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The Shelf-Life of Democracies

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

An interview with George Blecher on US politics in the age of Trump

Media acceleration puts enormous emphasis on speed, creating a pressure on politics that the elaborate procedures of cross-party cooperation cannot withstand. Modelled after Roman democracy, modern liberal democracies may as well have an expiration date, George Blecher argues.

Adam Reichardt: How would you describe the changes in American society since Donald Trump became president? Are these even changes, or perhaps just part of the wider trend of the populist wave in western democracies?

George Blecher: I believe that Trump’s election is indeed part of a larger trend – a worldwide trend in fact. It’s interesting that in 2016 the left and the moderate elements in the country were so surprised by Trump’s victory. To me, that really said something about how isolated America is from the rest of the world. Americans don’t know much about the rest of the world and don’t care to know more – they don’t see themselves as part of larger trends. But I think it’s obvious that Trump is part of a trend towards the right and toward populism; a kind of autocracy that is taking place in Eastern Europe, and to a large extent in Western Europe as well – and also in the Philippines, India, you name it. So in that sense, Trump is identifiable as part of this larger trend.

In terms of how Trump’s election has affected Americans, I’m of two opinions. One part of me thinks that Trump is the beginning of something and another part that he represents the end of something. In other words, part of what comes after him is already starting to emerge, namely a group of people on the left – a young and diverse group of people – who will form, or are already forming, a real political force. I don’t think that someone like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez should be taken lightly and in fact, the person who really recognized her talent early on was Donald Trump himself. Trump noticed her when she was overthrowing an established Democrat and said, ‘She has a certain talent.’

Opposed to this group is the entrenched white lower middle class, a group of people who feel superannuated by the growing movement of the diverse, multi-cultural group of young people – and they are not the only one group to feel so. Those two camps are really digging in. What we’ll see, I think, in the next phase of American politics will be a very, very bitter battle. I wrote about this in 2016, that there was a real possibility for clashes in the streets between these two groups – and we should not discount that possibility in 2020. In a sense, Trump is the harbinger of the division between these two groups, but he might in fact be the last guy before that division fully takes place.

Trump Baby: Greenpeace protest against the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement during the G20 Summit in Hamburg, 2017. Photo by Jacques Tilly from Wikimedia Commons.

AR: I have a sense that you are describing a new level of polarization in American society. But haven’t Americans always been so divided? When I think back to the Clinton presidency in the 1990s, politics were also bitter and divided. Is it different than it was in the 1990s, or even the 70s or 80s?

GB: In my opinion, it was during the first Clinton administration when the process of polarization started. Politics at that point started to become personal. It was becoming more difficult to have friends in the opposite camp. For example, the Republicans took a somewhat mysterious but bitter dislike to Clinton. In fact, Clinton was a pro-capitalist Democrat in the Tony Blair mould; not the most repulsive type of Democrats to the Republicans. Yet, personally, he frustrated a lot of Republicans – in hindsight, the mutual affection between Clinton and African-Americans was probably the cause of that Republican bitterness, and a harbinger of the more blatant racism that we’ve seen recently on the right. Hence, it was there that the divisions started.

If we look at what was happening before Clinton – and I’m old enough to remember that time –, in fact there were real negotiators on both sides, especially in the place where it belongs, namely the Congress. The great negotiator of them all in my time was Lyndon Johnson. There was no way he could have gotten the Great Society policy package (a series of poverty reduction programs) passed without having established himself 20 to 30 years previously as the great negotiator in the Senate. On the Republican side was Everett Dirksen, the minority Republican leader of the Senate, who continued after Johnson to be a moderate force who could negotiate between Republicans and Democrats. It was the same in the House of Representatives – with Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neil. These were guys who brought a sense of local politics into national politics. It really was the American tradition of smoke-filled backrooms where all the important deals were made – where the sides were able to sit down with each other, negotiate and compromise in order to get laws through.

