4 Comments on Democracy?

I came across a thing I wrote three years ago—a note about Democracy written a few days ahead of the Presidential election, writing in part that This will be a trying few days, and may be very, very trying for some time after that. And so it was, and is.

I clarified my thoughts the next day, saying that I wrote the note because I feared that we were falling out of love with democracy. I fear that even more now.

George Santayana wrote about the US that it could only sustain a democracy because everyone fundamentally agreed about everything they consider important. I disagree entirely with that assessment—among the important things that people in the US disagree about fundamentally is who has been included in the democratic experiment in participatory self-government. It’s frankly a bizarre take on US history. But I will say this: the US can sustain a democracy if and only if enough people feel that democracy is among the most important things. And if what they mean by democracy has enough overlap (among enough people).

Here’s what really worries me: I know a lot of people who feel convinced deep down in their bones that the 2020 election is hugely, irrevocably, catastrophically important. That if the Other Party wins and takes office, that the disaster that follows will be so immense and wide-reaching that—well, that we can’t be too nice about norms and means. That this time is different, and that while we would certainly never condone anything too far outside our principles, still…

I am aware that the Other Side also feels the same: if our Party’s Candidate wins in 2020, then the disaster that follows, etc, etc, and while we would certainly never etc etc.

And the thing is, I can’t really criticize that attitude. If this country re-elects Our Only President, after having his personal corruption and anti-democratic attitudes amply demonstrated, then it is difficult to see a path forward to a trustworthy system of government. It really is profoundly dangerous, and people really will die, and many of our cherished (if always aspirational) values will be gone, if not irrevocably then at least so profoundly that it is hard to imagine how they will be restored. And, of course, for those who really believe that Our Only President is the victim of a vast conspiracy of civil servants, the press and the left, including the lower courts and law enforcement and of course the intelligence agencies, then again, were all of that true, putting a member of my Party in the White House would complete the takeover and make it nearly impossible to do anything about it. Again, people really would die, and our most cherished values destroyed. And in view of that, how do I ask people to sustain the wavering belief that democracy is more important than that, or even that democracy is as important as that?

Particularly since ‘democracy’ doesn’t mean, for most of them, the remarkable social experiment in developing a people capable of self-government. It just means having a reasonably responsive and responsible government with occasional elections that influence the eventual policy outcomes. Do people believe that elections influence outcomes? Do people believe that our elections are, on the whole, free and fair? Do people believe that the government is reasonably responsive or responsible? If they don’t… then how bad would it be, compared to the catastrophic consequences of losing the election, how bad would it be if there were a few corners cut, a few bits of paperwork lost, a few yard signs knocked down, a few holes in a few windows at a few journalists’ houses (only the most irresponsible of course), a few absentee ballots stolen, a few polling places shut, a few people arrested, a few rights suspended, a few fires set. Especially since you wouldn’t have to do any of that stuff. You would just have to not really worry about it if somebody—somebody untrustworthy, probably on the internet—reported that some of that stuff had happened, and that it had happened to the bad guys.

It’s Election Day today, and I do still find Election Day a wonderful thing, even in this off-year election that only re-elects the town council and board of education. I love democracy, the whole filthy, screwy, impossible business of it. I hope to keep on loving it every time my side loses, and every time my side wins, for the rest of my life.

I hope.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Democracy?

  1. Michael

    To me the core danger of American exceptionalism has long been the notion that our democracy can survive anything, and that therefore any threats to our democracy will always pass. I recently saw a report of an historian asked whether they could think of an example of a previous country which had turned as illiberal as this one now has and which had then recovered peacefully to a democratic state of affairs. The answer was stark: no.

    I would love to have American exceptionalism prove out in this respect, to see our fundamental shared belief in democracy restored. To see political opponents not described as traitors. To see people believe that a peaceful transfer of power is not an existential threat. To see the rule of law upheld as an actual goal.

    But that’s going to take hard work when the well of public discourse from which we can draw has been so thoroughly poisoned, and the common theme I have seen in so many of our institutions is a shared belief that the institution can continue apart from contributions of time and money and effort from those who claim to support those institutions. That belief is a delusion, and it will allow us to keep fiddling on as our democracy burns.

  2. irilyth

    > Do people believe that elections influence outcomes? Do people believe that our elections are, on the whole, free and fair? Do people believe that the government is reasonably responsive or responsible?

    For myself: One out of three ain’t bad. :^(

    (The first: I think the elections do affect the outcomes, like it’s not like millions of votes are just discarded by the vote-counters to rig the election. But elections aren’t free and fair (rampant voter suppression, largely (maybe entirely, but I don’t know enough to be sure) by Republicans); and the government is certainly not at all responsive or responsible to the electorate. The recent vaping nonsense, to pick just one recent minor example.

  3. Michael

    But do you think elections influence _policy_ outcomes?

    I’d add one question: Do people believe that government policies affect their own lives in understandable ways? For folks who don’t believe that, I understand not bothering to vote. And I think lots of people have the same internal wail that drowns out all rational thought when faced with math that’s beyond their capabilities and when faced with any discussion of government policies.

  4. irilyth

    > But do you think elections influence _policy_ outcomes?

    Sure; despite occasional libertarian whining that Republicans and Democrats are all the same, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think we would have gotten Obamacare under a President McCain, and I don’t think it would be under such attack from a Democratic Congress. Supreme Court nominations obviously matter, and maybe that’s not “policy”, but it’s a thing that affects everyday people’s lives, to get to your second question…

    > Do people believe that government policies affect their own lives in understandable ways?

    I don’t know what “people” believe, but I think some people do. Since I was answering the others for myself, I do in fact believe this one; not all government policies, obviously, but certainly some of the big ones, like tax reform and health care and immigration and so on.


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