Our democracy is shaken by the extreme right today, and racism lies at the bottom of the fears and antagonisms that have been used to stir up violent actions and threats against our government and our democratic institutions. Republican leaders, Fox News executives and personalities, incendiary conspiracy-theory followers, ordinary Americans everywhere … step back from the precipice, recall for yourselves what our American democracy can be, and step back to embrace the democratic values that we all must share. Dr. King helped us with his vision and his activism. But more than fifty years after his murder, our country has not embraced the vision of equality and multi-racial democracy for which he advocated, and for which he gave his life.
Here is a beautiful contribution to the NPR Story Corps that records Clara Jean Ester’s memory of being present for Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis and his assassination at the Lorraine Motel (link). It is an amazing piece of historical memory and deeply moving.
And here is a short excerpt from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, in which he speaks of the arc of history (link). It speaks to a fundamental confidence in the eventual triumph of the struggle for freedom and equality. Was Dr. King right?
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. MLK, March 31, 1968
Paul Roth is distinguished professor of philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Roth has written extensively on the philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and the history of analytic philosophy. His most recent book is The Philosophical Structure of Historical Explanation (Northwestern, 2019). Thank you, Paul, for this substantive contribution. (Interested readers can find further discussion of Neil Gross’s sociological treatment of Rorty and the history of analytic philosophy in these earlier posts; link, link.)
“I am sometime told, by critics from both ends of the political spectrum, that my views are so weird as to be merely frivolous. They suspect that I will say anything to get a gasp, that I am just amusing myself by contradicting everybody else. This hurts. . . . Perhaps this bit of autobiography will make clear that, even if my views about the relation of philosophy and politics are odd, they were not adopted for frivolous reasons.”
“Trotsky and Wild Orchids”
Richard Rorty, consummate ironist that he was, doubtless would have found amusing what Neil Gross offers as an account of the development of his (Rorty’s) thought. “My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosophy to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. . .. [I]n stressing the role play by self-concept in my account, . . . self-concepts themselves are thoroughly social.” (18) But the shift so characterized cannot plausibly be ascribed to Rorty’s intellectual self-concept. For that would require first situating Rorty as a “technically oriented” analytic philosopher. Absent that, there would be literally nothing for Gross to explain. And this turns out to be a central problem with Gross’s book. For even a casual examination of Rorty’s oeuvre gives lie to thought that his self-concept significantly shifts, much less between the points Gross specifies. Rorty never occupies the initial position Gross ascribes to him.
Rorty’s doctoral thesis was hardly the stuff of “technically oriented philosophy.” Gross acknowledges this. Moreover, what little actual evidence does Gross cite to support his “shift” hypotheses disappears under examination. Consider in this regard Gross’s characterization of Rorty’s now-famous 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [hereafter cited as PMN] in relation to Rorty’s previous writings. “In his earlier analytic work Rorty might have been seen as a philosopher of mind. By contrast, the goal [of PMN] . . . was to undermine the notion that mind is something ‘about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view’”. (18) But what “early analytic work” can Gross be referencing? Try squaring Gross’s remark just cited with one by Rorty from the very first essay anthologized in Consequences of Pragmatism, viz. “The World Well Lost.” Original place of publication? The Journal of Philosophy, then as now one of the highest profile and most prestigious publication venues in the discipline. Original date of publication? 1972. What words does Rorty pen there? “Now, to put my cards on the table, I think that the realistic true believer’s notion of the world is an obsession rather than an intuition. I also think that Dewey was right in thinking that the only intuition we have of the world determining truth is just we must make our new beliefs conform to a vast body of platitudes, unquestioned perceptual reports, and the like.” (CP 13-14) [Note 1] The substance here simply does not differ from what PMN develops at great length. Rather, it plays themes that Rorty emphasizes early to late.
In order to enhance the supposed novelty of the views advocated in PMN, Gross asserts just a few pages later that “It was not in [PMN] but in the essays republished in Consequences of Pragmatism that Rorty fully identified his intellectual project with pragmatism.” (21) But this makes no sense. The essays published in Consequences of Pragmatism almost all predate the publication PMN, and typically by many years. Indeed, Consequences of Pragmatism has as its subtitle ‘(Essays: 1972-1980)’! No doubt some of these writings were coincident with the writing of PMN. In any case, Gross’s own citations defy his characterization of Rorty as a devotee of “technically oriented philosophy” in the years prior to the publication of PMN. This bears on what I insist to be the critical point: Rorty was never a practitioner or devotee of “technically oriented philosophy.” His interests are metaphilosophical from early to late.
But as they say on numerous infomercials: Wait, there’s more! As noted above, Gross’s thesis rests on establishing Rorty’s “parting of the ways” with his strategically embrace analytic self-conception. Such a shift in intellectual orientation might plausibly be taken to be fruitfully examined “as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the worthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output.” (234) But for this to be other than a vapid truism, much less an understanding of Rorty’s writings in the 60s and the 70s (the period central to Gross’s argument regarding the shift in his intellectual orientation), Gross must establish that “Accounting for Rorty’s intellectual trajectory thus means understanding not only why, in the 1970s, he became a critic of the analytic paradigm but also why he became a champion of it after leaving graduate school.” (308) But yet another key problems looms into view just here: what is this so-called ‘analytic paradigm’? For it hardly seems fitting to argue about who is or is not one, much less who left the fold or who joined it, without having some principled way of ruling people in or out. This is complicated by the fact that people who were self-described pragmatists, e.g., Charles Morris, saw differences but not gulfs between pragmatism (the view towards which Rorty supposedly shifts) and, e.g., logical positivism, certainly one form taken under any description in the evolution of analytic philosophy. Likewise, neither Quine nor Sellars ever stood accused of having abandoned any analytic paradigm, their criticisms of analyticity and givenness notwithstanding. Quine especially has his own casual way of using the term ‘pragmatism’ as descriptive of his own work. In short, lacking any precise characterization of what counts as analytic philosophy, and so what does or does not qualify one for club membership, arguments such as Gross’s that presume a clear working contrast between “analytic philosophy” and “pragmatism” are doomed to be non-starters.
The quote from Rorty’s review of Cornman in endnote 1 provides a fundamental clue regarding what made Rorty a philosophically compelling figure from the outset. If one wishes to trot out someone who fits the Grossian mold of a hard-headed analytic philosopher of that period, James Cornman would be as good a candidate as any. But does Rorty ever write like that? No! What Rorty does, and precisely what makes him so very, very special, is his ability to read people like Cornman and write about them as only he (Rorty) can. Rorty turns Cornman into a pragmatist manqué. I always warn students when I assign Rorty that one reads Rorty to learn about Rorty, not the person about whom Rorty writes. Rorty’s special genius—and I mean that quite sincerely and not ironically—lies in his ability to pluck from the driest prose nuggets that illustrate points near and dear to Rorty’s heart. In other words, what endeared Rorty to those educated or in the process of being educated into analytic philosophy was not about Rorty as an analytic philosopher, but because of his own special way of reading and writing about standard analytic philosophy. He could make it all seem interesting and relevant again. In this difference between what Rorty writes about and Rorty’s own writing that explains what philosophers heard in Rorty’s voice and so accounts for his early success.
A more general example of how wrong Gross gets things can be found in Ch. 7 of his book, at the point Gross imagines Rorty’s intellectual arc to begin to bend. Gross opines that “Rorty went through a significant transition in the early 1960s: from being primarily a metaphilosopher, as he was at Wellesley, to also contributing substantively to analytic debates.” (184) A page later, Gross attempts to fill out this sketch by insisting that Rorty’s work on mind-body identity and related problems “are best read as a distinct piece of his oeuvre. They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s effort to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment.” (185) Gross also asserts that “it is also apparent that with The Linguistic Turn he threw his hat in with the analysts.” (184, emphasis mine) But the articles on mind-body are of a piece with Rorty’s review of Cornman; they dissolve or dismiss the problems. Moreover, the last quoted remark bears special scrutiny, since it speaks telling against Gross’s grip on his working categories.
