The US: Is She Becoming Undun?

One of the things we’ve been seeing more and more of this past decade, and now in this election, is that state institutions that many thought (wrongly) were above politics—the Supreme Court, the security establishment, the Senate filibuster—are in fact the crassest instruments of partisan politics, sites of circus antics of the sort the Framers (and their hagiographers) traditionally associated with the lower house of a legislative body.

This, I’ve argued before, has been increasingly the case since the end of the Cold War.

Think of the Clarence Thomas hearings, impeachment over a blow job, Bush v. Gore, the manipulation of the security establishment and intelligence (and the sullying of national icon Colin Powell) going into the Iraq War, the rise of the filibuster-proof majority, the comments of Ginsburg on Trump that she had to retract, and now, today, the revelation of possible FBI interference in the election.

Let’s set aside the question of how new any of this is (I’ve argued that most of it is not). What is new, maybe, is an increasing brazenness and openness about it all, as if it simply doesn’t matter to the fate of the republic if our elites reveal themselves to be the most self-serving tools of whatever cause they proclaim as their own.

And here I think there may be something worth thinking about.

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the American state was, relatively speaking, a young thing, still a fledgling (compared to those elder civilizations in Europe or Asia) that had undergone a catastrophic civil war and had—again, relative to Europe—only the most recently acquired sense of international standing. And suddenly it found itself catapulted, in the late 1910s, onto a truly global stage (not just across the Pacific but across the globe) with a commanding international presence. A republic fated (and feted) to fend off tyranny.

And for 70 years, thanks to communism, the US managed to keep its shit together, to maintain its sorry-ass, jerry-rigged state apparatus, legitimated as it all was by the fear of the Soviet alternative.

And then that all ended in 1989.

Suddenly those institutions no longer felt the need to be quite as disciplined by an external threat as they once perhaps were. Suddenly, Supreme Court justices, Wise Men and Women of the national security establishment, and wielders of the counter-majoritarian veto were freed of their historic constraints. Suddenly, people were freed to talk about domestic fascism, to name the leader of one of the two major political parties as a Hitler, and his millions of followers as Nazis, in a way that they would have been terrified to do when communism was still an alternative and such rhetorical moves could have devastating international consequences.

The United States has certainly seen major and fundamental challenges to the legitimacy of its institutions before. So much so that Samuel Huntington would speak, in recent memory, of a crisis of governability here (though he cleverly called it a “crisis of democracy,” when he clearly thought democracy itself was the problem).

But where Huntington thought the threat lay in the citizenry, and the crisis acute and immediate, I’m seeing, maybe, something else: a slow-motion erosion, over decades, of legitimacy, brought about not by a cynical or radicalized citizenry but by a ruling class that seems to have lost all sense of responsibility. As if there simply is no country left for it to govern.

The US: Is she starting to become undun?


  1. Metatone November 4, 2016 at 5:13 pm | #

    I’ve said before, but part of this is about the way modern communications/transportation technology has created a national politics in the USA. The “checks & balances” of the constitution are fundamentally premised on the notion that politicians (Senators in particular) are more beholden to their local electorates than the national parties. The rise of national media and of course the growing influence of money (via campaign advertising) has destroyed the basis for even believing that a Senator would have any interests they would put above the party…

    • Phil Perspective November 4, 2016 at 8:35 pm | #

      Who do you think benefits from “free trade agreements”? Not the average worker!! And our politicians aren’t for them because they supposedly pull people in other countries out of poverty.

  2. LFC November 4, 2016 at 5:28 pm | #

    A summary of Huntington’s argument in that Trilateral Commission report can be found in the opening graphs of a 1984 Dissent article (the rest is paywalled).

  3. jonnybutter November 4, 2016 at 5:39 pm | #

    As if there simply is no country left for them to govern.

    Those elites are certainly working together on making it so – extracting value until there’s not much left.

