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Voter Enthusiasm: Wrong Headed and Overrated

The conventional wisdom on presidential politics nowadays was described a century ago by William Butler Yeats: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

“The best,” in this case, would be voters gearing up grudgingly to vote for Joe Biden; “the worst” would be supporters of Donald Trump.

The conventional wisdom is right or rather it would be right if instead of lamenting the absence of conviction among the best, it focused instead on their absence of enthusiasm.

Biden supporters are not lacking in conviction when the issue is sending Trump and his miscreant underlings packing. However, few, if any, of them are gung-ho for Joe. How could they be? There is no there to enthuse over.

Meanwhile, Trump supporters – not as many as he would like, but distressingly many nevertheless — will camp out overnight on the streets of Tulsa or hasten to some Phoenix megachurch in the midst of a global pandemic, putting themselves, their families, and their friends in danger of serious illness and death, just to be in the presence of their candidate, a narcissistic ignoramus who holds them and people like them in contempt, as he blusters and emotes for the greater glory of himself.

The authoritarian Leaders Trump mimics are at least somewhat charismatic, even if most of them are also, like Benito Mussolini, comic opera caricatures of tough guys. Trump is not the least bit charismatic; he is a laughing-stock pure and simple, drawn from the wasteland of reality TV.

He is a first-rate swindler, however; good at selling snake oil by the barrelful. The morons he dupes stay duped — sometimes even unto death.

This won’t matter much on Election Day, but it could matter a great deal the morning after and for some time after that, if Trump tells his diehard supporters that his defeat was illegitimate and then refuses to vacate the White House premises.

Four years ago, the likelihood of anything like that happening in the Land of the Free seemed nil. Now it seems more likely than not.

***

In many respects, what passes for democracy in the United States is, and always has been, problematic. Thus, George W. Bush and Trump himself “won” their elections in the Electoral College, a vestigial and flagrantly undemocratic concoction of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, after losing the popular vote — Bush to Al Gore in 2000 and Trump to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But those elections were, so to speak, “constitutionally correct” and, notwithstanding Trump’s efforts to claim that he actually won the popular vote too, as free and fair as any before them.

Moreover, once the votes were counted, power transferred peacefully, as it always has. Even after Trump won in the Electoral College four years ago, the idea that that norm would still be in force now, at the end of his term, seemed practically axiomatic.

That seems like ancient history now. Having broken so many other norms already, Trump could well go after that one too. There are many reasons why he would.

Fear of criminal prosecution is high on the list.

The Original Sin of the Obama administration was to let Bush era war criminals off scot-free. No doubt, Biden is similarly inclined. But Trump knows that he may not be able to get away with that now – not with so many of his supporters smelling blood and, what comes to the same thing in this case, yearning for justice.

Trump might also fear for his investments and for the Trump Organization and the Trump brand once he loses his hold on power. Perhaps he even cares a tad about his family – or at least Ivanka, his airhead daughter, and his idiot adult sons. The others not so much.

Trump may well be one of the least self-aware humanoids on the face of the earth, but he is a pretty good con artist and therefore does have a knack for figuring out what his marks want to hear, and where he stands with those upon whose favor his fate depends.

Thus, he must realize, at some level, that his next stop, after 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, will be Disgrace City; and that, from there, those who now see him as their meal-ticket – capitalists seeking lower taxes and fewer restrictions on how much harm they can do to the environment and to their workers, evangelical Christians and other social conservatives seeking the appointment of retrograde judges, white supremacists seeking validation, and so on — will find him useless as soon as his power is gone.

He must realize too that when that happens, instead of abasing themselves before his otherwise repellent countenance, his Republican vassals will do all they can to distance themselves from him. So will many of his most diehard supporters once they realize what a loser he is.

It is possible too that Trump’s resolve to stay in office will be enhanced by his belief that he really is God’s gift to His favorite country — wonderful, beloved, and indispensable. Trump is, after all, more than a little delusional, and therefore more inclined than most autocrat wannabes to believe his own propaganda.

Should he decide not to cede power graciously, as every American president before him has done, his base, whatever is left of it by then, would be his best, perhaps his only, friend.

A few exceptionally venal and benighted capitalists might still stand by him, but a lot of good that will do. From day one, the pillars of the American power structure have had it in for the Donald. For nearly four years now, they have been waiting for a good excuse, and a safe opportunity, to stop pulling their punches. An electoral defeat would be just what the doctor ordered.

