Anti-Turkey deal demonstration Brussels, March 2016.

One of the few public matters on which there is general agreement in the United States is the dysfunction of the political system. Practically everyone believes that government in this country is broken. Just how it is broken, and how (and even if) it might be fixed are more contentious questions. The answers given vary widely with the political orientation and class position of whoever it is to whom one is talking.

With all the talk of the fascistic tendencies of this or that political figure, perhaps there is a greater danger lurking elsewhere. The problem seems not so much to be this or that decision, but the systematic failure to take any decision. While the politicians dither, a certain segment of the electorate becomes increasingly enamored with the idea of decision for its own sake.

One of the central ironies of the current political moment relates to the gridlock that seems to afflict government, from the local to the federal level, in the United States. To an only slightly lesser extent than its structural cousin, the British parliamentary system, American political institutions are structured in such a way as to permit (and in fact to invite) pronounced ideological swings. In practice this should allow the business of government to be done, preferably with a measure of goodwill and compromise, but without it if need be.

The defining features of the current system are heavily gerrymandered legislative districts, especially for the House of Representatives, and an unprecedented reliance on the cloture system in the Senate. The importance of the former is illustrated by the fact that an almost perpetual Republican majority has been built into the House of Representatives, while presidents keep being elected from the Democratic Party.

This must mean one of two things. Either a significant number of people are voting for one party in state and congressional elections, and for the other in the presidential elections. Or, and this is by far the more likely case, the current division of legislative districts doesn’t represent the distribution of actual voters between the two parties.

There is an important sense in which this doesn’t matter. To wit, it’s only a big deal if one believes that there are significant substantive differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. But mostly this is a matter of degree rather than real political difference. Obama approach to foreign policy was rather less strident in its public pronouncements, but the distinction between being vaporized by a drone as opposed to shot by an actual soldier in your local area is pretty academic to those on the receiving end of U.S. military force.

Soon the be replaced by Chinese robots. Brussels, February 2016.

Soon the be replaced by Chinese robots. Brussels, February 2016.

Both sides talk up their differences in domestic policy, but both are perfectly happy to defend the current system of production and accumulation, and the resulting concentration of wealth at the top end of the income distribution. The supposedly less business friendly Obama administration used a tendentious reading of the interstate commerce laws to create, in the form of the ACA, the most enormous corporate welfare program the country has ever known.

All of which is not to say that there are no differences at all. One party has clearly shown itself hostile to women and willing to take action (trap laws, transvaginal ultrasound, defunding women’s health resources). But it’s not as if the Democrats can resist the temptation to tack to the right to fill the space evacuated by the Republicans on their long march to the lunatic fringe and there are plenty of conservative Democrats out there more than willing to be party to restrictions on women’s access to healthcare and reproductive resources.

In any case, the public statements of the respective parties notwithstanding, the actual situation is one in which not very much gets done. Especially since the disintegration of Democratic strength in the years since Obama’s election, congress has managed to do very little. The Republican Party, as has been said before (and not only by me) doesn’t really have much of a platform. Staging more than 60 votes to overturn the ACA when it’s clear on procedural grounds that they haven’t the slightest chance of achieving that goal is hardly the conduct of a party with a serious positive agenda.

The 113th Congress was the second least productive in history, after only the 112th. About the only time anything gets done is when new budgets need to be passed to keep the government from defaulting on its obligations, or the occasional pantomime surrounding the raising of the debt ceiling. For the members of the professional political class (and this includes the soi disant outsiders of the Tea Party) this is not necessarily a terrible situation, since doing nothing is probably less dangerous to the maintenance of one’s position that actually doing something in the heavily polarized political environment.

There is a superficial comparison to be made at this point with the political situation in Germany in the late 1920s. There, the proliferation of minor parties, and a rise in the power of parties at the far ends of the political spectrum (the Communists on the left, the Nazis and Hugenberg’s DNVP on the right) caused the political system to grind to a halt. Despite repeated elections, no party or coalition could amass enough seats to form a government, but there were always enough votes to be found for a vote of no confidence. The consequence of this was a series of chancellors who governed essentially by decree using the emergency powers granted by Article 48 of the Weimar constitution.

The conservative Catholic jurist Carl Schmitt spoke for many when he criticized the fatuous self-indulgence of the politicians in a series of texts written throughout the period. In his 1922 text Political Theology, Schmitt wrote that for the 19th Catholic reactionary Juan Donoso Cortés (and also clearly for himself), liberalism existed in that moment “when it was possible to answer the question ‘Christ or Barabbas?’ with a proposal to adjourn or to form a commission of investigation.” For Schmitt, what was lacking was the will to actually take a decision. In its place was a romantic obsession with the consideration of alternative possibilities more suited to the daydreams of litterateurs than to the workings of a political institution.

