Robin Wright, in an excellent yet disturbing article in The New Yorker, laments the precipitous decline of trust among Americans. That confidence in the legitimacy of American institutions has eroded is not exactly news: Vietnam and Watergate started the slide in the 1960s and 1970s. But something else is in play, according to Wright, something far more ominous:
American experience is in real trouble — more than at any time in at least a half century — and that there’s no one out there to help us. Reflecting on . . . [Barack Obama’s] Facebook comment, Paul Waldman, of the Washington Post, wrote, “This country is not in the mood for reconciliation and healing, and hasn’t been for some time.”… The unsettling sense that America is going wrong, even unwinding, is reflected in a poll released two weeks ago by the Pew Research Center: seventy-five per cent of Americans now say that trust in the federal government is shrinking. The numbers reflect both frustration with the nation’s polarization and anger over Washington’s dysfunction. But something bigger is happening. Even more striking in the Pew poll: two-thirds of Americans have significantly less trust in one another, too.
The core of the problem, however, is contained in Wright’s phrase “there’s no one out there to help us.” In a liberal republican democracy, government rests on the continued consent of the governed. There’s no one “out there” other than the citizenry: government, however one might take it to be some disinterested oligarchic “other”, ultimately is what it is at the behest of the citizens of the nation. Government is not “them”: it is us. Understood thus, the expansion of mistrust from impersonal institutions to other Americans should be no surprise. Pogo was right: the enemy is us.
Contrast this mood of national helplessness with the recent actions of the citizens of Puerto Rico. Confronted with Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s contempt for his fellow citizens, Puerto Ricans hit the streets, made noise, and forced his resignation. The political crisis on Puerto Rico has not yet been resolved — they have had three Governors in a week, and the current occupant of the office has expressed no interest in it — but at the very least it is clear that the people of Puerto Rico understands the basics of political legitimacy in a liberal democratic republic. They realize that the government is, ultimately, “us”, and is willing to hold it accountable when it departs from its mission. The fact that this kind of spontaneous political action is all but unthinkable on the US mainland is cause not just for despair but alarm.
Americans’ distrust of each other has been greatly enhanced by the Trump administration’s intentionally divisive rhetoric. Confronting the Trump régime on this is the immediate order of business. But that is not all that needs to be done. The citizens of the United States need to examine their own failure to understand themselves as citizens rather than subjects or consumers. And this is a long-standing problem for the United States of America: there has, from its inception, been a tension between engaged citizenship and what the political theorist C.B. Macpherson has called “possessive individualism”, the conviction that social life is a struggle to do what one can to get what one wants, and that politics is a medium in which the social conflict that this entails is managed. Under such conditions, it isn’t surprising that no one trusts each other — it would be reasonable to do so.
Mistrust has been universalized, Wright argues, citing political strategist Richard Haas:
The idea of America as a melting pot is being replaced by the idea of Americans in separate pots. “The pattern is one of weakening social and national bonds,” Haass said. “That makes it harder to feel a shared identity or community — and to do anything collectively.”
Hass and Wright are not wrong in this assessment, but they do gloss over the prevalence of possessive individualism as perhaps the guiding American ideology. For the possessive individualist, the only kind of collective action is conflict management: reconciling the clashing interests of atomized individuals. There may be flashes of communitarian, civic-republican spirit in such a polity now and then, but they are at odds with and eroded by the “don’t tread on me/I got mine, go get yours” attitude with which it coexists. You see this dynamic at work in all the tiresome and interminable battles over the second amendment, regulation of business, taxation, racial reparations, the environment, and so on ad nauseam.
As I argued in an earlier article in Medium, these “social and national bonds” in The United States have always been, if not weak, at least weakened by a possessive individualism that has been present at the nation’s founding. The “melting pot” has always been more mythological than historical (and when it is invoked, it is usually meant to endorse the smelting of “other” nationalities and races into “whiteness”). Moreover, it misses the point about democracy: that it requires both individuality and the community of equal citizens, in dialogue with each other about the common good and the proper relation of each to all. Thus democracy is not just a politics but a culture: as John Dewey put it, not just a set of formal institutions and constraints, but the form of public, communal life itself.
