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Amor Mundi: Race, Prejudice, and White Nationalism

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


Race, Prejudice, and White Nationalism

In an essay last year on Ta-Nehisi Coates, Thomas Chatterton Williams argued that Coates was trapped in what Williams calls a “racial netting.” In Coates’ America, black and white are solid categories. Whites are trapped in whiteness. Blacks in blackness. Williams sees that for Coates race has become a kind of destiny, no longer being simply an idea, but morphing into an essentialism so complete as to deny our freedom to respond.

So expansive is the racial netting we are wrapped in, Mr. Coates writes, “it’s likely that should white supremacy fall, the means by which that happens might be unthinkable to those of us bound by present realities and politics.” Elsewhere in the book he notes “that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.”

In what has turned out to be a preview of Williams’ future work, he set Coates’ essentialism against that of the racial essentialism of White nationalists like Richard Spencer. For Williams, “the most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.” Williams rightly denies an equivalence between Coates and white supremacists. But the parallels he points to are meaningful.

Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

Just last week, Williams published a follow up to his Coates essay in The New Yorker, The French Origins of ‘You Will Not Replace Us’.” The essay addresses the connection between White nationalist groups in the US and an intellectually diverse and powerful identitarian movement that has been blossomed in France over the last 30 years. The French scholar Pierre Taguieff has written widely on the French movement, but not many in the US have taken up the challenge. Williams is uniquely positioned to do so in ways that promise to add depth and diversity to the conversation around race in the United States.

In his New Yorker essay, Williams begins with the polemic essays and books by Renaud Camus, which argue that around the world all Western countries are having their civilizations replaced by immigrant populations. As Williams writes quoting Renaud, ““Individuals, yes, can join a people, integrate with it, assimilate to it,” he writes in the book. “But peoples, civilizations, religions—and especially when these religions are themselves civilizations, types of society, almost States—cannot and cannot even want to . . . blend into other peoples, other civilizations.”” Camus insists he is not a racist and has no hierarchy of cultures. He tells Williams that he would worry as much about the replacement of Japanese or African cultures.

The reason for Williams’ interest in Camus’ idea of the “The Great Replacement” is that his term and his idea have spread around the world and is now a staple of the White nationalist and alt-right communities in the United States. Richard Spencer calls himself an “identitarian,” someone who believes that all racial groups—whites as well as blacks, Christians as well as Muslims—have the right to live independently and cohesively. The identitarian turn of American White nationalist groups sidesteps biological racism and also rejects arguments of racial superiority. It speaks the language of diversity and difference, claiming for whites the same protected identity status demanded by other racial, religious, and cultural groups.

As Williams rightly argues, this identitarian turn in the United States was prefigured in France. It has its roots in the work of Alain de Benoist who in his 1977  book “View from the Right”, declared that he and other members of his group Grece considered “the gradual homogenization of the world, advocated and realized by the two-thousand-year-old discourse of egalitarian ideology, to be an evil.”” Benoist has bedeviled French intellectuals for decades because he couched his thesis in an allegiance to “diversity” and “ethnopluralism”—terms that sound politically correct.

The French scholar of racism Pierre Taguieff has studied Benoist for decades and came to be convinced that Benoist represented a new version of racism, one that is decidedly distinct from earlier biological and universalist racisms based ideas of racial superiority and inferiority. In his book The Force of Prejudice, Taguieff distinguishes two main forms of racism. The first is universalist and inegalitarian. In this sense, “the word racism designates the ideology of the adversary.” It seeks not only to describe a racial theory of what is, but to promote a project that recasts social and political relations on a racial basis.  Citing Hannah Arendt, Taguieff argues that racism in its universalist sense is “an explicit ideological system” that carries with it a murderous logic.

Racism confers a logic  to any act of violence or discrimination without being conflated with the violence that it legitimates by doing so. The murderous logic of racism, notes Hannah Arendt, comes from the fact that ‘it objects to natural organic facts—a white or black skin—which no persuasion or power could change; all one can do, when the chips are down, is to exterminate the bearers.

Taguieff argues that we must distinguish universalist racism as a murderous logic from another form of racism, “racism-as-prejudice.” Following upon (but not explicitly) Arendt’s own distinction between racism and prejudice, Taguieff argues that racial prejudice is “interpreted on the continuous line extending from attitude and disposition to opinion and evaluative judgment.” Such prejudicial attitudes as “preconceived negative judgments” can carry with them a readiness to respond in a hostile manner.