We are all French fries. Brussels, February 2016.

We are all French fries. Brussels, February 2016.

The failure of the political institutions to take action to address national crises had a pronounced aggravating effect on those crises. From the outside it appeared to many that the business of government was being thwarted by abstract procedural issues. What was needed, many came to think, was someone with the will to do something. That someone was Hitler, a charismatic speaker with a message that many people wanted to hear (the Germans are great, losing the war was not your fault, we can be great again if only we get rid of the Communists and Jews that are holding us down).

This, if you will, is the only significant and appropriate comparison between our current circumstances and those that obtained in Germany in the years before the rise of the Third Reich. All too often one now hears people say that what this country needs for a president is “a do-er,” someone who will take action to resolve the nation’s problems. More often than not, the problems animating such a sentiment are things like immigrants are taking our jobs or eating up or welfare, or that excess regulation or corporate taxation is restraining economic growth. As is usually the case, the calls to find “a do-er” become ever more pronounced in the further rightward regions of the American political imaginary.

Democrats, despite their many other problems, generally eschew this sort of solution. What they seem to want is a technician who will cause their stock portfolios to grow slowly and steadily. But for those on the right who have been led by decades of white, male, apologist propaganda, the need is increasingly felt for someone who will reach beyond the checks and safeguards of the current political institutions to more direct solutions (like deporting 11 million or so Latinos).

The danger now, as it was in 1932, is that a critical mass of the voters will become so disaffected by the willingness of the political classes to engage in pointless and unedifying political spectacle that they will be willing to join a movement to dismantle the system wholesale. The system of liberal democratic institutions that we currently have has myriad problems. But a worse one would be that generated by the interests of the top of the income distribution untrammeled by our current (deeply flawed) order.

The election of Donald Trump would not constitute such an outcome. He presents a different threat, one generated by someone willing to overlook just enough of the operating manual of the current system to throw it, and the world order of which it is a central component, into crisis. But the sources of these two bad outcomes are roughly the same (disaffection with the boggling of the current system) and one could quite easily lead to the other. The result would not be (or not necessarily be) Hitler, but something else, entirely unpredictable and incredibly dangerous.

Banks keep you warmer. Brussels, February 2016.

Banks keep you warmer. Brussels, February 2016.

With all the talk of the fascistic tendencies of this or that political figure, perhaps there is a greater danger lurking elsewhere. The problem seems not so much to be this or that decision, but the systematic failure to take any decision. While the politicians dither, a certain segment of the electorate becomes increasingly enamored with the idea of decision for its own sake.

One of the central ironies of the current political moment relates to the gridlock that seems to afflict government, from the local to the federal level, in the United States. To an only slightly lesser extent than its structural cousin, the British parliamentary system, American political institutions are structured in such a way as to permit (and in fact to invite) pronounced ideological swings. In practice this should allow the business of government to be done, preferably with a measure of goodwill and compromise, but without it if need be.

The defining features of the current system are heavily gerrymandered legislative districts, especially for the House of Representatives, and an unprecedented reliance on the cloture system in the Senate. The importance of the former is illustrated by the fact that an almost perpetual Republican majority has been built into the House of Representatives, while presidents keep being elected from the Democratic Party. This must mean one of two things. Either a significant number of people are voting for one party in state and congressional elections, and for the other in the presidential elections. Or, and this is by far the more likely case, the current division of legislative districts doesn’t represent the distribution of actual voters between the two parties.

There is an important sense in which this doesn’t matter. To wit, it’s only a big deal if one believes that there are significant substantive differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. But mostly this is a matter of degree rather than real political difference. Obama approach to foreign policy was rather less strident in its public pronouncements, but the distinction between being vaporized by a drone as opposed to shot by an actual soldier in your local area is pretty academic to those on the receiving end of U.S. military force.

Both sides talk up their differences in domestic policy, but both are perfectly happy to defend the current system of production and accumulation, and the resulting concentration of wealth at the top end of the income distribution. The supposedly less business friendly Obama administration used a tendentious reading of the interstate commerce laws to create, in the form of the ACA, the most enormous corporate welfare program the country has ever known.

