This is essay #3 of a multi-part series about how the remarkable political and legal influence of the Federalist Society in the Trump era – what I call a “court-jacking” – illuminates the emerging civilizational conflict between competing cosmologies, represented by natural law moral philosophy and complexity science.
Previously – #2 / The Law as Society’s “Operating System”
In 2016, Donald Trump and the Republican Party rode to power by exploiting Steve Bannon’s strategic insight about hidden vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party. Despite the popularity of outgoing president Barack Obama, and the Democrat’s undeniable status as the nation’s majority party, Bannon never considered it to be the primary obstacle to a Republican victory. His triumphant refrain in the aftermath of Trump’s victory was to declare the Democratic Party, in its modern decadent incarnation, an irrelevant footnote in the history of globalization and neoliberalism. Bannon understood the mainstream media to be the far more serious threat to the insurgent, disruptive goals of the Republican Party.
Three recent, on-point articles about the Democratic Party establishment – one by journalist and Primary Colors author, Joe Klein, another by Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and a third by Bard professor and novelist, Joseph O’Neil – echo with mixtures of anger and dismay Bannon’s contempt for insular Democratic Party elites (citations at the end of this essay). These articles both concede and update Bannon’s judgment upon the Democrats following the 2016 election. The national Democratic Party establishment – old, procedural, wonkish, and docile – has in recent decades neutered itself, ceded ground, and been entirely outmaneuvered by the Republican Party at every level of government, and in every branch of government.
According to this argument, Democratic Party elites – seduced since the Clinton years by neoliberalism – have obtained sinecures, feathered their nests, and comfortably inhabited a top-down party organization that has subsequently (even during the Obama years):
- focused almost exclusively on national elections, particularly the presidency;
- ignored tectonic demographic shifts that structurally disadvantage the party;
- paid little attention to the grass-roots of its support;
- allowed state and local party infrastructures to wither;
- failed to recognize the political significance of appointments to the federal judiciary;
- trapped itself in policy foxholes;
- lost (by never engaging) the media wars;
- adopted a mile-wide, inch-deep inclusion strategy that encompassed everyone and excited no one; and
- retreated on matters of scale, vision, organization, methods, emotions, ideas, and ideology that claiming and wielding power require.
I agree with this critique of the Democratic Party establishment but would like to frame it differently. To varying degrees, the premise of these articles is that all will be well (or at least better) if the party can simply reform itself and reclaim its roots, organizationally and otherwise, as the liberal and progressive party of “the people;” worry less about tacking to the center politically; and stay attuned to the needs and voices of authentic and proper base of supporters. My concern is that this critique, while sufficient for “normal times,” fails to acknowledge a fatal structural weakness in the underlying liberal and progressive “spirit” (for lack of a better term) of the Democratic Party which bleeds into its politics and fatally condemns it to weakness (and some level of insipidity, if truth be told), particularly in the “extinction times” that we now inhabit.
We hear much talk these days about the “clash of civilizations,” which often means end-times conflict between Christianity and Islam, or Christianity and “godless liberalism,” or “nationalists” and “globalists.” In reality, the civilizational clash that appears (to me, at least) to be the most likely axis of conflict in the next century will be the struggle to hold on to and define conceptions of humanity in a rapidly approaching and unprecedented era of technological imperialism and environmental, ecosystem, and nation-state collapse.
What sequesters the Democratic Party in the United States, and its fossilized counterparts in other nations, from this contest between religion and science? The battle between religion and science is ultimately a contest between competing and colliding cosmologies, an attunement to non-linear narratives of origins, epistemologies, forces, transitions, and relationships in the universe, and on our planet, that frame and control specific perspectives on politics and power.
By contrast, Democratic Party elites (and to varying degrees, the liberal and progressive bases of the party) lack a cosmology, of any kind, and therefore act upon a more constrained and less exalted stage of possibility, one specifically geared down to short-term appeasement of interest groups, fractional change, limited audience engagement, and no narrative arc. Suspicious of power, fearful of bias, inhibited in their language, addicted to procedure and politesse, liberal and progressive avatars of the Democratic Party embrace everything, commit to nothing, and routinely, predictably, miss the forest for the trees.
But the forest is ablaze, and in the absence of any anchoring cosmology to establish the meanings, stakes, significance, and path through this conflagration – which are really the only things that justify and legitimate the exercise of power – we relinquish the limited agency we may have to forces more directly inclined to carve irremediably destructive paths into the future.
- Joe Klein, Democrats Are Playing Chess on Impeachment. They Aren’t Going to Win. (The Washington Post, December 3, 2019)
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Don’t Think Sanders Can Win? You Don’t Understand His Campaign (The New York Times, December 10, 2019)
- Joseph O’Neill, No More Nice Dems (New York Review of Books, December 19, 2019