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A Remediable Choice or Continued Democratic Decline?



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The first Soundings column, published on January 17, 2010, was entitled “Democratic Expectations: A Nation of Toddlers?”  It examined the idea that democracy entrusts all who meet the criteria for citizenship, whatever their native capacities or station in life, with the franchise and assumes that each individual can act with prudence and wisdom as they exercise it. For many past theorists of democracy and philosophers of governance, that assumption represented an Achilles heel that portended failure for this regime form. By any measure, these analysts argued, humankind has hardly shown a steady propensity to discipline itself against fear (and fear-mongering), “othering,” avarice, jealousy, or other vices when it must rely only on its own devices to do so. Why, then, choose a governance form that requires just such a characteristic? Nonetheless, our Founders selected a Republican variant of self-rule, which government has, in the ensuing period since our nation’s creation, become ever more democratic. They did so believing that a combination of legal and institutional checks, ethical leaders and civically virtuous citizens could overcome any inherent human tendency to trade sovereignty and civil and human rights for promises of material goods, or social superiority or well-being. I argued in that initial commentary that a share of Americans exhibited an increasing tendency to demand that their leaders, irrespective of their partisanship, deliver the impossible. As a result, many would-be officials simply would not tell those voters that it was not possible to deliver goods and services with perfect efficiency in so large and heterogeneous a nation and amidst such social complexity, or to “fix” sticky concerns such as drug addiction, homelessness or, indeed, poverty and hunger. Those leaders instead fell to promising the equivalent of patent medicine remedies, or they blamed the victims suffering from such conditions for their situations.

In short, it was clear in 2010, and is even more so today, that millions of Americans are willing to embrace politicians who proselytize for policies that evidence little or no relationship to their lived reality and that promise the impossible. Indeed, many citizens continue not only to accept such rhetoric, but also to demand just such from their would-be leaders. That is, these voters, on the basis of whatever combination of factors you may wish to hypothesize, have gone so far as to embrace demagogues and charlatans for public office if those individuals promised quick fixes, blamed scapegoats as simple targets for what were, in fact, complex concerns, or offered easy mechanisms to address otherwise thorny social or economic problems.

So, it is, for example, that millions of Americans have shown themselves willing to believe that government, and not capitalist driven economic change, is ultimately to blame for the shifts they have experienced in their workplaces. In fact, public policies might have softened some of that capitalist blow, but the Republican Party has fought steadily and diligently to prevent that possibility, even as its representatives campaigned on platforms blaming self-governance broadly and specific groups more particularly, for whatever economic difficulties voters might be experiencing. Indeed, for forty years, and with increasing ferocity, the GOP has argued that governance is the source of nearly all social woes and that adopting a larger sphere for the market while also punishing (read scapegoating) one or more groups would be its antidote. The GOP dominated House of Representatives recently voted, for example, to roll back protections designed to avoid the potential for another 2008 style financial crisis on the grounds that those efforts cost capitalists undue time and money. Unfortunately, as with virtually all such absolute ideological claims for the market, there is no substantiating evidence for this perspective. And, if the GOP controlled Senate should follow suit, the country will be held hostage to the prospect of another market-driven economic meltdown or depression. The House vote was needless and heedless and it endangers the nation unnecessarily, but you may be sure that should another economic crisis occur, those same lawmakers would blame government or another supposed scapegoat for the possibility that their own action allowed market actors to unleash.

Nevertheless, millions of working and middle class Americans appear to have believed GOP leaders who have told them for decades that tax cuts for the richest in society would assist them, when in fact those reductions have done little to support them or their families. More, Republican elected officials have persuaded those same individuals that the governmental fiscal deficits that resulted from such policy choices were not the product of those who pressed for them to support the nation’s wealthy and its capitalists, but instead were the result of inefficiency of the federal workforce or of perfidy by their fellow citizens or of governance itself. In each of these cases, many voters believed in a chimera and were reinforced in doing so by artful leaders willing to encourage their false beliefs. Just as often, and sadly, Republican leaders have accompanied these anti-governance and anti-democratic contentions with the unethical and immoral argument, sometimes more subtly pressed than others, that “others” (always including the “poor” and African Americans, and sometimes immigrants, Jews, Native Americans and Hispanics) were “taking” (implicitly white) voters’ hard won efforts from them.

