Louis Rene Beres, professor emeritus of international law at Purdue, discusses nature of the 2020 election and the need to restore American democracy…
“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.” – Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952)
Even in this grievously faltering the United States, presidential elections are praised as essential evidence of a law-based democracy. This ritualized practice continues although “We the People” are suffering at starkly differential rates (e,g, substantial declensions of the American poor are happening more quickly and deeply than to the rich), and despite the fact that there has never been more tangible evidence of expanding American plutocracy.
Such evident expansion, as if this core fact were somehow insufficient proof of exploding American injustice, is insidious for several additional reasons. Most obvious is that our already-precarious networks of legal safety are under assault not only by unprecedented presidential dereliction and incompetence but also by biological pestilence or “plague.” When President Donald J. Trump can announce on July 5, 2020 that “99% of Covid19 cases are totally harmless,” and millions of Americans can scarcely shrug their shoulders in palpable disapproval, it is well past time to maintain any reasonable faith in this country’s alleged democracy.
How to fix this? To be sure, the literal survival of the United States now requires American voters to rid themselves of a dissembling and law-violating presidency. If this requirement is met – and this is plainly an indispensable election outcome in November 2020 – We the People could finally confront the utterly core fallacy in this country’s long-mythologized democratic narrative: A single anti-intellectual president can meaningfully escalate and harshly amplify the debilities of a disinterested citizenry. To wit, once a major political party can invite “Duck Dynasty” to be its principal presidential convention speaker without embarrassment – the Trump invitation tendered and accepted this “speaker” back at the 2016 Republican Convention – there is not much residual hope for law-based and science-directed governance.
For any genuinely legal democracy, macrocosm follows microcosm. Prima facie, nothing is as determinative for democratic rule as the private state of the individual citizen. Wherever this citizen disregards an always-primary obligation to think seriously, as an individual and not as a docile member of Mass, democracy is doomed. Indeed, this particular legal obligation was already singled out and underscored by Thomas Jefferson.
Macrocosm follows microcosm. America’s democratic institutions must inevitably remain reflections of a much greater and less-superficial reality. This still-hidden truth lies buried in our complex society’s accumulating and intersecting inventories of personal agonies and collective discontents. In essence, no institutionalized legal pattern of democracy, including one with commendably regular and fair elections, can expect to rise above the cumulative personal ambitions, insights, and capacities of its citizens.
There is a difficult lesson to be learned by all democracies that too-naively celebrate ritualized elections. It is that citizens must somehow learn to embrace what they have not always understood. It is that as a preferred form of law-based governance, democracy is about more than any formal exercise or ceremonial adoration of relevant institutions. Among other things, it is about wider or world-system legal obligations, that is, about certain democratizing reciprocities of international law.
Ultimately, any democracy represents nothing less than a bewilderingly dialectical interplay between reason and unreason, a subtle and many-sided colloquy between those Few who still seek authentic thought and those Many who yield to society’s myriad bewitchments of language.
In the final analysis, as we may learn from a very peculiar philosophic coupling, from both Sören Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish thinker who informed us that the “the crowd is untruth,” and from Bob Dylan, the American composer, of an almost-corollary lyric. “I’m trying to get away from myself,” sang Dylan, unwittingly reinforcing Kierkegaard, adding “as fast as I can.”
In the end, we may extrapolate from Kierkegaard and Dylan, our odd couple here, that even for long-established democracies, it is never for elections alone to cast light in dark places.
There is more. As a retired university professor of international law, it is easy to see that any serious intellectual life for this nation’s citizenry has effectively become extraneous. Nowadays, any respectable new volume on a “life of the mind in America” would be an excruciatingly short book. Once upon a time in America, however, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written promisingly of an enviable law-based democracy, one based upon “high thinking and plain living.” Today, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually every young American’s expressed aspiration has more to do with self-validating accumulations of visible wealth than with any human-focused acquisitions of learning.
