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WHY WE HATE POLITICS, BUT LOVE DEMOCRACY

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The Montréal Review, June 2012

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"Democracy without Politics" by Steven Bilakovics (Harvard University Press, 2012)

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"In this extended meditation, Steven Bilakovics takes Tocqueville as his guide to the pathologies of democracy in modern America. Following Tocqueville, he dares to suggest that what troubles us most about democratic political life reflects, not non-democratic distortions, but rather the inexorable logic of the core commitment to equality. This book will enlighten and provoke everyone interested in the political sociology of American democracy."

-William A. Galston, The Brookings Institution

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Democracy is surely the defining principle of our time. Most every good - freedom and equality, justice and human rights - is today linked to democracy. It is synonymous with political legitimacy and the open society. We fight wars in its name and postulate democratic peace and prosperity theories. Exceptions to democracy's rule persist but alternative principles do not; even its enemies must honor its rhetoric.  Democratization is considered the crux of human progress and, providentially, the apparent trajectory of history. And in phrases like "democratic spring" and "Arab Spring" it is even associated with a sort of vitality and warmth - with life itself. 

Free-market capitalism, which is widely supposed the defining principle of our time, is itself proselytized only insofar as it promotes the modern democratic values of freedom, equality, and openness: open competition against settled hierarchy; equal opportunity against inherited status; innovation against absolutism; freedom of choice against paternalism. While we hear of our "consumer culture" and "market society," the ethos of our time (if we are to propose such broad generalizations) seems rendered more fully intelligible in terms of our democratic way of life.     

At the same time, it is hardly hyperbole to say that we have utterly lost faith in democracy as a form of government. In only the most notorious examples from the American context, Congress's approval ratings currently hover around the upper single digits. The President and the Court do a bit better but have also dropped well below 50% approval. Political parties and the media are managing to give Congress a run for the money in inciting the public's contempt. And a significant majority agree that the country is "on the wrong track." 

When we move beyond these polling numbers to analyze today's political rhetoric, we get a sense of the precise manner of the prevailing contempt of politics. Take, for instance, "playing politics," that unfortunate staple of public discourse. With this catch-all accusation of cynical motives and bad-faith speech one can summarily dismiss an argument by trivializing it ("she's just playing politics with the issue of [fill-in-the-blank]"). The subtext here, and in all of those cognate tropes like "the electoral silly season," "playing the blame game," "petty partisan bickering," "fiddling while such-and-such burns," and so on, is that the democratic politics of persuasion is basically a childish game. Politics was once considered a stage for us at our most human; today it's staged as a serio-comic farce, a self-parodying, reality-TV performance wholly detached from the real issues we face.  

Beyond corrupt, politics has come to seem absurd - a public facade of transparently manipulative spin that participants and observers alike know better than to believe in. Language is just assumed to obscure rather than convey meaning. The theater of the absurd consists of plays where nothing happens, full of trite slogans, repetitive gibberish, ludicrous caricatures, and clichés that obstruct authentic expression and meaningful communication. What could better encapsulate the common perception of politics today? 

Such polling numbers and political rhetoric demonstrate only the tip of the iceberg of political cynicism.  Viewed in its full depth, the disrespect for all-things-political goes far beyond the media-and-money-saturated spectacle of the minimally (or perhaps only nominally) democratic "politic-as-usual" that dominates the national stage.        

Polling further demonstrates an across-the-board decline of "trust and confidence" in major public institutions more generally. Public schools, the legal and medical systems, organized religion, labor unions and big business are all at record-low approval numbers. The sole (and telling) exceptions to this collapse of public support are small business, the police, and, the runaway winner, the military (where in a July 2011 Gallup Poll Congress registered 11% approval, the military enjoyed 82% approval).

While Americans distinguish between big and small business, they don't seem to distinguish between big and small democracy. Recent research shows that they dislike local, direct, participatory democracy as much as national, institutional, representative democracy. The majority of people say that they wouldn't want to participate in political decision-making at any level. Nor do they endorse efforts to "return power to the people."  

Why is this? Unremarkably, people say that they're preoccupied with work and private life and don't have time for politics. But this accounts for only apathy, not cynicism. How are we to explain people's lack of respect for, beyond their lack of interest in, politics?        

Further, while people don't trust their elected representative they trust themselves as citizens even less.  They overwhelmingly believe that they themselves and the American people generally are uninformed about political matters. Moreover, about half doubt the trustworthiness of their fellow citizens.

Democracy is nothing if not the practice of free, equal, and diverse people arguing together to address common problems and purposes. But the majority of Americans believe that the common good is just obvious, a matter of common sense. Disagreement therefore seems in principle unreasonable.

Most significantly, people express a deep aversion to the very stuff of democratic politics. Democracy has been called an "essentially contested concept" - its multifaceted meaning is inherently subject to questioning and argument. Yet, surely contestation and questioning and argument are themselves essential to democracy's meaning. Democracy is nothing if not the practice of free, equal, and diverse people arguing together to address common problems and purposes. But the majority of Americans believe that the common good is just obvious, a matter of common sense. Disagreement therefore seems in principle unreasonable. The vast majority agrees, moreover, that arguing is a "waste of time," just "petty bickering" and "pointless conflict."               

The very substance of democratic politics is thus rejected by most Americans. Their disrespect extends beyond any actually existing form of government, all the way down to the political practice of democracy as such. Popular politics is itself unpopular.   

Consider this on an everyday cultural level: do we (do you) view an argument as the mark of a healthy relationship and proof of mutual respect, or as a pointless and aggravating waste of time and the first sign on the road to divorce? The political element of human association itself seems to incite contempt today.     

