"The People": Democracy vs. Liberalism?
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
While US President Biden spoke of “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” the emblems of fascism behind him disclosed the real origins of the January 6 attack: the double-edged ideal of "the people" - the very pillar of democracy.
The United State of America’s 245th birthday is a cause for celebration – and for soul searching. July 4, 2021 concludes a tumultuous year. The lingering Covid-19 pandemic, the George Floyd protests, the 2020 election and its aftermath – all put American democracy on trial. What’s the verdict?
Seemingly, it’s a clear exoneration: the pandemic has subsided, the protests prompted a nation-wide reconsideration of attitudes and policies, the election run smoothly, and the transfer of power – from Trump to Biden – was ultimately accomplished.
Still, all challenges left persistent scars. It’s hard to tell which cuts deeper, but for many American liberals, one can assign a very specific date to sum of all dangers, and fears, US democracy faces: January 6, 2021.
Sometimes the scene is the message. Standing where the storming of the Capitol reached its symbolic zenith, US President Biden started his first joint address to Congress, by dubbing the January 6 events “The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” Is it?
Was the storming of the Capitol really an attack on democracy?
I leave to historians to determine whether the Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese Americans, McCarthyism, gender disfranchisement and racial voter suppression may not have been worse. I ask instead: Was the storming of the Capitol really an attack on democracy?
For my friends, fellow liberals, the question is ridiculous; for many, quite offensive. For some, the attack was sacrilegious. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose office was vandalized, spoke of “those who engaged in the gleeful desecration of this, our temple of American democracy.” Some, like Sen. Dick Durbin, hallowed the Capitol as a “sacred place… defiled by thugs.” US media overwhelmingly echoed this religious sentiment.
But this devotional discourse, curiously coming from largely secular liberals, is at stark odds with public opinion: hardly a third have any trust or confidence in the legislative branch, and congressional job approval is at an ongoing ebb for well over a decade, recently hitting a low of 82% disapproval. While the visual, visceral sensation of desecration may have prompted some to re-sacralize, rhetorically, the Congress, most Americans seem to think both houses have long been defiled by their legal denizens. For a clear majority among Republicans what happened was not “a threat to democracy,” and Biden’s victory was rigged.
The threat is to liberalism, and it comes from democracy, or at least one reading thereof
While Republicans are patently wrong about the election, they have a valid point about January 6 not being a threat to democracy. The threat is to liberalism, and it comes from democracy, or at least one reading thereof, inspired by what has stood at the very heart of the Capitol for well over two centuries – and behind Biden as he addressed the Congress.
As the French were storming the Bastille in 1789, the House of Representatives adopted the fascio as the emblem of its sergeant at arms, its chief law enforcement officer; it is still visible to the Speaker’s right when the full House meets in the House chamber.
The fasces were later installed on both sides of the U.S. flag, becoming the second most prominent symbol of the House, and arguably the country. The American fascio has 13 rods, one more than in the Roman, to represent the unified strength of the original American states, and – so reads the House’s official website – to “represent the ideal of American democracy.”
The fascio, an anti-individual symbol if there ever was one
But while the fascio represents (a certain reading of) democracy, it flies in the face of liberalism. This tied sheaf of rods was not a new invention. It fascinated the Roman political imagination – and inspired Italian fascism, heralded by Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome. Unlike the Nazi appropriation of the traditional, benign-looking swastika (Sanskrit for “fostering well-being”), the fascio visually manifests its credo: The rods, each once unique and alive, are now dried, cut, and tied up into a uniform unity that forcefully holds an ax. An anti-individual symbol if there ever was one.
And a powerful collectivist symbol at that. No wonder that both French and American revolutions turned to the fascio. Following the 1789 Revolution, the First French Republic changed the country’s official Great Seal, removing the insignia of the monarchy, instead placing Marianne, the goddess of liberty and reason, and the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty. The Seal’s most visible symbol is held fast in Marianne’s right hand: the fascio.
After crossing the Atlantic, the fascio spread all over the US. During the 1920s and 1930s, politicians and architects well aware of the rise of fascism, symbolism included, were often quite fond of it as an antidote to communism. In NYC, where George Washington was sworn in as the first President, stands his statue, his cloak covering the fascio. The Abraham Lincoln memorial in Washington DC features the leader atop a fascio-made seat. Next, as mentioned, in the House of Representatives, huge fascio-axes adorn the wall behind the speaker, on both sides of the US flag.
Mortified by the people desecrating the Capitol, liberals missed what has desecrated this temple all along, at its very hallowed heart.
The Liberal Uncanny
The fascio introduces what I term the “liberal uncanny.” For the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, following Freud, “the uncanny” is the unsettling sense of experiencing something as strangely familiar, placing people “in the field where we do not know how to distinguish bad and good.”
This confusion underpins current liberalism, and its ambivalent approach to what the fascio represents most: the people, that political human collective that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
One the one hand, democracy, literally “the rule of the people,” is justified by the latter. Democracy is ultimately of, by, and for the people, who indeed made the great modern democratic revolutions: American and French.
On the other hand, many rightly sense something quite sinister about “the people.” It purveys populism and mob mentality, the collective unleashing of the unruly id from its civilizational constraints, arguably culminating the 20th century bloodbath of ultra-nationalism, fascism, Nazism and communism. And it inspired Trump’s rhetoric, and his followers’ actions.
Can we have this cake and eat it too, preserve the power of the people without paying a price?
Liberalism can be the creed of creative progress. It is not.
To state the obvious, the liberal uncanny does not turn liberals into fascists; Mussolini abhorred liberalism – for its professed individualism, favoring persons over “the people,” and their state. But has liberalism lived up its pledge to cultivate each person’s full autonomy to express oneself and engage others?
Perhaps less so today. Liberalism can be the creed of creative progress, by doubting all moral certitudes; liberalism should make the question mark its emblem, resisting all ideological exclamation points.
But this is a tough ask, a daunting task. The “paradox of tolerance” may turn it into a suicidal mission. As Karl Popper explained in The Open Society and Its Enemies, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
Recalling Hitler’s rise to power through the too tolerant Weimar Republic, post-WWII liberalism often opted to be intolerant of intolerance, setting its own exclamation point against those of its rivals.
We may have gone a step further. Many liberals nowadays overwrite question marks with their own exclamation points, naming and shaming even nonconforming fellow liberals. Over the past year, many liberals have come to consider not wearing a mask outdoors or not endorsing BLM (in one’s virtual bubble, backyard, and preferably both) as a sacrilegious, punishable, act. Hoisting an intellectual fascio, the new liberal may not be a fascist, but may risk becoming a narcissist.
While we have been un-naming buildings and removing statues left and right, fasces have somehow managed to fly under the radar. Are we ready now to finally remove the fascio from our political heart? If so, we better be ready with an alternative, one that truly embraces, indeed cultivates, our shared, unique, humanity, favoring neither “the people,” nor specific peoples. Until we are, we may start by removing the ax.