    It is precisely because they supposedly are above politics that such institutions you mention are vectors of rot now. But not just government of course; the whole liberal matrix of quasi-public entities, ratings agencies, et. al are ripe for the pickings. The smart money has long been on finding some institution that has built up a reputation, and cash it out – monetize the trust or reputation. Higher ed is being strip mined like that. Supposedly non-profit orgs of all kinds are good marks for this con. Lots of ‘one time savings’ like during the Reagan Years. Put that ultra-rare coin in the gumball machine: get 1 piece of gum.

  4. Roquentin November 4, 2016 at 5:42 pm | #

    I mentioned in a previous comment here how the first debate, in what was frankly a fit of despair, had got me thinking about Carlos II, The Bewitched King of Spain, The War of the Spanish Succession, and the erosion of Monarchy as a form of government in general in the 18th century. The point being that perhaps this is what a crisis of legitimacy looks like. A series of increasingly grotesque spectacles which undermine the very foundations of the institutions which produce them. Like the idea of Divine Right, or the idea that royal blood is somehow superior and pure when the Hapsburg bloodline could produce nothing except an invalid to sit on the throne.

    Perhaps this is because, then as now, the current holders of power either no longer feel they have to justify the social contract or are unable to come up with anything remotely convincing or believable to tell the population they preside over. Granted, even the result of Carlos II wasn’t a revolution, not right away, but a long bloody war over who would preside over the decaying institution of the Spanish Monarchy. If we were to see a collapse, that would likely be the form it took here, a long bitter battle to see who got to control the rapidly degenerating apparatus of the US state. Who knows?

    You saw it in Russia too, the Romanovs, Rasputin, the hemophilia of the prince….. There’s that old adage about how a rich man lost all his money that goes “slowly at first, then all at once.” Dramatic historical events, rapid changes are a long time in the making. Often times no one sees them coming, precisely because the future is so unpredictable. No one really know what’s coming around the bend.

  5. nihil obstet November 4, 2016 at 6:28 pm | #

    This is an ill of meritocracy. When your goal is no longer to build a better society, however you define it, but rather to prove yourself better in your work than others, you do whatever gets results. When lying works, lying is smart. When schmoozing wretched people works, you schmooze wretched people. When doing favors works, you do favors. This is all so obviously right that you don’t bother to dress it up in moral terms, because you’re too smart to be taken in. And the whole environment of the ruling class becomes such corruption that they don’t notice it any more than a fish notices water.

    But the ruled notice. That’s the end of legitimacy.

  6. Rich Puchalsky November 4, 2016 at 6:54 pm | #

    Meritocracy doesn’t actually do anything that preserves society. Your kid’s second grade teacher can not score really well on a test, get a promotion, and become a boss second grade teacher. A firefighter can not become a millionaire firefighter. What meritocracy does is serve as a justification for hierarchy. Just as money implies poverty, meritocracy implies losers. And there is no solidarity with the losers because they were all people that the meritocrats had to defeat and still have to keep down.

    Neoliberalism and its slogan, “there is no alternative”, contributes too of course. No one believes the propaganda as much as the people in charge. When there’s no alternative, why not just be brazen? What are people going to do?

  7. TC Borelli November 4, 2016 at 7:02 pm | #

    I am interested in your thoughts regarding the works of G. William Domhoff.

  8. Tom November 4, 2016 at 7:12 pm | #

    I dont know, mcarthyism, birchers, dr strangelove, even the vietnam conflict, there was a lot of crazy back in the day. I mean, you had people literally bombing domestically because of black and white kids going to the same schools. Releative to 75-90, sure there is regression. And the crazy is different now, particularly Trump.

  9. Mac (@poopowns) November 4, 2016 at 8:37 pm | #

    I feel like the examples you chose sort of point to a truth the post is straining to avoid: most of these problems are coming from the right wing. Yeah, the Thomas hearings and Ginsburg’s comments were stupid, but are they anywhere close to the Iraq War or the government shutdown or the refusal to fill the Supreme Court? They APPOINTED Thomas! Like, take this stuff at face value: there’s a reason the Republicans in Congress are making sounds about refusing to appoint any of Hillary’s nominees to the Court while the Democrats aren’t saying similar about Trump’s, and it’s not just because Trump will probably lose.

