Democracy Inverted

on May 16, 2010

The collapse of the science-and-democracy partnership in 1965 may have left the democracy vision in a state of demoralization, but that was nothing compared to the trauma produced in the United States by the Watergate crisis and its aftermath. The steady stream of revelations about the Nixon administration’s misdeeds and the CIA’s abuses of power which poured out from 1972 to 1976 shook the entire nation to its core and provoked an almost inexpressible sense of revulsion and cynicism.

The official conclusion after Nixon resigned was that the system had worked, but it hadn’t really. The Watergate crisis left behind a deep and abiding distrust of government, along with a tendency to see conspiracies everywhere.

That distrust was most intense in the United States, of course — but then, so was the democracy vision itself.

Visions expand their sphere of influence as they develop, but they tend to be nurtured originally in fairly limited regions, and they have the most lasting impact in those same regions. The reason vision, for example, was quintessentially French. The science vision was most strongly rooted in England and Germany. And the democracy vision has been at the core of America’s identity as a nation since 1776.

The United States was already a beacon of democracy when it was still a small and struggling collection of former colonies, and it became a major world power as the democracy vision rose to dominance in the first half of the 20th century. But when the democracy vision faltered, so did America’s sense of identity and purpose — and that presented a serious problem.

Partnerships between dominant visions are always designed to meet the most pressing needs of the moment, and unlike the visions themselves, they are intensely practical and results-oriented. Their purpose is first to restabilize society after the turmoil of the countercultural period and then to provide consensus guidelines for further development.

The details of each partnership, however, are not foreordained. The only firm rule is that the junior vision will set the direction, the senior vision will play a subordinate and supportive role, and the two will be harmonized by a philosophical framework that makes the pairing seem inevitable. But the nature of that framework, and which aspects of each vision will be emphasized to fit within it, are always a matter of choice and judgment.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, he was well aware of the problems besetting the democracy vision. In July 1979, he told the American people, “I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. … It is a crisis of confidence … that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

But Carter’s proposed solution — that Americans reaffirm their national virtue by consuming less and turning down the thermostats — did nothing to address the problem of restoring the country’s self-esteem. Ronald Reagan offered an answer that was far more attractive, as well as being more in tune with the freewheeling, individualistic spirit of the chaos vision, and it enabled him to defeat Carter in the 1980 election and set the tone of the nation for the next thirty years.

Reagan’s first secret was that he promised Americans a brighter tomorrow. When he announced in November 1979 that he was running for president, he told his audience, “Someone once said that the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place.” And he went on to decry “those in our land today … who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civilizations of the past, has reached the zenith of its power.”

But Reagan’s second and more potent secret was that he based this dream of continuing greatness on a radical redefinition of democracy — one in which it was seen not as a system of government, but as a guarantee of freedom from government.

This represented a radical inversion of all previous understanding. The assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” expresses an underlying assumption that governments, not people, possess the power to establish justice, promote the general welfare, and so forth. What is special about democracy is that it legitimizes those functions through popular consent, in what Lincoln described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

For Reagan and his disciples, however, government has no unique capacities of its own but exists only by usurping powers which rightfully belong to individuals. As a result it can never be truly legitimate, even when it adheres to the forms of democracy. Its only acceptable role is to remain as small and unobtrusive as possible.

Reagan began his 1981 inaugural address, for example, by inveighing against the “economic affliction” of sustained inflation before suggesting, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. … We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people.”

In his second inaugural, Reagan boasted that “our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power that which we the people allow it to have.”

Between 1981 and 1985, of course, Reagan had beaten back inflation by having Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker raise interest rates to induce the prolonged recession of July 1981 to November 1982. So much for government not being the solution.

And in the long run, Reagan’s small government rhetoric has served to justify a radical enhancement of government power in the name of “freedom,” combined with a reckless agenda of tax cuts and deregulation which has resulted in an upward redistribution of wealth to the already wealthy while exploding the federal deficit.

But on the theoretical level, the construction of democracy-and-chaos as a system in which government must bow to the desires of individual citizens proved strangely persuasive. Despite its heavy burden of American exceptionalism, it has won over other nations, as well. Even the anti-globalization protesters who chanted “This is what democracy looks like” in Seattle in 1999 were expressing a faith that the true spirit of democracy resides not in the formal structures of government but in individual actions.

This extreme subordination of democracy to chaos is, to be sure, not greatly different from the way in which reason became the handmaid of science in the reason-and-science partnership of the late 1800’s — or the way science was reduced to a means of engineering the affluent society in the science-and-democracy vision of the mid-20th century.

But for those of us raised in the final days of democratic idealism in the 1950’s and early 60’s, it has been particularly painful to see the democracy vision reduced to a banal formula of free enterprise and meaningless consumer “choice,” or to find free elections becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of an onslaught of corporate financing.

At this point, though, there’s no going back. The democracy vision has suffered a series of body blows from which it will not recover — and the Citizens United decision of January 2010 may come to be reckoned the moment at which it died.

The institutions of self-government are not about to vanish, of course, any more than the practice of scientific thought and experiment ended when the science vision failed in the 1960’s. But the belief that democracy possesses a kind of magical power to vanquish the evils of tyranny and corruption and shape a better future for everyone is gone beyond recalling.

As democracy fails, the democracy-and-chaos partnership is also coming unwound — which means that the chaos vision will soon be set adrift, as democracy was in the late 60’s, and no longer serve as a roadmap by which the society charts its course.

Even now, chaos has largely degenerated into a justification for individualism run amok, while providing almost a parody of its original faith in intuition and instinct. Present-day devotees of the chaos vision see no value beyond personal self-indulgence, no possibility of a common good on either the social or the environmental level, and only elitism in any suggestion that there might be a better method than gut instinct to formulate national policy.

This kind of last-ditch devotion to chaos has now become the exclusive territory of the right wing in America, which appears determined to defend it at all costs, even if it means throwing the most historical achievements of the democracy vision overboard.

But whether it is Tea Partiers aping the chaos-based counterculture of the 60’s, right down to the tie-dye shirts and calls for civil disobedience, or Republican senators doing their best to paralyze the federal government, all this frantic oppositionism is doomed to irrelevance.

Over the next decade or so, the chaos vision will undergo the same series of humiliations as the democracy vision did between 1966 and 1976. First it will be shunted aside, as newer visions race ahead in a holism-based counterculture. And then it will manage to disgrace itself even further, before finally being allowed to return in a much altered and diminished form as the humble servant of holism.

But the construction of chaos-and-holism is unlikely to be directed by the desires of the United States, which may even remain lost in a haze of nostalgia for democracy-and-chaos as the rest of the world moves on.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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