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Taking Democracy for Granted
As the presidential election approaches, the amount of (mostly virtual) ink being spilled on the contest has reached epic proportions. Obviously you can find articles and blog posts about all sorts of things, but as of this writing (10/13/16) the major he
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As the presidential election approaches, the amount of (mostly virtual) ink being spilled on the contest has reached epic proportions. Obviously you can find articles and blog posts about all sorts of things, but as of this writing (10/13/16) the major headlines all appear to be about the accusations of Trump’s sexual harassment. While I’m sure these accusations are interesting, I’m not sure that they are important. But let’s talk about the interesting bits first, and then we’ll examine its importance.
Of all the things going on with this story the element that interests me the most is the timing of the accusations. It seems to be a classic October Surprise. And by that I mean it appears likely that people have been waiting to announce their accusations until a point when the accusations could inflict the maximum damage. I see no evidence that any of the revelations are the result of things which only could have been uncovered recently. As far as I can tell, just based on a brief glance (there are a LOT of accusations) even the most recent dates from 2013. Also it’s not as if Trump has just suddenly become important, or that it has suddenly become important for him to be stopped. Four or five months have passed since he was a lock for the Republican nomination, over a year has passed since he announced he was running, and he’s been a public figure since before I graduated from high school. (Which trust me is a long time.) Why wait until now to go public?
Obviously a certain amount of speculation is involved. There can be many reasons for delaying an accusation against a public figure, not the least of which is the media circus certain to ensue as soon as you do. But on the other hand it distresses me when I find out that people have been afraid to come forward. Not only is that something we need to work on (though my ideas for how to do this may be different than most.) But it would have been hugely beneficial to know all this stuff during the primaries rather than four weeks before the election. Still, the point of all of this, is to say that if it was intentional, then, “Well played!” I always thought that Trump was going to have a difficult time of it, but as I said recently in an email to a friend of mine, I think he’s well and truly beaten, if not out-maneuvered at this point.
In that same email to my friend I said a couple of other things that are worth relating. First I offered the caveat that I had repeatedly been wrong about “Peak Trump” so it’s possible I was wrong this time, though this one feels different, possibly because he’s been faltering in places where he was previously strong, like the debates and Utah, normally the most reliable Republican state there is (more on that later.)
The second thing I said in the email was that I found the manner of Trump’s demise to be fascinating, particularly given Bill Clinton’s history in this area. Obviously there are differences, but those differences aren’t as great as people like to think. Which brings me to the issue of whether these accusations aren’t merely interesting, but important. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has recently taken some heat for his commentary on the election. One of his recent pieces was titled Scandal Poker, where he compares the various accusations against Trump and Clinton to determine whether either has the edge. On the issue of their treatment of women he declares things a tie. I’m not sure that I agree with that, at least not in terms of how things are being perceived. (Which is pretty critical when you’re going to decide things by popular vote.) And, frankly, the reason perception tilts in Clinton’s favor is in large part because the people who police these sorts of things are more forgiving of indiscretions on the left side of the aisle than they are on the right. But if you remove perception from the equation and just look at it’s effect on their ability to be president then I don’t think it’s important. Meaning, I don’t think chastity has much correlation with the ability to be a good president. Jimmy Carter was by all accounts a very chaste person and a mediocre (at best) President. And of course more recently everyone seems to agree that Clinton was an above average president, but as we’ve mentioned he wasn’t very chaste.
Does this mean we shouldn’t want moral people to be president? I think all else being equal we definitely should, in fact I think we should even give it some weight, but with all of the other potential issues on the table it’s honestly not going to be at the top of my list. Now of course as Mormons/Christians we do think chastity is important, and in a broader sense the Book of Mormon explicitly ties morality into good governance. (Mosiah 29:25-27) But if the salvation of the country lies in having chaste presidents we’ve been doomed since at least Kennedy if not before.
If Donald’s (and Bill’s) chastity isn’t important, what is? I mentioned the enormous amount of ink being spilled, and it’s forgivable if the interesting and titillating stuff makes the front page, but surely in all that’s being written the truly important stuff is in there, just perhaps not on the front page? I would argue that it’s not, that no one is talking about the truly important issues and questions, which go well beyond Clinton and Trump. The truly important questions are, what are the limits of democracy? And has democracy*, in fact, failed?
*I understand that we’re not really a democracy, but I use that word throughout because it makes more sense to modern ears and is a mostly accurate description of things in any event.
From a Mormon perspective we already know what the limits of democracy are, it lasts until the people choose inquity, and when that happens it pretty much doesn’t matter what your form of government is, bad things are on the horizon. And, as you might imagine from the general tenor of doom and gloom on this blog, I think that’s the position we’re in. Rather than offer up statistics or some high level view of things, let me instead relate the situation I encountered the other day. I found myself in a meeting with four old (all 70+) men, and we ended up talking, in a general way, about politics. From the discussion it was impossible to say if they were hard-core devotees of either party, but knowing what I do about them, I suspect that they all lean Republican in a vague way, but have voted for many Democrats over the years. As the conversation progressed it was apparent that none of them had any idea who to vote for. In miniature, this is the problem. This group of men hadn’t chosen inquity, but come November 8th they won’t be able not to. Maybe that’s not true, maybe one of the two candidates isn’t a bad choice, but that’s certainly not how they feel. And even setting aside this example we’re still looking at an election between the most unpopular presidential candidate ever, and the second most unpopular presidential candidate ever. And even if you don’t agree that it’s symptomatic of the failure of democracy, you’re surely not going to argue that the 2016 election is democracy’s finest hour either.
