Post-Democracy in America

Can American democracy survive the election of Donald Trump?

It’s not out of the question that an electoral result can bring radical self-harm to our democratic system. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his observations from his early 19th century tour of the U.S., believed that the all-consuming national fear of such conflicts was an essential and unavoidable part of this volatile system:

“A presidential election in the United States may be looked upon as a time of national crisis,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “A fever grips the entire nation. The election becomes the daily grist of the public papers, the subject of private conversations, the aim of all activity, the object of all thought, the sole interest of the moment.”


Alexis de Tocqueville (Painting by Théodore Chassériau)

But what is particularly disturbing now, in 2016, more than a month after the election’s end, is that the fever has yet to break. Many Americans, on both the left and the right, still seem unable to comprehend the reality of President-Elect Donald Trump: some are blaming the Russians for throwing a wrench into the gears of our well-oiled democratic machine. Others are calling upon a group of so-called “Hamilton Electors” to vote against Trump in the name of our Founding Father.

Few, however, are making the introspective turn: why are we not looking inward at the wounds in our crippled nation; the scar tissue that had formed well before the ballot results rolled in. Instead of appealing to the idea that America was “already great,” why not put into action what Tocqueville believed was the source of our nation’s strength; that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

In our search for healing, we sought a national diagnosis from one of the most astute observers of American democracy and its discontents, Jill Lepore.

Lepore, historian and staff writer for the New Yorker, sees the infection spreading from the issues we refuse to treat. It’s not an uncommon problem in American history: Lepore reminds us of those who tried to deny that slavery was the root cause of the bloody but necessary civil war in mid-19th century America. Today, in the 21st century U.S., the extreme economic inequality has led to a new decay at heart of our society; and again, few public figures have the courage to honestly examine the rot.

Following Lepore’s keynote address, we asked two foreign-born, radical observers of law and civil society – Ugo Mattei and Roberto Ungerto play Tocqueville’s role today.

Mattei, a Professor of International and Comparative Law at Turin University, was the one who first told Christopher Lydon that Obama would be our nation’s Gorbachev: a good man who would be forced to manage the decline of a failing political system. Now, he sees the election of Donald Trump as part of a global trend that has ceded the will of the people to “mighty men”; those who promise to strongarm change by turning power over to corporate interests.

Roberto Unger is the Brazilian professor of law at Harvard University who once served as Obama’s teacher and mentor. Not unlike Cornel West, he later turned against his former pupil, becoming one of the president’s most vociferous critics.

Unger identifies himself as a “man of the left” but he also views Trump as the “lesser evil” in this election. He believes that the hypocrisies exposed by Trump’s election will reveal the fundamental weakness of political parties in the U.S. Now, he says, progressives will be forced to return to higher goals: they can no longer be satisfied by minor amendments and material redistribution. Instead, if Trump promises to “Make America Great Again”, the resistance must make an even grander promise: “Make Humans Great Again”. The political project in the U.S. must work towards what he calls “the divinization of humanity.”

Guest List
Jill Lepore
New Yorker staff writer and professor of American History at Harvard University.
Ugo Mattei
professor of International and Comparative Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Religion of the Future.

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  • Jeremy Lieberman

    Very smart show. As with other smart wo/men of a certain age, (reminded of Glennon) it seemed that Unger was particularly ready to let his feelings out and boy did he. I’ll cherish his thoughts on Obama and change in humans. So telling that Unger said at the end, no one from Harvard should get into the Supreme Court, those are fighting words from the inside spoken by a man unfraid of his peers. Of course there’s another side to all the basic positivist hopes of all the guests, of course that we are all in deeper now than ever in human history; Orwell and Huxley having come true. This is no longer any matter of hope, ideals and positivity, rather we all are locked tight within learned and actual powerlessness. And this will be the fight, if there is even that, that takes us all to militaristic extremes where majorities of our armies and technocrats work with us hand in hand against the system of control, that literally has come to own and mostly control us, and which exclaims “fake news” and “the Russians did it”; whom heretofore always has and continues to make us all so deeply believe that just because they own us, they are all there is behind the curtain.

