Some Serious Soul-foolishness
Joe Biden’s big speech last week to save the nation’s soul from the “MAGA Republicans” was (of course) deeply flawed.
His reference to the United States as “the greatest nation on Earth” has long been contradicted by a giant mass of data on US inequality, poverty, health, violence, incarceration, and much more.
His reference to the United States as a democracy, the greatest in the world, is belied by an empirical literature showing that majority public opinion is trumped by concentrated wealth and power on one issue after another.
His notion that the MAGATs’ “not normal” authoritarianism violates the nation’s “democratic” “soul” flies in the face of what we know about the nation’s history. To get a better sense of “the soul of this nation,” Joe might want to read Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” or the sixth chapter – titled “America Was Never Great: On ‘the Soul of This Nation” – in my latest book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America. Racialized authoritarianism, intimately linked to patriarchy, fundamentalist Christianity, imperialism and political violence, are as “normally” US-American as cherry pie.
Biden and his party’s recent legislation, including a fossil-capitalist “climate suicide pact” falsely sold as an environmentalist triumph, mark nothing close to the great “democratic” victories he claimed.
His assertion that MAGA fascists are just a minority of the Republican base is belied by polling data showing that a super-majority of Republicans accept Trump’s Big Hitlerian Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Biden barely showed the slightest sense of understanding of key components of the “MAGA Republican” (fascist) world view beyond opposition to democracy and embrace of lawless political violence: white supremacism, patriarchy, vengeful and palingenetic nationalism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, anti-socialism and other key ingredients.
Curiously enough given his embrace of the American exceptionalist notion that the US is the world’s shining beacon of liberty and democracy, Biden neglected to mention the international dimensions of the right-wing authoritarian (neofascist) threat.
He promoted the holy, “soul”-possessing U.S. Nation (one that contains less than five percent of homo sapiens) over humanity, the only relevant reference group as the only entity whose “soul” concerned him – a slap in the face of most of the species. Beware of heads of empires talking about national “souls”!
He did not make any reference to the nation’s urgent democratic need to indict, prosecute convict, and incarcerate the orange fascist reptile, who continues to haunt the world despite an embarrassing glut of evidence (including now theft of classified documents and obstruction of efforts to get them back in government hands on top of numerous felonies connected to his attempt to cancel and undermine the 2020 presidential election) showing that it belongs behind bars and possibly even on federal Death Row in Terre Haute (espionage and treason are potential capital offenses).
(The absurd lack of prosecution is dangerous. The frothing, tangerine-tinted maniac Trump, recently handed yet more proof that he will die before the rule of law ever catches up with him, absurdly walks free to specify six drastic plans he’ll implement if can steal the White House back with his fascist friends in state legislatures and the state and federal courts: execution of drug dealers; moving homeless people to “tent cities;” deploying the US military to crush crime, social unrest and protest; stripping job protections from federal workers and staffing thousands of federal positions with fascist appointees; eliminating the Education Department; restricting voting to one day.)
He gave his speech flanked by two US Marines, continuing the inherently anti-democratic politicization of the military for which liberals and others rightly criticized Trump.
The religious Catholic Biden, who honored Christ by helping lead the charge in the US Senate for George W. Bush’s monumentally criminal and mass murderous invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003, mass couldn’t leave someone or something he calls “God” out of his speech’s wrap-up. This violated the spirit of church-state separation that is supposed to be part of the US “democratic”-republican tradition.
Still, Biden deserves credit for understanding that the Republican party is now captive to what he has recently called “semi-fascism” (a phrase he held back from uttering last Thursday night) – what is really fascism with no prefixes required. Except for his false belief that the United States is a “democracy” (the greatest in world history in Biden’s view) and “our republic” – it’s a slave-owning bourgeois republic that became an imperial monopoly capitalist corporate-financial plutocracy in the half century after the Civil War – there’s nothing wrong and plenty right in the following passage from his Philadelphia speech:
“…As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault [from within the U.S.- P.S.]. We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise…Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic…. America is at an inflection point — one of those moments that determine the shape of everything that’s to come after…MAGA Republicans do not… believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself. MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law… Blind loyalty to a single leader [like Hitler or Trump, who was angry that his generals did not give him the same cringing obedience the Nazi Fuhrer received from his military commanders – P.S.] and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.”
All true, as was Biden’s rallying cry: “it is within our power, it’s in our hands — yours and mine — to stop the assault…We are not powerless in the face of these threats. We are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy…For a long time, we’ve told ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed, but it’s not. We have to defend it, protect it, stand up for it — each and every one of us.”
(Okay, actually, millions upon millions are in fact “bystanders.” Mass passivity is a huge contributing factor behind the potential fascization of the USA today. It’s a big problem. But the point stands: we have the power to refuse the rise of a fascist America.)
Some Interesting Acknowledgements at a Crossroads Moment
Interesting it was to see a dedicated centrist “reach across the aisle to get things done” Democrat like Biden go public with the realization that a significant part of the population, maybe a third that are “MAGA Republicans,” are beyond the pale. As Avakian says, the American “City on a Hill is full of fascists.”
Also interesting: Biden, a dedicated American exceptionalist and empire man, acknowledges that the greatest threat to the supposedly democratic US comes from within and not from an external enemy.
