Symposium Introduction: Democracy’s Precarity and Resilience
The 2012 presidential election proved to be a familiar experience to those on the democratic left. Mitt Romney’s decisive defeat produced a considerable sigh of relief, even moments of joy as the likes of Karl Rove denied, for the entire world to see, the calamity that was unfolding in front of them: Republican defeat snatched from the fangs of victory. Much the same experience accompanied Democratic retention of the Senate. Insofar as the Republicans managed to guarantee control of the House of Representatives thanks to some brutally effective gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 census (one of Barack Obama’s problematic legacies), the very real possibility existed that conservative, decidedly reactionary forces might have seized control of all three branches of America’s national government. The consequences (economically, socially, politically, environmentally, legally, etc.) would have been predictably catastrophic.
Still, Obama’s victory may not be much cause to celebrate, a reality reflected in the precipitous drop of spectators at his second inaugural from 1.8 million to 500,000. More specifically, the 2013 election revealed some disturbing trends. A Pew Research Center poll following the election tells part of the story. Voters thought there was less discussion of issues and more negative campaigning than usual. They also thought very little of Obama and Romney. The voters did not exempt themselves from criticism either, earning a C+ (down from B- in 2008). What might such voter discontent signify? In the aftermath of the Occupy Movement, a popular force that changed the political dynamic in this country in more radially democratic and egalitarian directions, perhaps an expectation had formed that the voice of the people, to say nothing of their interests, might find greater presence in the 2012 national elections. As it turned out, America’s anti-democratic forces, including both parties, were ready to hold the line on change. A little reform here and there perhaps, but nothing more, occasionally soaring rhetoric from revered Democratic figures notwithstanding.
In addition to problems with the campaigns and candidates, the 2012 election might have produced an illegitimate president. The Republican Party waged a nationwide effort (one that continues) to suppress voter turnout, perhaps especially (but not exclusively) in battleground states that tend Democratic. Whether mandating state-sanctioned voter identification cards, purging official election rosters in search of so-called ineligibles, harassing and threatening voter registration efforts, or curtailing early voting periods, the GOP sought to reduce Democratic turnout to help propel Romney into the White House. (Now that the election has passed, the Republicans are making efforts to rig the Electoral College for future elections). If Romney and the Republicans had not run such an inept campaign with such a dismal candidate, these efforts might have succeeded, that is, Romney might well have stolen an election. The effect such efforts will have going forward remains unknown, though the GOP will continue trying to disenfranchise select categories of voters. The Democratic Party (and others) did what it could to beat back these efforts and many Democratic voters reacted with indignation and renewed determination to exercise their Constitutional and democratic rights and cast their ballots. Still, the lack of a broader outcry, including from Republican voters, disconcerts.
And this was just one instance of the democratic process being used to subvert democracy. From the flood of secret money to fund national disinformation campaigns to the parties’ control and strangulation of the debate machinery, from the refusal even to discuss critical issues (climate change, the Supreme Court, the expansion and abuse of executive power, etc.) to the campaigns’ self-serving presentation of issues (especially the party that won’t be governed by facts), the appearance of democracy prevails over and even helps subvert its reality. Nevertheless, democracy is resilient and resistant and its genius may lie, in part, in its ability to take advantage of and render productive nondemocratic conditions, forces, trends, and developments. Democracy also flourishes when we remind ourselves that we focus unduly, and thus to our peril, on elections and electoral processes, important as they also can be. Democracy lies elsewhere, often in the most unlikely of places, at the most unpredictable of moments. Ironically, Obama himself, a figure and practitioner of unbridled power, in his second inaugural, reminded us of democracy’s potential by invoking the power of its citizens. The essays published in this supplement speak, in different ways, to democratic promise in the face of the multifaceted powers arrayed against it. That promise, however, must be tempered by a sober assessment of the structural forces (neoliberalism, political parties that compete to do the bidding of national and global capital, the American Constitution, a reactionary Federal Judiciary, an irrational cultural antipathy toward unions, citizens who think of themselves as consumers and subjects, etc.) disabling and destroying democracy and any efforts to redeem it. Democracy is (once again) a life and death undertaking and the state (in the United States and abroad) is prepared to side with anti-democratic forces and unleash violence against oppositional and insurrectionary voices, as the people of the Occupy movement learned and continue to experience (in Oakland) as I write this introduction.
Romand Coles, keenly aware of the failures and disappointments of the past four years, argues that criticizing Obama for not matching performance to promise won’t suffice. In 2008 we voted as much for ourselves and our political natality (hence the invocation of, “yes, we can”) as we did for Obama, no matter how (poorly) that turned out. The 2012 election could be interpreted as our own reelection. We should proclaim it as such and respond accordingly. Thus, what kind of opportunities does Obama’s reelection provide for radical democratic forces? For one answer, Coles turns to “collaborations among democracy education networks and the Department of Education,” materialized at Northern Arizona University. Perhaps the academic world and the wider polity might reinvent themselves along radical democratic lines. In the end, Coles makes clear, democracy’s future isn’t about Obama, though we respond to his call for action in concert.
