Rereading Rousseau in preparation for teaching next semester has had on me interesting effect that I did not anticipate. It made clearer to me the present situation in the United States. I realized that by any reasonable 21st century construal of Rousseau’s analysis, it is not accurate to say that it is uncertain whether the United States will remain a representative democracy. It is more accurate to say that the United States is not now a representative democracy, if indeed it ever was. Let me explain.
The United States is formally or legally a representative democracy in which one of the two major parties no longer believes that control of the levers of government should be determined by elections. Instead, right now, the Republican Party with the active support of perhaps 35% or 40% of adult Americans, believes that elections are legitimate only when its candidate wins. I do not mean this puckishly or for dramatic effect. I mean quite literally that Republicans at the local, state, and national level are right now attempting to arrange things so that they will never again “lose” an election. In this effort, they are supported by scores of millions of Americans. Now, any time you find 80 million or more people believing something, it goes without saying that there will be countless reasons why they believe it, countless ways in which they believe it, and countless ways in which they act out of this belief.
Some of the Americans who believe that only elections in which the Republican wins are legitimate believe that because they are white supremacist racists. Others believe it because they are fundamentalist Christians. Still others neither believe it nor disbelieve it but simply find it in their interest to act as though they do. But the total net effect is that somewhat less, but not much less, than half of adult Americans no longer have any functional, operational belief in representative democracy.
Regardless of what happens in the 2022 or 2024 elections – regardless of whether Republicans are literally able to steal the 2024 presidential election, as they are now deliberately, openly, systematically preparing to do – it is clear that the United States is not in the usual understanding of this term, a representative democracy, Wwhich is to say a polity in which it is generally accepted that control of government should be determined by democratic elections of representatives.
Because I so much fear what the Republicans will do with the vast power of the American government if they succeed in seizing control of it, I believe that all of us must do everything in our power to stop them, and that may even involve pretending that we believe American democracy is at risk. But the simple fact is that American democracy no longer exists.
If you respond that it never has existed, I will not argue with you. After all, the next book on my reading list is a little tract entitled In Defense of Anarchism.
I freely confess that it was rereading Of the Social Contract that cleared my mind and made all of this transparently obvious to me in a way that it had not quite been before.
There is something to be said for preparing to teach a course.