'Elitist' democracy not the answer to Trumpism

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In an essay for New York Magazine, the US commentator Andrew Sullivan voices an argument about Donald Trump at which other writers have preferred merely to hint.

Banner image from Andrew Sullivan essay in New York MagazineTrump's rise, he says, exposes US politics as insufficiently elitist. Or, as the headline puts it, 'democracies end when they are too democratic'.

Much of what Sullivan says about the man now confirmed as the Republican candidate will seem familiar. Trump's a neo-fascist demagogue, a racist and an aspiring tyrant. 'In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order,' Sullivan argues, 'Trump is an extinction-level event.'

That's why, he says, the Trump ascendancy demonstrates the problem with the US system. Contemporary society has levelled hierarchies so effectively that America lacks the mechanisms to protect itself from Trump-style candidates.

Once, voting itself was restricted. Even when the franchise expanded, viable candidates still came from a small pool containing only those who had demonstrated various sorts of competencies. Now, though, 'that elitist sorting mechanism' has collapsed.

The rise of the internet has, Sullivan argues, 'given everyone a platform' and, as a result: 'We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts. And without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.'

The way thus becomes clear for a Trump, a man, Sullivan says, using crass demagoguery to establish dictatorial power. Hence the essay's conclusion: 'It seems shocking to argue that we need elites in this democratic age — especially with vast inequalities of wealth and elite failures all around us. But we need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilising excesses.'

But if the argument's shocking, it's only because of the bluntness with which Sullivan spells it out. The underlying sentiment's been with us ever since the Trump candidature gathered momentum, with repeated calls for him to be somehow excluded from the race.

 

"What makes these efforts so striking is that they're less motivated by a fear of Trump's politics than by a fear of his supporters."

 

For a long time, the most oft-touted mechanism involved a so-called 'contested convention', in which, if the Donald failed to achieve a majority of delegates, those gathered at the Republican Convention could award the nomination to someone else — even if Trump was clearly the most popular candidate.

As Vox explains, at a brokered convention, 'the choice would effectively be taken out of the hands of the 'people' and handed over to a select group: the delegates.' The plan was bolstered by an unprecedented intervention from right-wing billionaires, who used their resources to promote the selection of anti-Trump delegates. The other candidates tried (without a great deal of success) to seal #neverTrump alliances while Republican insiders discussed backing a third party candidate, a scheme that's still supposedly afoot. There was even muttering about the 'nuclear option', in which a Trump majority could be circumvented by the delegates voting to retrospectively change the rules.

What makes these efforts so striking is that they're less motivated by a fear of Trump's politics than by a fear of his supporters. Thus, the #neverTrump movement briefly championed Ted Cruz, who, at one point, seemed capable of stopping the billionaire. Cruz's positions are, if anything, much more extreme than Trump's (whom he repeatedly attacked for not being a 'true conservative'). He's a religious fanatic, who once attended a conference where speakers urged the death penalty for homosexuality. Where Trump promises to reduce tax, Cruz advocated the abolition of the IRS and the implementation of a ten per cent flat tax. As Amanda Marcotte points out, on immigration, Cruz 'not only has signed off on everything Trump wants to do, including mass deportation and ending birthright citizenship, but he goes a step further', by wanting to ban legal as well as illegal immigration.

But Cruz was a known quality, a Tea Party conservative willing to work within the Republican structures. Trump, by contrast, drew the bulk of his support from complete outsiders, enthusing previously apathetic voters into movement explicitly hostile to establishment politics. It was that rambunctious populism, much more than any particular policy, that motivated the anti-Trump campaign.

To understand Sullivan's call for a renewed elitism, it's helpful to revisit some old debates.

 

"Until the 19th century, democracy was mostly a term of approbation. It referred to a particular model of society, one in which the multitude ruled and the wealthy were suppressed."

 

These days, aside from a few fringe cranks, everyone endorses democracy. As C. Douglas Lummis says, 'The sentence, "I'm for democracy" communicates virtually no information ... The statement is likely to be met with a blank stare or with a puzzled response like, "How nice".'

But the almost universal enthusiasm is actually remarkably recent. Raymond Williams reminds us that, until the 19th century, democracy was mostly a term of approbation. It referred to a particular model of society, one in which the multitude ruled and the wealthy were suppressed: hence, in the revolutionary wave of 1848, the insurgent forces were known simply as 'The Democracy'. Roget's Thesaurus captures something of that usage by retaining 'democrat' as a synonym for 'commoner'.

But that meaning was challenged by a conception of democracy as representative rule on behalf of the masses. Thus, Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founders, insisted that vesting deliberative or judicial powers in the collective body of the people led to 'error, confusion and instability'. Against that, he advocated representative democracy as a kind of check on the multitude, 'where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons'.

As Williams says, it's from this notion that the dominant modern sense of the term developed. Yet, throughout the 20th century, the old debate continued in a new form, reflected in the differing understandings of democracy in the liberal and socialist traditions. For socialists, democracy meant popular power; for liberals, it meant elections of representatives alongside the conditions that facilitated those elections.'These two conceptions,' Williams argued, 'in their extreme forms, now confront each other as enemies.'