  • Eric Levin

    Always essential listening. Thank goodness for RSO. But problem with the Harvard prof’s optimism, I think, is that Trump is not transformative. He is not leading us forward but backward. He is not actually leading at all. His flag is the Trump brand, his own narcissism writ large. The question is whether the people who voted for him will see the bait-and-switch. The GOP is quite happy now, reaping the benefits of total obstructionism and laughing as voters blame Obama for getting little done. Obama was too accommodating, yes, failing to take Mitch McC at his word. But if there is to be an uprising, as the Harvard prof who once taught Obama seems to predict (or maybe I misunderstand him), it will have to come as a vast awakening to the folly of believing in Trump. Look at his cabinet choices. What’s in them for anyone but himself and the rest of the 1 percent?

    • “Look at his cabinet choices. What’s in them for anyone but himself and the rest of the 1 percent?”

      His cabinet choices have been pitch perfect for those who voted for Trump.

      He has delivered the dismantling of EPA & Energy. State will only war if oil will
      flow – at the right price. Hardy’s biscuits for the crew!

      All foreign aid will be eliminated. He can even cut aid to Israel now that the Palestinian problem has been resolved. (They’re screwed.) Foreign exchange (money
      laundering) will be facilitated (after his four years) by the building of a
      hotel and casino in each country which previously received aid.

      More to come…watch & learn

      Trust me – this will be great! /s

  • Richard Grijalva

    Ugo Mattei brings about such a lucid analysis of the political spaces that we inhabit in terms of constitutional orders, ethics, and economy. It was so refreshing to hear a way of approaching this situation that reckons with the weaknesses that legal and political mechanisms encounter in the face of a global corporate order that marshals an immense weight. It is a weight that has transformed consumers to commodities, where everybody puts their own capacities on display in a war of all against all, and will only seem to lift after it has extracted any possible profit. That would mean privatizing education, healthcare, social security, ecologically hazardous resource extraction, infrastructure and urban development, and putting the lives of millions on the dock for indeterminate imprisonment. This would seem to be the alternative that democratic movements must struggle against. Without solidarity there is no liberation, and liberation without a people is an empty discourse of liberty in whose void empire sets in. Insofar as Ugo Mattei’s position appears to foreclose democratic possibility, it is only if one affirms that we cannot organize a democratic politics and agenda that could have the potential to effect the very ruptures that Prof. Unger describes.

    It appears that a key task is to articulate and mediate the space between what we heard in Prof. Unger’s and Mattei’s discussions and Prof. Lepore’s insights about the abject failure of the Democratic party to do the work of connecting and enacting a politics that extends beyond the self-assured technocracy of the Obama-Clinton style of governing. How do we bring the wealth of tools and gifts to the workbench of democracy, where all have a stake and are not dismissed or merely accommodated because they are outsiders?

    • Jeremy Lieberman

      “How do we bring the wealth of tools and gifts to the workbench of democracy, where all have a stake and are not dismissed or merely accommodated because they are outsiders?”
      Dear sir I’m afraid that boat has sailed. Speeches and eloquence are more ego centric now than effective. America is no longer “open source” except for Wikipedia. Indeed you’ll never hear a realistic plan presented on any show or during any university lecture. The answer is not a speech and it’s wise words. Our citizens have been through decades of control, manipulation, own next to nothing and have no state or federal representation. There are now very few good paying jobs, the average yearly pay is 28k a year and the 1% own the majority. For the time being, the money and opportunity is gone. We are beyond poetic, soulful and stirring lectures by writers and academics with high IQ’s. Grassroots organizing is about all we have left, but please understand we are many many miles from such a thing; sadly that will only come from brutally hard work, organizing, messaging, meeting, developing actual plans and laws, doing everything for ourselves. Dr. Unger will not be there with us. We are no where near this point. It hurts us all when some yell out and prosthelytize so loud that they have the answer for us.

      • Richard Grijalva

        “The answer is not a speech and it’s [sic] wise words. Our citizens have been
        through decades of control, manipulation, own next to nothing and have
        no state or federal representation. There are now very few good paying
        jobs, the average yearly pay is 28k a year and the 1% own the majority.
        For the time being, the money and opportunity is gone. We are beyond
        poetic, soulful and stirring lectures by writers and academics with high
        IQ’s. Grassroots organizing is about all we have left…”

        Fair enough, but dismiss both the long view and the importance of ideas and eloquence (however vulgar) at the peril of getting bogged down. Without going about finding poetry in our everyday (even the poetry of doing everything for ourselves), then we’re still screwed, but only harder.

        The show seemed more like a chance to find some points of reference and have a conversation to develop the points held in common between the guests, much less to solicit their speeches as solutions. Nevertheless, to your point: how do you see organizing and democracy/democratic means being related to one another? What about the role of intellectual labor in the brutally hard work? What about artistic work?

