kenny hodgart

Ugly populism is not an argument against democracy

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This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The beacon light on the shining city on the hill is guttering. The barbarians are at the gate and the fox is in the henhouse. The worm, you may be assured, has scoffed the apple. Ladies and gents, American democracy is being exposed for a sham by an absurd buffoon who looks like a character from the funny papers. The mot du jour is dysfunctionality, and dysfunctionality is afflicting all known institutions grievously – but some (political parties, the electoral process) more than others. With the rise of Donald Trump, we have reached the inevitable end-point of politics’ showbusiness vajazzling. America’s Got Talent but it’s being offered a preening, pelt-haired Tony Soprano instead and if it’s repulsed it’s also enamoured.

I offer my apologies. Words along these lines are in over-supply right now – as likely to be voiced by disbelieving American conservatives as by liberals, by people with a dog in the fight as by despairing onlookers in other parts of the world. It’s almost as though Trump’s detractors have begun to echo and amplify the nihilism of his message. Millions of Americans, it is understood, have lost faith: in government, in political parties, in big business, in the media. Trump exploits this loss of faith to build a following. Trump-watchers respond that this following is further proof of the loss of faith, and of the dysfunctionality of the system – of the parties’ inertia, of a debased campaign financing model, of the remaking of politics as a reality gameshow. Others look at his followers and blame the situation on their stupidity and susceptibility. Either way, if you believe many parts of the commentariat, it’s democracy itself that is kaput.

This is a negative message for Americans to consume. For folks in places around the world where democracy does not exist it is all the more depressing. Indeed, the only people likely to take any solace from it are those who consider democracy a virus anyway. People like the Chinese Communist Party and its friends. Look, they might say of the world’s most hubristic polity – democracy is a mass of contradictions that offers only the illusion of freedom. Institutions are at the mercy of big money, Congress is gridlocked, mob violence attends public rallies and demagoguery is cutting through. In such an analysis, radical populist movements – whether in America or in Hong Kong, where we have a growing “localist” faction that’s driven in part by anger at the city’s “mainlandisation” and a failure to address blue-collar concerns – are warnings against disrupting the corporatist status quo.

There’s little doubt that Trump is garnering support not only for the populism of his message but also for his abandonment of the normal rules of civility – those are for the establishment “schmucks” on all sides who’ve propagated a system of top-down technocracy. Flat-footing his opponents by being provocative and boorish has played well with large constituencies of voters who are tired of party automatons. Other candidates gotta serve somebody – big pharma, Wall Street; The Donald’s personal wealth allows him to make a virtue of serving only himself. His anti-establishment credentials thus defined, he has eschewed consistency. Who knows what a Trump presidency might have in store for the world? His instincts seem not only protectionist but isolationist. He thinks America gets a raw deal as the world’s policeman. On the other hand, he wants to “rebuild” its military, and he wants to “beat” China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. If there’s a unifying message, it might be that the rest of the world can go to hell.

Trump also believes in torture, mass deportations and banning certain monotheistic types not of a Judaeo-Christian persuasion. The man most likely to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination is an authoritarian oaf. Does this invalidate democracy? No, it does not. Not in any real sense. Authoritarian thugs can be voted in; in democracies they can also be voted out. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution enshrines checks on the executive branch of government. That hoariest of Winston Churchill quotes serves: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a more pragmatic sense, a Trump candidacy, while representing a nadir, may actually be good for the GOP: it may cause it to fracture, but the healing process would surely return it to a more centrist, consensus-building course. Already, the Trump enema has convinced some conservative thinkers that what’s required is to develop more policies that appeal to working people. Moreover, if – as pollsters anticipate – Hillary Clinton wins a two-way race against Trump in November, she could end up with a uniquely bi-partisan mandate.

To those who despair, or gloat, at the state of U.S. democracy, however, one need only point out one abiding characteristic of it to sustain a more romantic view. If millions of Americans have “lost faith” in politics, then millions of others do not appear at all cynical about the enterprise (and it’s true that both Trump and his leftist counterpart in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, have brought entirely new groups of voters into the process). A passion for voting and elections has been a feature of American civil society since at least the 1830s, when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville exclaimed on it in his classic book Democracy in America. A little further back, Aristotle defined man as a political animal (zoon politikon) with an innate need to debate questions of justice and the common good. Sometimes this gives rise to expressions of humanity’s uglier nature. But no, democracy itself is not the virus.

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