Democracy: “A device that ensures people will be governed no better than they deserve.”

How many articles have you read insisting that we don’t really understand the poor, disenfranchised White people who voted for Donald Trump.  According to their protectors, the White guys have lost and have been belittled so much that their rage and resentment follow almost inevitably.  The primary enemy?  Not the super rich, who this angry, misogynistic cohort actually aspires to be, but the eastern elite: the professionals, the intellectuals, the more modestly rich.  That huge voting block located in Cambridge, New Haven, and New York.  Well, maybe the enemy includes people of color, because, as Arlie Hochschild records, these jonny-come-lately Americans have cut in line, taking a place in American society that they don’t deserve.

During the campaign, Trump promised his aroused base anything they might desire, whether he believed in it or not.  Long ago, H.L. Mencken advised described the Trump strategy: “If a politician found that he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”  It wasn’t that Trump conducted surveys to discover what the people needed or wanted.  The process may have been in reverse.  It was the people “Choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”  He certainly fed them the red meat of anger, and they were buying.

And by the way, the working White guys had some help in their march to victory.  How about all those Black and Latino people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, who would rather join the whining class, claiming that voting won’t help, that the establishment isn’t interested in them, that their lives have no value to the establishment.  Never mind that people of color are rapidly becoming the majority, which could lead to their being the establishment, if only they would organize well enough. What about all those millennials who also whine: it’s just so much harder for us than for other generations.

You have to wonder if the great majority, the people, even want to govern themselves.  I wonder whether the “elite” has grown a little sentimental and unrealistic about the capacity of the majority to govern.  Again, let’s listen to Mencken: democracy, he says, stems from  “A recurrent yet incorrect suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.”  But the most damning skeptic is Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

It seems to me that we mouth our belief in democracy without thinking too much about what it means.  Even those—and there are many—who concede that it is a flawed system but the best we have and the best hedge against tyranny.  There have always been doubters, beginning with the Founding Fathers, who did whatever they could to limit the potential damage of untrammeled democracy.  They created balances of power.  They created the Electoral College.  And they created powerful voter restrictions—no women of Blacks need apply.  In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, there was always the threat of mob rule and the need to protect against it.

Let’s face it, democratic institutions have not always provided a barrier against either tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of dictators.  Didn’t the French Revolution lead to The Terror?  Weren’t Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini elected to their positions?  Hasn’t Donald Trump been elected?  And don’t many of us believe that, with the help of an angry citizenry, he may well move our government in an authoritarian direction? Considering his attachment to his hotels, golf courses, neckties, and military men, we may become the largest banana republic the world has ever seen.

Again Mencken enhances our understanding when he says that democracy is “Election by the incompetent many for the appointment by the corrupt few.”  I wonder if the Trump base will even raise an eyebrow to the many ways that Trump financial empire benefits from their newfound power.

Mencken tells us that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  It seems that Prince Donald’s proposed Cabinet of Deplorables portends just that.  Just look at this group:

  • Ben Carson, who thinks that public housing is a Communist plot, will try to dismantle as much affordable housing and neighborhood diversity as he can.
  • Betsy DeVos will do her best to destroy the very educational system that gives the people their best chance to rise above their parents
  • Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions will try to roll back civil rights to the days of the Dixiecrats.
  • Andrew Pudzer, the fast-food exec will be the first Secretary of Labor who advocates fewer jobs and lower pay for the people.
  • Scott Pruitt, the EPA nominee, will do his best to support the fossil fuel industry and get us out of treaties and policies aimed at preserving our environment.
  • Tom Price, HHS, will do his best to take health care from twenty million Americans—children included.

I began this article with some skepticism about the disenfranchised Trump voters, but it’s the “eastern elite’s” acceptance of this perspective that galls me almost as much.  Mea culpa, mea molto culpa, they intone.  Really?  I think we ought to throw the accusations back at the people.  If you don’t like what’s going on, get off your rear ends and work to change it.  Don’t just vent your anger on the establishment, organize, vote, rally.  Get the working man’s and the working women’s issues on the ballot.  And put people into office who will work your will.

I do believe that there is a good chance that the United States is inching closer to the rest of the world’s authoritarian governments.  If this election campaign is a good test, then we are taking that direction not just with the consent but with the urging of the governed, who would rather complain or vent their anger than work together towards strategic solutions for a more just and equitable future.  Unless, of course, you think the Cabinet of Deplorables will take you there.

