We the democracy

September 18, 2017

Nearly every day, Donald Trump does something that further exposes the hollowness of democracy in the supposed "world's greatest democracy." In this excerpt from his new book, Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People, SocialistWorker.org writer Danny Katch puts forward a vision for an alternative: a democracy that works for the people.

THE SHOCK of Trump's election win unleashed a legion of Internet threads about how our universe must have taken a detour into some alternate reality (the Cubs winning the World Series a week earlier didn't help). Here's my version: maybe we're all subjects in a cosmic psychology study, like the Milgram experiment, which tested if people would obey orders to administer horrible electric shocks just because an authority figure in a white coat told them to. What if this is all a hoax to find out what happens when the greatest authority figure in the world is a jackass that most people wouldn't trust to pay back ten bucks? What will Americans do when he says he's barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, based on classified information we don't get to see? Would they be good loyal citizens and follow along if he started a war just to boost his ego when he's feeling hurt by negative cable news coverage?

If Trump's presidency actually were a test to measure blind obedience, I'm sorry to say that in the initial days after his election, many leaders of our so-called opposition party would have passed that test with flying colors. From Clinton and Obama to even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the talking points in November 2016 were that Democrats would "seek common ground" with the new groper-in-chief and "root for the success" of someone they had just campaigned against as a fascist who needed to be stopped.

Thankfully, most of their voters had precisely the opposite reaction, and their immediate resistance has been a defining feature of the beginning of the Trump era. From the tens of thousands who took to the streets on the day after his election to the three million who came out to the Women's March in Washington, D.C., and around the country on the day after his inauguration, people made it clear from the jump that they were not going to give Trump the respect he doesn't deserve.

AND THEN came a critical showdown: the spontaneous protests in dozens of airports demanding that stranded travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries be allowed to enter the country. Possibly the largest and most important protest against Islamophobia in American history, the "uprising at the airports," drastically shifted the political terrain and almost certainly played a role in giving judges the confidence to strike down Trump's travel ban. We can only hope that these early resistance actions will ultimately turn out to be as fateful for Trump's reign as the secret meeting with bank leaders was for Obama's, but it's already clear that things would look far worse if ordinary people had followed the pathetically placid lead of their elected officials.

What you can do

If you're in or around New York City, you can hear Danny Katch speak on his new book Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People. Friday, September 22, at 7 p.m., at Verso Books, 20 Jay St. in Brooklyn.

Trump responded to this widespread opposition with the same denunciations of #FakeNews and #PaidProtesters he tossed around during the campaign. But once he was president, he had a new argument: "Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly."

That was @realDonaldTrump's Sunday morning tweet after the Women's March, and beyond the random shot at celebrities (coming from the biggest starfucker in the world), his message was clear: he somehow won this democracy thing, so protesting him is therefore anti-democratic. This kind of reasoning is ominous coming from a president who makes no secret of his fondness for authoritarian leaders. As far back as 1990, he expressed creepy admiration for the Chinese government's notorious repression of the Tiananmen Square protests the year before:

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. It shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak...as being spat on by the rest of the world.

Clockwise from top left: U.S. Capitol building; Los Angeles protest; and Donald Trump

But as I've argued, Trump's limited view of democracy is in many ways simply a blunter expression of conventional wisdom that's usually more delicately put: Go out and protest if you want, but you'll have to wait for the next election to make real change. Trump's presidency poses a challenge to this logic. A majority of the country hasn't supported him from the first day, and a significant section of that majority doesn't want to wait four years while their immigrant neighbors are deported, doesn't think we can afford to wait four years as the planet gets hotter, and isn't completely sure if we wait four years that Trump won't have somehow declared himself president for life. That last one may sound a little far out, but remember, the Cubs won the World Series.

And so there are now millions of people who, until recently, understood their involvement in politics to be voting every two to four years (if that) who now see themselves as part of "the resistance" to a president under whose reign the normal rules can't apply. This is an important development that can represent so much more than a bunch of bodies to knock on doors in 2018 and 2020 to "take back" Congress and the White House for a bunch of politicians who want to "go back" to a status quo that none of us liked. Mass participation in politics can instead lead to building the unions and protest organizations that have potential not only to stop Trump but also to lay the basis for a democracy more worthy of the name.

