Our barren, deformed political society

And if and when Trump is no longer President, all the ills of political system can no longer be blamed on Trump.

For four years now – in America but also through viral spread around the world – all the ills of our deformed, barren political society have been personified in a metonymic myth: Donald Trump.

Victor David Hanson has said in a way that Trump is chemotherapy. It makes you sick, but cures a cancer. The challenge for our political societies now is: will we face up to the remaining cancer?

Ben Shapiro says Trump is not the killer of American politics, but the coroner. He declared the body politic dead, and correctly diagnosed the cause of its death. Perhaps this is the role of the insurgent populist – to highlight the emperor has no clothes, and to leave to successors the task of redressing the royals.

However, I think reports of the death of our body politics are exaggerated. It is more accurate to say our republics, not just America’s but across the liberal democratic world, are gravely ill. All sorts of parasitic pathogens inhabit the body but require it to live on. As Trump has found, the swamp monsters may be diseased and deformed, but they are not dead. They do fight back. Thus while a populist might expose the failures of the elite, it is difficult for a populist outsider to nourish the culture and institutions that might replenish the great dying forests of our polities.

Elsewhere on this blog I have written on the failure of our institutions in the pandemic crisis. That post sprang from Yuval Levin’s account of the decay of institutions, and Patrick Dineen’s reflections on the “flattened cultural wasteland produced by modern liberalism” (Patrick J. Dineen, Why Liberalism Failed). There I briefly sketched some signs of the barren, deformed political society through which we roam as do refugees through a ruined city: Parliaments full of empty posturing, and stripped of purposeful deliberation; a viral urge to be a leader; the overwhelming of our institutions by the new nomenklatura of our society.

Dineen is worth returning to as a launch-pad for a description of our diseased political society:

“Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them. The result is the systemic rolling blackouts in electoral politics, governance and economics, the loss of confidence and even belief in legitimacy among the citizenry, that accumulate not as separable and discrete problems to be solved within the liberal frame but as deeply interconnected crises of legitimacy and a portent of liberalism’s end times.”

Patrick Dineen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018)

The blackout that has just occurred in America’s electoral and political system, and in its institutions of mass communications, is the latest episode in the crisis of legitimacy, in the exposure of the yawning chasm between ideal and real that is leading to the breakdown of order. It is an event that one attorney said threatens to be of “biblical” grandeur in exposing the corruption of the American elite and the decay of its political system. Whether that claim can be sustained is not yet certain. It has already exposed its gimcrack electoral system and partisan judges. It may yet reveal the most astonishing defrauding of democracy by elites in the recent history of our republics. The Affair of the Dominion Systems may come to be known in the years ahead like the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which involved Marie Antoinette acting to defraud the French Crown to acquire a precious necklace, and accelerated disillusionment with the Bourbon dynasty.

The barren fields of our political society can be seen closer to home and across our political institutions.

Parliaments no longer debate, deliberate or investigate in ways that honour the past practice of their greatest practitioners. Which Parliamentarian or Congressperson of today will deliver speeches that will be be read 100, 200 or more years from now, as are those of Edmund Burke?

They are filled with functionaries from modern political parties, which have become exhausted husks of political marketing machines. These political parties are no longer organic associations that generate ideas and an ethos that shapes political movements. They are not even Leninist cadres of dedicated political revolutionaries, an army ready to besiege society. They can barely be described, as Maurice Duverger did, as mass political parties, that had strong, organic connections with significant sections of the society. They have even transcended Michels’ iron law of oligarchy and become mere machines for factional warlords, obedient operatives and insurgent media identities to engage in electoral manipulation. The electoral frauds allegedly perpetrated by the Democratic Party of the USA are the latest and most scandalous shame of this model of manipulation.

The manipulation is a strange form of prophecies conducted with evermore unreliable opinion polls. These polls seduce their practitioners into a fantasy they are conducting science, or mathematically rigorous prediction. But their recent performance reveals what a degraded augury they have become. Perhaps the rite of reading out the headline numbers of the latest poll has become its own form of political weapon. They are the symbol of the empty husk of politics as marketing to the punters. They degrade the polis to a betting market.

The core institutions of political government are diseased, and are no longer fruitful of imaginative compromises to civil conflicts. But this degradation would not have happened without rot in the para-political institutions of the culture. The professions have become both venal and woke. The governing crisis of lockdowns would not have happened without the distorted culture of public health in the medical and para-medical research professions. The press or media have spun into a diseased delusion about they themselves holding power to account, but to their self-regarding celebrity, not to any standard of truthful discussion supporting self-government. Thomas Carlyle wrote “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all” (On Heroes and Hero Worship). But the Fourth Estate has become a Fifth Column at the service of the New Oligarchs.

We are in a bad state. Things could readily get worse. America may spiral into a constitutional crisis or collapse into institutional inertia. My own minor province of the outer Empire has become a demoralised republic, frozen by fear, run by a deeply unimpressive, inauthentic clique, and masked in empty gestures of virtue. There are times I am tempted to give in to despair.

Now more than ever I turn to Vaclav Havel to renew the small garden I tend among the ruins of this barren political society. Havel described two cultures in post-totalitarian societies, thinking of both 1970s Eastern Europe, but also the consumption addicts of the West. The first culture grows “what is permitted, subsidized or at least tolerated, an area that naturally tends to attract more of those who, for reasons of advantage, are willing to compromise their truth” (“Six Asides about culture,” Living in Truth, p. 132). We see this culture every day in our political actors, our media and anti-journalist B-grade celebrities, and our posturing professionals.

But there is also a second culture that springs from autonomous free humanity. The second culture is “an area constituted through self-help, which is the refuge, voluntary or enforced, of those who refuse all compromise (regardless of how overtly ‘political’ or ‘non-political’ their work is.” Courage will take me on that path while the first culture crumbles around me.

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