Some Schmittian reflections on the election

This post is a thought experiment and a hypothetical. I am not recommending any particular course of action or way of thinking about the disaster that has befallen us. I want to use Schmitt as a lens for a couple reasons. First, even more than the theory of sovereignty or friend/enemy politics, I see Schmitt’s core conviction as a desire to preserve the state as such — an exceedingly rare position in a world where most people think of the state as a terrain or instrument for advancing partisan goals. So to that extent, the particular Schmittian lens I want to use here serves as a potentially interesting limit case for how to look at the election. Second, Schmitt’s personal conduct in the service of saving the state as such can show us that sometimes the attempt to stave off the worst leads us to the very worst.

From the Schmittian perspective, then, where the most important priority is to maintain state continuity, what were our options in this election? I’ve written before about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats generally as a type of katechon or restraining figure, holding together some semblance of normality in the face of the Republican “man of lawlessness.” (See 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 for this terminology.) Taubes has argued that the katechon is actually the central figure of Schmittian politics, and that he views the apocalypse not as the dawn of divine justice, but as a total catastrophe.

The Democrats are trying to preserve the state in two senses. First, they are determined to shore up the ongoing legitimacy of American constitutional arrangements. People understandably call for the Democrats to “play hardball” in response to Republican weaponization of various institutional quirks, but the problem is that if both sides are doing that, then you lose the sense that there is a neutral, non-partisan institutional framework. So for instance, Obama could respond to the Republicans’ refusal to consider his Supreme Court nominee by saying, “Okay, I gave you your chance to advise and consent, and you have opted not to — so I’m seating him.” That would be satisfying to watch on a certain level, but it would also hugely damage the legitimacy of the Supreme Court for half or more of the American people. No single nominee or decision is worth an undeniable and irretrievable politicization of the Supreme Court. (Of course, it is in fact politicized already, but one wants to keep up appearances.)

Second, the neoliberal Democrats (and few remaining “moderate Republicans”) are attempting to preserve the state in another sense. Unlike the anarchistic libertarianism of extreme Tea Party Republicans, neoliberalism acknowledges the artificial and constructed nature of the market and the need for a strong state to maintain market norms. In Illinois, this is the difference between Rahm Emanuel, who is terrible but who does still invest in important public priorities like transit, and Bruce Rauner, who apparently just doesn’t think there should be a State of Illinois. Rahm instrumentalizes the state to support a certain conception of the market, but that at least preserves the continued existence of an institutional state, unlike the Rauner position where the state needs to be destroyed in order to make way for a supposedly “natural” economic system of domination. And I would add that while neoliberalism represents a powerful set of blinders, they are at least formally open to evidence-based decision-making — so that the IMF can admit that neoliberal policy produced inequality, while it’s impossible to imagine Republicans ever admitting that tax cuts are not magic.

The problem with the Democratic katechon is that this is all pretty minimal. On the one hand, they are bending over backward to preserve anti-democratic and baroque institutions that were meant to keep the slavers on board — and didn’t even keep the slavers on board in the end. Is the sheer having of Constitutional continuity worth it when this is what you’re continuing? On the other hand, they are promoting the continued existence of the state, but a “submerged state” that can never assert its own legitimacy and agency. Even worse, the state is being put in the service of an agenda that, while formally “non-partisan” in the Democrat/Republican sense, is clearly lavishing benefits on a small minority while neglecting most people. The longer the neoliberal status quo is maintained, the more certain a populist rebellion will arise. And the intellectual hollowing-out of the Democratic policy elites by neoliberal groupthink means that they will be incapable of addressing that problem when it arises — as we have seen.

So does Trump paradoxically offer any katechontic possibilities? (Please remember that this is a thought-experiment.) It seems clear that even in the best realistic scenario, pre-Comey, a Clinton presidency would mean a continuation of divided government, with the Republicans continuing to refuse to cooperate on even the most basic institutional functions. If the Democrats controlled the Senate, they would be able to staff up the administration and appoint judges — but we still could have gone four years without a budget or debt ceiling increase, and there was already talk of starting impeachment proceedings on day one. I think the Republicans would be very wrong to do all that, but it is in their power to do and we have clear grounds to believe that they would. So the election of the candidate who is determined to save American institutions could lead directly to a very serious Constitutional crisis.

