Happy two hundred and thirty ninth birthday, America! Although it’s more accurate to claim the country is younger and date the current republic’s birth from the adoption of the constitution in 1787. Amazingly, it’s a constitution that in most respects remains essentially the same despite all the enormous changes that have happened in the centuries since it was written.
Americans are constantly claiming that their country is “exceptional” which has to bug the hell out of non-Americans and is only really true if exceptional is taken to mean something like weird. What makes us so weird is that we’re a country whose identity is based not on some real or imagined ethnicity, religion, or ancient civilization, but on allegiance to a set of political documents and the system of government those documents sanction. What unites a gun toting bible-belter and an atheist card carrying member of the ACLU is adherence to the same document, though their interpretations of it are radically different. Lately, it seems, this tug of war over the constitution is about to tear the document in two.
The tension of mutually contradictory interpretations was on full display in the recent fight over marriage equality where both sides, in all sincerity, believed their case justified by the very same document. The constitution considered by members of the right as a “Christian document” and one that enshrined authority over the question of marriage to the states, or that same constitution, and much more so the Declaration of Independence that came before it, considered by those on the left fighting for equal rights as what Martin Luther King Jr called a “promissory note” that held within itself the extension of the rights implicit in the Declaration and their extension to all citizens.
This dispute over the constitution’s meaning is at the root of the current fight over the Confederate flag, a debate which otherwise appears so superficial that seen in this light makes much more sense. What I think very few white Americans, myself included, have understood is to what extent the Confederate States of America claimed for itself the mantle of the constitution and its “true” meaning and turned what most of us have seen as the nation’s greatest hypocrisy and sin- the existence of slavery in a country supposedly founded on the principles of freedom and equality- as its’ justification.
For African Americans, the Confederate flag represents not just the brutality of slavery, but a claim of possession to a narrative of American history that claims freedom and equality is a privilege of whites alone. Something that is radically different than romantic ideas of the Confederacy as a tragic lost cause and rebellion against authority that we’re so prevalent in my youth. At a bare minimum the state capitals of governments whose insurrection against the Union resulted in deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers should never have been flown such a flag.
Full throated affection for the Confederacy when combined, as seems to often be the case, with strong American nationalism or patriotism always seemed contradictory to me as a Yankee. How could one worship the Confederacy while at the same time loving the Union that crushed it? What was lost on me was that such a view was not contradictory in so far as one thought that it was the Confederacy that had fought to defend the “real” and “legitimate” constitution. In other words that there was this dark and inegalitarian interpretation of the constitution and the American story that existed side-by side with the progressive (if far less than radical) understanding that I had always been taught. Since its beginnings and for a long time to come the greatest internal danger to the republic (in terms of violence) will continue to emerge from this ancient dispute over the constitution’s meaning and come from those who think they are acting in defense of some lost and ultimately inegalitarian version of it.
Yet such a conflict as a danger to the Republic itself, a sort of replay of the Civil War, seems very unlikely to be the way the Republic will ultimately end, and end it must just as every other system of government and civilization has eventually passed from the scene. On that score, the political scientists Francis Fukuyama and David Runciman recently held a fascinating public discussion that grappled with the question of not just American democracy’s future, but the future of democracy itself.
Fukuyama is of course famous for his 1989 essay and subsequent book “The End of History and the Last Man” which argued that history seemed to have a direction moving politics ever closer to what we would consider democratic forms. After 9-11 that view has taken a shellacking as trends towards democratization have gone into reverse. Fukuyama still thinks that democracy holds the greatest attraction as a system of government globally, though the process of democratization will likely be very slow and move forward in fits and starts. His biggest concern isn’t the arrival of some real alternative system of government out of a place like China, Russia or the Middle East to rival democracy in its attractiveness. Rather, his concern is with what he calls political decay- a phenomenon he finds particularly troubling in the United States.
Fukuyama is not some kind of anarchist outsider but an essentially a conservative thinker which makes his view that the financial crisis essentially enable political capture by elites who stymied any efforts at real reform all the more troubling. What he considers the archaic system of American government enables a “vetocracy” in which any special interest with deep enough pockets can initiate legal action to block or delay indefinitely policies regardless of such vetoes impacts on the public good. The system is therefore both hobbled and weak while at the same time being open to capture to manipulation and gaming on account of its monetized elections and revolving door. It is perhaps the worst mixture government for the long term health of society- too weak to make difficult decisions in the nation’s long term interests and too corrupt to make good ones.
David Runciman is much less well known than Fukuyama but he shouldn’t be having written one of the most thought provoking tracks on democracy in recent years- The Confidence Trap. Runciman’s point in his discussion with Fukuyama build off of the argument he had presented in that book. That argument basically is that the greatest danger to democracy is its success. Runciman points out that the public sense of democracy has always been that it is failing miserably, which in a sense it is.
Yet it is that system’s very fickleness that gives rise to its sense of lacking direction and failure that allow democracies during periods of extreme crisis to respond with a flexibility its more stable rivals do not possess. The problem Runciman sees and adds to the fear of decay identified by Fukuyama is that democracy’s technocrats have become extremely adept and preventing crises from getting to the point that the public is jarred into pushing forward systemic change, and the system and society therefore rots over time.
A possibility that troubles Runciman is that the time scales of the potential crises facing democracy seem to have decoupled from the elections that remain the primary route through which democratic change is effected. Potential crises are either now too extended in time – like global warming, or possess the lightning speed of technology in comparison to which electoral cycles can seem almost testudine. Are we superficially preventing the full onset of crises only to face much more systemic ones we will not have the wherewithal to respond to in the future?
Some had hoped that if politics would not change itself, technology would end up changing the way we did politics. Yet the promise of technology to transform democracy in the early days of the internet have also proven to be false- technology is convenient and immediate – like an app- whereas politics seemingly by its nature is anything but.
Another point Runciman mentions but does not elaborate upon to this degree which seems particularly relevant today is the extension of democracy’s concerns not merely in terms of time but of space. Many of the most important issues facing us are global in scope. Thus the great hope of some democracy advocates that the European Union offered was as an emerging model for how democracy could be extended into the international sphere. It is a hope now dashed by the crisis in Greece. The EU is not a nascent new form of transnational democracy, but appears to be a new form of technocratic hegemony exercised in the interest of the strongests states.
The public at large has become exhausted with politics to the extent that some have argued we turn our decision making over to our increasing intelligent machines. Perhaps the ultimate end of not just the American Republic but democracy itself will come when our current systems of electoral competition are replaced by bureaucratic mechanism administered rationally and impartially by AI- an aloocracy. Or we’ll rule the world from our smart phones and their descendants deciding everything by means of constant referendum. The problem here is that most of the questions that face us can’t be algorithmically decided because they are questions of values, nor is it clear transforming decision making into something like referendum represents real freedom rather than surrendering our ability to think and debate to the equivalent of an electronic mob. Which leaves me with the questions: what system might replace our Republic that would actually be better than a reformed version of it that actually lives up to our more just and egalitarian aspirations for it?