The other pandemic or Democratic immunity in danger

The election of a new “normal” president in USA is welcome, but it does not eliminate the dangers that threaten democracy. This article enumerates them.

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With the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency, both outside and inside this country, many people of goodwill breathed a sigh of relief. The contrast between an honest man and a cruel cheater could not be greater. However, in pursuit of objectivity, we need to make some caveats.

Many things will change with Biden, and for the better, except that he has to preside over a world power in relative decline and with less freedom of action in the world. The elected president is, like the best politicians that steered the United States in the past, a mixture of idealism and realism. Let us remember Kant’s phrase, coming from the Enlightenment philosopher par excellence: He once said “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” According to the opinion of people like Biden, this sobering statement should be completed with another phrase “but we should try it continuously.[1]

From the stance of executive power, and with a divided Congress, Biden will try to root up the bad weed that his predecessor sowed during four years, especially the disdain and disregard for republican institutions. Thus, my first caveat refers to two things; the non-charismatic traits of the new president and the limitation of his powers by institutions where the influence of reactionary and demagogic politicians is great.

The second caveat refers to the widespread but mistaken appreciation of the recent electoral act by which allegedly the “general will” is expressed, according to the old and controversial expression  of J.J. Rousseau. In the direct or popular election, Biden overwhelmingly won. However, through the filter of the Electoral College where minority and reactionary states have disproportionate representation, the fight was tougher, although there too the Democratic candidate prevailed despite the unfounded allegations of Trump and his cronies. However, the Trump’s Republicans won additional seats in the House of Representatives and kept their power in the Senate though in a more precarious way than before. Nevertheless, Trump has refused to concede, which suggests a longer-term strategy.

On the other hand, although Trump was not reelected, he received a quite significant share of the votes (nothing less than 74 million ballots) that allows him to be an important political actor, with strong popular support, even outside office.[2]” It is here where the great question rises: was the 2020 presidential election an expression of the strength of American democracy (an electoral participation without precedents and the end of the well-known “apathy” of the American electorate) or, rather, was it something much more ambiguous, or even dangerous, that conceals a fundamental political fracture?

I very much fear that Trump’s Republican followers this time did not vote against Democrats, but against democracy as it has been understood until now in the United States: a bipartisan system with alternation in power, where parties form part of a larger whole, and, in this way, accept the legitimacy of their rivals. There is an art of winning, but there is also an art of loosing[3]. It is the Anglo-Saxon fair play, denied by Trump and his cheaters.

My concern goes beyond asking myself whether Donald Trump will try to return as presidential candidate in the 2024 elections, as the Constitution allows him. In case of winning, it would be a legitimate alternance, but only in the beginning. As Winston Churchill correctly said the difference between war and politics is that during a war one dies only once[4]. Now, I will dwell on this quote which is not only witty but also very profound.

For simplicity’s sake, I will say that in war there are two sides in mortal combat and he wins who kills a convincingly larger number of enemies in relation to the casualties his side suffers. Kill or be killed is the terrible logic of conflict. In this schematic outline, war ends when two majorities remain in the battle field, the majority of winners that are alive and a majority of enemies that are dead. According to the classic theory of war (von Clausewitz), he triumphs who strikes the decisive blow by making an overwhelming majority of soldiers and resources converge over the enemy.

My outline is not a gross exaggeration—witness as a paradigmatic example the siege of Stalingrad during WWII which was the defining battle of the whole conflict. The same logic operates in a civil war where the fissures of a society become graves with a grim numeric expression. Suffice it to remember the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 and further back, the American civil war of 1861-65.

What is the difference between an electoral battle and a war battle? Concisely, the difference lies in that politics replaces a decision through force of arms by a decision through the vote. Democracy means many things, but this is crucial: the refusal to use violence as a decision instrument. Thus, we understand the solemnity of the vote. Securing clean and transparent elections is an almost sacred act in every representative democracy. The essence of this solemnity lies in the indemnity of the ballot—indemnity against all external interference. Every attempt to make a democracy fall is based on an attack, either open or concealed, on the clean vote through a series of traps or gimmicks: fraud, misinformation, proscription or intimidation of the opposition, and violence.

There is a particularly perverse gimmick. It consists of falsely accusing  of “fraud” those who won and those who impartially assured the immunity of the vote.  In this way, the general will is negated. This gimmick starts long before the election, with a “preventive accusation” that massive fraud will happen—if the opponents wins. Once disbelief in the electoral act is widely promoted, the aim is next to make the whole building of the representative political system and alternation collapse. In sum, the attack is similar to that of a virus, and the focus is the immunity of the ballot.

Once the main objective of attacking the immunity of the vote is achieved, a dangerous path is opened towards the return to violence as a way of defining conflicts. I will list the milestones of such path:

  1. Disbelief in the vote
  2. Anarchic confusion and delegitimization of the entire system
  3. Civil violence
  4. Fall of the democratic representative system
  5. State of exception
  6. Dictatorship

This not a mere hypothetical outline[5].  It is a path followed in the past by various democratic systems: the Weimar Republic, the Spanish Republic, and post-WWI Italy, to cite just a few examples from the past. Nowadays, we are witnessing a proliferation of this scheme, exemplified by countries like Hungry and Turkey, among many others, and in every continent.

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Can Western democratic regimes maintain their immunity in the face of this other pandemic, and in particular can the United States survive this political plague? For now, it has somehow defended itself, but we do not know for how long. It risks becoming the center of geopolitical instability in the world.


[1] . Immanuel Kant, Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht, 6. Satz (1784) in Sämtliche Werke in sechs Bänden, vol. 1, p. 230 (Großherzog Wilhelm Ernst ed. 1921)(S.H.) (Idea for a universal history in cosmopolitan clue)

[2] . See the results  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2020/dec/03/us-election-results-2020-joe-biden-defeats-donald-trump-to-win-presidency

[3] . https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/donald-trump-nach-der-verlorenen-wahl-kulturhistoriker-ueber-die-kunst-der-niederlage-a-67d55e75-5ded-4cda-8b06-d5ecf6221173

[4] . Winston Churchill, “Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.” https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/winston-churchill-the-politician.html

[5] . The outline was first presented in 1927 by the enthuthiastic theoretician of the national-socialism Carl Schmitt: https://arditiesp.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/schmitt-carl-el-concepto-de-lo-policc81tico-completo.pdf

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