The easy and obvious way to understand the various Republican power grabs underway in states across the country is to look at them as attempts to secure as much unaccountable political power as possible and to curtail the expression of identities and beliefs Republicans find objectionable. That’s how we get the “Don’t Say Gay” laws and attacks on gender-affirming care and aggressive efforts to gerrymander entire state legislatures.
But there is another angle you can take on the Republican use of state power to limit political representation for their opponents or limit the bodily autonomy of women or impose traditional and hierarchical gender relations on those who would prefer to live free of them. You could say the point is the cultivation of political despair.
Now, it is too much to say that this is premeditated, although you do not have to look hard to find Republican officeholders expressing the belief that political participation should be made more onerous.
At the same time, it is hard not to miss the degree to which attempts to nullify popular referendums or redistrict opponents into irrelevance can also work to inculcate a sense of hopelessness in those who might otherwise seek political change. Yes, it is true that many people will push back when faced with a sustained challenge to their right to participate in political life or exercise other fundamental rights. But many people will resign themselves to the new status quo, persuading themselves that nothing has fundamentally changed or concluding that it is not worth the time or effort involved to pick up the fight.
It does not help that many of our political institutions seem almost to be designed to exacerbate a feeling of hopelessness. The American political system, as I’ve written many times before, is riddled with veto points and counter-majoritarian rules that can stymie even the largest legislative majorities. One of the key institutions of American government, the Supreme Court, is not only empowered to strike down Congressional legislation but can, if the circumstances are right, limit or even eliminate the constitutional protection of cherished rights. And that’s when it’s not deciding the outcome of presidential elections.
But this isn’t just a problem of the Republican Party, our political institutions or the broader sense in which the entire system just isn’t responsive to the way ordinary people see things. It is also a problem of the lack of countervailing forces to political despair in present day American society.
Democracy, remember, is not just a set of rules and institutions. It is, as the philosopher John Dewey argued throughout his life, a set of habits and dispositions that must be cultivated and practiced if they are to survive and endure. “The struggle for democracy,” Dewey observed in his 1939 book “Freedom and Culture,” “has to be maintained on as many fronts as culture has aspects: political, economic, international, educational, scientific and artistic, religious.”
We do not practice democracy alone, of course. We do it together, in community, as equals. “Democracy as a way of life,” wrote Dewey in a later essay, “is controlled by personal faith in personal day-by-day working together with others.”
Unfortunately, as the law professor Aziz Rana observes in a recent essay on political freedom in Boston Review, there are scarcely any spaces in the contemporary United States where ordinary Americans practice the habits of democracy and inhabit a more reciprocal, participatory and solidaristic vision of freedom. Decades after Ronald Reagan led a sweeping attack on the idea of the commons in American life, Rana writes, “there are vanishingly few sites in American life — at work or in politics — where these experiences actually exist.”
“We are simply not raised in cultural worlds in which collective agency is a meaningful reality,” Rana goes on to say.
Recent expressions of labor militancy have been heartening, but they have also come at the same time that conservative politicians, entrenched financial interests and neoliberal ideologues have targeted what’s left of our commons — and, in particular, our public schools and universities — to be stripped for parts.
Democrats have already framed the upcoming presidential election as a battle for the future of American democracy and for good reason. Donald Trump, who threatened not to accept the results in 2016 and actively tried to overturn them in 2020, will almost certainly be on the ballot. And he has no intention of honoring the democratic traditions of the United States. Instead, he has promised his supporters to be their “retribution” in the White House. He says he’ll be a “dictator,” on “day one” at least, and his allies are busy devising plans to radically empower the executive branch and punish the former president’s political enemies.
The American republic is genuinely at stake. But as Democrats and their allies gear up for that battle, they should understand that beating Trump is the beginning of the beginning. We need to fight political despair everywhere we find it, which means this country needs an overhaul of its economic system, its political institutions and its public life.
We need to recognize, as Dewey did, that it is wrong to think that “democratic conditions automatically maintain themselves” or that “they can be identified with fulfillment of prescriptions laid down in a constitution.” Beliefs of this sort, he continues,
Defeating Trump is only the first step toward saving — and revitalizing — American democracy. It’ll be hard. The next steps may well be even harder.
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