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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Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Donald Trump is what happens when liberals stop believing in liberalism. A whole set of views becomes doctrine for “liberals”, and their approach is that these views must be imposed on the populace. If conservatives were doing this, we would call it totalitarianism. Since people on the left are doing it, we call it progress. And those who aren’t “liberals” vote to destroy the status quo.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

I’m talking about things that may or may not be good ideas, but that get shoved down the throats of rural America, either legislatively or conversationally (i.e. through harsh speech acts / accusations of racism/sexism/homophobia/etc.). Gay marriage fits into this category. The erosion of conscience rights, in various professions, also fits. And as I said, violent speech acts are a prime example. Instead of seeing that liberals want to PERSUADE them, social conservatives see that liberals want to call them names. See Nicholas Kristof’s article on Liberal Intolerance.

My point is that the strategies of totalitarian liberals of this sort do not actually tend toward their political success, in the long run. Democracies need time to work. When you impose a policy from on high, instead of allowing it to arise from a popular groundswell, you pay the price down the road, politically. Non-Trump candidates were seen as Jeb-Bush-type conservatives who want to look respectable to the totalitarian liberal types. Trump was the only one willing to play identity politics in response to liberal identity politics. This was an ugly development in our social order, but a predictable one.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

If it’s totalitarian to use the power of govenment to legalize same sex marriage when many citizens are opposed to it, what is it to use the power of govrnment to forbid same sex partners from getting married?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Don’t worry too much about the word “totalitarian”. All we need to think about is the METHOD used to extend gay people this right…

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a natural right to marriage, including gay marriage. We should want the institutions of our government to recognize that right, correct? But should we use “any means necessary” to enshrine the right? Should we create a fiction whereby this right somehow “already existed” in our Constitution? Doesn’t such an action involve a certain cynicism (or at best utilitarianism) which says that the best/only way to get the government to have the right laws is if we allow our rule of law to be co-opted by activism?

Auden said, “I and the public know / what all schoolchildren learn / those to whom evil is done / do evil in return.”

If all the U.S. states voted for gay marriage (or if a constitutional amendment were passed), then people might be upset, but they would not feel cheated. They would feel like they had lost. But when gay marriage is imposed by our Righteous Overlords, people feel differently. They feel like they are no longer represented in this supposed representative democracy. And they bite back, with whatever attack dog they can find.

There is a reason we never pass amendments to the Constitution anymore. Our ends-justify-the-means reasoning has brought us to the point where revisions to the Constitution can be passed by five unelected justices. It reminds me of More in A Man For All Seasons: “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”

Where, indeed?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Arthur, I agree that the left has a real problem with demonization and name-calling, and that too often, we grandstand our superiority rather than making any effort to persuade. I also agree that this has helped Trump. However, I’m not seeing why the handling of gay marriage was inappropriate. Governments rarely hold plebiscites. Instead, representatives represent us. Plebiscites may be more democratic, but because of the cost, we almost never use them. Likewise, I don’t see why you insist that believing the right to gay marriage already existed in the Constitution has to be dishonest. There are lots of rights we think are guaranteed by the Constitution that the authors never intended.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

I don’t say that it was dishonest. I say it was a fiction. People can honestly use fictions for purposes that they consider noble. Indeed, this seems to be characteristic of some anti-realist theories of ethics.

Suppose that I were to read Plato’s Republic, and come to the belief that Plato thought that the soul of the unjust man was a unity. Surely a sufficiently careless reader could form that belief. But there is a fact to the matter here, and in fact my belief would be false.

Likewise, with the question of whether the Constitution (or any amendment) allows gay marriage. No one in early America had the impression that it did. No gay people claimed that it did. No words unambiguously implied that it did. The only way that we can say that it does is if we consider the Court’s prerogative to “interpret” the Constitution as a free pass to change its plain and historical meaning. Such an action did not begin with our Supreme Court. It was an increasing reality from the Civil War to the civil rights era to now. It is a continuing story of having good goals, but using ethical shortcuts to accomplish them.

I think that such methods win battles, not wars.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Do you think rulings like Brown v Board of Education and Loving v Virginia represent similar overreach by the courts?

While I’m open to considering critiques of the details of any particular decision, I don’t think it is a fiction that the ideals and principles we’ve committed to in our Constitution thereby commit us to applications we may not have originally realized or intended. If not, then I think Americans have much less reason to be proud of our founding principles.

The difficulty I have is not with the label totalitarian. It’s with the idea that it is somehow a greater imposition – and a greater assumption of moral superiority – to force people to accept the legal standing of same-sex spouses than it is to use the reigns of government to prohibit such marriages.

