Hope for the future is key to liberal democracy

This article was originally posted on the Career Guidance for Social Justice website on the 7th January shortly after the surprising events in Washington.

Over the last few hours we have seen astonishing scenes from Washington DC. The pro-Trump demonstrations which penetrated right into the heart of government looked a lot like a coup. The fact that President Trump was cheerleading from the sidelines was particularly chilling and the failure of the police and the security forces to bring this quickly under control was worrying and suspicious. As many have pointed out, if the protestors had been black, they would have been unlikely to get such an easy ride.

As I write there are four people dead, people calling for the removal of the President and, finally the confirmation of Joe Biden as the next President. If it was a coup, it was an unsuccessful one, at least for now. In reality it probably never had the capacity to genuinely challenge for state power. But the political drama is not over and the whole situation is far from calm. From the outside, the USA looks highly unstable.

As I’ve followed the story on TV and social media I’ve been invited to engage on the basis of American exceptionalism. This is not just a political crisis in a country thousands of miles away from where I live. Rather it is a crisis in liberal democracy itself. America is not just a state, it is an ideal. Senior British Conservative politician Jeremy Hunt made this point most clearly echoing both John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s borrowing of the biblical image of the ‘shining city on a hill’.

While I believe that there is much to be celebrated in American democracy, in general I have a more complex relationship with it. Yes, this is the country where the theories of liberal democracy were tried out most convincingly following a revolution that overthrew an oppressive imperialism, but… this is also the country of slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, vote suppression, big money politics, the oddities of the electoral college and this is to say nothing of its imperialism abroad. Of course, all countries and all democracies have problems, but I think that it is dangerous to view anywhere as an ideal type and to be blind to the reality of its failings. Neither Washington nor Moscow as we used to say back in the day!

The attempt to view American and liberal democracy as an abstract also blinds us to what is really going on and leaves us with a distorted analysis. As Grace Blakely pointed out last night, liberal democracy is bound up with the economy. And so when the economy fails, as it is doing in the USA, under pressure from first the Great Recession and now from Covid, liberal democracy inevitably wobbles.

Every political leader knows that their country is only a few meals away from collapse. If people can’t eat they will do something drastic. If people fear for their lives, they will do something drastic and if people see no future, no possibilities for themselves and their children, they will ultimately do something drastic. This is where the concept of career comes in once again. The promise of a decent life, of progression and social mobility, which are all bound up in the concept of career, is not external to the concept of liberal democracy, it is what liberal democracy is supposed to guarantee. If democracy ceases to deliver this, why should people believe in it?

As Naomi Klein has recently been arguing, the Democrats have been trying to divorce their moral support for liberal democracy from any substantial economic programme. Similarly they have championed mask wearing and other forms of social distancing, without promising people much in the way of material support in the wake of the devastation that Covid is wreaking on the American labour market. This is supposed to be a moderate position in which they are progressive on constitutional and public health issues, but conservative on the economy. But, as the election results and the subsequent fall out, have shown, this isn’t enough for a lot of people.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheered when Joe Biden edged his victory over Trump. I cheered again when I heard the senate result in Georgia and I believe in democracy, respecting the will of the people, the orderly transfer of power and many of the other features of liberal democracy. I also recognise that the problems in American democracy are not entirely material, they are also ideological, with politicians willing to play fast and loose with the principles that they supposedly believe in to advance their short term aims. But these in turn have their roots in material factors, most notably the centrality of money in the US political system.

Ultimately the point is that we can’t wring our hands about democracy and the collapse of constitutional norms whilst ignoring the problems of political economy that have brought this about. If we want to understand why a huge number of people are rejecting democracy, we have to think about why it isn’t working for them. At the moment many of these people are drawing, what I think are, entirely the wrong conclusions about what to do about this, but they are absolutely right in thinking that a Biden presidency is unlikely to provide them with a material improvement in their living conditions. While he may ensure that more people get their next meal, his programme, as much as it can be inferred, is insufficient to offer people a new or better future.

I feel that I’ve overstepped the mark in this piece. It is not my place to comment on the politics of other countries. I only know about all of this second hand. But the USA is so important to all of us, that it is difficult to say nothing.

I’d like to invite any American readers of this blog to respond to this or to provide their take on the current situation.

The world is watching and worrying about where 2021 is going to go next.

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