Elites vs. Too Much Democracy: Andrew Sullivan’s Afraid of Popular Self-Government

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Elites vs. Too Much Democracy: Andrew Sullivan’s Afraid of Popular Self-Government

The trouble with Trump isn't because of too much democracy; it's decades of political malfeasance that have made Americans furious.

Occupy Wall Street joined with unions during the May Day protests in New York City on May 1, 2016. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

British expatriate writer Andrew Sullivan recently returned to the public eye with a piece that has aroused considerable comment, some of it reasonably on point, and some bloviatingly incoherent.

What is all the fuss about? Sullivan, in critiquing the Donald Trump phenomenon and the political factors that gave rise to it, makes a few good points, but buries them under a ridiculous premise: The culprit responsible for Trump is too much democracy, and the cure is more elite control of the political process.

Sullivan gets everything backward. It is as if a safety inspector had gone aboard RMS Titanic, minutely examined her watertight hatches, boiler and steam turbine, and then declared her safe because he judged that the lack of lifeboats reduced the chances of capsizing from too much top weight.

Plato’s Retread

In a nutshell, Sullivan attributes Trump’s nomination for the presidency by one of our two major parties to the rise of what he calls “hyperdemocracy.” Accompanying this alleged excess of democracy is a mania for equality that leads to all manner of pointless leveling of social classes along with an undermining of authority. As chief witness for the prosecution, he calls to the stand no less than Plato, who argued that the ripening of democracy births manifold horrors like gender equality, the treatment of foreigners as equals, an abatement of cruelty to animals, and the rich mingling freely with the poor.

One wonders if Sullivan could have cited a more relevant critic of the contemporary political system of a continent-sized nation with 320 million people than a metaphysician dwelling in a tiny city-state more than 2,400 years ago. And a rather implausible critic at that: the bedrock of Plato’s philosophy was his belief that physical objects and events are mere shadows of their ideal forms, which exist only insofar as they crudely simulate the perfect idealizations of themselves.

This kind of patently silly epistemology may make for a great debate topic at the Oxford Union, but it’s hardly a usable tool for analyzing the world around us. Sullivan might better have used the testimony of Alexis de Tocqueville, who at least laid eyes on the political system he was critiquing. Sullivan produces as his killer quote a passage of Plato’s that sounds like a half-senile Fox News viewer grumbling about kids these days. Serious thinkers like Karl Popper, who experienced the rise of fascism up close and personal, have considered Platonism not as a model for human society, but as an absolutist philosophy that buttresses a totalitarian mindset.

Sullivan employs the arguments of a profoundly anti-democratic elitist who held that wise philosopher kings ought to rule over the riffraff. But is his specific charge true that too much democracy is responsible for Trump’s Mongol devastation of the Party of Lincoln, allegedly because during the 1970s the parties adopted direct primaries as a substitute for the selection of candidates by party bosses? The evidence is wanting.

Hyperdemocracy or Elective Oligarchy?

Let us suppose our presidential nominees were still chosen for us via the smoke-filled room (a method known in Sullivan’s mother country as the old-boy system). In 2016, on the Democratic side, our nominee would be Hillary Clinton. On the GOP side it would be Jeb Bush, a truly exciting prospect. In reality, of course, we have the direct primary system, but it has hardly given rise to a mob-instigated revolution: for 28 of the last 36 years, a Bush or a Clinton has occupied the presidency or the vice presidency, and we still have in Hillary the thrilling potential for a further eight years of the same dynastic dyad.

Sullivan employs the arguments of a profoundly anti-democratic elitist who held that wise philosopher kings ought to rule over the riffraff.

The other institutional features of Sullivan’s alleged hyperdemocracy do not strike one as particularly Jacobin. Gerrymandering has achieved such perfection that in many congressional districts it denies a large number of voters fair representation. Wherever they run state governments, Republicans have engaged in shortening voting times, closing DMV offices, requiring onerous identification procedures and other measures to suppress voting by constituencies they dislike. The population of California is 66 times that of Wyoming, and both states elect two US senators. These arrangements do not resemble the systems of highly democratic states like Finland or New Zealand, but they would fit comfortably within the Whig oligarchy of 18th-century England. The Electoral College is an archaic system that inflates the power of small states. The conventional wisdom is that “it has served us well,” but it has not: four times (1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) it elected the candidate with fewer popular votes.

