What the Midterms Really Mean, And Why They Matter
It’s true that America’s about to deliver a verdict. But that verdict is not on Trump, really, on party politics, or even on democracy. A verdict is both a revelation and a judgment of truth, and the truth America is about to reveal and judge — both to itself, to the world, to the past, and to the future — is about what kind of nation it really is.
Let me explain what I mean.
I often think to myself that there are three kinds of societies. The first one does not even pretend to aspire to democratic ideals — democracy, freedom, justice, equality, and so on. Now, Americans are taught that most of the world, and most of history, is like this, and therefore, they are special — but that is wrong. In fact, this is very, very rare — today, such nations are just a handful. North Korea, some Arab states, maybe Iran. So the first kind of nation is a true anomaly — one that prides itself in its barbarism, folly, and savagery.
Far more common — so common that it makes up most of the nations in history — is that a nation tells itself, and tells the world, that it aspires to grand and noble democratic ideals — freedom, justice, equality, and so on. Many dictators and tyrants pay fine lip service to those ideals, too — and the question, which I’ll return to, is why, what purpose it serves for them. Only, where the rubber meets the road, precisely the opposite seems to happen. These fine and wonderful ideals are easily tossed aside, for the sake of power, expedience, tribalism, sectarianism. In other words, as soon as the choice has to be made — such societies choose violence over democracy, time and again.
Who is the second kind of nation? Let’s take the example of Pakistan: it parrots democratic ideals, but has spent decades easily discarding them, at the first possible opportunity, to do violence. Against minorities, dissidents, oppositions, and so on. The simple truth is that at this juncture of history, most nations still fall into this category of choosing violence over democracy, when the choice has to be made — and so we might call them pretenders, posers, posturers at democracy.
The third kind of nation is just as rare as the first kind — but in the opposite way, a good way. It is a nation which aspires to democratic ideals — freedom, justice, etcetera, pays them lip service, as most nations do — but actually puts them first, not last. When the choice between violence and democracy — between abuse, power, dominance, and freedom, justice, and equality arise, they choose democracy. It invests in such goods, institutionalizes them, grants them to all, and therefore, quite naturally — although American thinking, like economics, can scarcely believe it — life improves for all.
Who meets this highest of bars? So far, I think, very few nations in history, mostly in post-war Western Europe. It has spent decades trying to institutionalize the highest democratic ideals for all — of course it has not “succeeded” fully — and yet the result is the highest living standards in human history, period. But note what it has been less interested in doing: war, hate, greed, punishment — in short, European prosperity is built on the absence of violence. That is no coincidence — because that is what democracy’s ideals, if they are to be things that mean anything more than hot air, demands of us, too, isn’t it?
So there are three kinds of nations — those that revel in barbarism, those which posture at democracy and civilization, and those which really are different: the ones who treat democracy and civilization as something like the fundamental projects of a society, the ends to which ideas, time, effort, money, and so on, are devoted (not gilded palaces in the sky, below which storm troops roam). This third category is the rarest one of all — and of course it is the one we should all aspire to be in, because, as I’ve discussed, that way lies more peace, stability, prosperity, all the greater goods only democracy can really endow us with,
Now. The question is this: which kind of nation is America, barbarian, poser, or pioneer?
To answer that, we need to ask another question. What purpose do democratic ideals serve in nations that merely posture and pose at them?There are three possible answers (and one of these three is not “but these nations are struggling at democracy!”, because my point is that quite often, they are not. They are merely pretending to struggle at, for, towards democracy.) Which leaves us three options as to why such nations don’t progress much towards democracy — ignorance, folly, and malice.
The first, ignorance, means that such nations do not really know what democratic ideals really mean. They only know how to say the words, but do not comprehend their meaning one bit. The second, folly, means democratic ideals are empty things — the elites and intellectuals and thinkers in a nation suppose that they can assign whatever meaning they want to them. Thus, “freedom” becomes slavery, or segregation, or castes, and so on. The third, evil, means that democratic ideals — freedom, justice, equality, etcetera — are excuses, shields, masks — things which absolve and sugarcoat those who commit them from their own worst depredations. “But the Presidente is committed to democracy!”, cry some, even as the heads roll. “Our Leader will never commit a genocide! Why, he has been democratically elected!”, cry others, even as the infants are put on trial.
Now. Let us come back to to our question. Which kind of nation is America? It’s obviously not the first kind of nation. It doesn’t just have mundane ideals — it has almost comically grandiose ones. The home of the brave, the land of the free. Democracy is apparently an American monopoly, if you believe the pledges and the history books. And yet, if we bother to actually look at American history, we’re confronted with a grimmer, weirder, stranger truth. One that’s so twisted, it’s hard to make sense of. America fought the Nazis…so it could stay a segregated country. American told the world it was the birthplace of democracy, while slave-masters were raping women they owned, and maiming their husbands. I could go on, but the contradictions are as obvious and vast as they are repellent.
