How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator

A former student wrote to me this morning seeking guidance because, she fears, she is watching democracy crumble before her eyes. Referencing two of the books we read in a course five years earlier, the first by Jeffrey Goldfarb and the second by Jacques Derrida, she writes,

Given the current situation I am looking back on all of our course readings. I no longer feel like The Politics of Small Things or Rogues are theoretical.  Unfortunately I am coming to believe these works are now textbooks with potential guidance for the dangerous state of our democracy.

What else might she read, she asks, and what tactical solutions are there for this situation we are in?

He email made me realize that the little book I’ve been working on recently is more timely than ever, that I need to wrap it up right away, and that I should change the title from Deliberation, Politics, and the Work of Mourning to the more direct, though less sexy, How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator — a phrase I learned from those who led the “No” campaign that got rid of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I never imagined that I would one day need to invoke this phrase here in the United States, but the election of the authoritarian Donald Trump and the far-right administration he is assembling does change everything. So, let’s ask ourselves, how can the US become a country that will not tolerate a dictator?

At the heart of my book are the key democratic practices I’ve learned from my work in community organizing and public life, from reading a lot of political theory, and from the collaborative research I’ve done with the Kettering Foundation. I borrow shamelessly from all to list the following practices that citizens—everyday people in a complex political society—can and need to take part in for democracy to work.

Not everyone needs to do everything, but in a large decentered society, all the following tasks need to be taken up in one space or another.

First there is the politics of seeing oneself as a citizen, someone whose office includes the overarching work of deciding what kind of communities we want; deciding what direction the political community should take, and what it stands for. I use the word “citizen” as a synonym for those with a sense of political agency—and this can include the undocumented and others with only residency status. This is  the most important office in a democracy: being people who decide what is right and just and ascertain whether their will is being carried out well.  All who are affected by matters of common concern are, to my mind, potential citizens. To be a citizen is to be someone with the sense that what she thinks matters. It also involves having a sense that one can call a meeting if there is an issue needing attention, that she can call on others to join with her in the work. This is the other crucial part of the First Amendment: the right of association. In dark times it is vital that citizens associate with others. Here the mantra is, Organize! Get involved in existing associations, whether they are civic or religious ones, and if there is a gap, create new spaces and organizations for people to come together. To be a citizen, again, is to be someone who can call a meeting.

Second is the task of identifying and thematizing problems. Importantly, it is often citizens and new social movements, not official agencies, that first notice something deeply amiss in the world and then send out alerts. New social movements often serve as what Habermas calls the “sensors” that identify problems not previously noticed. For example, it was citizens and a new renegade environmental movement that, in mid 20th century, began sounding the alarm about environmental degradation. In addition to identifying a problem, such citizen movements give problems a name and thematize or frame how they should be considered, just as young undocumented people in the United States are thematizing themselves as Dreamers. The Dreamers also show how political agency is not just the purview of those with citizenship papers, but belongs to anyone who is willing to take a stand with others.

Third are the ongoing, decentered conversations that take place throughout the public sphere. These are conversations geared toward thinking through, deliberating, and deciding what ought to be done on matters of common concern. These conversations take place informally throughout society, from a taxicab to a high school social studies classroom. Over time these conversations allow people to encounter different points of view and perspectives, work through the trade-offs, pros and cons of various courses of action, develop public knowledge, and decide what ought to be done, that is, develop public will on the matter that can, in turn, steer public policy. Making deliberative choices often involves deeply felt, and not merely cognitive, processes of working through and mourning loss.

Fourth is the task of identifying and committing civic resources, using the energy of communities and citizens to bring about change. Not all public choices call for government actions. This task also picks up on Arendt’s notion of public generative power, that when people come together they can create new potential. Also they can see how to make use of something that has previously gone fallow. For example, with the sustainability movement we are seeing a proliferation of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm to restaurant and to table movements.

Fifth is the task of organizing and engaging in civic actions, which can include holding governments and officials under siege until their actions begin to align with public will. Both social movements and deliberative bodies play a role here. Increasingly citizens are acting in concert on matters of common concern themselves. When officials act contrary to public will, strong democratic publics will hold them accountable. Various legitimation crises have erupted when publics point out discrepancies between public will and public policy. Publics find mechanisms (whether through protest or nullification) to get public will translated into law.

Sixth, is the task of civic learning, which means learning from the past and remaining open to judging how it all went and what could be done differently going forward. This is the antithesis of any “best practices” model. Any citizen can join with others to revisit a matter that others think was already democratically settled. In a democracy, no one should be ruled by decisions made by previous generation.

