Whenever some new massacre is perpetrated in this country, the usual voices say that the tragedy should not be politicized. This response is so inevitable that it can be assumed to produce the desired effect: the tamping down of outrage in deference to the horror of the crime. Their right to sanctimoniousness having been tacitly conceded, these concerned voices add that in such moments of national crisis, we must all come together. There should be no divisiveness, they say, which in practical terms means no assigning of responsibility. Yet the moment of unity and calm deliberation never comes, because there is always a new massacre, or because the horror of these crimes is not of a kind to be diminished by time, or because the implied promise that the problem will be looked at and acted on has never been made in good faith. In any case, the public is hushed like children, closed out of the deliberations of an inner circle who knowingly weigh their own interests against the certainty that Americans will again die en masse in their schools or theaters or churches. Thoughts and prayers cost nothing, and they offend no donors.
The matter of gun control is paradigmatic in being “depoliticized.” Since politics is the only purchase that ordinary citizens in a democracy have on their government, every significant public issue should of course be processed politically. The graver the question the country faces, the more thoroughly it should be debated, so that the decision of the majority can be reflected in legislation and in the outcomes of elections. This sounds a little Periclean, but in fact it is simply politics minus the sleights and obstructions that have compromised our democracy.
Terrible history has its uses. During all the long years that slavery persisted in the United States, the proslavery side in Congress was large and powerful in part because of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution. Enslaved people were “represented” by swollen delegations from the South who were absolutely and systematically hostile to their interests. The Congress was bitter and deadlocked, disgraced as an institution by this cruel parody of representation. The distortion of the electorate was a corruption of politics that obstructed movement on this essential issue. We have for some time seen a version of this phenomenon, a paralysis in Washington that effectively denies the public transparent and considered policy. Congress has been marched any number of times down the cul-de-sac of health-care repeal, creating a certain appearance of activity while preserving the effects of inertia. (Conversely, the speed with which the Republicans’ recent tax overhaul was proposed and passed despite its complexity, together with the absence of normal discussion and debate, suggests a bill handed to the White House and Congress by a think tank or PAC. So, too, does its notably detailed and consistent attention to the interests of Republican constituencies, all of which merely underscores the undemocratic nature of the whole undertaking.)
Those who want to shut down discussion when the shock of the latest enormity is most strongly felt are warning away those who might attempt to find partisan advantage in the event, without reference to the merits of the case they might make—or else fearfully aware of its merits. Anxiety is acute because on this issue, as on so many others, the parties are starkly at odds. Sick of seeing our people dead in our streets, the voters might favor the party that wants to do something over the party that wants to do nothing. As in the matter of slavery, doing nothing is in effect a potent agenda, because, in the absence of the kind of intervention that the public might make if it had a functioning politics, the problem grows and spreads and becomes more deeply entrenched, more intractable.
The antebellum South had three-fifths of its disenfranchised included in the population figures that determined the size of its congressional delegations. We have gerrymandering. The consequences are the same. An objective that a functioning politics would put at risk is realized through the defeat of politics. There are now so many powerful guns in private hands in the United States that, as a consequence of years of delay, the problem they pose can be represented as beyond the powers of mere legislation to meliorate. The implication is that an important public issue has been placed permanently out of the reach of public decision and action, where it will therefore remain. There is now a new model of freedom that at best amounts to standing in rows at firing ranges, shooting fierce and costly weapons at stationary targets. It has largely displaced the idea of individual and civic freedom that would bring democratic scrutiny to bear on the wisdom and decency of making these weapons widely available. A Supreme Court did rule in favor of the interpretation of the Second Amendment that has permitted this to happen, for the moment putting the problem more or less beyond political remedy. A Supreme Court also gave us the Dred Scott decision, which undergirded and expanded the rights of slaveholders. Our complex system, a sort of rock/paper/scissors arrangement that makes all authority conditional and circumstantial, was not meant to leave us without recourse when bad decisions are made. Congress could pass gun-control legislation, if it were a functioning institution. But in this matter above all, we have learned that even overwhelming public opinion counts for nothing.
Congress can be as partisan as it is because it is effectively depoliticized, which means that the calcified majority party is immune, therefore indifferent, to the public will. Party discipline means that the representation of states is radically subordinated to a leadership whose agenda need not be aired in public. The only real question for our legislators is whether the majority party will vote en bloc, whether a smug little man from Kentucky or Wisconsin has once again brought them all to heel. The answer is virtually always yes. This system erases any acknowledgment of the differing cultures and interests of the various regions that real representation would require. Maine votes with Mississippi in Republican solidarity, though no one knows any longer what the Republican Party is or stands for. Its great power is inertia. It acts most decisively by not acting. There will be no debate about gun laws. There will be no rise in the minimum wage. Health-care policy has dropped into the void. Infrastructure thus far has been all but forgotten, except by ordinary citizens who live with its decay. No rationalization need be offered.
