What Trump’s Rise Means for Democracy

"Boss Trump" (DonkeyHotey / Flickr), adapted from Thomas Nast's "The Brains..." (1871)

Donald Trump’s nomination for the presidency was inconceivable until primary after primary made it all but inevitable—and a mild Indiana spring evening confirmed it. It suggests to many baffled people, chiefly pundits, that they do not really understand their own country. David Brooks, for one, has announced his intent to reconnect with everyday Americans in service of “a new national narrative” to replace whatever fever-dream story has brought us here. But most of all, Trump’s elevation seems to ratify misgivings about democracy itself. If majorities rally to a blustering, bullying, conspiracy-minded, bigotry-stoking joke of a candidate and turn him into no joke at all, is majority rule really any way to run a country?

Andrew Sullivan’s long and engaging essay in New York magazine captures the major themes that we can expect to see shared in the weeks and months ahead from the right through the center-left. Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic and a libertarian kind of British liberal, gives a systematic statement of a position he seems to share, more or less, with Brooks, the Times’ Ross Douthat, and others. Because it offers readers a way to orient themselves in this strange new political landscape, while also indulging certain widespread political prejudices and flattering the vanity of the educated, economically secure, and civic-minded, Sullivan’s account is likely to become one of the contenders for the “national narrative” of at least some commentators and many confused and rightly anxious voters.

It is also a deeply conservative, even reactionary rendering of our situation and of democracy itself. The revival of this argument, and its appeal to a certain kind of thoughtful voter, is a bid to shut down the gains the Sanders campaign has made for the left and to discredit the very idea of popular rule in favor of various kinds of elite management of politics.

Here, in short, is Sullivan’s argument.
 

  • We live in a “hyperdemocracy.” This means:
  1. There is almost no barrier to “the will of the people” directly entering politics and commanding, or at least seizing hold of and shaking, the state.
  2. We live in a culture of radical equality, where all kinds of identity, lifestyle, and attitude demand, and tend to get, equal respect. Even animals may be considered equal.
  3. We also live with a kind of egalitarianism of impulse and opinion: my feeling about politics is as relevant as your data or reason, and I may just decide to act on it—say, in voting for Trump, or for “the demagogue of the left,” Bernie Sanders.
  • In a hyperdemocracy, demagogues are likely to arise. They have a gift for sensing and manipulating the emotional responses of the masses, and especially for tapping into experiences of resentment, disrespect, and disappointment. They offer themselves as channels for these emotions, creating a kind of emotional politics that combines the three features of hyperdemocracy into a toxic cocktail: the thwarted wish for perfect equality and complete respect feeds angry feelings that find a vehicle in the demagogue, the destructive circuit that links the state to the ugly, angry, self-indulgent will of the people—a will driven more by feeling than by reason.
  • It is the responsibility of elites—and all citizens who still respect expertise, rationality, and self-restraint—to resist the demagogue categorically. This means lining up behind Hillary Clinton and realizing that she is all that stands between us and an “extinction-level event” for American democracy. Those who still identify with the Sanders campaign are undermining the thin reed of elite legitimacy. Moreover, as Brooks also insisted last week, elites have some self-scrutiny to do, having lost touch with the reality of much of the country, particularly the economic and cultural displacement of the white working class.
  •  

Trump’s startling, even epochal rise has led Sullivan, Brooks, Douthat, and others to revisit long-standing arguments in political thought. The concern for democracy that they express is explicitly anti-democratic in many of its premises. It supports a reading of the present moment that would shut down the radical promise of the Sanders movement, stanch the flow of fresh democratic energy and critical thought from the left, and celebrate a defensive crouch by established elites as political heroism. Whether we have come to that desperate pass depends very much on your theory of democracy.

Public political philosophy always risks simplification; but, well, they started it, and these debates do matter. In modern thought, there are three rough takes on what democracy is and what we might hope and fear from it. Here they are, arranged from right to left. The argument that Trump is the natural culmination of “hyperdemocracy” mixes the elements of the right to exclude the insights and aims of the left.

 
1. Elitist anti-democracy

Sullivan opens his essay with a long meditation on Plato’s account, in The Republic, of how democracy turns into tyranny. Sullivan’s framing of democracy as a condition of the soul (appetitive, egalitarian, impatiently emotional), and of the tyrant as the epitome of this condition, is, as he acknowledges, pure Plato. In other words, people are not very well suited to self-government, individually or collectively, and telling them otherwise—encouraging them to trust themselves, assert themselves, master their masters—is a recipe for anarchy. Democracy, so understood, releases human nature, which turns out to be alarmingly ravenous and formless: man is a wolf to man, as Hobbes had it. Left to himself, he is just a pig. (Add “and a pig to women,” and you have Donald Trump.)