I would begin by noting that when first published The Linguistic Turn was not widely reviewed. The Philosopher’s Index as well as a web page maintained on Rorty’s writing reveal only two or three reviews in Anglo-American philosophy journals. While generally favorable, no reviewer reads the volume as some endorsement of linguistic philosophy. Nor should they have. The book bears the subtitle, “Recent Essays in Philosophical Method.” This signals how it connects with Rorty’s lifelong metaphilosophical concerns. Indeed, Rorty entitles his introductory essay “Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy.” NB: ‘Difficulties.’ One might think that Gross would take this to heart, especially with the advantage of knowing how Rorty’s later writings emphasize just these themes, and in light of the professional reception of and hostility to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
What evidence does Gross provide that Rorty at the time of writing the introduction to The Linguistic Turn had “threw his hat in with the analysts”? It consists of a sole quote from Rorty’s introduction to the effect that “linguistic philosophy . . . has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition . . . on the defensive. . . . This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.” (quoted by Gross 184). Gross apparently finds this a wholesale endorsement of linguistic philosophy. This despite Rorty stating at the opening of his “Preface” that “This anthology provides materials which show various ways in which linguistic philosophers have viewed philosophy and philosophical method over the last thirty-five years. I have attempted to exhibit the reasons which originally led philosophers . . . to adopt linguistic methods, the problems they faced in defending their conception of philosophical inquiry, alternative solutions to these problems, and the situation in which linguistic philosophers now find themselves.” (emphasis mine) Rorty references those classified as “linguistic philosophers” (the volume includes a rather heterodox collection by any standard) in no way that suggests that he identifies with this group. And how could even a causal reader of the introductory essay that follows immediately upon the “Preface” just quoted not fail to note the lead sentence: “The history of philosophy is punctuated by revolts against the practices of previous philosophers and by attempts to transform philosophy into a science”? In the second paragraph, Rorty then writes: “Every philosophical rebel has tried to be ‘presuppositionless,’ but none has succeeded.” About a page later, he observes “It is more interesting to see, in detail, why philosophers think they have made progress, what criteria of progress they employ.” This sets the philosophical stage for the group of thinkers he has collected. In short, Rorty makes no secret of how he positions the people in the volume. “The purpose of the present volume is to provide materials for reflection on the most recent philosophical revolution, that of linguistic philosophy.” Nowhere does Rorty suggest that this revolution has succeeded where the others have failed. Nowhere does Rorty endorse it. Indeed, in his penultimate paragraph, Rorty tenders the following characteristic judgment: “Ever since Plato invented the subject, philosophers have been in a state of tension produced by the pull of the arts on one side and the pull of the sciences on the other. The linguistic turn has not lessened this tension, although it has enabled us to be considerably more self-conscious about it. The chief value of the metaphilosophical discussions included in this volume is that they serve to heighten this self-consciousness.” (The Linguistic Turn, 38) This counts as Rorty effort to foster his standing as a hard-headed analytic philosopher? Rorty’s writings from early to late wear their metaphilosophical concerns on their sleeve.
In short, the shift on which Gross predicates his entire analysis simply does not exist. It is not there in the words or the topics on which Rorty writes. Rorty from early to late worries the metaphilosophical questions canvassed in the introduction to that volume. What can philosophy hope to accomplish? Does there exist some special class of philosophical facts, such that philosophical theories can be judged by their relative success in accounting for these? Moreover and with equal consistency, the philosophers who most attracted Rorty—later Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars—are precisely those who cast the most powerful aspersions on the view that there were such philosophical facts or special philosophical methods. Rorty’s nascent doubts and skepticism in this regard did not spring full flower from his head, however present they were from early on. His introduction to The Linguistic Turn as well as the essay collected in The Consequences of Pragmatism powerfully testify to how these questions develop and mature. But he has these characteristic doubts on full display from at least the mid-60s.
How then to understand the place of Rorty in his time? As I have argued elsewhere (“Undisciplined and Punished,” History and Theory (2018) 57:121-136), the interesting and important person with whom to compare Rorty in this specific regard is Hayden White. Why? Both managed to effectively write themselves out of their respective disciplines and to make themselves world-famous, in effect, in the process of becoming pariahs to their fellow professionals. Both sinned against their disciplines by denying disciplinary pretension to timeless norms or some royal road to truth and knowledge. White never held an appointment in a conventional history department once he moved to the History of Consciousness program at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Indeed, the History Department there refused to provide him with a joint appointment. Likewise, once Rorty left Princeton, he never again held a position in a philosophy department. Ironically, Rorty and White finish their academic careers teaching in Comparative Literature at Stanford. Metaphilosophy and metahistory can, it seems, be tolerated nowhere else but in literary studies.
Rorty’s writings do shift, but that change reflects his stated desire to become more of a public intellectual as well as to demonstrate “philosophy by other means.” In this regard, had Gross paid attention to, e.g., how Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity differs in substance and style from PMN and yet represents an important continuation of Rorty’s argument with and against philosophy as currently practiced, he might have learned something interesting about Rorty and his place in the academic constellation.
In his great essay “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Sellars writes “It is therefore, the ‘eye on the whole’ which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise. . . . To the extent that a specialist is more concerned to reflect on how his work as a specialist joins up with other intellectual pursuits, than in asking and answering questions within his specialty, he is said, properly, to be philosophically-minded.” Rorty remains from beginning to end “philosophically-minded” in just this sense: he kept his “eye on the whole.” And yet none of the foregoing remarks deny a sociologically important dimension to Rorty’s academic fate. But the arc to be followed and that calls for explanation is not the one Gross imagines transcribed in the record. Rather, the issue posed concerns first and foremost just why Rorty and White come to be so shunned by their fellow professionals. Their fates—disciplinary exile–sends a powerful message regarding what questions can or, more importantly, seemingly cannot be broached in polite academic company. Accounting for this remains the key unanswered question, for it stands as a chilling lesson to lesser lights who might ponder raising such issues.
A further and related question concerns just why what Rorty wrote and said resonated so strongly within and without the profession. Almost 50 years on, I still recall being in the audience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago when I heard Rorty remark that he regarded philosophy as just a form of kibbitzing. I do not know if this appears anywhere in his writings, but I quote it to this day. I remember too the outrage and disdain his remark incited.
What made Rorty a heroic figure for many of us thus involves the polar opposite of the position that Gross maintains. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that philosophy is just a form of conversation, Rorty raised questions about what philosophy could hope to do that went to the heart of what many of us worried then and now.
Rorty possessed a unique voice—especially eloquent, enviably learned, and remarkably witty. In a sentence or two he could articulate fundamental issues that cut at the very heart of what academic philosophy pretends to. [Note 2] The sociological tale to be told about Rorty concerns how he had the wherewithal to write himself out of a place of privilege. Imagining his career as moving from “hard-headed analytic philosopher” to “leftist patriot” fails even as the crudest caricature of this person and his work. (For more on Rorty’s politics, see my “Politics and epistemology: Rorty, MacIntyre, and the ends of philosophy,” History of the Human Sciences (1989) 2:171-191.) What makes Rorty the person and Rorty’s career so fascinating concerns not how he got to Princeton but his choice to leave.
I both witnessed and read the abuse he suffered for the positions that he maintained. Rorty’s significance lies in no small part in how he remained true to his interests from early to late despite the powerful constraints imposed by conventional academic discourse and the comforts bestowed by a high prestige appointment. He defined himself by walking away from that to which many aspire but very few obtain. To not see the determination and courage that takes constitutes a type of cognitive dissonance, a peculiar tone deafness to a powerful and unmistakable cri de cœur. With regard to the issues that concerned him, Rorty only ever spoke in one way and always in his in own distinctive voice. His passing marks the day the music died.
1. Lest readers worry that I am “cherry-picking” quotes, consider the following from even earlier piece: “we [can] abandon some of Cornman’s terminology and restate what I take to be the essence of his view more informally. . . . Therefore (iv) the pragmatic test Cornman proposes is all that we can have, and all that we need. More specifically, since neither ‘meaning analysis’ nor ‘replacement analysis’ works, we must either adopt ‘use analysis,’ properly supplemented by such a pragmatically justified theory of reference, or admit that there is no rational method of dealing with ‘ontological’ problems. . . . I heartily agree with almost all of this”. (Richard Rorty, “Review of Metaphysics, Reference, and Language, James W. Cornman”, The Journal of Philosophy (1967) 64:770-774, 772.) Rorty a technical analytic philosopher of mind? Seriously?
2. A favorite, from his 1979 APA Presidential Address republished in Consequences of Pragmatism: “Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (CP 166)
We have understood for quite a while that there are dangerous anti-democratic forces in America today — hate-based organizations, right-wing militias, anti-government extremists, white suprematists, Proud Boys and Boogaloo provocateurs, and Republican politicians who care only about maintaining their political positions and power. And of course, we have a president who has complete contempt and disdain for the values and institutions of a functioning democracy. But up until now we’ve had a certain degree of confidence in the “guard rails” of our democracy — right up until January 6.
