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.