If social media is any indication—and, despite what people might say or hope, it very much is—the major feelings experienced by most Americans are dislocation and unease. In the last twenty years, the US government has lurched from failure to failure, to the point where a repetition of American-led disasters—Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession, Libya, Trump—reads like a negative doxology. After living through Washington’s inability and/or unwillingness to address adequately the COVID-19 pandemic either at home or abroad over the past two years, many Americans have resigned themselves to a reality in which their lives are getting, and will continue to get, worse.
Ordinary people, it seems, have almost no influence on politics. Despite clear majority support for ideas like public health care or universal childcare, little headway has been made in getting these or similar programs enacted.
We live in an era when the institutions of mass politics—mass-based political parties, the mass media, mass protests, and social media—have proven themselves unable to serve as vehicles of the people’s will. This, I believe, is a major if under-appreciated reason why Americans feel so disconnected from their government and their communities, and why so many of us are depressed: we are told, and we trust, that there are productive ways to channel our political desires, but in actuality this is simply not true.
Despite our many interactions with the Democratic Party; despite our taking to the streets to protest war or police violence; despite our manifold op-eds decrying the present state of affairs; and despite our innumerable posts on Twitter or Facebook, those who wield power have displayed little interest in heeding the advice or the will of the demos. Ours is an individualistic, neoliberal era overlaid with mass institutions and forms that, for all intents and purposes, are atavistic, toothless, and ineffective, unable to force the power elite’s hand in meaningful ways.
How did this come to be? As I discussed in an earlier column, there has been a century-long, and largely successful, elite project to remove ordinary people from the decision-making process. Beginning with the intellectual revolution of “democratic realists” like Walter Lippmann—who insisted that social scientists and decision-makers should be the ones making actual political choices—and continuing with the midcentury (1930s-1960s) creation of the national security and administrative states—which concentrate power in the hands of small groups of people—US elites effectively have removed the demos from politics.