Too Much Democracy

Sometimes Donald Trump is right. The 2016 Republican National Convention will be held in Cleveland at the Quicken Loans Arena in July, July 18-21 to be exact, but once again it will be no more than an extended political infomercial. May opened with Donald Trump saying what had to be said:

Front-runner Donald Trump said on Sunday that he will have essentially sealed the Republican U.S. presidential nomination if he wins Tuesday’s contest in Indiana, where he holds a big lead over chief rival Ted Cruz.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist opinion poll showed Trump with a wide lead in Indiana, 49 percent to 34 percent for Cruz and 13 percent for a third candidate, Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Trump, a 69-year-old billionaire real estate developer, sounded confident in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” when asked whether Indiana would basically end the long-running Republican race in his favor.

“Yes, it’s over,” Trump said. “It’s already over.”

The last stand of the Never Trump army will be a General Custer thing. Their general, Ted Cruz, like Custer, is in a fight where he never quite understood the odds he was facing, or how his clever but conventional tactics really didn’t matter a whole lot. Tactics may not matter at all, even if Cruz has them:

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cruz, 45, was asked several times whether he would support Trump if the New York businessman was the Republican nominee. Cruz evaded the question each time and turned the questions into an attack on broadcast media.

“I recognize that many in the media would love to see me surrender to Donald Trump because that means that Hillary wins. The media has given $2 billion in free advertising to Donald Trump,” Cruz said.

Cruz said he has momentum in Indiana based on his choice of former candidate Carly Fiorina for his vice president and Friday’s endorsement by Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

That’s it? That’s it. That’s boring and that cannot overcome this:

At a rally in Terre Haute, Indiana, Trump urged Republicans to join his “movement” and turn out for him in big numbers.

“The more we can win by in Indiana is so important. It’s a mandate… a really important mandate. It’s a mandate for change, but not Obama change. Real change. It’s a mandate for genius,” he said.

And he’s the genius, although some disagree:

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading Republican critic of Trump, called him the “most unelectable person” the party could nominate. Graham had sought the nomination himself.

“Keep fighting Ted,” Graham told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Why? The numbers don’t lie, and Trump may be electable after all. The previous Tuesday, when Trump swept five northeastern primaries in landslides, and on the other side Hillary Clinton ran away with four of the five, Josh Marshall, watching the victory speeches, noted this:

It’s been a consistent feature of recent US presidential elections that they are less about persuasion than mobilization of relatively stable political coalitions. There is a thin segment of up-or-grab voters but it tends to be as little as five percent and seldom more than ten percent of electorate, and only those in a handful of swing states really drive the campaigns’ attention. Because of this, the campaigns are largely talking past each; and that is by design.

Each side really does know that electability has nothing to do with persuasion, so Trump was Trump:

He was brimming with confidence, on point. His message about bad trade deals and stagnating wages and NAFTA fit together like a nicely ordered package with strong appeal to the people who now actually make up the Republican coalition, as opposed to the people who did in the 1980s. The border wall, while mentioned, had receded to the background. It made me go back to what I started wondering months ago about whether Trump might have significantly more crossover appeal than people realize. Then he came back with the demeaning and crass attacks on Hillary as little more than a gender affirmative action candidate. “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5% of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.”

When your top surrogate’s Republican wife visibly grimaces at your remark you know it’s bad news for a wide swath of the electorate.

Yes, Chris Christie’s wife winced at that, but she doesn’t get it:

These two candidates aren’t just appealing to different demographics or voting coalitions. They’re operating in what almost amounts to two different political universes…. I guarantee you that everyone who has voted for Trump in any primary so far loved those remarks. They hate Hillary. They hate ‘political correctness’. More than anything else they love provocation itself. But this kind of talk, while a single instance itself, reminds us that Trump has already all but disqualified himself with huge swaths of the electorate. It’s like a long fingernail drag over the chalkboard for a significant majority of voters. Trump has a 70%+ disapproval rating among women; roughly 80% disapproval among Hispanics; and the list goes on and on. At the moment he’s even doing fairly poorly among whites! But we should expect those numbers to rise significantly as Republican partisans unify around Trump.

Meanwhile Clinton is talking about opportunity, inclusion across racial groups and the gender divide. It is a message framed around inclusion for rising groups, young people and incremental improvements in the safety net and wages for those just hanging on in the 21st century economy. It really amounts to a simple continuity message with the Obama presidency. What he did.

My point isn’t to pump this agenda. This is an ideologically agnostic point. It is to point out how it is virtually incomprehensible in the Trump universe. Gibberish or nonsense in a worldview based on reclaiming things your supporters believe were or are being taken away from them by others, and a powerful leader reclaiming what you lost from domestic newcomers and foreign adversaries. They’re just categorically different, not just in policy terms, but in language, manner of acting in public, concept of leadership. Everything. They’re mutually incomprehensible, seemingly indifferent to what folks on the other side of the divide even think.

