American democracy has taken a real beating in these early years of the twenty-first century. From the Bush Administration’s justification of the invasion of Iraq as a way to usher in democracy across the Middle East to the U.S. intervention in Bahrain that quietly suppressed a growing pro-democracy movement maligned by Saudi Arabia as a threat to monarchical power; from revelations of NSA surveillance programs that indiscriminately spied on American citizens to U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen that circumvent the right to due process in favor of sanitized, streamlined executions. The appalling treatment of detainees in Guantànamo Bay, many held for over a decade without charges, is worth mentioning in this list of recent horrors, as is the ongoing killing of black men and women by police, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Citizens United and its more recent repeal of key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In response to these atrocities that have proliferated under the shroud of American democracy, scholars on the left have desperately tried to resuscitate the concept of democracy by theorizing radical politics in overwhelmingly democratic terms: democracy as antagonism, (Chantal Mouffe); democracy as dissensus (Jacques Rancière); democracy as the rule of the multitude (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri); and democracy as a politics of thought (Alain Badiou).
By occupying the strange position, however, of both problem and solution, democracy in the twenty-first century has become something surprisingly reminiscent of the totalizing, ideologically laden politics to which it is often deemed antithetical. Of course, this paradox—that democracy retains within it the seeds of its own destruction—is as old as the concept itself. And yet as democracy is pulled, twisted, and reconfigured to fit into every corner of contemporary politics—just as easily standing in for the justification of war as for radical opposition to it—the ideals of equality, justice, and fair representation to which it once laid claim are contorted and hollowed out to such an extent that, at worst, democracy seems to signify little else than the gamesmanship and trite campaign slogans of politicians, or the solipsism of academic elites.
The victory of Donald Trump has been cast, at least in part (and if one brackets the flames of racism, sexism, and xenophobia which his campaign has successfully stoked), as a repudiation of this posturing and as a way to halt the feedback loop between Democrats, Republicans, critics, and pundits that perpetuates American democracy in its contemporary form. Writing for The Guardian, Richard Wolffe called it a “revolution,” while the historian Walter Russell Mead, writing for the the Wall Street Journal, more specifically labeled Trump’s victory a “Jacksonian revolt.” The New York Times editorial board, similarly, published a short opinion the morning after the election simply titled “Donald Trump’s Revolt.” According to this narrative, the election of a wild card, a self-congratulating Washington outsider, was a way to disrupt the gears of this deeply broken system that overlooks and even shows disdain for large swathes of the American people. A vote for Trump was thus nothing short of a vote against the status quo itself, one meant to proclaim symbolically the people’s desire to replace the existing configuration of government with something radically “different.”
But what if Trump’s win is not at all a revolt against the establishment, but rather an embrace of it, its total realization? Beneath the spectacle of reality TV star turned President-elect, Donald Trump’s victory seems not only to magnify the paradoxes at the heart of our current democratic system, but also to represent the logical progression, even apex, of neoliberal “politics as usual,” from Ronald Reagan, to George Bush, to Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush, and to Barack Obama.
In Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Wendy Brown traces the many entanglements between neoliberalism and American democracy over the past three decades, in particular addressing the ways in which the collapse of the latter into the former has recast democratic ideals in exclusively corporate, profit-driven terms. Using President Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech as a case in point, she explains how Obama framed the many progressive causes he championed, from healthcare and education to clean energy and raising the minimum wage, “in terms of its contribution to economic growth or American competitiveness.”1 Even issues such as domestic violence and various forms of discrimination were presented not on the ground of their moral correctness, an imperative to demand justice as an end in itself, but as necessary components of a stronger economy. Such logic is fundamental to the neoliberal project, under which “democratic state commitments to equality, liberty, inclusion, and constitutionalism are ... subordinate to the project of economic growth, competitive positioning, and capital enhancement.”2 While the term “neoliberal” is generally used as a shorthand for privatization, for Brown the implications of neoliberalism are deeper and much more profound. Its logic extends beyond marketization and profit and engulfs otherwise noneconomic domains of life, such that even those activities, practices, and institutions that are not directly monetizable are nevertheless restructured around a market logic of competition and value.
