Can Acclamation Trump Democracy?

I came across an extended essay on the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt while reading Giorgio Agamben’s book, “The Kingdom and the Glory: A Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government.” It was startling to recognize the similarity between Schmitt’s counsel on how to usurp nascent German democracy and contemporary American right wing libertarian activism. Trump rallies of MAGA hat wearing followers is the most public manifestation of domestic anti democratic sentiment , but perhaps not the most powerful or influential. Power and influence flow from money and skilled political operatives who know precisely what they’re doing – people who have read Schmitt and have affection for his thinking.

Agamben observed that, “Schmitt opposes the individual vote by secret ballot that characterizes contemporary democracies to the immediate expression of the united people that characterizes pure, direct democracy and, at the same time, links in constitutive fashion, people and acclamation.” (Agamben, 171) To put it in terms Hannah Arendt might have used, Schmitt opposes voting by secret ballot in favor of the mob’s acclamation of support for a leader and ‘his’ policies.

In his own words, Schmitt wrote the following: “Individual secret voting, which is not preceded by any sort of public debate procedurally regulated, annihilates precisely the specific possibilities of the united people. In fact, the real activity, capacity, and function of the people, the center of all poplar expression, the original democratic phenomenon, what even Rousseau indicated as being a real democracy, is acclamation, the cry of approval or rejection from the untied masses.” (Schmitt, cited in Agamben, p171)

“This scientific discovery of the acclamation is the starting point for an explanation of the procedural direct or pure democracy. On must not ignore the fact that, wherever there is public opinion as social reality and not merely as a political pretext, in all decisive moments in which the political meaning of the people can be affirmed, there first appears acclamations of approval for refusal that are independent of the voting procedure, because through such a procedure their genuineness could be threatened, insofar as the immediacy of the people united, which defines this acclamation, is annulled by the isolation of the single voter and by the secrecy of the ballot.” (Schmitt, cited in Agamben, p.172)

Schmitt never recanted. He went on to a post war academic career supporting the efficiency of autocratic government under a democratic veil that enables private enterprise to operate freely, within constraints they set for themselves. The messiness and unpredictability of American style democracy is inefficient, and creates obstacles for those who know the better way.

The acclamation Schmitt celebrated is not the same as massive protest movements such as we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., nor in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, nor in the sometimes violent local protests scattered around the country. For the most part, each of them intended to raise public awareness about injustice, and put pressure on the government to change direction. None of them intended to overthrow the government. None of them meant to replace democratic elections with mob rule by acclamation.

The January 6th insurrection was an attempt to overthrow the government by replacing a democratic election with mob rule. What it lacked was the ability to organize acclamation. A recently released FBI report said as much: there was little evidence of central planning or control. Both are essential to the generation of acclamation. Trump’s rallies are an attempt to generate mob acclamation of Trump as the nation’s only legitimate leader, but lack the central planing and control to make it happen. It’s something skilled operatives like Steve Bannon are keenly aware of, but they can’t overcome Trump’s desperate need for adulation, and his inability to understand how acclamation is different. Lucky for us.

The closest we get to acclamation is at the end of the presidential nominating process when party conventions unveil a well planned, organized and disciplined celebration of the nominee intended to unify the party faithful behind one acclaimed leader. Voices chant their acclamation in unison as balloons fall and rousing music blares. What Schmitt understood was, that kind of acclamation could be pulled off on an even grander scale to overcome troubling secret ballot elections that are not easily controlled. Sham elections are good enough. What is important are massive, well planned, orchestrated and disciplined demonstrations acclaiming in one unified voice the legitimacy of one national leader. Such acclamation doesn’t require a majority of the people, only enough people to generate momentum difficult to stop.

It’s hard to believe that America’s democracy might not be as durable as thought, but those who have learned from Schmitt think he had some good ideas about how to organize the masses behind them. Libertarian ideologues (Heather Cox Richardson calls them “movement Republicans”) favor government limited and controlled by the right sort of people who know the right sort of ways to run the country. While catering to the desires of the “common man,” their version of libertarianism has little regard for the common good, and not much use for the “common man” whom they believe to be both gullible and malleable. Combine that with adherents of trumpism, who desire government authority unified under a strong, charismatic central leader, and the stage might be set. With enough momentum it could become a threat to the American ideal of universal suffrage democracy electing representatives to a government structured with strong checks and balances. Could it really happen? A July, 2021 George Washington University poll suggest that 22% of Republicans have little confidence in the integrity of upcoming 2022 midterm elections. An astounding 47% are willing to contemplate the need for “patriots” to take matters into their own hands if need be. The Trump GOP may be a party in numerical decline, but it still attracts millions, and millions can become the mob gifted operatives need to subvert elections in favor of orchestrated acclamations. Especially if enough others can be convinced that the integrity of election systems is in doubt.

2 thoughts on “Can Acclamation Trump Democracy?”

  1. Might want to read Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 book It Can’t Happen Here about the rise of a fascist dictator in the US. Not a great novel by a long stretch, but an interesting exploration of the ideas required, and of the personality types involved.

    1. I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. I do know about it. I think it came out not long before the massive turnouts for America First rallies celebrating all the wonders of Hitler’s Germany.

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