On January 6 it became clear that our democracy is even more at risk than all of this suggests. These risks are of course with us every day, and have worsened steadily since 2016. But on January 6 it became clear that there is a much larger army of shock troops ready for the call by the Leader to attack every aspect of our democracy they can reach. There are the extremist groups monitored by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center — the Three Percenters, the militia groups, the Oath Keepers, the white supremacists. They have not changed their attitudes or purposes, though they have become more bold and visible about their intentions. The insane conspiracy to kidnap and harm the Governor of Michigan seemed vicious but safely on the fringe. Now it seems that these few extremists were just the tip of the iceberg. What has apparently changed is the political world of very large numbers of “ordinary” voters in almost all parts of America.
This seems almost like a form of collective psychosis — like a witch craze on a massive scale, immune from normal reality checks. People interviewed at the Capitol after the insurrection — even people who did not enter the building and probably would not have done so — continue to defend the “revolution” they see underway in the hands of these white supremacists and violent extremists. The sight of many thousands of angry, shouting Trump-ites in their MAGA caps demanding the annulment of an entirely honest election, and seeing the power of this mob to breach and desecrate the US Capitol — and to see the sinister men in the Capitol chambers in military gear and zip ties evidently hunting for high-value hostages — this is to see the threat to our democracy in a wholly different light. This transforms the violent rhetoric of right-wing social media from theatre to script. And there seem to be tens of millions of Americans who are sympathetic to and supportive of these actions.
We know who is responsible for this vast catastrophe: the president’s lies and repetition of unfounded conspiracies, the members of the GOP who have supported and confirmed these lies, the social media platforms that have turned right wing conspiracies into an infectious disease, and media personalities who have built their careers on this kind of conspiracy mongering. And the result is a very sizable part of our citizenry who are entirely disaffected from the values of our democracy and the legitimacy of our government.
It is clear that the role of the police in maintaining order will be critical in the near future. To say that a democracy depends on the security of a system of law is a truism, and when individuals and groups resort to violence in pursuit of their political goals, it is crucial that there should be effective, controlled, and properly managed police to restrain them. It is a fundamental government responsibility to preserve the safety of the public, including in particular the safety of likely targets of terrorist violence. This means that government buildings — state houses, the Capitol, government office buildings —must be protected. It is therefore astounding that legislators in states like Michigan have so far been incapable of summoning the political will to ban weapons from the Michigan state house — creating the possibility that the next invasion of the state house in Lansing will lead to bloodshed by men armed with semi-automatic rifles. When armed groups threaten to use violence against other citizens, against the representatives of the state, and against our political institutions, it is inescapable that a democracy requires the ability to use police force to defeat that violence. And it goes without saying — a democracy requires a properly regulated system of policing that assures lawful exercise of force, neutral and unbiased enforcement of the law, and an effective and vigilant commitment throughout the policing hierarchy to controlling the misuse of force by police officers.
This also means appropriate use of intelligence gathering about violent groups and their intentions: when groups announce their intention to attack officials, citizens, or locations, it is a responsibility of law enforcement agencies to gather and assess information about these indications of plans for future action. Here too a democracy requires legal constraints — which we have in the US system of constitution and law — but it is frankly incomprehensible that Federal and local police authorities were unaware of threats of violence in the weeks preceding January 6 that were fully visible to a number of domestic terrorism research centers around the country.
Effective policing is a necessary condition for social stability; but it is only a beginning. It is crucial for our country — leaders, organizations, parties, and citizens — to regain our footing in a commitment to truth rather than lies, evidence-based assessments rather than conspiracy theories, and a level of toleration and trust that should be the starting point for the great majority of our population. At the moment neither condition is satisfied: the Trump movement is driven by conspiracy theories and lies, and its followers have essentially zero levels of toleration and trust for the other members of our society — both political leaders and ordinary citizens — who do not share their worldview. It is crucial to reverse this reality — and yet it is very hard to see how that is going to happen, when the far right continues to maintain the same lies about corruption, election theft, and betrayal that produced this level of disaffection in the first place.
A very good start would be a breakup of the Republican Party between those Republicans who believe in the conservative values of the GOP and those who wish to continue to espouse far-right, white supremacist and extremist political views. There are clearly a good number of elected Republican officials who would be ready to follow such an initiative towards a re-establishment of a sane conservative political party. Let them stand for their political and social values, and let them speak honestly about the values of our constitutional democracy and the crucial priority of truth in political speech. Conservativism should not be the same as hate, it should not endorse racism, and it should support rather than undermine the values of our constitutional democracy.
A second valuable step would be election reforms that increase voter access and participation, decrease gerrymandering, and institute voting systems that work to decrease the importance of party affiliation and the primary process. Alaska’s newly implemented rank-choice voting system is a good example. It is well recognized that our current system of primaries — within the setting of gerrymandered districts — favors extreme candidates over more moderate candidates.
There is the deeper question still to be answered: what are the circumstances in the United States over the past several decades that have led to such a dissolution of support and adherence to democratic norms and values within much of our population? Any observer is likely to identify many of the same factors: the facts of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society; growing economic insecurity and inequality for large numbers of people; and the rise of unprincipled politicians on the right who have been willing to use hate-based appeals to generate support for their own political fortunes. It is crucial to rebuild mass support for our multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy, and increasing economic opportunity and justice is one important pathway for doing so.
In a recent post I considered Hannah Arendt’s reflections on what she termed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Her observations in The Origins of Totalitarianism amount to less than a developed theory of a political system, and more of a case study of two unusual political regimes that did their ugliest work at roughly the same time in history. Are there any themes in Arendt’s observations that seem relevant to the current day, and the political experience of the last four years of the presidency of Donald Trump?
Plainly the United States did not become a dictatorship during the Trump years; it did not witness mass violence against “potential enemies of the state”; it did not result in the wholesale transformation of Federal police agencies into the private secret police of the Leader. The term “totalitarian” cannot be applied to the United States in 2020. The rule of law was repeatedly flouted by Trump and his administration, but in the end Trump did not prevail in his most authoritarian impulses.
And yet there are a number of worrisome parallels between Arendt’s diagnosis of the workings of the National Socialist and Soviet regimes and the political developments we have witnessed in the United States since 2017. Here are several that seem salient.
Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or world-view, often involving racism and social division. It is Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is defined by ideology, whether left or right, secular or religious, coherent or incoherent. Hitler’s commitment to world hegemony and his profound program of anti-Semitism constituted an ideological system which governed virtually all actions of the Nazi regime, according to Arendt. Likewise, the Soviet Union was guided by a mish-mash theory of communism that it pursued at all costs. It is plain that Trumpism possesses an ideology and a worldview, and that this ideology has substantial components of racism, division, and hate. Moreover, Trump’s coterie has included ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who actively worked within the administration to turn the details of that ideology into policies and actions. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the premises of this worldview are odious to the majority of Americans, or that the policies that emanate from this worldview are objectively harmful to US economic and international interests; the ideology drives the actions of this administration. And it is quite clear that Trump’s base of supporters — perhaps 40% of voters — have bought into the ideology, thanks to the persistent propaganda offered by right-wing social media, YouTube conspiracy videos, Fox News, and Trump’s own Twitter feed.
Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions. Arendt documents the consistent strategies used by Hitler and Stalin to destroy institutional and legal obstacles to their will. Trump’s obvious and continuing contempt for the institutions of law, the processes of elections, and the judiciary makes plain his desire to cripple or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that interfere with his exercise of personal will. His willingness to assault the judiciary when it fails to support him and his relentless attacks on the press illustrate the same impulse.
Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives. Arendt documents the crucial role that violent paramilitary organizations played in the rise of Hitler to power, and to his continuing exercise of power. This appeal to illegal violent actions was subsequently incorporated into the workings of elite secret police groups like the SS. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the violent behavior of white supremacist groups who use violence and the threat of violence to press for Trump-ideology policies is well known. It seems evident that he welcomes threatening demonstrations by armed groups like the Proud Boys in support of his groundless claims of “election fraud”. And his administration’s appalling use of armed and anonymous Federal officers in unmarked vans to quell protests during the months of Black Lives Matter protests is very reminiscent of both Germany and the USSR during the worst times.
