Donald Trump’s mind is like buckshot; concocted thoughts spew out impulsively in all directions. The problem is that he is president of the United States, commanding extraordinary power, and his verbal ejaculations hint at policy or are policy. Divining his intentions is akin to predicting the future by reading the entrails of chickens. It is hard to know what is coming at us, so formulating responses of resistances require that we be nimble.
We are progressives, and as progressives it is in our blood to critique the status quo in order to reform it. But sometimes – and now is one of those times – because the landscape is moving backwards, just holding one’s place is an act of moving forward.
Here is what I mean. Trump is part of an ominous international trend that is infusing the Western world. And what is that trend? In briefest terms, many in the West are growing tired of liberal democracy. Maybe because economic growth has been so sluggish. Maybe because of fears caused by an influx of minorities. Maybe because of the monstrous wealth gap and the foreclosing of opportunities. Maybe because of out-of-touch “elites” who seem to be running things. Maybe because those elements that control their lives our beyond the reach and response of the masses. Maybe all these things conspire to weary many of liberal democracy and leave themselves open to other, indeed, more autocratic forms of governance.
Liberal vs. Illiberal
The terms employed for one such form is “illiberalism.” A liberal democracy is characterized by two things: periodic elections held by closed ballot and the protection of individual rights. Rights are protected by several mechanisms, primarily an independent judiciary and a vibrant press. Illiberal democracies retain periodic elections, but suppress or neglect individual rights.
An article by a Jonathan Rauch in this month’s Atlantic is illuminating – and very distressing. He writes:
In the U.S., the proportion of people saying it would be good or very good for the “Army to rule” rose from one in 16 in 1995 to one in six in 2014. Ominously, this trend was strongest among the young. When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how essential it was for them to live in a democracy, 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s chose 10, but the proportion dropped with each succeeding decade, falling to only about 30 percent for people born in the 1980s.
Yikes! Why bother with pesky and messy contrivances such as elections, constitutions, courts, political campaigns and their candidates when I can live a cushy life without them? Just give me lots of stuff, buy me off with gadgets and endless diversions and don’t bother me with politics.
Democracy and Freedom
Why this despair? For the reasons above, many people most likely feel that democracy doesn’t work anymore. Perhaps, they see no correlation between democratic governance and their individual freedom. Perhaps, for these reasons and more, they sense that democracy is irrelevant to their lives.
In important ways, they are right. I have long argued that we don’t live in a democracy. We live increasingly in an oligarchy, more accurately, a plutocracy, wherein our society is controlled and essentially owned by the super wealthy and corporate powers.
We do retain vital elements of liberal democracy, however, as manifested in a judiciary that remains (for the moment) reasonably independent, and that, at least, in a formal sense protects our individual rights (though justice is not blind when it comes to matters of race and class). Despite structural oppressions, we still do retain the freedom to organize against those powers that control our lives in ways that are noticeable and those that are structural and not as obvious. And this space is vital.
Behavior Undergirds Values
But democracy cannot last on the presence of democratic structures alone. It can only last if the public cares about it. Our governmental forms require that they are supported by a citizenry that retains certain habits of mind, certain conventions of outlook and behavior that undergird democratic values and appreciates their vital importance to freedom and the kind of life we most want to live.
Given the lethargy in regard to democracy which affects large swaths of the population, our task must be not to capitulate to this ominous trend, but to devote ourselves to renewed education as to the vital importance of sustaining a democratic way of life.