Paisley Currah dissects Obama’s reelection for the GLB community and its agenda. Is it something to be celebrated? Does it signal the end of a radical queer politics given the community’s embrace of a liberal politics of inclusion? Or do these approaches to Obama’s victory tend to miss the point given the problematic understanding, even fetishizing of the state on which each relies? For Currah, it is critical to focus attention on what is actually happening at “the local, micro, particular sites where public authority is being exercised.” Currah, then, delves into the archives of the Social Security Administration and New York City to draw attention to technologies of governmentality regarding sex (re)classification (rather than elections and laws) in order to understand the “thousands of ongoing and quotidian decisions that regulate life.” These are where democratic political battles are fought and won (or lost).
Paulina Ochoa Espejo takes Obama’s reelection as the occasion to investigate Latino politics so-called, more specifically the Dream Act—not as a short-term political question that has forced Democrats and Republicans to get serious about immigration reform out of electoral self-interest and survival, but because “it can start a wider conversation about the source and meaning of political rights.” Many believe that foreigners brought to the United States as children, legally or not, should be allowed to stay. This intuition provides a springboard for Ochoa Espejo to ask why “being physically present in a state’s territory entitle[s] you to legal and social rights you wouldn’t otherwise have.” The answer, too often neglected by political theorists, is that “dreamers have rights and the country should legally acknowledge them because they live here.” But here, paradoxically, does not exactly mean the United States. Here entails more concrete, precise everyday locations in communities across the nation. This is an understanding of place that is linked to identity, but also exceeds it: “local presence and participation entitles you to local rights regardless of identity.”
Michaele Ferguson investigates the apparent success that women and women’s issues enjoyed in the presidential campaign. Though both Obama and Romney employed feminist rhetoric and denounced the War on Women the other was waging, this kind of talk should not be mistaken as feminist. If anything, the candidates adopted campaigns strategies that obscured the more vital issue, structural gender inequality, and disabled a more radical political analysis. Ferguson exposes this democratic deceit and offers an alternative feminist understanding of politics.
David Gutterman examines Obama and his presidency in narrative terms. Recognizing the importance of “sacred stories” in American political life, perhaps especially in the art of governing, Obama combines the stories of Moses and Joshua, even though the latter might seem less than promising given Joshua’s role as a military leader and the staggering violence for which his story is famous. Playing Joshua to Martin Luther King’s Moses, assuming the role of politician not prophet, Obama invokes Joshua’s themes of unity and courage, an approach that might succeed in an election but seems ill-suited for governing in such divided partisan times. Does the story of Joshua need to be recovered? Or does Obama, if he is going to surmount Republican fanaticism and obstructionism, “require a new story, one yet to be written?”
Robyn Marasco, turning to Freud, pursues the many nuances of the term “Romnesia” and what it can tell us about not just the 2012 presidential election but also about our politics more generally. After all, forgetting—willful and otherwise—is not something that can be uniquely identified with either candidate or party. (The democratic left needed to forget about much of Obama’s first term to work and vote for him.) Nor is the phenomenon confined to the time of elections. It can enable democratic action; it can also foster neoliberal predations. In short, “forgetfulness sustain[s] individual and collective fantasies,” which means that we better be concerned with what “the president will do with victory.”
Lori Marso decries the silence surrounding the growing inequality and poverty in America, noting their profound connections to race and gender. While Barack Obama’s autobiography might have given reasons for hope that a President Obama would reinvigorate the legacies of FDR and LBJ, his administration has been tightly linked to the financial and banking sectors. This neoliberal president prefers narratives of personal responsibility to analyses of structural economic factors when discussing what ails America. Marso thus turns to the black radical tradition (Malcolm X, for example) for inspiration and sustenance, especially insofar as its example suggests that it’s time to redirect energies away from the government and “towards the creative project of building networks and alternative spaces, and indeed new political futures, from the ground up.”
George Shulman unearths one of the striking ironies of a multi-billion dollar political campaign season—“what remained unsaid.” In this realm, consensus surrounded the right and necessity of American empire, the imperative of economic growth and expansion imbricated with empire, the state of exception pertaining to the prison-industrial complex and poverty, and continued faith in the American Dream, a faith that must be maintained in the face of its actual erosion. Shulman “portrays a situation whereby one universe, created intersubjectively in political speech, can gesture toward but occlude another reality that is known (in some sense) but not acknowledged.” Thus, “the election felt strange because so much of reality hovered nearby.” How can democracy respond to this situation? Where should we focus political energies and agency? Toward world-building and social movements? Toward the state and elections? All of them? Perhaps Obama’s victory opens opportunities for us, which a turn to Tocqueville (on association) and Machiavelli (on populism) can illuminate.
Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah. He is author of The Truth about Patriotism (Duke University Press, 2007) and Encountering Tragedy: Rousseau and the Project of Order (Cornell University Press, 1999). He is finishing a manuscript entitled There Will Be Blood: The Tragedy of Democratic Politics. Steven can be reached at Steven.Johnston@Utah.edu