Sullivan might object that in any case he is not arguing in favor of majoritarian democracy. But would he suggest that the travesty of 2000, when the philosopher kings of the Supreme Court chose a president too stupid and incurious to pay attention to an intelligence briefing warning of imminent attack on the United States, was a better outcome than obeying the will of the people?

Trading Fort Wayne for Empire

This anti-democratic tendency suffuses much of our governance. The most recent Congress completed, the 113th, saw a record number of filibusters, whereby a minority of senators was able to thwart the majority. Important trade bills, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are examples of oligarchical engineering at its most sophisticated.

These trade pacts are negotiated in secret, with members of Congress not allowed to know what’s in them; on the other hand, task forces of corporate lobbyists and lawyers are an integral part of the negotiating process. Once the agreements are complete, representatives and senators can only view them by going to a secure room; copying or note taking is not permitted. Only when the full Congress votes to “fast track” the agreement (thereby nullifying its ability to amend the agreement) is the measure made public.

It is only through an occasional leak that we learn what our corporate overlords are up to, such as bulldozing food safety standards in TTIP, or allowing corporations to sue governments for alleged “lost profits” due to health, safety or environmental laws. These schemes undermine the very concept of democratic self-governance in favor of rule by corporations. But so-called trade bills are deceptive in their very name: they have little to do with trade as commonly understood, or at least the promotion of exports that might help an assembly-line worker in Toledo or Muncie. They are increasingly about making politically untouchable the prerogatives of the wealthy investor class, and a vehicle for the Beltway elites’ obsession with finding novel ways to protect their favorite client states.

It is not too much to say that “trade” agreements are actually our ruling class’s mechanism for hanging on to Pax Americana: they offer allies and satellites privileged access to our domestic market in exchange for those countries’ submitting to Washington’s foreign policy diktats. If, as a consequence, Joe Lunchbucket in Fort Wayne, Indiana, takes it on the chin, it’s a price our Beltway Metternichs are willing, nay, eager, to pay.

But Joe Lunchbucket has gotten a little tired of the charade, and he’s told the Republican and Democratic establishments what they can do with their trade agreements. If he is now following a charlatan like Trump, who at least makes noises pretending he is on Joe’s side, is the man entirely at fault? How about Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Paul Ryan, who never saw a trade bill they didn’t like, or enlightened voices of the Upper West Side, like Thomas Friedman at The New York Times, who once said he didn’t even have to know what was in a trade bill to be in favor of it? Don’t they share a little of the responsibility?

But Joe Lunchbucket has gotten a little tired of the charade, and he’s told the Republican and Democratic establishments what they can do with their trade agreements.

Or maybe Andrew Sullivan, another bard of the comfortable classes whose Nietzschean über-heroes Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher gleefully inaugurated the cutthroat Ayn Rand economics that gutted the social position of the working classes and left them prey to mountebanks promising relief? Sullivan now affects to be horrified by the outcome, what with the blue-collared rabble supporting Trump rather than the Bush dynasty’s latest pretender to the throne.

The Rule of Organized Money

These aspects of the American political system did not fall like an asteroid from outer space upon an unsuspecting country. And they are hardly the stigmata of hyperdemocracy, whatever Sullivan imagines it to be. Some, like the Electoral College, are anti-democratic legacies handed down at our founding. But unlike slavery, female disenfranchisement or whipping at the pillory, they have not been reformed out of existence. Others, like gerrymandering and voter suppression, arise from the natural criminal instincts of political operatives when they are not kept on a short leash by a vigilant public.

The principal factor, however, is the dominance of money in politics. It has always polluted American public life, but ever since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, and climaxing with the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions of 2010 and 2014, our system has been twisted and corrupted by money.