Fundamental deference to the Leader. Arendt argues that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR differed from other dictatorships in the extreme power and voice they created for the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. In Arendt’s view, both Hitler and Stalin were highly adept at preventing the emergence of possible coalitions of policy-makers, generals, or bureaucrats who could oppose their will; instead, the ultimate authority was in the hands of the Leader, and subordinates were subject to constant suspicion and threat of dismissal, arrest, or death. Trump hasn’t locked up his subordinates for perceived disloyalty; but he has taken consistent steps to take away the power of agencies (EPA, CDC, State Department, Interior, Voice of America), to appoint loyalists in every possible position, and to remove subordinates who failed to show the required level of deference to his Twitter preferences. His plain view is that he is “the decider” and that every office of government needs to follow his will.
Persistent use of lies and fabrications. Arendt refers to the worldview of the Nazis or the Stalinists as a false reality, a fake world, and the whole force of the propaganda tools of the party and state is devoted to making people believe the false narrative rather than the obvious truth. This is highly resonant with the experience of politics under Trump’s direction over the past four years. How many lies have Trump and his many spokespersons and advocates told since January 2017, beginning with lies about the size of the Inauguration crowd? The number is astounding. Some of the lies are laughable — crowd size, for example; and others are seriously dangerous to our democracy — lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Lying and fabrication are regarded as perfectly legitimate political tools by the Trumpist party, and the lies are believed by “true-believer” followers.
Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders. What about the other powerful actors in society — in the Weimar Republic during Hitler’s rise, or within the Communist Party before Stalin’s absolute hegemony was established? These independent sources of political power could not be tolerated by the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. They needed to be coopted, or they needed to be eliminated. Hitler and Stalin used both strategies. Trump has only needed the strategy of cooptation and intimidation; he has succeeded in threatening, intimidating, and coopting the members of his party to provide almost unconditional support for his most outrageous demands. This has been most evident during the period since November 3, when any honest observer will recognize that a fair election took place and Trump lost; whereas the vast majority of GOP legislators and other leaders have fallen in step behind Trump’s groundless claims about election fraud. (Here is an earlier discussion of the phenomenon of “collective abdication” in times of political crisis; link.)
Fellow-traveler organizations. Arendt maintains that Nazi and Soviet dictatorships differed from other forms of authoritarian states in their efforts to cultivate and convey power through “fellow traveler” organizations — social and political organizations that were not part of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, that were not visibly committed to the most extreme ideological positions of the party, and yet that were supportive of its ideological goals and positions. Arendt believes that this was a key mechanism through which these parties gained mass following — even when their actions were contrary to the interests of many of the men and women who supported the “fellow-traveler” organizations. This feature seems relevant to our current circumstances when one considers the common view, “I don’t support all of the President’s wildest views, but I like his style.”
So it turns out that Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s highlights a number of important features that are familiar from the political strategies of Trumpism. Trump’s presidency has involved a mass-based movement mobilized around a unified ideology that isprofoundly contemptuous of existing political institutions and that embraces the symbols and reality of political violence. Further, this movement is organized around a provocative and boundary-smashing Leader who promotes lies and fabrications as basic tools of political advancement, and who makes racist antagonism against a part of the population a central theme of mobilization. And we have the phenomenon of moral abdication by other leaders and political power-holders in the face of the Leader’s will — perverse and anti-democratic as it may be. Thus Arendt’s inventory of totalitarian methods shines a bright light on the perils Donald Trump has created for our democratic institutions, practices, and values. Donald Trump did not create a totalitarian state in America. But he and his collaborators embodied many of the techniques and practices that resulted in anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes in other countries in the last century, and they have created genuine risks for the future of our own institutions of liberal democracy.
Hannah Arendt was writing about other countries, and she wrote over fifty years ago about events that took place as long as eighty years ago. So maybe her observations are historically irrelevant to the politics of the present day. But recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contemporary fears for the trajectory and fate of American democracy in How Democracies Die:
But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.
Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)
Here is Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism in his very good book on the origin and dynamics of twentieth-century fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)
Paxton’s analysis is drawn from the history of Italian and German dictatorships; but the terms of this definition are disturbingly contemporary. Only the goal of “external expansion” finds no real counterpart in Trumpism; it is replaced by an aggressive doctrine of “America First!” as the keystone of international policy.
1 Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
2 Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.
3 Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.
6 Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.
20 Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.
Hannah Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory was her book on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her models were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union; in fact, she writes that “up to now we know only two authentic forms of totalitarian domination: the dictatorship of National Socialism after 1938, and the dictatorship of Bolshevism since 1930” (420). She wanted to understand how these regimes came to be, whether there were large historical forces that favored their emergence in the twentieth century, and the role that ideology, leadership, and power played in their execution. Her central idea was that totalitarianism is fundamentally an ideological system of thought adopted by a Leader and a network of “elite totalitarian organizations” who work single-mindedly to carry out the prescriptions of the ideology. In Nazi Germany the ideology was spelled out in Mein Kampf; in the Soviet Union it was Stalin’s version of Bolshevism — “socialism in one country” and the idea that every sacrifice is justified for the sake of future communist utopia. But Arendt remains surprisingly indefinite about how she conceptualizes totalitarianism. Here is the most succinct description that she offers of totalitarianism, and it occurs in the final chapter:
In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. (460)
The features mentioned here are total domination, distinctness from other forms of despotism, entirely new political institutions, destruction of social, legal, and political traditions of the country, mass movement, power in the hands of the secret police, and a foreign policy aimed at world domination. The Nazi and Soviet regimes are the central cases, so the reader is invited to understand that “totalitarianism is what regimes like these twentieth-century disasters share in common”. Racism, terror, propaganda, mass-politics, and ambitions of global conquest are mentioned by Arendt in the course of her narrative, but this falls short of a definition, and gives no idea about the political structure and mechanisms of the political systems she intends to study. Arendt doesn’t provide a clear, diagrammatic definition or discussion of totalitarianism as a functional political system.
So what does “total domination” come down to? It involves the idea of erasing all individual differences and creating a new form of human nature — SS man, Communist man — in which the individual’s creativity and spontaneity — freedom — are erased, and the individual becomes the embodiment of the ideology. It involves the idea of fully implementing the details of a worldview, perhaps mythological, that can be impressed upon every human being. What is maximal about totalitarian regimes is their complete effort to quench human freedom and independence of mind and action.
How does this domination take place? Through regulation, indoctrination, surveillance, terror, coercion, and extermination. Arendt gives extended treatments of three features of Nazi and Soviet regimes: the prominence of party and “front” organizations; the prominence and ubiquity of the organs of the secret police; and the extermination and concentration camps which serve, beyond their function of extermination, to extinguish the humanity of their inmates.
Is this enough to constitute a theory of totalitarianism as a form of government? It is not. Absolutist monarchy in France in the sixteenth century too asserted unfettered power and authority over its subjects, but of course this was a charade. The French crown lacked the tools of control and repression that would permit it to exercise unlimited dominion, and French society embodied social groups that possessed enough social and political power to insulate themselves from the unwelcome demands of the king. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and landed classes, the merchants, even the emerging urban population and their cousins in the countryside possessed meaningful mechanisms for securing themselves against capricious or ruinous demands from the monarch. This isn’t to say that the French monarchs had little power, but it is to say they lacked the ability to completely dominate the rest of society.
The aspirations of the National Socialist state in Germany and the Soviet state went vastly beyond these limits. Each state built the apparatus of surveillance and coercion that was needed in order to exercise total control over society. And each state likewise built powerful and effective mechanisms of propaganda and thought control of their populations that made the challenges of social control easier to surmount. The cult of the leader and the ideologies of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Communist utopianism were designed to secure some measure of willing acceptance from their populations, just as the marches, music, and images of fascist Italy were designed to elicit support for the fascist government and Mussolini. The elaboration of the apparatus of the bureaucracies of the secret police, the gathering of secret files, and the terrifying knock in the night rounded out the picture of the bureaucracy of total control. Orwell captured some aspects of this emerging system and Koestler articulated others (link).
There is another perspective along which these questions might be posed that focuses not on “totalitarianism” but considers the wider range of authoritarian states that were involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century, including fascism, military dictatorship, and authoritarian rule. Mussolini, Franco, and Tōjō Hideki all created authoritarian state apparatuses, each of which had both similarities with the Nazi German state and important differences. And, significantly, Spanish Fascism under Franco maintained a shaky neutrality in World War II. Arendt is quite definite that totalitarianism is different from authoritarian single-party rule, and it is distinct from fascism. Totalitarianism involves a radical upturning of society and politics that goes vastly beyond anything imagined by other tyrannies.
