In Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith, there is a scene just before the film’s final act where Darth Sidous, fresh off turning Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, crowns himself Emperor. The Emperor, before the Senate, shouts that the Jedi have tried to overthrow him and “the Republic shall be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire…for a safe and secure society.” Hearing this and the ensuing round of applause, Senate Padme Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, mutters “so this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”
There is a common misconception in this statement I find dangerous. Now obviously, this is a Star Wars movie. About ten minutes prior, Obi-Wan Kenobi was riding a giant lizard and fighting a four armed wheezing cyborg riding a unicycle. Its political insights are not going to be on par with The Federalist Papers. Also, the story is structured in a way that you the viewer are just supposed to accept the Empire is tyrannical. The movie is taking a shortcut- they don’t have the time or will to show how the rise of the Empire deprives the galaxy’s citizens of their individual rights, so they use the death of democracy as a proxy for the death of liberty. Again, it’s a Star Wars movie. I understand that. But this conflation of democracy and liberty is not confined to the writers of a galaxy far far away.
Don’t get me wrong, I like democracy. It’s the best system for maintaining a government that works for its citizens. But democracy is more of a tool than a virtue. It’s like someone lifting weights in order to improve their hitting in baseball. Someone who is strong is likely to hit better, but just because someone is strong doesn’t make them automatically a first-rate hitter. Democracy is the form of government most likely to result in liberal (meaning with regard to people’s liberties) governance, it does not automatically result in that form of governance. It is a tool for political freedom, not necessary economic and personal freedom. Democratic regimes can be repressive and illiberal just like any other. Democracy is a good, but it cannot make otherwise bad things good.
The reason this is on my mind is the recent midterms have sent a new crop of legislators to DC, including my new favorite Democratic Socialist, 29-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York’s 14th district. She’s been generating a bunch of headlines, namely because right wingers have decided she makes a good target and have proceeded to attack her in the dumbest ways possible. Like if you want to mock her for having an economics degree but not knowing how unemployment works, be my guest. However, mocking the fact she doesn’t have enough money to afford an apartment in DC until her Congressional salary kicks in is just cold-hearted. And while I agree with a rough total of zero of her policy goals, I’ll give Ocasio-Cortez credit. So far, she’s done a really good job embodying the progressive idea, cultivating her image of this young city girl taking on DC, and her Twitter game is on point. She’s been posting Instagram stories about freshman orientation for Congress, and it’s actually really interesting. She’s got a future, and if I agreed with her on anything, I would definitely be rooting for her.
But her idea of democratic socialism is a slight of hand. Much like the screen-writers in Revenge of the Sith, we have come to mistake democracy for liberty. We assume that if something is democratic, it can’t be that bad. If something is undemocratic, and we have a tendency to conflate socialism with authoritarianism, it must therefore be bad. So when people like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders title themselves socialists but democratic socialists, it blunts the impact of socialist. It shouldn’t. The problems of socialism are economic, and that doesn’t change due to the political vehicle it comes to pass in.
Rule by the people is the best way to run a country. But that doesn’t mean something being democratic is inherently a good thing. If someone said they were a democratic segregationist, you would rightly shun them, because segregation is bad, and it coming about through democratic means doesn’t change that. Similarly, someone saying they are a “democratic” socialist shouldn’t mean anything, because socialism is a bad idea, and it coming through democratic means doesn’t change that. Don’t make the mistake of assuming something democratic is inherently good, and don’t use political freedom as a proxy for personal or economic freedom.
A final note, I am not suggesting Bernie Sanders is a Sith Lord. I used the Star Wars metaphor because it accurately displays our false connection with democracy and liberty, and this connects to democratic socialism, a term, for all the reasons above, means very little.
Thank you for reading, As always, please like, comment, and subscribe. If you think I’m missing something, or if there’s a piece of news or an idea you want me to dissect, let me know. Sometime in the middle of next week there should be a defense of Thanksgiving, and I’ll probably take about a week off after that. I have a lot of things planned for the end of the year, some reviews of the years and what I consider macro-ideas. That should be a lot of fun.