This school of thought belongs to a very old reactionary tradition. It crops up every time there is a new assertion of human equality or the capacity for self-government. Already in 1775, Samuel Johnson attacked the restive American colonists in terms reminiscent of Sullivan’s “hyperdemocracy”: in his words, they were “zealots of anarchy,” “these lords of themselves, these kings of ME, these demigods of independence,” who had put “an axe to the root of all government.” American Southerners made the same argument: Stephen Elliott, Episcopal Bishop of the Confederate States of America, called the Declaration of Independence America’s founding mistake: “Man is not capable of self-government because he is a fallen creature, and interest, passion, ambition, lust, sway him far more than reason or honor.”

Sullivan, of course, does not adopt this position, but it provides his definition of democracy, which bolsters the rest of his argument. If this is what democracy is, what else would you expect from it?

 
2. Anxious liberalism

Sullivan’s main line of argument comes from a tradition that identifies broadly with liberalism—personal rights and liberties, a modicum of civil and political equality—and fears that democracy will corrupt or overwhelm it. Alexis de Tocqueville, with his aristocratic concerns about tyranny of the majority and “democratic despotism” (basically social conformism in a bureaucratic state), is the main ancestor here, and the one Sullivan calls on, with John Stuart Mill (mainly in On Liberty) representing another bulwark of this tradition.

This tradition might be described as accommodationist rather than alarmist about democracy—Tocqueville expected people to become mediocre, and hoped they would at least be gentle and practical—but it has a deep affinity with more explicit anti-democratic thinking. It encourages us to see democracy as a condition of culture and personal character—a state of the soul, as Plato would have it—first, and only secondarily a matter of political rule. The tyranny Sullivan worries about, in this vein, is the effect a democratic culture might have on politics. In this tradition, democratic culture tends to look like a mild version of the dire Platonic warnings: selfish, gluttonous, more emotional than rational, subject to fits of envy and anti-elite leveling. (Mill, for his part, hoped to see a new form of human flourishing in freedom and equality, but tended to portray these values as needing to be saved from democracy.) From this point of view, democracy is a perennial problem, which requires sensible and self-aware management by elites, who should not take the slogans of democratic politics too seriously. This is where Sullivan sees his role: in rallying elites and those who share their virtues to rescue democracy from self-immolation.

 
3. Social democracy (or democratic socialism or economic democracy)

The third perspective roughly reverses the first two. It takes democracy as an ideal, not a current reality, and understands political dysfunction as, at least partly, the product of friction between civic equality (“one person, one vote” and so on), racial and gender or “cultural” equality, and our highly unequal and undemocratic economy. This perspective is the source of the challenge that the Sanders campaign represents to the current order of things; Sullivan’s dismissal of Sanders alongside Trump is a way of writing off this tradition and the movements that come from it.

From this perspective, democratic capitalism is always a paradox. The idea that Americans live in a “hyperdemocracy” collapses the meaning of democracy into a matter of live-and-let-live cultural attitudes, plus a certain popular impatience with elite control. But this way of putting the issue ignores the relationship between the economy and the actual mechanics of political decision-making. Who makes the donations and hires the lobbyists that guarantee that, according to political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, only the views of the wealthy really matter in shaping policy outcomes? The answer is quite a small number among the citizens of our “hyperdemocracy.” How much tolerance and celebration of difference do Americans enjoy where they spend most of their waking hours—in, preparing for, or otherwise navigating the workplace, with all its hierarchies and constraints?

Sullivan tries to dismiss the money-in-politics problem with a now-standard talking point: the failure of the well-bankrolled Jeb Bush campaign and success of the Sanders campaign show that money really amplifies the impulsive will of the people. But presidential campaigns are a bad example. They really are a contest between charismatic mass fundraising and strategic elite bankrolling, and, indeed, elite fundraising cannot convince voters to love a candidate who leaves them cold. But in Congress, which still makes the laws, and in state legislatures, where more and more of the action is these days, the skew to big donors and Super PACs is very pronounced. Grassroots presidential fundraising may be (as the management shills say) a disruptive feature of the winner-take-all celebrity economy, but the fact remains that most politicians spend their days and nights soliciting money from the wealthy, which means listening to, absorbing, and answering to their priorities.