Some commentators on the Right, such as Patrick Deneen, and on the Left, such as Slavoj Žižek, see possessive individualism as the defining trait of the “liberal” element in liberal republican democracy, and argue that it is evidence of the failure of liberalism as such. But liberalism — in key part the commitment to the rule of law, the rights of citizens, and the separation of powers — need not devolve into the Hobbesian free-for-all of possessive, atomic individualism. Political philosophers such as Jeffrey Stout and Charles Taylor have, I think, definitively refuted these dire assessments of liberalism. But a liberalism shorn of possessive individualism needs a democratic and republican ethos to sustain and limit it. It needs a robust recognition that there is a common good to be deliberated about, and common citizenship of political equals to do the deliberation. This has been relentlessly chipped-away-at by neoliberalism, the exaltation of the market and managing the free flow of capital over mere “politics.” But now there is another feature on the horizon to contend with, the rise of nationalist authoritarianism.
Some of the American “pots” Hass mentioned have no truck with a common good, if by “common” we mean involving all the citizens of the USA regardless of their ideological or racial identifications. They are eager to separate the “real American” wheat from the “un-American” chaff. They thrive on division, a view of political friends and enemies that would make the Nazi-sympathizing jurist Carl Schmitt smile from beyond the grave. They are not just opposed to liberal theory but actively illiberal and, contrary to their self-understanding, are undemocratic as well, since every effort is made to establish minority rule through voter-suppression, gerrymandering, and hate-filled propaganda against “libtards” and “the radical Left”. (That Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the mildest of Social Democrats, are thus portrayed as near-Bolshevists supports my point.) This is entirely compatible with possessive individualism in the economy (it is not anti-capitalist), but incompatible with any inclusive deliberative democracy. In such “pots” economic individualists sink their political identities into “the nation” conceived as a quasi-theological ideal, and their social identities into their own ethnic and religious groups. Such “pots” — call them authoritarian, call them white nationalist, call them Trumpist, call them what you will — cannot tolerate other “pots”, in principle and across the board.
There is much to criticize in Karl Popper’s political theory, but he was on to something significant when he addressed “the paradox of tolerance.” Liberal democracies thrive on the difference of political opinion. Ideas clash in the public forum, and the ideas that win out have only a temporary warrant, one which runs out when the winds of opinion shift. Liberal democracy is prima facie committed to tolerance of opposing viewpoints, the rights of the opposition to be heard, and recognizing the importance of arriving at, if not a consensus, at least a modus vivendi. However, Popper argued, some of those ideas, and the people who advance them, are intolerant. Tolerating their intolerant convictions (and actions) opens up the possibility that such intolerance will defeat a tolerant, liberal-democratic social order by enacting intolerant policies; yet failing to tolerate intolerance thus transforms a tolerant political order into an intolerant one. Popper was willing to grasp the second horn of the dilemma, and insist that a tolerant political order cannot tolerate the intolerant if, and only if, the intolerant appeal to force and deceit rather than rational argument (as they are apt to do). But the paradox remains: liberal democratic “tolerance” either has limits, or else leaves itself vulnerable to defeat at the hands of the intolerant.
The United States is neck-deep in this paradox. The quote, while misattributed to Werner Herzog, “Dear America: You are waking up as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches”, is very much on-point. But a genuinely democratic culture would place this nightmare beyond the pale. I realize that it is not just a tall but a virtually impossible order to create this culture by fiat, and quickly. But these are the stakes. To some extent, we need to re-envision and re-create American politics, and the public life to sustain it, in a way that replaces possessive individualism with democratic citizenship, and making it very clear that it is not just tolerance but humility is required to accomplish this feat. And to be humble is to recognize that, more often than we would like to admit, the enemy is us.