As of this writing, thousands are taking to the streets in Russia to protest what they claim are fraudulent elections “won” by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. In their lust to overthrow the one powerful white government that is not completely under the rule of the bankers and politically correct bureaucrats that rule the West, reporters from the likes of the New York Times are even willing to overlook and forgive that much of the opposition is coming from the Nationalist Right. Even joint events with overt National Socialists are being given positive press so long as they bleat the correct slogans about democracy and the sanctity of the vote.
Regardless of one’s opinion of United Russia, the slim odds of Putin’s actual downfall, or the question of who would (or should) take over, there is one fundamental advantage every Russian protester has over the most militant American revolutionary of Right or Left. In Russia, it is at least possible to imagine systemic change if different people were in charge. In the United States, aside from the unlikely candidacy of Ron Paul, it is almost impossible to imagine systematic, substantial, and meaningful change in the direction of the country regardless of the outcome of our own presidential election. The problem in Russia is that barring a nationalist seizure of power, the most likely replacement for Putin would be something akin to the system ruling Europe and America, a dictatorship all the more sinister because it is divorced from personality and impervious to peaceful, voluntary change.
Hipster social critic Chuck Klosterman wrote that revolution in the traditional sense is impossible in America regardless of the situation. He posited that even if there were indisputable proof that the government was behind 9/11, it would be unlikely that the people would actually rise up and start shooting people. Many, even with this kind of evidence, would still remain passive. Even for those who did rise up, who would you shoot? Random policemen? Judges? Only federal officials? If so, which party? White nationalists obviously have a different perspective (and some ideas where to start) but as Klosterman notes, most contemporary Americans would be more likely to put up with outrageous corruption or malfeasance rather than be governed by people who believed in non-liberal ideas or understood the relationship between violence and political order. He writes:
It seems weird that this is the country and there’s nothing we can do about it, beyond participating in the system that’s already in place. It would not matter what the government did or to whom they did it–nobody knows how to change things in any meaningful way, and the only people who’d try are dangerous and insane. We have reached a point where the reinvention of America is impossible, even if that were what we wanted. Even if that were what everybody wanted.
Since the only people who challenge the norm of democracy are the “dangerous and insane” in eyes of educated, domesticated opinion, the system is essentially invincible. Even the most authoritarian regime is more vulnerable and its people therefore more free in some sense because the disaffected always have a target for revolution. The saying “one man, one vote, once” was applied to “democracy” in Zimbabwe, but it can more truthfully be applied to the entire democratic world. Democracy has become the “end of history,” not in a burst of triumph, but limping across the finish line, exhausted. Once you achieve it, it doesn’t get any better. Perhaps over the voting booths should be a sign that says, Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. The worst part is, Americans know it, and our culture reflects it.
Starz’s new series Boss just finished season one. Kelsey Grammer plays Tom Kane, the Mayor of Chicago. At the beginning of the series, he is diagnosed with a chronic neurological disorder. He is told he will gradually lose his mental and physical capabilities and die within a few years. Coolly, Kane asks for what drugs he can use to conceal the symptoms as long as possible. After briefly breaking down at his death sentence, Kane recovers, is picked up by a limo, and uses the ride to rehearse a speech. He steps out, is hurriedly briefed by an aide, and proceeds to give a passionate endorsement of incumbent Governor McCall Cullen. Within the next minute, we learn that everyone involved in the drama, including Kane, the Governor, and all of their aides, know that Kane has been planning to destroy Cullen all along.
The first scene tells us all that is to follow. Kane and his aides, the quietly sinister Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) and politica sexpot Kitty O’Neil (90210‘s Kathleen Robertson) can summon vast quantities of critical information and politically advantageous factoids on demand. Kane can transform himself from utterly broken to a charismatic man of the people within seconds. They can see all the angles and know how to manipulate the press, the public, and other political actors to carry out their agenda. As a study in governance, Boss portrays the elite competition amongst the managerial class, as political leaders impose their will from the top down with elections, media coverage, and different layers of bureaucracy operating as so many empty fronts. More to the point, Kane explains in the pilot that given Chicago’s diversity of tribes, all of whom “hated each other,” only a political machine can wield them together. People do not really want freedom, “they want to be led. They want their disputes settled, they want their treaties negotiated, they jobs dispensed, their mutinies punished, and they want their loyalties rewarded. To those who lead them to all they want, they give power. It’s a covenant, unspoken and elemental. When one part fails, it needs to be fixed.” Boss is James Burnham’s The Machiavellians in the form of melodrama.
Unfortunately, it is melodramatic. Rather than a nuanced political narrative, Boss can’t resist bringing in unrealistically liberal use of violence and lurid sex, including in slow motion. Grammer has compared his character to King Lear, and the writers are fond of the protagonists speechifying as if this was a stage play rather than a television drama. Nonetheless, the show tells us something important about the way Americans view their government. They know it is corrupt, inefficient, and administered by generally evil people, but they don’t particularly care.
The first season revolves around the primary election. Kane, for reasons that are never really made clear, backs the young and charismatic State Treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) to take out Cullen. Kane is dramatically weakened by the revelation that decisions he made years ago have led to cancer in children in nearby Bensonville. Cullen, Zajac, and Alderman Ross, a black public official dedicated to destroying Kane, begin talking about forming an alliance. Zajac would drop out of the primary, Cullen would cruise to the nomination, and Zajac would challenge Kane for mayor the next year with the support of Ross and others.
