Orwell, Rawls and Trump: Citizenship and Democratic Culture (guest post by Martin O’Neill)


The following is a guest post* from Martin O’Neill, senior lecturer in politics at the University of York.

“A necessary condition for the long-term survival of a liberal, democratic regime is the lived commitment of the people to their shared political values.”

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Orwell, Rawls and Trump: Citizenship and Democratic Culture
by Martin O’Neill

One of the most disturbing aspects of Donald Trump’s campaign was his sneering disregard for the basic commitments of liberal democracy. Trump told his followers that he would see his rival, Hillary Clinton, thrown in jail after his victory, inciting crowds to gleeful, unhinged choruses of “Lock her up, lock her up!”. He encouraged his supporters to deal violently with demonstrators at his rallies and, during the period after the public began to see the full scale of Trump’s misogyny, when it seemed as though Clinton was moving towards a comfortable election win, he gave every impression that he would not be willing to accept the result of the election.

Trump’s campaign showed contempt for the basic civil liberties that are preconditions for functioning democratic politics. Just as he boasted of his tax avoidance, seemingly viewing the rules of the tax system as an annoyance to be circumvented whenever possible, so too he seems to view the American political system in instrumental terms – as a plaything to be used while it’s useful for him, or short-circuited when that would work best for him instead. Trump  appears to have respect neither for his political opponents, nor for the political and legal institutions of his country. Instead, his worldview seems driven by categories of friend and enemy and, overarching everything, of what might advance his central life-project of relentless self-aggrandizement.

While Trump has reined in some of his rhetoric during his period as President-elect, there is scant reason to be optimistic about his administration. It seems highly likely that the US will lurch towards a period in which crony capitalism sits alongside cruel authoritarianism. Such a situation will obviously place considerable burdens on citizens, who must try to find a way to live through this troubling political period while trying to honor the political values at which their country’s President only sneers.

Writing in December 1945, at a time when war-time censorship was starting to recede, George Orwell, in his essay “Freedom of the Park”, discussed the social preconditions for political freedom to re-emerge, and a democratic culture fully to reassert itself. His judgment was that what matters most is often not the character of the government or of the legal rules under which political life takes place, but the vibrancy of the public political culture:

“The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”    (George Orwell, “Freedom of the Park”, Tribune, 7 December 1945)

Political freedoms can be robustly protected, Orwell thought, only in societies where sufficient numbers of people will raise a “popular clamour” when those freedoms are threatened. The majority of US citizens, who did not vote for Trump, will have to embody the democratic values of their political system, and seek to protect those values vigilantly in whatever ways they can, when they find those values under threat from the Trump administration. This goes too for millions of Americans who did vote for Trump, whether motivated by economic desperation or by a final loss of patience with a sclerotic political system that seems to have ignored their needs and interests, who are likely to find that their gamble that any large change must be better than the status quo is not going to be a winning bet. Bad government places severe strains on the citizenry to try to go on living in a way that treats democratic values with full seriousness; but that responsibility is not one that can be shirked.

Without individual citizens shouldering this responsibility—and where necessary resisting, objecting, cajoling, and speaking out—and thereby collectively navigating to better political times ahead, there is no guarantee of the survival of a legitimate and worthwhile political system. Good regimes can end, and democracies can turn into tyrannies. In the days since Trump’s win, frequent comparisons have been made to the political disintegration of the Weimar Republic. The case of Weimar greatly troubled John Rawls, who wrote this in one of the final pieces of published writing of his distinguished career, a note of foreboding edging into the thought of a thinker animated by democratic optimism:

“Debates about general philosophical questions cannot be the daily stuff of politics, but that does not make these questions without significance, since what we think their answers are will shape the underlying attitudes of the public culture and the conduct of politics. If we take for granted as common knowledge that a just and well-ordered society is impossible, then the quality and tone of [political] discussions will reflect that knowledge. A cause of the fall of Weimar’s constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work. They no longer believed a decent liberal parliamentary regime to be possible. Its time had past.”    (John Rawls, Preface to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism (1996))

Trump’s victory does not show that a commitment to civil liberties and other core democratic values is somehow naïve or unrealistic. Quite the contrary; surviving and overcoming the Trump era will require that citizens recommit with seriousness to those values, and find ways to keep them alive in day-to-day life. To follow Orwell’s thought, a necessary condition for the long-term survival of a liberal, democratic regime is the lived commitment of the people to their shared political values. The prospect of a cynical, self-serving and authoritarian head of state is a disaster for any democratic society, but it’s a disaster that an uncynical democratic citizenry will be able to get through.

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