The United States has gone mad—a land of extravagant wealth, and now a land of extravagant vulgarity. Trump is the end of democracy, the final sign of a declining superpower and the final truth of a grotesque and debilitating capitalism. Cries of shock and delight collect and repeat themselves across the world, especially in the sophisticated social democracies whose elegant manners are most offended by the ugly spectacle of American democracy, awash in corruption and disengaged from the most important struggles that define our modern world. Whether smug or frightened, observers from around the world look aghast at what appears to be the final undoing or vulgarization of democratic politics. “Vulgarization” is perhaps the crucial word: American democracy is a nasty business, with abundant guns, political rallies that resemble matches sponsored by the World Wrestling Federation and Trump crudely assuring us of his virility during an ostensibly serious debate among candidates for one of the nation’s two major political parties.
Yet the contest in the United States, in all its vulgarity, is democratic politics and reveals to us what is most discomfiting about democracy—that democracy opens the political field to discussions and debates without limits or “banisters,” in Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase. For too long we have labored under the illusion that politics, especially democratic politics, has to respect certain limits, to the degree that these are intended to create a more inclusive process of governance. As in certain European social democracies, almost all discussion is admitted other than discussion about the structure of democracy itself. Parties that challenge democracy are prohibited. Democracy proceeds on the basis of a fundamentally undemocratic exclusion. Thus, democracy—similar to religion’s assumption that God exists— may allow arguments of all kinds as long as they do not interfere with the primary supposition that creates democracy itself.
This is not obviously the case in the United States right now, despite the almost religious fervor traditionally attached to the constitution. The genuinely and fearsomely democratic nature of the current presidential contest lies in its disregard for the norms of American democratic politics as they have been worked out over a very long period. Indeed, this presidential contest brings out the radical and fragile nature of democracy itself. The commitment to open political contest seems to devolve into the most extraordinary risk of all—that democracy may be abolished or that the openness of the democratic contest gives the upper hand to those who would undermine it, vulgarizing the process, if not openly profaning it as well. Unfortunately, the latter claim forces one to accept limitations on democracy; it expresses the paradox described in rather different terms by Chantal Mouffe as the undemocratic institution of democracy.
A response to this undemocratic institution of democracy is agonistic democracy. One of the complaints about agonistic democracy concerns the attempt to enlist Carl Schmitt’s notion of struggle for the purposes of sustaining democracy. How can a democracy possibly admit the kind of struggle to the death Schmitt evokes without thereby tearing itself apart? Yet, if it dare not, does a democracy not turn into a stagnant bureaucratic state in which all questions of a fundamental sort have been answered, reducing all change to developments of major decisions that have already been made? We appear to be stuck between a Scylla and Charybdis. If we risk truly open discussion of all issues, do we not risk exposing democracy to destruction by non-democratic forces? Likewise, if we do not risk free discussion, is not all discussion bound by norms that transform discussion from a free-wheeling examination of basic possibilities to bureaucratic deliberations of how we might mark out the details of what has already been decided by social convention or written constitution?
These questions percolate through the current presidential contest. Far from being a sign of decadence, this momentous contest points in the opposite direction to the agonistic vitality of democratic politics in the United States, where fundamental questions concerning the future of the country may still come into play. The United States remains capable of revolution, even though that revolution, if it takes the form of support for Trump, is of a most foreboding kind.
It need not take that shape, however. Nor need it prolong the rule of a bureaucratic oligarchy that has thrived since 1980 within the rules of the modern American democratic system and barely seems interested in the agonistic openness of democratic discussion, if in any discussion at all. Hence, desperation and anger have reached such a ferocious level that some are wiling to embrace an authoritarian who purports to speak for them when in fact his true interest lies in nothing other than acquiring power. But there still is a vibrancy and energy left in this unruly nation, a vibrancy that embraces the inherent instability of democracy in a way that the staid and couth social democracies found elsewhere in the world would not hazard to accept. The United States is still unruly; it is still capable of embracing the risks of democracy that sways insecurely between disorder and order.
From this perspective, the disorder of this year’s presidential election can be a decisive moment to affirm the dynamism of democracy against its erosion into bureaucratic rule or its collapse into dictatorship. The choice seems even clearer than in past elections. We can fear the uncouthness of democratic freedom and simply let others decide for us as we go on blissfully enjoying the pleasantries of consumerist capitalism and safely keeping with the same worn-out ways of practicing democracy. Or we can open ourselves up to disagreement and the possibility of transformation into something more radically and raggedly democratic.