What Taguieff calls prejudicial or differentialist racism builds upon the insight of thinkers from Edmund Burke to Claude Lévi-Strauss to Hannah Arendt, that prejudices are not only natural, they are deeply human. Arendt argues all humans hold prejudices, which are simply pre-judgments that we share and take to be self-evident. As Arendt writes:

That prejudices play such a large role in daily life and therefore in politics is not something we should bemoan as such, or for that matter attempt to change. Man cannot live without prejudices, and not only because no human being’s intelligence or insight would suffice to form an original judgment about everything on which he is asked to pass judgment in the course of his life, but also because such a total lack of prejudice would require superhuman alertness.

Taguieff joins Arendt in arguing that prejudices cannot simply be forbidden. Prejudices have “deep roots” (Taguieff) and the “danger of prejudice lies in the very fact that that it is always anchored in the past–so uncommonly well-anchored that it not only anticipates and blocks judgment, but also makes both judgment and a genuine experience of the present impossible.” (Arendt)  The result is that prejudice cannot be attacked by “sermons and judicial proceedings on the basis of legislative measures.” (Taguieff)

For Arendt, “whole battalions of enlightened orators and entire libraries of brochures will achieve nothing” in the fight to end prejudice. For Arendt, prejudice can be fought only through politics, the effort over time to reveal the truth and the falsity that lies within the prejudice. “That is why in all times and places it is the task of politics to shed light upon and dispel prejudices, which is not to say that its task is to train people to be unprejudiced or that those who work toward such enlightenment are themselves free of prejudice.”

Because prejudice is “functionally useful” (Taguieff) and human (Arendt), it is futile to seek to eradicate prejudice as much of the anti-racist discourse would have us do. And this means that for identitarians of the kind Williams writes about, there is a space for ethnic, nationalist, and racial prejudices that cannot simply be made illegal or rejected out of hand. So long as we continue to speak of race and races alongside nation and nations, the prejudice for or against some group needs to be addressed politically, not legally.

It is the porous boundary between racism and prejudice that girds so much of the intellectually serious side of modern white nationalism. Williams writes that White nationalists in the U.S. have embraced the French identitarians like Benoist and Camus, although the embrace is not always mutual.

Although Benoist claims not to be affiliated with the alt-right—or even to understand “what Richard Spencer can know or have learned from my thoughts”—he has travelled to Washington, D.C., to speak at the National Policy Institute, a white-nationalist group run by Spencer, and he has sat for long interviews with Jared Taylor, the founder of the virulently white-supremacist magazine American Renaissance. In one exchange, Taylor, who was educated in France, asked Benoist how he saw himself “as different from identitarians.” Benoist responded, “I am aware of race and of the importance of race, but I do not give to it the excessive importance that you do.” He went on, “I am not fighting for the white race. I am not fighting for France. I am fighting for a world view. . . . Immigration is clearly a problem. It gives rise to much social pathologies. But our identity, the identity of the immigrants, all the identities in the world have a common enemy, and this common enemy is the system that destroys identities and differences everywhere. This system is the enemy, not the Other.”

While Benoist speaks in ways that resist explicit characterization as a recognizably simple racism, his work has inspired those in France and the United States who are more directly racist. Williams does the work to reveal those connections. He explores the work of “Guillaume Faye, a journalist with a Ph.D. from Sciences-Po, [who] split off and began releasing explicitly racist books.”  In “Archeofuturism,” Faye writes:  “To be a nationalist today is to assign this concept its original etymological meaning, ‘to defend the native members of a people.’ As Williams adds:

The book, which appeared in English in 2010, argues that “European people” are “under threat” and must become “politically organized for their self-defense.” Faye assures native Frenchmen that their “sub-continental motherland” is “an organic and vital part of the common folk, whose natural and historical territory—whose fortress, I would say—extends from Brest to the Bering Strait.”

In Williams’ telling Faye and Camus take the Benoist demand for cultural identity  into ethnic-nationalist terrain. In doing so, they have become prominent among American White nationalists. Williams offers the example of the liberal American writer Sasha Polakow-Suransky who, in his recent book, “Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy,” quotes Camus lamenting that a Muslim woman with a veil who speaks French badly can legally become a French citizen. “What appalls Camus, Polakow-Suransky notes, is that “legally, if she has French nationality, she is completely correct.””