What worries me today, to cite a truism, is that Congress is largely dysfunctional. Without the Congress being able to compromise and pass major laws, we’re susceptible to autocrats, if only because autocracy is a much more efficient form of government than representative democracy.

AR: The polarization of society seems to help facilitate that as well.

GB: Absolutely. I’m kind of a hobbyist of Roman history, especially the time from around 150 BC through the reign of Augustus. Even though the conventional wisdom right now seems to be that ‘history doesn’t teach us anything,’ I can’t help thinking that it does. Rome was really the last democracy before the founding of American democracy. And what happened to the Roman republic was that the legislature became more and more dysfunctional, and strongmen took over. Without becoming too fixated on that parallel, I do see worrisome connections.

AR: And what role does American media play in all this?

GB: I’m very distressed with the media’s role in American politics today. The media today is based on speed. Once you base your fortunes on speed, you sacrifice nuance and complexity. For the media, speed is an addiction, and it keeps feeding its addiction. Over half of my friends are truly addicted to news media right now. They don’t read books; books are too slow. Instead, they watch this constant flood of changing images. And Trump is very comfortable in this environment. He has an excellent nose for it. His various methods of perpetuating his image have really dominated the media these last four years; they can’t help loving him.

AR: We can add social media as well, and the role social media has played in the polarization.

GB: They’re certainly linked. In fact, I don’t think you can separate social media and traditional media anymore. Every politician worries about his social media following. If you notice, in print-news articles or news stories on TV, Twitter posts are always quoted. They’re treated with profound respect by the old media, and all that’s Trump’s doing. Nobody even questions the fact that this is where we are, and that we only got here because Trump saw Twitter as a way to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional media. His impatience and limited vocabulary turn out to have changed the face of both politics and media itself.

AR: This world creates its own bubble where people find the information which reinforces their own beliefs without having to engage with the other side or accept inconvenient facts.

GB: Back in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost, there was a call for some reflection on the left. They admitted, if only briefly, that they had isolated themselves too much, and declared a need to better understand those millions of people who voted for Trump. I think that was a wise impulse. But it lasted for about a week. Nobody really followed through by doing the required reflection.

Two or three months before the 2016 election, with a Danish journalist-friend, I took a car trip from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and Ohio: Trump country. There was no question in our minds after we actually talked to people that Trump had a very strong chance of winning. But nobody on the left, including Hillary Clinton, wanted to accept this. During our trip, we met a lot of people, and they were not evil racists ready to join the Ku Klux Klan. They were complicated and decent people with a whole lot of different reasons, personal and political, for voting for Trump and for disliking Hillary Clinton.

Unfortunately, shortly after the election the impulse to try to bring the country together by at least talking to people ‘on the other side’ totally vanished.

AR: Are you saying there is nobody in American politics today who can unite a divided country?

GB: Right now there’s nobody like that on the right or left. Nobody who has the stature of somebody like George Washington, for example – who I’m afraid is really who we need right now. For all his personal clumsiness and bad military strategy, Washington was the only one who could have brought the country together at the time. Politics were almost as bitter and polarized as they are now. Yet everyone seemed to agree that Washington could be a uniting figure. We don’t have anyone like that now.

Augustus of Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), 1st-century statue at Villa Livia in Prima Porta, accompanied by the Baby blimp. Eurozine graphic, Merve Akyel. Original photo from Wikimedia Commons.

AR: I want to go back to what you were saying earlier about Trump being the end (or beginning) of something in US politics. Do you believe that American politics will be moving away from the traditional right-left divide which orbits around the centre to a more polarized far-right and far-left that cannot agree on anything?