Research demonstrates further that the public's low opinion of politics shifts only slightly with prevailing conditions (the state of the economy, crime rates), and that events like Watergate and the 1995 government shutdown, or the first Gulf War and 9/11, effect only the current moment's degree, not the general and gradually worsening climate, of political cynicism.  We are thus left to consider the possibility that our contempt of politics is no less than cultural, an a priori assumption, as much reflexive habit as reflective criticism.  Blind cynicism, as opposed to healthy skepticism, seems ingrained in our way of life as, literally, an anti-political prejudice.               

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We are confronted here with a series of paradoxes. We seem to expect ever more from, but ever less of, democracy. Democratization seems equally inevitable and impossible. Democratic society appears as beautiful as democratic politics is distasteful. A gap between principle and practice hardly requires explanation, but how can we account for this opposite movement - this simultaneous waxing of democratic ideals and waning of democratic political practices? Why do we retain such faith in democracy when we have ceased to believe in its core meaning? How has democracy taken on the characteristics of a utopia?

The politics of democracy is in crisis today not despite but largely because of the cultural hegemony of democracy. 

I argue that this concurrent triumph and tragedy of democracy is no coincidence. The politics of democracy is in crisis today not despite but largely because of the cultural hegemony of democracy.  Political cynicism is in fact a constitutive element of the democratic way of life; democracy's social principle subverts its political practice. Put simply, we hate politics because we love democracy.        

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The democratic revolution was as much social as political. As Alexis de Tocqueville most famously elaborated, democratic modernity proscribed aristocracy as well as monarchy. Equality supplanted hierarchy as the sole legitimate and meaningful principle of human association. Exceptions persisted to democracy's rule but alternatives did not. Every remaining inequality had to be justified as the product of equal opportunity and open competition. And no matter the de facto inequalities, the hierarchical right of command was debased. 

In a nuanced argument, Tocqueville explained how this socio-political revolution in the principle of authority resulted in a shift to informality as the fundamental norm of society. Where aristocratic social relations were symbolically ordered according to an intricate and fixed code of formal etiquette that designated due obligations along the chain of command, democratic society takes shape as the informal or open society. Take just a few examples: family relations become more friendly and relaxed, less cold and authoritarian (more fraternal, less paternal); a smile and a handshake replaces the ornate formalities of aristocratic manners (even politeness becomes suspect); the arts trend toward being free-form and anti-conventional; language increasingly does without strict rules of grammar; the height of formal dress becomes a tuxedo (usually rented); private liberty replaces public honor as the defining social value; change becomes innovation and progress rather than corruption; the open road displaces the inherited status of land and name as the symbol of the well-ordered regime.           

I show that there are two apparently opposite norms of human association inscribed in the informal society: intimacy and competition. Against the public artifice of formal conventions and institutions around which aristocratic society cohered, intimacy and competition are affirmed as the natural and spontaneous, good and true modes of human relations. Love and power are assumed to be our primary desires. The family and the market become the central symbolic venues of democratic society. Other spheres of social interaction either achieve romantic communion or amount to just economics by other means. 

Against the public artifice of formal conventions and institutions around which aristocratic society cohered, intimacy and competition are affirmed as the natural and spontaneous, good and true modes of human relations. Love and power are assumed to be our primary desires. The family and the market become the central symbolic venues of democratic society. The political sphere is no exception...

The political sphere is no exception. The market-model of politics consists of private interests in public competition for power, consumer citizens and salesmen politicians, special interests and electoral advertising campaigns. To know how politics really works here one must "follow the money" of campaign financing and realize that "it's the economy, stupid." The family-model of politics consists of members bound as compatriots in a shared movement or community, and it results in the family feud of the "culture war." To the extent that this model translates to representative democracy at all, it replicates intimacy in the "who would you rather have a beer with?" test, "I feel your pain" closeness, the emotional telling of one's personal story, and the preeminence of authenticity as a political virtue.                 

What these two apparently opposite norms of association have in common is that they eliminate speech, and in particular argument, as the medium of human interaction. In the struggle for competitive advantage, persuasion might be useful as a soft-power strategy for success via sales-pitch manipulation, but otherwise, in a world where "money talks," arguing is just a waste of time. At the other end of the circle, relative to communal  intimacy, an argument signifies only the sad distance between us and our ideal of deep union untroubled by the need for mediating talk. Here, arguing can only seem like petty partisan bickering.      

In this cultural context of democratic informality, the politics of arguing together cannot but seem absurd - just so much dithering talk when what's needed is decisive action, or a display of us at our dysfunctional worst. Argument is taken not as among the highest forms of human association but as evidence that something has gone wrong. Paradoxically, it seems we approach democracy only by circumventing or transcending partisan disagreement.

The politics that remains amounts to the inane if vicious game of politics-as-usual and the perpetual pursuit of the authentic political outsider (or "grassroots" movement of the like-minded) to set things right again.  Today, this Cincinnatus-figure - who is in but not of politics - is recognizable in the stock characters of the businessman anti-politician who'll "stop talking and just get things done," and the preacher anti-politician who'll act from principle and "core convictions" to rise above partisanship and reunite the nation.

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Since its origins in ancient Greece with Diogenes and his followers, cynicism has always stood for a disrespect for language, and for social institutions and conventions more generally. I have suggested that cynicism is inherent in modern democratic society. Symbolically speaking, the forum is displaced by the market and the family - by a realism that has no use for words and a romanticism that has no need for words. Democratic politics, the citizen's practice of arguing together, comes in turn to seem oddly out of place in democratic society.

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Steven Bilakovics is a Postdoctoral Associate in Political Science at Yale University.

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