Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, October 04, 2013

Elizabeth Warren Defends Good Government Against the "Anarchy Gang"

I cannot stress enough how indispensable this sort of thing is (scroll down a bit for the video clip I am responding to). You know, for over a generation, the American left ceded the rhetorical space in which basic claims about the nature and role of government were offered up to the general public to profoundly ignorant, incoherent, cynical, anti-democratizing, plutocratic, spontaneist, right-wing formulations. I really think many of the good dedicated people of the left either contented themselves with an impressionistic, temperamental defense of justice as fairness and an aversion to suffering that did not stand up well to forceful reactionary arguments even when these arguments were frankly superficial and stupid on their own terms, or they lost themselves in wonky micro-administrative formulations that took the premise of the necessity of good governance for granted and were uninterested or incapable of defending their perspective at that level of generality, unaware that their cleverness was rendered largely irrelevant in an inhospitable popular environment unmoored from the commonsense of good government.

Of course, the trumpeting of movement conservative and libertopian nonsense as "new ideas," "emerging thought," "youthful energy and enthusiasm," "transformative," "revolutionary," "where the action is," and so on by corporate media outlets that saw short term gains in higher profits and deregulation (before their eating turned to getting eaten before they knew it, though they should have known better), and also through the generational efforts of a vast movement conservative investment in an archipelago of think-tanks and wingnut-welfare support for pseudo-intellectual shills which saturated the public domain with false and facile anti-democratizing formulations and a countervailing power to the expertise of the academy, providing instead macroeconomically illiterate pre-Keynesian chestnuts, anti-Darwinian and anti-climate science sops to would-be christianists and polluting plutocrats, and shifting public discourse from sensible rehabilitative harm-reduction policy models for gun safety, sex education, drug abuse, crime response instead into punitive puritanical models that did no practical good but exacerbated social stratifications and undermined emerging organizational solidarities that threaten incumbent interests.

President Obama has often gone back to basics and defended good democratic governance in very clear, very accessible, very passionate, very persuasive ways. I believe that scholars and schoolchildren will study and emulate his speeches for generations, speeches that garner a day's attention at best in our relentless news cycle. In so doing, Obama is indeed making good on his widely derided early campaign promise to be a transformational figure like Ronald Reagan once was. Reagan offered up endless variations on his affable but deadly proposal that "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem" and Obama has megaphoned equally affable defenses and celebrations of the power and virtue and sanity of good democratic government. The President who we already expect will be remembered as the spearhead of the "Obama Coalition" of the secularizing, diversifying, planetizing post-white racist patriarchal plutocratic hegemony, as re-invigorating social democratic reform with his the first stimulus and Affordable Care Act (and even more will be possible if Democratics retain the Senate and regain the House), and presiding over the breathtaking civil rights achievements of queer Americans, will also be remembered, I think, for his popular defense and promotion of the very idea of good democratic government after a long dark brutal winter of anti-democratic anti-civilizational anarcho-capitalist insult and injury.

Elizabeth Warren has also repeatedly demonstrated an awareness of the need to make this basic case, to do the intellectual infrastructure maintenance without which democratic participation and problem-solving cannot be expected to do its indispensable work and resist the inertial, parochial, fearful, mean-spirited, aggressive energies elite-incumbents readily deploy to their anti-democratizing ends. The clip is less than six minutes long and is a model of the sort of indispensable democratizing rhetorical maintenance that is always so necessary.

By the way, I don't entirely agree with Warren's own emphasis on administrative practicality as the foundation for good democratic rhetoric. I think her case is unquestionably useful and forceful, but I think there are also deeper connections to be made. Warren restricts government to the collaborative doing of what we decide to do together, but of course democracy is even more deeply a matter of deciding together in the first place, of deciding what counts as a decision, of doing justice to those who decide differently, and so on.

I agree that the initial Constitutional formulation of providing for justice, domestic tranquility, defense, and general welfare is substantially an administrative matter but I think it is incorrect to read the Preamble as a laundry list rather than the proposal of structural connections.

I would define and elaborate democracy as the provision of nonviolent alternatives for the determination and solution of shared problems and for the adjudication of disputes (including disputes over the question of what constitutes violence), by giving people a say in the public decisions that affect them (including a say in the determination of what having a say means, what counts as the public, what a decision amounts, who is affected and so on). I believe that democracy is an ongoing and in fact interminable experimental implementation of the idea and practice of people having a say in public decisions affecting them, the provision of responsive processes like periodic election, jury courts, oversight through separation of powers and community advisory boards, the insulation of certain historically vulnerable and yet indispensable norms from collective passions through the defense of certain natural rights as naturalized rites, the provision of a legible scene of informed nonduressed consent to the terms of everyday intercourse through the provision of universal basic healthcare, education, access to reliable knowledge, and income (mostly in the form of generous unemployment, retirement, family leave insurance and a living wage), and the elimination of the structural violence of externalities through the public investment and accountable maintenance of public and common goods (mostly public services and infrastructure).

Warren's emphasis on fair and effective administration of public goods in her powerful defense of good government can be defended even more forcefully as the maintenance of a scene of general welfare that secures consent and maintains fairness in the service of the deeper democratic defense of civitas, the vision of equity-in-diversity, a consensual and sustainable way of everyday life, the living expression of King's classically American nonviolent re/conciliative Beloved Community.

Ultimately this ground must be defended, else it is vulnerable to the readily available, lazily appealing negative conceptions of liberty and vacuous conceptions of openness that de-policitize the irrational hierarchies of the status quo and reduce non-violence to contractarian agreements whatever the conditions of actual misinformation and duress prevail over their terms (these are the discursive roots of what Warren rightly decries as the "Anarchy Gang").

All that said, I am still enormously encouraged by Warren's efforts here. Not to mention how pleased I am to see that the stiffness of some of her early speeches is gone -- if Hillary can't or doesn't run in 2016, Warren might well emulate the example of another charismatic freshman Senator. I hope Kirsten Gillibrand, Wendy Davis, and Nina Turner are paying attention to what Warren is doing here.

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