Williams argues that the rise of French identitarian thinking “helps to explain the rupture that has emerged in many Western democracies between the mainstream right, which may support strict enforcement of immigration limits but does not inherently object to the presence of Muslims, and the alt-right, which portrays Muslim immigration as an existential threat.” The alt-right, building on the work of French identitarians, demands the creation of ethnically White ethno-states, not necessarily as racially superior populations, but on the same cultural logic that has led to efforts to protect and preserve native and local cultures in the face of Western cultural hegemony.

The new Right in France that Benoist birthed sought, as Benoist says, to change the terrain of the debate around race, globalism, and nationality. On that account it has, as Williams argues, been a success. “Glucksmann summed up the Nouvelle Droite’s thinking as follows: “Let’s just win the cultural war, and then a leader will come out of it.” The belief that a multicultural society is tantamount to an anti-white society has crept out of French salons and all the way into the Oval Office. The apotheosis of right-wing Gramscism is Donald Trump.”

—Roger Berkowitz

Save the date for the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2019 Conference, Racism and Antisemitism on October 10-11, 2019.

Loneliness in America

We are living in an age of loneliness. In this week’s The New York Times, Arthur C. Brook’s reviews Senator Ben Sasse’s new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other. Loneliness is at the center of the study on political divisiveness defining our contemporary moment. Sasse argues that in order to combat this epidemic of loneliness, we look for a feeling of community, to find a “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.” In order to address our mass loneliness, which is being used by political opportunists, we have to “become the kind of neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.”

For Sasse, loneliness is the “inability to find meaning in one’s life.” He cites numerous examples of how Americans are increasingly lonely. There is Robert Putnam’s study of bowlers that show how Americans continue to bowl, but not in leagues and groups. Sometime around 1975 Americans stopped having friends over for dinner: from 1975 to 1999, the average number of annual dinner parties dropped from 14 to 8. Even friends are increasingly rare: “Americans reported that the number of people they discussed ‘important matters’ with dropped, on average, from three to two…. More alarmingly, the number of Americans who count no friends at all—no one in whom they confide about important matters, no one with whom they share life’s joys and burdens—has soared.” Now more than 25% of Americans say they have no friends.

The conclusion Sasse draws from what he calls the epidemic of loneliness is that our isolation has deprived us of healthy local tribes, those coherent groups with whom we share values. As a result, we increasingly seek meaning in negation, in what he calls ‘anti-tribes.’ Absent positive measures of belonging, we define ourselves “by what we’re against rather than what we’re for.” The implications Sasse draws from such loneliness are dire, as Brooks writes:

Mr. Sasse’s assertion that loneliness is killing us takes on even darker significance in the wake of the mail-bomb campaign against critics of President Trump and the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, both of which were perpetrated by isolated — and apparently very lonely — men. Mr. Sasse’s book was published before these events, but he presciently described what he believes lonely people increasingly do to fill the hole of belonging in their lives: They turn to angry politics.

In the “siloed,” or isolated, worlds of cable television, ideological punditry, campus politics and social media, people find a sense of community in the polarized tribes forming on the left and the right in America. Essentially, people locate their sense of “us” through the contempt peddled about “them” on the other side of the political spectrum.

Hannah Arendt understood the political threat that loneliness poses to the fabric of democracy. She called it “the common ground of terror,” because it is lonely people who are primed to embrace the logic of ideological certainties that must be preserved through terror. When facts or events threaten the coherence of an ideological narrative, the most potent response is to employ terror to change reality so as to conform with the ideology.  We are, thankfully, not living in a world of terror. But what Arendt understood so well is that loneliness produces human needs for coherence that must be met in some way.

—Roger Berkowitz

When Lies Win

Hannah Arendt knew that lonely people craved coherent fictional narratives and that consistent lies were more adequate to the needs of lonely persons than truth. Derek Thompson turns to the cognitive framing theories of George Lakoff to ask whether there is a way to combat relentless misinformation by the President. His answer? Not really.