    There’s certainly a lot of heated rhetoric from both sides. But can any reasonable person believe these crises are coming from anywhere but the Republican Party? The last eight years are testament to it. I suppose it’s possible in 2018 we’ll see the Democrats attempting to shut down Trump’s government, but I’m skeptical.

    My feeling is that it comes down to philosophy: the Democrats are ultimately a party of policy–there’s a basic neoliberal program they want to implement. When you exist to create policy, you can compromise, decide what parts of it are necessary and which can be bargained. The Republicans are narrative–they don’t believe in anything at the level of policy; they believe in identity and feeling. Trump talks about “repeal and replace” wrt Obamacare. What is “replace”? Does anyone voting for him know? Do they care? What’s important about it (to the degree that it is important to them, which is not greatly) is that he’s sticking it to liberal elite snoot professor multicultural effete Muslim Obama. That (parts of) Obamacare suck is helpful but hardly critical. To the point where “replace” could, and I say this only somewhat puckishly, mean single payer!

    • David Green November 5, 2016 at 12:02 am | #

      What? Both parties rely on both identity politics (white resentment, condescending meritocratic sophisticates) and policy (neoliberal, neoconservative).

    • GRH November 5, 2016 at 2:24 pm | #

      The Reactionaries have come to the realization that because of the changing demographics, they will have a harder time defending their position of power. I think the election of Obama took them by complete surprise, then he was elected for a second time, and now they see a woman next in line…it’s just too much for them to handle.
      It’s reminiscent of what the Conservative Revolutionaries were faced with after WWII, first the end of the Monarchy, then a fear of a Bolshevek take over. The system they found themselves in was not a system they could work with; they were being made obsolete…they needed a ‘strong man’.
      The rightwing of the US (not the RNC) instinctively knows that they need a ‘strong man’
      This is their last-ditch effort, they have been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the ‘elites’ and the ‘leugenpresse’, it’s now or never.

      “Typically, the conservative attempts to conserve, to hold on to the values of the existing society. But what if the existing society is inherently hostile to conservative beliefs? It is foolish for a conservative to attempt to conserve that culture. Rather, he must seek to undermine it, to thwart it, to destroy it at the root level. This means that the conservative must be philosophically conservative but temperamentally radical.” – Dinesh D’Souza

      “The call of ‘equality’ is a siren song that can only mean the destruction of all that we cherish as being human.” – M.Rothbard

      Their strategy for subverting Democracy? … “only radical – indeed, radically simple – ideas can possibly stir the emotions of the dull and indolent masses. And nothing is more effective in persuading the masses to cease cooperating with government than the constant and relentless ridicule of government and its representatives as moral and economic frauds; as emperors without clothes, subject to contempt and the butt of all jokes.” — HH Hoppe

      After reading Thomas Franks “The Wrecking Crew” I came to realize that the more gridlocked and dysfunctional the government becomes, the more the rightwing likes it. When in power, they purposely break government and then step back and scream about how broken government is.

  10. Lawrence Houghteling November 4, 2016 at 10:54 pm | #

    I’m surprised that (at least as far as I know) there has been no extended discussion of the fact that both major-party candidates have highly-visible daughters who are married to men whose fathers, both prominent in their professions, did time in prison for some kind of white collar crime.

    Jared Kushner, the husband of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, is the son of Charles Kushner, a billionaire real estate magnate, prominent Democratic fundraiser and philanthropist, who in 2005 was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. He was allowed (by Chris Christie!) to plea-bargain down to a two-year sentence, and he served one year in a federal penitentiary. (If you want to read something extraordinary, search out and read about the witness tampering charge.)

    Marc Mezvinsky, the husband of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s daughter Chelsea, is the son of Edward Medvinsky, a former Democratic congressman from Iowa, who was convicted in 2001 of multiple charges of felony fraud, and served five years in federal prison.