        • Jeremy Lieberman

          It seems your now flagging me and my posts for no reason. I posted a response Mr Grijalva yesterday and it was automatically held for modersatjon and then rejected. Why are you censoring perfectly thoughtful and legitimate posts? What’s wrong with you guys?

      • M.

        Plenty of trolls on Wikipedia, fyi.

  • Potter

    These shows you are doing, this one especially, are very potent. I can’t listen just once. First listen I thought Mattei and Unger were in opposition. But they are saying the same thing (!) about what we’ve got and then prescribing the same way, essentially, to recover. ( I know, easier said. ) Obama did say something like “take two weeks to mourn then get back to work”. I don’t think he meant shop or to your job. He meant recovery, spiritual recovery, and first from depression from these results. But it’s clear that he, our supposed Gorbachov, too is struggling. I hope I can articulate another response to our able commenters here but I just want to thank you ROS for helping me rise a bit. I don’t know if I, we, will live to see the promised land, but you have to know the way first and for that we need help. Or I do.

    • Floyd C. Wilkes

      I’m agree with Potter, each new ROS program deserves multiple listens! And I wish to add my gratitude to the rest for the GREAT work done at ROS.

      • M.

        Agree! Deeply compelling segment in a field of compelling pieces by ROS. I’m on my third listen, have already forwarded it to many. Am now picking quotes to post with the link. Amongst them Lepore on how Sili Valley are contemporary robber barons (I live in SF).

  • We tend to think that our real lives begin tomorrow.
    -Hanna Schygulla

    Unger is a pragmatist. Where scientists think they can prove time doesn’t exist, Unger thinks time is real.
    This is a Rorty-like approach. If we think time is real, it is real. Nietzsche felt there was good science and bad science – good science expands who we are. Similarly, art objects should evolve to possess their meaning by way of expanding vocabularies, rather than moralize or propagandize.

    The philosophical framework of time Unger proposes is extremely important to action for it gives actions meaning in the space of a totality. This is what was lacking in the Occupy movement- there was no there, there.

    The issue is how to get people to transcend the one, real world. People have always been engaged with the transcending process with rituals usually involving a mind alerting substance. The ability to transcend is experiential – it is real.

    Baby just ignore the consequence,
    You look like you could use a little confidence.
    So follow me into a better dream in paradise.
    And now that you know what this feeling’s like,
    You know you can have it for the rest of your life.
    Just follow me, just follow me
    -The Internet (band)

    The problem has always been to make the experience lastingly real (continuous through time) without it being fascist-ly imposed. As people today try to transcend their social context, they receive massive amounts of negative feedback. Socialist movements have also sacrificed individuals for ideas in very real and cruel ways.

    I don’t read where Unger has resolved this conundrum, except with more explication. There is still no satisfactory answer; no laws that unite small objects (the individual) to large objects (society).

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    If the foreboding of Trumptastrophe is the consequence of economic inequality then neoliberalism must be its penultimate cause and fiendishness its ultimate. The dispeller of fiendishness is quiescence. In quiescence the mind gradually reacquaints with its essential vital nature producing gnosis. Gnosis naturally produces kinship. Kinship produces the motive for carefully conducting one’s affairs more intelligently i.e. in keeping with the ways and means of Logos.

    “ The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek ” ~Joseph Campbell. In Western culture we are consumed and distracted with incessant concupiscent craving and the vicissitudes and vicious cycles inherent in our creed of greed. We’ve lost intimacy with that which is most profound, liberating and exalting in human nature, namely, the ineffable omnipresent omnipotent Transcendent i.e. The Word heard only in silence, the uber-field that grounds every molecule and atom of the universe and so one’s being. Consequently, we suffer haplessly and ruthlessly from miserable indignation and easy ignition rather than enjoying the dividends of equanimity, quietude, dignity and contentment, the hallowed grounds of enduring happiness i.e. “heaven.”

    So in this solstice season of nativity, let each of us dispel, disenthrall and disenchant ourselves from the cruelties of dissonance and harmonize once more with that which is most intrinsic, native, inherent, edifying and essentially conducive to one’s flourishing and human nature.

    Be still (and know that I AM), for ironically and paradoxically only through stillness and quiet will we know all that must be done to rectify the wrongs that plague us and resurrect that which will prove our salvation and saving grace. Amen?