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of North­western University examined almost 2,000 surveys of American opinion on public policy matters between 1981 and 2002, and discovered how those preferences correlated with policy outcomes. “[T]he preferences of economic elites,” Gilens and Page conclude, “have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.” In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Gilens added, “I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their govern­ment does in the United States (my emphasis). And economic elites and interest groups, es­pecially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policymaking over the last few decades reflects the prefer­ences of those groups – economic elites and of organized interests.”

The principal factor, however, is the dominance of money in politics.

President Obama concurs: During the 2012 election campaign, he in­formed a group of wealthy donors that included Microsoft moguls Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, “You now have the potential of 200 peo­ple deciding who ends up being elected president every single time.” Contrary to Sullivan’s essay, the role of money in politics has not been a dud, some exceptions notwithstanding: In 2008, the supposed insurgent Obama turned down public financing in order to raise funds privately, and as we can see from his flattery of the tech tycoons in the quote above, he assiduously courted them.

The practical result of this dominance of money over politics is an appalling wealth inequality in the United States: The bottom 90 percent own a smaller share of the national wealth than in the 27 other countries that track such statistics. Sullivan gives a perfunctory nod to these conditions, but fails to consider that they are the logical outcome of the Reagan-Thatcher-Bush economic policies aimed at the so-called “ownership society.” As economist Thomas Piketty has shown, the tendency of capital to accumulate faster than wage growth means that over time, the big owners of capital will acquire almost everything, including, increasingly, the political process.

Bernie Sanders is not entirely a walking refutation of the dominance of money, as Sullivan would have it, although his candidacy symbolizes the fact that many people are fed up with the status quo. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, is a candidate with historically high negative favorability ratings. She is also a poor campaigner who cannot even state a compelling rationale for her candidacy in one sentence. Yet it appears she is about to prevail as the Democratic nominee, because oceans of money and control of the party organization have overcome both the enthusiasm of Sanders’ supporters and her own personal liabilities.

It is noteworthy that Sullivan takes a gratuitous swipe at Sanders as “the demagogue of the left,” implying a symmetry between Trump and the Vermont senator. This is the laziest sort of “both sides do it” false equivalence that the mainstream media habitually resort to, a practice that political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have trenchantly skewered.

Now that he has sewn up the nomination, Trump has in any case already ditched one of the marquee attractions of his pseudo-populist appeal: his refusal to take money from big donors. He is now moving full-bore to buck-rake among the plutocracy, with one of his early catches being the saturnine Sheldon Adelson. The roster of his supporters also includes familiar names like Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens.

Calling Dr. Frankenstein

Superficially, we obtained an anomalous result from the most recent batch of presidential primaries, at least on the Republican side. Had Sullivan’s desire for elite control prevailed, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and his pals, backstopped by big money boys like the brothers Koch, would have anointed Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio or some other walking ATM machine for the plutocracy. But notwithstanding the pearl-clutching by GOP mugwumps, the elevation of Trump was a natural culmination of the philosophies and tactics of the Republican Party over the last several decades. They engineered Trump the way Cold War biologists at Fort Detrick engineered a virulent, weaponized strain of anthrax. Or, more precisely, they engineered a constituency that would be enthusiastically receptive to his toxic tirades.

Now that he has sewn up the nomination, Trump has already ditched one of the marquee attractions of his pseudo-populist appeal: his refusal to take money from big donors.

Going back to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP has employed dog whistles and code words to condition their base, and particularly the emerging white working-class core of that base, to respond on cue to the siren song of cultural resentment: against elites (invariably defined as college professors rather than bank CEOs), against ethnic and religious minorities, against homosexuals, against pretty much any group that needed to be scapegoated as the need arose. In the last two decades, the party has built up a formidable Conservative Media-Entertainment Complex that allows a human guinea pig to immerse himself 24/7 in a fact-free, Manichean alternate universe. Trump’s bizarre performance art is merely a funhouse-mirror reflection of the propaganda construct the Republican Party had already created.