Wisdom, our students learn very early on, simply doesn’t “pay.” Far more sensible, it will now seem to them, is to passively accept a more convenient lifetime of intellectual debasement, political venality, and resigned betrayal – all in some presumptively plausible exchange for “success.” In this starkly polarized and legally-indifferent democracy, young people are de facto instructed by the school and university. It is permissible for citizens to accept complicity in the self-mockeries of conformance or “fitting in,” they are being advised, so long as this calculated surrender of dignity will leave time for voting.
As to the proper criteria of selection, of course, these are cynically partisan considerations of political party and have nothing whatever to do with any antecedent or coinciding rule of law.
In the apt year of 1776, Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, already observed that a society founded upon any such conspicuous inversion of values would be shaped by fully degraded measures of citizen self-esteem. Ironically, it is precisely this once revolutionary book that is enthusiastically cited by prominent present-day Americans in defense of “conspicuous consumption.” The term itself, of course, was presumably invented by Norwegian-American sociologist, Thorsten Veblen.
Whatever happens in our upcoming presidential election, We the People will remain largely untouched by any gainful considerations of higher thought. Instead, still visibly obsessed with social networks, apps, reality television, and multiple foci of political distraction (bread and circuses), our preferred preoccupation will still lie in running away from ourselves. Speedily. This is because what most clearly animates “The American People” people in these defiling days of Trump, is a voyeuristic ethos of self-debasement and law-violation, both in the multiple interstices of immediate personal pleasures and in the manifold joys and sufferings of many unknown others.
It should hardly come as a surprise, therefore, when editors at The Washington Post concluded in their July 5, 2020 editorial that an American president had reached “new depths of depravity.”
When it is expressed by any society as a sort of ritual incantation, ideology can replace reason, rationality, and proper legal judgment. Nonetheless, we Americans tend to think viscerally, against ourselves, against history and against law. In the end, as we have already begun to re-discover, even the most ardently democratic societies can be transformed into bitter and petrified plutocracies. Revealingly, our once-vaunted American democracy has become a place where everyone has a law-based right to free speech, but where only a decreasingly fortunate few can afford to keep their own teeth.
This crude assertion may first sound implausible or even comedic, but it remains factually correct. Indeed, it is incontestable.
There is more. Sometimes, even the privileged are actually underprivileged. For the most part, even the most affluent Americans now inhabit the loneliest of lonely crowds. Small wonder, too, that so many millions cling desperately to their “medications” (mountains of drugs and oceans of alcohol), cell phones, and Facebook or Twitter connections. Filled with an ever-deepening horror of having to be alone with themselves – a fiercely desperate condition philosophically anticipated by Kierkegaard, and musically acknowledged by Bob Dylan – these virtually connected millions are frantic to belong, that is, to claim some readily recognizable membership within the sheltering “democratic” mass.
“I belong, therefore I am.” This is not what French philosopher René Descartes had in mind when in the 17th century he had urged skeptical thought and a reciprocal pattern of cultivated doubt. It is, rather, an abundantly sad and portentous credo for America. It virtually screams the stupefying and literally delusionary cry that social acceptance is as important as physical survival. In our own beleaguered times, at least for an, unfortunately, growing number of Americans, it can even mean that death is discernibly preferable to life.
In part, such meaning stems from the understanding that life without belonging would be insufferable. How else does one explain that an American president’s recent no-social distancing no mask rally in Tulsa or South Dakota could be willingly attended by thousands?
There is more. Our American electoral democracy is rapidly making a machine out of Man and Woman. In what now amounts to an unforgivable reversal of Genesis, it even seems reasonable to conclude that we have been created not in the divine image, but in the image of the machine. From the standpoints of both national and international law, this conclusion points menacingly toward a collapsing legal order.
What went wrong? Didn’t we Americans once speak convincingly of vastly more elevated human origins? Or has the machine itself become some new form of divinity?