When traditional news outlets have to cover breaking news throughout the day, the linguist George Lakoff has proposed that they use a “truth sandwich.” That would mean bracketing the president’s unreal statements with slices of reality. For example, if the president claims that the GOP health-care bills expand insurance coverage (they do not), the AP or a similar source could tweet, “GOP health plan still reduces coverage. Trump claims otherwise, but provides no evidence.”…

It’s not obvious that fact-checking is always effective against the Trump virus. On the one hand, there is considerable cognitive research to suggest that fact-checks can backfire. Several studies have found that repeated phrases and ideas create a sense of familiarity in the mind, and familiarity can create the illusion of truth. That’s because many people—particularly the elderly and less educated—easily conflate familiarity (“That sounds familiar”) with factuality (“That sounds about right”).

On the other hand, in one of the first studies of fact-checking, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that at least some people really do change their minds when confronted with new facts. The researchers created a panel of participants that approximated the political and demographic distribution of the U.S. Then they exposed the treatment group to recent fact-checks and measured whether their opinion about those facts (or about fact-checking in general) had changed. Democrats, who hold more favorable views of fact-checkers than Republicans, were more likely to change their minds after reading a fact-check. Republicans’ knowledge increased most when the fact-checks reinforced their biases.

This conclusion raises an uncomfortable question: What if telling the truth about the president diminishes the spread of his falsehoods among some groups, but also reinforces Trump’s support among base voters while deepening their hostility to the press?

The unavoidable reality is that even good behavior by the news media is not sufficient to contain Trump’s serial mendacity. Depressing as it may be to say, the lies will get out.

Quote of the Week: Arendt and the Question of the Private: Is There Anything Outside Public Scope?

By Artemy Magun, Hannah Arendt Center Teaching Fellow and Visiting Professor in Political Studies at Bard College for fall 2017. 

A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.

— Hannah Arendt

Throughout her work Arendt insists on this dialectic of the public and the private, the open and the secret. The instance of reality, which for her is a philosophical reason for engaging in politics and pursuing political power, makes sense only as an event, or effect of emergence, where something takes us by surprise. There is no “public” and no “private” as such, only the public-private relation, which needs the spatial and temporal borders to establish it. Even though the private is to be kept separate as a sphere, it follows logically that it is the things originally private in content that subsequently appear in public, thus creating an event of revelation. But, what Arendt aims at, is that these private issues then change their form and are treated differently while other similar issues remain private, secret.

What Arendt means by private may relate to bodily functions, but is by no means natural or predetermined in content. She believes that society must produce the secret, in a way that recalls religious mysteries and taboos, not for the sake of an inherent value of what is thus hidden (she thinks most of it is trivial compared to politics), but for the sake of preserving the edge as such.

We often speak of the “social construction” of our bodies and selves, so that our “private” life does not stem from an inexhaustible source foreign to others but follows from the values and structures imposed by society. This is also the reason why Arendt’s normative framework is now often contested by a certain moral radicalism that suspects her of a conservative attitude to family and gender structures. Being private, Arendt would possibly claim, these structures were immune to political reforming. The feminist motto “The personal is the political” would then go against Arendt’s doctrine. To her, the risk is in flattening the sense of action and public debate. If we do not do anything but act or publicly debate, sticking to our public persona, there inevitably emerges a sense of ephemeral irreality, as though we ran away from ourselves. There is a time to go back — not to a mythical inner “ego”, but rather to an impersonal, ego-less life of contemplation, fantasy, and desire.

The current feminist concerns of our societies do not, in fact, contradict this. From the time of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, feminism included a struggle for non-public life. Discussions of abortions and harassment strongly rely on the values of privacy, the sanctity of the bodily borders, and the social distance that is required in the public sphere (as opposed to private). Arendt would have supported the push to reinstate these borders, after a certain mixture of work and comradely private leisure had been introduced in the wake of 1968, by the post-Fordist economy. The irony is that the defense of privacy is conducted publicly so that the public debate is increasingly penetrated by the details of the “private” sphere: the body-related, intimate facts and issues. These elements of public discourse are not just relatively private, they are the private and (usually) secret par excellence, which endows the new public discourse with a mixture of revelation, shock, and voyeuristic pleasure. This transgression, however, tends to become the routine.