    Mark Twain famously joked that Congress is America’s only native criminal class. But this familial closeness between the presidential candidates of both our political parties and actual criminals is almost as amazing as the fact that it has been so little noted.

  11. mark November 5, 2016 at 6:28 am | #

    I have been searching around for the difference between Whig and Tory in England, and how that relates to Burke and Conservatism.

    Notoriously, Burke (and Macaulay) have been associated wrongly with seeing the Whigs in particular as the first English-language political party.

    Whig and Tory come initially as terms of abuse, that one set of politicians were too close to Scottish Calvinism (Whigs) and the other Irish Catholicism (Tories) in their politics and religion. They were seldom, except with Burke it seems, a positive label for the idea of party politics that you assumed for yourself and venerated.

    In Britain, Conservative Party, Liberal Party and Labour Party are positive labels that have been taken on by what those parties are supposed to think vital and missing from the approach of other parties and/or collection of political individuals opposing them.

    How does that apply to the present Democrats and the Republicans?

    That America is a democracy and a republic seems obvious. That democracy, one adult one vote, comes out of the radical enlightenment rather than contract theory (see Jonathan Israel’s doorstops), and republicanism is a classical ideal.

    And how those two fit together feels too abstract, like so much has been hidden in the discourse of two names.

    I know that America had a very small army on the eve of World War Two, and that neither Republicanism not the radical enlightenment tend to be supportive of standing armies, preferring civilian militias.

    How American politics unplugs itself from this mess, in which the 2016 Presidential election is choice between the devil and deep blue sea – and a sea itself that contains a Scylla and Charybdis of militarism – I don’t know, but better party names may help?

    • LFC November 6, 2016 at 2:22 pm | #

      1) “better party names may help” — I doubt it.

      2) it’s one thing to say US foreign policy is too militarized and ‘imperial’, quite another to suggest the US cd get along w a citizen militia as opposed to an actual army (I realize you might not have been suggesting that exactly). As if the only choices were a string of drone bases across N Africa etc and a worldwide base network and global ‘commands’ on the one hand; and, on the other hand, complete demilitarization and reliance on citizen militias.

  12. kwp November 5, 2016 at 9:51 am | #

    Do you agree with Acemoglu and Robinson’s idea of a the US becoming an “extraction economy?” It would seem to complement this. Also, up close, how different might a nation coming “undun” look from a nation reinvigorating, or reinventing, itself?

    • Rich Puchalsky November 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm | #

      A nation reinvigorating or reinventing itself would have new ideas that people were organizing around. Or, if you prefer, newly organized groups of people preparing to push their way into power. The U.S. has neither.

  13. Howard B November 5, 2016 at 10:50 am | #

    An ironclad law of American politics since the Supreme Court intervention in the 2000 election has materialized: if a Republican candidate, either in a close race or a blowout, is in severe danger of losing to a Democrat, a highly placed Republican operative, will nominate himself to tamper with the outcome of the election.
    If you were worried about the Supreme Court (and just give them a chance) this time around, wham, there’s Comey and the FBI setting up a rogue investigation.
    Comey with his boy scout moment in the shadows of his elected office.
    It didn’t happen to Obama because it is driven by sheer opportunism and he’s too clever.
    The Republicans are a rogue faction driven by pure nonsense and fiction
    I don’t have a clue what we should label this law, but here it is and here we are

  14. Graham Clark November 5, 2016 at 4:14 pm | #

    This is excellent, though the (sentimental?) notion of America as a fledgling catapulted into global politics before it was ready seems to me to get it backwards – America’s political apparatus is dysfunctional not because it’s exceptionally immature but because it’s exceptionally archaic (in contrast to Britain with its malleable unwritten constitution, or France, which periodically writes a new one).

  15. Glenn November 5, 2016 at 6:58 pm | #

    No one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming.

    A nation without an enemy to lean against finds it difficult to stand alone and stay internally united.

    The United States has been leaning against phantom enemies since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Worse still, the collapse of one party will destabilize the other.