We are fanning the flames of terror

Just before the Republican convention,  our attention shifted from police brutality—and the brutalization of policemen—back to terror.  Glued to our TV sets, we watch as bombs blast and trucks slam viciously into strolling French families.  We are horrified at the scene, filled with sympathy for the victims, enraged at the perpetrators.  We are also entertained.  It’s embarrassing but we can’t help ourselves; so we watch on like hypnotized patients in a hospital ward.  In our minds and to friends, we try to strategize.  What would we do if we had the power.  In reality, we feel helpless and we feel the need to do something.  Frustration is immense.

If we could step back, we might come to an uncomfortable truth: no matter how awful the killings, they do not come close to the numbers of deaths caused by traffic accidents, drug overdoses, and suicides, and certainly they are nothing compared to the self induced deaths due to smoking, poor diets, and substance abuse, not to mention the mass slaughter by Ebola-like pandemics.

This may be harsh but we need to ask why we pay so much attention to the terror and terror threats.  The first and foremost explanation is probably that, unconsciously, we think that we are keeping our finger in the dike.  If we stop paying attention, things could get worse.  We fear that these attacks could expand indefinitely and devastate Western civilization.  As keepers of our civilization, we need to understand what’s going on so we can demand that our leaders take proper action.

But by attending so closely, we play perfectly into the hands of terrorists.  The very purpose of terrorism is to arouse fear and panic, to disrupt lives and institutions.  Terror is meant for the living not those who are killed.  It intends to change our lives, to make us either too cautious, because we are fearful, or injudicious because we can’t help but react, no matter how lacking in strategy our actions may be.

Terrorist success depends on our frenzied reaction, and our current culture is primed to react that way.  The media, with its need to fill its twenty-four hour news cycle and to compete for viewers, feeds off of terror.  It builds frenzy with its lurid images and hyperbolic commentary.  Even the most professional journalists weigh in.  It’s their job.  I believe they do their job in spite of knowing that their  coverage aids and abets the terrorists.  They know that all of that air time builds fears and the desire for revenge.

Over the years, viewers have come to depend on the media for their adrenaline fix—and even just to fill the time.  They demand the endless coverage.  Then the demagogues—Trump, Johnson, Le Pen—feed off of the frenzy and the popular demand to do something, just something, preferably identifying the “true enemy” as a scapegoat.  The demagogues don’t really know what to do but they know they need to sound strong.  So they propose horrifying, violent, anti-democratic solutions to the terrorist problems.  To fix the threat to democracy and tolerance, the say, we must give up our democracy and tolerance.

There is, then a complex, parasitic relationship between the terrorists, the media, the populous, and the demagogues, who may be on the very of creating fascist states.  A vicious cycle has been created.  It goes something like this:

The more terrorists strike, the more the media cover it…

Which leads to increasing frenzy among masses of people…

Which provides opportunities for the demagogues…

Efforts to calm the frenzy (Obama) are seen as inadequate to the task, weak …

Observing their success is disrupting Western societies, terrorists strike again, media cover it more, people’s anxiety builds, and fertile grounds are provided for demagoguery.  The demagogues, in turn, fan the flames higher, the people call louder for a solution, the media cover their demands

And the vicious cycles keep on turning.

Who is responsible, then?  The answer is simple: All of us.  The fueling of crisis is inherent in the system, not in individual broadcasters, demagogues, and regular people.  We are all complicit.

I am aware the emphasizing the complexity of the problem has its limits as an analytical strategy.  It can let everyone off the hook.  If everyone is responsible and if the process is out of control, who will take responsibility to stop it.  And it is out of control.  You don’t even hear anyone talking sincerely about stopping it anymore, except in extreme ways like banning whole ethnic groups from your home turf.

I have no ready solution to this catastrophic relationship, but I do know a well-established principle in the theory of change: when you try one solution and it doesn’t work, then try it again or try a slightly different version of the same solution, and keep on trying in the same vein, then the solution itself becomes the problem.  The repetitive interaction of the parts creates an impasse, a massive road block.

In other words, we can’t keep trying the same old thing.  Everyone can’t keep playing the same old roles—neither the demagogues nor President Obama nor the news media.  We need to do something different.  What?  Again, let me begin with a principle in the theory of change:  if you stop one part, one component of the vicious cycle, then all of the other parts will do something different, too.

Are we trapped in our own morass?  Must we play the losing hand in the terrorists’ game?  I hope not.  I don’t know who has the courage and insight to step out of their assigned roles, but someone must, or else the vicious cycle can build into chaos or conflagration.