  • Potter

    To what Jill Lepore said about journalists not going out there to have conversations; the past election season was all about polls. All about polls yes. And I did not- not even to talk to my neighbor who surely voted for Trump, no way Clinton. But there were many reports and interviews from “Trump country” (everywhere) of the angry, hateful,resentful, the left-behinds,even the well off, plainly wanting to sock it to the “coastal elites”. There were the racists and misogynists. Several of those articles were in New Yorker (as well as the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Rollingstone, and the ROS interviews with researchers). Also this was well covered in many NPR interviews. Go to NPR and search “Trump voters”.

    This interview stuck with me for days, post-election:

    York Voter, Who Backed McCain In 2008, Hesitated To Vote For Trump ( But she did, kept it secret..)

    I read and I listened.
    How should we have told the Congress of the last 8 years that life is about cooperation, about caring for each other? that we, the voters, are not commodities?
    “Conservatism” (today’s version) is a religion or an ideology, a constellation of beliefs that do not seem humanist in the sense that was talked about here. “Humanism” maybe is a better word at the moment than the corrupted “liberal” (that “L” word- HW Bush) or newly corrupted “progressive”. Keep moving.

    For instance, “Living on Earth” public radio program this morning, the host was being diplomatic talking to’s Congressman Bob Inglis about Trump’s cabinet pick’s vis a vis climate change. If you go to the website you read a conservative idea about how to the accept science, that climate change is real and what can be done about it while adhering to conservative principles: less government regulation and subsidies, free-market solutions.
    Benjamin Franklin (below), though he speaks of the Lord, is not talking about religion or ideology, but a higher moral purpose without which we have what it seems we got.

    “We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And, what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, or conquest.”
    Michelle Obama said “We need to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation. We have lost our way. And it begins with inspiration. It begins with leadership.”
    In “The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote: “If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
    This election has affected me deeply, and I assume others, probably many as I read a lot of comments. Many upon this awakening, which we apparently needed, have also become resentful and angry too, less hopeful. As we go forward with the Trump election consequences looking worse daily, how to get over it, or look beyond, or say it’s all going to work out somehow someday? Not magically will it.

  • Potter

    I have to say, watching the video below and listening to Jill Lepore’s narrative, I was seeing something different than what I saw at home watching both conventions. The unbelievable hate and anger coming out of the Republican Convention had me revolted and ready and relieved for the love, even the phony love, if it was that, that Lepore describes at the Democratic Convention. I can see this cynical view now, but I wonder how many did then watching at home. Still I prefer the phony love even if it was only that. So poor is the situation if so.

    • Did Lepore say the love is phony ? That would be presumptuous – as if she is the only one that knows what love is. I think she is saying you can’t build policy around love, which is the tantamount to saying you can’t build policy around humanistic values.

      • Potter

        No she did not, but she implied it. And if you listen to the background music of this video, the song is “Love for Sale” from the wonderful American Songbook, and memorably sung by Ella Fitzgerald about a prostitute. The display on the convention stage was real but it also could have seemed exclusive if you were not on that side despite the warm and fuzzy “together” theme and the air pregnant with assuredness. It seems so now if I put myself into some shoes, as infectious and needed for others, myself included, so turned off (revolted actually) by Trump as it was. That is now that I look back on it.

        • The phrase Lepore used was Party ideology – love can’t be a
          party ideology.
          If love is defined as the constant act of overvaluation, couldn’t this be part of that party ideology:
          Give me your tired, your poor,
          Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
          The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
          Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
          I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

          • Potter

            Robert I’ll listen again. Love is a way of getting through. You can be cynical about it or you can allow it to take you over. The message was a good one regardless. So if it was put in service of trying to show up hate and divisiveness, even if it did not work or it was awkward or seemed to say “we are better than that” ( i.e. “we go high when they go low”) I don’t have a problem with that. Pundits and historians have to do their thing analyzing and staying above it all ( if possible). We have to deal with our emotions.

            Emma Lazarus’s lines ( the last lines of her poem) make me sad these days.That used to be us. On the TV tonight there was a protester in North Carolina that held up a sign: “This is not us”.

          • M.

            As I wrote above, listen to Mattei re. cooperation, which is a loving behaviour – or at least a respectful one.

    • M.

      We are all just settling for fake love. As Mattei says, Americans are weaned on competition but we really need cooperation = civil society. After 5 years of being a social activist in SF, my corollary is that we have collectively forgotten how to build consensus and resolve conflict. Here in SF, the only tools are fighting and subversion. As we know, there are many cultures that place a higher premium on the collective good.

