My comments on the paradoxes of US populist conservatism were made just before the US election (LRB, 4 November). The result, it seems to me, poses the basic paradox of democracy itself. In The History of the VKP(b), Stalin (who ghost-wrote the book) describes the outcome of the voting at a party congress in the late 1920s: ‘With a large majority, the delegates unanimously approved the resolution proposed by the Central Committee.’ If the vote was unanimous, where then did the minority disappear? Far from demonstrating some perverse totalitarian twist, this anecdote lays bare the nature of democracy. It is based on a short-circuit between majority and the totality: the majority accounts for everyone and the winner takes all, even if his majority is merely a couple of hundred votes among millions.
‘Democracy’ is not merely the ‘power of, by and for the people’; it is not the salient feature of democracy that the will and interests (the two do not automatically coincide) of the large majority determine state decisions. Democracy – in the way the term is used today – means that, whatever electoral manipulation takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were, despite appearances, effectively ‘democratic’: in spite of obvious electoral manipulation, and of the absurdity of the fact that a couple of hundred votes in Florida decided who would be president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. When, in the weeks of uncertainty after the election, Bill Clinton said, ‘The American people have spoken; we just don’t know what they said,’ the remark should have been taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don’t know the ‘true’ result – and maybe this is because there was no substantial ‘message’ behind the result. Those old enough to recall the attempts of ‘democratic socialists’ to oppose to the miseries of ‘really-existing socialism’ a vision of authentic socialism will know that such attempts deserve the standard Hegelian response: the failure of reality to live up to its notion bears witness to the inherent weakness of the notion. Why should the same not hold for democracy? Isn’t it all too simple to oppose to ‘really-existing’ liberal capitalo-democracy a more true ‘radical’ democracy?
This is not to say, however, that Bush’s victory was just an accident or a mistake, the result of fraud and manipulation. Hegel wrote apropos of Napoleon that it was only after his second defeat, at Waterloo, that it became clear to him that his defeat was the expression of a deeper historical shift. The same goes for Bush: he had to win twice in order for liberals to perceive that we are entering a new era.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Book on December 2nd 2004.]