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Our ‘democracy’ is taking away our rights. It’s time for change

Overturning Roe v Wade shows we need direct democracy. Here’s how the Left could make it happen

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
11 July 2022, 12.03pm

Protest in Seattle against the US Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights, 9 July 2022


James Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo

The Left is bewildered and frustrated. This is true all across existing democracies, from progressive liberals to traditional socialists. It is especially true in the United States, where the exasperation with Joe Biden is expressed in his awful popularity ratings.

To turn this around, a strategy is needed that includes replacing the present-day routines of elected oligarchy with real democracy – that is, direct democracy that empowers citizens.

The grave situation of defeat over abortion rights may help just such a move. When the US Supreme Court abolished a woman’s right to choose, a wise American friend emailed me: “We are witnessing the rolling back of rights by a court intent on committing more damage. We must think anew, drawing on history, as to next steps.” She’s right – especially about thinking anew.

The shift that is needed can be summed up rhetorically. The religious Right claims to support ‘life’ and paints those who want to see legal access to abortion as the supporters of a death cult. But what is life without the freedom to decide? ‘The right to choose’ is ‘the right to life’. Insisting on this can help bring politics back to life – citizens need to claim the right to choose outcomes and not relinquish this to professional politicians, who all too often bend to the priorities of vested interests.

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Exasperated with her party leaders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on them to “wake up”. “The ruling is Roe,” she tweeted, “but the crisis is democracy. Leaders must share specific plans for both.” Yet even AOC’s demand for action to preserve democracy does not draw upon the full potential of what is needed.

Empowerment and citizens’ assemblies

I see the right to choose as a different kind of demand from those for welfare justice, such as child care, debt relief or healthcare. It’s not about the system delivering – it’s about empowerment.

The right to choose can be a starting point for a democracy that lays claim to the human in the deepest sense, both as individuals and jointly, in a way that makes us citizens of our own bodies with a shared responsibility for our species in nature. If we build on this, it can make the battle for ‘the right to choose’ a portal into a credible politics of the future.

There are three reasons why. In the US, it is the best way to defeat Trumpism for good. It is also the best way to create the consensus that Biden’s desire for bipartisanship seeks. And, internationally, direct democracy is gaining credibility as the cause of the future.

A particularly relevant example of direct democracy’s progressive potential is the Republic of Ireland’s referendum of May 2018. It enabled a Catholic country to legalise abortion – hitherto forbidden by its constitution – by a majority of 66% to 33%. The political parties stood back and a citizens’ assembly (somewhat like a large jury of 100 people) heard evidence, assessed submissions and came to its conclusions. These were put to the Irish parliament, which agreed to present them directly to voters.

The process bypassed normal politics and was intrinsic to the success of the outcome. Because of the way it was initiated and delivered, when Irish voters legalised pregnant people’s right to choose, it had a cohesive – not divisive – effect.

Why Trump appeals

The lure and vitality of Trumpism stems from its declared aim to overthrow stitched-up politics and do politics differently. It will only be defeated, and the Supreme Court decision on abortion overcome, by a politics that makes a much better claim to empowerment.

It should not be difficult.

Trump is a conspiratorial property tycoon. The supremacist, evangelical and corporate nature of his politics benefits the wealthy. Above all, Trumpism represents a minority. This is the fundamental weakness of today’s right-wing Republicanism and explains the urgency of its drive to seize and entrench its supremacy through a rigged political system – which the Supreme Court itself now demonstrates all too well.

But Trumpism has only succeeded because of its appeal to its supporters’ sense of agency. What the Trumpists have grasped is that what matters is not just economic well-being and security, but also (and perhaps almost as much) a pride in, and a confirmation of, having a say over one’s destiny.

Half a century ago, the marginalisation of politics was the welcomed objective of the neoliberal era, initiated after the 1970s by the transatlantic duo of Reagan and Thatcher and perfected by their successors, Clinton and Blair. Alan Greenspan (who oversaw the Fed through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush presidencies) personified its neoliberal politics. In 2007, asked how he would vote in 2008, he replied it was “fortunate” that voting “hardly makes any difference”.

Alas, in 2016, it was Donald Trump, not the Left, who called on voters to overturn the Greenspan elite, and succeeded – Trump made voting count.

What matters is not just economic well-being and security, but having a say over one’s destiny

Against this, the promise and delivery of jobs, income, security and fairness is not enough. Without them, any hope of a democratic future is lost, but the Left and liberals must also expand voters’ claim on society with new forms of politics. Deliberation, participation and transparency are essential to make democracy credible.

Traditional Democratic Party politics has not caught up with what is needed. In a New York Times column, Thomas Friedman reported on his recent lunch with Biden. He caricatured the Left as out-of-touch extremists, and mused: “To defeat Trumpism we need only, say, 10% of Republicans to abandon their party and join with a center-left Biden.”

It is astonishing that a decade and a half after the financial system cratered, such Alan Greenspan sentiments should still be floated as a positive way of governing the US.

At the same time, there are large majorities for some progressive policies in the US: the right to abortion is supported by three-quarters of women; the corruption of politics by money is opposed by 70%. Biden’s desire for cross-party collaboration has a kernel of justice, therefore, when it seeks a legitimacy that isn’t narrowly partisan.

But this cannot be delivered by party machines captured by vested interests. Instead, participatory democracy would come ‘from below’ to achieve agreement, using open processes inherently less liable to be corrupted.

Beyond the US

The problem is hardly confined to the United States. Yale academic Hélène Landermore argues in her recent book that there is a general crisis of representative institutions around the world.

Underlying this is a shift in the nature of modern society. Welsh critic and theorist Raymond Williams sought to break from a simplistic ‘stages’ theory of historical change and argued that every society is made up at the same time of the ‘residual’, formed in the past but still actively shaping the present; the ‘dominant’; and the ‘emergent’.

Fearing for their privileges, the Right has fallen back on a hierarchical authoritarianism

The threat of Trumpism in the US and around the world can be framed as a struggle triggered by the collapse in legitimacy of a still-‘dominant’ corporate capitalism. Fearing for its privileges, the Right has fallen back on a ‘residual’ hierarchical authoritarianism – which is what generated the US Constitution in the 18th century in the first place. The threat, one the Right well understands, is from an ‘emergent’ multicultural democracy.

On its own, however, efforts to realise a democracy with genuine agency have not been able to displace corporate power structures. It is the failure of the latter’s financial priorities, along with the imperative need to replace their environmental recklessness, that has made the familiar bipartisan order vulnerable. It will be replaced – either by Trumpism or by a multiracial alliance in which Left and liberals join forces to implement real democracy.

How can this be done in the US with its archaic ‘residual’ Constitution? The country has one potential advantage. The 50 state legislatures have their own constitutions, which can be used to pioneer experiments of an open process of democracy that marginalises money and helps put citizens in charge. Seen in this light, ‘the right to choose’ could just become democratic dynamite.

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