After the first World War, a deeply antidemocratic, pro-dictatorial wave of semi-totalitarian and totalitarian movements swept Europe; Fascist movements spread from Italy to nearly all Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was one of the notable exceptions); yet even Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule. Similar non-totalitarian dictatorships sprang up in prewar Rumania, Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal and Franco Spain. (310)
How are these political forms distinct from totalitarianism? Here is Arendt’s way of distinguishing them:
Once a party dictatorship has come to power, it leaves the original power relationship between state and party intact; the government and the army exercise the same power as before, and the “revolution” consists only in the fact that all government positions are now occupied by party members. (420)
A totalitarian regime, by contrast, refuses to merge with the apparatus of the state; instead, all real power is retained within the organizations of the movement (Nazi Party or Communist Party in the USSR).
All real power is vested in the institutions of the movement, and outside the state and military apparatuses. It is inside the movement, which remains the center of action of the country, that all decisions are made; the official civil services are often not even informed of what is going on, and party members with the ambition to rise to the rank of ministers have in all cases paid for such “bourgeois” wishes with the loss of their influence on the movement and of the confidence of its leaders. (420)
An important expert on totalitarianism in the past half century is Juan Linz, author of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (1974; republished with a new introduction 2000). An earlier paper, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain” (1964) is a highly interesting and informative presentation of Linz’s analytical framework (link). Referring to C. J. Friedrich’s analysis of totalitarianism, Linz defines the concept of totalitarianism in terms of five key features:
an official ideology … , a single mass party unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology, near complete control of mass media, complete political control of the armed forces, and a system of terroristic police control not directed against demonstrable enemies only. In another version central control and direction of the economy is added. (296-297)
In a review of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Ronald Francesco (link) suggests an additional set of questions to be posed about how authoritarian (or totalitarian) regimes actually work:
What would we want to know about non-democratic regimes if we were completely ignorant of past research? One would argue that we would like to know how these regime sustain themselves, particularly in the presence of dissent. How much repression is enough to stifle dissent? Where is the point at which members and supporters of the state defect from it? What are the vulnerabilities of these regimes? How do they collapse? (186)
These are the right questions to ask, and Arendt’s book does not pose them at all. (Here is a prior post from 2008 that attempts to pose these kinds of questions about authoritarian power today.)
So — is totalitarianism a thing? It seems fairly clear that Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism does not really serve as a theory of the political and governmental realities of authoritarianism in the twentieth century. It is more akin to an extended case study of two horrific examples. Linz is right in the article mentioned above, that we need to have a more developed treatment of authoritarianism as a regime type. So we might answer the guiding question here by stating that “totalitarianism is not a social kind”, a recurring political regime type. But it is also evident that Arendt’s book serves well to capture what was distinctive and singular about both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the single-minded prominence of the political ideology of the party in power, and the efforts by that party and its leader to impose the prescriptions of the ideology on the population and the world through the most murderous means imaginable. One might hope to incorporate Arendt’s insights into a more general theory of authoritarian politics by paying attention to her insights into some of the specifics of the regimes she studies — the ambition of promulgating a totalizing ideology throughout the whole population, the techniques of ideological propaganda, the use of mass terror, the creation of vast systems of secret-police surveillance and repression, and the creation of parallel systems of power between party and state apparatus.
(Readers who want a more extensive discussion will find Peter Baehr’s entry on “Totalitarianism” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas to be a detailed and highly useful resource (link).)
An earlier post suggested that we cannot really address the issue of the stability of liberal democracy without considering issues of economic justice as well.
It is worth separating the features of a modern society into the “liberal democratic” cluster and the “social democratic” cluster for a reason that is familiar from Rawls (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement). Rawls argues that the stability of a just society depends on finding an “overlapping consensus” of values that converge to provide support for the existing system. Different groups have different “comprehensive conceptions of the good” which disagree with each other and give rise to different goals for legislation. But agreement about rights and democratic process may provide a basis for an overlapping consensus across these differences. In the United States and Britain it seems that agreement about individual rights and liberties and the institutions of majoritarian democracy are likely to fall within the overlapping consensus in those countries, whereas the social and economic assumptions of the “social democracy” cluster are likely to remain controversial and to fall outside the overlapping consensus. This seems to imply that the social-welfare and redistributive provisions of the social-democracy cluster are appropriate content for majoritarian legislation, not constitutional stipulation.
So let’s consider the issue in a broader canvas. Suppose that we are thinking of a just liberal democracy as including these elements, as outlined in the prior post: (1) a set of constitutional guarantees of equality and key individual rights, and (2) a set of social and economic guarantees establishing a reasonable level of human wellbeing for all members of society. Together these clusters of features establish the nature of a social democracy. These ideas capture the idea of equal freedom and rights within an overarching system of law, in which each individual is free to pursue his/her purposes as desired, limited only by the constitutional and legal protections of the rights of others, and the rights of the minority. Further they capture the value of the equal worth of liberty — the material requirements necessary for the exercise of freedom. And they conform well to Rawls’s principles of justice; the “constitutional guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the liberty principle, and the “social-economic guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the difference principle.
But here is the complication. “Liberal democracy” is best defined as a system that embodies a constitutional system that establishes inviolable rights and liberties for all individuals along with majoritarian principles in the establishment of legislation. The constitutional protections are prior to majoritarian legislation in the sense that ordinary legislation does not have the authority to create laws that violate the rights guaranteed in the constitution. (The constitution can be amended, of course, through a clearly defined process, and a process that generally involves a super-majority for completion.) But the “social democracy” provisions fall outside the overlapping consensus, and they would need enactment through normal majoritarian processes of legislation.
So the two groups of items do not play the same role within a given liberal democracy. The items mentioned under the list of liberal guarantees of equal rights are constitutional provisions, not subject to ordinary majoritarian legislation. But the items listed under the “social democracy” clauses are not constitutional provisions; rather, they would be established through ordinary political processes of legislation and majoritarian politics. This is because legitimate disagreement over these provisions persists among reasonable people, and therefore these provisions do not fall within the “overlapping consensus”. (This distinction parallels the structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in that the first batch of rights are “negative” rights, while the second batch are “positive” rights.)
And we are forced to ask the question: in a modern society much like our own, governed by constitutional protections like those listed in (1), would the provisions described in (2) ever be enacted through a democratic majoritarian process of legislation? It is clear that in most advanced democracies the statements under (2) fall at the heart of profound political and ideological disagreements: the idea of using the coercive power of the state to limit inequalities of wealth, the idea of using taxation (redistribution) to provide for basic amenities for poor people, the idea of establishing strong regulatory systems designed to protect the health and safety of the public — these are all policies that are strongly opposed by conservatives. These are precisely the kinds of issues over which parties of the left and the right disagree in many democracies; in Britain the Conservatives reject the redistributive policies advocated by Labour Party, in the US the Republicans reject “welfarist” or “socialist” policies advocated by the Democratic Party, and so on. The ensemble of assumptions listed here describes “liberal social democracy”, which is a substantively stronger assumption about a just society than simply a “liberal democracy”.
Crucial parts of a progressive agenda for a just society are encompassed by the constitutional assumptions listed here. Liberal democrats are anti-racist, anti-discrimination, political-egalitarian, and insistent on equal and neutral application of the system of law. And historically, many conservative leaders and parties have shared these commitments. But progressives and conservatives are likely to disagree strongly about the second batch of assumptions about a good society. And since we are committed to democracy, we are committed to the idea that a functioning democracy that respects the provisions of (1) but rejects one or more provisions of (2) is no less democratic for that difference.
So the question comes down to this: would the system that combines (1) and (2) — a liberal social democracy — find majority support in some or many existing democracies?
It would seem that there is nothing in the social-democracy list of conditions (2) that would be limiting or unpalatable for most ordinary people; on the contrary, these circumstances of an effective liberal social democracy would seem to be ideal for ordinary people to fulfill themselves and to live satisfying lives. And these arrangements seem to give a basis for confidence in the wellbeing of future generations as well.
But not everyone would reach the same judgment about these arrangements. Here are some likely exceptions.
People who expect to be super-rich. Their wealth and their political influence are likely to be limited and constrained by these arrangements.
People who want to exercise authority and privilege over others — based on race, ethnicity, sex, or other human categories. The arrangements described here are specifically designed to prohibit and deny practices that embody domination and control — racial, ethnic, or gender superiority.