      • Potter

        I listened twice before you implored. I don’t disagree we need cooperation. I don’t “settle” for fake love, I take it over the display we have just seen from the Republicans given the choice. I was so unnerved by the Republican display I was even happy to hear Hillary say “deplorable” though it did not serve her well.

        As a self described activist, by definition you are in opposition and not cooperating other than with your fellow activists to accomplish a goal. Not different essentially with regard to cooperation and non-cooperation from Republicans. They have a goal.

        My experience is not that we have forgotten how to cooperate. We do daily resolve conflicts to survive. We do have a civil society relatively. But the “as a whole” is over 300 million in this country, virtually impossible other than for most of us to obey the laws. It’s the government that is totally dysfunctional and not cooperating. It’s certain goals that we object to that we are in opposition.

        What was and should have been more universally obviously egregious and totally unacceptable was the permission that Trump gave for people to uncage their monsters. This is the huge disappointment of this election for me, not perceived commodification or phony-ness of love at the Democratic Convention.

        • M.

          ‘As a self described activist, by definition you are in opposition and not cooperating.’ Incorrect. I am an activist by any description. And my activism is actually proactivism in that I was explaining and defending plans drawn up by the City and opposed by NIMBYs. And yes, I was cooperating and also working to create a coalition with several other disparate groups. You’ve illustrated my point: we tend to see conflict in everything, see in binary terms, as ‘You’re either with me or agin me.’
          Yes, many Americans cooperate some of the time. What this conversation is about is broad cultural trends. As I’ve experienced it, particularly after having lived abroad for a number of years, we’re moving in the direction of entrenched warring tribes.

          • Potter

            It seems more binary to me in the sense that we have essentially two different world views here in this country and therefore directions, based on psychological differences. Thus gridlock. It’s probably so abroad. I like simple so George Lakoff says it well:

            So the same situation results in different maybe opposite reactions. People seem to buy into a constellation of views, one side or another.

  • X-Ray

    The headline, “Post-Democracy In America: Can Our Democracy Survive A Trump Presidency?”
    Well, yes we can. We survived the Obama Presidency and we will survive the Trump one.

    • M.

      Oh, please, total non-equivalence. Let’s face it, the only perfect leader is the fantasy you look at in the mirror. Study Drumpf’s cabinet picks, his tax filings if you can, his shell investments if you can, his elevation of rich white males über alles, his daddy-love of Putin…and then stop trolling here.

      • X-Ray

        Fortunately, you’re not in-charge, so you imperatives mean nothing here.

        • M.

          No worries. Waste space and be ignored.

          • X-Ray

            There was no question asked or anything which warranted a reply; just vacuous bias.

  • rick

    The end of Democratic Government? What was it anyway? A Dark age empire dressed up with a CEO, a board of directors and some shareholders..

    • M.

      That’s one of the many cogent points made in the piece. This didn’t happen overnight. “Obama was America’s Gorbachev.” The US hasn’t seen real Dark Age empire – yet. The Pollyanna pretense is just beginning to be ripped away.

      • rick

        Its been fairly dark since the civil war.. How many people can your war machine murder before you would consider it dark.. It could definitely be a darker empire in a flash. As long as people are fooled into thinking a trillion dollar a year war machine is not a dark age death and murder machine and people keep it around because they are expecting peace and butterflys and unicorns to come out of it, the people will continue to be fooled and the dark age war machine will continue its mindless, heartless journey through time and space..

  • Alfred Giannantonio

    Thank you very much for this excellent programme, with all three of your guests, their analysis and views are fascinating

  • Phil In Blank

    Chris & Crew: I have listened, listened again to this podcast and segments of it, half a dozen times. I keep getting hung up on Roberto Unger’s response to your question of “how to reconcile” Ugo Mattei’s perspective with Unger’s..and Unger’s response. Then, on my last listen just today I came to understand that Unger set up a false choice and perhaps, so did you. Basically, Jill LaPore reminded us–as she has before, what is actually going on “out there” but more importantly, why “that” somehow reads as an emergent foresnic revelation to many of Hilary’s 2016 disillusioned base. But it was the two heavyweights in this podcast, Mattei with his elucidation of something akin to a statement of problems, and Unger’s grandiloquent sweep of Americanism as solution. I disagree with the posts of others here that Mattei and Unger are saying the same thing…so did Unger.

    PS: Chris, you nailed Edmund Burke; brilliant.