I would also be genuinely curious to get historical examples of advances in civil equality that have worked on the model you advocate. The Civil Rights Act was a matter of legislation, but that certainly didn’t prevent resistance and backlash (violent, as well as electoral). What examples should I be thinking of instead?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

Yes, I think that the two cases you cite most likely — I have not studied them at length — represent the type of judicial activism I’m opposing. And Lincoln’s unilateral declarations that the states could not secede is an example of unacceptable presidential activism. This, despite the fact that I endorse the sentiment of Loving, of Brown, and of Lincoln.

The center of my view is well expressed by Macbeth, as he considers how people will treat him when they realize he has seized power unjustly:

But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.

You might object, “But unless we interfere, the injustice will continue!” Yes, that may be true — though not if we can CONVINCE others — but if we DO interfere, we have set a precedent that can be used against us. And there are other ways of handling injustice: civil disobedience, activism, voting, and the like.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

A central problem with this analysis is that you seem to be assuming that the status quo exercise of legislative power – whatever its content – is de facto legitimate, so that judicial and executive incursions on such legislative power stand in need of some procedural justification, while maintaining the status quo does not. Even if – as in the case of matters like gay marriage – the majority . It also seems like you don’t believe in any procedural checks on legislative power (or if you do, those checks also have the same status quo bias, so only legislative change can be challenged by other governmental structures).

I just don’t see any reason to accept this – why should we think it is a great abuse of government power to use the courts to invalidate a ban on interracial marriage than to use the courts to invalidate such a marriage, or to prosecute those who enter into such a marriage?

The other problem is that you haven’t offered any evidence that your model of political change has ever produced the kind of results you say you support, or that it has done so with less backlash and resistance than that you’ve attributed to judicial overreach.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

I certainly believe in checks on legislative power. Legislative overreach can lead to things like McCarthyism, or complete governmental gridlock. Republicans abused legislative power in refusing to give an up-or-down vote on Merrick Garland, who ought to be on the Supreme Court right now.

My point is simply this: according to the separation of powers of the United States Constitution, the congress MAKES laws, the president ENFORCES laws, and the Courts INTERPRET laws. If the Court is given broad latitude in these interpretations, the separation of powers is no longer operative, since their actions (as in Roe or Citizens United) amount to legislation. We can have a discussion about whether the country is better or worse because of such legislating from the bench. But it clearly isn’t the system of government envisioned by the authors of the Constitution. Thus it creates a rift in the rule of law, which is supposed to be based on the Constitution.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

I assume this is why McCrory won NC by a much larger margin than Trump, and why populists like Feingold who didn’t focus on these “doctrines” ran well ahead of Clinton.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

I’m having trouble understanding you, Brian, but I take your point to be that pure left-wing economic populism did worse in the last election than the approaches Arthur talking about (which I suspect are better described as identity politics, not totalitarian impositions, per se). This is the argument from the recent Vox piece on left economic populism:

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/27/13716060/senate-democrats-economic-populism

(Although I’m not sure how the McCrory thing fits into this…)

Of course, this piece is more supportive than not of Arthur’s argument. As it points out, “centrist” Democrats outperformed Clinton significantly. Since Arthur didn’t advocate leftist economic populism, but only criticized liberal “doctrines”, the relative success of centrists seems to me to support his argument.

But what the article supports most of all is skepticism about our ability to use this kind of datum to infer anything:

“Now, there are idiosyncratic factors in all of these races. These candidates all had different opponents, none of whom were named Donald Trump. Kander was a fresh face who was running on a strong anti-corruption platform against a lobbyist-friendly incumbent, Roy Blunt. Bayh seems to have benefited from his past reputation in the state and started off with a huge poll lead that gradually dwindled. Strickland happened to be governor of Ohio during the Great Recession, and was attacked on that record (plus he was generally judged to have run a horrible campaign). And it’s worth remembering that back in the 2012 elections, economic populist Sherrod Brown outperformed Barack Obama by 3 points in Ohio — though Elizabeth Warren underperformed Obama by 15.7 points in Massachusetts.”Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
4 years ago

I took Weatherson’s comment to be tongue-in-cheek – the idea being that if there were large scale problem with left wing values, the Republican governor in NC would have won, and Feingold wouldn’t have.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  ajkreider
4 years ago

If the point is to throw some cold water on economic populism, then it’s well taken. If it’s intended as a broader defense of “left-wing values”, then I think it fails for the reasons I indicated.Report

Merilyn
Merilyn
4 years ago

why can’t we find this page and tweet and FB it?Report