The delicious (or sick) plot twist is this: The GOP had spent more than three decades patiently explaining to its base the virtues of laissez-faire economics, free trade and small government (while baiting them with the standard culture wars baggage and dog whistles), only to discover that its voters didn’t care a tinker’s cuss about Sullivan’s precious Thatcherite economics, and they certainly were not about to sacrifice their own Social Security or Medicare on the GOP’s altar of entitlement reform. The party intended the culture wars and the dog whistles purely as a sweetener, to make predatory capitalism digestible, but in an irony worthy of O. Henry, the only thing that really stuck was a gooey residue of cultural resentment, bigotry, and xenophobia. That’s where Trump mopped the floor with his befuddled rivals, who thought they could keep ladling free trade and corporatocracy down the gullets of the proles as if they were Strasbourg geese.

Sullivan’s Travails

What really riles Andrew Sullivan in his essay is how the Trump candidacy is entwined with the crudest manifestations of popular culture. It is certainly true that American pop cult is an unedifying phenomenon. Sullivan presents as his Exhibit A an early incident in the ascent of Sarah Palin. In 1996, according to the Anchorage Daily News, she turned out at an event to see Ivana Trump, “who, in the wake of her divorce, was touting her branded perfume. ‘We want to see Ivana, because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.’”

A nice story, but what’s Sullivan’s point, exactly? That the rubes in the backwoods are gauche for conflating glamour and culture? Sarah Palin would be a footnote to history had she not been discovered by Bill Kristol, eminence beige among what passes for the neoconservative intelligentsia, and inflicted upon a suffering world by John McCain, son and grandson of Navy admirals and Annapolis ring-knocker, each an epitome of the neoconservative establishment that since the Reagan era has settled in on the Beltway like a permanent infestation. She became a key precursor of Trump.

It is all too easy to make sport of the Archie Bunker replicants on Staten Island or the miners in the West Virginia coalfields who cleave to Trump with dog-like devotion. Trump rallies typically do not reflect the better angels of man’s nature. With all that stipulated, who created him?

In one sense, the Republican Party created him, or at a minimum, as we’ve seen, the ideological space for him. But Trump, the actual personality, is a construct of the so-called gatekeepers of the corporate news media, centered in Manhattan. Because of their relentless hyping, Trump was able to inflate the market value of his name, which he then licensed to be sold as an appellation for a host of tacky products. In the same way Lehman Brothers’ securities were backed by the grossly exaggerated value of subprime mortgages, the main prop to Trump’s empire has always been the media-inflated collateral of the Trump moniker.

During the late 1980s, the heroic Reaganesque Age of elbows-out acquisition, business cable channels like Financial News Network (a precursor of CNBC) drooled over The Donald’s every move. Later, NBC, an institution that once upon a time maintained its own symphony orchestra conducted by Toscanini, gave Trump his own reality TV show that was beamed to the remotest hollows of eastern Kentucky.

And now, the media are giving him $2 billion worth of free publicity. Les Moonves, chairman of CBS, once the network of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, has half-confessed and half-boasted that Trump’s campaign has been “damn good for CBS.”

When we contemplate horrors like “Duck Dynasty” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or the umpteenth sequel of some idiotic superhero franchise, it is hard not to feel sympathy with Sullivan’s critique of popular culture. But there is a factor that he misses. Who creates taste? The populations of the Scandinavian countries like Sweden or Finland have a very high readership of serious newspapers and intelligent books; tiny Iceland has highest level per capita of book publishing in the world. These countries are notably democratic and egalitarian, the furthest thing from what Plato or Matthew Arnold had in mind when they thought of culture.

Ninety years ago, H. L. Mencken asked why the trackside towns near Pittsburgh yielded the most hideous habitations known to man. People commonly thought the miners and steelworkers who inhabited them didn’t know any better because they were mainly unlettered immigrants. But why, he inquired, did they build charming villages in their home countries? There is something about the rawness of American capitalism that with an alarming lust surrenders to what Mencken called “a libido for the ugly.” That capitalism is not controlled at its commanding heights by the residents of trailer parks.

Trump: a stepchild of the Deep State?

Donald Trump is a product of elite structures like the Republican establishment and our corporate media, as well as the anti-democratic tendencies that have become an increasingly prominent accompaniment to this country’s wage-cutting, outsourcing, laissez-faire economic orthodoxy. But there is one other powerful faction with an equity stake in Trump: the national security complex.