That leads me to a conclusion which many of you will find unfair, and probably even hurtful. But I don’t say it to hurt you — I say it for the sake of understanding, and improvement, too. America is more of the second kind of country, not the third. It pays fine lip service to the grand ideals of democracy — but it has not worked very hard at realizing them. It has been a little lazy, perhaps — remember my question? Ignorance, folly, or malice? Which is it, in America’s case, that has caused the divergence between democratic ideals and socioeconomic realities? We’ll come back to that.
If we look into the gap between ideal and reality, we will see more and more these days it is something of an abyss. And in that abyss lies hidden a difficult truth. American is the second kind of country. It is more of a posturer at democracy than it is a pioneer of democracy — a place which pays lip service to great democratic ideals, but struggles to really put them into practice, often quite content with rhetoric over substance. It rarely puts democracy above, before, and beyond violence — that is my acid test, my distinction, between these two categories, remember. Instead, it has often put violence above democracy. Worst of all, perhaps, it has institutionalized violence by some against others, in the name of dominance, subjugation, and exploitation, and called it democracy. The slave — and those who still applaud his masters — are living testaments to that.
(You are most welcome to disagree, of course. But I think it would be foolish to say that America fell into the third category, of true friends to democracy. American intellectuals admit as much, themselves — even if by saying remarkably condescending things like “the gap between America’s ideals and it’s reality has always been gaping — but that is only because America is a complex society, full of many contradictions!” Ah, my friends. Are you this easily had? Don’t you see this is exceptionalism in another, maybe more toxic form? Do you think that Denmark and Sweden and France and Germany are not “complex”? Are they full of simpletons? Don’t they have the contradictions, too, of empire and ruin and tragedy? Of course they do. But they are societies which work better because they are more democratic — in the hard terms of institutions, which are completely differently designed from, say, an electoral college, and also of attitudes, which are more accepting, open, and just, thanks to less capitalism injecting them constantly with the venoms of frustrated greed, vicious spite, thwarted desire, and resentful contempt. And that is because, over time, they have taken democracy more seriously, in hard and soft ways — invested in it, nurtured it, shielded it, aspired to it.)
Now. Let us come back to the question of the verdict America is about to deliver. What is it really a verdict on? Trump? Trumpism? Left-versus-right? Of course not. You feel, deep in your bones, probably, that the stakes of this verdct are wider, greater, truer, somehow. In other words, your conscience is crying out to you, this isn’t just about the petty partisan politics of now. Instead, the verdict America is about to deliver is both a revelation and a judgment of its truest truth. What kind of nation is it? What kind of people are we?
So far, it has been the second kind of nation — a posturer at democracy, not a steadfast friend of it. But will it ever be the third kind — a true friend of democracy? Or will it become the first kind — an enemy of democracy altogether? All that is the truth being judged right now, right this second, by millions of people. It concerns our moral horizons, not just our political aspirations, which is why it seems to burn and twist and sear and taunt us. It is a verdict on the kind of people, the kind of nation, we are. Is there a truer truth to be judged?
Soon enough, that self-examined judgment it will stand revealed for all to see. All who have not gone blind, anyways. After all, whenever I write essays like this, or anyone does, Americans leap into “not all Americans!!” mode, by which they mean, “not me!” Perhaps, perhaps. But that does you no favours, my friend. Nations and societies do indeed exist, and therefore we can and must say they have characteristics and qualities. When you deny that, you become an instrument, usually, of your own ruin, because now everything becomes a matter of competitive, antagonistic individualism —since you are also saying society does not really exist. For that reason, atomic individualism, which is to say a kind of crude Newtonian mechanics of human affairs, does not get us very far when trying to understand — or even improve — societies, economies, and cultures.
The verdict that America is about to deliver is on the truest truth of all. What kind of society is it — and what kind of people have Americans become? Is it a society that is an unwavering friend of democracy, a mere second-rate posturer at democracy — or an open, antagonistic foe of it? But that verdict will also likely tell us something, else, too, by way of answering the first question — something about the kind of people Americans are, too.
Why has the gap between American ideals and American realities between as vast and stark and terrible as the slave, the lynching, and the supremacist? Ignorance, folly, or malice? Has the gap between ideal and reality been so severe, predictable, and perptual a feature of its history because Americans were too ignorant to know better, because they were foolish enough not to care very much — or because, more darkly, they are just (enough of them, anyways) simply malicious? Lovers of the gun and the sword, not the book and the word — admirers of violence, not friends of democracy? Ironically enough, just like the very people around the world they despise?
You see, after this election, no one in America can reasonably claim that the gap between ideal and reality is due to ignorance or folly anymore. Haven’t the last two years been an education in the catastrophic consequences of both? Is anyone still really ignorant of what will happen if the bad guys win — or foolish enough to not believe it? But that also means this. The only cause left, really, of the gap between American ideals and American reality will be malice. That enough Americans genuinely want aggression, dominance, and power over freedom, justice, and equality — that is, they want violence over democracy.
The verdict America is about to deliver isn’t just a political one. Nor even a social one. It’s about a much truer kind of truth altogether — one that hides deeper, and cuts sharper. It’s a moral verdict. What kind of people are we, really? What kind of nation? Soon enough, the world will know. Much of it, I suppose, already thinks, shaking its head after the last two years and howling with a kind of shocked laughter, it does. Let us hope America proves them wrong.