Do You Believe in Magic?

As Corey Robin, Malcolm Harris and IOZ have all suggested or implied, Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest is perhaps best read as a sort of Swiftian parody of liberalism, written by a closeted anarchist. What else does one make of a column that compares American liberal democracy to Santa Claus and then exhorts us to believe in it?

Santa exists only if we make him real through belief. The American project in democracy is similar. Even as we challenge it to be better, fairer and more honest, we still have to believe that democratic governance by the people, through their institutions, can and should exist. Like Santa Claus, democracy requires us to believe that collective faith can be greater than our individual doubts. In 1994’s Miracle, Santa says, “I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor…. I’m a symbol, I’m a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives.”

Granted, we do Dr. Harris-Perry an injustice if we refuse to engage with the substance of her argument and instead content ourselves with snarking at an unfortunate metaphor. She does, after all, have a point, or at least half of one. A republic of institutional nihilists will destroy itself in seconds flat; the glue that holds any democratic project together is a shared commitment to democratic values. Whether or not one can have a rational commitment to those values is a point of contention as old as moral philosophy. On this point I would only say that even if all ethical claims are non-rational, they are still qualitatively distinct from empirical claims regarding the alleged existence of supernatural avatars of jolliness.

Anyway, even if ethical claims can’t be mathematically proven, they can still be persuasively argued. That is not what Harris-Perry has done; in fact, her entire column is a long exercise in question-begging. We are told that we should believe in the American democratic project because, if we don’t, then the project will fail. But if we don’t believe it in the first place, then why should we want it to succeed? A more persuasive version of this column (though also, no doubt, a much longer one) might have told us why, whether or not Santa is real, we should want him to be real.

Furthermore, it might have told us how that desire should translate into reality. I’m no anarchist — this little boy wants to believe. But what am I supposed to do with that? Faith in American democracy must mean something different from faith in the institutional machinery of the American state, machinery which Harris-Perry admits has failed us. That being the case, trying to exercise power through established channels may be necessary, but it is woefully insufficient. That’s why Harris-Perry’s final paragraph made this little boy’s heart sink:

Our faith has been badly damaged by governors who crush unions, by a Congress that will not govern, by a military that tortures, by campus police with pepper spray, by coaches who prey on kids, by CEOs who slash jobs as profits rise, by a system that seems irreparably broken. But building a country requires investment in one another, hope that we can be better tomorrow than we are today and faith that our failures are not definitive. In these final days before we enter the 2012 election year, it is time to ask, “Do you believe?”

Juxtapose the reference to 2012 with the glaring omission from Harris-Perry’s list of faith-damagers, and this starts to sound dangerously close to another call for everyone to just suck it up and vote for the Democrats. I submit to you that doing so, and letting the extent of our civic engagement stop there, would actually be a testament to our profound lack of faith in democracy. Surely Occupy Wall Street should have reminded us that democracy is more than something you do for a couple hours once every four years; it is, in fact, a way of life.

That’s another problem with the Santa Claus analogy: Saint Nick comes but once a year, if he comes at all. If American democracy is to be rescued, or if we are to so much as demonstrate that American democracy is worth rescuing, then that means conceiving it as a permanent, year-round state of existence.

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