Kane’s family is another source of conflict. His wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) is the daughter of a Chicago political dynasty, and their marriage is one of convenience and politics. When the opportunity arises, she conspires to join the alliance to destroy her husband and secure her own future. Their daughter Emma (Hannah Ware) is an Episcopalian rector fighting drug addiction who has largely been disowned by her parents for political reasons. She runs a clinic for the poor that uses illegal means to secure prescription drugs for the black proletariat. She also engages in graphic sex with the cliched black drug dealer with a heart of gold, Darius. Facing death, Kane tries to reestablish the relationship with his daughter and also secure drugs to hide his condition as long as possible. Emma is the one human connection that Kane has, however tenuous, and the show hits us over the head with the idea that if he is to be redeemed, it will be through her.
Even though Kane is dying, and knows he is dying, he clings to power by any means necessary. He cannot do otherwise; it is in his nature as a successful urban boss. He justifies it on the grounds that he alone can accomplish the kinds of things necessary for the good of the city.
Unfortunately, we are given only one notable example of Kane’s political ruthlessness being used in defense of the city’s interests. Early in the series, a Hispanic contractor who has obviously been given the job for political reasons stupidly announces that Indian artifacts were found at the construction site for expansion of the O’Hare airport. Kane physically assaults and screams at the Hispanic alderman about everything that has been endangered by his subordinate’s incompetence. (24:02–27:35)
Kane is then forced to meet with Indian leaders (dressed in traditional clothing for an office meeting, naturally) to discuss what is to be done, even as his aides note acidly that the noble savages attended elite American universities before realizing how profitable it was to become ethnic “community organizers.” In the end, Kane attaches a rider to a must-pass sewer bill that gives his office exclusive authority over the site, literally bulldozing any obstacle to the airport expansion. In a diverse and litigious society where every major project has to be bled dry with lawsuits, handouts to minorities, and jobs assigned to incompetent but necessary political allies, it takes all the skill of a Tom Kane to ensure that the expansion may be completed within 25 years. The series seems to suggest that without Kane, it would be impossible altogether.
Not only does an appropriately diverse democracy make it impossible to accomplish things, it actively requires bad people to govern. Boss makes it quite explicit that the primary characteristic that democracy rewards is sociopathy. In the climax of Season One, it is revealed that his closest aide, Ezra, was the one who leaked the documents in order to destroy Kane, because he believed that he could no longer be trusted to accomplish anything for the city. Ezra notes, “The system isn’t designed to purge itself of a Tom Kane.” When Kane finds out about this portrayal, he has Ezra killed. Kane is able to destroy his political challengers by securing pictures of Zajac cuckolding Ross with his wife and sending the the pictures to both families. Zajac literally begs on his knees for Kane’s renewed support and pledges fealty.
Having humbled his challengers in the political class, Kane wins over public opinion by ordering a police crackdown on his daughter’s church and clinic, thereby allowing himself to appear both tough on crime and to make a connection to the public as a grieving father heartbroken by his daughter’s choices. Finally, he confronts Meredith and informs her that he is not going anywhere, and she will have to prove her loyalty. Kane whores her out to the patriarch of a powerful Chicago family in order to quash a lawsuit from the victims of Kane’s waste dump in Bensonville. Kane is given a stark choice between personal redemption and power, and he chooses power. The people reward him for it.
Meanwhile, with the alliance between Zajac and Ross broken, the election between Zajac and Cullen must actually take place, and Kane’s credibility is on the line. Kane secures Zajac’s election by speaking personally to his ward bosses. Suddenly, campaign signs for Cullen are being ripped out all over Chicago, and city workers are mysteriously setting up construction projects in front of voting locations where Cullen supporters are gathering. From the top down, Kane engineers an election victory for Zajac. The case that he makes to his ward bosses and that Meredith makes to Chicago’s elite is that the status quo must be maintained at all costs, but it’s even better if there is the appearance of change. Lest we miss the point, Zajac caps his fradulent victory with a passionate speech about the beauty of democracy.
Interestingly, Cullen’s concession speech contains a reference to “an Englishman that I don’t agree with on pretty much anything” talking about how all political lives end in failure. Obviously, this is a reference to Enoch Powell, though his name must not be mentioned. In a larger sense, though, Boss shows how democracy makes it impossible for a statesman like Powell to achieve lasting power. Contemporary democracy is built on an elite class distributing crumbs to helpless minorities absolutely dependent on government jobs and welfare. The maneuvering within that class takes place in a moral vacuum, with betrayal as the most valued coin. Rather than suggesting that this is the only way to govern, Boss suggests that major cities have become essentially ungovernable.
Of course, the moral center of the series, insofar as there is one, are the interracial couple of Darius and Emma. It’s slightly hinted that if only the corrupt leadership of the city (which is in bed, literally, with evil white rich guys anyway) was removed, there could be real change and somehow things could be better. In the real world, American states are removing even the pretense of self-government from black ruled cities because they literally are incapable of keeping it running. This is a failure of the American system, because the cynical paternalism of the deracinated whites that rule this country is best exercised when there is at least the pretense of democracy.
Boss shows the purpose of democracy is to prevent change. That may be its only purpose. Democracy has created a fortified, unresponsive, and sadistic ruling class that has no stake in the well-being of the people it governs. And grassroots social movements of the right and left, as well as the popular culture, seem dismally aware of it. If Chicago is, as Kane notes, the most American of cities, it follows that Kane and what he represents is the most American of leaders, especially as the “Chicago Way” has come to the White House. Whatever it takes, we can no longer pretend it is “dangerous and insane” to reject this system. It is dangerous and insane to allow it to continue.