Of course there is the option of voting third party, which I’ve talked about already, and perhaps the gentlemen I was talking with will all end up voting for Evan McMullin. There’s even a scenario where he could actually become president. Evan just has to take Utah, Trump has to prevent Hillary from winning a majority of the remaining electoral votes, and then when it gets tossed to the House they give it to Evan. I could see McMullin taking Utah. The rest seems pretty improbable, bordering on the fantastic. In other words, while I appreciate the fact that people are getting a lesson on what happens if no one gets a majority of the electoral votes. It’s not going to get us out of this.
We return then to what I consider the important point. Has democracy failed? To answer that I’d like to go back in history a bit. To start with, it’s obvious if one looks at the history of the American experiment that it was by no means certain that it would work, or that democracy in general had any sort of legs. It’s important to recall that six years after the Revolutionary War ended, there was a revolution in France and it did not go well. And that besides the bloodiness of the whole affair that actually returned to the monarchy under Napoleon III. Which certainly makes it sound like it didn’t take. But we don’t even have to look at France, switching from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution after less than ten years is not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. All of this may seem obvious to you, but even if it does, you may still not realize how precarious things still seemed even as late as the Civil War. This point was brought home to me recently while reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
For most people the Civil War starts and ends with the issue of slavery. And certainly I don’t want to take anything away from that. There would have been no Civil War without slavery and it deserves to be mentioned first whenever the Civil War is discussed. But as is usually the case there is a benefit to going deeper, because while slavery was necessary for the start of the Civil War, it was not sufficient. As Abraham Lincoln said:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Flat out stating that for him, the preservation of the Union was the primary goal. I had heard that quote before, though Team of Rivals reminded me of it, and corrected other mistaken ideas I had been carrying around.
One of the big things I was mistaken about was support for ending slavery even after the war had started. I had always kind of assumed that once war started and especially once the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued that it was pretty much understood, “Well as long as we’re doing this we should definitely make sure to eliminate slavery.” But even late in the war, when the South, through back channels, suggested peace, as long as they got to keep slavery (what sort of peace that would be is anybody’s guess), Lincoln was worried about this news leaking out. While he was adamant that he wouldn’t roll back emancipation, he knew that if the general public found out that the only thing keeping the war going was the issue of slavery, that they would turn against it. Several times it’s made clear that if the war became about just ending slavery that the general population of the North would stop supporting it.
Honestly I’ve never understood why it was so important to preserve the Union, why they couldn’t just let the south go and call it a day. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I can’t imagine Texas seceding and urging my son who turns 18 in a few months to immediately go enlist in the Army so he could join in on the invasion. And I’m pretty certain most people feel the same way. I particularly don’t understand why it was so important to preserve the Union when I consider the 670,000 people who would end up dead (390,000 just on the side of the Union). Now obviously I have the benefit of hindsight which Lincoln did not, but even so he would have to be a great fool to assume that it would not be terrible and bloody. And of course in addition to the number of dead there was the cost of the war, over $8 billion between the two belligerents and over $6 billion just for the North. (To say nothing of veteran benefits which eventually ended up exceeding the original cost of the war.)
To put those two figures in modern terms. Our current population is roughly 10 times the population in 1860, so imagine 6.7 million people dying, or roughly 2200 9/11’s or 1000 Iraqs and Afghanistans. And turning to the financial impact the cost would be equal to $30 trillion in today’s money. All of which is to say that they spent a lot of blood and treasure just to preserve the Union. So why was that so important?
After reading Team of Rivals I think I finally have an answer. As I said earlier we forget how precarious and how experimental our form of government was back then. Recall that at the time of the Civil War, the revolution and the passage of the Constitution were still within living memory. The Thomas Jefferson presidency was to them as the JFK presidency is to us. The debates we have about the expansion of the government under the New Deal? Imagine the same debates and the same time horizon, except the debates are about whether democracy is possible at all. All of this is stated very eloquently by Lincoln in the Gettysburg address:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We forget that it did still seem like a big experiment. At the start of the Civil War there were only three Democracies in the whole world (The aforementioned Napoleon III was in power in France). And of course the US was by far the largest and most ambitious. It certainly must have seemed possible, even probable that if you just let 11 states secede that the entire project was doomed. Whether that was the case I don’t know, but even if I don’t agree it makes sense.
Returning from our long detour through the Civil War, the takeaway is that they were intensely aware of the fragility of democracy, and conscious that it just might not work under some conditions. In fact one of the chief concerns about slavery was that democracy itself couldn’t function appropriately while slavery existed. Ignoring entirely the question of how black slaves should be treated.
