The current presidential race in the United States has a laboratory-like implication for the contemporary theories of (deliberative) democracy that focus on the role of discourse, debate, and discussions in the procedural, representative democracies such as the US, where voting is the culmination of an often arduous and “agonistic” process.(1) This race is clearly distinguished by its massive infusion of vulgarity, personal attacks, normalization of the obscene, as well as by an unprecedented polarized polity dominated by the role of money and special interest groups, not to mention the traditional voter apathy and so-called “alienated voter.”
Concerning the latter, the late professor Murray Levin, who was this author’s dissertation adviser, once penned an insightful book on the “alienated voter” in mid-1960s that is still relevant in the main despite the passage of time. With roughly half the eligible US voters skipping the presidential elections, the problem of declining voter turnout is attributable to, among other things, apathy and indifference, if not outright hostility, of many Americans who defy the expectations for citizens’ input and “efficacy.” Levin traced this problem to a growing disconnect between the two main political parties with the working masses, the distortions of democratic rule by ruling elites and moneyed oligarchies, and the reification of every day life. In his subsequent pioneering work, Levin focused on the role of talk shows and how the alienated listeners were ripe for picking by reactionary groups holding anti-status quo positions.
Today, the picture is, of course, profoundly more complex, with the rise of internet and explosion of social media and the concurrent decentralization of ideological indoctrination that goes hand in hand with the pillars of American democracy. In the age of Wikileaks and weblogs, etc., resistance and domination in the “public sphere” transpire simultaneously, often resulting in an inherently problematic, and contradictory, environment in which the various national and sub-national elections transpire.
On the whole, however, US remains distinguished by its relatively docile, and highly indoctrinated, population that is constantly subjected to the machinations of corporate and government-controlled mass media that, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, manufacture consent. As a result, American democracy is, compared to European democracies for example, considerably more one-dimensional and even authoritarian, in its natural tendency to bracket true dissent, i.e., a constant trait recognized early by Alex de Tocqueville two centuries ago. Of course, a lot has changed about the American society, e.g., industrialization and a post-industrial information society, complex interdependence, the New Deal reforms and the rise of a welfare system, etc., but the ideological restrictions have remained rather constant inviting critical scrutiny, with the help of more refined and rigorous theoretical frameworks, such as Habermas’s discourse theory and or his writings on the legitimization crisis of modern democracies.
My purpose here is not to engage in a theoretical exercise re-invoking these theories, but rather to illustrate how the present presidential race illuminates or modifies our understanding of “deliberative democracy.” After all, the proponents of deliberative democracies, such as John Rawls, often attribute a “civic virtue” to the multiple merits of “open societies” that sets them apart from “closed societies.” In other words, a progressivist assumption is detectable in these discourses that place so much emphasis on the role of reason and rationality, often by underestimating the dark sides, that is, the role of irrationality and un-reason, or the distortions of what Habermas refers to as the “mediatizing power and money” in his magnum opus on the theories of communication.
From a Habermasian perspective, then, the Trump ‘phenomenon’ appears in a complex light, on the one hand corroborating his warnings about the legitimation crisis tendencies and their symptoms and, on the other hand, the integrative potential of political populism and the palliative solutions for the endemic issues of voter alienation and rising class consciousness critical of wealth inequality and poverty and so on. The anti-establishment posture of Trump and his campaign is attractive because it is responsive to a political crisis that has stirred citizen discontent and even protests against the elitist status quo. Once can of course argue that Trump with his background as a real estate mogul is part of the problem and not the solution, but this is rather simplistic and overlooks the multi-dimensional Trump phenomenon that is simultaneously ultra-nationalistic, xenophobic, and also empowering segments of the population that is yearning for change.
Clearly, save the issue of gender, Clinton’s candidacy is bereft of the fundamental elements of change in the status quo desired by many Americans and if elected as president we are likely to witness business as usual. But with Trump, the stability of political status quo would experience significant tremors that may release greater potential for bigger changes, that is, may act as catalyst for incubating a more profound aftermath. This, in turn, points to the “Trump phenomenon” as a phenomenon-in-making, a barely half-constructed and partly incoherent political ‘event’ centered on Trump that defies simplistic conclusions. What is clear, at this point, however is that Trump is increasingly detached from the Republican party, whose leadership has defected him en masse, thus signifying the party’s own disarray. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the populistic, right-wing Trump phenomenon has already contributed to both the evolution, in terms of system integration and appeal to the alienated voters, and the devolution of American deliberative democracy, by replacing rational discourse with a politics of suspicion (of outsiders) and surveillance, thus both empowering and distorting the democratic process. Trump’s “moral anarchy” reflected in the disclosed tapes, is also symptomatic of the substitution of a new politics of sexuality that forms the candidate’s background. Trumpism is, in other words, a new mode of politics that is to some extent identifiable with the prior American populist movements and certainly has a militaristic streak, but it is also novel and may, indeed, outlast the candidate himself, not the least because the legitimation ‘deficits’ of American corporate democracy are simply piling up high to the heavens.
(1) For more on this see Afrasiabi, “Deliberative Democracy and its Discontents” Telos Deliberative Democracy and its Discontents