Donald Trump and The Decline of Democracy

The arrival of
the Iowa caucuses, taking place as I write, has sparked a flurry of excellent
articles analysing the rise of Donald Trump and his Democrat counterpart,
Bernie Sanders. Rusty Reno at First
, Sean Trende at Real
Clear Politics
and Alastair Roberts at Mere
all mention the economic and cultural troubles of the white
working and middle class and the failure of the mainstream politics to speak
to, and for, them with the verve and skill of Trump as explanations for Trump/Sanders
phenomenon. All of the articles contain insightful analysis and all of them,
correctly, assign much of the blame for Trump’s success to the mainstream,
establishment elites that run the two parties for failing to offer a political
product that Trump voters want to buy. It’s surely right that Trump’s rise
demonstrates that the political marketplace has failed to meet the needs of
significant numbers of Americans and so they are turning to, or at least say
they will turn to, a shameless demagogue like Trump.

However, a
market can fail to meet a customer’s needs for different reasons. It may be a
problem of product development – the fact that British Leyland went
bust wasn’t because no one wanted cars anymore but because theirs were awful:
Perhaps this is the situation with Trump, he is simply a nudge to the duopoly
to get their act together and produce better politicians, in the way Domino’s improved their recipe a few
years back
. Maybe that’s right, I hope it is. But what if Trump’s rise is a
sign of more fundamental problems? What if his poll rating is a sign that the
conditions necessary for democracy itself are beginning to evaporate? Democracy
is not the norm in human history: it requires certain conditions to flourish. It
requires the electorate to have certain qualities en masse: to have a sense of solidarity with one another, to have
wisdom to know how to pick the best candidate and to have the virtue necessary
for both. Are these conditions present in Anglo-American society any longer?

Democracy relies
on a sense of corporate solidarity amongst the electorate; at the brute level
of the losers accepting the result peacefully, but also that voters vote in the
interests of the nation as a whole, not merely their own. But this sense of
solidarity is weakening. In all the articles written and tributes paid after
the death of David Bowie, the thing that made greatest impression on me was a clip of an interview he gave
to Jeremy Paxman in 1999
where he discussed the impact of the internet in a
remarkably prescient way. Bowie explained,

until the mid-70s we felt that we were still living in the guise of single and
absolute created society where there were known truths and known lies and there
was no kind of duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in.
That started to break down rapidly in the 70s and the idea of a duality in the
way that we lived, there are always two, three, four, five sides to every
question, that the singularity disappeared and that, I believe, has produced
such medium as the internet, which absolutely establishes and shows us that we
are living in total fragmentation.”

If Bowie is
correct, and I think he is, that the internet is a medium that establishes
fragmentation, how long will the solidarity necessary to make democracy
possible last? What characterises Trump, Sanders and other outsiders is that
they speak for factional interests set against other interests, resident
against immigrant, worker against owner, etc. Of course, this is intrinsic to politics
but in the past there have been unifying forces, (national identity, religion)
that have buttressed democracy against the dissipation Bowie describes. In an
age of total fragmentation these unifying forces look increasingly weak.  

Another necessary
condition for democracy is the electorate having the ability to choose wisely
between different candidates and parties. But our fragmentation as a society,
though, makes it more difficult for us to receive the kind of education we need
to gain this wisdom. The French journalist Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it brilliantly in this excellent article – 

The expression “liberal education” is quite
important. Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like
fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests,
liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by
first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe–a.k.a. science–but
also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which
shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to
say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

Similarly, the great men (and, sorry, they were
mostly men) who bequeathed us this wonderful order understood that a regime of
majority rule cannot long withstand the test of time without having a
citizenship that takes seriously the notion of virtue…Without an
awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and
know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom. 

A society that
fears ‘known truths and known lies’ is ill-equipped to pass on the kind of
wisdom and virtue that Gobry describes. Educating children derives its impetus
from the moral intuition that one generation has the right, indeed the
obligation, to pass on its view of the world to the next. But in our fragmented
world, who is to say that one demographic is wiser than another? Today, if the
views of our elders are noticed is it to underline how misguided, bigoted and
benighted their views were and how glad we should be to have escaped them. These
are not favourable conditions for the wisdom necessary for a free people to
take root and flourish. My argument is not that the elites should be left to
run the country without reference to the ill-judged views of the hoi polloi.
Rather, it is to say that the damage our elites has done is far deeper than
just failing to come up with someone better than Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton to
nominate for President. Western elites have damaged democracy, possibly
fatally, by embracing and promulgating ideas about human autonomy, moral
authority, and the nature of the universe that are inimical to the kind of
solidarity, wisdom and virtue freedom requires.

Thus far, these
trends have continued within western, at least Anglo-American, society without
resulting in massive constitutional upheaval. But for how long can we have
confidence that electorates will make wise decisions about who they will elect
to power? As Ross Douthat warns,
it may be that the electorate’s desires are desires that will lead America into
danger. When I was an undergraduate I took a paper on ancient history and
remember being amazed that a great historian like Thucydides had such a
negative view of democracy. How could anyone be anything but enthusiastic about
such an unalloyed good? Thucydides, in a famous passage, reflects on why the democratic
Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War after the fall of their leader Pericles,

Thus Athens, though still in name a democracy,
was in fact ruled by her greatest citizen, But his successors were more on an
equality with one another, and, each one struggling to be first himself, they
were ready to sacrifice the whole conduct of affairs to the whims of the

As an undergraduate,
I considered Thucydides analysis to be passing strange but then I hadn’t seen
the misguided choices of the demos condemn my country to defeat and
destruction, as he had. His views don’t seem so strange anymore.  

In a few hours
the Iowa result will be announced and, even if Trump wins, he still faces a
long road to the nomination, let alone the Presidency. I very much doubt he
will win either. But there will be others, less crass and more plausible than
Trump, who would be equally disastrous in the Oval Office. Who knows, perhaps
Hillary Clinton is one of them? The willingness of so many, for so long, to
contemplate voting for Donald Trump is a sign that we may, like Thucydides, soon
have reason to fear the whims of the people ourselves.

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