Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There was a time, just a few weeks ago, when hardly anyone thought it literally true that, as he boasted, Donald Trump could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and become more popular for having done so.

Whatever Trump himself had in mind, most of the people who would repeat that claim approvingly, as many have done over the past four years, thought of it as a rhetorical exaggeration, a hyperbole, useful for driving home the point that Trump was, figuratively speaking, getting away with murder.

However, over the past few weeks, in view of his role in making the COVID-19 pandemic now raging all around us so much worse than it would otherwise have been, the idea that Trump’s boast just might be true in a literal sense has come to seem increasingly reasonable.

Trump is plainly not guilty of first- or second- degree murder, but of a legally recognized form of homicide that is morally equivalent or worse — depraved indifference to human life.

Like so much else that he has done since assuming office, this is worse by many orders of magnitude than the underlying offense for which he was actually impeached, soliciting the help of Ukraine to advance his own electoral prospects.

Impeaching him for that was like getting Al Capone for taxes, but at least the feds did manage to put Capone in prison; Trump’s impeachment, like so many of his other more egregious “high crimes and misdemeanors,” has only made him more popular with his base, just as he boasted shooting someone on Fifth Avenue would.

Nancy Pelosi has been praised in heaps for her role in getting Trump’s impeachment through Congress, but Democrats and their media flacks haven’t had much to say about how little good, and how much harm, has come from that deployment of her vaunted political skills. In Democratic Party circles, it is practically axiomatic that Nancy knows best.

Corporate media have been fairly silent too about how, since the crisis erupted, Trump’s popularity, according to reliable polls, has come to top fifty percent, a record high for him. Perhaps because his rise in the polls is partly their fault, they are too embarrassed to dwell on the subject.

Trump was elected in the first place thanks, in part, to the free publicity corporate media bestowed upon him in 2016. They could hardly help themselves then, inasmuch as they are as much in thrall to the Almighty Dollar as any other capitalist enterprise, and his antics boosted their ratings and therefore their revenues.

Ironically, they have a more compelling reason for giving him free airtime now: he is, sad to say, the president and is therefore officially in charge.

Never one to miss an opportunity to glorify himself, Trump is playing them for all they’re worth, and doing a good job of it.

Having shunned press briefings from the getgo, preferring instead to connect with the public – or rather with the part of it that sees him as their savior — through barely literate and frequently incoherent tweets and fascistic campaign rallies, he is now holding daily, seemingly interminable, press briefings, nauseating displays of sycophancy, in which, when not congratulating himself or being congratulated by others, he attacks his foes in the media and the State Houses, indulges his grudges, and, worst of all, endangers public health by misinforming and disinforming his audience.

To be sure, it is no great shakes for a president to have high approval ratings in a national crisis or during a national emergency – the two Bushes know all about that – and, for any other president, approval ratings like the ones Trump now enjoys would be a signal for despair, not a portent of electoral success ahead.

Still, when a Donald Trump or anyone of his ilk becomes more, not less popular, as more people become familiar with how he thinks and what he does, it is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It is hard, with that going on, not to despair for America, and indeed for the human race.

Trump’s popularity could, of course, tumble downwards as the virus spreads and the death toll mounts; as, so to speak, the body count on Fifth Avenue rises.

But suppose it remains (comparatively) high long enough to make concerns about Trump’s reelection reasonable. What is to be done in that, not entirely unlikely, case?

In those circumstances, or indeed in any circumstances at all, trying to talk sense to terminally benighted morons, which is what most Republicans nowadays have become, no matter how many or few of them there are, is a fool’s errand. They are too dead set against reason, evidence, and common decency. The more vile and even criminal Trump becomes, the more the bodies pile up on Fifth Avenue, the more they stand by him.

Mainstream Democrats are less blatantly odious, but they are part of the problem too.

I used to think that their support for “moderates” was wrong-headed but harmless because Trump would surely in due course defeat himself. I still think that, but recent events are shaking my confidence.

The problem with moderates is not just their moderation, their determination to put a potentially transformative crisis to waste. It is that, whether they realize it or not, their defense of the old regime is tantamount to a defense of the neoliberal, liberal imperialist, war-mongering politics that made Trump or someone like him all but inevitable, and that will do it again unless a principled and militant opposition arises.

Joe Biden is the worst of the moderates by a good margin; the one least likely to campaign well, and the one who, installed in the White House, would do the worst job. It would be hard to make even Hillary Clinton look good, but that is the one job Hapless Joe is good for.

To be sure, Biden could choose a better (less bad) running mate and then senesce quickly enough to leave or be removed from office prematurely; he seems already well on track for that. And so, by that route, we could end up with our first woman president – he has said that his running mate would be female – and with a president whose politics is at least not worse than the politics that brought the Trump affliction on.

