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Politics

Biden and Trump Debate as Democracies Die

The presidential spectacle highlighted a global political collapse.

Andrew Nikiforuk 3 Jul 2024The Tyee

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

“When a country is in the grip of a collective passion, it becomes unanimous in crime. If it becomes prey to two, or four, or five, or 10 collective passions, it is divided among several criminal gangs. Divergent passions do not neutralize one another... they clash with infernal noise, and amid such din the fragile voices of justice and truth are drowned.”Simone Weil

Anyone who listened to the so-called U.S. presidential debate (it was neither presidential nor a debate) experienced something worse than heartburn.

Against my better instincts I listened for 10 minutes. As a Canadian raised and educated in the United States, my heart sank into the ground. I have not yet retrieved it.

The silly debate, orchestrated by an equally absurd institution, CNN, distilled the declining state of democracies into one fantastic cartoon.

Call it a kind of Marvel movie moment, because distracted or angry citizens really can’t digest much more these days.

In this media lampoon, a “Mr. Ghastly and Mr. Ghostly,” as the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd so aptly put it, squared off and performed the nihilistic dances of old men. It was Diaper Don versus Blanket Biden.

The ego of a narcissist battled the ego of a dotard, and were you not entertained?

One lied like hell and the other couldn’t complete a sentence. You could almost hear two strongmen, Putin and Xi, gleefully chortling in the background: “Well, Toynbee was right. Civilizations die by suicide, not by murder. Surely our work at undermining the West has become much easier.”

Although much has now been written about the need for Biden to step down, the risible debate highlighted the sober outcome of reactive thinking throughout the world’s ailing democracies from France to Canada to Israel.

Liberal elites still don’t understand that Trump is not the core problem but a rapid symptom of growing unease and unrest with the arrogant status quo. Every day hinterlands unsettled by globalization and rapacious technologies grow more and more distrustful of metropolitan elites. As the British philosopher John Gray explains, “Populism is a term liberals use to describe the political blowback against the social disruption that their policies have created.”

Amen.

If you want to dissolve the glue that holds democratic societies together, just do these things. Send jobs overseas. Champion billionaires over working people. Ignore inequality. Let technologies disrupt society with impunity. Practise techno-pragmatism (only more disruptive technologies can solve social and ecological problems). Replace class politics with microaggressions. Worship Growth as the only God. Dismiss ecological destruction as just the price of progress. Subvert community with identity politics. Turn citizens with responsibilities into consumers with rights. And then pretend that democracies are immune to tragedy and exist outside of history.

Both Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron epitomize this hyper-liberalism, and yet these same technocrats can’t fathom why they are so unpopular. They don’t even know how to gracefully exit the stage of their collective delusions.

But dissolving democratic glue really starts with a denial of reality.

It has been evident for years that Biden, now 81, is aging and no longer fit to govern a declining republic facing growing popular unrest at home and multiplying threats abroad. And it has been evident for years that Trump, now 78, is about as interested in the truth as King Lear and as ambitious as Lady Macbeth.

Yet both political parties openly ignored these liabilities, embraced the oldest presidential candidates on record and gave a finger to the geopolitical risk posed by geriatric leaders in a frail republic facing a constellation of global crises.

The social critic Nassim Taleb recently highlighted the essential math. “How many people in these two stupid parties realize that a current 81-year-old male, even if in average condition, has ~30% probability of dying in the next 4 1/2 years?”

And how many of these stupid party people then calculated what that risk of death in office means to the aspirations and designs of strongmen regimes in Russia and China?

Now let’s proceed to the two-party system.

It begs a basic question: How is it that the Democratic and Republican parties, both controlled by Big Money, could offer up only “Mr. Ghastly and Mr. Ghostly” as their candidates when polling clearly indicates that a majority of Americans didn’t want this rematch?

In fact, most Americans have clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the dismal offerings of binary party politics, a choice between deranged or demented.

Yet this thwarting of democracy has been consistently dismissed, denied or deflected. It was even considered disloyal to mention Biden’s age. Eighty is the new 40, as some nitwit influencer put it. After rumours that Trump is incontinent, some Trump supporters retorted that “real men wear diapers.”

When one of the world’s greatest democracies can deny reality with such equanimity, only bad shit can happen.

In one of the great essays of the 20th century, the French radical Christian Simone Weil dissected the perils of party politics.

Weil measured the performance of political parties against three critical things that matter in democracies: truth, justice and the public interest. She found that they dishonoured all three principles because a party’s essential character only saluted power.

To Weil, all political parties possess three dangerous traits: they work as machines to “generate collective passions”; they strive to exert pressure upon the minds of their members with propaganda; and they have but one goal — to promote their own growth “without limits.”

As such, every party becomes a means to an end, and that end can only be totalitarian in nature.

Weil witnessed the fall of democracies in the 1930s and described the cancer well: “One recognizes that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognizes it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organizations that generate such evils.”

The dismal U.S. debate also highlighted another virus plaguing democracies: the triumph of Schmittian politics in everyday discourse throughout North America and Europe, where right-wing populists grow faster than feral cats.

Carl Schmitt was a Nazi jurist and academic. His ideas, which embraced the triumph of Hitler in 1933, reduced politics into two warring camps: friends and enemies.

The ever-humourless Schmitt thought opponents shouldn’t exist in the political world. Politics was warfare and in war enemies must be dehumanized and eliminated in a quest to defend the essence of a sovereign state led by a titular leader. “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are,” said Schmitt.

Gray, who predicted the failure of “hyper-liberalism,” has warned that Schmittian politics leads to predictable mayhem. “The next stage in America will come probably after the next presidential election, in which whoever wins will not be accepted as legitimate by about a quarter to a third of the population. That’s when you’ll have Schmittian politics. I’m not saying there will be a civil war, but there could be civil warfare.”

So the debate crystallized another bad moment for democracies that have no plan to arrest their decline. In fact they can barely even acknowledge the prospect of collapse or the revolutionary tenor of the moment.

To do so, their educated classes would have to address the affordability crisis (what historian Peter Turchin calls “popular immiseration”) and the biggest driver of chaos: too many elites chasing power in a grim game of musical chairs where the players multiply by 100 each time a chair is removed.

Until our leaders acknowledge the root of our problems, we can expect no relief from the nightmares touted as presidential debates.

It is clear that party politics and technology cannot renew what is broken. Only engaged citizens can do that with a plethora of movements that may or may not inject ideas into our terminally ill politics before the deluge.

Meanwhile, I am still looking for my heart, and I am not optimistic about finding it.  [Tyee]

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