The Ancient Greeks, political historians tell us, bequeathed to us our contemporary concept, as well as the practices, of democracy. The truth of this legacy, we need to recognize, is darker than we might realize.
Democracy, as most Americans think about it, I believe it is fair to say, is conceived as a system that allows for the broad participation of the people, as opposed to systems that feature ruling elites who control the operations of the polity without the input of the citizenry.
Let’s remember, though, that the Greeks were slave-owners and maintained their ideal of democracy by excluding slaves as well as resident aliens from inclusion in the ranks of the citizenry. It was a democracy in name only, managing to claim the name only by deciding that those they didn’t see as worthy of participating politically didn’t count as “citizens.”
This fact is worth remembering in light of intensifying erasure of people not just in the Trump administration but in the GOP more broadly, including my home state of Illinois under the authoritarian gridlock-rule of Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. By the erasure of people, I mean a politics of erasure achieved through the practice of deciding certain people in the United States just simply don’t count.
This underlying value of the practice of this politics of erasure is most evident in Eric Trump’s recent comment that critics of his father President Donald Trump are “not even people.”
That this comment was not an off-handed remark idiosyncratic to the POTUS’s son but rather an attitude deeply informing the policies and practices of the Trump administration we can see just by charting a pattern of this administration practicing the politics of erasure since Trump took office.
Almost immediately after the transition to the Trump Presidency occurred, the White House website pages (Whitehouse.gov) regarding federal policies regarding people with disabilities disappeared, as well as a report archived in the Department of Labor site titled “Advancing LGBTQ Workplace Rights.” Similarly, pages devoted to civil rights, climate change and its impact on human life, as well as the Affordable Care Act and the role of the healthcare system in improving human lives were also excised.
Apparently, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, people of color and women who have historically required legislation to have their civil rights protected, those who cannot afford healthcare, and those threatened by climate change constitute human lives that simply don’t count in the eyes of this administration.
And in Republican rule overall.
Under the intransigent rule of Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, the state of Illinois has now gone without a budget for two years, for the first time in Illinois history, earning Rauner the criticism not just of democrats but of former Republican Governor Jim Edgar, who blames the governor for not understanding the art of political compromise that defines effective governance and also for bringing the state to the brink of collapse in ways that undermine people’s lives. Crucial state services for the disabled, the poor, the elderly, children, and students have been defunded or underfunded, harming human life. And layoffs at state universities and other agencies are mounting.
Does Rauner’s recipe sound familiar? Indeed, it echoes the policies coming out of Republican rule in Washington, D.C.
People simply don’t count and are being excluded from the ranks of the citizenry both representationally—disappearing from websites–and in material political ways.
We can certainly see Trump’s attitudes toward immigration and toward Muslims and other refugees as consistent with, even the beginning of, this idea articulated by the POTUS’s son that many in America in the eyes of this administration are “not even people.”
We know from history that it is precisely this type of thinking and this type of language that precipitates genocide. And, arguably, we are witnessing genocidal behavior against multiple groups of people being carried out through policy decisions undermining the lives and rights of the disabled, women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others, including the poor and the working class, as Trump has turned Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty into a war on the poor and on people more generally, refusing to recognize many of us as even people.
Under Rauner’s rule in Illinois, sometimes the politics of erasure is executed more subtly. Take, for example, the statement from Rauner’s spokesperson Catherine Kelly when Chicago Public Schools CEO blamed the Governor for the lack of funds that would potentially force Chicago Public Schools to end the school early:
“Continuing to blame the Governor, who has been in office two years, for decades of fiscal mismanagement and bad decision-making is getting old. CPS willingly chose to budget for money they had not received and knew was contingent upon real pension reform. The Administration is open to considering this legislation again if the General Assembly passes statewide pension reform.”
Note the language here. The governor’s office makes no mention of any responsibility of the state to make sure the needs of children and of citizens are met. It turns the whole scenario into an ideological battle in which the lives of people are absent.
Let’s assume it’s true that CPS has been mismanaged. Are the children of Illinois then sacrificed to this mismanagement? Or would a responsible governor who has pledged to fix Illinois find a way to take care of the state’s children for the benefit of the state’s future?
The problem is, again, that those constituents you and I might call people, the GOP, federally and at the state level, have decided are “not even people.”
Well, welcome to the genocidal behavior of the democracy of the few, sponsored by GOP.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.