People who feel that their own value system, or their religious system, is inherently correct and privileged, and would not want important social decisions to be left to the rule of law and the will of the majority.
People who are ideologically committed to the principle of a minimal state: no use of the coercive power of the state beyond the maintenance of order, defense, and the bare minimum of regulation for health and safety.
These are the kinds of exceptions that Rawls attempts to head off using the idea of the veil of ignorance: if people don’t know that they are rich, male, white, Christian, or powerful, then they are well advised to protect their future selves by favoring principles of equal liberties, minimal inequalities, and strong guarantees of basic wellbeing. Rawls believes we get unanimous rational support for a just society if participants do not know their eventual position in that society. Behind the veil of ignorance everyone would support the arrangements of a liberal social democracy.
But real political disagreements do not take place behind a veil of ignorance. In realistic arenas of political disputes we have to accept the fact that individuals have full knowledge of their positions, including wealth, power, race, religion, ideology, and sex. Under those conditions we can expect that individuals will form their political beliefs and affinities in consideration of their interests, values, ideologies, and predilections (including possibly “social dominance orientations” or beliefs of racial and ethnic superiority). They will give their support to candidates and parties that best conform to those beliefs and affinities. And there are some configurations of interest and affinities that would lead individuals to support an authoritarian party or leader whom they expect to favor their interests (and whom they believe they can collectively influence and control). Given that the majority of voters are likely to support the institutions and values of a liberal social democracy, this means that these anti-liberal voters are inclined to favor the fortunes of political parties committed to minority rule over the majority. Here is the authoritarian impulse from the populist voter’s point of view: “This particular authoritarian populist politician shares my values and will act in such a way as to impose them on society; I can trust this politician to serve my interests and values.”
Here is what the populist anti-liberal strategy looks like: identify groups of potential supporters, based on mistrust of other racial groups, antagonism towards elites and urban populations, as well as support motivated by fervent religious and ideological activism; identify potential sources of large-scale funding for political mobilization among the super-rich who will benefit from anti-liberal economic and tax policies (e.g. Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson); identify powerful communicators in media, social media, and other venues to craft and disseminate effective mobilization messages (Fox, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson); pressure and subvert traditional conservative political organizations in support of the radical populist agenda; and — as Steve Bannon said — “wage war on liberals”. This strategy isn’t likely to produce an electoral majority, but it doesn’t need to, if it is possible to suppress the votes of the other side and to achieve power through other means.
In fact, we seem to be in such a circumstance at the present moment in the United States. The presidential election took place more than four weeks ago, and Joe Biden has beaten Donald Trump by more than seven million votes, and has won a sizable majority in the Electoral College. And yet there appear to be many millions of citizens who continue to support Trump during his undisguised attempt to overturn this democratically completed election. Millions of voters are apparently untroubled by this authoritarian “strongman” effort to remain in office following decisive electoral defeat. For these voters the stability and persistence of our constitutional democracy is not of primary concern; rather, they believe the strongman will serve them well. And his willingness to subvert and destroy our democratic institutions does not discredit him in their eyes.
This line of thought leads to a nightmare possibility: neither “laissez-faire” democracy nor social democracy is politically stable. Neither traditional conservative Republican economic policy nor reform-minded Labour or Democratic policies can retain a majority. Laissez-faire democracy loses support because it creates increasingly intolerable conditions for a growing proportion of the working population; social democracy loses support because right-wing populist political movements are able to use their mobilization strategies to gain support from the less-well-off segments of the ordinary working class population. The winner? Right-wing populist illiberal democracy, with strongman populist authoritarianism in the driver’s seat. And we have precisely such examples in the world today, in the form of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
An earlier post raised the question of popular support for — satisfaction with — the state of democracy in many democratic nations. It was noted that levels of satisfaction are low in many democracies — US, UK, France, and Spain, for example (link). There I defined liberal democracy in these terms: a political system in which there are strong protections for the rights and liberties of all citizens, including minority groups, and which embodies effective institutions of electoral representative democracy and equal rights of political participation. We were then led to question whether citizens in a liberal democracy would develop strong “civil loyalty” to the institutions and values of democracy.
But this is deliberately a narrow way of posing the question. It asks a question about the political institutions of a country, but is silent about the economic and social institutions. And it is possible, or likely, that dissatisfaction in the US, UK, or France is based on economic or social dissatisfaction rather than frustration with the system of individual rights and majoritarian government by itself. So, for example, Justin Gest argues in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality that the marginalization and disaffection of white working class men and women in Youngstown, Ohio, and East London, UK, stem from social and economic causes as well as frustration with the system of electoral politics in which they find themselves.
There are at least two important schools of thought about the character of the social and economic arrangements suitable to a free society of equals. The laissez-faire philosophy — unbridled capitalism — entails that property rights should be subject to minimal constraint, and only for the purpose of fair taxation in support of legitimate (and limited) governmental functions. This philosophy depends upon a specific theory of liberty — liberty to own property as a fundamental aspect of one’s nature as a free human being. Freedom means pursuing one’s own plans in one’s own way, without unjustified interference by the state. This is an idea familiar from John Locke and Robert Nozick.
The social-democratic philosophy takes “freedom” in a broader and more comprehensive form: a person is free when he or she has both the liberty and the capacity to pursue important life objectives in an autonomous way. And having the capacity means having access to the basic essentials of a fully productive life: adequate income, effective education and training, decent housing, sufficient nutrition, access to healthcare, and security in the face of life’s common sources of insecurity. On this conception of freedom, the state needs to be organized in such a way that the political liberties of individuals are respected and — through one set of institutional arrangements or another — individuals have the ability to develop and realize their talents through access to these essentials of life. This positive conception of human freedom — “freedom to … ” rather than “freedom from …” — has its affinities with the political philosophies of Rousseau and Sen.
More specifically, the social-democracy philosophy holds that property rights can be constrained for two separate reasons: for the purpose of limiting “invidious and unjustified” economic inequalities, and for the purpose of supporting the costs of government programs that provide amenities to citizens: free public education, access to healthcare, unemployment and disability insurance, housing assistance, childcare assistance, nutrition assistance, …. There is also an underlying idea about society as well — not simply a neutral playing field where individuals compete against each other, but as a system of cooperation in which everyone gains from the cooperative actions of others.
Suppose that we are thinking of a liberal democracy as including these elements, with a choice in the “flavor” of economic arrangements:
1. Constitutional guarantees
a. a constitution establishing key human rights and freedoms — freedom of thought and expression, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of association, equal rights under the law.
b. a political system of equal rights of political participation — voting, competing for office, advocacy of policy and legislative initiatives, …
c. an effective constitutional protection for full and fair equality of economic and social opportunity
d. a representative democracy embodying the principle of equality of influence for all citizens (no privileging of influence for one group or community over another through artificial barriers to participation)
2a. Social democracy
a. a social-economic system that limits the extent of inequalities of wealth and income
b. a social-economic system that succeeds in satisfying the basic human needs of all members of society — education, healthcare, access to decent housing, …
c. a system of law and regulation that ensures public health, wellbeing, and safety
d. a fiscal system that suffices to ensure limitations on wealth and provision of mandatory social services and benefits
2b. Laissez-faire democracy
a. a social-economic system that enables all citizens to purchase and sell capital and labor power through fair markets without coercion.
b. a minimal “social security” net to prevent starvation in times of dearth.
c. a system of law and regulation that maintains public order, enforces individual rights, and ensures the requirements of a fair market system.
d. a fiscal system that suffices to provide funds necessary for (b) and (c) as well as national defense.
Liberal laissez-faire democracy is characterized by (1) and (2b), while liberal social democracy is characterized by (1) and (2a), and the major ideological divide between progressives and conservatives involves disagreement over the choice between (2a) and (2b).
Now we can ask two fundamental questions. Which system is likely to be supported by a majority of citizens through the democratic political processes guaranteed by a constitution along the lines of (1)? And which system is likely to give rise to strong sentiments among its citizens of civic loyalty and satisfaction for the resulting social-economic-political system?
Many people would argue that a society is unjust if there is such a division between rich and poor that — as a practical matter — the life prospects for the less-well-off are dramatically worse than those of the rich. The laissez-faire model (2b) is almost certain to lead to exactly such extreme inequalities between rich and poor, and to create a social and economic environment in which the wellbeing of the well-off is dramatically and visibly superior to that of the less-well-off. And, further, it can be strongly argued that the provisions of (2a) work to substantially lessen those unjust inequalities.