If all you want is to preserve Constitutional continuity, then, you might want to let them have it for a while. Maybe they’ll get it out of their system. I don’t mean that you intentionally throw the election — certainly Clinton intended to win and probably assumed she would, as we all did — but in the event that you lose, you would do exactly what Clinton and the Democrats are doing: congratulate them, concede their basic legitimacy, pledge to work with them. Their undivided rule will cost a lot, but undermining the legitimacy of the system would cost everything.

This view of preserving institutional continuity is just as impoverished as the others. It basically amounts to the position that any government is better than civil war. And that makes sense — unless one of the parties of government is more or less openly blackmailing the other with the increasingly explicit threat of civil war. At what point is the civil war already happening?

Even leaving aside the specter of civil war, we return to the point that these institutions were created as part of a compromise with slavers. Even after a brutal civil war — literally the worst war in human history at that point — Lincoln (Obama’s great idol) was determined to preserve that jerry-rigged institutional structure and pretend that it didn’t have to be about slavery. And in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, we have all agreed to imagine that an order founded on the enslavement of blacks is not about white supremacy. What Trump shows us is that for a substantial plurality of our fellow-citizens, it very much is. Police shootings of blacks, the war on drugs, mass incarceration — all of that was sending us the same message. As hard as it is to take, for a good portion of the white population in this country, the fact that law enforcement disproportionately targets blacks is a feature not a bug.

And this brings us to the final step. If you are really determined to preserve Constitutional continuity no matter what, if the bare existence of some order, any order is better than the risk of civil war or revolution, then I think you back yourself into a corner where you have to say to black people in this country: “I’m sorry this sucks so much for you, but your suffering, your humiliation, your thwarted life, is the foundation of this structure that is barely holding together as it is. You and your children and your children’s children will just have to bear that burden, because if we acknowledged your demand for justice, then everything would be over.” And that’s the moment when all your effort at staving off the worst becomes support for the very worst.

13 Responses to “Some Schmittian reflections on the election”

  1. Will Says:

    To confirm my under standing… the first thesis that you link to is that, two political parties, the content of the political system, shape the form of the political system. The Democrats are in a wilful denial of this, and view the neutrality of the state as meaning the separation of form and content of the political system.

    First consequence, Democrats preserve the constitution and its problems.

    Second consequence, whilst in wilful denial of political content that shapes the political system, it admits that the state actively shapes the market. Hence the lobbying efforts of big business, the fact that big business needs to lobby testifies that big business is in competition with each other.

    Trump is viewed as threatening the continuity of the constitution. However, given the historical root of the constitution i.e. bringing slavers to the table, actually Trump is continuing the legacy of the constitution. This is why the strategy of constitutional continuity is a bad strategy.

    That about right?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I wouldn’t put the second consequence in quite that way, but yes, this is the broad outline.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My reservation on your second point is that I think the focus on lobbying is much too narrow. Neoliberalism is a full-spectrum program of market support, not a series of individual favors.

  4. Will Says:

    Re: second consequence, add that the balance between competing business interests and the interests of ‘the people’ is wrong.

    A third consequence, civil war blackmail. The looming spectre of an expanded civil war, which could conceivably include war between whites, is used to frighten us to stick with the status quo of civil war against blacks, which bizarrely actually leads us to KKK candidate Trump being lead into the Whitehouse by America’s first black President.

    My comments: to what extent is the motivation of the rejection of Clinton, as the incarnation of this ‘wrongness’, is lead by the rejection of this ‘wrongness’ or lead by misogyny and racism. More importantly how will this be framed after the fact? How to defend against racism/misogyny without being linked to Washington elite?

    In terms of strategy do the Democrats abandon constitutional continuity? Can they act in a partisan manner given that both houses are in the hands of the Republican’s? Are their enough horrified Republicans to form an alliance of sort? Particularly given Trumpism is an electron winning strategy?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I have no idea how the Democrats should respond. There is seemingly very little they can achieve even if they max out their institutional leverage — some of which (like the fillibuster) could be summarily removed.