Individuals themselves are subsumed by this project, reconfigured as “human capital” whose primary goal is to remain competitive and increase his or her own social value. Social media presence promises a future “return” on the accumulation of followers and viral content; education ceases to matter for the knowledge and critical thinking it fosters and instead becomes a shrewd calculation in positioning one’s future employment prospects; and individual talents or skills are marketed with the hopes of attracting offers from employers, publishers, or media outlets. Even issues of social justice have become a toxic competition for moral purity, with a splintering of the progressive left into factions of crusaders emboldened by a widespread social media culture hoping to churn out new, innovative takes with clickbait titles. In a recent article on Slate, Daniel Gross even managed to frame social justice itself as a competitive strategy for business, saying, “If you don’t understand how to recruit Hispanics, black Americans, Asian Americans, and LGBTQ people, if you can’t develop a way to talk to them—instead of at them—you will have a hard time filling your ranks and maintaining market share.”3 A diverse identity, in other words, is an advantage in a competitive market, and though our democratic institutions may be failing to protect us, at least the corporate world is willing to invest in our difference.
The combination of these two transformations, from state to corporation and citizen to human capital, results in the devastating effects on democracy to which this short century has borne witness. As Brown notes:
“When such economization configures the state as the manager of a firm and the subject as a unit of entrepreneurial and self-investing capital, the effect is not simply to narrow the functions of state and citizen or to enlarge the sphere of economically defined freedom at the expense of common investment in public life and public goods. Rather, it is to transpose the meaning and practice of democratic concerns with equality, freedom, and sovereignty from a political to an economic register.”4
Nowhere was this logic more apparent during this election than in its central discussion of immigration. While racism and xenophobia were undoubtedly factors, the primary language used by Trump and even Clinton was one of the market, from Trump’s demand that “Mexico pay for the wall” to Clinton’s insistence that immigrants are integral to the health of our economy. Rather than individuals with complex needs and desires no different from American citizens, immigrants are supported only as far as they are “hard workers,” avid consumers, tax payers, and so on. Indeed, the perceived threat of immigrants was ultimately one of economic competition: they’re taking jobs, working for lower wages, etc. Even criticisms of Trump’s deportation plans were often made in terms of their being too expensive, too “impractical” to implement.
In this sense, Trump’s victory is painfully symbolic of this hollowing out of democracy into a kind of market logic. If the ultimate aim of neoliberalism is a collapse of the political into the economic, of politics into corporatization, who better to complete this than a CEO? His corporate rhetoric of “deals” and “winning, so much winning” formed the core of his political popularity, and many of his supporters, perceiving “Washington” as nothing but bureaucracy and insider elitism, insisted that his success as a businessman was precisely why he needed to take over the inefficient structures of government. That many of us are in disbelief that someone with so little experience could be elected should not reinforce the idea of our insight and education in comparison to his supporters. Rather, it should force us to reckon with the present configuration of American democracy, one that frames discussions of the common good in crass economic terms of competition and value. When Hillary Clinton referred on several occasions to the Muslim-American community as our ally in the war on terror, the logic was clear: these citizens are valuable human capital, and we should invest in their “skills.” The violation of their right to privacy is hardly a match for a competitive national security strategy.
“A democracy composed of human capital features winners and losers,” Wendy Brown writes with sobering relevance, “not equal treatment or equal protection.”5 What counts is not our relationship to others as citizens, but rather as competitors, as potential threats to our social and economic livelihood. Equality, in all of its forms, is overshadowed by disparities that are not only accepted by market logic but necessary for its survival. How can anyone get ahead, many wonder, when the system is designed so that a privileged few are guaranteed to win, propped up by elite institutions that seem to have no concern for anyone or anything outside of their own profit margins?
On Monday, October 24, the New York Times reserved a two-page spread for “All the People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted On Twitter Since Declaring His Candidacy for President,” an updated version of an interactive list the newspaper had been accumulating online since January (with each remark hyperlinked to a specific tweet). The stunt attracted an enormous response from other media outlets, and to many in the anti-Trump camp it offered definitive proof that a man of his anti-democratic character was absolutely unfit for the presidency. Aside from the echo chamber of such praise, however, it’s difficult to say what the New York Times had hoped to accomplish. For the last few months, the liberal class had bemoaned the repugnant defiance of good taste Trump supporters showed in their refusal to disavow his remarks. At best, the printing of this list amounted to a kind of self-congratulation, an indulgent performance of moral outrage that offered the comfort of feeling superior to this deplorable caste of American society while remaining blind to any self-reflection about how such superiority fed into the distrust of the media so many Trump supporters acutely felt. At worst, the most powerful media outlet in the country wasted two full pages of print that could have been used to actually appeal to these individuals, or better yet simply speak to them as though they were intelligent enough to understand. Such engagement, often praised as the very core of democratic ideals, was ignored in favor of an ironic but no less smug ideological assertion: “We understand democracy better than you.”
