[Column] “Democracy Reborn” will not happen under Biden

Posted on : 2020-11-16 17:43 KST Modified on : 2020-11-16 17:43 KST
True change in the US seems almost infeasible at this point
US President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris give a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7. (Yonhap News)
US President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris give a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7. (Yonhap News)

“Democracy Reborn” (the title of a book from 2007 by the historian Garrett Epps) is used in the US historiography to designate the time after the Civil War when all progressives joined forces to add the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment provided black Americans with full citizenship and prohibited any state from denying any citizen equal protection under the law. It changed almost every detail of the US public life, which is why scholars even call it the "Second Constitution."

It was not a reconciliation between the victorious North and the defeated South but a new unity imposed by the winner, a big step forward towards universal emancipation. Did something similar not happen in Chile with the victory of Apruebo in the referendum? The process of changing the constitution approved by the large majority does not aim only at getting rid of the Pinochet legacy and return to the pre-Pinochet “democratic” era: it wants to inaugurate a more radical change, a new stage in emancipation. Here also, “democracy reborn” is not a return to some old idealized state but a radical break with the entire past.

In the Trump era, the USA was again de facto in a state of ideological-political civil war between the populist new right and the liberal-democratic center, with even occasional threats of physical violence. Now that Trump’s authoritarian populism has been defeated, is there a chance for a new “democracy reborn” in the USA? Unfortunately, this slim chance was lost with the marginalization of “democratic socialists” (Bernie Sanders, AOC, etc.) — only the alliance of the leftist liberals with democratic socialists may have pushed the process of democratic emancipation a step further.

Not only is it that, with Senate remaining in the hands of the Republicans and the Supreme Court with the conservative majority, Biden as the new president will have very limited hands and will not be able to impose any serious change; the problem is even more that Biden himself is a “moderate” agent of the economic and political establishment who is horrified by being accused of socialist tendencies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was thus fully justified when, in a post-election interview, she broke the truce and criticized the Democratic Party for incompetence, warning that if the Biden administration does not put progressives in top positions, the party would lose big in the 2022 midterm elections.

The US is now almost symmetrically divided, and Biden’s words of unity and reconciliation sound vacuous — as Robert Reich put it: “How can Biden heal America when Trump doesn’t want it healed?” And this division is here to stay: “Trump was no accident. And the America that made him is still with us.” It is thus quite possible that, in the same way that the post-Civil War “democracy reborn” ended up with a compromise with anti-black southern democrats which prolonged anti-black racism for a whole century until the 1960s, something similar will happen after a couple of years of Biden reign.

But the outcome of the elections is not just a stalemate — there is a clear winner: big capital and the “deep state” apparatuses, from Google and Microsoft to the FBI and the National Security Agency. From their standpoint, a weak Biden presidency with the Senate in Republican hands is the best possible outcome: without Trump’s eccentricities, international trade and political cooperation will get back to pre-Trump normality, while the Senate and the Supreme Court will block any radical measures. The paradox is thus that, in the US, the victory of the “progressive” side was at the same time its loss, a political stalemate which may even give Trump a chance to return to power in 2024.

How Trump seduced half the American public

This is why, precisely at the moment of Trump’s defeat, we should ask how he was able to seduce half of the American people. One reason is undoubtedly the feature that he shares with Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ supporters are fiercely loyal to him — as they say, once you go Bernie you never go back. There is no mystic affection here, just recognition that he really addresses them and their troubles, that he really understands them — in clear contrast to most other Democratic candidates. It’s not a matter of realism or the feasibility of Sanders’ program, it is that he touches a raw nerve of his partisans. Can a voter worried about what will happen if (or, rather, when) someone in her or his family gets really sick, seriously claim that Bloomberg or Biden really understands him or her?

And Trump is here superficially similar to Sanders: although his solidarity with ordinary people is mostly limited to obscene vulgarities, he also addresses their everyday worries and fears in simple terms, giving the impression that he really cares for them and respects their dignity. One has to admit that, even in his dealing with the pandemic, Trump cunningly adopted such a “human” approach: he tried to maintain calm, telling people that the epidemic will be over and that they can go on with their ordinary lives. Once I wrote that Biden is Trump with a human face, more civilized and kind, but one can also say the opposite: Trump is Biden with a human face — where, of course, “humanity” is reduced to its minimum of common vulgarities and insults, in the same sense that a common drunkard who babbles nonsense is more “human” that an expert talking about complex formulas.

Small hope is the US is no longer the world’s hegemon

Now we are at such a low point that getting a president who will not change anything is the most we can hope for. The only group that deserves to be celebrated as heroes is the people who simply ignored the violent threats of Trump’s partisans and calmly went on with their job of counting votes — such praise is usually reserved for the “rogue states” where a peaceful transfer of power is a cause for celebration.

The only small hope is that an unintended result of the Trump era may survive: the partial withdrawal of the US from global politics. The US will have to accept that they are just another state in a new multi-centric world. This is the only way for all of us to avoid the humiliating situation of following with fear the counting of the votes in the US, as if the fate of the entire world depends on a couple of thousands of American ignoramuses.

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek

By Slavoj Zizek, philosopher

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