What Democracy Looks Like

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I.

Like for millions of Americans, this has been an emotional morning for me, waking up to find that the GOP’s latest Affordable Care Act repeal plot — one that seemed certain to bear some kind of fruit just a few days ago — had been defeated at the eleventh hour. I’m still trying to sort out what it all means.

Many people don’t realize that the core of neoliberalism — the dominant ideology on the right for the last 40 or 50 years — is not really an obsession with economic efficiency, per se, but with a loathing of democracy. The first meeting of what would later become the Mont Pèlerin Society, the organizational and intellectual bedrock of the worldwide neoliberal movement, was actually called the Colloque Walter Lippmann, after the 20th-century American intellectual who wrote little about economics but much about, as the title of his famous 1922 book put it, Public Opinion. Lippmann’s idea was that “the public” and, by corollary, “public opinion” were chimeras, concocted by the political elite to mask the fact that ordinary people were actually too irrational, too unintelligent, too easily mislead, to form any kind of collective purpose that might bestow democratic legitimacy on governmental action.

Lippmann’s conviction is something of a cipher to unlock many of the right-wing developments of the second half of the twentieth century. James Buchanan and the “public choice” economists developed more formalized economic models that treated putative democracies and the collective action they facilitate as, in fact, only arenas for self-interested jockeying by individual power players who were unresponsive to anything that could be called “the public.” Steeped in evolutionary psychology and studies of resource management by small communities, other neoliberal intellectuals, like Elinor and Victor Ostrom, insisted that democracy and collective action could only have meaning on scales small enough to allow reciprocal, face-to-face personal relationships between all players: our modern “democratic” nation-states could never have such legitimacy; and therefore dreams of social problem-solving at the national scale was at best a mistake and at worst a cover for “special interests.” Many others, similarly working at a strange and novel interface between economics, political science, and (evolutionary and social) psychology, explained why ingrained biases made the average person unable to perceive clearly the merits of free markets and inclined them “emotionally” towards socialism, and postulated a brand of IQ determinism that attempted to scientifically debunk the political (and often racial) egalitarianism at the heart of democracy.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, right-wing business elites, in cooperation with many of these same intellectuals, waged a highly practical war on the functioning of real-world democracies around the globe. The story of the collaboration of Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys,” among other neoliberal economists, with Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile is comparatively well-known. But in the U.S. and the U.K., and increasingly elsewhere in Europe, millionaires and billionaires (most famously, in the U.S., Charles and David Koch) have over the last several decades bankrolled the establishment of an elaborate think-tank infrastructure to propagate their ideas, spent unprecedented amounts of money to buy candidate loyalty and eventually elections themselves, and developed and implement arcane but potent legislative restrictions on the right to vote and to organize.

If you spend a lot of time with these ideas, even if you refuse to follow them to their free-market and anti-democratic policy conclusions, they can start to make a twisted, depressing kind of sense. After all, our democracy is so dysfunctional. It frequently does work for the benefit of elites, who are all too good at manipulating ordinary citizens for their purposes. In fact, the neoliberal project seems, in this light, like a disturbing proof of concept of their core idea.

And yet.

And yet, with the Kochs’ guy, Mike Pence, waiting in the Senate chamber ready to cast the tie-breaking vote to finally achieve victory in a seven-year-long, day-and-night political struggle against the popular crowning achievement of a popular president, the plan didn’t work. Somehow, after months of activists facing arrest and physical injury to defend their basic well-being, citizens around the country calling Senators and Representatives day and night, polling numbers proving again and again the unpopularity of the GOP effort among the American populace, somehow, the millions of people who rely on the ACA for access to healthcare bought some more time. Not today.

This is what I can’t stop thinking today: They were wrong. Collective action is real, meaningful, and effective. Despite everything, the public still has a voice, can still exert its will, and can still throw up roadblocks when politicians try to literally bleed the country dry to further enrich the ruling class. To adapt a beloved protest chant, this is what democracy looks like: a stunning reminder that no matter how hard the right works to actualize its vision of government as a game played by individual self-interested rulers and nothing more, the will of the people cannot be extinguished entirely.

II.

This is not what democracy looks like:

Democracy is, above all, the conviction that no one should be forced to submit to the arbitrary power of someone else above them, whether that’s a seventeenth-century monarch, a present-day employer (the monarch of the twenty-first-century workplace), or, yes, a politician like John McCain — holding the fate of millions of Americans in his hand and still holding it out tantalizingly before signaling his decision, a reminder of the ultimate power he wields and could choose to wield in any way he pleases.

Today in New York a couple committed suicide because they couldn’t see an end to the “financial spiral” in which they were caught — including, reportedly, health care bills that they simply couldn’t pay. Last night’s decision saved many lives. But it did not save theirs. And it didn’t save the lives of the estimated 28 million people that the ACA will still leave uninsured in 2026.

That is, if there still is an ACA by then. This morning Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows promised to have a “perfect” bill ready in two weeks to try to push through both the House and the Senate. The final bill that was defeated last night was, it’s worth emphasizing, a true abomination: scrapped together days or hours before the final vote, with an eye towards major revisions to come during the subsequent reconciliation process. And yet somehow 49 Republicans still voted for it. Who knows if McCain — or even the two “hard no” GOP Senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — will still have the integrity to reject a bill with a more polished, respectable veneer?

So democracy won last night, but tyranny continues: the tyranny of economic deprivation, of a society that refuses to use its unfathomable wealth to guarantee the basic needs of all of its members, of a party — led by a man who is the incarnation of arbitrary power — determined to continue to subject millions of Americans to lingering suspense, uncertainty, and despair. Moving forward we will need the same outpouring of popular energy from engaged citizen-activists that we’ve seen fighting repeal the last several months — now redoubled, expanded, and sustained — to break this ugly stalemate, to win the non-reformist reforms that can humanize and democratize our nation bit by painstaking bit.

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