In Response to Trump, Another Dangerous Movement Appears
Fears of demagoguery are provoking a frightening swing in the other direction
The "too much democracy" train rolls on.
Last week's Brexit vote prompted pundits and social media mavens to wonder aloud if allowing dumb people to vote is a good thing.
Now, the cover story in The Atlantic magazine features the most aggressive offering yet in an alarming series of intellectual-class jeremiads against the dangers of democracy.
In "How American Politics Went Insane," Brookings Institute Fellow Jonathan Rauch spends many thousands of words arguing for the reinvigoration of political machines, as a means of keeping the ape-citizen further from power.
He portrays the public as a gang of nihilistic loonies determined to play mailbox baseball with the gears of state.
"Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country's last universally acceptable form of bigotry," he writes, before concluding:
"Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around."
Rauch's audacious piece, much like Andrew Sullivan's clarion call for a less-democratic future in New York magazine ("Democracies end when they are too democratic"), is not merely a warning about the threat posed to civilization by demagogues like Donald Trump.
It's a sweeping argument against a whole host of democratic initiatives, from increased transparency to reducing money in politics to the phasing out of bagmen and ward-heelers at the local level. These things have all destabilized America, Rauch insists.
It's a piece that praises Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall (it was good for the Irish!), the smoke-filled room (good for "brokering complex compromises"), and pork (it helps "glue Congress together" by giving members "a kind of currency to trade").
Rauch even chokes multiple times on the word "corruption," seeming reluctant to even mention the concept without shrouding it in flurries of caveats. When he talks about the "ever-present potential for corruption" that political middlemen pose, he's quick to note the converse also applies (emphasis mine):
"Overreacting to the threat of corruption… is just as harmful. Political contributions, for example, look unseemly, but they play a vital role as political bonding agents."
The basic thrust is that shadowy back-room mechanisms, which Rauch absurdly describes as being relics of a lost era, have a positive role and must be brought back.
He argues back-room relationships and payoffs at least committed the actors involved to action. Meanwhile, all the transparency and sunshine and access the public is always begging for leads mainly to gridlock and frustration.
In one passage, Rauch blames gridlock on the gerrymandering that renders most congressional elections meaningless. In a scandal that should get more media play, Democrats and Republicans have divvied up territory to make most House districts "safe" for one party or another. Only about 10 to 20 percent of races are really contested in any given year (one estimate in 2014 described an incredible 408 of the 435 races as "noncompetitive").
As Rauch notes, meaningless general elections make primaries the main battlegrounds. This puts pressure on party candidates to drift to extremes:
"Walled safely inside their gerrymandered districts, incumbents are insulated from general-election challenges that might pull them toward the political center, but they are perpetually vulnerable to primary challenges from extremists who pull them toward the fringes.
"Everyone worries about being the next Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader who, in a shocking upset, lost to an unknown Tea Partier in his 2014 primary."
Most people would look at a problem like this and conclude that the solution, if one is needed (is the defeat of a supercilious reptile like Eric Cantor really a bad thing?), would be to end crooked gerrymandering.
Not Rauch. He leans more toward blaming the decision to allow direct-voting primary processes in the first place. His piece longs for a time when party insiders were free to pick candidates without interference.
He gushes, for instance, over a passage in a biography of George H.W. Bush that describes how his daddy, Prescott Bush, got into politics:
"Samuel F. Pryor, a top Pan Am executive and a mover in Connecticut politics, called Prescott to ask whether Bush might like to run for Congress. 'If you would,' Pryor said, 'I think we can assure you that you'll be the nominee.'"
Commenting on this, Rauch writes, with undisguised sadness:
"Today, party insiders can still jawbone a little bit, but, as the 2016 presidential race has made all too clear, there is startlingly little they can do to influence the nominating process."
You see, we would never have to risk these Trump/Bernie Sanders episodes at all, if only there was no voting and we turned over the process to insiders sipping highballs in a Pan Am executive's basement!
Rauch views Sanders as the flip side of the Trumpian coin. Both men, he says, "have demonstrated that the major political parties no longer have intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms."
So what does Rauch propose to do about these usurpers who come out of nowhere, and, without so much as the permission of a Pan Am executive, run for public office?
"Donald Trump is dangerous because as president, he'd likely have little respect for law. But a gang of people whose metaphor for society is "We are the white cells, voters are the disease" is comparably scary in its own banal, less click-generating way."
One of Rauch's solutions is to force candidates to get permission slips to go on the electoral field trip:
"There are all kinds of ways the parties could move insiders back to the center of the nomination process. If they wanted to, they could require would-be candidates to get petition signatures from elected officials and county party chairs…"
Rauch compares "outsiders" and "amateurs" to viruses that get into the body, and describes the institutions that failed to prevent the likes of Trump from being nominated as being like the national immune system. Revolt against party insiders is therefore comparable to "abusing and attacking your own immune system."
This lurid metaphor is going to be compelling to a lot of people when Donald Trump is still moving in the direction of the nuclear football. But these "too much democracy" critics all leave out a key part of the story: It's all bull.
Voters in America not only aren't over-empowered, they've for decades now been almost totally disenfranchised, subjects of one of the more brilliant change-suppressing systems ever invented.
We have periodic elections, which leave citizens with the feeling of self-rule. But in reality people are only allowed to choose between candidates carefully screened by wealthy donors. Nobody without a billion dollars and the approval of a half-dozen giant media companies has any chance at high office.
People have no other source of influence. Unions have been crushed. Nobody has any job security. Main Street institutions that once allowed people to walk down the road to sort things out with other human beings have been phased out. In their place now rest distant, unfeeling global bureaucracies.
Has a health insurance company wrongly denied your sick child coverage? Good luck even getting someone on the phone to talk it over, much less get it sorted out. Your neighborhood bank, once a relatively autonomous mechanism for stimulating the local economy, is now a glorified ATM machine with limited ability to respond to a community's most basic financial concerns.
One of the underpublicized revelations of the financial crisis, for instance, was that millions of Americans found themselves unable to get answers to a simple questions like, "Who holds the note to my house?"
People want more power over their own lives. They want to feel some connection to society. Most particularly, they don't want to be dictated to by distant bureaucrats who don't seem to care what they're going through, and think they know what's best for everyone.
These are legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, they came out in this past year in the campaign of Donald Trump, who'd exposed a tiny flaw in the system.
"In the absurdist comedy that is American political life, this is the ultimate anti-solution to the unrest of the last year, the mathematically perfect wrong ending."
People are still free to vote, and some peculiarities in the structure of the commercial media, combined with mountains of public anger, conspired to put one of the two parties in the hands of a coverage-devouring billionaire running on a "Purge the Scum" platform.
But choosing a dangerous race-baiting lunatic as the vehicle for the first successful revolt in ages against one of the two major parties will have many profound negative consequences for voters. The most serious will surely be this burgeoning movement to describe voting and democracy as inherently dangerous.
Donald Trump is dangerous because as president, he'd likely have little respect for law. But a gang of people whose metaphor for society is "We are the white cells, voters are the disease" is comparably scary in its own banal, less click-generating way.
These self-congratulating congoscenti could have looked at the events of the last year and wondered why people were so angry with them, and what they could do to make government work better for the population.
Instead, their first instinct is to dismiss voter concerns as baseless, neurotic bigotry and to assume that the solution is to give Washington bureaucrats even more leeway to blow off the public. In the absurdist comedy that is American political life, this is the ultimate anti-solution to the unrest of the last year, the mathematically perfect wrong ending.
Trump is going to lose this election, then live on as the reason for an emboldened, even less-responsive oligarchy. And you thought this election season couldn't get any worse.