GB: That’s my fear right now. I think the centre is disappearing. Unless a figure arises or emerges who is centrist. That’s the way politics could go. But to be honest, I’m not even sure that having a centrist uniting figure is the proper course for America either. What scares me about such a figure is that it would be an autocratic-centrist figure – somebody like Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. He’s the perfect centrist autocrat. On social issues, he’s quite liberal in the American sense of the word. On economic issues he’s conservative, or better said, purely capitalistic. He’s also demonstrated autocratic tendencies; he likes power. He was elected for the two terms that New York mayors are allowed, but then he requested that the city council change the rules so he could have one more term in 2008. They gave in.

That’s more or less what Augustus did in Rome. Only he extended his ‘term’ for 46 years. The term of the Consul in those days was two years and he kept extending it with the sanction of the Roman legislative bodies and then taking on various titles that allowed him to circumvent the rules – never ‘rex,’ though, never Emperor. That kind of autocracy, with the permission of the legislators, could ultimately happen in the United States. I know it seems far-fetched, but it’s not impossible. What this means is that you can get a more efficient government, and if you’re lucky enough to get an autocrat who acts favourably for you, you might start to feel pretty contented. But you also put democracy in jeopardy. People start to accept the authority of the autocrat and dislike the messiness of democracy. For democracy is messy. It takes time and work. And again that is where media and the need for speed feed in because democracy takes time.

AR: This scenario actually sounds a lot like Vladimir Putin in Russia.

GB: Or maybe Putin just comes from the grand old Russian tradition of having tsars. But you may be right. Not that there haven’t also always been counter-tendencies in the US about resisting too much democracy. Philosophically we are descendants of the English monarchy, so there has always been a certain taste for that type of power. Americans still love English aristocracy and monarchy.

But what you’re saying about Putin may be relevant, and certainly, Trump feels more comfortable with autocrats than with some of his European allies.

In any case, I think that the future of democracy looks a bit grim right now. If you look at it with a historical overview, it can be distressing. Ancient Greece was one model, but it was small and exclusive. The main model was Rome and their democracy only lasted for 250 years. And yet the Roman Empire – or Rome as a power – lasted for something like 700 or 800 years.

American democracy is also close to 250 years old. Is it possible that we’re due to go the way of Rome? Of course, this is the darkest scenario I can think of, but it seems to be a possibility. I fear that we – and much of the rest of the world – are fatigued by the duties and limitations inherent in democracy, and are longing for more efficiency promised by a Big Daddy or Momma who would tell us what to do.

The Trump Baby blimp rises over London’s Parliament Square. Photo by Michael Reeve from Flickr.

AR: Given that context, how do you assess what is happening now – I am referring to the impeachment trial in the Senate against Donald Trump. Is this democracy fighting back? Or is this a part of the process of moving towards autocracy?

GB: Interestingly, it was Alexis de Tocqueville who pointed out, and I’m paraphrasing, that you can rate the extent to which a democracy is in trouble by the number of impeachments that occur in the system. This is the second impeachment in my lifetime, and we almost had a third if you count Nixon who resigned before his impeachment; then Clinton, and now Trump. Before that we only had one in the whole history of the country – Andrew Johnson. That tendency towards impeachment, if de Tocqueville was right, may indicate some larger sense of malaise in American democracy.

But the other point that you made is also true, namely that impeachment is a gesture of the legislature to reclaim some of its power. The executive branch is responsible for executing the laws, not for making them. So if Trump has broken those laws, he deserves to be impeached.

In the last 50-100 years, the Congress has sacrificed a number of its Constitutional powers, handing them gradually over to the executive branch, in large part for the sake of expediency. The power to declare war, for example, or the power to regulate trade, which are inscribed in the Constitution as Congressional powers, have to a great extent been handed over to the executive. Hence, for Congress to assert its power of impeachment, in the end, is a good thing. Of course, we already can expect that Trump will not be removed from office as a result of impeachment; that will probably have to come from the electoral process.

AR: And that leads us to the upcoming election. Do you have any insight or predictions – first the Democratic primary process? Is Biden going to be the candidate? And is there a chance Trump could be re-elected in 2020?

