Selective Delegitimization and the Strategy of Refusal

Jeremy Arnold

National University of Singapore


Those of us on the left who take Foucault and Arendt (among others) seriously have, at best, an ambivalence, towards the State and its putative legitimacy. On the one hand, the concept of state sovereignty; the (unjustifiable, but leave that aside) legitimate use of the means of violence; the disciplinary and biopolitical ideologies and practices of modern statehood; the rise of bureaucratic forms of rule and the “administration of needs”; the nation-state form’s regulation of and submission to capitalist modes of production; the global imposition of the nation-state form and its unruly capitalist kin through imperialism and settler colonialism: all of this renders the State a significant danger.

On the other hand, the drive for justice across multiple domains—economic, racial, gender, sexual, environmental, legal, and so on—requires, for now anyway, recourse to the State. It is, for better and worse, to States that we hope to turn for the protection of rights; for redistribution of wealth; for distributions of essential services like healthcare, water, infrastructure repair: all of this renders the State a significant ally in the quest for social justice, and for some a just State (or a just enough State) is a necessary condition of State legitimacy (at least in liberal democracies).

In addition to State legitimacy, we have experienced here in America since, say, 1980, a crisis of governmental legitimacy. Starting with Reagan, the Right has engaged in a strategy I want to call “selective delegitimization”. Reagan selectively delegitimized government by declaring government to be itself the problem—unless what is at issue is the State’s use of violence, both domestically and in foreign affairs. This was not just an ideology: it bore fruit in a number of policies and in budget allocations, for example, in calls to eliminate the Department of Education and in reduced budgets for a number of other departments, as well as the active destruction of labor unions and various forms of deregulation.

With the Gingrich congress in the 1990s, the selective delegitimization process took a new turn: obstructionism and the attempt to impeach a Democratic president (see Norm Ornstein’s piece here). The Republicans adopted a new, unprecendented, strategy: simply prevent government from working at all (except, of course, for essential services like the use of state violence) unless the president capitulates to conservative policies. The government was shut down twice during the Clinton presidency, and it is notable that the major policy “successes” of the Clinton years were an unprecedented increase in the prison population and welfare “reform”, which was really a Republican legislative success story (and a disaster for poor people and, especially, African-Americans). No doubt, the neoliberalization of the Democratic Party in the Clinton years played a role in all of this; let’s leave that aside. But the Republican strategy was clear: if we don’t win, we won’t govern. A government that enacts policies other than ours is simply illegitimate and will not function.

Unsurprisingly, selective delegitimization took a back seat in the Bush years. But it roared back with the election of Obama, where Republicans once again tried to get rid of a Democratic president by claiming he was not legally qualified to be President  (along with treating Obama with perspicuous contempt) and, more importantly, simply refused to enact legislation or perform their constitutional obligations (e.g., to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee). The paradoxical climax of selective delegitimization came this past June, when a Republican controlled house refused to allocate money to the military to put into effect its climate change security plans. In short, the party of security and militarization refused to fund plans to deal with a significant and dangerous security threat—because to do so would have required it to accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

One of the effects—I would say intended, but perhaps I am wrong—of selective delegitimization is to undermine public trust and confidence in government and major social institutions. That trust and confidence is at or near historic lows, according to Gallup surveys (see here and here). One of the things we know about the emergence of fascism is that it requires significant distrust of elites, of institutions, of technocrats and experts, of the ability of government to perform its basic functions, and so on (see Lida Maxwell’s excellent piece in The Contemporary Condition here) The strategy of selective delegitimization, however, has either worked, or backfired, with the election of Trump (it depends on whether you are Steve Bannon or David Brooks).

But how could it be working? After all, one would think that undermining public trust and confidence in government institutions would backfire on whichever party is on power. It is a dangerous strategy, it is true (for a number of reasons). But it only needs to work once.