By contrast today we just figure that democracy should work, that the governmental system we have will last forever. Or until the benevolent AI overlords can take over. Whether I agree with them or not, during the Civil War people were willing to fight and die in defense of their vision of how the nation should work. I am not suggesting that that’s what we should be doing. I am suggesting that we have gone entirely in the opposite direction to the point where we take democracy for granted. When the founding fathers created our system of government it was unique in all the world. We were the first thing even resembling a democracy in a long time. The Founding Fathers had to go back to the Roman Republic and Ancient Greece in order to find working examples to draw from. Beyond that it was just a bunch of theories put forth by people like Locke and Rousseau. One of their key worries was whether it would even work. As Benjamin Franklin said, when asked what form of government they had, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” This same question confronted Lincoln when he decided to go to war. But in the decades since then we have stopped asking whether we can keep it and we just assume that it’s part of the landscape. It may be overly simplistic to phrase it this way, but it’s precisely when you stop worrying about something that it can be the most likely to happen.
If our lack of concern was the only symptom then you should feel free to dismiss everything I’ve said (though hopefully you enjoyed the Civil War discussion) but of course there are lots of symptoms beyond just a lack of concern.
The current election is obviously a big one. No one feels like this is a contest between two noble individuals put forth after solemn deliberation by their respective parties to honorably contest for the highest position in the land. Instead it feels like the squabbling of toddlers (and I am perfectly willing to blame Trump for a greater portion of that). Reading Team of Rivals I couldn’t help but come away with the impression that the politicians of that era were giants compared to what we have to choose from today.
The increasing rancor of political discourse and the political parties in general is another symptom. Returning to the Civil War things were obviously more heated than they are now, but that shouldn’t provide any comfort when we realize what the final cost was to eventually heal that divide.
Still another symptom is the near absolute power of the Supreme Court. When it comes down to it most people admit that that’s where the true battleground is. And they may hate Trump with the fire of a thousand suns, but confess they’re still going to vote for him because he’s their only chance to get right-wing nominees on the bench. The topic of the Supreme Court will get it’s own post in the near future, but having nine people (and in reality just one person, Kennedy) decide all of the most pressing issues of our day is not the definition of a healthy democracy.
Closely related to the previous symptom, the tendency for people to lose on an issue when put to a popular vote and then get the courts to overrule that vote is another alarming trend. Same Sex Marriage (SSM) is one of the best examples of this, but it’s not the first time it happened and it certainly won’t be the last. Vox.com, a publication which certainly supports SSM recently posted an article pointing out the democracies collapse without graceful losers, not realizing that this same thinking applies something like SSM. (Needless to say there was no reference to that in the article or even to courts overturning majority votes.)
The final symptom I want to discuss, and I will probably get in trouble for this, is the current ideology that quantity is all that matters when it comes to voting. Quality doesn’t matter at all. Allow me to explain. While everyone talks about the need for well-informed voters, voters who care about what’s happening and are voting to make a difference, in every case where a choice must be made between quality and quantity, quantity wins. Of course almost no one views it as a tradeoff, despite the fact that there’s always a tradeoff between the two, to the point where it might as well be a fundamental law of the universe.
Getting to far into the weeds on this particular issue is liable to upset even the people who’ve made it this far, so let me just speak about it in more general terms. Nate Silver recently made a splash when he put out two electoral maps, the one showing what the election would look like if just women voted and one showing what it would look like if just men voted. Obviously no one’s trying to suggest that the election should be restricted in either fashion, but it’s a great example of the idea that you get different results based on how you slice the electorate. Right now we’re not slicing it, we’re making every effort to get every single person possible to vote. Which as I said is a quantity in deference to everything else. Now it’s certainly possible that maximizing quantity also maximizes beneficial outcomes, but I doubt it, and as you may be aware the founding fathers did not think that was the case either.
You may argue those were different times, and indeed they were, but moving it to the present day let’s engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine if we discovered a way to get 10 million more people to vote. Further imagine that these are all people who had never voted before, people who are entirely apathetic about the process, people who if asked could barely identify the people running for president (forget about any other offices). If we could get these people to vote, would they actually improve the outcome of the election? Would we get better leaders from an election with these 10 million people than without them? I can’t see anyway to argue that they would. You might argue that it has some moral benefit, but even that argument would disappear if you changed it from 10 million generic people to 10 million low-information, racist, misogynist Trump supporters.
It’s easy to forget how recent democracy is. Even our own history of 230+ years is not very long by historical standards, but if we turn again to the website I referenced when I claimed there were only 3 democracies at the start of the Civil War (US, Switzerland and New Zealand) we find that the number of democracies hovered at 40 or less until 1984! To quote from the same website political freedom is a recent achievement. It may not seem that way, and it may seem like it’s something which is as immutable as the rising of the Sun, at least in the US, but that’s not the case. We take it for granted at our peril. Whether you agree with any or all of my symptoms I hope we can all agree that putting forward two candidates who were were seemingly grown in a lab for the express purpose of aggravating the other side is not a good sign.