The arguments of private wrong and bodily violence are so overwhelming that they convey an irresistible sense of conviction and an intense emotion, recalling what formerly characterized religious arguments. Arendt rightly saw a danger in the oversentimental transformation of the public sphere, in violence as such as well as in the excessive debates on its details. But, of course, it follows from the spirit of her thought that the borders and exact content of the public and the private are up for negotiation.

The only problem is in the indiscriminate hybridization of the public and the private, which is what the contemporary society is increasingly prone to do. To counter this, I think, following the spirit of Arendt, we need to return to the ritualistic sociability that the US society often tends to abandon. Touchy and emotional issues, when discussed in the large media, must be rendered with rhetorical grace and a sense of detachment, facts must be presented from at least two widespread perspectives. The private sphere also requires its rituals or mysteries such as the rules of behavior at the dinner table or fraternity parties. Richard Sennett, largely in the spirit of Arendt, once pointed at the sense of detached dignity which was characteristic of public behavior in the 19th century but has gradually been lost. Instead of formalizing debates about private issues through policy proposals, we need a ritual, and often playful sense of convention to manage and cultivate emotions.

Journal Feature:Can We Restore American Democracy?

By Zephyr Teachout
From the HA Journal, Vol. III

I’ll try to answer the question of this panel briefly: Can we restore U.S. democracy? Yes! The question, of course, is not whether we will but whether we can, and so it is a question not about what is likely to happen but what is possible to happen. It’s a question in some ways about the difference between hope and optimism. Václav Havel says, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.” Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Hope is not the belief that something is likely to happen, but it is worth pursuing for itself.

For me, the answer to whether we can pursue and restore American democracy is that there is a chance. My hope is a kind of gambler’s hope. It is necessary, because very much like Lawrence Lessig, I think we in the United States are in terrible shape. We have extraordinary traditions, but we’re in very bad shape, considering the fundamental non-responsiveness of those in power to those who live and vote in the United States.

Part of the problem we now face is the question of how ordinary Americans can impact a political system that is increasingly dominated by immense amounts of money contributed by a small percentage of the population. We need to take seriously a study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page from Northwestern University, which argues that we no longer live in a responsive democracy. In their study, Gilens and Page write, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”1 In other words, a small group of wealthy donors impacts public policy while the vast majority of American voters have minimal impact. I call this the “Oligarchy Study.”

How do you respond to a humble little study that comes out and says that our great American democracy has become an oligarchy?

First, I think that the people protesting for democracy in Hong Kong had the right idea. If people in Hong Kong dared to protest against their lack of democracy, or if Pussy Riot dared to protest against the lack of democracy in Russia, then we have no right to say, “It is too difficult to imagine returning to a system that is more responsive.” At any event, the first step is to establish ourselves in the position of hope and not optimism. We’re not talking about unlikelihood here but possibility.

The second step comes from Gandhi, who urges us to tell the truth. The first thing to tell the truth about is the state of the world; the second is the state of politics. With regard to the latter point, I’m so happy that Anand Giridharadas brought up teeth in his panel. Teeth in so many ways exemplify what is wrong with modern politics. How often do you hear politicians talking about teeth? Not very often. However, teeth are essential to everything. First of all, the dental industry has done a wonderful job of lobbying so that the mouth is not part of the medical education of physicians. When you go to the hospital, for instance, you can’t be treated for diseases in your mouth. That is one problem.

But also, teeth are essentially connected with our appearance and thus with pride—the comfort of smiling, the ability to get a job. Unfortunately, most people don’t have access to dental care, yet you don’t hear politicians talking about dental care because they aren’t talking to donors who have any problems with their teeth. Someone who can give $100,000 to a campaign does not wake up every morning worrying about how to pay for dental care. There is a radical inequality in our society in so many areas, but I think teeth are one of the areas in which inequality is seen most vividly. This arena that is so intimate and personal, one inherently connected to our health and our pride, is absent from our current political discussion. I’m someone who went through a lot of braces, so I think all the time, “What would have happened if I didn’t have a good orthodontist?” It’d be a lot harder to run for governor of New York, that’s for sure. There are a lot of ways to describe what’s wrong with government today. One way that interests me in is to connect the problems we see today to some of the issues from the time of our founding, the problems we fought a revolution to resolve. For example, right now we have “The Problem of the Revolving Door.” This refers to people who go into public office just to get another job, people who go to work for a member of Congress so that they can get a job as a lobbyist. Often it’s an unconscious path. Someone might go into office thinking they’re going to stay, but many ultimately decide to leave, and now over 50 percent of those who leave go into lobbying. I guess it demonstrates that you can’t help serving your future master. Think about your own lives for a second. If you are going to switch your job, you are going to begin thinking favorably toward the new job into which you will be moving. I think of it as serving your future self. This is a very normal attitude.

