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Americans must wake up from the illusion they live in a democracy

Millions are trapped in this insanity, disgusted by the choice between Pepsi and Coke they are offered every four years
A supporter holds a flag depicting US President Donald Trump in Florida on 19 October (AFP)

Democracy is not an abstraction. Democracy is a lived experience predicated on one indispensable prerequisite: institutions of civic education that cultivate critical judgement for responsible citizenship.

Free public education, investigative journalism, liberal arts colleges, and civil discourse in freely available public spheres are chief among these institutions.   

I used to think the worst thing about the US is that there was always hope for it to become a democracy. After 45 years of lived experience in the US, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such hope for this country.

Flirting with fascism

I left my homeland when it was ruled by a tyrant Pahlavi monarch, and have ended up in the heart of a dysfunctional US empire flirting with fascism, while my homeland is now ruled by a tyrant clique of clerics who toppled that monarchy. I am no longer sure which of these three undemocratic options is worse.  

The US is a failed experiment. It is a political culture that is not compatible with democracy, for Americans, both conservative and liberal, are trapped in a vicious cycle exacerbating the worst in their respective characters.  

Based on its more than two centuries of experimenting with the idea, the US is incapable of democracy

I am not merely suggesting the US is not a democracy; we have known that for a long time. I am suggesting that based on its more than two centuries of experimenting with the idea, the US is incapable of democracy.  

I look at Mike Pompeo, the repugnant evangelical crusader who is now the US secretary of state - the country’s “top diplomat,” as they say, the face and figure that represents it around the world - and I think he is worse in his fanaticism, and infinitely more dangerous in his zealotry, than Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi put together.

And Pompeo did not fall from the sky: he and the entire cabinet that President Donald Trump selected and enabled are definitive to US politics.    

Racist epithets

“Is Islam compatible with democracy?” “Are Arabs capable of democracy?” Third-world dictatorships, African and Latin American dictators, banana republics … Ask yourself how many racist epithets American journalists and political scientists have created for the rest of the world. Look at how many volumes of analysis have gone after the goose-chase of these racist Orientalist questions, which Americans have used to authenticate the US as “the oldest democracy on this planet”.    

For how long have Muslims been put on the spot to explain whether Islam was compatible with democracy, or whether Arabs, Iranians or Turks could ever be part of any democratic process - precisely as the ghastly British and US spy agencies were busy conspiring to topple our democratically elected governments, or else arm to the teeth the tyrants they imposed on us, or else create and arm a garrison-state settler-colony in Palestine, to protect the illegitimate rulers of rentier states from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the other?  

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Now look at their diabolic mess on global display; the sickening spectacle over which their supreme charlatan, Trump, presides. What Trump has done is not a military coup - yet. He was elected fair and square, and he has torpedoed every institution of democracy that was meant to prevent such a dangerous and deranged demagogue from ruling this country and endangering the world.   

Indeed, the question is not whether the US is a democracy. Of course it is not a democracy. The US is as much a democracy as its favourite settler-colony Israel - just go ask Palestinians under the boots of Israeli soldiers, or Indigenous or Black Americans in the US, if they live in a democracy.  

The soup has become so salty, as we say in Persian, even the cook has noticed it. “America is not a democracy,” Yascha Mounk details chapter and verse in the Atlantic. “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” he concludes.   

Illusion of hope

Three years ago in the Guardian, Austin Sarat warned the world that “Americans aren’t as attached to democracy as you might think”. The following year in the Atlantic, in a piece headlined “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore”, Yoni Appelbaum added: “As participation in civic life has dwindled, so has public faith in the country’s system of government.”  

Underlying such analysis is the illusion that there is still hope for the US. I used to think that way too. Now, I am convinced the country is incapable of democracy.  

There are many reasons for this conclusion, but the main impediment to democracy is the country’s large proportion of criminally negligent citizens. Judged by their astonishing attraction to delusional conspiracy theories, a statistically significant portion of the US electorate are so dangerously gullible, illiterate, incapable of critical judgement and outright ignorant that they can be manipulated by any charlatan that comes their way. Exhibits A-Z: Trump.    

A person holds a banner referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory during an alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon, in August 2019 (AFP)
A person holds a banner referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory during an alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon, in August 2019 (AFP)

In the twilight zone of the Trump presidency, psychotic hallucinations determine voting patterns from coast to coast. In any sane country, Trump would have been arrested and sent to an asylum or a maximum-security prison years ago. But in about two weeks, millions of Americans will rush to vote for him to remain their president.    

The world at large is at the mercy of lunatics who believe Trump is a divine emissary. The range of this criminal chimera is not limited to the US, but extends deep into Israel, where some believe Trump was sent by God to secure their armed robbery of Palestine. They have named squares and soccer teams in his honour, and even minted coins of his face. In Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and even Egypt, the ruling elites are beholden to this US lunacy.  

Conspiracy culture

No nation is immune to conspiracy theories. They are convenient, override crowded and difficult facts, and appeal to communities and nations unable, incapable, unwilling or ill-equipped to face overwhelming evidence of a cruel and chaotic world.  

But the proportions of conspiracy theories in this country is something else. The assassination of John F Kennedy, the 1969 moon landing, the 9/11 attacks, Jews plotting to rule the world, Muslims plotting to rule the world, communists plotting to rule the world, paedophiles plotting to rule the world - you name it. Every piece of outlandish gibberish forgotten in every apothecary’s medicine box, almost one in two Americans believe it.   

A significant population of Americans have now joined the world at large, with little to no power over the corrupt politicians who rule them

There is a cult of insane followers of Trump known as QAnon who “believe President Trump is a hero safeguarding the world from a ‘deep state’ cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles, Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who run a global sex-trafficking ring, harvesting the blood of children for life-sustaining chemicals”.

“You cannot have a functioning democracy,” one professor rightly told Time, “when people are not at the very least occupying the same solar system.” This country has already been invaded by extraterrestrial creatures. Their cult is now called QAnon, and their chief priest is the current president of the United States.  

This country is a wild and dangerous place, with many experts fearing an armed insurgency to dismantle even the pretence of democratic representation.  

Paralysing myth

If there is no hope for democracy in the US - for any prospect of peace and justice to come this people’s way, or to end their insane militarism and warmongering around the globe - what then? There are millions of Americans trapped in this insanity, disgusted by the choice between Pepsi and Coke they are offered every four years.  

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The liberation of these entrapped Americans from the delusion that they live in a democracy, or that they have a say in their own political affairs or the ability to secure a safe future for their children, is an important step. Neither a sudden revolutionary change nor a gradual reformist alternative is anywhere on the horizon.  

A significant population of Americans have now joined the world at large, with little to no power over the corrupt politicians who rule them.

This final and total break between the paralysing myth of the legitimate state and the popular will of the nations it rules is the first step towards a global consciousness that can overcome the false barriers and fictive frontiers that separate us.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest books include Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zed, 2020). His forthcoming book, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past, is scheduled to be released by Haymarket Books later this year.