The Cruel Potential always present in Popular Sovereignty

            The absence of Republican Party leaders at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I have a Dream” speech recently was glaringly obvious, both to those who viewed the event on television and to those assembled on the National Mall. Two former GOP presidents, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, did not attend because too infirm to travel or recovering from recent surgery, respectively. George W. Bush sent greetings. The party was well represented at the original event in 1963. But House Speaker John Boehner, head of the current GOP, skipped the remembrance to travel to Idaho for a fundraiser at which he called for using default as a negotiating device to leverage additional cuts in coming budget discussions. No serious analyst of whom I am aware embraces that stance, while it nonetheless remains a favorite position of radicals in the Speaker’s party. In any case, the highest-ranking Republican Congressional leader chose to attend a partisan gathering and embrace a potentially dangerous position for the nation, rather than mark a historic moment in American civil rights history. The obvious question is why.

            Some weeks ago the eminent economist and national columnist Paul Krugman suggested one plausible rationale. He argued that the GOP had spent the last roughly thirty-five years convincing members of its primary constituency (in the south) that the principal reason that their economic fortunes had not improved was that the government was taking too much of their money in taxes and either wasting a major share of it or using it to help an amorphously defined, but deplorable set of “others” become a dependent class unfairly existing on the backs of their hard work. Such was never the case, but the argument helped to justify GOP policies that resulted in a redistribution of income and wealth upward via tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy. Nevertheless today, many Republican partisans, Krugman argued, especially members of the radical Tea Party wing, which enjoys outsized influence due to its capacity to nominate individuals to run in primaries against GOP incumbents, actually believe the rhetoric the party has offered and demand deepened policy action in accord with it. In short, in Krugman’s view, current Republican officials are the prisoners of their electoral strategy to scapegoat government, the poor and other minorities for economic realities that had nothing to do with them. Party leaders must either admit that they systematically misled a key constituency, not to say lied to them, or continue down what has become an increasingly perilous path for the nation’s governance and for the Party. Krugman argued that the GOP is stuck between a proverbial rock and hard place of its own making.

            Another reason why Republican leaders may have skipped the commemoration is the obvious disconnect between that event and current GOP initiatives to make voting more difficult for minorities, the vulnerable, the poor and seniors. Texas, North Carolina and several other Southern and Midwestern states whose legislatures are Republican-controlled have recently enacted voter identification and ballot access measures that analysts agree will depress the turnout of these groups in coming elections. This turn, along with the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down a central element of the Voting Rights Act, were described by those speaking at the commemoration as key setbacks for American civil rights. While GOP officials in these states justify new identification and access requirements as necessary to prevent fraud, there is no empirical evidence to buttress their claim, and in any case (and embarrassingly), several state Party leaders have said publicly these actions are occurring to diminish turnout among groups Republican officials fear will not favor their candidates. In short, attending the celebration would have been very awkward for Boehner and other GOP leaders.

            While this argument may be convincing, if sad, I think the situation also points to another level of analysis that involves how party officials are presenting a changing social, political and economic landscape to those they are elected to serve. Even if the GOP has scapegoated government and the poor and vulnerable as well as (especially) minorities for the nation’s economic challenges for some decades, the issue is how they could do so. Why, that is, would millions of people, ultimately arguably disadvantaged by the Party’s policies, nonetheless support them in a full-throated way? Put differently, why has this strategy “worked” for so long?

            A share of the answer may lie in the reality that the leitmotiv or master narrative of American politics for some 50 years has been fear. Or, perhaps more deeply and aptly, as the political theorist Judith Shklar has argued, fear and its corollary, cruelty, inhere in democratic rule because these capacities are innate to human behavior. They are therefore omnipresent, and the question is not whether, but how cruelty and the savage imaginary of fear that unleashes it, will be revealed and managed (or not) in the nation’s politics. When Martin Luther King Jr. and a coalition of civil rights activists and ministers led the “Great March on Washington” in 1963, the nation was in the midst of a Cold War and of a reconsideration of what it meant to be an American as African-Americans sought full civil rights. That period was quickly followed by several years of ferment in which a wide range of additional social norms and values were held up for scrutiny and change. Hardly had the 1960s ended, however, when a tidal wave of economic globalization began noticeably to buffet the nation. By the close of the 1980s, an unsettled America confronted continuing economic challenges in the face of the end of the Cold War. The 2000-2010 decade found Americans feeling imperiled by terrorism and voluntarily engaged in two long and ultimately unsuccessful wars, leaving the population increasingly cynical and at sea concerning its politics and its own rightful role in political life.

            If this admittedly quick sketch suggests the plausibility of fear as a leitmotiv for recent United States politics, then one may see why a major political party might seek to exploit that reality for electoral gain. The GOP has done so not only by mobilizing around anxiety linked to supposed foreign others (“us” versus “them” since 2001 in understanding terrorism and, more recently, its campaign against immigrants and immigration), but the party has for decades also told the American people to fear their own government and to do so in good measure because it unreasonably favors “others,” especially minorities, whose rights it has demanded be protected. These individuals ought instead, the Republican Party has argued, be held to account for their behavior. The result, as Krugman perceptively observed, is a profoundly misleading imaginary applied in a thinly veiled way not only to a major share of the American population, but also indirectly to the popular sovereign itself, whose prejudices are manipulated to gain and maintain power. Cruel “othering” always draws one’s attention to the supposed contemptible one and often imposes great costs, moral and material, as that focus results in actions. Infamous examples include Hitler and the Jews, the Rwandan genocide, the mass murders in Cambodia under Pol Pot and America and its Native Americans. These examples might be multiplied and illustrated from additional nations around the world. Meanwhile, and across human history, the progenitor of such vicious flights among citizens gains and enjoys power. The cost to freedom and to democratic possibility of these actions is always high, whether material or symbolic or both, sometimes incalculably so. The ever-relevant question for those who believe in self-governance is how to avoid the worst possibilities of human behavioral savagery when “othering” is unleashed, while securing democratic choice processes. Just now, the jury concerning our nation’s wherewithal to address that question without descent into one form or another of chaos, is out, and we have a share of our own elected leaders partly to thank for the ugly scenario we now collectively confront.