At the time of the American Revolution, one of the things we were fighting was “The Problem of Place Men” in England, which was some- thing similar to “The Problem of the Revolving Door” as it exists today. Back then, people would go into elected office and Parliament so that they could eventually get an office given to them by the King. This practice was featured at one of the most focused conversations during the Constitutional Convention. Our Founding Fathers asked, “How do we avoid this problem of people going into elected office so that they could get an appointed office?” Eventually, they wrote our Constitution to avoid “The Problem of the Revolving Door.” They did so by regulating the acceptance of gifts, even when the gifts are given without any special deal; the founders understood that gifts, even innocent gifts, can change the psychology of the receiver.

My book Corruption in America: Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United explains how 18th-century Americans were concerned about Benjamin Franklin receiving a gift from the King of France, a gift with no strings attached. They worried that he would have different foreign policy tendencies because he had accepted a diamond gift. To put the founders’ concerns into perspective, think about how you might respond to the organizers of this conference if they gave you a gift. Even a small gift. Even a couple of cookies from a bakery in Rhinebeck. How easy will it be tomorrow, after this wonderful conference, to rail against what you see wrong at Bard? What I’m driving at is a good human tendency, a tendency to be grateful for a gift.

This tendency toward gratitude is what the founders of America were concerned about; that this positive human tendency to be thankful to the gift-giver could be turned into a corrupting force if our diplomats were allowed to receive gifts from foreign powers. As a result, we have this very severe provision in the U.S. Constitution that forbids gifts unless the recipient asks permission of Congress. This prohibition was so severe for the time, that when we barred gifts from the Netherlands, many international scholars said, “Who do they think they are? Are they trying to build Plato’s Republic in the marshes and fens?” At the time, giving gifts to diplomats was a common practice of statecraft. But the founders were determined to break off from the culture of corruption in which the best parts of human nature could be turned by governments to serve the few instead of serving all of us, the poor as well as the rich. And so they included this severe provision in the Constitution.

Besides junkets and campaign contributions, gifts can sometimes be independent expenditures. I am not ashamed to tell you that after some- one gives you a campaign contribution, you feel very warmly toward her or him. That’s obviously true. But you also feel warmly toward people who are spending independently on your behalf. When I learned that a few groups were doing some work on my behalf, without charge, of course I felt warmly toward them. You don’t need a bribe to create a dependency or an unfortunate psychological relationship between candidates and people making independent expenditures.

Part of restoring American democracy is restoring our memory that we are at core committed to this anti-corruption fight. It’s who we are. It’s how we were founded. To be fair, a lot of things were wrong with how we were founded, and with the first 200 years of this country. But that doesn’t mean we should give up the best parts of our history. One of the best parts is the fact that we have this reformer’s soul in our history, in our foundations. I think we should call on that and recognize that when we are acting with hope—not merely optimism—for change in how campaigns are funded, we are not following in just the tradition of the post-Watergate era. We are also following in the tradition of our national history.

This panel is about truth telling. An important idea is needed to tell the truth about where we are. Where we are, is here: we are in a largely oligarchic world where a few concentrated powers are at work. At the same time, we also have a democratic culture. There’s a schizophrenia here, and we see that schizophrenia all the time in political reporting. I notice it in articles by Tom Kaplan, who writes for the New York Times. One day he’ll write a story that says Andrew Cuomo or Hillary Clinton seems to be resonating with voters on a particular issue, and there will be no mention of money, politics, or power. The next day, a political story by Kaplan covers only money, politics, and power. There’s this weird schizophrenia. One kind of reporting assumes that we live in a responsive democracy, and that the reason why Hillary Clinton is doing so well is because people like her stance on issue x or y; the other reporting assumes the exact opposite and subscribes to the belief that we are living in an oligarchy. Looking ahead, part of the challenge of telling the truth will involve fusing together those two different kinds of reporting, as well as fusing the reporting found on our newspapers’ business pages with that on the politics pages. If we’re going to tell the truth about our politics, we need to tell the truth about where power lies, not just where elected office lies.

