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The US-American Stress Test
“Unity is a matter of solidarity, not uniformity”

From the film “On the Road to Change” - Impressions of Los Angeles
From the film “On the Road to Change” - Impressions of Los Angeles | Photo (detail): Desmond Roberts © Thomas Mann House Los Angeles

Over the past two years, the gap between rich and poor in the USA has widened in the wake of the pandemic. What effect has that had on the nation’s conception of democracy? Leonhard Emmerling and Nikolai Blaumer look at new radical democracy movements and the restoration of a sensus communis.

On a drive through Los Angeles, urban planner Ananya Roy and philosopher Rainer Forst discuss the opposite poles of American society: over here, in the hills of Bel Air, one of the most expensive private homes in the world; over there, the biggest homeless encampment in the United States. Once valued at half a billion dollars, “the one” is a mega-mansion just half an hour drive from the destitute Skid Row neighbourhood, where eight thousand people, for the most part African-Americans, live without a permanent roof over their heads. The stark contrast between these two worlds has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Ananya Roy explains that rent debt has exploded in recent years. Month after month, a moratorium on evictions has been extended. But the threat of eviction hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of nearly a million debt-ridden tenants in California.

According to the recently released Poor People’s Pandemic Report, the death toll among the poorest ten per cent of the US-population is twice as high as among the richest ten per cent. Low-income communities are more likely to refuse vaccination and, more importantly, have less access to primary health care and other public services. So the pandemic threatens to exacerbate social rifts in the USA and further undermine public confidence, which is already sorely shaken, in democratic government.

Is democracy the right form of government for the pandemic?

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has repeatedly been exploited to escalate the conflict between the opposing political camps. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently summed it in New Yorker up: “The right has been so committed to minimizing the risks of COVID that it has turned the disease into one that preferentially kills Republicans. The progressive left is so committed to maximizing the dangers of COVID that it often embraces an equally maximalist, — even as they … have been devastating for the mental health and education of children, ... .” Given this deadlock, one is liable to doubt whether democracy is the right form of government at all to respond effectively to the challenges of the pandemic.

So, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, it looked as though autocracies were in a better position to contain the virus and prevent its spread by issuing strict decrees and strictly monitoring compliance, and to mitigate the public health impact through specific measures such as rapidly building vaccination centres and temporary hospitals. At some point, however, it transpired that, for one thing, the figures and successes reported could not be trusted, and, for another, that the virus, with its seemingly infinite mutability, was defying all efforts at containment. And yet democracies still seemed at a disadvantage: the impossibility of simply governing by fiat slowed processes and the variety of measures caused widespread disorientation and confusion as well as protest and resistance.

The American tragedy

After two years of crisis and reports on China’s ruthless corona virus management, the discussion in America seems to be focusing not so much on the opposition between democracies and autocracies as on what makes democracies resilient and capable of responding appropriately to crises like the current pandemic.

What the American tragedy teaches us is that elections alone can’t guarantee democratic policies or legitimize political action. What is needed is the development of a democratic decision-making that will steadfastly defend public policy measures, as well as publicly funded but nonpartisan institutions that are committed to the interests of the common welfare beyond the current legislative session and capable of effective governance.

Trust is the key to making the actions of these institutions effective. Under pandemic conditions, as Jürgen Habermas has pointed out, the state is particularly dependent on the cooperation of the population and the solidarity of diverse groups that may bear unequal shares of the burden. Undergirding this necessary solidarity, according to Habermas, is a “mutual trust in the other’s willingness to behave in the same way in the future whenever a similar situation should arise with a different assignment of roles”.

But public trust in the United States is sorely shaken. According to a poll by the Pew Research Centre, only one quarter of US-Americans trusted their own government last year. And no less than seventy per cent fear the total failure of their government. Trust in the system, in business, science and the media, is likewise severely eroded. So the lack of trust has become a challenge not only for efforts to combat the pandemic effectively, but for democracy itself.

In the search for remedies to this predicament, so-called citizens’ assemblies are catching on in the USA. The idea is simple: citizens are selected at random and for a limited period of time to address a political issue, such as health care. These assemblies are mainly about the processes of researching, deliberating and deciding together. The format proved fruitful some years ago in Texas, where several assemblies were held to deliberate on the state’s energy supply. In the America in One Room project, 500 US citizens gathered together in 2019 to deliberate on issues like health care, foreign policy and the environment. And last year a global assembly was started, which addresses political issues of global impact.

The radical democracy concept  

The theoretical foundation for citizens’ assemblies lies in radical democracy, among other things, which is an all but forgotten concept. Radical democracy is not about a process of achieving conformity, which inevitably involves exclusion, but, as Hannah Arendt describes it, as an attempt to allow for a plurality of differences and to moderate their discourse. So it forms a counter-model to populist politics that is based on uniformity, community, and practices of exclusion, and uses manipulative, if not violent, means to bring “the people” into line with the intentions of the ruling power or its populist figurehead.

Radical democracy, on the other hand, keeps battle lines that have been drawn from becoming hard and fast: those who vote for, say, an unconditional basic income are not automatically endorsing nuclear power or higher immigration quotas. Radical democracy may actually come close to the ideal of the political realm as posited by Mouffe and others following Arendt, as opposed to political practice and especially populist political practice.

Many US-Americans would disagree with such an assessment, but without the restoration of a sensus communis, a public spirit that takes dissenting views into consideration in forming one’s own opinions, intentions, programmes and strategies, the US society won’t make it through another ordeal like the COVID-19 pandemic without even greater sacrifices. The real paradox is that the “unity fetish” actually produces division, whereas what makes unity possible in the first place is the recognition that it is up to politics to moderate the interests of a plurality of differences. Unity is not a question of uniformity, but of solidarity. However, solidarity is always primarily a task – and always means solidarity with those who are different.

This article was published first in the journal Politik und Kultur no. 05/2022.