Monthly Archives: August 2017

do americans believe in democracy

Do Americans Believe in Democracy?

Americans aren’t enthusiastic about liberal democracy

Democracy.  The theory underpinning our Republic; the heart of the American experiment; the principle for which millions dedicate their lives.  It’s the pillar of our country’s identity and a principle we have long sought to export.  Yet despite democracy’s centrality in our political life, do the American people actually believe it?

Our Political System

America is a liberal democracy.  That means our Constitution enshrines rights unalterable by an elected majority to preserve the liberty of all inhabitants, regardless of the likes of race, gender, creed, religion, and so on.  Elections are fair and free with suffrage near universal for those of age.  Scholars such as Francis Fukuyama have heralded such a governing system as the “end of history” (that is, the final point towards which all governing systems evolve).

A liberal democracy protects citizens against tyranny of the majority or the minority.  In so avoiding authoritarianism, other minor inconveniences of a diverse state arise: Viewpoints differ among the population, meaning arguments – vicious at times – will be had; government will often be gridlocked as members of different political parties butt heads on how to best achieve common goals; policies will not be perfect as only through compromise will necessary steps ever be taken.

Americans Dislike the Perceived Costs

Americans dislike those messy drawbacks to liberal democracy, a phenomenon that leaves many susceptible or even willing to accept arguments proffered by demagogues with a decided authoritarian or otherwise illiberal bent.

In “Stealth Democracy,” John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse examined how Americans feel about the political system.  The results, a bit dated and likely worse now, should scare those who believe in liberal democracy.

A whopping 86 percent of the American people believed that “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action.”  In other words, elected officials – namely, the president – should act unilaterally and without concern to those who disagree with them to advance ideological aims.  That, of course, is invited (democratic) authoritarianism: Americans elect someone and then encourage that person to act as (s)he sees fit.

60 percent think “compromise is really just selling out on one’s principles.”  Governing is impossible without compromise because never at any point in time will a polity experience 100 percent agreement on any given subject, no matter how trivial.  For non-trivial matters, majority support for any given policy will never overwhelming, especially in a legislative chamber.  To pass legislation – to do anything – compromise is needed.

60 percent also believe “government would work best if it were run like a business.”  Governments must care for the people (“common welfare”).  Businesses care only for profit (as, arguably, they should).  These diametric purposes almost certainly cannot be meshed and, when tried, results are disastrous.

31 percent would forego the democratic part of liberal democracy and simply hand the government over to “nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people” and simply hope that these individuals somehow decide to protect liberty and act for benevolent purposes.

Liberal Democracy and Donald Trump

Last year, the study’s authors repeated the surveys and found very similar results while also noting that those least inclined to support liberal democratic values favored and felt positively towards then-candidate Donald Trump.  In other words, illiberal, anti-democratic Americans found their favored candidate.  And that should come as no surprise for Donald Trump broke numerous democratic norms throughout his campaign and has continued to do so while in office.

It should frighten us all that a large minority of Americans have only marginal affection for liberal democracy and that they have found an illiberal politician who now extolls those beliefs from the Oval Office.

A thriving liberal democracy depends on citizens believing in its values and passing those beliefs onto children.  These democratic mores protect democracy from the flaws that befall it – especially its susceptibility to demagogues.  As those beliefs crumble and are made further mainstream by a candidate who earned 62 million votes, the continued vibrancy of our liberal Republic may be threatened.

donald trump russia sanctions

Donald Trump Hates the Constitutional Separation of Powers

He Wants Congress to be Impotent

Donald Trump has proved time and time again that he’s no fan of the separation of powers.  He sees the presidency as an authoritarian figure, one who wields all of the nation’s power and who through unilateral action can shape policy and make decisions with immediate impact.  These delusional visions have of course met with reality.  Our Constitution divides power among three branches, with the legislative first of the equal.  Trump’s found himself and his goals blocked or slowed by Congress.  And he’s no fan of that.

At various points in his presidency, Trump has sought to rebalance governing power by exerting his authority over members of Congress.  This stems from his campaign rhetoric, a central of theme of which held that he alone could fix the nation’s problems.  Those words had no room for Congress to act; in fact, Trump seemed to entirely forget the institution, figuring that, if elected, he would be the one true sovereign.  Now, as the executive, he’s tried to subvert a coequal branch by continually threatening lawmakers who dare oppose his agenda or stand up to him.

