The Habits of Democracy01-07-2021
On May 31, 1887, William James gave a speech dedicating a monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment that he led. The Massachusetts 54th was the first black regiment in the United States. Gould, an abolitionist, led the regiment into battle and he, along with many of the soldiers, was killed during an assault in 1863 on Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
James's speech deserves a full reading and account. He celebrates the black soldiers of the regiment, "the men who do brave deeds are usually unconscious of their picturesqueness." He speaks of the "one meaning" that the Massachusetts 54th has for history, that slavery was the great evil of the American Republic and "the lesson that our war ought most of all to teach us is the lesson that evils must be checked in time, before they grow so great." For James, a republic must not only be founded, it must be defended and acted upon. "The republic to which Robert Shaw and a quarter of a million like him were faithful unto death is no republic that can live at ease hereafter on the interest of what they have won. Democracy is still upon its trial."
What is most striking in James speech, and speaks so clearly to the attack on our democratic and republican traditions yesterday in Washington, DC, is his articulation of what he calls the "inner mystery" of the civic genius of the American people. This civic genius, he announces at the end of his speech, is the "only bulwark" against tyranny and corruption. "Neither laws nor monuments, neither battleships nor public libraries, nor great newspapers nor booming stocks; neither mechanical inventions nor political adroitness, nor churches nor universities nor civil service examinations can save us from degeneration if the inner mystery be lost." Laws and institutions are important; they can help slow the march of tyranny and corruption. But in the end, the institutions of self-government will fall without what James calls the "inner mystery" of democratic life.
The mystery of our American democratic tradition—"at once the secret and the glory of our English speaking race,"— consists, he continues, "in nothing but two common habits, two inveterate habits carried into public life, — habits so homely that they lend themselves to no rhetorical expression, yet habits more precious, perhaps, than any that the human race has gained." The two habits at the mysterious center of American democracy "can never be too often pointed out or praised." They need to be spoken of, nurtured, and exemplified.
The first great glory of American democracy "is the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings." Democracy is a process for picking winners and losers and limited self-government requires that we accept the process whether we win or lose. It means that we affirm our belonging to and sharing a common bond and common political world in spite of our differences. It means that we argue and strive to persuade our opponents, but we never see them as our enemies. The Civil War was a rejection of this habit of being a good loser. "It was by breaking away from this habit that the Slave States nearly wrecked our Nation." Similarly, the insurrection in Washington on Wednesday was the fitting end to a Presidency defined by a President consumed with winning at all costs, unable to accept defeat, intolerant of disloyalty, and obsessed by his enemies.
The second great glory of the American republic is the habit of "fierce and merciless resentment toward every man or set of men who break the public peace. By holding to this habit the free States saved her life." The Union army, and the black soldiers in the Massachusetts 54th, saved the Republic by their fierce and merciless resentment toward—and willingness to fight against—those who would violently and illegally seek to secure their interests that they could not win at the ballot box.
David Bromwich discussed William James' speech last month at a webinar "What Does Democracy Demand? First Principles." He was talking about President Trump's unwillingness to concede defeat and his conspiratorial insistence against all facts that the election was stolen. But Bromwich also cautioned that the turn away from James' two habits of American democracy was a bipartisan affair. The amazing protests over the summer in support of Black Lives Matter too often turned into riots and scenes of mob rule. And the violence and destruction by mobs destroying property, defacing government buildings, and threatening police officers was, regrettably, defended by many who should have known better.
After witnessing a Trump-inspired mob storming the Capitol in Washington, DC yesterday, I couldn't help thinking back to James' claim that the genius of American democracy was the twofold habits of accepting defeat and eschewing violence. The United States is, of course, is a country soaked in violence. The country came to be through a violent revolution. It encompassed a genocide against native peoples. And then there is the unprecedented and chilling violence of chattel slavery. Violence, revenge, and duels are storied aspects of American culture. At the center of what may be the most idealistic democratic republic in human history, we have as well a history of intense political violence, not the least of which is the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War.
One of the most prescient observers of America, Hannah Arendt well-understood how the United States was a fertile ground for violence. In her essay "Is America By Nature a Violent Society?", Arendt writes:
"It seems true that America, for historical, social and political reasons, is more likely to erupt into violence than most other civilized countries."
This is true, Arendt argues, even though it is also the case that Americans have a deep respect for law and a law-abiding citizenry. The paradox between violence and lawfulness is rooted in the American traditions of political activism and freedom of assembly, which are "among the crucial, most cherished and, perhaps, most dangerous rights of American citizens." Precisely because of our constitutionally guaranteed rights of assembly, speech, and political activism, the United States are perennially threatened with disunity and fundamental dissent.
"Every time Washington is unreceptive to the claims of a sufficiently large number of citizens, the danger of violence arises. Violence—taking the law into one's own hands—is perhaps more likely to be the consequence of frustrated power in America than in other countries."
