A laudable byproduct of President Trump’s persistent portrayal as the great wrecking ball of American public virtue has been a renaissance of thoughtful commentary in virtue’s defense. Rarely have there been more writers, in more publications, representing a broader spectrum of agendas and ideologies, making a more urgent, articulate case for standards of decorum, trust, and truth in politics.
Yet one can’t help but notice a comparable lack of intellectual coherence and vigor in conversations about that other civic institution Trump’s presidency is said to endanger: democracy.
This appears to be because there is a decided lack of interest in agreeing on a common definition of what democracy is and what sorts of things threaten its survival.
Thus, today we see progressives fretting about the anti-democratic evils of gerrymandering and voter-ID laws, while simultaneously cheering on judges and bureaucrats who overrule the decisions of elected legislatures.
We see conservative intellectuals demanding a return to the “smoke-filled room” system of nominating candidates for public office, only to declare in their next breath the moral bankruptcy of Washington careerists.
We see alt-righters fetishizing monarchs and dictators on one hand while celebrating the election of Donald Trump as a beautiful encapsulation of the all-important public will on the other.
We see broad-minded internationalists scorn the “backward” American electoral college while accepting at face value the results of overseas parliamentary elections which pay the popular vote even less heed. (The much-celebrated recently elected prime minister of New Zealand, for instance, received just 36.9 percent of her country’s vote.)
We see columnists citing dour approval ratings as resounding proof that this-or-other politician has lost all legitimacy, only for next week’s editorial to denounce “governing by the polls” as the worst sort of pandering cowardice.
We see partisans blasting the use of public-policy referenda as mob rule at its worst — until one is passed that does something they like, at which point the referendum becomes an expression of commonsense at its best.
Democracy, in its most broadly understood definition, is a system where the people rule themselves based on the idea that a free people must consent to their own government. The flaw of this philosophy is that “the people” are not angelic. They can easily misrule themselves, assent to forms of tyranny that erode their freedoms, or even destroy their system of self-rule. This paradox is not exclusive to democracy, of course — all forms of government possess the seeds of their own destruction, as Plato exerted much effort to explain. As subsequent philosophers came to conclude, democracy survives because it’s proven to be the system that does the most good for the greatest number of people and can most easily rationalize restraining its dangerous potentials without undermining its larger principles.
The restraints the American Constitution originally placed on democracy, where elected politicians serve as an intermediary between the people, comprise what the document calls a “Republican Form of Government.” It’s a phrase many conservatives in recent years have used to lazily swat away worries over democratic deficiencies in American government: “We’re a republic, not a democracy.” Yet such semantic fussiness masks the fact that republicanism as the Founders conceived it really has few true fans in the modern age. The Constitution’s authors thought it perfectly natural for government to be dominated by a meritocratic political class distant from the public it ruled (an “aristocracy of virtue and talent” as Jefferson put it), a condescending premise that grinds sharply against the anti-elitist political culture of modern America.
A considerably less theatrical, but no less substantial, erosion of democracy takes place when broad social agreement about its philosophical importance no longer exists.
It was hard to justify withholding governing power from the public on the grounds of ignorance by the time literacy and newspapers were ubiquitous. It was nearly impossible to justify by the time 24-hour TV news and talk radio came around. In the age of Internet and social media, no serious person even broaches the idea. Those who defend elitist checks on American democracy today no longer make broad, universal arguments about the public being too ignorant and unsophisticated to rule themselves. They stake their assertions on narrow partisan grounds. The public, they say, should only be permitted to rule itself to the degree such rule will produce particular policy outcomes.
Many in the Tea Party endorsed ending direct election of senators because they inferred directly elected senators are more inclined to expand government’s reach and power. Liberals, meanwhile, are increasingly against elected judges and prosecutors because they view them as roadblocks to progressive rulings and legal crusades. Many moderate Republicans find flaw with their party’s presidential-nominating process on the grounds that Donald Trump won the nomination, just as the Bernie Sanders faction of Democrats reached an identical conclusion about their party’s process precisely because Hillary Clinton won.
When fears of lost democracy manifest, they usually take the form of some gothic dystopia in which constitutional checks and balances are methodically dismantled and replaced with deference to a Hitlerian leader. Yet a considerably less theatrical, but no less substantial, erosion of democracy takes place when broad social agreement about its philosophical importance no longer exists, and citizens and elite alike instead cite wildly diverse, context-dependent, self-interested arguments to rationalize either ceding government to the majority’s opinion or egging on those with the power to overrule said opinion. The end result is a new system in which the reigning philosophy is neither populism nor meritocratic aristocracy, but a mad scramble of partisan opportunism. That doesn’t set the stage for dictatorship, but it does provide a ready-made excuse for both sides’ attempts to rig the existing system as much to their benefit as possible, imposing a hodgepodge mixture of democratic and anti-democratic institutions and traditions that don’t collectively make any philosophical sense.
Democracy can be frightening. It can force partisans and ideologues to confront the difficult truth that public taste often fails to conform to their own tidy theories. Rather than deform democracy to hide from this, the honest ruler seeks to learn from the uncomfortable lessons democratic outcomes often teach. The most realistic alternative to democracy, in other words, is not a tyrannical government, but a deeply deluded one.