Most recently, after signing into law sanctions against Russia stemming from the country’s interference in our election – a fact which Trump continues to deny – Trump continued his frightening assault on the separation of powers, writing “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected.  As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

First of all, Trump greatly overstates his deal making ability.  His riches, contrary to what he says, stem from inheritance.  In fact, Trump is multiple billions of dollars poorer than he would be had he passively invested his inheritance rather than trying to play businessman.  Trump’s declared bankruptcy numerous times and nearly ran a casino into the ground (his father bailed him out by illegally infusing the casino with $3,000,000 in chips to circumvent lending regulations).  Not to mention other failed ventures, such as Trump Steak, Trump Airlines, Trump Magazine, Trump Water, and Trump Vodka.  Or the times he’s been sued for stiffing contractors.  No, Trump is not a great dealmaker.

Trump’s continued fabrication about his deal making prowess, however, is not the worrying part of his statement.  The second sentence, in which he touts his unilateral ability to make better deals than all of Congress, fundamentally attacks the separation of powers and seeks to delegitimize Congress, its ability, and its lawmaking authority.

The Founding Fathers gave Congress, especially the Senate, broad authority over legislative affairs, including foreign policy (there’s a reason the president must seek senatorial ratification for treaties).  Congress has an explicit prerogative to regulate foreign commerce, a central component of foreign policy.  Yet Trump’s words undermine the separation of powers by implying that he alone should be charged with foreign affairs and Congress should either cede to him all authority in that front or simply rubber-stamp all of his decisions.  The words reek of contempt for Congress.  He yearns for unilateral authority unchecked and unquestioned by another governing branch.  In other words, he wants – and feels entitled to – a fundamental overhaul of the separation of powers simply because of his self-assumed greatness.

Trump’s statement also seeks to delegitimize Congress by implying the body is incompetent when it comes to foreign affairs – and its incompetence means America is worse off than had Congress simply sat back and allowed Trump to work his magic.  This implication serves only to undermine any actions taken by Congress by leading people to immediately doubt any congressional creation, especially when it comes to foreign relations.  Why should I trust Congress when the president himself has said the body is ineffectual when it comes to making deals?  Why not just let Trump make deals and pass legislation?  Why bother with Congress at all?

Lastly, Congress worked in a bipartisan and nearly unanimous fashion to craft these Russian sanctions, yet Trump nonetheless attacked the reason, ability, and effect of Congress’s work.  Rarely do all members of Congress come together for something as important as the Russia sanctions – if the president claims that 99 percent of Congress can’t work together to do something as well as he could alone, how bad must be the laws passed by a bare majority?  It implies that the bipartisan work of Congress cannot ever match the abilities of the president himself, a rather dictatorial sentiment.  Trump’s saying that Congress, working in near unanimity to fulfill its explicit constitution duties, should not be making laws because the deals struck are subpar, especially when compared to what he could do.  And that’s dangerous because it no longer assumes Congress should proactively perform its fundamental duties; rather, Congress should wait for the president to act and only follow the whims of the enlightened, dear leader.

This rhetoric should not be tolerated by any lawmaker who loves the Constitution.  Attacks on Congress’s legitimacy and authority to carry out its constitution prerogatives should never be made by the president and never accepted by members of Congress.  Representatives and senators should band together to unanimously pass a joint resolution stating the legislative branch’s authority to pass laws pertaining to foreign relations and issue a stern warning to the president: Undermine Congress at your own peril; your support is fleeting, the Constitution is forever.

left-wing populism

Left-Wing Populism and Liberal Democracy

Populism is Dangerous

Populism is a force antithetical to liberal democracy, if not democracy itself.  Liberal democracy tempers pure, majoritarian democracy by introducing a written set of rules (a constitution), separation of powers and resultant checks and balances, and, most importantly, by protecting fundamental rights for all people (especially minorities).

Regardless of immutable characteristic – that is, race, creed, national origin, sex, gender, religion, etc – all individuals within the polity have fundamental rights, namely those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.  Populism’s appeal attacks this fundamental tenet of a liberal society.

Populism’s Origins

Populism generally emerges after economic shocks or during prolonged economic malaise.  Following the first event, voters naturally rebel against the status quo and search for an answer, no matter how outlandish or irrational, to calamitous events outside of their control.  During periods of economic stagnation in which voters may find economics stalling and inequality rising, populism gains traction by promising to revitalize or overhaul a system not necessarily broken.  This speaks to human nature: Restlessness and a desire to change even what’s working.

Left-Wing Populism

Left-wing populism emerges when voters perceive financial elites and society’s wealthiest as wholly responsible for an economic calamity and see that class as unduly benefitting from an economic recovery (made worse when incomes, by and large, stagnate).  Though same may doubt whether left-wing populism can actually threaten liberal democratic values, its discontents should be obvious: A temporary majority designs policies that directly target a minority class (in this case, the wealthy), often in hopes of stripping them of their property.