    Both major party oligarchies are depending on a win by Hillary for survival. All of their eggs are in one basket. I see many possible post-election fragmentation scenarios regardless of who wins on Tuesday.

    Thus the militarized police forces and surveillance our “representatives” find so necessary to the maintenance of “law and order” to protect themselves from citizens skeptical of Power’s common interests with them. Where propaganda fails to control, the iron fist will be revealed.

  16. davidly November 6, 2016 at 1:09 pm | #

    It seems to me that the political misuse of the FBI was prominently established as a Cold War thing, not to mention Central Intelligence meddling in the quite local politics involving anyone who’d get in the way of meddling abroad.

    And a nation ass deep in its own hemisphere and around the globe founding the Philippine-American War just “found itself catapulted, in the late 1910s, onto a truly global stage”?

  17. b. November 8, 2016 at 12:23 pm | #

    “Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the American state was, relatively speaking, a young thing, still a fledgling (compared to those elder civilizations in Europe or Asia) that had undergone a catastrophic civil war and had—again, relative to Europe—only the most recently acquired sense of international standing. And suddenly it found itself catapulted, in the late 1910s, onto a truly global stage (not just across the Pacific but across the globe) with a commanding international presence. A republic fated (and feted) to fend off tyranny.”

    Is it not the record that the South saw manifest destiny in its attempts to extend slavery to new territories, and backed the funding and establishment of naval and other military power to place the US white men firmly on the global stage to eagerly grab and shoulder their share of the burden? That, in some measure of irony, the same globalists of the plantations found themselves facing the military powers of subjugation and conquest they had facilitated with an eye on the far abroad?

    Lest we forget, wasn’t there an overdeveloped sense of international standing behind what Grant so delicately called the “wicked war”?

    “Fledgling” me arse. The ink wasn’t dry when Jackson set aside the Supreme Court in indecent disrespect to facilitate one land grab or the other. This is a nation build on plunder, united by loot and divided by greed; with, as the German joke goes, motorized border markers to capture the “Lebensraum” for the American Dream. We might not want to start here to get there, but it is what it is, and we’d do well to not grant any sense of grandness to the sordid history that got us here.

  18. b. November 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm | #

    “I’m seeing, maybe, something else: a slow-motion erosion, over decades, of legitimacy, brought about not by a cynical or radicalized citizenry but by a ruling class that seems to have lost all sense of responsibility.”

    Isn’t this the proud nation in which one major party of “The Republic” and its oft-removed glibertarian appendix propose that “government is the problem”, that it is not only unnecessary but outright detrimental to life and liberty, that the very idea of governance is some kind of con, that its institutions are pyramid schemes, burdened by debt, insolvent, and best starved off legitimacy first, taxation next? Isn’t this the nation in which all this was mainlined for sole purpose of manufacturing a lack of consent of the governed, to support the dismal plots of useful economists in eager – and competitively priced – support of incorporated oligarchy and inbred wealth?

    I don’t think this is the kind of polity that needed the absence of an external threat to lose its tiny mind. I would venture that the erosion of the idea of the nation state, the very concept of sovereign nations as foundation of international law, the perpetual constitutional crisis over aggressive, illegal acts of war small and large, the “scorched earth” policy of “regime abolition” in the far abroad, in an age of nuclear arsenals persisting beyond reason and ratio, is all by itself a marketable enough “threat” to wonderfully lend focus to any mind actually in existence. I would also venture that the two horsemen of fossil fuel depletion and excess carbon pollution are another noose to be dangled. That this “republic” is falling apart in this day and age is not for a lack of threats, or an absence of necessities to heed.

    It is rather amazing, this lack of radicalized citizenry. These are dire times, with radical changes ahead due to the laws of thermodynamics alone, and here we are, about to be undone by our own “faith” in being the exceptionally immovable object to unstoppable forces.

    I see an erosion of reason, a voluntary abdication of responsibility on the side of the sovereign – and that is, all hackery and corruption aside, still us. Il fault cultiver notre jardin.

Leave a Reply