One thing I’ve noticed about “progressive” or left-wing analyses of American politics is an absence of any critique of the people who inhabit this great nation of ours. The government is always fair game, but there is some sort of mystique about The American People (TAP). Uttering this phrase, writes Fareed Zakaria, is tantamount to announcing a divine visitation; anything has the force of biblical revelation if it is ascribed to this mystical, all-knowing entity. Thus Noam Chomsky, for example, believes that there is a “democracy gap” between this (potentially) enlightened population and its evil masters; that popular consent has been “manufactured”; and that if we (= who, exactly?) could only remove the wool that is covering their eyes, they would reject the government and institute some form of democratic socialism. In a more generally populist vein, Michael Moore seems to believe something similar: Americans are inherently decent and rational, they’ve just been led astray.
And yet evidence for a “democracy gap” is quite shaky. True, Americans finally turned against the war in Iraq (if they even think about it anymore), but this happened only when it was clear that we were losing; in the beginning, they were all on board. And polls that claim to show, for example, that we want socialized medicine are extremely misleading, because polling results typically depend on how the question is phrased. “Should everyone be entitled to health insurance?” The answer will be (has been) an overwhelming Yes. “Would you be willing to be taxed for it?” Well No, not really. “Do you believe in socialized medicine?” “Arrgh! Socialism! Get thee behind me, satan!” Etc.
PERSONALLY, I suspect there are limits to the “manufactured consent” argument, because I believe that TAP really do want, in Janice Joplin’s words, a Mercedes Benz, and that this is their vision of the good life. In my forthcoming book, Why America Failed, I quote from George Walden’s aptly titled study, God Won’t Save America: Psychosis of a Nation: “The peculiarities of nations, good and bad, tend to reflect the temperaments and qualities of their peoples. As Plato remarked, where else would they have come from?” When my editor saw this, he wrote in the margin: “This is the turning point of the book.”
Locating the problem within the “soul” (such as it is) of TAP is of course not very popular among so-called progressives, because once that reality is admitted, it becomes clear that there is no fabulous future, socialist or populist or genuinely democratic, awaiting us. If it were merely a question of eliminating Reagan or Bush Jr. or Obama in favor of a truly humane regime, then we could retain our optimism—freedom is “just around the corner,” as the historian Walter McDougall once put it. But if the problem is 310 million people sitting around dreaming of the day they’ll have a Mercedes Benz, then you can kiss the optimistic vision goodbye: TAP are getting the government they actually want. The “wool” covering their eyes proved to be—their eyes!
As a result, even the most penetrating critiques of The American Way of Life omit any examination of TAP or play it down. William Appleman Williams, for example, does say at one point that in the nineteenth century, merchants, farmers, and artisans were all on board with the American imperial-expansionist program; but he doesn’t really develop the theme, because he still (1961) had some hope for a democratic socialist state. The best one can find on the subject are a few desultory remarks, such as are tucked away in the pages of Sheldon Wolin’sDemocracy Incorporated. This is an extremely important book, because it examines the nuts and bolts of how “The Matrix” arose, and how it operates; but for the most part, Wolin’s focus is on the elites, the ruling class, as the critical factor. However, if we gather his remarks about TAP all in one place, a more comprehensive (deeper and disturbing) picture of our situation takes shape as a result. I’ll list them in the order that they appear in the book; you see what you think.
►(Quoting from George Kennan, 1947): “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security which keeps this evil genius down….If confidence and security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place.”
►(On Iraq): “…to support a war…that bears responsibility for the deaths of thousands of innocents, reduced to rubble a nation which had done us no harm, and burdened coming generations with a shameful and costly legacy—without generating massive revulsion and resistance.”
►“The lesson of Hobbes and Tocqueville can be boiled down to a brief but chilling dictum: concentrated power, whether of a Leviathan, a benevolent despotism, or a superpower, is impossible without the support of a complicitous citizenry that willingly signs on to the covenant, or acquiesces, or clicks the ‘mute button’.”
