The End of Mass Politics
If Americans feel disconnected from their government and their communities, perhaps that's because they are.
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If social media is any indication—and, despite what people might say or hope, it very much is—the major feelings experienced by most Americans are dislocation and unease. In the last twenty years, the US government has lurched from failure to failure, to the point where a repetition of American-led disasters—Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession, Libya, Trump—reads like a negative doxology. After living through Washington’s inability and/or unwillingness to address adequately the COVID-19 pandemic either at home or abroad over the past two years, many Americans have resigned themselves to a reality in which their lives are getting, and will continue to get, worse.
Ordinary people, it seems, have almost no influence on politics. Despite clear majority support for ideas like public health care or universal childcare, little headway has been made in getting these or similar programs enacted.
We live in an era when the institutions of mass politics—mass-based political parties, the mass media, mass protests, and social media—have proven themselves unable to serve as vehicles of the people’s will. This, I believe, is a major if under-appreciated reason why Americans feel so disconnected from their government and their communities, and why so many of us are depressed: we are told, and we trust, that there are productive ways to channel our political desires, but in actuality this is simply not true.
Despite our many interactions with the Democratic Party; despite our taking to the streets to protest war or police violence; despite our manifold op-eds decrying the present state of affairs; and despite our innumerable posts on Twitter or Facebook, those who wield power have displayed little interest in heeding the advice or the will of the demos. Ours is an individualistic, neoliberal era overlaid with mass institutions and forms that, for all intents and purposes, are atavistic, toothless, and ineffective, unable to force the power elite’s hand in meaningful ways.
How did this come to be? As I discussed in an earlier column, there has been a century-long, and largely successful, elite project to remove ordinary people from the decision-making process. Beginning with the intellectual revolution of “democratic realists” like Walter Lippmann—who insisted that social scientists and decision-makers should be the ones making actual political choices—and continuing with the midcentury (1930s-1960s) creation of the national security and administrative states—which concentrate power in the hands of small groups of people—US elites effectively have removed the demos from politics.
This is especially true when it comes to foreign relations. Just last week, President Joe Biden approved a massive military budget of $778,000,000,000. This budget is premised to a large extent on the fantasy that the United States is going to fight a great power war with Russia, China, or both. (In my opinion, the budget will do little but continue to enrich contractors and other merchants of death.) But if the COVID-19 pandemic, ever-rising inequality, and recent climate disasters have indicated anything, it is that Americans face far more serious issues than fantasy wars. In a world where democratic politics functioned as it should, US elites would at least have to defend their claims that Russia and/or China pose a serious threat to the United States. Instead, the budget has become a largely “apolitical” sideshow, indicated by the fact that under Biden the already-massive budgets approved by former President Donald Trump have increased, to little protest.
Furthermore, as the recent history described in the negative doxology above indicates, the elites have not always made the wisest decisions. Despite the dream of Progressive Era reformers, having an Ivy League education does not actually mean that one is able to make good political choices. This is doubly true for those whose influence derives from their wealth. It’s hard to imagine that over the last century ordinary Americans wouldn’t have at least made choices that were at least as “smart” as those of their supposed betters.
Although it’s uncomfortable to do so, the ineffectiveness of our mass institutions and forms needs to be recognized and faced head on. There is an unfortunate tendency on the left—as there is to all movements out of power—to sloganeer instead of taking a hard look at the actual power constellation of our society. But this is precisely what we need to do.
So, what have the last twenty years demonstrated?
The rich can get richer and the poor can get poorer without there being a serious reaction; people are as a whole unwilling to put their lives on the line for politics.
Congress largely has abandoned its role in war-making.
The “voice” provided by social media is largely an illusion when it comes to affecting those who wield real power, while the mass media is more interested in circuses than in informing.
There is not a clear link between popular protest and political reform.
Those who control the Democratic Party feel no compunction to listen to their supposed constituents.
For the moment, at least, capitalism has won, and its victory is totalizing.
You don’t need that many people to control and run the US Empire effectively.
Of course, I do not wish to imply that the above realities are eternal. Humans, as Marx rightly said, make their own histories (even if, as he added, we don’t make them as we please).
We live in a grim era where morbid symptoms abound. Our goal for the next decade must be to change that, and the only way to do so is to identify the present constellation of power in our society and strategize accordingly.
If we do not, we will all continue to suffer.
Excellent as always, Danny. Another critical historical component to this analysis is that the "era of mass politics" in this country can be situated as an anomaly within the broader history of American empire.
Arguably some form of actually effective mass politics began with Roosevelt's New Deal and lasted through the end of the 1960s (as you rightly say) and has been regressing ever since. So, rather than "recapturing" some essence of America (as many liberals and progressives seem to believe) our project should be focused on problematizing the entire American experiment as itself a driver of oligarchy and contextualizing the mid-century era as an anomaly that cannot be recaptured within the structure of our present political economy.