What happened in the Capitol yesterday was an example of a large minority of citizens spurred on by a narcissistic President and craven political opportunists who sought to take the law into their own hands. The reason the supposed insurrection failed—indeed the reason it never had a chance at success—is that neither President Trump nor his sycophantic minions in the Trumpist part of the Congress, nor his followers who overran the Capitol, truly has the courage or the desire to stage a coup. We should be thankful for small graces.
But the attempted coup also failed because as much as Americans are drawn to violence, they are also deeply committed to lawfulness and process. What we saw yesterday, after the smoke cleared, was a renewed commitment to democratic process. Pushed to the brink, the Republicans (mostly) blinked. The people of the country were aghast and dismayed. The reset button was hit.
What the President seems to want is simply to be loved and to have his ego stroked. He wants to be shown that people love him. He wants to believe that he won the election. And he wants to know that respected members of Congress will kowtow to his fragile self-image. He wants the mob, he wants the show of manly force, but all without actually having violence or insurrection, from which he cowers.
The whole charade around objecting to the certification of the electoral college votes was a public relations stunt, at least as the 100 plus Republican representatives and 12 Senators were concerned. They never actually hoped to overturn the election. They wanted to air their resentment and the resentment of their constituents, a resentment fanned by the President's continued expression of conspiratorial lies about a stolen election. These lies are spread by a right-wing media ecosphere and by the weakness of Trumpist Republicans who refuse to stand up to the President.
As many on the right will remind us, one justification for the embrace of such public relations stunts is that they are also engaged in by democrats. House Democrats—including John Conyers and Maxine Waters—sought to challenge the electoral college results after the 2000 election, but thankfully no Senators joined them. And after the 2004 election, California Senator Barbara Boxer joined House members in objecting to the count of Ohio's electoral votes. In 2016, many Democrats fanned conspiracy theories that President Trump conspired with Russian to steal the election, and Hillary Clinton continues to call him an "illegitimate President." What they don't say, however, is that no Democratic President or presidential candidate has so fully embraced conspiracy theories and called upon supporters to shut down Congress and violently take control of the American electoral process.
What happened on Wednesday in Washington is more than a disgrace. A line was crossed. Many of us have spent the last four years wondering whether there was a line, and where it was. What line could the President cross that would lead his faithful sycophants in Congress to abandon him. Yesterday, finally, the line was seen. Amidst the corruption of our politics, that the line still exists is evidence of that there is still some idealism left in the American republican tradition.
And in the end, the events of Wednesday, January 6th, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Once the line was crossed, much of the magic that the President exerts suddenly went up in smoke. Suddenly Vice President Mike Pence is ordering the National Guard deployed without the President's OK. Suddenly Mitch McConnell and Lyndsey Graham are congratulating President-elect Biden and Vice-President elect Harris. Dozens of Trump appointees are resigning, whether in protest or in a last minute effort to avoid being prosecuted for treason. The six Senators who persisted in their challenges to the electoral college certification— Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Cindy Hyde-Smith, John Kennedy, Roger Marshall, and Tommy Tuberville (may their names live in infamy)—are being isolated by a civil war within the Republican Party. Some Republicans are even talking about removing the President from office before January 20th.
Arendt begins Book III of Origins of Totalitarianism called "Totalitarianism" by noting that "Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movements in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced." While President Trump was not a totalitarian leader, he was the leader of mass movement that sought to exert the "perpetual-motion mania" and to secure "coherent fictions" that are elements of totalitarian movements. When the President for the first time sought to move from being simply the leader of a mass-movement to actually flirting with insurrection, the spell of his charisma shattered. There is a hope that because of what happened yesterday, Trumpism will be quickly banished.
There is a temptation to hope we just witnessed the last inglorious end to an inglorious presidency, one that will restore some semblance of normalcy and political dignity in Washington. There is a hope that William James' two habits of American democracy—the willingness to accept political defeat and the resentment of those who would violently disturb the public peace—are being restored by the collective condemnation of the mob attack and the reassertion of basic democratic values.
Such a hope, however welcome, ignores some basic realities. The country was saved by brave and principled public servants such as Brad Raffensberger, the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia who stood up to President Trump and insisted on counting votes fairly and resisting the conspiracy theories spread by the President. And yet, across the country, members of QAnon and other conspiratorial Trumpist Republicans are entering public service. There is little doubt that some states in this country will have public servants—potentially on the left as well as the right—who see their job as pushing their political agendas by any means necessary. The example set by the Trump mobs along with120 House Republicans and six Republican Senators in 2020 and 2021 are now precedents for using nearly any means to interfere with and subvert elections that don't go one's way.
Arendt may be right that America is, by nature, both uniquely law-abiding and uniquely violent. This paradox underlies the democratic foment of American life as well as its incredible stability of its constitutional structure over the last 250 years. We may well be in a revolutionary situation, one in which there is a fundamental conflict of values; one in which a majority of Americans from multiple backgrounds feel like strangers in their own land. In the United States, such situations can lead easily to political activation and violence. We saw that this summer and we saw it again yesterday. A descent into political violence and Civil War is not inevitable. And yet, profound political resentments and frustrations remain. When that is the case, violence remains a real possibility in the United States. For now, however, let's celebrate the at-least-momentary return of the habits of democracy.