Given a polarized electorate, you can reliably depend on staying in the game. Once they became the majority in Congress, Republicans held that majority for all but four of the next 24 years. In anticipation of the 2010 census, Republicans developed a deliberate state level strategy to control legislatures and thereby gerrymander enough Congressional districts to essentially make Republicans in the House immune to the national level electoral supremacy of Democrats. This means the House is unlikely to turn until at least 2022 (barring a total disaster in the next two years, which is, I think, not really all that unlikely). And even that possibility requires state level political organization that the Democratic party has failed to bring into being.

With control of the House, Republicans can stymie any Democratic president, whether through obstruction or impeachment. But they can also depend, reliably, on two political virtues (one only apparent) of the Democrats: 1) they want to govern and thus; 2) they are willing to compromise. This is in part because of the rightward shift in the Democratic party, but again, leave that aside. Given the Democrats’ desire to govern and thus compromise, the Republicans could pursue their delegitimization strategy of undermining government with impunity. No amount of racist birtherism kept Obama from trying to find common ground with his opponents. Republicans only paid a political price in the House twice, and I’m not sure their obstructionism—which had been dormant because unnecessary in the Bush years—had anything to do with it.

Pursuing and reiterating in public discourse government dysfunction reinforces the strategy of “government is the problem” because a defunded, stagnant, shut down government is a problem. The Republicans can benefit from their obstructionism because it only makes their basic view of government as the problem more obvious to many Americans, who feel it and see it and live with it everyday. But how could Republicans have pulled it off if they were the cause of the dysfunction?

That is where, I think, the nativism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia etc., comes in (not only here, of course). Briefly, it provides an appealing, coherent world view to a frustrated, angry, resentful section of the citizenry. It goes like this: “The cause of social, economic, and political distress is to be found in “those people” who “suddenly” appeared on the scene when government, in response to mass political movements, began to pursue social justice. The party that ran that government is in cahoots with ‘those people’, and they are eager to take whatever little you have left (in taxes, in guns, in values, etc.). Our obstructionism is a bulwark against the governmentally administered destruction of a once great white nation.” The “Southern Strategy” was only the first step. The newest addition to this story: “some Republicans and all Democrats are part of an elite costal class devoted to cosmopolitanism, globalization, technocracy, and indifference to and contempt for, (especially white) workers.”

The story works though, because of its moral: “when we get into power, we will govern less. Government is dysfunctional not because of us, but because the government is overstepping its bounds in pursuing social justice. When we are in power, we will only do what is necessary and required and legitimate: employ state violence to restore “law and order” and defeat our enemies.” Steve Bannon agrees with Lenin: the State must be destroyed, except (although he does not add this), in its essential law and order functions.

The strategy of selective delegitimization only needs to work once. And it just has.

With Republican control of the legislative and executive (and soon the judicial) branches, whatever was accomplished under Democratic control is likely to be quickly reversed, and conservative fantasies will suddenly become tangible possibilities. The selective delegitimization strategies of the Republicans openly created a dysfunctional government under various ideological and narrative guises that legitimized their political strategy and the the government’s use of violence, while delegitimizing nearly all other governmental functions. In the meantime, it has cultivated a deep distrust of experts and institutions as well as a growing justification and legalization of violence against the various “threats” to a once dominant but now minoritizing white race.

As this is a first stab at things, I haven’t provided the usual academic apparatus to support most of these claims. This account needs that support, or needs to be modified if the support is not there.

Let’s assume I am more or less right about some of the factors that have led us to this point. So what do we on the Left do about all of this, given our own ambivalences about the State and government? We cannot, I take it, simply relegitimize a governmental apparatus many of us find deeply problematic even when it functions. A serious question right now is: to what extent do we refuse, simply refuse? There is a great deal of power and potential in the idea. Refuse to legitimize, to normalize, Trump, refuse because there cannot be a compromise with fascism.

But let’s pose a non-zero, however unlikely, possibility, just to get to a question of principle (I will ask in a moment whether this is the kind of thing we should be doing right now, i.e., discovering principles). Here it is.

Trump offers an infrastructure plan funded by taxes progressively raised on everyone but households making below $50,000 per year. Corporations are taxed based on an assessment of their contributions to infrastructure decline both retrospectively and prospectively. The plan focuses on the most urgent concerns in low-income areas of the country: for example, the Flint water system. Government contracts are only given to either unionized companies or companies that offer workers health care and a living wage. You get the point. The plan is a progressive’s dream. The plan right now is, as you might guess, about the exact opposite of this.

