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Is American Democracy Going to Die? Or, Welcome to the Age of Zombie Democracy

Is American Democracy Going to Die? Or, Welcome to the Age of Zombie Democracy

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Hi! How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing god-awfully well, or at least…surviving. Thanks old friends, welcome new readers, and a Big Thanks again to all who’ve joined this little voyage so far.

Today we’re going to discuss…

It’s a little funny, long overdue, and perhaps just that little bit too late. Don’t look now, for you’ll see the establishment panicking, and sounding a whole lot like us…alarmists. Open the pages of the Washington Post, or turn on the cable news, and you’ll hear the word fascism, or finally see that things aren’t going so well for the economy, or in this world of ours, crack open the NYT, and you’ll hear Paul Krugman asking, for example, whether or not democracy’s going to die.

Whew. That took a while. Some of us—you, me, those like us—have been sounding that particular set of alarms for quite a while now. And it’s been maddening not to have been heard, though I’m not quite sure it’s gratifying, at this point, to have been trailblazers. But I’ll come back to all that. First, let’s hit this nail squarely on the head.

Is American democracy going to die?

The brief answer to that question goes like this. It’s the wrong question.

And because it’s the wrong question, it tends to send people into intellectual-shutdown mode, especially those who are the sort of die-hard it-can’t-happen-here types. They just kind of go into paroxysms of angry denial, and so that particular discussion ends up precisely nowhere. Haven’t we had altogether too much evidence of that over the last few years? 

A much better way to understand what happens in a situation like the one America’s facing now is to really take in what happens when democracies come apart, in the contemporary age.

Rarely do they “die.” Instead, they turn undead.

The “Death” vs Undeath of Democracies

When we say that a democracy’s going to “die,” what kind of pictures and images does it conjure up in your head? 1984, maybe, or Stalin, or the guillotine, and so forth. In other words, not very contemporary ones, even if, for example, Orwell’s warnings were prescient. Because these images are violent, extreme, and totalizing, they tend to be dismissed easily, too, by the it-can’t-happen-here segment or tribe. 

And in a sense, that’s correct.

We don’t often see democracy dying…in this sense…anymore. Rarely do we see a sort of military-cap wearing dictator in full martial regalia leading mass salutes towards the glorification of a Reich anymore, really. It’s not so often that we see someone assuming the title of Emperor or Great Leader or Dear Father or Fuhrer. Perhaps with the exceptions of the most war-torn and beleaguered parts of the world, those in truly shattered states. Even in poor countries, we rarely see this sort of Mad Max scenario play out.

Why is that? Because in this day and age the pretense of democracy matters. It matters a very great deal. It allows nations to keep access to capital markets, aka, sell their debt, and finance necessary public works. It allows nations to join various international organizations, which are necessary for trade, money, labour, and much more. And it allows nations to retain some semblance of diplomacy with the rest of the world, which is crucial, unless you particularly want to become a pariah state.

That’s why we see the pretense of democracy having spread around the globe in the post-war era. The institutions set up then, from the World Bank to the UN, to the International Labor Organization to the World Food Program, and countless numbers more—all these made it desirable for nations to be democracies, because when you’re a democracy, you enjoy access to them, in a sort of preferential way. So being a democracy gives you a certain place in the world order, even if it’s a degenerating one, at this point, as that order comes undone.

So nations go out there and…now…pretend to be democracies. While we all know they’re not. Some struggle to retain a semblance of democracy, some gave up the ghost long ago, and some are sort of lurching, shuffling remnants of once proud democracies.

Those are zombie democracies.

And in just that way, the danger for America isn’t that democracy “dies,” in the extreme sense we often think of—but that it turns undead.

The Age of Zombie Democracy

In our age, that trend—zombie democracy—is easy to spot. You can probably name half-a-dozen without thinking too hard. What are some characteristics of a zombie democracy?

  • The incumbent always wins a (laughably) large proportion of the vote.
  • Institutions with democratic names exist, like courts and justice and press, but they serve an authoritarian function.
  • There are several parties in name, but only one ever wins and retains power.
  • Freedom and equality and truth and so forth, democracy’s fundamental values, are honored proudly in speeches and soaring rhetoric, but in reality, life is repressive, fearful, and riven.
  • The overarching mission of society is war, cleansing, conflict, or domination, not the genuine democratic values of peace, prosperity, and happiness.
  • People’s lives are strictly controlled, and usually monitored and policed carefully, with harsh consequences for infractions of authoritarian values.

I could go on, for example, all that’s usually accompanied by crony capitalism, a class of elites who jet off to London or where have you and live in mansions, as they siphon off the wealth of the nation, etcetera. But you begin to get the point.

Here’s the larger one. 

