Two wars. The Great Recession. Mid-term elections. The Tea Party. The Obama presidency. It is the perfect storm, and, if nothing else, it pumps money into the local economy as march and rally season descends upon DC as surely as Ringling Brothers brings the elephants to Capitol Hill each spring.
We got a jump start this year with Glen Beck’s “God-bless-America” gathering in August. I’ll confess to skipping that one when discretion proved the better part of avoiding the crowds on yet another in a record-breaking steamy string of 90-plus degree summer afternoons. I gave some thought to going down to the Mall that day, but the crowd of mostly middle-aged and older white folks teaming at the Metro stop dissuaded me.
On the one hand, the left one I suppose, I did make it down to the One Nation rally earlier this month. One could analyze the political content of the spoken messages and of the various messengers, but a few pictures are worth thousands of words. The pictures show the wildly diverse crowd that simply looks more like America than crowd Mr. Beck attracted in August.
Maybe it was the weather. Liberals are known to be wimpy. Just ask any conservative.
On the other hand, speaking out for the rights of immigrants, gays and lesbians, working class folks and union members seems more likely to draw a diverse crowd than does “taking back our country” – which too often seems like code for taking it back from immigrants, gays and lesbians, working class folks and union members.
It will be interesting to see what kind of crowd shows up for Jon Stewart and the Comedy Central crew in a couple of weeks. My guess is that gathering will be much less diverse than the One Nation rally, which would underscore the fact that while we are one nation we remain many peoples.
That simple truth is why the rhythmic chant, “this is what democracy looks like” remains my favorite rally staple. Yet these days, even that song sounds more like a lament for something lost than a declaration of something hoped for.
I just finished J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, a novel that calls every notion of authority into question, including, notably, the authority of democracy itself. One of the novel’s narrative voices offers multiple “strong opinions,” including this little gem:
We do not choose our rulers by the toss of a coin – tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling – but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if rulers had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?
At about the same time Coetzee was writing those words, Cornel West offered these in Democracy Matters: “Let us not be deceived: the great dramatic battle of the twenty-first century is the dismantling of empire and the deepening of democracy.”
If so, the battle has not yet been joined in any significant way in the United States, that is to say, in the empire itself. And the hour is growing late.
As Andrew Bacevich persuasively argues in Washington Rules, the huge and expanding national security state the props up and projects the American empire around the world fundamentally threatens democracy at home. Citing President Eisenhower’s famous farewell warning about the emerging power of the military-industrial complex, Bacevich writes,
Initiatives undertaken to ensure national security had given rise to new institutions and habits deeply antithetical to traditional American values.Bacevich traces the continuing rise of those institutions and habits that reached their logical limits in the preemptive war in Iraq and the entire construct of the global war on terror that continues to be played out in Afghanistan, the border regions of Pakistan, and Iraq today with new fronts being hinted at in Yemen and elsewhere.
These new forces had yielded unwelcome consequences that Eisenhower himself, whether as general or as president, had neither intended nor anticipated, threatening American democracy.
The truly curious thing about what passes for democracy in America right now is how widespread the opposition to this is among the vox populi. I would guess that if you could do exit polling from Glen Beck’s rally, the One Nation event, and the Comedy Central court jester-fest, you would find strong sentiment across the board for getting U.S. troops out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. As of last month, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, more than half of Americans think we should not be in Afghanistan at this point, and more than 70 percent believe that Iraq was not worth the cost in lives and dollars.
A coin toss for leadership would give us at least a 50-50 chance of getting out, whereas our purportedly democratic elections provide no chance at ending the ongoing tragedy no matter which party prevails. Getting out now is, as they say, off the table.
Of course, the deep divisions that do exist within the American public touch on far more than just so-called national security concerns. But the fundamental problem, the rot at the core of American democracy, stands firmly in the way of finding real solutions to any pressing issues whether they be hot-button social concerns or widespread economic suffering.
Until we get at the decaying center, all of our rallies – of the right, the left, or the comedic center – will be no more meaningful than when the circus comes to town.