Despite their differences, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both criticized the corporate media, albeit from different angles: Sanders criticized the complicity of media outlets in a competitive game of ratings and sensational coverage, whereas Trump mostly whined that they were biased against him and his supporters. Trump was, admittedly, half-correct, as many prominent journals and newspapers were or became openly anti-Trump, and there was certainly no shortage of articles quick to call his supporters ignorant racists. Where his assessment fell short, though, is precisely where Sanders’s criticism sank its teeth. Anti-Trump sentiment was the flip side of the sensational coin, allowing many media outlets to feign shock at Trump’s remarks while basking in the profitable ratings their outlandishness conveniently produced. Trump, ever the savvy entrepreneur, used this to advantage: bad news is better than no news, and any perceived criticism only further cemented his status as an “outsider.” His supporters, likewise, saw these attacks as further evidence of a biased media landscape, one not interested in truth but in manipulating a supposedly democratic election.
Having traded its journalistic responsibilities for gains in short-term profit, the media thus functioned as an unwitting accomplice for Trump. Initially, it elevated him during the primaries to the status of a plausible political candidate, normalizing his remarks by providing him with an endless amount of coverage—even the empty podium at his rallies, as others have calculated, received more coverage than every Bernie Sanders speech combined. This, undoubtedly, had a corrosive effect on the overall political climate by further encouraging vacuous performance over meaningful discourse. Only later, after Trump had done the unthinkable and become the Republican candidate, did the media begin seriously to question his positions. By this point, it was too late, and outlets’ coordinated effort to ensure Trump never reach the White House failed. As Glenn Greenwald noted on Democracy Now!, “When people saw the media basically trying to coerce them or dictate to them that they should turn their backs on Donald Trump, that they should vote for Hillary Clinton, I think a backlash ensued, where people believed that the media was being unfair, and were not going to take marching orders from these media institutions that they also have come to regard as fundamentally corrupt.”6 In short, the initial editorial decisions, dictated by a logic of competitiveness and profit, emptied politics of its social character—or, more precisely, revealed how insipid and disconnected from the common good American politics has become. Sanders, who campaigned on a platform of social justice that framed egalitarianism as a moral imperative, and whose support and popularity was unrivaled by any other candidate, was passed over by the media for a circus certain to create better headlines. After all, who cares about a guy whose most scandalous utterance is a banal remark about democratic socialism?
What the media’s coverage showed, then, is that Wendy Brown is right. When the political has collapsed into the corporate and market logic organizes all facets of existence, what remains is a politics “absent democratic institutions that would support a democratic public and all that such a public represents at its best: informed passion, respectful deliberation, aspirational sovereignty, sharp containment of powers that would overrule or undermine it.”7 When virtually every major media outlet embraces scandal over serious engagement with social issues, when it vilifies both a political candidate and its supporters in a smug assertion of its own correctness, baldly ignoring the actual concerns of the population, the foundation of citizenship is eradicated, and with it the basis for civil and human rights. The very notion of a “democratic” process—whereby the people are engaged in policy decisions, the outcomes of which they feel they can mandate through concrete actions like voting and protesting—begins to appear like a vestige of a bygone era. If the people believe their voices can’t be heard and their basic rights aren’t protected without access to sufficient wealth or an elite network of insiders, the options are to either remain silent in their alienation or scream as loudly as possible, hoping the noise might attract some attention. Many in this election remained silent. Many others used their vote for Trump to scream.
And, in a way, despite our shock and disbelief, the voters did choose the candidate with experience: when democracy looks, acts, and advertises not only like a reality television drama, but like an all-powerful corporation, there is perhaps no one more qualified for the job.
The primary issue of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, one that he rightfully felt anchored the neoliberal conflation of politics and corporatization, was the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC that removed the limit on campaign contributions by corporate entities. This “disastrous decision,” as has become well-known, provides corporations with a lopsided amount of power within our ostensibly democratic elections—of course, corporations have long wielded such power, but the difference now is that they are free to exercise it more openly, and with impunity. At the core of the reasoning behind Citizens United is the concept of “corporate personhood,” a legal fiction that deftly adopts democratic language for obvious ideological ends: corporations are entitled to the same constitutional rights as individuals because they themselves are comprised of individuals acting collectively. It is therefore only fair that these oppressed groups have been freed from their constraints and given the same political role as everyone else. To be sure, this is what allowed Senator Mitch McConnell to use the language of social justice when he released the following statement in response to the ruling:
“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day. By previously denying this right, the government was picking winners and losers. Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all.”
