September 23, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
To democratize our way of life, we need ‘democratic contempt’ for the spoils of white power
An answer to the Republicans’ contempt for democracy.
The House passed Wednesday an upgrade of the old Electoral Count Act in an effort to prevent another criminal president from staging another attempt at a procedural coup. The Senate has its own version with sufficient sponsors among the Republicans. All signs point to reconciliation before the measure goes to the president.
Nine House Republicans were for the bill. All the others were against it. Their rationale appears to be that if Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney is for something, as she was for this legislation, then the Republican conference is against it – out of spite for her high-impact role on the committee investigating Donald Trump’s attempted coup.
In another time and place, voting for a bill that protects democracy from democracy’s enemies – anti-democrats – would be easy, as easy as voting for an anti-crime bill. No member of Congress wants to be seen on the other side, looking like they’re pro-crime. Voting for an anti-crime bill is a twofer. You can look tough while paying nothing.
The same should have been the case for this pro-democracy bill. But as Jonathan Bernstein said Thursday, even mainstream Republicans (so-called, I’d say) are as extreme as the Republicans on the margins, including, as Bernstein quipped, “Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin and the other leaders of the Republican Party.”
“So the problem isn’t just the extremists,” Bernstein said. “It’s the rank-and-file Republican politicians. It means that there’s just not much of a difference between a House Republican conference with a few more radicals and one with a few more mainstream members.”
With last night’s vote, perhaps we’re witnessing a kind of clarity that has eluded us on account of the GOP leadership laboring mightily to make sure that it keeps eluding us. That clarity is this: With nine exceptions, there’s no daylight among the House Republicans.
Now that we know beyond a doubt that one House Republican stands in for another, the next question is: what does being an extremist mean? Last night suggests that it’s sticking it to Liz Cheney. But since sticking it to her means appearing on the other side of democracy – anti-democracy – what could the House GOP be thinking that would overcome the reluctance to appear on the other side of democracy?
In a word, contempt.
Contempt for democracy has a long, rich and complex history in the United States. It goes all the way back and beyond the founding. The framers were patricians – noblemen in all but name. They didn’t trust democracy any more than they trusted the plebs to be enlightened enough to run a republic. So they built into the system all the encumbrances to democracy that modernday democrats chafe at.
The late Sheldon Wolin, a political philosopher, put it this way: “‘Constitutional democracy’ is … an ideological construction designed not to realize democracy but to reconstitute and, as a consequence, repress it.” Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher, sharpened that when he said that a “new hatred of democracy can be succinctly put: there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of the democratic civilization.”
With contempt baked into the cake of American democracy, you can see why the GOP – or anyone (ie, “conservatives”) who stands with the top-down orders of power that are threatened by democracy – has an advantage over democrats, who must fight on two fronts: against the anti-democrats as well as the system that favors them.
The top-down orders of power that are threatened by democracy is white power – the homegrown version of the right to rule by blood otherwise associated with monarchies or dynasties. While colonial Americans did free themselves from the British crown, they never abandoned hereditary privilege. They just stopped calling it that.
From the colonial era to the present day, white power, or the right to rule by blood, has been passed down, as if it were property that compounded in wealth and was transmitted to descendants who neither earned that wealth nor deserved it. Previous generations of white people, who’d established immutably white power as America’s superstructure, in effect grant future white people their hereditary privilege, depriving anyone born without it of political equality.
Seen in this light, we can imagine the imperceptible hand of history reaching across time and space to force Republicans who’d ordinarily avoid being on the other side of democracy to expose themselves as such. The House Democrats dared challenge the “natural order” with a pro-democracy bill. You can imagine the Republicans, even before Wednesday’s vote, curling their lips in contempt of democrats defiling the right to rule by blood with sordid appeals to the plebs.
The “natural order,” of course, isn’t natural, because nature itself holds inherited white power in contempt. It can’t be otherwise. The proof is evident in every mediocre white man who’s born and borne up by the superstructure of white power (failing upward, in other words). That’s nature’s way of telling white people who stand with the “natural order” to get the word “nature” out of their mouths.
Nature is predisposed to political equality, Tom Paine argued in Common Sense (which is where I’m drawing the ideas for this piece). The proof again is mediocre white men who are born into the riches of white power and borne up every time they fail spectacularly. If nature affirmed political inequality, a central tenet of conservative ideology, future generations of white men would possess equal merit to the previous generations that established the white-power order.
And they don’t.
Indeed, they are worthy of “democratic contempt.”
According to Mario Feit (whose chapter on Common Sense can be found in 2018’s Democratic Moments, an anthology), that’s the thrust of Common Sense – democratic contempt for the right to rule. Paine meant monarchy, but the idea applies broadly. “The intergenerational injustice of creating a hereditary title to rule to Paine ultimately rests on an intergenerational injustice, namely, to assume that there could be politically significant, natural hierarchies among humans,” Feit said.
Paine asks democrats to “resist the structural forms of inequality that undermine present-day democracies,” Feit said. “Paine’s democratic contempt militates against economic inequality, especially when poverty and wealth are inherited. Paine, in other words, demands that we do not rest on the laurels of having democratic political processes and institutions; we must also democratize our way of life.”
The House Democrats did their part. They passed an upgrade to the old Electoral Count Act to prevent another coup attempt. It’s up to the rest of us to meet the GOP’s contempt for democracy with our own – a democratic contempt for the spoils of inherited white power.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.