All that’s masked, covered, almost triumphantly, in this weird display: we’re a democracy! We’re the most democratic! We’re more democratic than you, only this is what we choose!

So here I’m drawing a distinction, almost one hiding in plain sight. In older times, dictators were sort of loud and proud of it—Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and so on. Have you ever seen Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator”? That’s sort of a textbook example of this kind of figure, persona, image.

But today, that’s almost passe. You don’t want to be that sort of figure, or that sort of society, because you end up cut off from the modern world in all the ways I’ve described above. And so what we see much more of now are figureheads who are dictators, or close to it, or aspiring to be, and will deny it, over and over again, and instead garb themselves in the noble, pure cloth of democracy. 

Hey, it’s as if they’re saying, I’m not Stalin. Look! I’m practically Thomas Jefferson!

The pretense fools no one, really. But it does generate the legitimacy that it’s designed to. Pretending, at least, to be a democracy still does give you access to capital, labor, diplomacy, trade deals, treaties, and much more, because our systems and institutions aren’t really built to distinguish, formally, between democracies and zombie democracies, yet. 

And all that’s why, in our world, zombie democracy is one of the largest, newest, and most troubling trends of all. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples yourself.

And all of that brings us back to America.

Is America Going to Become a Zombie Democracy?

If Trump’s re-elected, does democracy “die”? Now you know the—or at least my—answer. 

It’s probably not going to die in the extreme, outlandish sense of suddenly having Charlie Chaplin’s great caricature at its head—a Supreme Tyrant or Great Emperor or what have you. It’s probably not going to celebrate becoming an overtly authoritarian place, or proudly declare itself something inimical to democracy.

Instead, it’s more likely that democracy turns undead.

And that means, as we’ve discussed above, a kind of non-democracy clothed in democratic garb, perhaps more loudly and flamboyantly, in both counts, than ever before.

Does that kind of make sense?

The it-can’t-happen-here crowd is right, but only in the wrong sense. Sure, it’s not as if Trump’s going to step straight into the ghost of Gaddafi’s body and turn up in military fatigues and declare himself Supreme Commander of the Revolution. But that rarely happens, as we’ve discussed, in the contemporary world, and for good reason. What does happen, and it’s happening much more frequently, is that democracies turn into zombies.

The shuffle and lurch and stagger, and pretend, increasingly desperately, to be democracies. They moan and keen and wail banshee howls about the great words of democracy—but they’re just moans and keens and howls and words. Like zombies, such democracies aren’t really there, in a human sense, in a real one. They’re empty shells, mindless vessels, which are sort of…violent and brutal and senseless.

And also pretty hard to destroy. Think of how many zombie democracies there are now, and how long and hard they’ve persisted. How difficult is it to undo becoming a zombie democracy? Harder than we know yet, because we don’t have too many examples of that process of coming-back-to-life-from-being-undead happening so far. Just a bare handful, perhaps less than three, certainly less than five.

If you want gory details, an America that’s a zombie democracy…sort of looks…like what you might picture and worry about. The one European leaders are certainly desperately preparing for. The one Democrats don’t seem nearly alarmed enough about becoming yet. It’s a place run by authoritarian ideas, where thoughts and behavior are carefully controlled, and whatever institutions purport to be democratic are turned regressive, on their heads, just as the Supreme Court’s been. The tenor of daily life changes, and speaking out is frowned upon, and then punished, as freedoms continue to be eviscerated for reasons of moral or genetic or biological or ethnic or just ideological purification. Meanwhile, of course, the siphoning of wealth goes on and accelerates, because of course, now, who or what can stop it?

It’s not a pretty picture. But have you ever seen a good-looking zombie?

The Undeath of Democracies

I think the plight America faces now is badly, and deeply, misunderstood. Yes, the establishment finally…sounds…a lot like us. The alarmists, the ones who warned, and so forth, over the last few years and more. But it’s still not really grasping the picture, fully, here.

Even saying “fascism” or “authoritarianism” is in a sense yesterday’s news now. It doesn’t do justice to what’s on the cards. No, America isn’t going to suddenly become some outlandish caricature of whatever came before in the past. Rather, it’s that it becomes something ultra-modern, a zombie democracy. And that’s a bad thing. Because for all its flaws, mistakes, sins, America is still the place of the promise, the one the world looks to be better than the rest, and better, often, even, than itself, and that’s what’s always given America this broken heart.

Trump clearly admires yesterday’s dictators and tyrants and wants to model a nation after the ones they created. And yet he’s also smart enough to understand the value of sham democracy, which is why he claims the mantle of democracy for himself, at the very same time (the election was stolen, they’re the real fascists, etcetera.) That’s a potent, and deadly, combination of understandings, because it’s how…

A zombie democracy’s born.

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