Especially after another terrible Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, opened the floodgates to moneyed interests, the press and the public must assume that persons and organizations distinguished for nothing but devotion to their own immense profits have bought their way into the process of government, bypassing the dreary and uncertain business of making a case to the electorate, further depoliticizing public life. Politics are the nervous system and the musculature of democracy. They are its method and decorum, its means of finding value in differences through compromise and accommodation. They are its means of enlisting the talent and insight of people at large. As in the matter of guns and the atrocities associated with them, politicizing an issue—assuming this is done within a framework of authentically political government—opens it to debate that is substantive because it can have consequences. We have descended into tribalism because, as voters, we are offered identity when we should be offered responsibility. It seems never to be considered that the inchoate frustration abroad in the land might have something to do with the fact that people have been quietly but effectively dispossessed of their status as citizens of a democracy.
In the absence of real discussion and debate, new and urgent problems can be cast in old and irrelevant terms. American boundaries are indeed breached and trammeled. No information, no institution, no good name is secure, because all around the world there are individuals and governments ready to make hostile use of the Internet. Russia’s fingerprints are all over our recent election, and nothing is done about it. The balm we are offered for this failure of our borders is a beautiful wall, the most antique and irrelevant response to a present and sophisticated threat that could well be conceived. This wall, whether realized or only imagined, is intensely politicized, in the sense that one party can rouse its crowds to passionate chants simply by mentioning it. By this means, the very present problem of securing our electronic boundaries, so that the information we receive and exchange is basically sound and our voting system works the way it should, has been depoliticized. The White House does nothing and says nothing. It is true that if the issue were addressed openly, the debate would become highly partisan, since the Russian tamperers apparently favor Republicans, a fact of interest in itself.
If, in allowing our politics to be taken out of our hands, we have, for a time at least, lost our democracy, how are we to think of ourselves? Perhaps we have to be the land of the free if we are also to be the home of the brave. There seems to be an erosion of the old confidence that we have something singular and precious together, something worth defending against the pressures that continuously beset free societies. Dignity comes with this kind of identification, and purpose as well. We seem to have broken up into any number of smaller identity groups, a state of things that differs profoundly from the old mosaic of civil society in that many of these groups take strength from the belief that the larger culture is hostile and corrupt. Obviously, this is not the kind of assumption that is helpful in maintaining a democracy, or even a society at some degree of peace with itself.
The adamant resistance of Republicans to any attempt to make the public safer from military weapons may well be ideological. Since they have resorted to nonpolitical means to hold and assert power, they are never obliged to say what vision of the country or its future can be reconciled with their refusal even to allow debate in Congress of this agonizing problem of gun violence. Donald Trump has ascribed the massacre in a Texas church to mental illness. Paul Ryan has suggested on another gruesome occasion that the mental-health system should be strengthened, presumably to identify people who might turn to extreme violence—this from the leader of a party that is loath to fund Medicaid. If an initiative of this kind were designed to address mental health in the demographic most inclined to carry out these acts of mayhem, that would be white men. They are not a group that Republicans are ready to offend. If, in the interest of fairness, the whole adult population came under scrutiny, the system would collapse under its own weight, overwhelmed with cost and pointlessness. Only a minute percentage of people of any description are inclined toward extreme violence, and they cannot be identified before the fact, putting to one side the old rituals of due process. Individuals singled out as potentially dangerous would be harshly stigmatized in the absence of any crime. We can hope that this proposal, so authoritarian in its implications, is simply another sop thrown to a restive public, cynical and impracticable and therefore just as dead as any effective legislation would be. Let us say that the interests being protected at such peril to our lives and our system are economic. There is the microeconomy of the NRA, passing millions into the campaigns of its congressional loyalists, and there is the macroeconomy of the arms industry. If these interests are defended in the face of such appalling cost to public safety and morale and to the country’s good name, then the issue of gun control should again be considered paradigmatic. The great question that divides Americans, from one another and from their past, is whether the country should invest in itself, that is, in its citizenry. In the past, this has included the costs to industry involved in keeping food safe, air breathable, water drinkable. That these are costs is clear from the resistance that such regulations, and the agencies that would enforce them, reliably meet.