For the past 15 years, the people who form the bipartisan elite consensus that makes up a crucial element of what I call “the Deep State” – politicians, generals, media personalities, think-tank experts – have been drumming into our heads the message that we must be very afraid of terrorism, despite the fact that we are more likely to die slipping in the bathtub than in a terrorist attack.

It has worked. Voters in the Republican primary in South Carolina, where Trump won in a walk, declared terrorism their foremost concern, eclipsing a low-wage economy, deteriorating living standards leading to an increase in the death rate of GOP voters’ core demographic, and the most expensive and least available health care in the developed world.

This fear that our elite consensus fostered has awakened the latent authoritarianism and paranoia that lurk in all too many people. This dynamic explains why Trump’s candidacy took off like a moon rocket in November and December of 2015, the period of the terrorist attack in Paris and the murders in San Bernardino.

Government officials and the media whipped up a mood in the country that approached hysteria; Trump deftly exploited it. By being the only politician brazen enough to openly advocate torture – not merely to gain information (a dubious claim), but to inflict pain for its own sake – he tapped into the revenge fantasies of millions of Americans who have been fed a steady diet of fear since 9/11.

We delude ourselves in thinking that the United States could be a “normal” country while waging a seemingly endless war on terror. Sullivan, too, got swept up the mania that prevailed in the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. He became a militant proponent of the Bush administration’s “you’re with us or against us” foreign policy line by condemning “the decadent Left” for being a fifth column. He later recanted his Trumpism avant la lettre, principally because the Bush administration botched the invasion and resorted to torture. But criticizing the effects of the invasion, which soon became obvious to any observer, rather than the original rationale for it, was a too-easy dodge of the moral core of the issue.

The decision to make aggressive war is the father of all the crimes that flow inevitably from it. As Justice Robert H. Jackson stated at the Nuremburg tribunal in 1946, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The torture and the other excesses, therefore, were logical outcomes of the decision to invade Iraq, not deviations from an initially exemplary desire to preempt Saddam Hussein from employing terrorism against us. Just as Sullivan was stampeded by the hysteria over Saddam’s fictive intentions, he now appears to lose confidence in democracy itself because of the dread apparition of Trump.

There’s no such thing as genteel conservatism anymore

Like his fellow conservative David Brooks, Sullivan yearns for “elite mediation,” a polite term for letting our social betters from the Ivy League run the show. But how did that work out? The 1953 overthrow of Iran’s government by the CIA’s Yalies led to an inexorable chain of events culminating in a smoking debris field in lower Manhattan. The Dulles brothers of Dillon, Read & Co. staged a coup against the first democratic government in Guatemala for the greater glory of United Fruit’s shareholders; in the repression that followed, hecatombs of corpses sparked a destabilization throughout Central America climaxing in the mass immigration to the United States that is the heart and soul of the Trump backlash. The best and the brightest, of course, engineered us into the quicksand of Vietnam, a disaster of almost Hegelian perfection.

For all of his occasional apostasy against the new Republican orthodoxy by being an openly gay conservative, Sullivan still has just enough emotional attachment to a patrician, largely imaginary version of “classic” conservatism as to want to protect his ideological mirage from contamination by the Trump craze. He favors some fantasy version of the conservatism espoused by his idol, the British political scientist Michael Oakeshott. It is his delusion that there now exists a conservatism purged of its reactionary impulses that can function as an anti-ideology rather than the ideology it actually is. Contemporary conservatism, with its harping on tradition and values, is an elaborate evasion of the fundamental political question all societies face: Who gets what, and on which terms? When Abraham Lincoln spoke of “the mystic chords of memory,” he did not mean the dead hand of custom, but rather a steady confidence in popular government derived from the inalienable rights of the governed.

As with other right-of-center polemicists of late, Andrew Sullivan seeks to distract us by playing down or ignoring the role of movement conservatism in creating the ugly carnival that is Trump by waving shiny objects in front of us labeled “political correctness” (so he can blame “the Left”) or popular culture (to diffuse the blame throughout society). Sorry, Andrew: The conservative movement, and the elites who back them, built this Frankenstein monster. They own it.

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback on August 27, 2013.

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