Financial elites and the capital-hoarding upper-strata owns the government and entirely rigs the economic system to ensure capital-holders benefit while laborers slave away for mere dollars and bear the brunt of the burden when the economy crashes.  Therefore, the left-wing populist argues, policies must be crafted to tax or take away the wealthy’s property.  They must be vilified and have income and perhaps even assets seized and then redistributed to society’s workers, in a just and equitable manner as defined by a central authority (one that nationalizes and so owns the means of production).

It promises fairness as supposedly defined by the masses (though how the masses decide what constitutes a fair distribution of collective goods remains an unsolved question, even in the most radical of proposals and ideologues).  What better way to guarantee fairness for all than by seizing the excess of those whose greed has condemned so many to poverty?

Dangerously, such rhetoric and ideas appeal to many because a vast majority stand to benefit whereas a select few suffer.  A large majority may find vindication for actions that target a specific minority because the majority itself is so large and the cause so normatively pure.  But such efforts violate a central idea of liberal democracy: Property rights.  Liberal democracies ensure that the government cannot wantonly seize assets regardless of majority whims.  Property itself drives the economy – without property (ie, money, goods, etc), individuals would not be driven to work and innovate and so the state itself would collect no tax revenues, no goods would be produced, and the standard of living would fall dramatically.  Furthermore, it creates a precedent in which any majority coalition can seize the property of a detested minority, whether an economic minority or a racial or religious one.  Liberal democracy falls to individuals’ lust for revenge.

[See how right-wing populism attacks liberal democracy.]

right-wing populism

Right-Wing Populism and Liberal Democracy

Populism is Dangerous

Populism is a force antithetical to liberal democracy, if not democracy itself.  Liberal democracy tempers pure, majoritarian democracy by introducing a written set of rules (a constitution), separation of powers and resultant checks and balances, and, most importantly, by protecting fundamental rights for all people (especially minorities).

Regardless of immutable characteristic – that is, race, creed, national origin, sex, gender, religion, etc – all individuals within the polity have fundamental rights, namely those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.  Populism’s appeal attacks this fundamental tenet of a liberal society.

Populism’s Origins

Populism generally emerges after economic shocks or during prolonged economic malaise.  Following the first event, voters naturally rebel against the status quo and search for an answer, no matter how outlandish or irrational, to calamitous events outside of their control.  During periods of economic stagnation in which voters may find economics stalling and inequality rising, populism gains traction by promising to revitalize or overhaul a system not necessarily broken.  This speaks to human nature: Restlessness and a desire to change even what’s working.

Right-Wing Populism

Right-wing populism most obviously attacks and undermines liberal values: It appeals to voters by vilifying minority racial and religious populations.  Minorities cause economic catastrophes, so right-wing populists claim.  Immigrants lower wages and dilute the true population with inferior genes, morals, and values.  They draw undue funds from the government and contribute little to the nation’s culture; it amounts of an invasion of a state’s sovereignty.  Moreover, immigrants, especially those of different religions, threaten law and order by illegally entering the country, sympathizing with terrorists, and working to undermine the nation from within.

The vilification, then, arises from a mixture of contrived rationality as well as typical demagogic rhetoric that centers around xenophobia and the inherent inferiority of those different from the nation’s native stock.  Only by dramatically curtailing immigration, doubling down on law and order, and enacting reforms that limit religious practice to prevent extremists from meeting and planning terrorist attacks can the nation be salvaged.

Or so the right-wing populist argues with rhetoric that establishes a national “golden age” to which current conditions can be compared.  This golden age, often contrived, benefits from memory’s ability to ignore the bad and focus solely on the good – the golden age becomes a period of full employment, accepted national morals, low crime, and no threat from terrorism.  It contrasts perfectly with a threatening world in which low-skill jobs become increasingly sparse and terror attacks, though rare, dominate news coverage and the fears of millions.

This naturally appeals to many.  It takes agency away from voters and the existing system.  One person’s unemployment isn’t due to mismatched skills or any fault of his own; rather, it’s due to an outside force who undercuts wages while also failing to assimilate with the existing culture.  Fear motivates voters.  They come to believe carnage dominates society, whether from crime or terrorism.  And so vilifying immigrants and religious minorities becomes the means by which the country can be salvaged (and united in a front against assaults on sovereignty and national values) and returned to its golden age.

But obviously this is at odds with existing liberal values.  Minorities lose rights under such populist administrations.  Liberal democracy is the problem because it protects enemies of the state.  Its pillars must be struck down to allow the native majority to govern and protect the nation, often by whatever means necessary.  In the end, such democracy really is rule by the mob.  A fleeting majority riled by emotions and stirred to passion through hateful rhetoric leads to rights for some and tyranny for all.

[See how left-wing populism attacks liberal democracy.]