Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore
2016 was a bad year for democracy. In Turkey, President Recep Erdogan purged his opponents. In Indonesia, 200,000 Muslims demanded the arrest of the governor of Jakarta for allegedly insulting Islam. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, famous for his disdain for the rule of law and support for extrajudicial killings, was elected President. In Britain, against the advice of almost all experts, a majority of voters chose Brexit.
All of this, however, paled before the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In the aftermath of his election and into a fiasco of a presidency that’s been largely reflective of his campaign, many commentators looked around for someone to blame for saddling the country (and the world) with him.
They blamed the crop of Republican contenders for their shortcomings as presidential candidates. They blamed Hillary Clinton for her shortcomings as a candidate. They blamed mainstream media and fake news. They blamed social media for enabling the spread of fake news and not flagging it as false. They blamed everyone except the most obvious culprit – the American people themselves.
In the primaries, there were sixteen other major candidates to pick from, all of whom, whatever their flaws, treated the race with a semblance of dignity, yet Republican voters chose Trump. Hillary may have had her flaws (and was there ever a candidate who didn’t?) but she was a formidable contender and an exceedingly capable politician, yet the American people chose Trump, an obnoxious man-child so obviously deficient – in experience, in intellect, in temperament, in values – for the world’s most powerful office.
Whatever its flaws, America’s mainstream media remains the envy of the world, and its coverage of the presidential race was excellent. It took great efforts to inform the public of the dangers Trump posed to the republic, and in airing numerous warnings, many even from prominent Republicans, it performed its role as a watchdog. The American people had CNN, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. So many of them chose to read (and share) Breitbart and Infowars instead.
It’s the American people, too (or at least those who vote Republican), who enable Trump, who keep him in business. They’re the reason most Republicans in Congress support him despite their serious misgivings about his fitness for the presidency, and continue to support him as he lurches from one folly to another – the attempted Muslim ban, the withdrawal from TPP, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, the alienation of NATO allies, not to mention his conduct towards former FBI director Jim Comey – all against a backdrop of laughably false claims and garbled tweets. The message congressional Republicans took from the 2016 elections was that Republican voters like Trump and hate virtually everyone else in the Republican Party. They fear that if they ever break rank with him they’ll be voted out in the next election. When Paul Ryan initially declined to endorse Trump in 2016, his net favorability rating amongst Republican primary voters dropped by half in less than a month. He learned his lesson and endorsed Trump soon after. A year and a half ago, Trump was little more than a rich clown. It’s the people who raised him high, who gave him such outsized power.
The American people have empowered not just Trump, but other candidates who share similar characteristics. In May, Montana’s Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter for asking about his views on healthcare. Apparently undeterred by this, voters elected him to represent them in Congress the next day. It’s the American people, more than politicians or the media, who are responsible for lowering the standards of political discourse and conduct, because they’re the ones who reward those who do it.
The American people, of late, have a lot to answer for. So why aren’t they blamed? It’s not difficult to see why. Few politicians got very far by blaming the electorate or scolding them for their bad choices. For most pundits, too, suggesting that a large percentage of voters were too stupid or immoral to make the right choice is about as un-politically correct as you can get. Therein lies a blind spot. Most people in democracies are so proud of living in a democracy that they can admit no flaw in it.
It wasn’t always that way. Thinkers throughout history were openly skeptical about democracy and the collective judgment of the people. Socrates in Plato’s Republic ranked democracy as the second-worst kind of political system, just one step away from tyranny. He described democracies as anarchic societies where people are slaves to their desires.
Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” was likewise an indictment of democracy. In it, he described how democracy drove Athens, the richest, most cultured, most civilized of the ancient Greek city-states, to ruin. He chronicled in excruciating detail how Athenian democracy degenerated into mobocracy, leading to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, and Athens’ eventual defeat in the war and subjugation by its rival, Sparta.
It wasn’t that Athens happened to be a democracy and happened to lose to oligarchic Sparta. According to Thucydides, Athens lost to Sparta because it was a democracy. It was because the Athenian people voted on every issue and no one was held accountable for their collective bad decisions. It was because the people shifted blame to others instead of looking at themselves. It was because they ignored the counsel of experts and chose to substitute their own uninformed judgment. Athenian democracy destroyed itself.
William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar can be read as another cautionary tale about the masses. Shakespeare portrayed the common people, the plebeians, as foolish, capricious, and faithless, as quick to raise a man up as an idol as they are to pull him down. The common people began by worshipping Caesar, then, after his murder, oscillated between worshipping Brutus and Mark Antony depending on who spoke last, and then were stirred into a bloodthirsty mob and rampaged through Rome, burning and breaking.
A liberal no less than John Stuart Mill was also skeptical of the wisdom of the masses. He proposed an electoral system that gave extra votes to those with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs. In On Liberty, he wrote that, whilst individual self-determination was the right of civilized people, it was not for “barbarians,” who could not be relied on to govern themselves. Some people, he thought, could be too mentally or morally deficient for democracy. Democracy was not suitable to all people everywhere; a people had to be fit for it.
For democracy to be a good idea, one must be able to have confidence in the majority of citizens. Confidence in their knowledge and intelligence (at least to a minimum level), and, most of all, confidence in their values and their basic human decency.
Barack Obama had this confidence in the American people. “America,” he said at a rally for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia the day before the election, “I’m betting on you one more time. I’m betting that tomorrow, true conservatives won’t cast their vote for someone with no regard for the Constitution. I’m betting that America will reject a politics of resentment and a politics of blame, and choose a politics which says we are stronger together.”
He bet on this confidence. And he lost. Donald Trump made the opposite bet, and he won.
To be fair, one terrible election decision cannot be the basis to repudiate an entire people’s fitness for democracy. The American republican experiment has lasted for over 200 years, and has largely been a success story. Indeed, the reason why Trump’s presidency is so shocking is because of how exceptional he is – because there’s never been a president like him. For over 200 years, the American people have elected presidents who, though they might not always have made the right decisions, at least knew how to treat the office with decorum, and largely respected expertise, facts, and standards of common decency.
The other reason why the people are seldom blamed in democracies is because it makes finding solutions hard. It’s comparatively easy for Bernie Sanders to pledge to drain the swamp of money politics in Washington or for Mark Zuckerberg to pledge measures to fight fake news on Facebook, but how do you change an entire people, make them smarter, make them wiser, make them kinder?
It’s a daunting task, but recognizing the true nature of the problem is the first step towards solving it. Americans had best figure out some solutions soon. A few more decisions like electing Trump president, and the rest of the world might rightly question whether Americans are fit for democracy.