GB: At this point, it’s still a horse race. I think they’re down to 12 candidates, which is still far too many. If you remember, it’s very similar to the Republican primary four years ago. There were 17 candidates in the race which Trump won. This is a very curious trend: a horde of candidates was never the case in the past. Among other things, this illustrates how different political parties in the US are from those in Europe, which are tighter organizations.

The nature of US parties has changed, especially the Republican Party, which traditionally was run from the top down. In those days the primaries were basically pro forma – the party leaders had already decided whom they wanted to run. To some extent that was also true with the Democrats. Actually, even in 2016 there were only two important Democratic candidates – Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. To all appearances – and the way that the press on all sides of the political spectrum ignored Bernie until very late in the game – it seemed already decided by the leaders of the party who was going to be their candidate. Bernie didn’t stand a chance.

Now that structure has broken down. There appear to be no party leaders, either public ones or in the now-smoke-free backrooms. If the party can’t decide who it wants to be the candidate, then who is going to decide? It seems that it’s not the people, really, but the media. For what we’re seeing right now with the Democrat candidates is how they seem to be riding the waves that the media and the polls make. One day Biden looks good; the next day he looks bad. Warren is leading at one point; then she isn’t. Hence, to make any predictions at this point is pretty ridiculous. But I can say that if Biden turns out to be the nominee, he’s probably going to need to choose a running-mate from the more progressive side of the party, and if Bernie or Warren win, they should do the reverse: no matter who the nominee will be, he or she is going to need the whole party enthusiastically behind them.

In terms of the general election, I’m pretty sure that Trump will refuse to participate in any debates. There’s no law which requires him to. If you have a strong debater on the Democratic side, somebody like Elizabeth Warren, he’d be crazy to go up against her.

And then we’ll have an election decided in the media, exclusively by the media. I just wish that Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the Democratic race, would get past their enormous egos, recognize that they will not be nominated, and pump their billions into the campaign against Trump. The Democrats are going to need every dollar they can get.

AR: It seems that the Republican Party has given in to Trump and his tactics. And if they keep going down this path where they harm the process and belittle it, it will be very difficult to recover in the future.

GB: I agree. I think that one of the more bewildering aspects of politics today is how quiet the Republican establishment, like Mitt Romney or the Bush family, has been. And what is worse is how Republicans in the House and Senate so quickly fell in line with Trump’s rhetoric. I think the moderate Republicans – the middle group – basically have no voice anymore. Will they vote for Trump or a Democrat? That is the question. Certainly, the strategy of the Democratic candidate should be to address these people. They need to be assured that the Democrats will not turn the economy upside down. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have very grand ideas, and on paper, the plans look great. But to put them into practice would require a lot of time and money; in fact, if Sanders or Warren do get elected, the results will be much more modest than they appear to be today. So the question is, can the progressive Democrats soften the shrillness of their rhetoric enough to appeal to moderate Republicans? I think that’s going to be decisive in the 2020 elections.

AR: And what would the day after the election look like if Trump loses? Is there a possibility that he would refuse to accept defeat? Seeing how he has reacted to the Mueller Report and now the impeachment, he twists reality to make it seem that he is the victim.

GB: I think you’re touching on something important. In a way, it echoes what I said earlier about the fighting that may take place in the streets. I don’t think Trump is going anywhere. If he loses the election, he could become the head of a movement that splits off from the Republican party. The most obvious thing about Trump is how much he loves power! It’s not a question of evil or good or psychological illness; this guy is drunk on power. And a man who’s drunk on power doesn’t give it up easily.

Even if he loses, he surely has enough supporters to form some sort of movement. That, of course, would be fatal to the Republican Party, and in the end, it would be bad for the country. The US has always more or less been a two-party system modeled on the UK; it seems to be in our DNA. Without it, I’m not sure how the Republic would function.

Original in English First published by Przegląd Polityczny 157/158

© George Blecher / Adam Reichardt / Przegląd Polityczny / Eurozine


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