How do we make America great? 'Necessary Trouble' and 'Against Democracy' take contrasting views

Talking about how not normal the 2016 election is has become a journalistic tic. A new chunk of populist insanity, electoral bombast, or repetitive tragedy blasts out of the 24-hour news pipe; the nation reacts, and also doesn’t react. As we scrape the sweat from this most recent Hottest Month on Record off our skin, we’re tired. Tired of doing a double-take at every election update, tired of watching murders autoplay across social media, tired of seeing homes and neighborhoods and whole towns crumble under the heel of a recession someone keeps telling us is over and yet. Tired because outrage is a hard position to hold. Tired because hyper-vigilance isn’t a long-term solution.

The background noise of it all, the cicada-drone behind every update, is that the American democratic project is experiencing an extended moment of crisis. Various hoary institutions, from the press to the two-party system are teetering disconcertingly on the precipice of something. The question is, what, and what now?

Sarah Jaffe, a labor reporter who has spent the past several years following the diverse grass-roots movements that rose from the ashes of the 2008 recession, gives us one answer to this question in “Necessary Trouble.” Over 300 tightly written pages, Jaffe chronicles how newly energized people across the country and across the political spectrum have responded to the growing crisis in American democracy. Jaffe moves easily from movement to movement, describing the tea party  with the same fluency, sympathy and comprehension as Occupy Wall Street. Interviewing hundreds of participants involved in dozens of different campaigns and actions, Jaffe’s America is engaged, involved and acutely aware of the raw deal it has been handed.

The landscape Jaffe describes is not nearly as polarized as election-year news coverage might make it seem. Issues such as environmental degradation, wage theft and the foreclosure crisis cross lines of ideology, partisan affiliation, race and class. Jaffe highlights the aisle-bridging actions of many early tea party and foreclosure activists, gently reminding her readers that an electorate acrimoniously divided along party lines helps somebody, but rarely those most in need of it.

“It matters to get this story right,” Jaffe writes. “It matters because, as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant told me, if we continue to assume that change happens because benevolent leaders at the top hand it down, then we will continue to ask nicely, and to be disappointed, frustrated, and disempowered when asking nicely does not do the trick.”

The current crop of movements did not spring into being fully formed, and Jaffe provides ample historical context to help her readers understand how we got here from there. A core challenge to telling the stories of modern social movements is to make the entrenched, impersonal systems they fight against into visible, graspable opponents. Jaffe’s compelling prose rises to that challenge.

While the Internet has been a boon to activists, particularly those in countries where the rights of speech and assembly are severely curtailed, Jaffe does not let her stories get too preoccupied with the fast and shiny novelty of online organizing. The coming together of like-minded individuals into a demonstrable, physical presence remains central to effective political organizing. In many ways, overuse of the Internet can work against marshaling the power of the people, encouraging in-fighting, fractionalization, and the disintegration of movements into hashtags, thunder-claps and blue-check celebrity-talking heads.

Of course, the increasing ideological isolation, economic distress and social atomization of the average American can’t be attributed solely to constant digital connectivity. Apart from the Internet, the stratified design of our cities and suburbs, the failure of comprehensive public transit, the decline of unions, the polarization of news coverage, and employer demands for a highly mobile, post geographic, post-9-to-5 workforce have all contributed to the filter bubbles and detachment from the communities that surround us. Jaffe’s book is not only an argument against the atomization of America, it is in itself a force against it. By sharing these stories of collective action, Jaffe reminds us of what is possible.

But it’s not the only possibility. In “Against Democracy,” Jason Brennan gives us a different theoretical solution to America’s democratic crisis. A prolific libertarian writer who is a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, Brennan dismisses the type of popular movements Jaffe focuses on and instead posits that the solution to our systemic ills lies with discarding the ideal of universal suffrage and reducing the electorate to a small, highly educated elite, or “epistocracy.”

Questions about the viability and legitimacy of democratic systems have been around since their earliest days. Plato, it should be noted, hated democracy, considering it to be a system good for training people to win election and little else. Brennan argues that “most people are bad at politics and politics is bad for most of us,” claiming that popular enfranchisement is distracting and divisive, causing neighbor to turn against neighbor over issues that neither fully understand nor particularly care about. To anyone familiar with democratic theory and its discontents, Brennan’s argument will appear solidly argued, even lively, but not particularly novel.

His opinion of most voters is low: The second chapter of “Against Democracy” is titled “Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists.” Brennan makes much out of his taxonomy of current American citizenry: Hobbits (“mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics”), hooligans (“the rabid sports fans of politics”), and Vulcans (“interested in politics but at the same time dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased or irrational”). The book makes compelling reading for what is typically a dry area of discourse. This is theory that skips, rather than plods. So it is disappointing that while Brennan is willing to trade quite liberally on what he sees as the sorry state of the American electorate, he cares little for how we arrived here.

While Jaffe energizes her stories of modern movements by connecting the past to the present, Brennan pays little attention to recent history. He overlooks gerrymandering, which has gnawed away at the relationship between the citizens and the power of their vote, the decline of public schools, the impact of legal decisions like Bush vs. Gore or Citizens United. The systems and norms that had the potential to develop an electorate that Brennan might consider worthy of the franchise have been left to wither on the vine. “Against Democracy” would have us abandon the endeavor en masse rather than attempt to reestablish a healthy, inclusive democratic system.

Toward the end of “Against Democracy,” Brennan notes that established politics often have the impact of reducing a rich set of options to binary choices that ultimately leave few people satisfied: Republican or Democrat, win or lose, my way or the highway. Yet with the election looming, Jaffe’s “Necessary Trouble” reminds us that even now the political stage is much wider and richer than pulling a lever every couple of years, choosing between candidates whose differences increasingly have more to do with labels than politics. We have more options than what’s on offer.

Molly Sauter is a PhD candidate in communication studies at McGill University in Montreal and the author of “The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet.”

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Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

Sarah Jaffe

Nation Books: 352 pp., $26.99

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Against Democracy

Jason Brennan

Princeton University Press: 304 pp., $29.95

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