Whatever Happens this Week, our Democracy and Open Society are in Critical ConditionRoundup
tags: democracy, authoritarianism, 2020 Election
Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990).
Financier and philanthropist George Soros must have seen Trump coming as early as 2011. He certainly saw where a disturbingly large proportion of American voters were going. "The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect," he wrote in the New York Review of Books in June of that year.
George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 had convinced Soros "that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership." The public had proved "unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems."
Will the American public now reconfirm Soros' observation? This year's campaign has given us plenty or reasons to worry.
By the end of Bush's second term in 2009, few Americans denied the harsh realities of the Iraq war fiasco and of failed federal responses to Hurricane Katrina's devastation and to tsunamis of predatory financing that were throwing millions of people out of their homes and jobs. Yet Soros insisted that much of the public, reluctant to face other realities, grasped at vague, easy hopes that Barack Obama's 2008 campaign offered but that his presidency proved sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to fulfill, especially against a Republican Congress after 2010.
The ongoing public flight from reality only accelerated with Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, when millions of voters sought scapegoats to blame for rising dangers and craved simplistic directions to safety and salvation.
Soros proposed that Americans' reluctance to face reality had been "coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception" by Rupert Murdoch's and other right-wing media and by sundry impresarios and invaders of internet social media. But he also warned that democracy can be undone by a much older danger, inherent in human nature, that discredits the Enlightenment "assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality." That assumption "is valid only for the study of natural phenomena," not of politics, Soros wrote. Instead of standing "apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it," reason and rational analysis were of little help in understanding how even prosperous, well-educated people think and act in society.
That disturbing proposition has been reinforced by Trump ever since 2016 and by the public distempers he stoked on the eve of this election. Those distempers won't abate even if Joe Biden wins. American history offers ample reasons why. Whenever the republic's civil society has been under great stress, defenders of its traditional values, joined by opportunistic free riders like Trump who are driven only by power-lust and greed, have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they've blamed for the crises.
In the 1690s, the enemy was witches, hysterical women and girls said to had been taken by Satan. In 1619 and ever since, it has been African Americans and other people of color, said to be inferior and therefore all the more dangerous to their oppressors. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with "rum, Romanism and rebellion." In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies, inner-city rioters, and opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 9/11, it has been American Muslims.