And Biden’s not wrong about the US being “an inflection point.” A US-American fascism has been creeping up in ways both blunt and subtle on previously normative US bourgeois electoral and rule of law “democracy” for many decades now, as Carl Boggs argued in an important 2018 study bearing the properly chilling title Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads. Quantity could be shifting to quality in any election cycle and crisis now. One of the nation’s two major parties has crossed over. It holds the Supreme Court and much of the state and federal judiciary and many of not most of the state governments. It has shock troops in the field, dark money billionaires writing it checks, and a reactionary minority rule constitutional order that drastically over-empowers the right (see below).
The Electoral Cargo Cult
Good for Joe. But what in the name of “God,” history, and the “Soul of the Nation” did Biden propose that “We the People” do about the MAGA-Republi-fascist attack on our supposed democracy?
Really, one thing and one thing only.
Dear reader, I bet you already know the answer…
“We can’t afford to have — leave anyone on the sidelines. We need everyone to do their part,” Biden said.
And what is doing one’s part in America’s “democracy,” pray tell?
“Speak up. Speak out. Get engaged. Vote, vote, vote.”
Vote for who and under what system, Joe boy? For the dismal dollar Democrats, once aptly described by Sheldon Wolin as the “inauthentic opposition.” As Biden would never admit, this party of passive resistance functions as the Republi-fascists’ enabling partner in numerous ways (see this, this, this, and this):
+ by demobilizing the majority working-class non-Republican electorate through cringing subordination to corporate, financial, and military-industrial authority.
+ by de-legitimizing democracy and thereby opening the door to authoritarian “solutions” by embracing and defending the capitalist system, whose inherent tendency towards the concentration of wealth and hence power undermines democracy even as it creates endless crises that require governmental fixes.
+ by legitimizing and embracing right-wing narratives like “exceptional” national greatness and personal responsibility for one’s economic status (to name just two).
+ by relentlessly seeking bipartisan cooperation with what is now a militantly partisan neofascist party, the post-republican Republi-fascists.
+ by refusing to attack archaic minority rule institutions and practices that drastically inflate the right’s political power far beyond its popular support: the Electoral College, the preposterously malapportioned, unrepresentative, and powerful nature of the U.S. Senate, the Senate filibuster, the absurd nine-member Supreme Court, judicial review, and states’ rights.
+ by failing (so far) to forthrightly and properly punish the putschist and fascist traitor Trump for trying to install himself as a dictator, this as new evidence arises that Trump criminally absconded to his private estate with a treasure trove of classified National Defense Information (stay tuned: he may have engaged in espionage and treason with some of those documents).
+ by directly supporting some of the most poisonous and dangerous Republi-fascist candidates in this year’s primary elections (on the theory that these “MAGA Republicans” are more “beatable” than more moderate Republicans – the same cynical orientation behind the Democrats’ decision to surrender in advance to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, hoping for pro-abortion backlash to help them keep Congress in next fall’s mid-term elections)
Yes, “do your part” by making marks next to the names of candidates selected in advance for you by the ruling class for two minutes once every two or four years. Save “the soul of the nation” by participating in this very marginal way in the savagely time-staggered big money major party candidate-centered “electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky) s that are sold to the masses as the only politics that matters – in tightly choreographed ruling class contests that take place within the killing confines of a Minority Rule party and election system tilted far to the right of majority opinion. “Americans,” Noam Chomsky noted eighteen years ago, “may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election[s are] a method of marginalising the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalised quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics (emphasis added).”
“Vote!” “I Voted!” “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain!” It’s a cargo-cult conviction once aptly captured by the radical American historian Howard Zinn as an “election madness” driven by the deeply embedded and magical national belief “that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple-choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students (emphasis added).”
“Unless the Power of the People Asserts Itself”
And it is historically delusional. There’s nothing wrong (in this writer’s view) with voting “for” a Dem to keep a Republi-fascist out of power. The pandemo-fascist maniac Trump was dangerous enough to justify a lesser evil-ist Biden vote in 2020. But these absurdly venerated holy moments in the masters’ voting booths takes a couple minutes and are a very weak stand-in for the sustained and effective political movement engagement and direct action that real change requires. What has always mattered far more is what the masses do before and after elections in the way of social movements for reform and revolution. As Zinn explained:
“But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ [less evil – P.S] candidate that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens (emphasis added).”
Notwithstanding Zinn’s error of thinking that a capitalist government has any real responsibility to anyone but the ruling class at the end of the day, US American history is chock full of evidence in support of Zinn’s thesis regarding the question of how progressive change occurs: the pressure of the abolitionist movement and slaves voting with their feet combining with the crisis of Southern secession and the Confederacy’s military power to force the end of chattel slavery; the largely Communist-led industrial worker and unemployed movements combining with the crisis of the Great Depression and to force the second New Deal; the heroic Civil Rights Movement combining with the ideological and systemic pressures of the Cold War amidst Third World decolonization to win Black southern voting rights and formal desegregation; the New Left antiwar movement combining with the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people to end the US imperial military crucifixion of Southeast Asia; the remarkable women’s movement of the building on the 1960s rebellion and underlying societal changes to force the Roe v. Wade (abortion rights) decision; the gay rights rebellion forcing the legalization of same-sex marriage; the ecology movement and environmental regulations; the George Floyd Rebellion’s significant and underestimated contribution to Trump’s implosion and defeat in 2020.
Vote? Do what you want for two minutes in a ballot booth once every two and/or four years but the historical record is clear as day: in the absence of militant people’s movements beneath and beyond the holy ruling class electoral spectacles, nothing progressive is going to be achieved and Democrats in nominal power will consistently give way to officeholders from a major capitalist party that has crossed into fascist space, no “semi” about it.