Rereading the classic texts of modern political theory in preparation for the course I am teaching in the spring has had the unexpected effect of clarifying for me what is going on in the United States at the moment. I have been unhelpfully obsessed with the behavior of prominent political figures of all stripes and characters and have spent a good deal of time worrying about what will happen in the 2024 presidential election. I have tended to couch my concerns in the form of an anxiety about the future of American democracy, always remembering as a faithful member of the left to add the qualifying phrase “such as it is.” But rereading Jean-Jacques Rousseau reminded me that in democratic theory the people are the sovereign. And it is more clear now than it has been in many decades that the American people – not their elected representatives or their spokespersons or, to use a term that has come into vogue since I stopped paying attention, their influencers – are not now by any stretch of the imagination the collective sovereign of a democratic polity. I still care desperately what happens because there are as many degrees of undemocracy as there are levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno and I much prefer the undemocracy to which we still cling to that of Russia or Nazi Germany or, for that matter, China.
The fatal flaw of the classic texts of social contract theory is not that they are unable to respond to the devastating criticisms that I mounted against them in a little book 52 years ago. Their fatal flaw is that they have less to do with what goes on in 21st century nations then does an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In light of all this, there is nothing for it but to adopt a thoroughly transactional attitude toward contemporary American politics, using it if one can to accomplish ends that one has decided are good but not deluding oneself that any of this has anything to do with legitimacy, liberation, or – in the immortal words of Superman – Truth, Justice, and the American Way.