This would be a reason for citizens in the less-well-off population to support legislation establishing the provisions of (2a); and given the relative sizes of the populations of privileged and non-privileged people, one might expect that there would be an electoral majority in favor of (2a). But the history of many western democracies suggests that the political consensus for the measures of social democracy — a strong welfare state — is difficult to sustain. Conservative and right-wing populist parties are currently in the ascendant.
So we seem to have reached a conundrum: liberal social democracy is likely to do a substantially better job of ensuring the freedoms and wellbeing of the great majority of the population than liberal laissez-faire democracy, and the level of satisfaction and civil loyalty of the majority of the population is likely to be higher under this system than its contrary. And yet the political strategies available to conservatives — including strategies of ethnic, racial, and regional antagonism and division — have often permitted them to gain electoral support for the provisions of laissez-faire economic arrangements. They can’t make their political arguments on the basis of traditional conservative economic arguments, which have all the persuasive power of a really great North Korean feature film — that more inequality is better for everyone because growth trickles down, or that corporations are naturally disposed towards enhancing the public good, or that “creative destruction” and loss of decent jobs is good in the long run; so they are forced to turn to “cultural” issues.
Seen in this light, the politics of right-wing populism make sense as a winning strategy through which economically privileged groups are able to gain the support of working class voters in favor of economic and tax policies that objectively work to their disadvantage. Racism, nationalism, divisive demagoguery, and hot-button “social” issues like abortion, gun rights, and the Confederacy prove to be potent political motivators. But the irony is that a successful social democracy might well have created conditions of fairness and equality for all segments of society that would deflate the appeal of right-wing populism.
Donald Trump’s attack on the electoral system has gone far beyond normal and evidence-based legal challenges to details about the election and the vote counting. There is nothing normal or inconsequential about the president’s current tactics or the support he receives from influential Republican officials. Trump and his supporters are now undertaking to reverse the election results in several states by encouraging elected officials to “throw out” the voting results from their states and send a slate of electoral representatives to the Electoral College who will vote for Donald Trump and Mike Pence rather than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the winners of the popular vote in their states. Senator Lindsay Graham has been accused by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of suggesting that he should throw out votes from certain areas. (Citizens everywhere, not just in Georgia, owe Raffensperger deep gratitude for his integrity in the performance of his duties.) Donald Trump himself is pressuring legislators and local officials in Michigan to throw out the vote from Wayne County and to send Trump electoral representatives to the Electoral College. Shameful, and racist!
This is a truly horrifying, public, and shameless assault on the most fundamental institutions and values of a democracy: the voters decide the outcomes of elections. The fact that Trump would act in this shameful way is unsurprising, because he has a lifelong record of immoral and unprincipled behavior. He plainly cares nothing about our country’s values, institutions, or citizens; he cares only about his own power and self-image. The fact that Republican elected officials fail to rise up and express — clearly, strongly, and courageously — their unwavering and unqualified support for our democratic electoral institutions is simply nauseating. They bring lasting shame upon themselves, and upon their party. Senators Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), thank you for your integrity and patriotism in publicly rejecting the president’s effort at seizing authoritarian power. Your Republican colleagues in the Senate must join you.
In the state of Michigan, our most senior legislators — House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey — have been invited to the White House to be influenced by the president in their conduct of their sworn duties in Michigan. Speaker Chatfield and Majority Leader Shirkey, the citizens of your state demand that you reject this overture and clearly express the plain truth: Michigan voted decisively in favor of Joe Biden over Donald Trump, and the process will be governed by that fact. This is your duty. Anything less will be a permanent and unforgettable stain on your character.
Let’s be clear. None of the president’s claims about voter fraud or fraudulent practices in vote counting have been supported by evidence. The legal cases have almost entirely collapsed; they were withdrawn in Michigan; they were meritless. Earlier this week the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, disgraced and humiliated himself in Federal court in Pennsylvania by making wild and unsupported claims that reflected mental confusion about the facts of his own case. He showed himself to be a dangerous, unprincipled clown.
The argument that some Republican politicians are making today, that Trump’s efforts are certain to fail and that he is simply thrashing around like an enraged five-year-old child, completely misses the point. Attempting a coup is horrible and unforgivable, whether or not it is successful. And our leaders need to stand up and forcefully “pledge allegiance” to our institutions and explicitly reject the president’s authoritarian power grab.
This is the time for all citizens and elected officials to declare themselves unambiguously. Do we support our democracy? Will we resist and refuse any effort to negate the results of the 2020 election? Will we express rock-solid support for the integrity of the vote that occurred and the equal weight of all votes — black, brown, white, rich, poor, conservative, and liberal? Do we honor our constitution and our democratic freedoms?
As citizens, we must face a crucial reality: our democracy is under terrible threat. If any votes are cancelled or overridden by Republican-dominated legislatures — in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or any other state — we must soberly realize that we have passed the point of letter-writing and quiet disapproval. Only massive civil disobedience, pro-democracy demonstrations, and courage and persistence will do. The citizens of Belarus and Thailand have shown the way; we must follow their example. The president’s current efforts at reversing the votes in key states must be firmly rejected; and, if he were to succeed in retaining power, we must steel ourselves for a very long period of non-violent civil protest and disobedience.
This month represents the end of the thirteenth year of publication of Understanding Society. Since 2010 the blog has received 11,874,515 pageviews. (Pageviews increased quickly through 2018, and have declined and stablized in 2019 and 2020.) So far the blog has published 1,340 posts and about 1.3 million words. (That’s about the length of thirteen normal academic books — the better part of a bookshelf!) It is quite amazing to me to look back on the many topics, books, and intellectual figures that have come in for discussion here on Understanding Society over these years. In 2007 I described this undertaking as a form of “open source philosophy,” a kind of lab notebook that allowed me to work on some of the topics and ideas that interested me without waiting for a sabbatical to write a book. As I formulated the idea of the blog at the very beginning, “It is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time.” It has proven to be just that.
During these years I can see that my interests and ideas have evolved almost continuously. In 2007 I would primarily have identified myself as a philosopher of social science, interested in ideas such as microfoundations, causal mechanisms, contingency, and social plasticity. These topics continue to interest me. But now I consider myself (perhaps immodestly) as a philosopher who contributes to the social sciences. My emphasis has shifted a bit from philosophical reflection to an effort to make concrete and useful contributions to substantive issues of social concern to all of us. In recent years I have come to focus on more concrete problems in the social world that we share — for example, organizational causes of technology failure, the risks to democracy created by radical populism, the systemic causes of government failures, and the persistence of systemic racism in our country. Just now I described this as a shift of disciplinary perspective on my part; but maybe it is better to simply describe it as a non-disciplinary attempt to understand various things about the social world.
In fact, I have come to realize that these substantive topics, though not contained within traditional definitions of philosophical inquiry, are all areas where a philosopher can make a substantive contribution. It is certainly true that there is a crucial empirical and sociological dimension to each of these topics that cannot be treated in the apriori way that philosophers often approach subjects. Nonetheless, if a philosopher is willing to make the effort to learn in some detail the empirical and theoretical issues that each of these topics involves, it is possible to contribute to better understanding of the nature of these complex social phenomena. Here is a post where I try to show how philosophy is relevant to the subject of technology failure; link. The results are not “pure philosophy”, and neither are they novel empirical discoveries based on original sociological investigation. Instead, we might describe the results of this kind of work as integrative and exploratory. Work like this is integrative because it is cross-disciplinary and allows the engaged philosopher to see connections from one field of research to another that are sometimes more difficult to perceive from within the parameters of a single discipline. It is exploratory because philosophy encourages us to think about topics like these in ways that are perhaps somewhat more angular and idiosyncratic than traditional experts in these fields might take.
Consider the wide range of topics considered in the blog over the past year: the threat to democracy posed by right-wing populism; new thinking in the philosophy of history; new analysis of the social causes of technology failures; racism and police abuse towards young black men; genocide and the Holocaust; agent-based models of social phenomena; the philosophy of technology; and the social ontology of organizations. There is a pleasing diversity in this range of topics. But there is also a surprising degree of continuity over time with respect to some topics — for example, safety, organizations, democracy, populism, and racism. Since the beginning I’ve used “category labels” and keywords for each post, to allow the reader to quickly filter the posts on a given topic. (For example, here are dozens of posts on “democracy and hate”; link.) This way of organizing the blog is found in the right sidebar, under the label “Themes”, and all the labels can be found under “Labels”.
