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Cornel West: Democracy Matters

What ails America’s political and social systems?

January 24, 2005

What ails America's political and social systems?

Under President Bush’s leadership, the United States wants to be a steward of democratization on a global basis. But what about the state of U.S. democracy on the home front? In this Globalist Interview, Cornel West, author and professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, argues that the country is in a deep political and social crisis.

Where do Americans find themselves at the beginning of the second Bush Administration?

“There are two opposing tendencies in American democracy — toward imperialism and toward democratization — and we are in a period of intense battle between the two.”

What makes you worry about President Bush?

“His administration is a hallmark of the rise of an ugly imperialism — aided by an unholy alliance of the plutocratic elites and the Christian Right."

Is it all the Republicans' fault?

"No. There also is a massive disaffection of so many voters who see too little difference between two corrupted parties.”

What is at the core of the problem?

"We are suffering in America today from three particular forms of political nihilism — each with its own false justifications and vicious consequences. They are evangelical nihilism, paternalistic nihilism — and sentimental nihilism."

What defines the first of these three nihilisms?

"The hawks in the Bush Administration are not simply conservative elites and right-wing ideologues. In my view, they are evangelical nihilists — drunk with power and driven by grand delusions of American domination of the world. They seem to believe that America's might actually determines what is right."

Which group has fallen prey to paternalistic nihilism?

"The elites in the Democratic party are paternalistic nihilists. They have become ineffectual because they bought into the corruptions of the power-hungry system. They have succumbed to the belief that a more radical fight for a truer democracy — battling against the corruption of elites — is largely futile."

And what about sentimental nihilism?

"Sentimental nihilism is what has infiltrated our media culture. While an essential mission of the news organizations in a democracy should be to expose the lies and manipulations of our political and economic leaders, too much of what passes for news today is really a form of entertainment. Purveyors of sentimental nihilism are willing to sidestep — or even bludgeon — the truth or unpleasant and unpopular facts and stories in order to provide an emotionally satisfying show."

To turn back to political leaders: Was Bill Clinton really so much better than President Bush, as many Democrats longingly argue?

“Bill Clinton was a masterful neo-liberal communicator, who subordinated his conscience to the exigencies of reelection strategies — and he was a man who was able to conceal his opportunism with his charisma.”

Why are you so concerned about too much emphasis on free markets?

“Free-market fundamentalism trivializes the concern for public interest. It puts fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers. It also makes money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit — often at the cost of the common good.”

How do the people react to that?

“The free-market fundamentalism that prevails in the United States today promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace. People see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded — with money, status and access to more power.”

What is really new about that?

“We are experiencing the sad gangsterization of America — an unbridled grasp at power, wealth and status.”

Does that sentiment have an impact on the elections?

“To many, our democratic system seems so broken that they have simply lost faith that their participation could really matter. The politics of self-interest and catering to narrow special interests is so dominant that so many ask themselves: Why vote?”

Do you see hope for improvement in the performance of politicians?

“The political discourse is so formulaic, so tailored into poll-driven, focus-group-approved slogans that don’t really say anything substantive or strike at the core of our lived experience.”

What about the role of African-American leaders in all this?

“Too much of the black political leadership has become caught up in the mainstream political game. It has been turning away from the deep commitment to a more profound advocacy for poor blacks.”

What is one sad effect of this?

“The Bush Administration's new policy of preemptive strike green-lights political elites to sacrifice U.S. soldiers — who are disproportionately working class and youth of color — in adventurous crusades.”

In your view, is imperialism just a foreign policy issue?

“The most frightening feature of imperial America is neither the myopic mendaciousness of the Republican Party nor the pathetic spinelessness of the Democratic Party.”

Are you surprised by where the United States finds itself today?

“Not really. Since American civilization is first and foremost a business culture, its elected officials and corporate elites are preoccupied with economic growth and national prosperity.”

How do you envision it instead?

“Democracy is not just a system of governance, as we tend to think of it, but a cultural way of being.”

Does at least the young generation provide hope for betterment then?

“I am afraid not. Hedonistic values and narcissistic identities produce emotionally stunted young people unable to grow up and unwilling to be responsible democratic citizens.”

What about the Middle East. Do you believe President Bush's claims to promote democracy there?

“If we are to stabilize the world and enrich democracy in the world, we must confront the anti-Semitic hostility of oil-rich autocratic Arab regimes to Israel’s’ occupation — and the subjugation of Palestinian lands and people.”

Why is that issue not really addressed in the U.S. debate?

“How does one honestly criticize the close relationship between American imperial elites and Israeli political officials — without falling into some anti-Semitic traps?”

What about the role of Islamic fundamentalists in all this?

“Islamic fundamentalist gangsters do pose a threat to the United States and the world — but they gain their potency from U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.”

Still, is George Bush's emphasis on democracy wrong?

“Let us not be deceived: The great dramatic battle of the 21st century is about the dismantling of empire — and the deepening of democracy.”

Finally, how do you view globalization in all this?

“Globalization is inescapable. To me, the question is whether it will be a democratic globalization — or a U.S.-led corporate globalization.”