Monday, October 24, 2016

Democracy for Grown-Ups

The third presidential debate

Donald Trump has been roundly condemned for apparently disrespecting the very notion of democracy, because of an exchange with Hillary Clinton and moderator Chris Wallace in last Wednesday night’s debate.  Wallace brought up an accusation repeated by Trump on Twitter and at public rallies that the election has been “rigged” to ensure Hillary’s victory; Wallace asked Trump if he will “absolutely accept the result of this election?”  And Trump evaded:

I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time.

Which seems to mean that come Election Day he’ll be looking for evidence of voter fraud, and deliver a judgment on the election results based upon his perception of how honest the voting process has been.  He also accused the news media of being in on the fix, calling them “so dishonest and so corrupt”, and he claimed authoritative evidence of widespread voter registration irregularities.  And he even tried to de-legitimize Hillary’s candidacy itself: “She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run.”  Behold Trump’s indictment of the vote and the electoral process more broadly.

It’s not terribly convincing.  Sure, lately the media have become quite transparent in their conviction that Trump is a demented egomaniac who would do the country great damage.  To be fair, that’s only because he is, and he would.  Most members of the press, being at least as bright as typical 5-year-olds, are perceptive enough to see it, if not clever enough to pretend not to.  And it’s hard to understand why it’s dishonest or corrupt for the media to provide a platform to the small army of women who are accusing Trump of just the sort of sexual predation that he himself has so brazenly bragged about.  And it’s not clear if Hillary broke the law (presumably he’s referring to her email scandal), though she’s legally in the clear.  And it’s even less clear what process Trump believes should have prevented her from running, considering that she is the nominee of one of our two major parties and the democratic processes that promoted her to nominee endow her with all the legitimacy she needs.

But here’s the real point: there is no evidence of significant voter fraud.  For one thing, it would be extraordinarily hard to pull off, considering how many election precincts there are, and how locally organized and controlled they are.  To really affect the outcome such conspirators would have to fake thousands of votes in thousands of precincts across the country, all without accidentally revealing their nefarious plot.  For another thing, it just ain’t happening.

But Wallace wouldn’t let Trump off the hook:

But, sir, there is a tradition in this country – in fact, one of the prides of this country – is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?

Trump deferred:

What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense. OK?

And Clinton, clearly the superior debater, pounced:

Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that's horrifying.

A minute later she delivered the knock-out blow:

So that is not the way our democracy works. We've been around for 240 years. We've had free and fair elections. We've accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.

And major news outlets have expressed the same horror: Donald Trump will not abide by the election results because he doesn’t in principle accept majority rule.

But that’s not what he meant.  Wallace asked him if he thought the election was rigged, he explained (unconvincingly) why he thought it was, and then Wallace, though clearly intending to get to the heart of the matter, changed the subject by asking a different question: Do you support the principle of democratic transfer of power?  That is, he first asked Trump if he believed the present election process is honest, and then a minute later asked him if he was willing to submit to elections in general.  But Trump, who – how shall we say this? – misses a lot of subtleties, was still answering the first question.  Neither he nor Wallace seems to have noticed the question had changed, so Trump just repeated his answer to the first question, making it seem he was answering “No” to the second one, that he was explicitly rejecting the principle of popular sovereignty.  Trump seems to have a knack for sounding more offensive than he means to, and that’s quite impressive when you consider that he usually means something quite offensive!  But if we’re going to condemn him, let’s condemn him for what he actually meant.

If, as seems to be the case, he was questioning the procedural fairness of this election, and not the authority of elections in general, then he actually was defending democratic rule, not attacking it.  From this point of view Hillary and her surrogates in the press are trying to steal the election and he’s fighting to protect it.  As Trump advisor Newt Gingrich claims:

We are in the worst cycle of corruption in American history, and in many ways, we resemble Venezuela and Argentina more than we resemble traditional America.

Hillary is undermining democracy, turning America into Argentina (is Gingrich making an Evita reference?) and Trump is bravely standing up to her.


It’s ridiculous, of course, since there is no reason to think the voting process is being interfered with.  Wallace was actually stumbling toward a third question: Isn’t questioning the system without any real evidence as destructive as questioning the principle of popular sovereignty itself?  The answer, of course, is “Yes!”  The two have the same effect: the erosion of public trust in our political system.  Elections are the accepted mechanisms for peacefully resolving social conflict, and it’s frightening to imagine what would happen if that acceptance lapsed.  Put another way: making a charge of electoral fraud is so dangerous, so potentially destructive of social cohesion, that one should only do so very carefully, with extreme caution, and only with convincing evidence.  To do so recklessly, flippantly, thoughtlessly, does almost as much damage to democracy as actually stealing elections.