If so, Clinton wins, but not on the merits:

What worries Republicans profoundly and has Democrats what I would call cautiously ecstatic is that if both candidates are doubling down on these portions of the population, Clinton’s chunk looks significantly larger than Trump’s. The biggest driver in November may turn out to be gender. But seen through a racial prism, which seems more likely: that Trump will significantly drive up the white vote or that Clinton will significantly drive up the minority vote? Trump seems dramatically less popular with Hispanic voters than Romney and it is difficult to see him making up much of that ground. Remember too that there are fewer white voters in 2016 than there were in 2012.

This is all about the demographics:

They give advantages, sometimes profound advantages. But you still need a politics to win elections. Trump, though, is fencing himself into a demographic playing field that may for once make that important political wisdom meaningless. Unless you manage turnout levels of white men at significantly over 100%, it is very hard to win a national election with just those voters, if you make everyone else hate you.

It may be hard to win that way, but it is possible. Something is different this year, and Andrew Sullivan, no longer blogging and now on the staff of New York magazine, devotes 7,596 words to the subject, suggesting we now face the problem of too much democracy:

As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled – even surprised – me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

That’s wonderful, except for deference to any sort of authority withering. That’s the problem. That means chaos:

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher… is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.

He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time – given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class – and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities.

That would be Donald Trump. Plato knew he would come along, sort of, and we once knew better:

Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power. Voting rights were tightly circumscribed. The president and vice-president were not to be popularly elected but selected by an Electoral College, whose representatives were selected by the various states, often through state legislatures. The Senate’s structure (with two members from every state) was designed to temper the power of the more populous states, and its term of office (six years, compared with two for the House) was designed to cool and restrain temporary populist passions. The Supreme Court, picked by the president and confirmed by the Senate, was the final bulwark against any democratic furies that might percolate up from the House and threaten the Constitution. This separation of powers was designed precisely to create sturdy firewalls against democratic wildfires.

That wasn’t going to last in a democracy:

The franchise has been extended far beyond propertied white men. The presidency is now effectively elected through popular vote, with the Electoral College almost always reflecting the national democratic will. And these formal democratic advances were accompanied by informal ones, as the culture of democracy slowly took deeper root. For a very long time, only the elites of the political parties came to select their candidates at their quadrennial conventions, with the vote largely restricted to party officials from the various states (and often decided in, yes, smoke-filled rooms in large hotel suites). Beginning in the early 1900’s, however, the parties began experimenting with primaries, and after the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention, today’s far more democratic system became the norm.

Direct democracy didn’t just elect Congress and the president anymore; it expanded the notion of who might be qualified for public office. Once, candidates built a career through experience in elected or cabinet positions or as military commanders; they were effectively selected by peer review. That elitist sorting mechanism has slowly imploded. In 1940, Wendell Willkie, a businessman with no previous political office, won the Republican nomination for president, pledging to keep America out of war and boasting that his personal wealth inoculated him against corruption: “I will be under obligation to nobody except the people.” He lost badly to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but nonetheless, since then, nonpolitical candidates have proliferated, from Ross Perot and Jesse Jackson, to Steve Forbes and Herman Cain, to this year’s crop of Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and, of course, Donald J. Trump. This further widening of our democracy – our increased openness to being led by anyone; indeed, our accelerating preference for outsiders – is now almost complete.

We wanted that democratic inclusiveness, but now we’re paying the price:

None of this is necessarily cause for alarm, even though it would be giving the Founding Fathers palpitations. The emergence of the first black president – unimaginable before our more inclusive democracy – is miraculous, a strengthening, rather than weakening, of the system. The days when party machines just fixed things or rigged elections are mercifully done with. The way in which outsider candidates, from Obama to Trump and Sanders, have brought millions of new people into the electoral process is an unmitigated advance. The inclusion of previously excluded voices helps, rather than impedes, our public deliberation. But it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.

That’s the gist of Sullivan’s argument, but there are some telling details:

What the 21st century added to this picture, it’s now blindingly obvious, was media democracy – in a truly revolutionary form. If late-stage political democracy has taken two centuries to ripen, the media equivalent took around two decades, swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse. The process had its origins in partisan talk radio at the end of the past century. The rise of the internet – an event so swift and pervasive its political effect is only now beginning to be understood – further democratized every source of information, dramatically expanded each outlet’s readership, and gave everyone a platform. All the old barriers to entry – the cost of print and paper and distribution – crumbled.