    As for the rejection of Clinton — the American system has always worked by using racism, patriarchy, etc., as a distraction from real class antagonism, to divide the working class and prevent an effective alliance of poor whites and blacks. The reality is an objectively unjust and exploitative economic system, and that is what people are really responding to. But for the strategy of distraction to work, people have to be convinced that race/gender/etc. is the problem. The fact that people are responding to economic anxieties with racism does not mean that they are using a code and “really” mean to talk about the economy. They have actually bought into racism.

  6. seanchristophercapener Says:

    Your last paragraph brings into focus something that I think is key for thinking about what it means to antagonize and organize in the wake of this. I think Jacobin et al. are probably right when they call attention to the class dynamics of this. Rural, small town white workers, etc. invested in an explicit politics of white supremacy in huge numbers in large part because the liberal alternative told them to fuck off at the same time that the major industries around which their lives were built have been shipped overseas. And the means of entry into a perceived urban elite isn’t getting any more open–there’s a reason people talk about ‘escaping’ small towns. So when, e.g. Jacobin calls for the left to explicitly compete for this demographic–a demographic whose potential for capture by explicit white supremacy also speaks to a potential for capture by an explicit class politics–there’s something right about that, but also something disquieting. It’s a double bind–on the one hand there’s a suffering there that requires address, and it’s one more reason liberal, neoliberal, etc. politics can’t be abided. But on the other the call to rebuild the left around the centrality of class–to ‘unite’ blacks, queers, women, and poor whites under the banner of a revived party socialism–well, there’s something about the ‘we’ persists through the promise of democratic socialism that looks a lot like what’s being said in that final paragraph.

  7. Asteele Says:

    They can obstruct everything in the senate as maybe force the end of the filibuster, although maybe not, the Dems refused to end it under similar circumstances under Obama, and the same considerations may be in play.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think Republicans believe they can lose anymore at this point, so the math changes on the fillibuster.

  9. bob mcmanus Says:

    The longer the neoliberal status quo is maintained, the more certain a populist rebellion will arise.

    Sorry. Too late. The rebellion just happened. It is irrevocable without unspeakable destruction. Democrats and leftists have no power, those who survive can only act as a very weak resistance movement. The models should be from Germany and Japan in the 30s.

    I too plan on enjoying the consolations of philosophy.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m aware that the rebellion just happened.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Basically I was saying, “If it wasn’t Trump now, it would be something like Trump later.”

  12. jaelh Says:

    Santos’ Epistemologies of the South, people. Cannot recommend it enough in this bleak period ahead. A method for getting past the epistemic limitations of the post-modern project.

    Thinking of you all in the US.

  13. Daniel Schultz (@pastordan) Says:

    Lots to absorb and consider here, but two things to consider: first, it wasn’t only Lincoln who wanted a return to an improved status quo antes. Whitman in Democratic Vistas articulated for many the hope that the end of the war provided an opportunity to revive and even extend the American democratic project. He deliberately bracketed the role of the newly freed slaves, of course, which shows you the limits of the project in the first place.

    Along those same lines (though perhaps outside the limits of your thought experiment), a complete analysis of the situation can’t give all the agency to the rampaging hordes of the GOP. That is, Democrats aren’t simply getting hammered by a implacable and ever-more radical conservative movement: they’re being forced to respond to the concerns of racial and other minorities. You’re exactly right about getting painted into a corner, then, but it’s not a hypothetical, it’s happening already. We seem to be fast approaching a point where no one social group can dominate the political system, despite the white voters’ last-ditch attempt to do so this year. The GOP can try to go full apartheid – they may yet do exactly that – but we know how stable those regimes tend to be.

    To make a long comment short, we might be better off describing the situation along di-polar lines of one group holding back the apocalypse championed by another, and more in terms of multiple factions de facto negotiating new arrangements, and the stress that puts our institutions under while they adjust – or don’t.


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