Democracy, Part 2 – What’s Worse than Democracy?
(Note - This was written in the last year of the Trump administration, but the basic problems were never of his making and haven't gone away.)
“The truth is that men are tired of liberty.” – Benito Mussolini
What are the arguments against democracy?
The main two are that it’s inefficient and that no leadership on any side is doing what [insert tribal identity here] needs to have done. To a large degree, Mussolini came to power and was able to create a dictatorship in Italy after the first World War just to make the trains run on time and create a system in which everyone was treated the same way. The first didn’t last long and the second was never going to happen, unless it meant that everyone (except Mussolini and his friends, of course) would be treated equally badly.
Democracy is exhausting. It’s based on individual freedom and collective decision making which requires constant accommodation of others’ beliefs and constant compromising of one’s own beliefs. As anyone who has worked with committees knows, the larger the group of people involved in a decision, the harder it can be to arrive at one. When you’re dealing with thousands or millions of people, it’s pretty much impossible. Our founders understood this, so they created manageable (in theory) layers of government.
The United States is technically a republic, which is a form of democracy based on hierarchical elected representation. Citizens elect representatives to make decisions for them, rather than decisions being made by direct vote of everyone as in a pure democracy. There are local governments (towns or cities), county governments, state governments, and a national government. The US is also a Federation, which means that at the state level there is a large degree of autonomy within the national structure. The layered structure is supposed to keep the actual decision-making groups to a functional size. Still, it’s hard.
Tribal instincts lead each tribe to try to gain insurmountable advantages over the others. Only two things keep this from happening: the energy of the other tribes to prevent it and a deep universal sense of belief in the rules of the game: the principles and institutions (independent courts, free press, etc) of democracy itself. Today both seem to be flagging. Our current government is the will of a minority not a majority, partly because of the vagaries of the electoral college system, but mostly because the other side didn’t show up at the polls (this is only partly because of voting rights issues, a whole lot of people just didn’t vote). Now freedom of the press and independent courts are threatened by actions and rhetoric from an administration that would not be out of place in authoritarian countries.
Authoritarianism promises to get things done and address injuries—to the majority culture, of course. Our congress has been ineffective for years, even with issues which have large majority support across party lines like expanding background checks for gun owners and rebuilding national infrastructure, let alone truly existential threats like racial injustice, climate change, and growing economic disparity. The reason seems to be that working with the other side has become viewed as treasonous to the tribe, even when both sides agree. (The power of extremist minorities in both parties stokes this fire and is amplified by the current primary process. A suggested remedy is ranked-choice voting, which is starting to grow in popularity.)
In this environment it’s easy to buy the argument that a strongman leader in charge can get these things done, so to hell with democracy, let’s just take over and make it so. Although the political right is more overtly heading this direction, there are elements of the political left that are making this kind of argument, too. Outside of the US there are two nearby examples in modern democracies: Bolsonaro in Brazil came from the right wing and Obrador in Mexico came from the left wing, but both were elected in populist surges and both are restricting freedom of the press and other democratic institutions in order to consolidate more power to themselves. If they succeed, it may not matter which end of the political spectrum they came from, the result will be the same, the end of democracy in those countries.
It seems we are all worn out struggling to be democracies.
To be clear, an armed revolt in the United States is not what I’m talking about. Stretching some laws and ignoring others is easily enough to accrue powers that were never intended—in fact actively warned against—by our founders. When President Obama signed the DACA Act protecting dreamers, many think he crossed that line. As Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke put it, “I support his effort to bring some level of justice, but I strongly dislike adding to the precedent of presidents bypassing Congress to achieve something they think is important to national interest. The motive is noble, but the means are really hard to stomach.”*
Since then, President Trump has issued many such decrees—most, like DACA, challenged in court—simply because his tribe believes they solve problems that Congress has been unable to solve. To the extent they have succeeded, the means by which they came about is de facto authoritarianism. If those of us on either side of the debate allow this to continue, we are placing the ends above the means and abandoning democracy.
(NOTE – ruling by presidential decree was a characteristic of the failing German democracy in the years before Hitler came to power.)
Philosophy aside, there is a deep, serious practical problem with this way of doing things. No majority is ever large enough to rule by decree for long. The party of Barrack Obama lost the election in 2016, and Donald Trump took Obama’s executive order precedent and has run wild with it. The current party of Trump won’t last forever, as changing demographics doom it, unless they can successfully change the rules to stay in power as they lose more and more popular support. Even if they can stay in power, without popular support they will be less and less effective and the country will be worse and worse off. This is the fate of all autocrats and all autocracies. Even the Roman Emperors understood that they couldn’t rule effectively without the support of the masses.
As ineffective as democracy is, and as tempting as autocratic decrees are in the short run, in the long run...no, even in the medium run...they turn out to be even less effective, and everyone becomes worse off (including the wealthy). At some point, we run up against the hard, practical, sometimes inconvenient truth that we all need each other. This isn’t pie in the sky romanticism, it’s just true. One mundane example: the businessman needs workers who believe in their jobs and become customers who have enough income to buy what the businessman sells. The workers need decent paying jobs and goods and services to buy with their wages, and we are all customers. If we can’t all work together to make sure everyone has enough, no one group of us can survive for long.
NOTE - The bloating of the banking and financial industries is a layer on top of all this that may have grown so large as to be destructive. Like a cancer, Wall Street started out as an essential organ and can’t be done away with, but it needs to be cut back to a healthy size. There are solid ideas on both sides of the political spectrum about how best to do this (e.g. gold or cryptocurrency standards on the right and regulation and taxation on the left), and we need honest debate to make decisions and address it. The political right I refer to here is the historic, small government, free market right, not the power grabbing, authoritarian, socially reactionary right that is evident today. These two so-called conservative viewpoints are actually exact opposites in most ways.
On the other side of autocracy is anarchy. I won’t spend time discussing the arguments for anarchy, though they exist, because it can’t survive. We are tribal. If there is a power vacuum, tribes will gather and compete to fill that vacuum, and we’re back to the beginning, which is feudalism.
Democracy exists by the will (and passion!) of a people to live by agreed rules for all, and to allow all to work and pursue happiness within those rules enforced by a government trusted by all. It survives through constant vigilance that the processes are preserved and the legal protections for minority cultures are respected as encoded in the 14th amendment to the constitution. Rule by the majority is not supposed to mean tyranny of the majority.
Where we are headed today is very different. It does not take a majority to destroy a democracy. A small (10% is plenty), focused, disenfranchised minority will do. We have to include everyone in our governmental process. And not just the currently left out groups. Even those in power who are abusing democracy today must retain a voice in a revitalized, newly civilized American democracy.
Always remember, “civilized” describes how people behave, not how they feel or what they believe. A free society must allow a place for all feelings and all beliefs. Can we handle that? We have to keep trying. No matter how hard or unpleasant it may be, the alternatives are worse.
September 16, 2020
* O’Rourke, Beto, quoted by Ben Terris, Washington Post, November 21, 2014