Sullivan and other skeptics of democracy also acknowledge the increasingly inescapable reality that the economy as now organized—global capitalism, it’s called—has slowed mobility, hollowed out work, and undermined dignity for millions of people in communities across the country. But they treat this as, basically, the macroeconomic version of a hot summer—just a background condition that makes irrational impulses more volatile than they would otherwise be. The rather astonishing thing is that pundits have managed to treat this acknowledgement of economic betrayal as about them—Sullivan says elites deserves a “comeuppance,” and Brooks’s new quest to understand working-class American experience in service of “a new national narrative” is likewise presented as a mea culpa. None of this goes to the basic point of the social democratic perspective: the capitalist way of organizing economic power is a perennial challenge to democracy, because it constantly undermines the premises of personal equality and collective governance, substituting workplace hierarchy (and the hierarchy of elite and ordinary consumers, let alone the poor) and the political power of wealth.

This doesn’t amount to a “left theory of Trump,” but it implies a very different emphasis. Trump’s voters have never seen “the will of the people” exercised in the fantastical way that “hyperdemocracy” suggests; instead, like everyone else, they have watched impassioned candidacies and movement elections channeled into stymied day-to-day government, where the wealthy are a perennial check on any populist influence, a kind of market-driven House of Lords. They’ve seen solicitude for big banks and the rest of the financial industry, and trade deals that, even if they comport with the traditional, optimistic view that free trade increases the total wealth of all involved, have wiped out whole industries and communities. (These are the same communities that conservative Kevin Williamson wrote “deserve to die” in the National Review in March.) Far from living in a carnival of equality, they get pushed out of jobs because they are not productive enough, denied health care because they are not wealthy enough, denied good schools because they cannot afford to live in the best neighborhoods.

None of this is to deny the white identity politics, nativism, and Islamophobia that Trump has stoked, nor the ugly appeal of his sneering, bullying misogyny. These are real political demons, and he has invoked them by name in a way that American presidential politics has not seen since George Wallace’s anti–civil rights “law and order” campaign in 1968. Nor is this to say that Trump’s voters are “really” confused social democrats. Whether or not Trump himself means anything he says, in the usual sense, his supporters mean a great deal that is dangerous, and his presidency threatens to channel that into a surly strongman act. But to call all of this the consummation of democracy is another thing entirely.

 

There are indeed paradoxes in American democratic life, but they do not arise from our being a “hyperdemocracy.” Rather, they reflect our never having taken democracy entirely seriously as a concrete, institutional thing: a system of political feedback that takes popular will and collective judgment seriously rather than channeling economic power; a way of governing the economy that makes it answerable to the human needs for security and basic principles of personal dignity and equality. These are not straightforward goals—ever, and particularly under conditions of global capital mobility and trade liberalization—but at least they direct us to the right problems.

Concern-trolling skeptics of democracy like Sullivan present themselves as channeling the perennial wisdom of the ancients (and, inevitably, the Founders) against a decadent time. In fact, their way of conceiving of democracy is itself a hangover from the political thought of the late 1980s and 1990s, when elites imagined that basic questions about the shape of economic and political life were resolved at “the end of history,” and all that remained was to midwife an increasingly transnational regime of capitalist democracy. All that seemed left for political philosophy to do, then, was contemplate the old concerns about the shallowness of the democratic soul, and ask what kinds of liberal and conservative souls might complement it.

This line of thinking refuses to see the Sanders campaign—or the left revival that stands behind it—as anything more than one more state of the soul: cranky and belligerent, the spirit of a resentful “demagogue of the left.” This is the natural consequence of understanding democracy through the lens of a long and wary tradition that portrays it as a cultural and spiritual condition. Identity politics and the madness of crowds come into sharp relief; economic structure and the idea that people really might choose and shape their own circumstances recede and get caricatured as dangerous bits of mass delusion.

We will be hearing much more from this school of thought over the next months. Its voices will encourage us to feel doubt and disgust at democracy, and they will subtly flatter our elite, or would-be elite, ideas of historical responsibility. They will suggest that a little psychological introspection into the state of our own too self-satisfied souls is all we need to understand what has gone wrong. They will urge us to give up on a stronger democracy, and to rally behind the elite-driven, money-ridden, cynically pandering system we have now. They will say this is the lesson of philosophy and history: that elites must save democracy from itself.

They are right that democracy is cultural as well as political; but they have it backward when they forget that our democratic culture arises from a paradoxical combination: a semblance of civic and cultural equality combined with pervasive and acute economic inequality, hierarchy, and vulnerability. They are right when they say that “elites”—professionals, professors, journalists, economists, etc.—have the responsibility to fill their roles in ways that protect and promote democratic life; but they have it backward when they forget that the suasions of wealth, economic status, and neoliberal versions of political maturity do more to corrupt those roles than democratic permissiveness or self-indulgence.

Above all, they are wrong, and dangerously so, when they portray the Trump campaign as the epitome of democracy. Of the many kinds of work we on the democratic left have to do now, one part is to refuse to let Trump’s success become a ratification of elite anxieties about democracy and an obituary for our new sense of historical urgency and possibility.


Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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