Wave after wave of Trump criticism always seems to land on the same theme: the president represents a grave threat to our democracy. But then there is undertow of opinion that draws the opposite conclusion: it is democracy, not Trump, that is the problem.
The first perspective seems to be the default for most in the media and academia. In the Washington Post last year, two scholars ominously mused that we were at the “beginning of the end of democracy.” Such warnings are underscored by new books like How Democracies Die and How Democracy Ends. Even those who believe that the threat is overstated at least take the question seriously. Thus in Politico last year did Francis Fukuyama ask, “Is American Democracy Strong Enough for Trump?” and cautiously answered in the affirmative.
Such questions may seem hyperbolic, but there is a factual basis for them. Trump frequently lavishes praise on authoritarian regimes, from the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan. When confronted with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s human rights record, Trump lauded him for his toughness. Trump even decorates his home in the distinctive style of a dictator.
Trump has also crossed the line from criticizing liberal bias in the press to demonizing it outright, recently maligning the media as “our country’s biggest enemy.” His initial equivocation over accepting the 2016 election results undermined a basic norm of democracy. So did his recent declaration that he could pardon himself. He is comfortable with violence, which he repeatedly encouraged at his rallies during the 2016 campaign. He even joked that he could shoot someone and still get elected.
Temperamentally Trump is more autocrat than democrat. And yet, with the possible exception of his immigration policies, those instincts have yet to affect policy—so far. Trump hasn’t sent the National Guard into Chicago. He hasn’t overhauled libel laws. He hasn’t followed through on his suggestion that drug dealers be executed.
So maybe Trump is all bark and no bite. That would be consistent with his business career, in which he made much of his money selling a brand rather than actually building things. Perhaps Trump is all clothes and no emperor.
Then there’s the flip side to this anti-Trump narrative: democracy itself is out of control. It’s the no-longer-silent minority of white nationalists, the Internet trolls who materialized at the polls, and the people who showed up to those infernal Trump rallies who are the true threat.
For example, legal scholar Joshua Geltzer proclaimed in a Politico article that “America’s Problem Isn’t Too Little Democracy. It’s Too Much.” In his view, social media has smashed the old hierarchies that allowed America to function as a representative democracy or republic. Elected officials once were agents of mediation, restraining the wild passions of the masses, but no more—in the social media age they are human bullhorns, amplifying the cries of the mob.
This leveling effect works two ways: it’s not just the vitriol that’s bubbling up; it’s also the drivel draining downwards. Again, newspaper editors, television anchors, and other “gatekeepers” once skimmed out the fake news, false facts, misinformation, and propaganda from the stream of information reaching the public, according to Geltzer. Again, social media has absolutely flattened the old information aristocracy. Social media is both an open sewer and an open mic.
Another variation on the democracy-is-what-ails-us theme was on full display in a Vox interview last year with two political scientists who delivered a scathing indictment on the public’s ability to be informed voters. Per the academics, the electorate “don’t understand cause and effect,” don’t have coherent policy preferences, and cast their votes “irrationally and for contradictory reasons.”
These are all sadly self-evident assertions to anyone who has ever seen one of those Jimmy Kimmel Lie Witness News street interviews or the periodic news poll on how many Americans can’t name the vice presidential candidates. So many are ignorant of the basic facts of current affairs and American history—such as the nearly 40 percent who couldn’t name a single right protected in the Constitution, according to a 2017 poll.
In his wonderfully contrarian book Against Democracy, libertarian scholar Jason Brennan notes declining rates of participation in elections, from 70 to 80 percent in the 1800s to 60 percent in presidential contests and less in off years. But far from ruing this, Brennan reaches the opposite conclusion:
My response is different: this decline in political engagement is a good start, but we still have a long way to go. We should hope for even less participation, not more. Ideally, politics would occupy only a small portion of the average person’s attention. Ideally, most people would fill their days with painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain, or perhaps football, NASCAR, tractor pulls, celebrity gossip, and trips to Applebee’s.
The implication here is that the sort of people who find tractor pulls entertaining or Applebee’s gastronomically satisfying aren’t the sort of philosopher-citizens who should be deciding who runs the government.
So democracy is the danger. Or democracy is in danger.
Well, which is it?
I propose that a possible solution rests in the distinction between two senses of the word democracy. There is democracy as an electoral system—that’s what we do every four years for president, every two years for Congress, and so on at the state and local levels.
But then there’s democracy in the other sense—democracy not as a means of electing a government but as a way of governance itself. Here democracy is a shorthand for a constellation of norms and values commonly associated with democracy: a preference for the rule of law over political violence; the distribution of power and curbs on how it is exercised; honoring the sanctity of the the rights of individuals; respect for the private institutions essential to keeping democracy humming along, like the press, social service agencies, voluntary associations, and the like.
Perhaps here we could draw a further distinction between the legal infrastructure of democratic governance and its cultural infrastructure. The president cannot write laws. Neither can the Supreme Court. The president cannot dispatch the military to install his own speaker of the House or remove the chief justice of the Supreme Court. All of these things are spelled out in the Constitution in some fashion or another. But without a culture to support it, a constitution is a parchment with ornate calligraphy—a beautiful idea yet to be realized.
Conservatives have long recognized the importance that culture plays in political and economic systems. They have long understood that constitutions draw their strength from culture. As Russell Kirk observed:
Constitutions are something more than lines written upon parchment. When a written constitution endures—and most written constitutions have not been long for this world—that document has been derived successfully from long-established customs, beliefs, statutes, and interests; it has reflected a political order already accepted, tacitly at least, by the dominant element among a people.
A similar conviction was expressed by John Adams who wrote:
Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by…morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition…Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
It is democracy in this second sense of a set of norms and a civic culture that Trump critics are trying to salvage. Conversely, it is democracy in the first sense—as a way of electing government—that these Trump critics want to curtail. And it’s not so much elections themselves that are the problem—no one is calling for poll tests or longer terms—but the way that elections have bled into governing.
Of course, the “permanent campaign” has been with us since the Carter era, but social media has obliterated whatever line—however blurred it already was—remained between electioneering and governing. The most obvious case in point is Trump’s unfiltered tweets, which seamlessly blend rallying the base, hitting the opposition, skewering enemies real and imagined, and making actual policy announcements. It’s direct democracy on digital crack.
It is possible, then, to believe that the Trump presidency and mass democracy driving it are both problematic. That might not make addressing either one easier, but having a clear-eyed assessment of what ails civil society brings us at least one stop closer to fixing it.