The Resumption of History: Part 4 – The Sources of American Soft Power
by Carlo Graziani
Part 3, Of Justice and Power, ended like this:
So we cannot look to Marx for usable thinking about Power. For that, we must turn instead to the “bourgeois” political philosophers of the American Revolution.
Justice and Power in America
The philosophers of governance who did think hard about the Problem of Power were living a century or more before Marx, in England and in the American colonies. The English Enlightenment furnished the raw material for the deeply skeptical view of human nature that informs the US Constitution. The very notion of “checks and balances” that Americans absorb in their civics classes reflects the nearly paranoid level of suspicion held by the writers of that document, that the Federal Government, or a State, or even a mob of people, might take it into their heads to do something corrupt. Each of the amendments comprising the Bill of Rights asserts a proscription on what the Federal Government may do with admirable directness and clarity (except for the Second Amendment, which begins with an apology, but that’s another story), showcasing the concern for limiting power. There was one thing that Madison, Jay, Hamilton, et al. were absolutely determined about, above everything else: Americans would never have another Sovereign. Nobody, but nobody would ever be above the law.
That’s a really tall order, though. A piece of paper cannot really do all that work by itself, no matter how impressive the calligraphy and the signatures. All it takes is for high officials with enough power to conspire not to be bound by its terms, and the constitution is moot. This is a dispiriting story that has recurred many times in many places all over the world.
It almost appeared to happen in the United States in January 2021, but then it did not. Which if you think about it is odd. In most countries in the world, an incumbent leader in control of military and security forces, with a reasonably large political base, plenty of time to make preparations, and a determination to wreck democratic norms to remain in power, would not have that much difficulty in doing so. But Trump couldn’t pull it off. So, that’s interesting. Why not?
The answer, I think, is that the real constitutional checks are not in that piece of paper but in our minds and in our culture. That is where the “Ideology of the Enlightenment” that I’ve been working around to talking about is doing its work. In the United States, today, there are still enough people who were socialized to the idea that, for example, the President cannot just change an election outcome that doesn’t suit him. Think about that. There are a lot of places in the world where people are too cynical about elections, and Power, to believe that.
Mike Pence—Mike Pence!—the utter mediocrity plucked from a dead-end political career in Indiana who probably couldn’t name three signers of the Constitution if there were a free corn dog in it for him; whose loyalty to Trump led him to dutifully allow his boss humiliate him in new ways each week of his term as Vice President; that Mike Pence could not bring himself to sign off on the farcical plot abstain from his constitutional duty to certify the election results. This notorious moral coward was more scared of being busted for violating the Constitution than he was of Donald Trump and his mob of latter-day brownshirts!.
I don’t think that this was a near miss. I think it was, rather, the tip of an iceberg. If this idiotic coup had gone further, then in order for Trump to remain in power many of the 2.1 million civilian federal workers and 1.2 million military personnel employed by the US government would have had to take actions in support of the coup that would have made those individuals feel physically nauseated. I believe that Trump would likely have been rejected by the government in a manner analogous to an organism’s immune response rejecting a foreign organ transplant. I feel sure that the sheer outrageous Soviet-style obscenity of self-appointed “alternate” elector slates arriving to nullify the votes of millions of citizens according to John Eastman’s demented plan would have triggered an insurrection inside the Federal Government, with officials at Justice, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security etc. actively rebelling, to the point that in the end the whatever nominal power Trump retained, the joystick would have gone slack in his hands. I’m deep in counterfactual territory here, but I don’t think it is too far-fetched to imagine that the Secret Service might actually have taken him into custody, if only to escort him to Mar-a-Lago.
That is our secret sauce. This country indoctrinated itself into the values of rule of law, writ large, for over two centuries, to the point that those values became a cultural norm. We are still, demonstrably, as of January 2021, a people that will brook no compromise concerning the ultimate rules that our rulers must submit to. Would you like something to be proud of, as an American? Forget about our economic leadership, or our technological primacy. Be proud of that.
Let me finally spell out the point of this extended rumination. When I allude to “The Ideology of the Enlightenment” in this essay, what I mean is not only the notion that it is useless to design a system of governance to deliver Justice unless the exercise of Power by that system has been carefully and mindfully circumscribed. I also mean that it is absolutely essential to have clear messaging about the importance of the problems of Power; that one must propagandize the aspect of Power limitation in governance—such as freedom of political speech, or of the circumscribing of official, judicial, police, and prosecutorial authority—and the crucial role that it plays in a strong, successful democracy; that one must socialize one’s citizens into the values of Power limitation as a critical means of inoculating one’s democracy against tyrants. It is dangerous for us to ever forget this.
Note that this is also, and not inconsequentially, a discussion of freedom. But not “freedom” in the sense of the word as it is shouted by the kind of entitled idiot “patriots” who like to wave “We’re Number 1” Foam Fingers while presumptuously helping themselves to an individual’s license to do anything they like at anybody else’s expense. This is “freedom” in the sense of preserving our liberties as citizens to choose our government, and limiting the corruption that could destroy those liberties. This is a discussion about the freedom that’s worth having, worth protecting, and worth talking about without shame. The freedom that makes the country worth defending in the first place.
It is also a discussion about corruption. There is an unusual feature of Western, and particularly US institutions compared to those characteristic of the rest of the world. The level of corruption of all kinds in those institutions—in Central Banks, in Courts, in Government Departments, as well as in private institutions—while not zero, is so much lower than in the rest of the world that the fact is frequently remarked upon by visitors from developing nations—I have met a few who never even found the routine corrupt practices in their home countries noteworthy in the slightest until they came to the US and suddenly didn’t have to bribe anyone. This relative lack of institutional corruption is a phenomenon that is clearly related to the same set Enlightenment values: corruption doesn’t check itself, it is checked when institutions designed to limit it are set up in a culture that expects it to be limited. This feature of our society is, I believe, one of our most important sources of soft power. Most of the world dwells in such extensive and endemic corruption that the idea of living without it can seem more utopic than the idea of “freedom”, believe it or not.
At the moment we, in the US, still appear to have some immunity to tyranny, some attachment to our lawful institutions of government, and some allergy to corruption. We do not do these things perfectly. For example, our attachment to a “Unitary Executive” as a legal concept is an abomination that needs to be sent to some kind of graveyard as quickly as can be arranged, before executive power becomes unbounded. Also, we allow our police and prosecutors far too much power. I still believe that we grant the FBI and the FISA court too much deference, in the name of fighting Terrorism. Nonetheless, the needle does seem to be moving on even these issues lately. There are some grounds for optimism.
We could lose those things, though. We have become confused about what we’re about in recent decades, and it shows in what our youth thinks of us. I’ve had some conversations with twenty-somethings lately that have left me very concerned, because of the latent bothsidist/whataboutist attitudes underlying such phrases as “to my generation” that precede some observations of near-complete detachment and cynicism. Well, honestly. Who can blame them? We transmitted to them an idea of our values based on the neo-liberalism that we learned from Reagan and Thatcher. I’d be cynical too.
On the other hand, perhaps we may now live in a time when it is possible to refocus on what matters.
All 5 parts, once published, can be found here: The Resumption of History