If we fast forward to the present, these social and political trends have only deepened. Donald Trump narrowly won the presidency in November by exploiting the fears and grievances of a share of (mostly) white Americans who saw themselves as buffeted by social and economic change. He asked that they put their trust in him as he worked to clean up the “swamp” in Washington D.C. that allegedly produced these concerns. He has persistently referred to a nonexistent “Deep State” as a way of vilifying government agencies and governance as an “Other” (rather than as the handmaiden of the sovereign) that supposedly “did this to” these citizens maliciously. He has likewise attacked freedom of speech, the press, the judiciary, and labeled perceived political opponents of all stripes as “losers” or worse. Millions have indeed embraced Trump on these demagogic terms and have continued to support him as he has ruthlessly scapegoated Muslims, immigrants and refugees, African Americans and Hispanics, among other people, as the architects of the often-fantastical woes he has attributed to them.

Today, as Trump faces a crisis brought on by his apparent willingness to seek to skirt the rule of law and his similar aversion to prosecute those who may have assisted Russia in its efforts to meddle in our nation’s last election (among many other concerns), some 37% of American citizens, and a high percentage of those claiming Republican partisanship, who have responded to recent surveys remain willing to believe his claims that all who find fault with his so far incompetent and venal administration are in fact reporting “Fake News” or engaged in a conspiracy arising from their unhappiness that he won the election.

In short, they continue to believe in arguments untethered to reality that nonetheless routinely malign their fellow citizens and undermine our national institutions, including the Presidency itself, and our norms and ideals. One may debate the reasons why this is so, but it is surely the case that voters’ willingness to continue to support one who has already demonstrated his contempt for them repeatedly represents just the sort of outcome that those critics most suspicious of democracy have long argued is its most likely result: a tyranny (perhaps temporary) of an electoral majority at the expense of the civil and human rights of one or more minorities. It may be that those supporting Trump have indeed decided to risk all in the hope that this individual who promises the impossible can be the first in history to deliver on that claim. If so, their single-minded quest for the material and for a recreation of the past, even in the face of the negative consequences it entails for the government of which they are sovereign and the society of which they are a part, reminds me of Nancy Isenberg’s recent conclusion in her review in The American Scholar of a new and trenchant analysis by Keith Payne of why America has become so unequal and so class-based a society. Isenberg wrote:

The serious disability, which Payne underscores, of casting votes based on feelings over facts fits all too neatly, and that’s scary. Wishing for a quick fix (‘Make America Great Again’) means that those in Donald Trump’s column were so desperate that they refused to plan for the future and instead adopted the ‘fast strategy,’ by betting all their chips on one very risky choice. The sad conclusion that this book compels is that Americans are so out of touch with reality, and so hobbled by mental crutches, that social inequality will remain the dirty little secret that we cannot purge.[1]

One may come to a similar dispiriting conclusion concerning democratic possibility as one observes our nation’s current intemperate politics. Indeed, as outlined above, one might make that case by suggesting that our present situation finds a share of Americans risking all to continue to support Trump as both he and the GOP nonetheless ironically work assiduously to undermine their interests, and the president attacks the regime foundations that ensure their freedom. But I do not wish to adopt this conclusion, preferring instead to believe (and to hope) that Americans, whatever their partisanship and irrespective of their fears, legitimate or illegitimate, can realize the peril into which their nation has fallen and take steps that ultimately will right the ship. There are two key questions concerning that possibility, as I write. First, what it will take to bring a larger majority of Americans to a common realization of their situation, given the citizenry’s high level of partisan and communal polarization. Second, who, among elected Republican leaders, will be courageous enough to begin to lead the conversation that will bring all citizens, including GOP and other partisans, to an understanding of the governance crisis now confronting the Republic.


[1] Isenberg, Nancy. “Waking from the Dream,” Review of Payne, Keith, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live and DieThe American Scholar, Summer 2017, pp.112-114.

Publication Date

June 19, 2017