This was good, and bad:

Fusty old-media institutions, grown fat and lazy, deserved a drubbing. The early independent blogosphere corrected facts, exposed bias, earned scoops. And as the medium matured, and as Facebook and Twitter took hold, everyone became a kind of blogger. In ways no 20th-century journalist would have believed, we all now have our own virtual newspapers on our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines – picking stories from countless sources and creating a peer-to-peer media almost completely free of editing or interference by elites. This was bound to make politics more fluid. Political organizing – calling a meeting, fomenting a rally to advance a cause – used to be extremely laborious. Now you could bring together a virtual mass movement with a single webpage. It would take you a few seconds.

The web was also uniquely capable of absorbing other forms of media, conflating genres and categories in ways never seen before. The distinction between politics and entertainment became fuzzier; election coverage became even more modeled on sportscasting… The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking “Is this relevant?” or “Do we really need to cover this live?” in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law – it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler – is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic.

That seems about right, as does this:

Politically, we lucked out at first. Obama would never have been nominated for the presidency, let alone elected, if he hadn’t harnessed the power of the web and the charisma of his media celebrity. But he was also, paradoxically, a very elite figure, a former state and U.S. senator, a product of Harvard Law School, and, as it turned out, blessed with a preternaturally rational and calm disposition. So he has masked, temporarily, the real risks in the system that his pioneering campaign revealed. Hence many Democrats’ frustration with him. Those who saw in his campaign the seeds of revolutionary change, who were drawn to him by their own messianic delusions, came to be bitterly disappointed by his governing moderation and pragmatism.

The climate Obama thrived in, however, was also ripe for far less restrained opportunists. In 2008, Sarah Palin emerged as proof that an ardent Republican, branded as an outsider, tailor-made for reality TV, proud of her own ignorance about the world, and reaching an audience directly through online media, could also triumph in this new era. She was, it turned out, a John the Baptist for the true messiah of conservative populism, waiting patiently and strategically for his time to come.

Yeah, him, the guy who understood this populism:

This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread. It’s a period in which we have become far more aware of the historic injustices that still haunt African-Americans and yet we treat the desperate plight of today’s white working ­class as an afterthought. And so late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain – and has actually helped exacerbate.

For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.

And the left played into this:

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear – how can they not? – the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them – all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities…

And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out. This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization.

The rest was inevitable:

Trump launched his campaign by calling undocumented Mexican immigrants a population largely of rapists and murderers. He moved on to Muslims, both at home and abroad. He has now added to these enemies – with sly brilliance – the Republican Establishment itself. And what makes Trump uniquely dangerous in the history of American politics – with far broader national appeal than, say, Huey Long or George Wallace – is his response to all three enemies. It’s the threat of blunt coercion and dominance.

Well, there is that:

After demonizing most undocumented Mexican immigrants, he then vowed to round up and deport all 11 million of them by force. “They have to go” was the typically blunt phrase he used – and somehow people didn’t immediately recognize the monstrous historical echoes. The sheer scale of the police and military operation that this policy would entail boggles the mind. Worse, he emphasized, after the mass murder in San Bernardino, that even the Muslim-Americans you know intimately may turn around and massacre you at any juncture. “There’s something going on,” he declaimed ominously, giving legitimacy to the most hysterical and ugly of human impulses.

To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. … And what’s notable about Trump’s supporters is precisely what one would expect from members of a mass movement: their intense loyalty.

Andrew Sullivan is none too happy with all this, and these are just a few excerpts from a much longer closely-argued conservative plea for some common sense here. Sullivan is one of those old-fashioned Edmund Burke conservatives, which he once explained this way:

I view conservatism as the practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change with the goal of maintaining the coherence and stability of a polity and a culture. It is a philosophy of moderation and balance, constantly alert to the manifold ways in which societies can, over time, lose their equilibrium. It is defined, along Burke’s foundational lines, as an opposition to ideological and theological politics in every form. And so it is a perfectly admirable conservative idea to respond to capitalism’s modern mercilessness by trying to support, encourage and help the traditional family structure and traditional religious practice. The point is a pragmatic response to contingent events that threaten social coherence.

That was from 2012, when Sullivan was arguing that you should vote for Obama, the true conservative, not Mitt Romney, the fake one. Now, Donald Trump is the fake conservative, but now Sullivan sees the larger problem. Plato was right. Tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy. Be increasingly inclusive. Let everyone have their say, excluding no one, and one day there will be no firewalls against democratic wildfires. Everything will burn down. “Yes, it’s over,” Trump said. “It’s already over.”

Sometimes Donald Trump is right.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Too Much Democracy

  1. carl says:

    Really enjoy your ruminations on the state of the American body, and am hopeful that your readership is increasing.

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