DEMOCRACY IS a Greek word that literally means rule by the people, or demos. In ancient Athens, where democracy was most fully developed, most important government positions were rotating posts filled by random selection among the population, most of whom were not rich philosophers like Plato (who absolutely hated this system, by the way). In fact, the word demos means both the people in general and, more specifically, the majority class of peasants. Non-Athenian slaves were excluded, which is a very large asterisk, but the important fact remains that in the original form of democracy, poor citizens led society on more equal footing with rich citizens than we in the modern world can fully imagine.

That's probably why ruling classes considered democracy to be a terrible idea for most of the next two thousand years, until the demos rose up in revolutions across Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, and, in the United States and France, elites were forced to reconcile themselves to some form of popular participation in government. As the word democracy started to come back into popular usage in the 1800s, it had a revealingly wider set of meanings than today's limited definition of a form of government with elections. Democracy meant that, but it could also mean the popular will, egalitarianism, mass protest movements or, simply, the people. The Chartists in England--the first large-scale working-class movement in history, which emerged in the 1830s and '40s--often referred to themselves simply as "the democracy." You can hear an echo of this idea in the popular protest chant " This is what democracy looks like!"

But for the most part, that wider meaning of the word was lost, as the democracy that emerged in the modern world was not defined, as per the ancient Greeks, as the political rule by the majority class. Instead, modern democracy came to be primarily defined in terms of individual rights and liberties--a tradition that, as the brilliant socialist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood explains in Democracy Against Capitalism, evolved from the right of medieval lords, codified in documents like the Magna Carta, to protect against kings' infringing on their hereditary privileges over their land and peasants. Over the past two hundred years, the struggles to win the right to vote and to free speech have transformed these once elite privileges into our modern conception of democratic rights, and this is one of the great advances in modern history. But we need to revive the Chartists' class definition of democracy, because the strength of our individual rights has always depended on our collective strength as workers, as women, as African Americans, and so on.

WITH TRUMP in the White House, all of us now find ourselves facing the situation that has been true in many statehouses for years: a government of hard right-wingers who don't represent majority of their population, but derive their authority from voter suppression, gerrymandering, and vast popular disillusionment with politics. For young people in particular, this government isn't just unrepresentative, it seems to come from a different planet. Members of the so-called millennial generation overwhelmingly support immigrant rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and transgender people's right to use the bathroom they prefer. But they're stuck in a country held hostage by an aging white Republican minority that genuinely believes Barack Obama is an undercover Muslim, immigration is a plot to make America less white, and two people with similar genitalia can't really love each other.

Throughout history, the combination of politically frustrated youth and an out-of-touch and unresponsive government has been a potentially explosive situation, and Trump and the Republicans know they need to clamp down on dissent. They'll spread fake news about immigrant voter fraud to strip more people of the right to vote, empower police to crack down harder on demonstrations, and pressure campus administrators to suspend and expel student activists. Critical aspects of whatever freedoms and liberties we have in this country will be up for grabs in the coming years.

But in order to defend democracy from Trump we'll have to create more of it. We'll need to assert our right to vote--and work to give ourselves choices beyond Donald versus Hillary, Trumpcare versus Obamacare, deporting millions of immigrants versus de- porting even more millions of immigrants. We'll have to challenge the legitimacy of Trump's authority--and of police officers who break the law every day and lie about it afterward as brazenly as their hero president. And as we fight his attempts to consolidate power, we can't rely on Democrats to stand with us--even when it seems to be in their obvious self-interest, like fighting to stop an election from being stolen from them.

In the midst of the electoral chaos in 2000, Al Gore's campaign actively discouraged its supporters in the labor and civil rights movements from fighting back. Union organizer Jane McAlevey recalls, in her book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), that activists were on the ground in Florida waiting for the call to mobilize, only to be told that leading Democratic Party officials "don't want to protest. They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to seem like they don't have faith in the legal system." They kept proclaiming that faith even after the legal system gave them the infamous Bush v. Gore ruling that stopped the Florida recount. "The state was Gore's to lose," concludes McAlevey, "and the absolute determination with which the labor elite and the Democratic Party leadership crushed their own constituents' desire to express their political passions cost us the election."

Democrats preferred to sacrifice their own presidential victory rather than unleash potentially explosive protests that might have (rightfully) led millions to question the legitimacy of their elections. And they did the same on a smaller scale in 2016 when they downplayed reports of fraud and voter suppression in order to find that "common ground." When people whose entire careers are devoted to political campaigns think it's better to forfeit the biggest race of them all for the sake of preserving the façade of free and fair elections, our goal should be to tear down that façade and set our sights on a fuller democracy that can only be fulfilled in a society actually run by We the Demos.

Further Reading

From the archives