He must also realize that, when he leaves office, many of his “loyal” plutocrats and preachers will flee like rats on a sinking ship. Between them and him, there has never been much love lost. Marriages of convenience turn nasty when they become inconvenient, as his and his benefactors’ surely will.

It is now plain too that the military brass hates his guts. This could hardly have escaped his attention. It must also break his heart inasmuch as being drawn as much to displays of military grandeur as to over-the-top gilding in buildings that bear his name, he delights, bone spurs and all, in being the admirals and generals’ Commander-in-Chief.

Poor Donald! Were he to attempt a coup against the American government, he could hardly count on the military coming to his aid. Quite to the contrary, they would do all they could to throw him to the wolves. Everybody knows this; even Biden has spoken of it.

Military coups are classic all over the world, but the American way, when dealing with foreign governments our leaders want replaced, is to work through the intelligence services, especially the CIA.

However, Trump has been at the throat of the CIA and other organs of the national security state for so long that even he, deluded and self-deceived as he might be, must understand that they would never lift a finger to keep him in power. Quite to the contrary, insofar as they are concerned, if he still had the sense he was born with, he would be watching his back.

Hugo Chavez famously quipped that the reason why there have never been military coups in the United States is that America has no embassies there. American embassies are high on the CIA’s list of favorite places to plot and organize the nefarious machinations for which they are infamous.

Having been victimized more than once by CIA shenanigans himself and speaking from his vantage-point in the most CIA afflicted continent of all, Chavez’s words, even when delivered in a jocular register, ring true.

So, if Trump thinks that he can count on the CIA to keep him in power after Inauguration Day, he is even more deluded than he seems.

It is almost enough to make a person feel sorry for the poor bastard. Outside the cult that has grown up around him, he will soon be disarmed and on his own.

This is why voters’ well-justified lack of enthusiasm for Biden matters a good deal less than Democratic Party strategists and the corporate media pundits that serve them would have people think.

Turnout matters, but we can be confident that, despite himself, Trump will see to it that everywhere outside his shrinking base, there will be plenty of that. The level of enthusiasm, or lack of it, of those who realize that they must vote for Biden in order to vote against Trump, is real; but for doing job number one, bidding Trump and his posse adiós, it hardly matters at all.

***

There actually are, and long have been, people who speak of the Senate as “the greatest deliberative body” on earth. It is hard to see how they could ever have said that with a straight face. These days, with Trump Party Senators under villainous Mitch McConnell’s thumb, the idea has become even more ludicrous than ever.

The often repeated claim that the American president is “the leader of the free world” is ridiculous too, especially nowadays. However, there is at least some historical basis for using that expression, and some philosophical grounding behind it.

During World War II, “the free world” was comprised of countries not controlled by the axis powers. The expression, though useful in hortatory and propagandistic contexts, was always problematic. Were the colonies of the Western powers of the free world? Was Nazi Germany’s ultimate nemesis, the Soviet Union?

According to understandings that became commonplace after the war ended and the Cold War began, it certainly wasn’t. By then, Stalin had become the new Hitler, and the world behind “the iron curtain” had become the very antithesis of the free world.

Now with both Democrats and Republicans pressing to revive the old Cold War by making Russia an adversary again, and with them both hellbent on going after China too, “free world” talk is back with a vengeance.

No matter, that it is even less clear than before just where that free world is supposed to be and what exactly is free about it.

Cold War revivalism is dangerous, stupid, and insofar as what matters is prosperity and peace, entirely unnecessary. But that is not how it seems from inside the bowels of the military-industrial-national security state complex.

From the purview of their ideologues, the so-called war on terror, now nearly two decades old, just isn’t cutting it anymore. Their “clash of civilizations” was scary enough to undermine civil liberties and whip up religious and nativist animosities. But it no longer seems nearly scary enough to keep American capitalism thriving or to sustain America’s role as a global hegemon.

Could this be one of those first time as tragedy, second time as farce moments? It might not seem like it now, but if we somehow manage to get past the new Cold Wars, the one against Russia and the one against China, that is very likely how, in retrospect, this latest round of reckless bellicosity will look.

Today’s Democrats and Republicans are not even able to imagine better ways to enrich their benefactors or to retain their own power than by reverting back to the nostrums of their more imaginative counterparts eight decades ago.