Corporations are people, and people, as human capital, are but little corporations. This is neoliberalism at its most bare. The difference, however, is that as individuals, we are largely left without the recognition of collective action McConnell so bravely champions, and are forced to compete in our democracy with other “persons” that have access to enormous wealth and power. Labor organizations, for example, once the bedrock of democratic action, are under a sustained assault, subjected to the same market forces that make contemporary life so precarious. Rather than a protected, guaranteed civil right, the ability to form a labor union remains largely left to chance, and where it has been won or recognized, it is nevertheless vulnerable to state and federal legislation that can easily reduce or eliminate its power—and, crucially, requires that others are willing to work cooperatively in the first place, which is to say have a notion of class or solidarity that is often antithetical to strategic positioning. When such attacks on labor rights occur, of course, they are invariably couched in democratic terms. As Robert Taft originally put it in 1947, while celebrating the Labor Management Relations Act still in effect today, the ultimate purpose is “to restore justice and equality in labor and management relations.” Democratic ideals, time and again, have proven themselves to be empty containers waiting to be filled with whatever ideological material is best suited for winning one’s cause.
Consider, as well, Trump’s acceptance speech. “Now it’s time to bind the wounds of division,” he said, an outrageous homage to President Lincoln’s second inaugural address. That he could shamelessly repeat Lincoln’s words after months of bigoted rhetoric, and that so many could find in them the potential for a “New Trump,” shows just how empty the language of democracy has become. It can be used for war and for labor disciplining and the curtailing of civil rights, and it can also be used to nostalgically imagine the possibility of “coming together” to form an abstract collective, freed from the practical and concrete ways such a collective could materialize itself without its ideas being immediately reduced to the register of profit.
Before the election, and especially now in its aftermath, one of the most repeated claims about American democracy has concerned the tragedy of its divisiveness, the inability for people to come together in the way Trump declared. We are divided, torn apart, unable to agree upon anything aside from the degree of contempt we reserve for the opposing team. The real problem, however, is not divisiveness as such, but rather the forms such divisiveness has taken: racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. Should the parameters of such antagonism be shifted, say, to a struggle between the interests of workers and the interests of corporate America, between a population that is denied its basic rights (living wage, health care, education) and an elite class that profits from such inequality, “divisiveness” would begin to resemble an actual democratic movement. Given the erosion of the common good by neoliberal policies, and a ubiquitous market logic that has transformed us from a collective of citizens working toward a shared goal into a formless mass of competitors in the precarious battle for individual successes, it is hardly surprising that the possibility of such a movement is dismissed as a kind of utopian idealism (as many who mocked Bernie Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” suggested). When elections become sensational media productions paid for by an untouchable class of elites, and policy that would materially affect the lives of voters is framed only in the ways it “strengthens the economy” or “makes America more competitive” or “will reduce the deficit,” the recognition of one’s self as a citizen and participant in democratic institutions dissolves.
Fatalism, however, is far from the appropriate response. Indeed, it was precisely a kind of fatalism, on the parts of voters and politicians and institutions alike, that enabled Trump’s win. (The “shock” so many have experienced is at least in part due to the kind of fatalistic complacency our democracy has normalized.) While it is true that democratic ideals are wielded as ideological weapons in the service of neoliberal and other un-democratic structures and institutions, the paradox still works both ways. Democracy need not remain an American export designed to maximize profit, and as the movement surrounding the candidacy of Bernie Sanders proved, despite attempts to delegitimize it, collective action oriented toward a public good is far from some utopian fantasy. It is still possible, even if his ultimate defeat at the urging of corporate democrats depressingly suggests that neoliberal logic is deeply entrenched in even so-called “progressive” platforms.
It is not by accident that the language of democracy has been used to justify its degradation. From Plato and Aristotle to the Founding Fathers, the privileged have long recognized the latent power of common people who demand their rights as a collective, as a body of citizens. A society organized truly by and for the people, they knew, would mean a radical attack on and redistribution of power and wealth (and each, in his own way, was concerned by this fact). A Trump presidency is certain to continue marketizing all facets of life, and will undoubtedly lead to more austerity and the further dilution of democratic ideals. There is good reason to fear the power he will have and the power he will give to corporations and reactionary politicians determined to eradicate civil rights. But we should not, and can not, lose sight of what those in power fear, and what they ultimately mean when using words like “justice,” “equality,” and “democracy.”
- Wendy Brown. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 25.
- Ibid., 26.
- Daniel Gross, “Who Will Stand Up for Diversity, Inclusion, and the Environment now?”, Slate, November 16, 2016, slate.com.
- Brown, 41.
- Ibid., 38.
- Glenn Greenwald, “‘Genuinely Terrifying Prospect’: Greenwald on Palin, Giuliani & Bolton Serving in Trump’s Cabinet,” Democracy Now!, November 10, 2016, democracynow.org.
- Undoing the Demos, 39.