But these are slender reeds upon which to hang even the kind of vague hopes for change that Barack Obama raised at this point in the 2008 campaign and then for the first few months of his presidency.

There are solutions readily at hand, however; and some of them aren’t half bad. The problem, though, is that there seems to be no getting to there from here.

This is an instance of a problem that all so-called democracies in today’s world confront in one form or another. The American case, however, is extreme.


When people nowadays praise American democracy, they are either just replicating familiar pious cant, as when they talk about “the Free World,” or they are contrasting our governing institutions with those of more blatantly autocratic regimes of one or another kind.

Typically, the contrast is more political than analytical. What authoritarian regimes have in common is not exactly that their institutional arrangements contrast sharply with our own or with those of other so-called democracies. It is that they are or are thought to be unfriendly, or insufficiently subservient, to the United States.

By gaining a sounder than usual purchase on what actually is the case, it is possible, as it were, to de-weaponize the contrast. That would be a good thing to do from both a theoretical and practical political perspective. To that end, it can be useful first to dispel a widespread conceptual muddle.

This would be the idea that when people nowadays talk about “democracy,” what they mainly have in mind is not some notion, attenuated but still substantially similar, to “democracy” as understood within the Western philosophical tradition, both ancient and modern. It is what political philosophers understand by “liberalism.”

Historical and conceptual connections between that sense of the term and its various uses in political contexts, in the United States and elsewhere, are complicated. But what the philosophical notion itself involves is plain enough. It is a view about the limits of political authority relations that contrasts not with “conservatism,” as in mainstream political discourse in the United States nowadays, but with what historians and political theorists call “absolutism.”

In pre-modern times in Europe and, in various ways, in other parts of the world too, political authority relations were diffuse. There were kings and emperors, but real power, more often than not, rested with the nobility and with religious orders and ecclesiastical authorities of various kinds.

Thus, the state form of political organization, which emerged out of the class struggles of the early modern period, transformed the political sphere fundamentally.

States concentrate political authority relations into a single institutional nexus which holds, as Max Weber (1864-1920) famously put it, a monopoly of the means of (legitimate) violence. It is through violence or, more precisely, the use or threat of force, that states coordinate the behaviors of individuals and groups under their respective jurisdictions.

Within the institutional framework that the state form of political organization brought into being, “sovereignty” designates supreme authority over a given territory or population. In the early modern period, sovereignty was usually vested in a monarch whose power was in theory, and often in practice as well, unrestricted – or “absolute.”

It was in this context that liberalism, the theory and practice of partial or non-absolutist sovereignty, emerged. In liberal states, there are areas of individuals’ lives and behaviors into which the sovereign power cannot rightfully interfere.

But for the wars of religion brought on by the Protestant Reformation and Catholic reactions to it, liberalism would not have emerged where and when it did. Religious toleration was a pressing concern of the first liberal thinkers; as the various parties to seemingly never-ending conflicts fought to exhaustion, their core idea – that matters of private conscience like religious beliefs are no business of the sovereign’s – eventually won the day.

The rise of capitalism, another creature of the early modern period, further advanced the idea that there are aspects of public life that ought to be immune from state interference. The first capitalists were proponents of laissez-faire, intent on replacing the heavy and very visible weight of state institutions with the invisible hand of ostensibly voluntary market relations.

Economic liberties, freedom to engage in capitalist acts, and political liberties of the kind that the authors of the Bill of Rights were intent on installing are not the same. It is, however, a cardinal tenet of certain strains of liberal theory and practice – the ones we nowadays call “libertarian” – that they comprise a seamless web. Increasingly over the past several decades, even liberals who despise libertarianism accept that libertarian conviction to at least some extent.

The United States was never the only non-absolutist state in the family of nations and, if it ever was, it is certainly no longer, the most liberal state on the face of the earth. However, its record over the years has been good; far better than most.

It still is, thanks, in large part, to a judiciary that, over the years, has been generally good – some egregious counter-examples notwithstanding – at protecting individuals’ basic rights and liberties from the tyranny of the executive and legislative branches of federal and state governments.

But now that the more odious duopoly party has been packing the federal judiciary with judges who champion stone age ideas, this safeguard is in jeopardy. In the long run, the harm Mitch McConnell and his fellow GOP Senators will have done may outweigh even the harm done by Donald Trump.

However that may be, praise for American democracy is, more often than not, really praise for American liberalism. This is an understandable confusion: for all its shortcomings and flaws, American liberalism genuinely is praiseworthy. On the other hand, there is hardly anything to praise in American democracy.

No modern democracy is anything like the democracies envisioned by the great democratic theorists of the past. In the real world, the demos, the people as distinct from social or economic elites, never rule. Neither does the undifferentiated citizenry except insofar as, from time to time, there are free and fair elections for representatives over whom there is then little or no popular control.