As the election hoopla begins to become more obvious and more rancorous – always a sure way to deflect our attention from what is really causing our private pain and general unhappiness – we Americans will likely remain grinning captives of a long-standing public gibberish. Then, stubbornly disclaiming any sort of an interior life as human individuals, we will continue to chant in robotic unison. For all too many, what is actually being chanted will be utterly insignificant. All that will matter is to “belong” to some reassuringly unthinking Mass.
With our upcoming elections, American democracy’s real enemy remains immune and unscathed, ever-ready to do further harm and to remind us all that hiding in the Mass does not a true law-based democracy make. For all those that care to look, this enemy is readily identifiable. It is a pervasively “unphilosophical spirit,” a blind obeisance to presidential authority, rather than the Constitution-based US legal system.
There is more. As a retired professor of international law who taught for almost half a century, it is easy to see that our universities are no longer an oasis or refuge of challenging thought. Typically, they are bereft of anything that might even hint at informed encouragement for inquiring student spirits. What matters most, on-campus (now more-or-less virtual), is that the “investment” in college should prove measurably “cost-effective.” It is fully reasonable for students and their parents to link academic program options with eventual job opportunities, but it should also make sense, at some point, to seek some variant of a real education.
Today, the once-revered Western Canon of literature, art, music, and philosophy has been displaced by a steadily-expanding “pragmatism.” Significantly, the long-term consequences of this corrosive displacement for law and democracy have yet to be systematically computed. At a minimum, they suggest a growing American population with no discernible interest in human history, human learning, or jurisprudence.
None at all.
None of this is meant to suggest staying away from the polls on election day. On the contrary, at least on certain major issues, voting has its continuously meaningful place. Still, in the much larger sense of what Plato once urged upon ancient Athenian governments – that is, “to make the souls of the citizens better” – these formal exercises of law and democracy can never hope to make a sufficiently vital difference. Whether we decide to elect candidates of one party or another, we will eventually converge upon a more unambiguously primal and universal truth.
No law-based democratic society, however institutionalized, systematic, and sacred its process of elections, can rise above the inclinations and capabilities of its individual citizens.
Sometimes, it is worth noting, an entire nation or civilization displays the same fragility as an individual life. In this case, America’s collective fragility is epiphenomenal; that is, it represents the sum total of individual citizens seeking largely erroneous or unwarranted goals. To reduce this cumulative weakness, each “part” of the national “whole” will first have to take itself much more seriously. This means, inter alia, choosing disciplined learning over shallow entertainments and favoring penetrating thought over mindless political distortions.
As long as this country’s citizens choose to “know nothing of truth,” they will have to expect only irreversible surrenders and irremediable despair.
In the foreseeable worst case, the multiplying and synergistic effects of US presidential dereliction would include irrecoverable wars and unceasing disease pestilence. This intolerable prognosis is plausible only because We the People remained way too silent or disinterested when Donald J. Trump displayed behaviors that were already quite plainly unthinkable. Conspicuous examples of such egregious presidential transgressions include defending the Confederate flag while downplaying America’s mass COVID-19 dying; enthusiastically shielding white supremacists and also their Nazi symbols; using police and military against peacefully protesting American citizens in the nation’s capital, and refusing (again and again) to condemn or even acknowledge Vladimir Putin’s various grave intrusions into US democracy.
As late as July 2020, these intrusions include distinctly credible evidence of Russian bounties paid to kill American soldiers. Accordingly, we must ask, can American law and American democracy reasonably coincide with an American president’s undiminished homage to his Russian counterpart? Is all this more fictive than fiction, The Manchurian Candidate in real life, and “on steroids”?
Looking ahead, We the People should finally ask these very basic questions. While it is indeed getting late, they must immediately be raised with seriousness and urgency. Even more fundamentally, we shall finally need to identify and condemn the most genuinely underlying American “enemy.” This is an “unphilosophical spirit,” as we learned originally from both Karl Jaspers and Thomas Jefferson, “which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Jurist