By seeing these kinds of tasks as central to democratic politics, we can reframe what citizens are doing when they converse and gather together around public issues. They aren’t merely trying to influence politics elsewhere; right where they are, they are creating the public will needed to imagine new futures. We can also see that democratic power is not a vertical relationship between rulers and ruled but a horizontal relationship of citizens associating with others to identify, name, frame, decide, and act on matters of common concern.

These practices don’t necessarily occur in any linear fashion. They are iterative. A first pass through a problem may turn up new unforeseen consequences and problems. This is what is so important about the sixth stage of learning, which I think resonates a bit more clearly in an Arendtian frame, especially her ideas of thinking and judging. Learning is a process of critically reflecting on a state of affairs, internally and collectively practicing the two-in-one back and forth of considering and reconsidering our thoughts about matters, being open to seeing something differently, not reifying some practice or institutions as “just the way it is.” Learning, then, loops back into re-naming and re-framing problems. The policies that a deliberative process may have resulted in may bring about unforeseen consequences that a social movement then names and begins to frame.

These six practices focus on what publics can do, including both social movements and deliberative publics; but they also point to the legitimacy question I mentioned above. If the public in its informal deliberations (what Jane Mansbridge calls “everyday talk”) begins to develop public judgment and will X, but elected officials are operating on notion Y, then the government’s legitimacy comes under question. For ultimately the power and authority of any state in the modern era derives from public will. When the state becomes oblivious to its real source of authority, then it loses its legitimacy and shows itself to be devoid of any authority whatsoever.

Mourning and Organizing in America

Many of us are in mourning, but we need to think strategically about using this moment to change the fundamentals of our political regimes.

Following last night’s electoral college victory, Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. At this moment, the following night, with 99% of precincts reporting, HRC has a popular vote lead of over 200,000. So this morning, easily more than half the country woke up in mourning.

How could nearly half the voting population vote for someone who has been so scurrilous about women, immigrants, religious minorities, the disabled, and so many other people? Do those voting for him share these racist, sexist, and xenophobic views? What does it mean for the country when one half of the people see the other half as enemies of all human decency?

On hearing the returns last night, I fell in a dark well thinking how unthinkable this all was. Trump has shown himself to be a demagogue and a clear danger to democracy. Does this mean that those who voted for him voted for the possibility of a fascist takeover of the country?

I think not.

On reflection I firmly believe that most, though certainly not all, the people who voted for Trump did not do so because they were sexist or racist (though many likely are) but rather because they feel like the political system does not give a damn about them, that they are struggling in some way relative to their circumstances, that the political system is rigged by people with money or in power (and isn’t that true?), and in desperation they voted for someone who seemed to get this DESPITE his bigoted views. I think these people made a terrible mistake, but I get it. If we on the left want to insist that half the country is purely bigoted then we will never get anywhere. The good news, if there is any, is that finally in this country most people are fed up with the oligarchy. We need to take this an opportunity to create a different kind of politics, or at least alternative political parties. The DNC and the RNC are both corrupt institutions.

The common denominator between many on the left and many who voted for Trump is this: precarity. Our neoliberal politics in an era of globalization does not give a wit about the plight of working and unemployed people — and it won’t offer them any opportunity to change the game. We have, for the most part, democracy in name only. The reality is this current anti-political national and global regime. It is anti-political in that economic mantras substitute for any real deliberative choice about how polities should proceed. Those who voted for Trump, I believe, were terribly naive that Trump’s reign would change any of this; but I do appreciate their desire to make the system more accountable to their lived reality.

Instead of demonizing all those who voted for Trump as bigots, we on the left need to appreciate that, while some may have been horribly bigoted, likely most are potential allies in calling for and creating more democratic and responsive political institutions. Yes, this is a dark time. Yes, this is a time for mourning. But also this is a time for organizing.

It’s time to make connections between those on the left and the right who feel that the system is impervious to their concerns — just as this Saturday Night Live skit brilliantly did. It is time to work on developing new political parties that are more responsive to people’s lived reality — and less responsive to corporate interests. It is time to develop political practices that are more participatory and inclusive. It is time to rescind laws that allow big dollars to subvert democratic life. It is time to increase opportunities for all who have been sidelined from political practice.

At this Trump moment, there are a lot of opportunities to take the disgruntlement that brought in Trump and use it to build a bigger tent for more democracy. If we just use the moment to demonize the other side, we squander this opportunity.