In the American case, those elections are held at fixed terms, so that the system is unresponsive to widespread desires for change. Elect a Trump, and you’re stuck with a Trump — for four long, dreadful years.

In America too, in presidential elections, where the outcome is decided ultimately by a Constitutionally mandated Electoral College, not by the popular vote, garnering a majority or even a plurality of votes cast is no guarantee of victory. Presidential elections can therefore result in outcomes that make a mockery of the core democratic principle of majority rule.

Throughout the twentieth century, the consensus view was that minority rule was a theoretical possibility only that (small-d) Democrats could live with. But then two of our three twenty-first century presidents were elected with a minority of the popular vote; George W. Bush, our second-worst president in modern times, in 2000, and Trump, the worst American president ever, in 2016.

Then, in many modern democracies, there is the problem of “democracy deficits.” A majority votes for what they want, the majority rules, but then in one way or another, depending on institutional factors, political machinations, and outside, usually American, interference, they end up with something very different from what they voted for.

In the American case, the democracy deficit problem is partly mitigated by a duopoly party system that makes it almost impossible much of the time to vote for what one wants. This is a problem that especially affects citizens with progressive bones in their bodies.

Trump has changed the Republican Party radically, turning it into a de facto Trump party, and after the Sanders insurgency, the Clinton fiasco and the 2018 election, the Democratic Party is not what it used to be either. In the former case, the change has been unequivocally for the worse; in the latter case, it is, albeit equivocally, for the better. But it is not yet anywhere near better enough.

Meanwhile, the duopoly system itself has somehow managed to remain robust despite the advent of the Trump era, and despite the perturbations of the Trump-exacerbated COVID-19 pandemic, and the system’s dysfunctionality has become, if anything, even more extreme.


Because the Democratic Party’s Pelosiite center, aided and abetted by “liberal” corporate media and by machine politicians, black and white, in the South especially but not only there, who, like Jim Clyburn, are more Clintonite than the Clintons themselves, held, we now have a Biden problem on top of everything else.

In the pre-pandemic days, one could almost understand how a Democratic candidate who reeked of Obama style “normalcy” could appeal to a public worn out and exasperated by Trump’s vile machinations. It is a lot harder to understand, with the pandemic on full-blast, how anyone who, like Biden, opposes making health care a basic right – on fiscal grounds moreover, even as the government is again bailing out major corporations with reckless abandon — could have any appeal whatsoever. And that is just the least of it.

Biden has a woman problem like Trump’s, though in a minor key– witness the revelations now coming out about Tara Reade – and, again like Trump, he and his children have been capitalizing on his political connections in ways that are unseemly at best.

Worse still, his politics is like Clinton’s, though a tad more rightwing.

Like Obama, Biden is a Wall Street toady.

He is also a Cold War revivalist, and an avid supporter of liberal imperialist interventionism.

He has instigated and helped support every ruinous neoliberal trade agreement that the United States has pursued for as long as he has been in public life, and he is a longstanding enemy of our already feeble welfare state institutions, including Social Security.

For voters wanting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, he is emphatically not their man, no matter how much, in an effort to placate Sanders supporters, he might intimate otherwise.

And did I mention that he seems not all there upstairs?

Democrats could do a whole lot better. Indeed, there are better alternatives readily at hand.

But in our “democracy,” you can’t get there from here – because, at this point, that would require the active support of the old regime stalwarts who have all but inaugurated Biden already.

If only Sanders hadn’t been so kind to him in the debates; if only Elizabeth Warren had been more aggressive. If only any of the marginally less retrograde “moderates” had pulled their weight. If only voters concerned about electability hadn’t been so obtuse.

Then Sanders might now be the one now on track to become the nominee, or perhaps it would be Warren.

Or since 2020 has turned into a plague year, it could even be Andrew Cuomo, not exactly a man of the Left, but the best antithesis to Trump and Trumpism around.

The party honchos might not take to Sanders or even Warren, but how could they object to him?

The problem is getting from here to there. Sadly, indeed tragically, it seems that, barring a miracle, there is no way.

This would be true even in pre-pandemic times, but it is especially the case now when meetings and rallies and anything resembling normal campaigning is out of the question.

Should Biden continue to deteriorate in way that cannot be ignored, and were the corvid-19 danger to lift overnight, I could imagine a brokered Democratic Party convention this summer choosing Cuomo to be the nominee. But the danger will not be going away any time soon. It isn’t even clear that there will be a Democratic convention this year; it may have to be called off.

Biden will probably still defeat Trump – or rather Trump will defeat Trump – but a truly world-historical opportunity to make the American political universe worthy, at last, of the American people will have been squandered, perhaps not irretrievably, but significantly.

So much for democracy in America. We may get to it someday, but, even when Trump is definitively dispatched, it looks now like that day will remain a long way off.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).