Under the present regime, there is no mention of shared advancement, no vision of a good society. Making America great depends on definitions that no one provides or offers for debate. Old institutions that have distributed wealth—for example, public lands and public schools—are under pressure now as if they were somehow illegitimate, though since Theodore Roosevelt the parks have given us each a share in a glorious, primal America, and since the 17th century the schools have given most of us, in the North, at least, a basis for learning and understanding, and the means to enrich our lives and our communities. This is wealth in a larger sense of the word than our plutocrats now give it. They clearly feel that money should intervene between people and privilege—between any child and a good school, for example. Whatever is not monetized is socialist, by their lights tantamount to sponging or theft. Their respect for money, on the other hand, is entirely sufficient to silence any qualms about its origins, including theft. Only consider the billions that have been extruded by means of the monetization of state holdings in the former Eastern bloc. Masses of capital derived from the passing into private, or quasi-private, hands of oil and mineral resources have flowed into fantastically overpriced real estate in London and New York, into lawyers’ pockets, into dubious banks and shell companies—so much wealth, in fact, that ordinary people in those countries would surely be more prosperous if it were invested at home. Wealth is relative, of course, and on these grounds alone general prosperity is a burden on the rich. It is apparent that the people in these regions have no claim on the value realized from industries and resources that had been notionally theirs. Only think what a billionaire or two could extract from Yellowstone Park, or perhaps by strip-mining the Badlands! More billions, of course, hiring more lobbyists to head off a rise in the minimum wage. London real-estate prices would skyrocket overnight. These need not be American billionaires, since hyper-wealth transcends nation. So we learn from the boy giants of the Internet.
This wealth is very largely in hiding, and the wealth it amasses will be hidden, too. The great object of all this concealment is to avoid taxes. Taxes are, after all, an acknowledgment that one lives in a society and benefits from it. Or, from an increasingly dominant point of view, taxes are an expropriation of the hard-earned rewards of winners, ceded to the mass of resentful losers. The moneyed are self-righteous now, and resentful as well. Any plausible claimant to the title “billionaire,” be he slumlord, usurer, or fraudster, enjoys presumptive respect from his peers, from his partisan clients, and from a dishearteningly large part of the American public. How Russian billionaires rationalize their wealth I can only speculate, but clearly some of the American ones participate in the same mind-set to be found in various forms throughout our culture now. They too consider themselves a minority within a hostile and decadent civilization. Like the religious right and the gun lobby, they are eager to be pandered to and to interpose themselves between public opinion and government.
There is a clear surface resemblance between our emergent oligarchy and the oligarchy in Russia and the former Eastern bloc. Fantastical wealth now translates without embarrassment into assertions of power, in contempt of the ideals of social equality that were claimed by both sides through most of the 20th century. We describe the phenomenon to ourselves in terms of polarization, suggesting that it differs only in degree from normal or traditional American economic relations. Presumably Soviet corruption lies behind their version of it: It appears that their oligarchs enjoy wealth at the pleasure of Putin’s regime, and that they act as agents of the state when called upon, buying into foreign economies, influencing foreign elections, dazzling venal Americans, and so on. Russia may never achieve general prosperity or aspire to it, but it has learned that great concentrations of wealth can be, so to speak, weaponized, made powerful instruments of foreign policy. For many Americans, money is the universal solvent. It grants wide social access and contact with people of influence. It involves itself in the development and the ethos of crucial industries. The pretense can be maintained, by those looking to profit, that money is just potential energy, as innocent of its origin as a kilowatt. So all this money, to the extent that it represents actual value, which is no doubt the same as the extent to which it represents theft of the resources of the country of origin, flows into our economy, another dark stream of unpoliticized influence and power.
I don’t know if there is a name for a regime like this, parasitic and invasive, lifting itself into significance by, in the biological sense, colonizing a strong and complex host society. It is very much a creature of special circumstances: the Soviet Union’s collapse and the opportunities to reshape national economies that followed from it; the Internet, which made sophisticated countries utterly porous to foreign influence; a desire on the part of Vladimir Putin and others to make Russia great again; and, crucially, a moral and intellectual fashion still prevalent in the West that subordinates ethics and the public interest to simple greed. Our heroes of capitalism are great job creators for the offshore banking system.
American oligarchy, in stark contrast with the Russian version, is not in the control of the state and is not beholden to anyone’s vision of the national interest. Our plutocratic technocrats choose not to speak to Congress, no doubt reluctant to see a political parsing of their business arrangements. This despite the fact that their “platforms,” however passively, or with passivity as a convenient excuse, have had enormous negative consequences for our democracy. The opportunistic nationalism of the Russian system and the calculated atomization of the American non-system both exclude from consideration the people and the polity. Neither the Russians nor the Americans linger over the question of society’s well-being or its future. Libertarians talk about a planned economy as “the road to serfdom.” The end of politics is a shortcut.