Pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle.
1) The New York Times has a nice piece about how global publics in democracies of one sort or another have increasingly lost faith in political elites and in the process, lost faith in democratic process as a whole. This is a point that I’ve been thinking about and writing about for a long time, and a good example of how American exceptionalism sometimes blinds Americans to seeing how events within their borders are connected to far larger patterns and structures. This is one reason I reacted somewhat over-enthusiastically to one element of Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism about a decade ago. The thread I found interesting in Berman’s argument was that liberalism was a “cold” doctrine that was losing adherents worldwide because of its inability to provide guarantees of justice, equity, fairness or comfort, that its dispassionate tone and utilitarian ethos alienated global publics, and that its passive faith in its own teleological inevitability kept it from vigorously attending to its own shortcomings or defending itself from attack. That last part was ugly since it’s what led Berman and other so-called “liberal hawks” to believe that bombs and occupations could secure liberalism’s future where persuasion and institution-building could not. But there’s still something important embedded in that interpretation. Liberal democracy rested on its laurels and got hijacked by technocratic elites who have subsequently produced a tremendous amount of obfuscating noise about the equivalence between national sovereignty, technocratic bureaucracies and the practice of democratic norms.
The alienation that the Times article documents is a reaction to that obfuscation. A lot of global publics understand perfectly well what they should expect of democracies and technocracies, what they should expect that nation-states can accomplish in service to the interests of their domestic, democratically empowered publics. Their frustration is with political classes that have captured the structures of the state and the mechanisms of democratic selection to the point that even when democratic mechanisms are used to remove one group of representatives, their replacements continue to reproduce the interests of political classes against the interests of wider publics and against outcomes that common-sense forms of expertise seem to recommend.
The hard thing for a lot of liberals and progressives in the United States to understand is that however much they dislike some of the ideology of Tea Party activists, the rank-and-file of the Tea Party is much more aware of and responsive to this problem than American liberals and progressives have been.
2) Which connects in turn to the often-asked question of why there aren’t more protests in the U.S., or why the Wall Street protests aren’t catching on in a bigger way. The lightly malicious snark of Times reporters and others towards the Wall Street protesters is a bit too obvious in its anxious desire to have these matters left to Very Serious People. But neither is the “I do believe in fairies” call to just believe that some drummers and puppets can change the world much more satisfying. This is just the grown-up version of the quintessential high school Student Council complaint about the apathy of the student body: it attributes the disaffection and fecklessness of the council itself as being everybody’s problem, everybody’s fault, rather than asking a more introspective question about what that group of people really is, and more importantly, why they were attracted to participation in the first place. That maybe the student body isn’t generally apathetic, just apathetic about the student council.
The kinds of liberals and progressives who find themselves drawn for a day or a week or a month to show up behind the lines of orange fencing to join in this kind of protest, or to shout out their affection for it from afar, have a hard time grasping that the reason that larger publics look on with indifference is that the protesters are more like a dissident faction of the political class that they are allegedly criticizing than they are outsiders to it.
I mean, if I were hanging around New York for the day and I had some time, I might head on down there and join the crowd. I’d be happy to have an opportunity to join in fellowship with people who are as angry at our system as I am, and I’m sure I agree with many of them about a lot of other issues and values. Maybe I’m not so into the drumming and veganism or whatever but as Naomi Klein says, any genuinely democratic movement is going to have a lot of distractions and fractions. I’m the distraction for the vegan or the Spartacist or the Marxist cutting-edge crisis theorist.
But the thing is that I would arrive and leave from the protest, whether or not I got pepper-sprayed by a carelessly and bemusedly brutal cop or not, retaining my sense that I am, or ought to be, part of a public entitled to speak to the political class with a special intimacy. I don’t typically dwell on this as a sign of privilege, and I also find endless sessions of white-guilt self-flagellation about abjuring privilege to be a kind of special political hell anyway. But the fact is that I live in an institutional world that is profoundly interpolated with the business of the American political class. Even when I want to identify only with a public that is excluded from the business of that class and alienated at their appropriation of the democratic will, I can’t get that presence out of my life, my discourse, my expectations. Maybe I shouldn’t expect to, maybe that’s the value of intellectuals even in an anti-intellectual age, that they can still hope to check or modify the increasingly uninhibited contempt of political elites for the general self-interest by inserting themselves into gaps or holes in the consensus of those elites. With small power comes some responsibility?
The limit condition of the protests or expressions that I’m drawn to, however, remains the degree to which they retain that connection. It’s not a lack of discipline that produces the array of boutique causes and activist commitments that you’d find among the people behind that orange fence. That array of concerns is a sign of the tether between educated white progressives and the political class, that we still imagine much of the content of our politics as a set of well-composed appeals to policymakers and politicians, as advocating plans and statutes and targeted reforms.
Where larger protests and anger are breaking out against the elites who have commandeered political systems, it’s because the publics behind those protests have dissolved or tabled most of their more specific demands or commitments, have recognized that you won’t get good policy until you get something close to a social revolution, until the connection between democratic process, genuine responsibilities to broad publics, and a constraining ethics of bureaucratic power and expertise is forged anew.
In the United States, I think the specific move that needs to be made is the recognition that the rank-and-file hostility of Tea Party adherents and sympathizers towards “big government” has an intimate, potentially generative connection to the possibility of a wider mobilization against the powers-that-be, that this is the cognate American form of the energy that’s flowing into protests in India, in Egypt, in the European Union. Which in turn requires a less knee-jerk response by progressives about the wonderful things that government can do or already does. It’s true that government action at all levels of American life could do a great deal of good, that it already secures many fundamental rights and protections, that we are dependent upon that power in so many ways. But when our first response to a fierce, wild and often reactionary anger at “government” is to recite a litany of its benefits, I think we disclose too much our own desire to retain an intimate access to acting within as well as against a deeply entrenched political class.