In the United States, forty million people do not have enough food. Thirty million have no health insurance. Nearly three million were evicted from their home last year, two million were incarcerated, and police killed hundreds more. In New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan, reflects on the first month of the Trump administration, and wonders what became of the “blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene.” It was with us just last year, wasn’t it?
Sullivan’s latest essay, “The Madness of King Donald,” finds him taking a break from his usual habit of insisting that the only way to save democracy is with less democracy in order to speculate about the president’s mental health. But one paragraph in particular immediately captured the attention of the political and pundit class. This “brilliant passage,” in the words of NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen, has since between excerpted, quoted, and retweeted with a rapturous bipartisan praise that makes Rosen sound measured.
One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency.
It is a well-written paragraph, an exemplar of Sullivan’s talent for spinning vague political science and nostalgic sentimentality into a passable impression of the profound. It is also profoundly wrong. And it encapsulates, as well as anything I have seen these past few months, the danger of leaving our political future in the hands of the political class that brought us Donald Trump in the first place.
I am not disputing Sullivan’s anxiety, nor the anxiety of those who read his passage and identified with it. But it is a curious idea, this notion that just one month ago, “many people” did not need to think about politics at all.
Who are these “many people”? Surely they are not the millions afflicted by homelessness and joblessness and pain, the Americans harassed or murdered by our criminal justice system, or those for whom daily hunger is an inheritance. If the achievement of free society and a stable democracy is its citizens’ capacity to devote themselves to “passions” and “pastimes” and “loves,” free from “those who rule over” them, then “many people,” many Americans, have never lived in a free society in a stable democracy.
Perhaps the extent of the present depravity is reflected in the fact that even the “many people” who make up the professional and upper classes find themselves suddenly subject to the instability and malevolence of our politics, but they are the exception. The “markedly less free” nation existed long before last January, and “many people” have been living there since they were born.
“It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes,” Sullivan writes. But for millions, that father is a landlord, a police officer, a boss, or a governor, and there has never been a time that they have not been trapped inside of our democracy with him.
Of course, the vast majority of those brutalized by the hideous indifference of our nation do not conceive of their affliction in political terms. Far more than Sullivan and his cheerleaders, they do not “think about politics at all.”
But this reality only underscores the danger of Sullivan’s nostalgia. For the afflicted political ignorance is not a lost luxury; it is a central instrument of their oppression. Far from residing in the “blessed space where politics don’t intervene,” they live with intervention so pervasive that they do not register it as an intervention at all.
Politics smothers their lives and destroys their families. It holds them in poverty or in prison or in fear. It does this so constantly and so effectively that its victims by and large perceive their suffering as just the way of the world, or a reflection of their own moral failure. They have been blinded to the fact that their suffering is a political problem, and therefore deprived of the means to redress it.
At least Sullivan and company can devote time to combatting the ostensibly terrifying circumstances they find themselves in. For many, circumstances do not allow so much room to breathe.
For the professional and upper classes, for the journalists and party hacks that identified so deeply with “The Madness of King Donald,” political engagement is a pursuit born of interest, not necessity. Under a President Bush or Obama — and to a great extent under President Trump — they turn to their pastimes and passions, secure in the knowledge that the state will keep them safe and comfortable.
Overcoming Donald Trump only to slide back into the free and stable United States of Sullivan’s imagination would constitute only a return to freedom and stability for those few who are accustomed to it.
Perhaps that would be an achievement, relative to the present calamity. But what it would achieve, mainly, is a reversion to the very conditions that precipitated Trump’s rise last year: a comfortably indifferent upper crust, blind to the swamp of pain and rage beneath them, fending off reactionary populism by declaring America “already great” while Americans dodge cops and landlords in the cold. This is insufficient. We must know that by now.
I share Andrew Sullivan’s desire to live in a nation where people are free to lead their own lives, participating in politics where necessary but confident that their interests will not collapse without their constant involvement.
But in order to achieve that desire, our immediate ambition must be more political consciousness, not less. We must continue the work already carried out by countless left organizations, from the Moral Mondays movement to our socialist parties, the difficult and often tedious work of real politics that go beyond takes and tweets and #resistance in the form of endless faith in the Democratic Party. We must organize our poor and oppressed and incarcerated, our unemployed and our exploited workers into a political class, aware that their situation is not immutable, and committed to transforming the United States not just back into the depraved caste society of decades past, but into a vehicle for common prosperity, where no citizen goes without food or medicine or shelter and no one is subject to the capricious violence of the upper classes and their laws.
The alternative is defeat, both moral and political. The alternative is barbarism.