►(On Iraq): “Does innocence mean not being implicated in wrongdoing such as torture of prisoners or the ‘collateral damage’ to hapless civilians? And is it that the citizens are innocent but not their leaders?…As citizens are we collaborationists? To collaborate is to cooperate; to be complicit is to be an accomplice.”
►(On the Bush “election” of 2000): “…an illegitimate president took office amidst scarcely a ripple of discontent.”
►“While 83 percent of Americans believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, only 28 percent admit to a belief in evolution.”
►“What is democracy doing bearing the stigma of empire?….recall that the American citizenry has a long history of being complicit in the country’s imperial ventures. The imperial impulse is not a tic afflicting only the few….Foreign observers, such as Tocqueville , were struck by the appearance of a new kind of citizen: mobile, adventurous, highly competitive, and often brutal.”
►(Quoting Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council): “In a general election, the candidate with the most hopeful message is going to win it. Most people in the U.S. want to be rich, they want to get ahead, and that’s why an opportunity-oriented message works.”
►“For their part American citizens are expected to support the project of imposing democracy [on the rest of the world] while remaining in denial of their own complicity in ravaging foreign populations and economies.”
►(On Iraq): “Fault is attributed exclusively to the White House, never to the citizenry for its unthinking support of the venture. If, by luck, the war had been won as quickly as the administration assumed…it would be, would ‘democracy’ have even blinked? Not only did the citizens endorse the president’s war by reelecting him; in 2000 that same citizenry watched supinely as the Bush team defied the electorate and achieved a political coup….Much as one is justified in blaming Bush and his coterie, one also needs to figure in the culpability, complicity, and apathy of the citizenry.”
►(On Iraq): “…there was the political loss of nerve among Democrats, the press, and the punditry, a failure so profound as to call into question the health of the political system as a whole. That failure extended to all but a minority of the citizenry; the vast majority waved an occasional flag and then, when possible, heeded the advice of their leader to ‘fly, consume, spend’.”
►“In 2006, two years after the lie of Saddam’s WMDs had been exposed, the percentage of Americans who continued to believe that there were such weapons in Iraq increased from 35 to 50, and a near majority believed in links between Saddam and al Qaeda, lack of evidence notwithstanding.”
This is all I could find in a book of 300 pages, but these quotes are enough to suggest that Wolin understands that there are limits to blaming the ruling class. TAP aren’t very far from the elites in terms of values or world view, as it turns out.
At the conclusion of the book, Wolin tries to suggest what it would take to get our democracy back. This kind of optimistic prediction is obligatory in today’s market: TAP wants to hear a solution, even if none exists. Hence after demonstrating, in extenso, that we are totally screwed, the author will conclude his or her discussion by pulling a rabbit out of a hat at the eleventh hour. To his credit, Wolin does this only half-heartedly; he’s far too smart to believe that we can turn our situation around. Thus he says that the recovery of democracy depends first and foremost upon TAP changing themselves, “sloughing off their political passivity and, instead, acquiring some of the characteristics of a demos. That means creating themselves, coming-into-being by virtue of their own actions.” How this miracle is going to occur is of course never spelled out, and in fact two pages later Wolin writes:
“While the project of reinvigorating democracy may strike the reader as utopian, it requires an accompanying, even more utopian project: to encourage and nurture a counter elite of democratic public servants.” He didn’t quite write “when pigs fly” at the end of the book, but the implication is clearly there.
So there we have it: TAP exposed as complicitous in all these events, and in the actions of corporate and military elites. There is no “democracy gap,” in a word; the elites and TAP have essentially the same vision, and decency and rationality don’t figure big in it. Both have acted to create the America that we live in, the America that is now dying—by our own hand. And thus, as Wolin is reluctantly forced to admit, any talk of fundamental change, of a different sort of nation, is little more than fantasy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, and was the first recipient of the annual Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review. During 2003-6 he was Visiting Professor in Sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Dr. Berman relocated to Mexico in 2006, and during 2008-9 was a Visiting Professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico City.
©Morris Berman, 2011
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