And Trump, to wildly understate the matter, is not known for speaking with responsibility or circumspection.  Indeed, he constantly casts mistrust upon our public institutions and the people who run them.  In his view, the leaders of our society are all crooks or fools.  Business sends your jobs overseas.  The government deliberately refuses to secure the borders, and steals your tax money to make life soft for the illegal immigrants of questionable ethnicity who then so easily enter.  Finance enriches itself while gambling with our economic well-being, and collects bailouts while you have to keep paying your underwater mortgage.  Academia indoctrinates your children with snobbish intolerance disguised as moral sophistication.  And so on.  The only ones left that are still genuinely noble and good are the American people themselves, especially the white working class.  But America is a sham.

Meanwhile Hillary represents just the opposite view, that the system is working well, or at least good enough.  The basic trajectory of post-Cold-War life – increasing globalization, identity politics at home, professional-class meritocracy, free markets – is positive and promising, and the more of it the better.  She parrots all the same old clich├ęs about how we’re stronger together, and diversity is our strength, and we must open ourselves to the world, blah, blah, blah.  She doesn’t mean it and no one believes it, but it’s part of the charade that our politics have degraded into, a charade that Hillary’s donors so desperately want us all to keep playing.

What Trump and his supporters get right is that they want to end the charade.  They see clearly the central truth of our current situation: American elites don’t really care about America, only their stunted, self-serving ideologies.  What we are really living through, what Trump really represents, is a crisis of faith.  That’s why Trump’s supporters are so ready to believe in stolen elections and why they’re not alarmed at Trump’s appalling flouting of democratic outcomes and norms.  They support Trump because they’ve lost faith in the system. 

What the Trumpians miss is their own culpability.  Large sections of the grassroots gladly went along with all the foolish mistakes of the last decades, mistakes our elites sold us like so much snake oil: financial deregulation, free trade, the Iraq War.  And now that all of those are seen for the disasters they really are, those same grassroots righteously rise up in rebellion against their foolish masters.  The main ingredient in Trump’s snake oil is irresponsibility.

And if the whole system is corrupt, and none of us regular people is at fault, then anything that cleanses that corruption is justified. Cynicism plus irresponsibility equals rage.  This is the real danger, and the real fear lurking behind Wallace’s questions and the media’s horror: that mistrust of the system leads to civil disorder, to violence.  This is the dark beast skulking in the heart of our current political chaos, the beast that Trump so carelessly summons.

The strange thing about this Trump-disses-democracy controversy is that by questioning the voting process Trump is picking on one aspect of the system that actually works the way it should.  That is, the mechanics of our voting system are quite clean.  Our democracy is being stolen, not by treacherous conspirators shuffling around buses of illegal immigrants to multiple polling stations, but by a campaign finance system that allows donors to weed out real challengers, and by two ossified and brain-dead parties with a stranglehold on the process, and by a media more addicted to horse-race and spectacle than to political substance, and by propagandists encouraging anger and fear rather than generosity and sobriety, and by social justice warriors undermining freedom of expression by sniffing out the tiniest whiffs of dissent, and by elites who feel more allegiance to their hypertrophied cosmopolitan vanity than to their fellow countrymen.  And now by a public too cynical and too irresponsible to want more than to throw bricks through the windows.

But Hillary’s windows don’t need to be broken.  They need to be rattled by crowds of citizens loudly demanding an economy that works for Americans workers, and an elite culture that doesn’t disdain popular sensibilities, and a political system that responds to people’s real needs.  But those crowds need to accept their obligation to constructively engage with our problems, rather than just vent their frustrations.  The Trumpian diagnosis is largely correct, though quite overstated, and contaminated by white nationalism, and led by a deranged and dangerous clown.  Hillary is at least an adult, and as such proposes some marginally beneficial policies, but the status quo she represents is not sustainable.  Don’t buy the Trumpian line that America is dying, and don’t let Hillary lull you with happy talk while proposing to tinker around the edges.  In effect, they’re both cynical; they’re both saying that fundamental constructive change isn’t possible.  But that’s a copout, and a recipe for national decline.  Don’t give in to it.  It’s not easy striking a balance that’s realistic without being cynical, and idealistic without being utopian.  But that’s what maturity demands of us. And that’s how we positively address our very real problems.  And that’s how we fight for democracy.


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