One thing that has become clear to me is how valuable it is for me personally to take the time to try to express a certain idea or topic while it is fresh. Spending an hour or two formulating, researching, and testing an idea in one thousand words is a great way of further developing the idea; but even more fundamentally, it is a great way of capturing the idea. For example, the post I wrote about “Responsible Innovation” (link) resulted from a serendipitous invitation to a publisher’s book party in Milan while I was there in January 2020. One of the book’s editors, René von Schomberg, talked with great conviction about the book. I then read a number of chapters and wrote the post. I identified some of the ways in which this European initiative on technology parallels developments in the philosophy of technology in the United States — as well as ways in which it is distinctly different. But in hindsight one thing is clear to me: I now realize that if I hadn’t put these ideas on “paper” at the time, the details and insights would have escaped me by now. That is the value of a “philosopher’s lab notebook”.
It is interesting for me to think about the specific experiences that led me to focus on the particular questions I’ve taken up over the years. In the past year or so, returning to full-time teaching has been very stimulating for me, and many topics I’ve considered in the blog have arisen as a result of preparation for my courses. For example, designing a course in the philosophy of technology in 2019 led me to think about how technologies of flood control on the Mississippi River illustrate many of the key problems in the philosophy of technology; thinking about Eichmann and Bonhoeffer in an honors class has led me to do a lot more reading and to think differently about the Holocaust; and teaching a course about democracy and the politics of hate has led me to think (and read) about current theories about authoritarian personality. Another source of stimulation comes from interacting with colleagues in other places, including Milan, Tianjin, Paris, and British Columbia. My accidental friendship with Thai Professor Chaiyan Rajchagool led to some interesting thinking about “global history” — I met Chaiyan at a philosophy conference at Nankai University and I then read his history of the Thai monarchy, which I liked very much. And right here in Michigan, leisurely conversations with George Steinmetz during his recovery from a bike accident have led to many new insights into studying the Holocaust. Interactions with smart, interesting people have always given me new ideas to explore in the blog.
When I began the blog I thought it might gain a regular following. And in a limited sense, that has turned out to be true — on any given day there are a few hundred “returning visitors” who visit the blog on a regular basis, and there are several thousand followers on Twitter and Facebook. But it’s not the New York Review of Books! The vast majority of pageviews are generated by search engines, bringing visitors looking for some information or commentary on topics like “social structure”, “power”, “assemblages theory”, “Steven Lukes”, or hundreds of other search terms. Visits are therefore highly random. In the past few minutes, for example, visitors have opened pages on “Epicurus’s philosophy”, “The rise of Austro-fascism”, “Methodological individualism”, “Causal narratives about historical actors”, and “Hofstadter on the American right”. (Another growing source of visits is the learning platforms like Blackboard and Canvas, as instructors have increasingly linked to specific posts as reading assignments in their courses.) In the past twelve months the top posts have been:
Lukes on power (15K)
Liquid modernity? 14.5K)
Sociology as a social science discipline (10.6K)
Dynamics of medieval cities (9.3K)
The global city — Saskia Sassen (8.7K)
Power and social class (8.0K)
A modern world-system? (7.8K)
Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics (7.7K)
Social science and social problems (5.5K)
Philosophy and society (4.7K)
I’m glad the blog has survived through four presidential elections, one pandemic, a massive global recession, and so many other social and political events that are worth reflecting about. I hope to continue writing and posting for years to come. What do they call a twentieth anniversary when it comes around in 2027?
What is the role of history and narrative for human beings and peoples? What do we gain by learning of “our” past and the often horrendous crimes that we human beings have committed? Consider this parable.
* * *
Imagine that you are a different kind of human being. You are of a species that lives for a thousand years. You have a capacity for memory, moral reasoning, purposiveness, and reflection. But your capacities are bounded, and there are whole decades that you no longer recall. You have what we might describe as a persistent but intermittent personal identity; you know who you are, but not always who you have been. After passing the age of 800 you have reckoned that you are in the autumn of your years and you would like to collect the materials for an autobiography. You begin collecting documents and markers and newspapers and personal recollections from other people, and gradually you begin to form a more complete picture of yourself over time. It is not a happy picture.
It turns out that your younger years were turbulent. In your 100s you were impulsive and violent, sometimes attacking people for no reason, sometimes threatening and attacking them to take their property. Towards the end of this period you found tranquility, an excellent psychiatrist, and a yoga mat, and you were able to put your aggressiveness and percolating violence aside. Things went well for a century or so, you formed a family, you were a good father for at least a hundred years, and you practiced meditation in a disciplined way. Your life was orderly and kind.
Your researches have informed you, however, that this tranquility and peace did not last forever. In your fourth century you took up politics, you developed strong opinions, and you became intolerant. You were a charismatic person, and others followed you, and in that century you had a lot of influence. One of your passions was patriarchy — you became committed to the idea of the natural and moral superiority of men over women. By seizing the power of the state you sought to create a system of law in which women were permanently subordinated to men. With your followers at your side, you mostly succeeded. This period too didn’t last for ever. Instead, the women of the empire you had created rebelled, and they were successful. You left the palace in your fully charged Tesla, and you never looked back. It took another century for the state you had left behind to recover its equanimity, but eventually a decent liberal democracy was restored.
You felt you had learned a lesson, some kind of lesson, though you quickly forgot many of the details of this bad political episode. Anyway, your research tells you that things went better for you in your sixth century. You cultivated friends, had another family, and practiced the calming arts of meditation once again.
But then, once again, bad times. Petty disagreements with your friends led to breaches, to distrust, and eventually to active enmity. You broke your friendships, you broke promises and allegiances that had seemed permanent, you betrayed the trust of the men and women who had been your community. In fact, your own resentments and anger led you to do things you shouldn’t have done — you let slip embarrassing information about one friend to the newspapers, you denounced another friend to the political authorities for her disloyalty to the state, and you actively connived in presenting evidence against a third former friend to support a spurious allegation of business fraud. Once again, despicable behavior for a moral human being — “how could I have done those things?”.
Tranquility and peace came once again, as it always has. And this brings you more or less up to date. You have now filled in the gaps. You “know” yourself over time. And because you have been exhaustive in your search for evidence about your past, and because you have been unflinching in confronting the truth about yourself over the centuries as exposed by these researches, you now know that you have been a very long-lived person who has embodied both good and evil, both benevolence and hatred, both temperance and unbounded aggression. You have, you are now ashamed to realize, harmed a great many people who deserved only kindness and respect from you. The story of your life is now collected in eight compact volumes in a small library in your current palace. And you ask yourself this question: in the remainder of my centuries of life, how shall I live, given what I now know about my past and my potential for doing evil?
You realize a number of things all at once. (You spent a fruitful century studying philosophy with one of the great sages only a century or so ago. On balance, you preferred the philosopher to the psychiatrist, but more than both of them you preferred Seinfeld.) First, you realize that you have not consistently been a good person, a virtuous person, a person of integrity and courage. Second, you realize that the people you harmed are now dead and gone. You cannot make up your debt to them, you cannot undo the evil you inflicted upon them. You cannot, at the moment, even fully understand why you did those things. And yet, you now believe that you are a more fully moral person, a person who wants to act justly and well in the remainder of your years. Your overriding wish is to act as a virtuous human being for the time left to you, and to make the world a better place. You return to the philosopher-sage for more advice.
What advice can the sage offer this long-lived, flawed, but aspiring human being?
The sage, who seems to be a latter-day Stoic with a bit of Martin Buber included in the mix, has only five things to offer. To be humble. To seek to understand the deficiencies of character that led to the bad behavior over the centuries. To find ways to correct these flaws of character. To seek to rebalance the evils you have created. And most fundamentally, to dedicate your strength, talents, wisdom, and years, to the task of contributing to a better future for humanity. This will be enough, given that you cannot live your life over and undo the evil you have done.
* * *
Here is my question: Does this story about a limited, erratic, and forgetful human being provide an analogy for how we might think about long stretches of human history? Does the parable provide some means for understanding the history of humanity and the ways that we understand ourselves as human beings over time? Does it shed light on how we human beings, a historical species, must feel our way into an understanding of our past, our present, and our future? Is knowing history a form of self-discovery of often-forgotten truths about ourselves, and developing the strength to honestly acknowledge those truths, learn from them, and move beyond them? Can humanity deal with its blemished history in the same ways that the nameless ancient one in the parable is advised to deal with his own personal history and actions?