COLORADO RESIDENTS vote in the US midterm elections.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The shocking triumph of an anti-establishment movement in a democratic country destroys two grand illusions of its political establishment. The first is that most people felt represented by their government and were in sympathy with one of the major parties. The second is that the seemingly apathetic and indifferent citizens didn’t matter, that they were “no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation,” rather than a majority of the population. Sound familiar? No media pundit understands mass movements better than Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
We have much to learn from this savvy political theorist who witnessed the rise of the two great populist movements of the 20th century. Her most powerful message to us, survivors of the 2016 election, is that the survival of democracy depends on our faith in democratic institutions.
I grew up in a rigged economic system where party officials shopped in secret stores stocked with the consumer goods hungry citizens could only dream of. My first election was rigged.
The morning of the election, I heard my second-grade teacher ask a classmate to nominate the girl who would become our student body president.
“All those in favor, raise your hand,” the teacher ordered us. All hands went up. “Anyone opposed?” All hands stayed down. I knew nothing about democracy, but I did know that the heavyset girl who won the election was the granddaughter of the Romanian premier. At the May 1 parade, she would present him on our behalf with a bouquet of red roses. I didn’t realize elections could be any different until I immigrated to America, where students chose their own representatives – often the popular kids teachers didn’t like! Because of my background, even as a teenager I did not take my democratic freedoms for granted. But how many young Americans who were exposed to the inflammatory rhetoric of the 2016 election truly know the difference between a rigged and a free economy, a rigged and a free press, and a rigged and a free election? It is for their sake that I was so relieved when this misapplied term, repeated ad nauseam over the past year, finally started to inspire public outrage.
“This is dangerous,” declared President Barack Obama after the third debate. “Because when you try to sow the seeds of doubt in people’s minds about the legitimacy of our elections, that undermines our democracy.”
But it isn’t just the legitimacy of our elections that we must defend. Both Communism and Fascism sought to destroy the party system.
Both began as populist movements that curried the favor of “low propensity voters.” Stuart Jolly, adviser to the pro-Trump American Pac, wrote in a January memo that his team had courted “People who hadn’t voted for a long time... or really hadn’t voted...
they came in droves.” Many of the millennials who flocked to Bernie Sanders’ rallies had also previously been too young or apathetic to care about elections.
According to Arendt, the European grass roots movements of the 1930s targeted “those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” The “nonjoiners” were considered “unspoiled” by the party system and open to an assault against the entire political order.
Placing themselves “outside and against the party system as a whole,” the European movements, Arendt explains, “presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep, social or psychological sources beyond the power of reason; this would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.”
Indeed, a political party with an extremist platform couldn’t survive the competition with other parties.
However, a movement that has never built walls or nationalized industries can make appeals to people’s fears, resentments and jealousies, having never laid down a track record of imperfect solutions to complex problems.
Populist movements thrive on the disconnect between people and governments; they spin into totalitarian movements when leaders convince followers that the entire system is rigged and must be abolished.
“Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government,” Arendt recounts, “they convinced people that the parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, therefore undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions.”
Democratic freedom depends on a people’s faith and involvement in the political process. For as Arendt explains, mass movements tempt “decent” people who are too busy making a living to become civically involved to empower “a strong man” with the “troublesome responsibility for the conduct of public affairs.” Even more dangerously, modern loneliness makes the sense of identity offered by “self-abandonment” to a mass movement a tempting prospect. Ultimately, totalitarian movements are “mass organizations of isolated individuals” who derive their sense of “having a place in the world from belonging to a movement.”
The anxiety I feel as I read Hannah Arendt’s study of the origins of the totalitarianism I grew up with extends far beyond the outcome of this 2016 election. Our political parties have momentarily managed to survive and even to build flimsy bridges over their troubled waters – despite the “bashing” and the “slamming” and the “blasting” between the “insiders” and the “outsiders,” the “grass roots,” and “the Washington Cartel.” But will the morning-after-the-election declarations of faith in our system remove the bitter seeds of doubt sown in the minds of so many of our citizens – especially my students, their peers and their younger siblings? When embattled spouses abuse each other in ugly divorces, they leave their children vulnerable to future abusers.
All of the valiant efforts at good parenting of both boomers and millennials will not be enough to provide future generations with the quality of life they deserve if we do not restore faith in the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and instill confidence in our power to shape them.The author is chair of the English department at Touro College, Los Angeles and author of
Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daugther Story. Irina Bragin @ bragin-_irina.