Friday, May 6, 2016

Boaty McBoatface and the Fate of Democracy

Boaty McBoatface was the name chosen by the British public last month for the new polar-research ship due to sail in 2019. And the committee in charge of naming the ship, which had put the question up for a vote in the first place, threw out their choice this morning and called it the RMS David Attenborough instead. A public vote was judged to have its merits—public engagement is a good thing, after all—but in the end, its result was just too ludicrous to be tolerated.

I think we’ve just seen the fate of Western democracy played out in miniature.

Boaty McBoatface, that is, has just won the Republican primaries. Like it or not, the people have spoken. And they might very well speak again on the eighth of November, choosing the man who loves them, unlike the simultaneously icy and unctuous progressive elite. Trump is ludicrous, and unlike that boat, frightening. But he is what a majority of Americans might want.

In America’s mind, demagoguery has historically been kept conceptually distinct from democracy. This is a very good thing. It means that we can usually endorse the will of the people as a force for justice and good government. Tyrants kill their flocks with impunity, but in America, the people have been known to stand up for fairness and humanity. It’s not so much that demagogues don’t exist here as that we have no conceptual space for them. If a man is popular, then he gets elected. We might disagree with him, or even hate him, but in that case his sin consists in his beliefs: not the simple fact of his being liked by the people.

This is why I’m terrified when I hear intelligent progressives call Trump a panderer, a demagogue, and a populist. Not because I disagree, but because their description suggests that they have stopped treating the popular voice as a source of legitimate power. These progressives are suggesting that being wildly popular with Middle America is scummy and vulgar, not ennobling.

Now, that might be true. It might well be that American voters are ignorant, sentimental, racist, illiberal, and liable to be dragged behind anyone who can appeal to them with enough charisma. But that fact is best forgotten. After all, the myth of the wise and moderate electorate has sustained the American project from the beginning. It has sustained the European project, too, since 1945, and it’s what supported the wave of democratization that swept the world from 1985 to 2010. But as soon as progressive elites no longer believe that democracy is a recipe for justice or progress, then they might stop being democrats. We have already taken this as a given with respect for the third world: you won’t find too many people insisting that King Abdullah of Jordan be thrown out of office because he is a dictator. It’s also common wisdom that Hillary Clinton was right in 2011 to be skittish about letting the democratic crowd swallow Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring has convinced us that populist democratic uprisings are the forerunners of popular tyranny and Islamism.

In the West, democracy is still treated as a ritual worth protecting, but it is now in danger of producing something too awful for progressives to swallow. And we might end up seeing where American progressives’ commitments really lie: not with democracy, but with progressive dominance.

This commitment has already been revealed to some extent. Congress and state legislatures have gradually ceded control over nearly every disputed domestic issue—campaign finance, gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, gun rights—to the unelected and fashionably educated Supreme Court. No question is now taken as resolved until the court rules on it. This is for an unnerving reason: graduates of Harvard Yale are happy to rely on democracy as long as it does not put any real power into the hands of corn farmers. When democracy fails to deliver things like marriage equality or legal abortion, they toss the question to the reliably progressive court, and then insist that democracy only works if that court can keep certain holy decisions from the people’s grasp. (The elite conservative faction has tried this strategy too, with some success. It is just as anti-democratic in their hands as it is in the progressives’.) No wonder Antonin Scalia’s death uncorked so many bottles of champagne: it made this process even smoother for progressives.


But an election of Trump would put democratic rule into even more serious danger. His candidacy is setting up a conflict between his populist supporters and their oligarchist opponents in the big cities. I do not know who will win, but the results will be bad either way for the Constitution.

Trump has already been compared to Julius Caesar.


I think the comparison is apt. Caesar supported the popular faction against the oligarchical Senate: he represented the voice of the oppressed people against the entrenched intellectuals who had monopolized wealth and power in Rome. When Caesar and his successors built the Empire, the people’s voice, ever more lauded, became a vulgar legitimator of their thuggish and centralized power.

The last defenders of the Republic, among them Cicero and Pompey, were aristocratic anti-democrats. In earlier generations, politicians of their natural bent had felt far more sympathy for the common people. Indeed, the patrician Senate relied on the plebeians for its power. But the threat of Caesar made the aristocrats conclude that the common people were a herd of dangerous thugs, who must be kept away from the levers of power at all costs. Their opposition was only crushed in 43 B. C. when Mark Antony had Cicero murdered along with a large portion of the Senate.

I think something similar might happen to us. If Trump wins the presidency, then progressives who might otherwise have loved democracy might start seeing it as a legitimator of tyrants. And then, whichever faction wins out—the Trumpian populists or the Clintonite oligarchs—the republic will have been thoroughly discredited. Populism, after all, is just as compatible as oligarchy with dictatorship.



(Bernie Sanders, in this analogy, is Gaius Gracchus: the man who tried to represent the people from the Left by promising redistribution of wealth. He was crushed by the people and the Senate alike.)

I am afraid that Trump’s populism—and the progressive oligarchy’s denunciation of that populism—might mean the end of the American republic as we know it. Think: is democracy nearly so sacred in our minds as it used to be? Even in my lifetime, our enthusiasm for the Constitution’s institutions seems to have waned. I am not predicting doom: I’m just suggesting that the end of our political form of life might come sooner than we think.

In the meantime, pray to God and vote for Hillary.

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