Over the next while, I want to write a bunch of posts looking at the Trump administration – and the worldwide surge of right wing populism more generally – through different lenses offered by different books. This may or may not be useful to other people – as much as anything I’m doing it to get my own thoughts in order about the condition we’re in, and the various possibilities for pushing back, using other people’s ideas as a starting point. First: civil society.
One way we can think of Trump and leaders like him is in terms of civil society. On the one hand, people like Daron Acemoglu argue that civil society is the last defense against Trump and his ilk.
This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. In fact, this is not unique to the United States. What is written in a constitution can take a nation only so far unless society is willing to act to protect it. Every constitutional design has its loopholes, and every age brings its new challenges, which even farsighted constitutional designers cannot anticipate.
The lack – and in fact active discouragement — of direct social participation in politics is the Achilles’ heel of most nascent democracies. Many leaders of newly emerging nations in the 20th century, who professed as their goal the foundation of a democratic regime, all but prevented the formation of civil society, free media, and bottom-up participation in politics; their only use for it was mobilizing core supporters as a defense against other leaders seeking to usurp or contest power. This strategy effectively condemned their democracies to permanent weakness.
On the other, Stephen K. Bannon, the eminence grise of the Trump administration, describes his fears of foreigners as follows:
Last November, for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws. “We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.” “I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?” Bannon was hesitant. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . ” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
Civil society is a notoriously loose term – Marx, Gramsci, Bobbio and a whole host of political theorists and writers in the 1990s mean very different things by it. So how can we make it useful? One good place to start is the work of Ernest Gellner. [click to continue…]