All of which is not to say that there are no differences at all. One party has clearly shown itself hostile to women and willing to take action (trap laws, transvaginal ultrasound, defunding women’s health resources). But it’s not as if the Democrats can resist the temptation to tack to the right to fill the space evacuated by the Republicans on their long march to the lunatic fringe and there are plenty of conservative Democrats out there more than willing to be party to restrictions on women’s access to healthcare and reproductive resources.

Pro-refugee demonstration. Brussels, September 2015.

Pro-refugee demonstration. Brussels, September 2015.

In any case, the public statements of the respective parties notwithstanding, the actual situation is one in which not very much gets done. Especially since the disintegration of Democratic strength in the years since Obama’s election, congress has managed to do very little. The Republican Party, as has been said before (and not only by me) doesn’t really have much of a platform. Staging more than 60 votes to overturn the ACA when it’s clear on procedural grounds that they haven’t the slightest chance of achieving that goal is hardly the conduct of a party with a serious positive agenda.

The 113th Congress was the second least productive in history, after only the 112th. About the only time anything gets done is when new budgets need to be passed to keep the government from defaulting on its obligations, or the occasional pantomime surrounding the raising of the debt ceiling. For the members of the professional political class (and this includes the soi disant outsiders of the Tea Party) this is not necessarily a terrible situation, since doing nothing is probably less dangerous to the maintenance of one’s position that actually doing something in the heavily polarized political environment.

There is a superficial comparison to be made at this point with the political situation in Germany in the late 1920s. There, the proliferation of minor parties, and a rise in the power of parties at the far ends of the political spectrum (the Communists on the left, the Nazis and Hugenberg’s DNVP on the right) caused the political system to grind to a halt. Despite repeated elections, no party or coalition could amass enough seats to form a government, but there were always enough votes to be found for a vote of no confidence. The consequence of this was a series of chancellors who governed essentially by decree using the emergency powers granted by Article 48 of the Weimar constitution.

The conservative Catholic jurist Carl Schmitt spoke for many when he criticized the fatuous self-indulgence of the politicians in a series of texts written throughout the period. In his 1922 text Political Theology, Schmitt wrote that for the 19th Catholic reactionary Juan Donoso Cortés (and also clearly for himself) liberalism existed in that moment “when it was possible to answer the question ‘Christ or Barabbas?’ with a proposal to adjourn or to form a commission of investigation.” For Schmitt what was lacking was the will to actually take a decision. In its place was a romantic obsession with the consideration of alternative possibilities more suited to the daydreams of litterateurs than to the workings of a political institution.

The failure of the political institutions to take action to address national crises had a pronounced aggravating effect on those crises. From the outside it appeared to many that the business of government was being thwarted by abstract procedural issues. What was needed, many came to think, was someone with the will to do something. That someone was Hitler, a charismatic speaker with a message that many people wanted to hear (the Germans are great, losing the war was not your fault, we can be great again if only we get rid of the Communists and Jews that are holding us down).

Waiting for protestors. Turin, December 2012.

Waiting for protestors. Turin, December 2012.

This, if you will, is the only significant and appropriate comparison between our current circumstances and those that obtained in Germany in the years before the rise of the Third Reich. All too often one now hears people say that what this country needs for a president is “a do-er,” someone who will take action to resolve the nation’s problems. More often than not, the problems animating such a sentiment are things like immigrants are taking our jobs or eating up or welfare, or that excess regulation or corporate taxation is restraining economic growth. As is usually the case, the calls to find “a do-er” become ever more pronounced in the further rightward regions of the American political imaginary.

Democrats, despite their many other problems, generally eschew this sort of solution. What they seem to want is a technician who will cause their stock portfolios to grow slowly and steadily. But for those on the right who have been led by decades of white, male, apologist propaganda, the need is increasingly felt for someone who will reach beyond the checks and safeguards of the current political institutions to more direct solutions (like deporting 11 million or so latinos).

The danger now, as it was in 1932, is that a critical mass of the voters will become so disaffected by the willingness of the political classes to engage in pointless and unedifying political spectacle that they will be willing to join a movement to dismantle the system wholesale. The system of liberal democratic institutions that we currently have has myriad problems. But a worse one would be that generated by the interests of the top of the income distribution untrammeled by our current (deeply flawed) order.

The election of Donald Trump would not constitute such an outcome. He presents a different threat, one generated by someone willing to overlook just enough of the operating manual of the current system to throw it, and the world order of which it is a central component, into crisis. But the sources of these two bad outcomes are roughly the same (disaffection with the boggling of the current system) and one could quite easily lead to the other. The result would not be (or not necessarily be) Hitler, but something else, entirely unpredictable and incredibly dangerous.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit