Common Dreams - September 4, 2020
... There are further related reasons for humility about the functioning of democracy in the United States that extend beyond the electoral system and the disturbing behavior of political parties. The most glaring shortcomings are associated with the absence of alternative approaches made available to the voting public on the most crucial issues confronting society. It relates to the failure of the two-party system when neither party possesses a willingness to support candidates who are willing to advocate overcoming the distortions on the quality of life and governance being wrought by plutocracy, global militarism, predatory capitalism, climate change, and systemic racism.
The current American version of two-party democracy has steadily decayed due to the embedded bipartisan consensus that was originally a functional feature of the political landscape during World War II when the country was productively united in support of an anti-fascist war. This consensus became substantially and more dubiously reconstituted as the ideological foundation of an anti-Communist global crusade that set boundaries on political diversity during the long Cold War. Among the harmful effects of this two-party consensus was curtailing mainstream political debate, discrediting socialist thought, making the outcome of national elections count for far less, making a war economy and militarized state permanent fixtures of governance, generating ‘a deep state’ entrusted with sustaining the consensus, and instrumentalizing respect for international law and the authority of the UN.
It might have been hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Soviet collapse a few years later would have encouraged taking stock, a national turn toward peace, and a greater openness to progressive political ideas. Nothing of the sort occurred during the 1990s, a wasted decade of world order opportunity. The West won the Cold War, but lost the peace by its embrace of consumerism and an economy guided by efficiencies of capital rather than the wellbeing of peoples.
First, attention was redirected to the plutocratic benefits accruing from the absence of an ideological alternative to market-driven economic policy, which meant that the ethics of greed could be practiced without adverse political consequences. Accordingly, with the support of both political parties, the U.S. Government focused its attention on making the world safe for predatory capitalism, a set of policy priorities reflecting what became known as either ‘the Washington consensus’ or more politely, ‘neoliberal globalization.’ This economistic orientation, in effect, a capitalist version of Marxist materialism, encouraged consumerist orgies and environmental irresponsibility. This reflected civilian and most private sector priorities. It was not satisfactory for the militarists and arms dealers who also wanted, and maybe required, an enemy to make the case for continuing with wartime scale military budgets and for restoring their self-esteem as guardians of national and global security.
The first candidate to be a post-Communist enemy was Japan, with its disciplined work force and booming economy that was seen as a growing threat to American ascendancy, at least in the Pacific. This candidate to be the new enemy seemed rather implausible as Japan was the principal U.S. ally in the Pacific region since its defeat in World War II, and was impossible to cast as a security threat to Americn geopolitical primacy.
The next enemy candidate was a resurgent anti-Western Islam. Samuel Huntington’s thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations’ attracted political attention but it still was not plausible as a threat, given Western military dominance. The clash thesis did come to enjoy a dysfunctional credibility after the 9/11 attacks. These attacks produced ‘the war on terror,’ and did have the desired galvanizing effect of re-securitizing American foreign policy with a special emphasis on the Middle East where the energy future of the world seemed to be at risk. What ensued were several disastrous military interventions that resulted in geopolitical setbacks, while causing the devastation of a series of countries subjected to strife and chaos as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Next comes China, which seems to be a more familiar and plausible geopolitical adversary, but on further examination its role as ‘enemy’ is problematic. China has not attempted to challenge the West militarily or ideologically, but seems to be winning the competition for markets, economic expansionism, and technological innovativeness, and is now being cast by both wings of the American political establishment as a geopolitical adversary worth confronting. Not surprisingly, the Biden people seem as ready as the Trump autocracy to confront China and Iran, and even readier when it comes to Russia, although maybe in a more measured manner, but also one that may be more disposed to invite serious long-term engagements reinforced by a hypocritical solidarity with Hong Kong protesters and Uyghur struggles for human rights.
An America disgraced at home and abroad by its terrible performance in response to the COVID-19 challenge, is a wounded animal that has never been more at odds with the wellbeing of humanity, which urgently requires refocusing on human security, which needs to be concretized by reference to climate change, nuclear weaponry, global migration, food and worker security, demilitarization, global health, and strengthened procedures for global cooperation. This can only happen if the militarist/plutocratic consensus is challenged from outside the party framework, by a movement rather than a political party.
The persistence of this dysfunctional bipartisan consensus represents an unauthorized redrafting of the social contract that continuously reshapes state/society relations to retain its status as a legitimate democracy. It is a political and moral scandal that a considerable fraction of the citizenry lacks health care, affordable higher education and housing, and the society as a whole endures acute inequalities, unjust taxation, infrastructure decay, and climate change without mounting a serious challenge within the two-party framework. Bernie Sander bravely tried twice to push the Democratic Party to the outer limits of the bipartisan consensus, but in the end both in 2016 and 2020 he was bloodied by the DNC establishment that refused to be pushed anywhere near the brink. It is notable that Sanders, like Trump from a rightest direction, sought to alter the outer limits of the consensus but never mounted direct assaults on the structural features of militarism or capitalism.
The Trump phenomenon is an extreme national example of the global populist drift away from democracy by alienated citizenries around the world who cast their votes for demagogues, that is, for individuals who are taking advantage of democratic procedures and institutions to hollow out democracy so as to move particular societies toward autocracy. Such a drift reflects the distinctive features of national narratives as well as reflects a certain set of global conditions that express alienation from what ‘democracy’ bestowed upon their lives. To distract and divert, scapegoating becomes a core tactics of these moves away from democratic cohesion. In a world of inequalities and global warming, there has arisen a frightening receptivity to blaming the stranger or the other for the unfairness being experienced in the forms of inequality, economic displacement, and erosions of national identity.
(4) Disenfranchising the World
A final concern involves the disenfranchisement of the peoples of the world. I would maintain that a legitimate U.S. democracy in the 21st century should enlarge its writ to heed the political will of those who reside beyond the territorial boundaries of the country and owe traditional allegiances to another country. These foreigners are deeply affected by the extra-national influence exerted by the United States on their lives and livelihood, and yet are without representation or any means to register formal approval or disapproval. The U.S. by virtue of its global reach, mainly through a network of military bases, naval forces patrolling the high seas, claims based on cyber and space security, and diplomatic leverage, often has more impact on foreign societies than their own government.
Should not consideration be given to some form of non-territorial enfranchisement (not necessarily a full and equal vote) that is more congruent with the realities of a networked, digital world than is the territorial sovereign state? It is time that we deploy our moral and political imagination to envision non-territorial democracy that takes account of geopolitical configurations of power as well as ecosystems that cannot function properly if subject to no source of governance with precedence over the claims of national sovereignty. The statist territoriality of life on the planet has declined to the point where only multi-leveled democratic governance can hope to address humanely the multiple and diverse challenges directed at humanity as a whole. Europe has pioneered such a development on a regional level, and although paused at present, gives us existential strivings toward new forms of political community and governance.
In essence, we cannot be hopeful about the future unless we commit ourselves to the hard work of deterritorializing democracy, demilitarizing the state, pacifying geopolitics, empowering people, and strengthening the United Nations and international law. As well, time, as well as space, must become integral elements of national, transnational, regional, and global policy formation and problem-solving. This means that short-termism must be supplanted by time horizons that are congruent with the nature of global challenges. ...
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