“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted words, from the Declaration of Independence, continue to inspire many today; however, they were written by men who “participated in the brutal and degrading institution of slavery.”
In his book Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith writes that in light of Jefferson’s participation in the institution of slavery, his words in the Declaration raised the question who “should be counted as human.” And to “square the moral circle” between the “economic attraction of slavery and the Enlightenment vision of human dignity,” the Founding Father of the American Republic found a way by denying that African slaves were human. This view was shared by many “champions of liberty” at the time, and such views continued to be enshrined in laws and administered by democratic institutions (such as the US Supreme Court) until the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
While the Founding Fathers and Enlightenment thinkers might have reconciled their apparent inconsistencies, the words of the Declaration never had the power to persuade the likes of Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist. In a speech delivered seventy-six years later, he invoked the Declaration to point to the hypocrisy embedded in America from the time of its founding. He described what the anniversary of independence meant to African slaves in America:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common …
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are [sic] empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
These are strong words, but appropriate for their time.
What, though, does the Declaration of Independence have to do with an essay about political leadership in the modern world? The simple answer is that the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that existed at that time are an inherent part of Western democracies – at least as viewed by those who have never fully enjoyed democracy’s fruits.
Those inconsistencies and hypocrisies, arguably, still exist today. “When was it ever great?” was one African American reply to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Some of the issues discussed in Laura Tingle’s essay, such as the apparent failure of democracy and its links to the rise of the “strongman” leader, would not be new to certain groups of people, because even if leaders with strongman personas did not exist, they were governed in ways that mirrored strongmen politics and tactics.
It has been argued, for example, that, “the relationship between the American democratic government and African Americans is analogous to the totalitarian power hierarchy. The U.S. government bears a resemblance to elites while African Americans resemble the ruled class in the totalitarian power structure.” On that view, Donald Trump is a new incarnation of an old type.
That said, there might be a difference that explains the reaction of moderate Americans to Trump. The possible difference is that there has been an expansion of the category of scapegoat – in the Trump era, moderate and liberal Americans and political opponents are now targeted alongside more traditional scapegoat groups, such as African Americans, other minorities and foreigners.
Tingle quotes Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, from their book How Democracies Die:
Republican politicians … learned that in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful – and that the pursuit of politics as warfare can mobilize people who fear they have much to lose.
The labelling of political opponents and others as scapegoats changes the conduct of politics (by “rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage” rivals) and of leaders (all the way from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump).
Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, denied this applied to the United States recently, when she said:
In our toxic political environment, I’ve heard some people in both parties describe their opponents as enemies or evil. In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war – that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children – that is evil. In North Korea, where American student Otto Warmbier was tortured to death – that was evil. In the last two years, I’ve seen true evil.
Haley’s statement reveals the inconsistency and hypocrisy of American democracy. While the United States holds itself up as democratic, better and greater than other nations, a close look at recent American history, domestic and foreign, would produce a list of “evils” to rival those given by Haley: the use of torture in the War on Terror; the indefinite detention without trial of prisoners at Guantanamo; the killing, rape, torture and humiliation suffered by prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War; or the recent Trump policy to separate immigrant children from their parents and relatives at the US border.
Some of the examples above relate to American foreign policy, and I accept Laura Tingle’s view that foreign policy is a different area of leadership. Tingle, however, acknowledges that how foreign policy is conducted can influence domestic politics. It can change “the way we see and judge our leaders” and has been used by political leaders to “escape the obligation to consult and build a consensus – whether to pursue actions they believe in on the world stage, or to present themselves as strong leaders at home.”
Perhaps in addition, the conduct of foreign policy (and the way we treat minorities or “enemies” within) influences our domestic politics in more insidious ways. The War on Terror has possibly transformed Western democracies as it has transformed countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It shifts the “Overton Window” by expanding what it is acceptable for leaders to do in the domestic sphere. In my view, one of the ways this occurs is by gradually eroding belief in the importance and the indispensability of principles and norms that were once held to be fundamental to how a society saw itself. One wonders, for example, whether the reported abuses against American citizens under the Patriot Act would have occurred without the War on Terror. A report in 2007 showed the FBI was “increasingly targeting citizens and green card holders, with more than 11,517 requests in 2006 targeting U.S. persons, while Non-U.S. persons were targeted with 8,605 requests.”
In 1852, Frederick Douglass registered how the treatment of those deemed to be enemies, and therefore deserving of hostile treatment, could corrupt all. In his speech, he asserted that the existence of slavery “destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home.”
In another, related context, David Smith emphasised that one would be “sorely mistaken” to think of rhetoric dehumanising others as mere talk. He argued: “Dehumanization isn’t a way of talking. It’s a way of thinking … It acts as a psychological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitations and inflaming our destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable.”
Like the author, I have zoomed out a little further than “Trumpian political developments” to the underlying subject of the essay: how do we best organise a community of people? The answer will depend in part on who is considered part of the community and therefore who is consulted, listened to and protected. I have argued that because certain groups have never enjoyed the full benefits of living in democracies, and have in fact been the direct victims of strongmen politics even as their societies claimed to be democratic, there is, in fact, no slide to some more worrying type of political leader, nor is there a crisis of democracy – at least not one justifying the current reaction.
In their 2014 article “The Crisis of Democracy: Which Crisis? Which Democracy?” Selen A. Ercan and Jean-Paul Gagnon argued, “there is nothing new about the democratic crisis diagnosis. In other words, crisis has never been the exception to the rule; rather, it is an inherent feature of democracy … [yet] if crisis is an inherent feature of democratic politics … what we need is a more reflexive democracy – a type of democracy that continuously confronts its own limits and logics of exclusion.” That democracy is not a settled concept is revealed in terms such as “the American experiment,” or in President Macron’s statement that “France, the country of revolution, is once again a leading political laboratory.”
Conceivably, a good place to start in understanding how to confront the limits and logic of exclusion in a democracy is the essay’s recommendation that leaders have to rebuild “the national political discussion after years of it being under assault.” Perhaps by doing so they can foster an environment that does more for democracy than “keep the word of promise to our ear, and break it to our hope.”
Nyadol Nyuon is a lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler, a writer and a community advocate.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 72, Net Loss.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY