The Future of Democratic Values

Hey, did you know we are having an election here in the United States? I think I saw it mentioned on TV. Whatever your preferences may be, everyone eligible should try to get out and vote.

This election has, without a doubt, been somewhat unique. I’m cautiously optimistic that Hillary Clinton will win, that we will celebrate the election of the first female President in the history of the republic, and that she will do a relatively good job — although as a good Bayesian I know that empirical predictions are never certain, and in an atmosphere like this uncertainty runs relatively high.

Even if Clinton wins and the U.S. avoids complete embarrassment, I’m still very worried about what this election has revealed about the state of the country. No matter who our next President might be, there are real reasons to be concerned that the U.S. is veering away from some of the foundational principles that are necessary to a functioning democracy. That may sound alarmist, but I don’t think it’s unwarranted. Historically, democracies don’t always last forever; we’d be foolish to think that it can’t happen here.

This isn’t a worry about the specific horrible wrongness of Donald Trump — it’s a worry about the forces that propelled him to the nomination of one of our two major political parties, and the fires he so willingly stoked along the way. Just as a quick and hopelessly incomplete recap:

  • Trump built his early political notoriety via “birtherism,” explicitly working to undermine the legitimacy of our elected President.
  • He has continually vilified immigrants and foreigners generally, promoting an us-against-them mentality between people of different races and ethnicities.
  • He has pledged to violate the Constitutional principle of freedom of religion, from banning Muslims from entering the country to tracking ones that are here.
  • His campaign, and the Republican party more generally, has openly engaged in suppressing the vote from groups unlikely to support him. (“‘We have three major voter suppression operations underway,’ says a senior [Trump] official.”)
  • He has glorified violence against protesters who disagree with him.
  • He has lied at an unprecedented, astonishing rate, secure in the knowledge that his statements will be taken as true by a large fraction of his intended audience.
  • He has presented himself as a uniquely powerful strongman who can solve problems through his personal force of will, and spoke admiringly of dictators from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong-un to Saddam Hussein.
  • He has vowed that if he wins the election, he will seek vengeance on those who opposed him, including throwing his opponent into prison.
  • He has repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election outcome, implying that he would refuse to accept the result if he lost.
  • He has pointed fingers at a shadowy global conspiracy in charge of world finance, often with explicitly anti-Semitic overtones.
  • Several Republican politicians have broached the prospect of refusing to confirm any Supreme Court nominees from a Democratic President.
  • A government agency, the FBI, has interfered in a Presidential election.
  • Republicans have accused Democratic officeholders of being traitors.
  • A number of Trump supporters have spoken of the prospect of violent resistance if Clinton is elected.

This is not a list of “why Donald Trump is a bad person who is disastrously unqualified for the Presidency”; that would be much longer. Rather, I wanted to highlight features of the campaign that are specifically attacks on (small-“d”) democratic norms and values. The assumptions, often unspoken, by which legitimate political opponents have generally agreed to operate by over the course of the last two centuries and more. Not all of them, of course; there are glaring exceptions, authoritarians who have run roughshod over one or more of these norms in the name of personal glory. History generally looks down upon them, and we consider ourselves fortunate that they didn’t have greater success. But fortune can run out.

The most worrisome aspect of the situation is the very real prospect that these attacks on the foundations of liberal democracy will not simply disappear once Donald Trump rides off into the gold-plated sunset; that they will be seized upon and deployed by other politicians who couldn’t help but notice Trump’s success. If that’s the case, we will have a real reason to be concerned that American democracy will stop working, perhaps sooner rather than later. I don’t think it’s likely that such a disastrous scenario would come to pass, but one has to balance the small likelihood against the devastating consequences — and right now the probability seems closer to 0.05 than to 10-5.

Democracy is a curious and fragile thing. It’s not just “majority rules”; crucial to the project are the ideas that (1) minority rights are still respected, and (2) in return, losing minorities respect electoral outcomes. It’s the second of these that is under siege at the moment. Since the time of the Federalist Papers, it’s been understood that democracy is an attempt to provide common self-rule for people who don’t agree on everything, but who at least share the common values of democracy itself. Having strong, even extremely passionate, political disagreements is inevitable in a democratic system. The question is whether we cast those with whom we disagree as enemies, traitors, and cheaters who must be opposed in every measure at every turn; or as partners in a grand project with whom we can fiercely disagree and yet still work with.

I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of how we got to this precarious point, though there are a number of factors that certainly have contributed. Arguments have raged over whether Trump’s support among the less well-off should be attributed to the economic anxieties of a class that sees their way of life eroding, or whether we should point the finger at racist and nativist sentiments that have been so ostentatiously on display at his rallies and on the internet. The answer is surely some combination of both; the economic anxieties are very real, and in many cases that anxiety has been channeled into distrust and outright hatred for people with different skin colors or nationalities. A lot of the blame for that channeling has to lie with the politicians who find “stroking resentment” to be a cheap and effective road to electoral success; it’s an old, familiar strategy.

But there are other causes, which can arguably be traced to specifics of our system of government. A politician whose goal is “attain and preserve political power” might have a very different game-theoretic calculation of how to behave while campaigning and in office than one whose goal is “make the country and the world a better place.” It’s not that hard, from a somewhat Darwinian point of view, to see how the former type might prosper in the struggle for political survival. Suppose you propose a certain system for dealing with health-care costs. But then your political opponent begins advocating an essentially similar system. Do you congratulate them on finally seeing the light, or change your mind about the system because it gives you a convenient issue with which to criticize your opponent?

My personal suspicion — quickly acknowledging that there are people out there who are much more expert than I am on these matters — is that the Trump phenomenon is a logical outgrowth of the Tea Party movement. When Barack Obama came into office in 2009, the economy was in shambles, and the government had to navigate a tricky course of promoting job growth, rescuing the financial system and industry, and not blowing the federal deficit too high. Seeking a weapon with which to oppose the newly-elected Democratic administration, Republican officials seized on simmering resentments about taxation and government interference, and flamed them into a full-scale “movement.” Hard-core Tea Partiers, however, went well beyond boilerplate Republican platform items about cutting taxes, and pushed hard on a politics of resentment, often to extremes. One of the arrows in the movement’s quiver was to mount primary campaigns against Republican officeholders who were deemed insufficiently committed to the cause. This had the effect of shifting the GOP uniformly away from the political center, and placed a very high emphasis on obstructing anything remotely associated with the Democratic party. Many in the Republican establishment didn’t subscribe to Tea Party extremism themselves; they just wanted to fire people up to get their votes. They didn’t imagine that those same people would prevent good establishment soldiers like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio from being nominated, in favor of an anti-establishment buffoon with zero loyalty to the party apparatus. It’s often hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

What they don’t tell you in school is that democracy is really hard. Voting is easy; the difficult part is to accept the outcome and work with your opponents for the common good. To think of those with whom you disagree as honest people with different opinions, rather than corrupt hell-beasts who should be thrown in jail. Our psychology tempts us into less lofty ways of thinking. In The Big Picture I talked about a concept in social psychology called the “Pyramid of Choice.” Two people with almost exactly the same views and preferences face a close decision, and the two of them end up choosing different alternatives. Over time, our brains work to justify these decisions; we forget it was a close call, and convince ourselves that the choice we made was the obviously correct one from the start. By this process, the two people who started out from nearly identical beliefs are driven ever further apart. You can see how this plays out in political contexts. People get nudged toward one side of the spectrum or the other, start thinking about all the reasons why it’s correct, listening to news that confirms their beliefs, and prop up their self-esteem by looking at their opponents as haters and losers. Tribal identity is a hell of a drug.

Democratic values, including most especially the ability to disagree without demonizing, are certainly not dead yet. Here’s an example of such values in action, when Barack Obama chides his own audience for behaving disrespectfully toward a protester:

Nor are such values confined to the Democratic side of our two-party system. Everyone remembers John McCain, politely disagreeing with his own supporters who wanted to paint Obama as a frightening foreigner:

We can disagree with each other and still work together. It’s happened, with some bumps in the road, for more than two centuries now. But it’s far from certain that we will continue to succeed.

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72 Responses to The Future of Democratic Values

  1. Scott B says:

    Fortunately, few have spent years in the media spotlight, and developed the assured way of lying that Trump has exhibited. But for the country at large, I believe this excellent piece in the Texas Observer succinctly sums up the situation for supporters of Trump:

  2. Bob Bessin says:

    Well summarized Sean. We never know how precarious a situation we are in as a democratic country until it is too late. It is comforting not to think that it is a fragile as it is. But history tells us otherwise. The hard question is what to do about it. Are we forced to rely on our leaders, or are there ways that non-politicians, including those with higher visibility, can help snap the process away from these threatening trends?

  3. Excellent blog post, Sean. I share your concerns.

  4. Robert Burger says:

    Dear Professor Carroll:

    I would like to think that very few people who are signed up to receive your emails are Trump supporters. People who try to base their decisions on evidence rather than fear or prejudice will never have much use for the kind of venom that regularly issues forth from Trump’s mouth. I am a non scientifically trained layman who has bought your books and your course from The Great Courses and who finds your writing fascinating. Keep up the great work of promoting the virtues of science and the scientific method.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    So, Mr. Carroll, you want to elect a corrupt, dishonest criminal who will continue the same policies that over 70 percent of Americans want changed. This election cycle has clearly revealed that our government and the political establishment that controls it, with the full support of the media and big business, is corrupt and functions only for its own benefit at the expense of the rest of us. Apparently you have not noticed that the middle class is being destroyed by current policies. Hillary Clinton, like President Obama, will only further divide us. Trump is seriously flawed, but he offers the only chance to change things. This is intuitively obvious to the casual observer. You seem to be not very observant and unaware of what is going on in the real world. I suspect that your primary problem is that you put too much faith in your equations, which are not the real world. Models are not the system; the map is not the territory.

  6. Jim says:

    To the extent that the “economic anxiety” of the working and middle classes, who have been increasingly excluded from participating in the bountiful gains of the rich while the upper middle class tread water, has contributed to these issues, solving them should be a top priority if not the top priority. The sharply declining cost of renewable energy is expected to continue through at least 2035, and with carbon neutral power-to-gas and gas-to-liquids technology now available, energy is fully fungible and so energy deflation will allow gains unseen in prior history. If we allow those gains to be captured by the upper class as has been the trend over the past half century, we will be in even greater trouble. Even the most strident trickle down austerity advocates do not claim that failure of the working class to participate in economic gains is sustainable.

    We are fortunate that Democrats have been pressed by the left to adopt platform elements such as the public option (subscription Medicaid), debt-free higher education subsidies, and reasonable offsets to our tax and transfer incidence which has been so dangerously skewed by the emergence of competition from the developing world, such as the enormously successful Making Work Pay Tax Credit (perhaps more responsible than any other provision of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 for ending and reversing the recession, which is probably why the Republcian Congress refused to renew it along with infrastructure spending when they came to power in 2010.)

    The solution is within our leaders’ grasp if our system does not fall to further gridlock. Perhaps responsibility in these times may have more to do with focusing on the easier bipartisanship of the upcoming lame duck session?

  7. Sleeping in Seattle says:

    I refused to be blamed for either of these two losers, so not voting. You will deserve what you get.

  8. Jack Lichtenstein says:

    Just as Hitler represented the national anger from the Versailles treaty and latent nationalism and exceptionalism of the German people, Trump taps into the underlying dissatisfaction of the American people (even when the country is doing well) and dissatisfaction with a cerebral president who is not a self promoter. There is a whole segment of America-game show and soap opera watching, gun toting, motorcycle riding, with lots of swagger and intolerance for foreigners and diverse races. It is this
    American beast that threatens to devour our country and become the conscience of America.

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Scott B. Try reading something more insightful like this:

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Jim – Those government policies will syphon off higher taxes from the middle class and direct them to the poor, which is part of the current problem. They will make things worse, not better. Follow the money.

  11. Justin Reed says:

    To Andrew G Van Sant, as most readers of Sean Carroll and this site will attest, you may say the Earth is the center of it all, and you may say gravity is a very strong force, and you may say these things over and over and over, in the same way you say HRC is a “corrupt, dishonest criminal who will continue the same policies that over 70 percent of Americans want changed,” but that does not make them true. Or even truish. The closest one of your claims comes to fact is HRC is dishonest. A routine check of any fact checking site finds her with the same level of dishonesty as all *politicians*. In case you are wondering what a statistical outlier looks like, see how DJT does in those same politician estimates.

    And that’s just the first sentence of your post; the balance does not improve in the fact department.

    By the way, the 70% thing must be the silly “Right direction/Wrong Track” polls which have been heavily Wrong Track since the 1990’s, no matter how things are going. And surely some of those people are among the 27% of Americans who think Gods affects the outcome of an NFL game.

  12. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Sleeping in Seattle – you are going to get it, too, unless you are planning to leave the country.

  13. Kevin Henderson says:

    Well said. What’s happened to the people, not so much Trump, is to be highlighted.

    Trump has done a great job motivating people who are insecure. He helped advertise, in particular, the ostensible Christian feeling of persecution and marginalization, which is wholly disconnected from the reality of what real persecution is. I do not think Trump is religious at all, which strongly suggests his motivations are primarily to boost his own ego. But it’s not personal motivation for power which is a problem, it’s the fact the so many people actually think he is on their side.

  14. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Lichtenstein – Resorting to charges of Hitlerism and racism is the tactic of an ignorant, unintelligent person. While there is no cure for lack of mental acuity, you can cure your ignorance. Hillary Clinton should be President only if you want our government to be corrupt. President Obama has been shown to be corrupt by covering up the crimes of his administration, Hillary being exhibit A. FBI Director Comey is a disgrace. He rewrote the laws covering the handling of classified information, which both the President and Hillary violated. Those violations are felonies.

  15. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Henderson – Trump has attracted people who have slowly realized that the current government is not for the people. This did not start with Trump and will not end with him. It started with Pat Buchanan and continued with Ross Perot. Everyone on this website seems to be woefully uninformed about what is going on in America and has been going on for a long time. As I indicated above, there is a cure for ignorance. Nothing written by Mr. Carroll will help you.

  16. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Reed – I have held the highest security clearances in the past. What Hillary has done in the mishandling of classified information is a crime, regardless of what you read elsewhere.

  17. James Rose says:

    Nicely presented Sean. In point of fact, American democracy is the only political system on the planet that indeed is based on the premise of protecting the -whole- of the populace – by mutual accord .. irrespective of who wins temporary power at whatever governmental levels of power. Respect and stewardship – in defense of and advancement of – every member of the society together.

    I am 69 years old, born just after WWII, which unified the nation, per force, to oppose and defeat Fascism, and then Communism, globally afterwards. The one sphere of activity where the American culture fell down in lauding and pedestalling just what it is we have in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution, defining our form of government, compared to what other governmental forms exist in the world – including monarchies, despotisms, et al., if that we have FAILED to make Civics and Government and practicing through action – absolute essential education in our school systems.

    We do not teach, nor practice, from kindergarten on up, the practices, mechanisms, methods, reminders, inculcations and importance of being a society of high shared moral character — where we engage each day in prizing mutual respect and protection as a people of unique diversity, among nations on the planet.

    Like any ‘basic skill’ … if it is not taught and learned and appreciated and practiced .. it is lost to history. If this 2016 election feels like we are on the edge of a strange abyss, that isn’t far from the truth. There are (figuratively worded) “barbarians at the gates” around us while we go through this national self indulgence. They would be more than happy to see the American experiment in democracy .. to weaken, fracture, and possibly – fall apart.

    If we weather this internal -self chosen- challenge in changing leadership, the only way to prevent calamity in the future is to immediately re-instate WHOLESALE ACROSS THE BOARD RE-EDUCATiON OF THE POPULACE, from the youngest on up in the principles, importance and diligent practices of democratic ideals.

    Re-telling and mirroring what was said in the pre-nascent birth years of our nation, Ben Franklin clearly voiced the situation, “Gentleman, If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”

    And a people only know to -act- jointly when they value the importance of holding together, despite differences of opinion and the diversity of the backgrounds we bring together.

    Conscious continuous sustained education of the generations is the key to the survival of democracy.

  18. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I will leave you true believers to your delusions about the real world. Regardless of who wins this election, the country is in for bad times ahead. I hope that all of you and your families are prepared. I have taken steps to insulate myself and my family from the bad consequences coming. The best revenge is to live well. Best wishes to all of you.

  19. Annie Delyth Stratton says:

    Sean, a very mindful and insightful look at what’s been going on. I can do without my hard science fix in exchange for this kind of analysis of the dynamics of our nation– that is, ourselves and the role we play in this particular drama. I’m sad that today’s troll took over the conversation. My personal preference is to talk around such meaningless posts, but it took some doing. Glad to say there are thoughtful responses amongst them (stacked up, it comes out something like 7 to 2, and I’m not sure about one of those 2. All I know is that your post and the thoughtful responses to it refreshed my day. I voted early last week (whereupon all the random calls ceased), and have chosen to avoid media. Thought I’d catch up on your column, and well, there it is. But in a form that is meaningful and applicable. Thank you. May we all breathe a sigh of relief tomorrow (except, one hopes, those few who still live in some alternate universe in which up is down.

    (Oh, c’mon, you aren’t going to stick that purple frowny-face icon next to me, are you? Where’s my bunny?) Oh, good, there it is.

  20. David M Sward says:

    If Clinton is elected, I’m sure the Republicans will obstruct her every move so they can say she did nothing during her tenure. If Trump is somehow elected, the international community will no longer trust us. And he probably does not have enough friends in Congress to get much of his agenda accomplished. Looks like more government stagnation.

  21. I have heard numerous opinions regarding the upcoming exercise of patriotic responsibility. The best was stated on NPR, and, was pretty much the old saw regarding voting for the devil you know vs. voting for the one you don’t. Well. The effect of that is still voting for someone, merely for the sake of voting, i.e., fulfilling one’s patriotic responsibility. Not much of a choice. Kind of illustrates the notion that we have no free will anyway. I like the guy from Utah—but don’t know what sorts of skeletons HE may be harbouring.

  22. Evan Allen says:

    What has galvanized the extremist right, which has endorsed Trump, are coming demographic changes, where whites will no longer be the majority. It really is all about race, wrapped up in an anodyne populist economic message. What our democracy needs if it’s going to survive are more scientists like Sean Carroll to run for office and win! I’ll volunteer my time when that happens! Only when science overcomes superstition, prejudice and hypocrisy will our democratic system become once more a beacon and inspiration for the rest of,the world.

  23. Shecky R says:

    The Trump phenomena goes back technically to Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and then the Rove/Atwater/RichardViguerie/RushLimbaugh takeover of the Republican Party. They decided to organize and activate rural & evangelical voters (who’d previously not voted) through direct mail and talk radio — at the time it seemed like an ill-conceived, money-wasting plan, but was brilliant given the divisions within the Democratic Party. Reagan did the final damage to set us on a trajectory for electing a fascist President by 2036 (Trump actually emerged a bit early). Parts of history really do seem cyclic.

  24. Michael Saperstein says:

    Thank you prof Carrol for the terrific summary.

    I would however also add Trumpian sexism and misogyny to the list.

    I would also like to propose a hypothesis: that Trumpism is more than attack not just an attack on democratic values, but that by its very existence and strength it also represents an indictment of the western democracy, which has somehow failed, despite plenty of time and resources, to suppress either the economic anxiety OR the racism and xenophobia that fuel Trumpism’s populist assault on democratic values..

  25. Jack Lichtenstein says:

    Read Professor Paul Klugman’s op ed in the NYT today. Hillary Clinton is a force for good and has spent her whole life in public service. Donald Trump avoided the military, avoid paying taxes, did not release his taxes and had never spent a minute of his life in public service. He hates woman, moslem’s, Mexican’s, Jews and blacks. Hillary Clinton’s Emails are at best a diversion. Why doesn’t Hillary have 90% of the vote?