The question is: should we refuse? There are both moral and political questions to be answered here, but I don’t know how to answer them now.

Add to the story this: nothing else changes. Muslims will register and potentially be interned, jailed, deported, etc. Deportations of other aliens, both legal and illegal, will commence, etc. etc. Do we refuse that infrastructure plan in the name of a general refusal?

I do not have a good answer to the question, especially as it is more than possible that, purely from an election standpoint, the Democratic party—which for the moment is all we have—cannot abandon either the so-called “Obama coalition” or those individuals in the Rust Belt who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump.

How can we, on the Left—not the Democratic Party, but we on the Left—morally fail to endorse a policy that provides clean drinking water to residents of Flint (among other neceessary goods)?

But how can we normalize, legitimize, Trump, even for one good policy, especially as the tangible benefits of infrastructure repair are likely to increase support for a fascist? How can we, morally and politically, compromise with fascism for the sake of one, however important, improvement in the lives of ordinary Americans?

Again, I do not have an answer. Is there a Leftist mode of selective delegitimization that can work to fight fascism? Or, for us, is it all or nothing? I do not know. These questions matter because many Democrats, including Sanders and Warren, have shown that, in principle, they are willing to work with Trump.

Perhaps these questions are driven the by the search for a principled opposition itself; and if so, and if the likelihood of Trump’s policies being so progressive, or even barely acceptable, is so low; then why must we seek out a principle for a strategy of refusal at all?

I think we should be asking these principled questions because a strategy of refusal is already being developed and circulated, but in the abstract, without concrete political and moral dilemmas confronting us. My intuition is that refusal is the appropriate strategy even if Trump throws centrist Democrats a few bones, or like Sanders and Clinton, rejects policies like TPP that the Left endorses. But the political and moral risks of refusal are real, and, however unlikely, events might force us to reconsider absolute refusal. Perhaps we need to articulate a strategy of selective delegimization of our own, however risky, rather than refusal. That is why asking the principled question matters: is our primary goal the end of fascism, whatever the political and moral costs?

But a strategy of refusal is also complicated by at least one plausible reason a significant number of Obama voters switched to Trump: desperation and an attraction to change, regardless of what that change is (see here for some evidence of this). Thus, we need more than a strategy of refusal. Mike Davis suggests we need to further the nascent socialism the Sanders campaign has brought into American politics.

I think we need one more thing as well: we need to find a new legitimation narrative for American government that—for political reasons—has a distinctive American pedigree. Many of us are not, like we are with the state, ambivalent about America’s history and American patriotism: we are often appalled. But as Adorno prophesied, the redeemed world looks more or less like this one, but everything will be different. There are alternative Americas, close enough to America now to be intelligible (and thus politically effective) but far enough away to be unlike anything we currently see. We need their pasts and futures now more than ever. And not only in scholarly articles, but in realized experiments in living.


1 thought on “Selective Delegitimization and the Strategy of Refusal”

  1. Thanks for articulating the dilemma, Jeremy. I say err on the side of refusal. The chances are very small that Trump will do any lasting good with his economic policies, and whatever good may come of them, I do not think it could be worth the cultural and political price of cooperation.

    Minority status is going to disallow the Left from claiming authorship of any policies, unless they can somehow revive the “me-too Republicanism” line. So, Dems in Congress are surely best to ignore the economic policy conversation as much as they possibly can. They should find reasons to frustrate Trumps economic agenda where they can. There is going to be little to lose, politically or in terms of national welfare. If they must go along with it in some cases, if they feel compelled to do so, fine. But above all, be as quiet as possible about it. There are really no political gains to be had here, only greater and lesser losses.

    As for the popular resistance movement, I think it should utterly ignore DT’s economic stuff. Not that we shouldn’t be paying attention. We should. We should understand the chess moves he’s making. But let’s keep the focus of the popular resistance movement on opposing white supremacy (which we should stop sanitizing as “white nationalism”).


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