This is pathetic, but at least Cold War (or neo-Cold War) anti-Communism (or whatever we call anti-Communism when Communism is no more) does connect, after a fashion, to a political and philosophical tradition that encompasses but also transcends the ideological uses to which its core ideas have been put.

Within that tradition, the most fundamental contrast is between democracy and dictatorship.

In Greek antiquity, “democracy” meant “rule of the demos,” the people as distinct from social, political, economic, or religious elites. In modern usage, the term designates a less class-based understanding of popular rule. According to prevailing understandings, in democracies, there are competitive elections in which the undifferentiated (adult) citizenry rules — or, rather, takes part – albeit with certain, sometimes major, exceptions.

Thus, in the United States, before the passage of the nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women could not vote. This was not unusual in Western democracies at the time. In the South, it was difficult, though not strictly impossible, for African Americans to vote before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In many states, persons convicted of felonies who are serving or have served time in prison, are excluded still.

Before the French and American revolutions, democracy was a fringe doctrine, in much the way that anarchism is nowadays. But from the middle of the nineteenth century on, the term, on any of its many construals, has been nearly universally endorsed. The concept has become, as philosophers would say, “essentially contested” – everybody is for it, but fundamental disagreements about its meaning abound.

“Dictatorship” involves two interrelated notions: rule of a single individual (or small group of individuals), and the idea that political power is and ought to be unlimited or “absolute” – in other words, unconstrained by law.

In the period of state formation in early modern Europe, kings were dictators in that sense. This was still very much the case up to the time that the American Constitution was enacted.

This historical legacy, along with the pernicious influence of some “conservative” legal doctrines – for example, the “originalism” championed by the Federalist Society — is why, even to this day, we hear so much about how American presidents are not kings and therefore ought not to act as if they were.

What an ironic demand that is! Nearly everywhere nowadays, outside Saudi Arabia and the Gulf statelets that the Saudis keep under their thumb, kings, in countries that still have them, are harmless relics of a long ago past. Their role in their country’s actual politics is symbolic, not substantive, and generally not harmful.

On the other hand, presidents have always wielded enormous power. In recent decades, as Congress has made itself increasingly irrelevant, presidential power has increased many times over. Thus, the president we now have menaces life on planet earth itself and, in practice (though not in theory), there is precious little that the legislative and judicial branches of our government can do about it.

That aside, it is well to note that contemporary understandings of democracy and dictatorship are embedded in a deeply entrenched way of thinking that has dominated reflections on politics and society since the beginnings of the modern (post-seventeenth century) era, at first in the most developed countries of western Europe and then throughout much of the rest of the world.

This way of thinking is also presupposed in distinctively modern rights based and utilitarian ethical theories.

This would be the idea that the way to think about what is the case and what ought to be in practical affairs is to take individuals, conceived atomistically, as points of departure. In standard philosophical usage, “practical” contrasts with “theoretical.” The former involves action; the latter contemplation.

For the metaphysicians of the ancient Graeco-Roman world, and for many modern thinkers as well, the term “atom” designated the most fundamental unit of matter. In the atomist view, atoms bear only “external” relations with one another; their essential natures, indeed their identity conditions (that which makes them what they are), are radically independent of their relations with other atoms.

Similarly, individuals, conceived atomistically, are radically independent entities. They may be, and typically are, involved with countless other individuals in myriad ways, but the social or collective relations in which they figure are not integral to their being. They are what they are regardless of these external relations.

Thus, on this view, rights attach ultimately to individuals, not to families, clans, tribes, or collectivities of any sort, up to and including nations – in the sense that the interests these and other collective entities have can be reduced without remainder to the interests of the individuals that comprise them.

Notwithstanding the atomic individualism that they all assumed, modern social, political, economic, and moral theorists, from very early on, fell into two main camps: one held that there are infrangible individual rights that, so to speak, trump all other considerations; the other held that the main, or even the only, relevant consideration that should be taken into account in individual and collective deliberations about what ought to be done is how best to maximize the satisfaction of individuals’ interests – how to have as much collective interest satisfaction as possible in a world in which interests vary in degree but in which none automatically prevail over all others.

As followers of John Locke and other like-minded philosophers, the founders of the American republic were inclined to fall into the former camp – especially with regard to property rights.

