The gravest challenges to democracy come from within

December 02, 2022 14:15
U.S. President Joe Biden (Photo: Reuters)

Leaders of both autocracies and democracies alike put on the impression that their regimes are flourishing – and that their way of governing is best. In practice, setting aside the fact that most of the world’s regimes are likely to exist somewhere on the autocracy-democracy spectrum (or, as I have advocated elsewhere, they positively exhibit characteristics of both in a dualistic manner), it is only inevitable that leaders of all states are compelled to put on a conceit before their public and international counterparts.

President Biden’s claim that democracy has ‘returned’ with his party’s triumph – and the return of the Democrats to the White House – is not without a modicum of reason. His predecessor had been amongst the most virulent and demagogic of candidates to sit in the White House, and held a track record that was marred and marked by his repeated refusal to adhere to or respect due processes, existing institutions, and the judiciary at large, culminating at Trump’s vindictive and absurd insistence that the election was “stolen” from his hands. It would indeed be hilarious, but for the fact that a significant plurality of individuals in certain parts of America remain convinced that their preferred candidate was stripped of a second term by a ‘conspiracy’.

Biden has – on surface, at least – restored some degree of normalcy to the White House’s public messaging and communication efforts. There are clear signs that he values – and understands – the anxieties of those who have yearned for stability and consistency in communication from the White House, and from a leader that would not resort to bigoted tropes and convenient excuses to flip-flop and deflect (though those watching Biden’s foreign policy closely may well find themselves disillusioned with his indecisiveness, incoherence, and attempts to have the cake and eat it with regards to China and Ukraine).

Yet American democracy is in trouble – and the root causes of such malaise are less external causes or ‘interference’ (a favourite means of deflection by regimes that are keen to shirk responsibility), and more ‘internal’. There are three that we must highlight: the first, is the ossification and over-bureaucratisation of the American state. The Weberian ideal, when stretched to its limits, yields what Arendt warns of as the encroachment of the mundane upon the political – and where the apparatus wielding the mundane ends up dictating not just what everyday ‘livelihood’ issues look like, but also grander political questions at large. The American state claims to be rooted in values of libertarianism and minimal governance – yet both its underlying structures and the contemporary zeitgeist feature an ever-expansive state, one that is in cahoots with powerful military and industrial players. Attempts at industrial policy have lent themselves conveniently to opening up doors and channels by which political leaders are blatantly rewarding supporters and scoring favours at large. Accountability and oversight over those who are engaging in regulation – are, at best, minimal. Throw into the mix gentocrats who know not what they are doing, and the emergence of rapidly developing, nascent technologies, and we have here a problem that even Houston would find concerning.

The second issue rests with the over-exaggeration of ‘distinction’. The Bourdieusian argument, that our consumption patterns and ‘tastes’ – specifically, dislikes, then likes – would come to shape our positioning within social hierarchies, has never been as pertinent. Except in the 21st century, distinction is propped up by language and stances that signal one’s stances on issues that oft have no direct personal import or significance to oneself. One’s stance on social justice issues is thus turned into a Shibboleth, a basis for exclusion or inclusion, ostracisation or praise. The modus operandi is simple – either you’re with us, or you’re with them. Identities are thus evolved on the basis of shared and commonly understood gestures and platitudes. Public vocalisations are hence skewed towards the performative – at the expense of actual communication and deliberation.

Identity politics prevails as people seek out ways to carve out their niches and distances from others. Yet in so doing, we are also presented with the long-standing phenomenon in American politics: in bowling alone, people grow to be less trustful, less tolerant, and – ultimately – precipitously incentivised to turn to extremism and violence as solutions to what they take to be unpleasant or contrary stances.

The final issue is the rise of Big Tech – whose algorithms and sorting mechanisms have most effectively established a combination of echo chambers and balkanised digital environments, as well as a mass surveillance economy. Every breath we take, every move we make, every movie we watch falls into the scope of survey and observation by the omnipresent tech sensors and detectors – culminating at a world where there is no right to sanctuary, no right to be forgotten, and no space for organic, genuinely personal interactions, both online and offline. Democracy dies from within, as the space for individuals to opt out of politics – to opt out of the all-dominating public – continually shrivels.

The greatest enemies to American democracy aren’t Russia, or Iran, or North Korea, or whatever competitor they happen to pick upon in Washington as the scapegoat. It’s America itself – and the three problems outlined above certainly take the crown in terms of severity and intensity.

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Assistant Professor, HKU