You in this room are in a special position. You are the lead gamblers in this gambler’s hope because one of the things that I believe we can do to help restore American democracy is change the way campaigns are funded. One of the ways we can do that is change the way campaigns are funded in New York State, and this can happen if the contested State Senate races lead to a Democratic Senate in New York. You don’t need to be a Democrat or a Republican to look at what is actually happening. You have the contested Senate races right here. So the path to the future, the path to grabbing control of the wheel, is here in the Hudson Valley.

You want evidence that this is where the fight about power and the future of this country is happening? Look at where Danny Loeb is spending money. Danny Loeb is a hedge fund manager. He is an incredibly powerful icon on Wall Street, and he’s spending a million dollars making sure that citizens of Peekskill watch one kind of TV ad and vote Republican because if we pass the a system of publicly financed elections, he’ll lose his power. Over a million dollars is being spent in these tiny Senate races to which nobody’s paying attention but over which you have unique power. So when we ask, “Can we restore the American democracy?” I hate to break it to you, but it’s on you.

Another essential feature of restoring U.S. democracy is our language. How we describe ourselves. In a marriage or in a relationship, even with family members, you operate on the assumption that language matters. You don’t say, “Well, this works for me, and this works for you, so I guess we should get married.” Marriage is not simply transactional. We don’t get married just because we happen to fit on paper. Similarly, you don’t have a transactional relationship with your children or with your parents. Yet so much political science and so much political language has become unabashedly transactional. Political language has moved away from the deeply moral words that I think are essential to describing American democracy.

To be clear, I use the family as a model to discuss the importance of language in restoring American democracy not because I think we should base politics on community and family but because the family analogy sounds familiar and possible to people. It can sound impossible if you come from a radically isolated, political experience to imagine empathy beyond a very limited sphere. So I use the moral understanding of the family as an analogy to politics.

My goal, however, is not simply to reinvest America with the best parts of its history. I’m also interested in investing the Democratic Party with the best parts of its history. This is partly because what I believe helps spur radical social change has to deal with identification, or the way in which people identify with a larger social movement. People respond to particular clubs or parties, which means that for someone like myself, we need to radically reform the Democratic Party as it currently exists and pull out its best strands. We must ask ourselves whether to try to reinvest in the big-“D” Democratic tradition, in the best part of its populist and progressive history. If we do so, I believe, the Democratic Party can lead both to campaign finance reform and to the kind of coalition building that would move the Party outside and beyond its traditional constituency. My personal tendency is to work within an institution and then to aggressively reach out to Republicans as individuals, not institutionally, because I think there is an extraordinary hunger for honesty in politics. That itself can cut through policy differences from time to time.

Whether you’re talking about political change within parties or the American system at large, however, I think we can all agree that the moral word corruption must come into play. One of the reasons I believe the language of corruption is so powerful in American politics today is because of the resonance of the opposing ideal, dedication to the public good. I hear people yearning for politicians who say, “You have an obligation when you are in public office to love the public.” That is a personal demand between a politician and his or her voters. It’s not a transactional one. We want to use the language of the founding era in some way, and that language is very much a language of emotion, love, and the ways in which we can create sympathies and identities between those who represent us and the public at large.

Extraordinary is what we need at this moment in time. When I was saying, “What do you do when you read the Princeton study on American oligarchy?” I meant to ask: Do you keep organizing the way you were organizing in 1996 if you read a study that says government is not responsive? In 1996, you would try to get the polling up there among the young people. If we could just get the polling to 80 percent, we’d get there. We’d be done. But if you’re in Hong Kong, you don’t think, “Let’s get the polling up.” There is no functioning democracy that you can use to even entertain this idea. You have to do something big instead. We need to risk a politics of the extraordinary.

I wrote my book Corruption in America as a letter to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom I believe doesn’t understand the moral language of politics. He doesn’t understand the meaning of corruption. He believes, as a majority of the Court now believes, that corruption is only quid-pro-quo bribery. But I also wrote it as a letter to ourselves, to remind us of the best parts of American history. We’re in for a hell of a fight. We’re going to need all the ballast we have, and all of the best history we have, to win it.

  1. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): ing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf.

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Posted on 25 November 2018 | 12:41 am

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