen? Would I take joy in the private, but still shared, experience of family and friends, of rituals such as birthday cakes and Christmas gifts and family game nights? Might faith fill the void—was the political always a false idol anyway? Why do I need to know the news if I am not an agent in producing it? Why do I need to care what my leaders do, so long as I follow the rules and they leave me and my loved ones alone? Could I still be American without being political? Yes, perhaps.
These are questions that I hope not to have to answer. But they are serious ones. I simply do not know whether I can find meaning for myself in the world without citizenship. It is so fundamental to my being—so fundamental to being American. I am not myself if I am not a part of the polity, part of that fictional creature that Hobbes imagined for us. For Hobbes, the world of civil society was contrasted with the ravages of the state of nature. His emphasis was, reasonably, on restoring order. But the liberal tradition since Locke also has recognized the right of revolution to resist arbitrary power. The American Revolution was such an event, when ordinary people mobilized to resist rule that was not premised on their consent.
Expanding the boundaries of consent—of the political—were the core purposes and achievements of the civil rights and female suffrage movements. We see the power of democracy right now as people protest the death of George Floyd. Americans are taking to the streets to remind our leaders that we the people produce the political. We can resist.
I thus share with Brown University political science professor Melvin Rogers the hope that we are at a moment of transformation, that the very liminality of our moment, the unclear temporal horizons of our existence, means that we do not know the outcome: “What opens—what is beginning right now in this country—is a profoundly unsettled space. Something might emerge, something better than what we have, something more satisfying, and more caring. We’ve seen the rays of hope in the solidarity produced by Black Lives Matter and the efficacy of local legislative agitation. But,” he acknowledges, “authoritarianism could also fill the void—the president is already singing that song. It is the siren song that has empowered murderous neo-Nazis and militias, whose vision matches the president’s determination to make the United States the domain of white manhood.”
If we make the right choices now, we could save our democracy and even expand its horizons. But there is also the possibility that we’ll start down the road to authoritarianism. If people found ways to carve out meaningful lives, full of love and joy and laughter, under communism, does that mean there is hope for flourishing after the demise of American democracy? I don’t know. I just don’t. Being a citizen is just too deeply embedded in my soul. Maybe I’ll find joy after that piece of me is exorcised. History suggests that people do—that life goes on and that much of what really matters is what is closest to us. But what if extracting the political from ourselves is more destabilizing? Perhaps I will not be strong enough to laugh.
Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America; he is Professor of History at Western Washington University and his latest essay, “Unbecoming American,” appeared in the Spring 2020 volume of The Hedgehog Review.