Most modern moral theorists, utilitarians especially, and most economists too fall into the second camp.

Cases for and against the many positions that fit under these rubrics involve a host of philosophical, political, and technical considerations. The arguments and the positions they sustain quickly become complicated.

But there is universal agreement on one thing – that whenever it is appropriate, for whatever reason, to make collective decisions by voting, all that matters is how many votes a measure or a candidate receives; not how intensely voters feel about one or another outcome.

And especially not what any particular individual or small group of individuals chooses, regardless of the choices of everyone else. In this tradition of thought, dictatorship in that sense is an evil to be avoided at all costs.

In theory, the democratic alternative to dictatorship would be a social choice procedure, like the method of majority rule, in which social choices are functions of (atomic) individuals’ choices for the alterative outcomes in contention, each individual’s choice counting equally.

That is hardly the case, of course, in American presidential elections or, for that matter, in most consequential voting circumstances in real world democracies. In practice, the alternative to dictatorship can be, and typically is, far less demanding than democracy is in theory. Indeed, with regard to democracy and dictatorship, connections between theory and practice are highly attenuated at best.

Thus, Trump is hardly a dictator or dictator wannabe in any theoretically pertinent sense, and, by that standard, the regime he has turned on its head was hardly a democracy. When these notions are invoked in on-going political battles, their invocation generally serves polemical purposes and not much more.

However, it does reinforce the idea that, in voting, unlike in contexts where interpersonal comparisons of preference satisfaction or utility (conceived in some other way) do matter, at least in principle, the only relevant concern is the number of votes, not the intensity of voters’ preferences for one or another outcome.

That some Trump voters would put themselves in harm’s way for their man, while most, if not all, Biden voters would prefer to vote for somebody other than Biden, is therefore irrelevant.

What matters is only how many votes Trump and Biden get – and since, thanks to our vaunted founders, we have the Electoral College to deal with – where those votes come from.

But however that may be, voter enthusiasm is not the issue; voter turnout is.

There is, of course, a sense in which how voters feel about the choices offered them affects turnout, and so, indirectly, levels of voter enthusiasm can sometimes matter. This seems to have been the case in 2016, at least to some extent. It is not the case now.

Because Biden is what he is and because corporate Democrats are what they are, the less they come to the attention of potential Democratic voters, the better for Democrats.

With Trump, it is the opposite. Since, for all but the terminally vile, to know him is to hate him, the more voters get to see of him, the more likely it will be that they will turn out to vote against him, and therefore the more likely it is that he will lose, and the better off everyone will be.

Wise Democrats ought therefore to let Trump and his people do the heavy lifting themselves just by being in public view, while keeping Biden as much out of sight and mind as possible.

Instead of trying in vain to boost voter enthusiasm for their doofus of a candidate, their main job now ought to be impeding Republican efforts at voter suppression.

They ought also to be preparing for what Trump and his supporters will do to try to keep Democrats, the good ones (as distinct from the mainstream corporate kind) especially, from taking office.

That task would be a lot easier if, as in some Western democracies, voting was mandatory. But this is not the case here. The fact that so many radical, non-corporate Democrats have won primaries so far this year, and that yet more likely will in the future, is not only a godsend in its own right, but is also good for bringing potential voters out to the polls – or, better yet, to the mailboxes.

With regard to the election itself, however, the idea ought to be just to get voters to see it as a referendum on Trump, with Biden serving as nothing more than a means for opposing him.

This will make it easier too, when it becomes possible to move on beyond efforts to purge the body politic of Trump and Trumpism, to go after the conditions for their possibility. Like Hillary Clinton before him, and like Obama too, though to a lesser degree, and indeed like all mainstream Democrats since even before “the Reagan revolution,” Biden epitomizes and personifies those conditions well.

Turning down-ticket elections into referenda on Trump has been a winning strategy so far. In conjunction with the covid-19 pandemic, an economy chugging along at Depression levels, and a degree of social unrest not seen since the late sixties, it has helped make Trump fall and Biden rise in the polls in recent weeks.

Since it is not possible yet to rid the Democratic Party of them and others of their ilk, let’s hope that Bidenite-Schumerite-Pelosiite Democrats have enough sense to stick with what works; that they continue to let events speak for themselves, driving home the urgency of voting against Trump, without even trying to suggest that the candidate they have foisted upon a public yearning for change is worth voting for.

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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).

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