But that was written in 1976, a time in which the Left retained some of the vigour of the insurgent 60s. Today, the socialist tradition has been erased from public consciousness — and the radical definition of democracy largely forgotten. You can see the consequences in the debate about Trump.

Sullivan explicitly rehearses arguments from centuries earlier. 'To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob,' he says, '[the Founding Fathers] constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.' With the radical conception of democracy as participation now rarely articulated, Sullivan's able to present the suppression of the mob as innately democratic. And, because many progressives cannot imagine democracy meaning anything other than representation, they're susceptible to arguments about elitism as a democratic value.

 

"If a grotesque billionaire's managed to present himself as a representative of the excluded and the marginalised, it's only because the Left's ceded that territory for too long."

 

That's been the problem with so much of the response to Trumpism. In July 2015, for instance, the left-leaning Huffington Post editorialised that its Trump coverage would no longer feature under the heading 'Politics'. 'Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what the Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.'

The passage reeks of snooty condescension, implying Trump was a sideshow appealing only to rubes and thus of no interest to anyone who mattered.

Obviously, the approach didn't work. But you can see the same methodology in the growing calls for progressives to rally behind Hillary Clinton. She may be a shill for huge corporations; she may be a notorious warmonger; she may have played a huge role in the growth of American's prison-industrial complex, but she's a mainstream politician, the ultimate insider, and thus a better option than Trump.

The problem is that Trump's built his support by positioning himself as the antidote to mainstream political insiders. His campaign taps into the widespread disillusionment with elite politics and those who enforce it. That's why, after every supposed gaffe or stumble, he grows stronger. Trump supporters don't care about traditional politics. They want to see him insult the moderator and throw the debate into chaos.

Will Clinton defeat Trump? Perhaps — but the polls already show him doing far better than anyone expected. More importantly, an electoral loss might mean the end of Donald Trump but it won't destroy Trumpism. The constituency into which the Donald has tapped will almost certainly grow under the administration of a corporate Democrat like Clinton, even if it manifests in a different form. And what then? How much larger and heftier will the barriers against the popular will have to become?

There is, however, an alternative. Rather than trying to crush Trump from above, progressives need to undermine him from below. For if a grotesque billionaire's managed to present himself as a representative of the excluded and the marginalised, it's only because the Left's ceded that territory for too long. The Bernie Sanders campaign showed the enthusiasm that a leftwing populism can generate. If, as seems likely, Sanders will soon bow out, it's even more important to repopularise the old notion of participatory democracy, to argue for a politics in which ordinary people do more than merely vote for one member of the elite or another every four years or so.

 


Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow

 

 

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Existing comments

All true and good observations. The logical extension of Jeff Sparrow's argument seems to me (rightly) that the US electoral system (powered by money and with barriers between the population and participation) is broken. Making the argument for a new politics therefore means arguing for a reformed system (where money is removed from the system or at least clearly controlled) and where faceless elites don't get to call the shots (e.g through the votes of "Superdelegates" or the ability to manipulate the timing and number or political debates). This takes more than an attitude shift but also campaign finance and constitutional reform. As I have suggested elsewhere in ES, this is not only a US problem, but applies equally to the UK, Australia and NZ (at least).
Justin Erik Allen Glyn SJ | 07 June 2016


The so called great democracies have been anything but. The US Constitution and the Magna Carta were both framed by wealthy landowners who wanted to exclude the common people from participation. Since universal suffrage arrived governments are only elected with the support or at least indifference of the media baron (i.e. the establishment). Trump is the irony of this direction, a man by inherited wealth, unscrupulous dealings and saturation media exposure has become the champion of the dispossessed. The very people he is the opposite of!
Bruce | 07 June 2016


That's a sharp-eyed take on the weird of American politics this year. The sensible part of me thinks that Trump is going to get hammered in an epic and historical way, the worst defeat since Reagan and Nixon swept 48 of the 50 states. But I have been consistently wrong about him. My theory now is that while it’s easy to think of Trump voters as racist bigoted fools who are paying no attention at all to facts, the deeper play has everything to do with fear and rage and a terrible loneliness – so many of the people who are voting for him fear for their jobs, for the lack of jobs for their kids; I think many are also shocked and scared by how fast the culture has changed around them, from the sudden normalcy of gay life to a much browner America. And I also think many of these voters feel alienated, lonely, alone, marginalized, ignored, laughed at by pop culture at large. In a real way it isn’t that they are voting for Trump – they are voting their rage and fear and terrible feeling that they have somehow lost a cultural war, a way of life, a set of values that meant the world to them. It’s so easy to say racist, sexist, bigoted, and all those words are accurate; but the sad and very unnerving thing for my country is that there are millions of people who feel like the country went on without them in a direction they detest and fear and would happily destroy. Trump, a genius demagogue, feeds and trumpets this like George Wallace did race-fear. Trump’s a joke, but he’s also an avatar, and that latter is important, and sad, and scary.
Brian Doyle | 08 June 2016


Participatory Democracy is on offer through active membership of political parties and civil society groups of all kinds including the political. The Socially Tradition lives on in juvenile groups such as "look at me" Socialist Alternative. Many people want to be free to be apolitical and in a democracy that's their choice. Trump traps into disaffection. Disaffection and its partner's... Racism, anger pre-existed The Donald. Closer to home, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abott-Turnbull leadership merry go round reveals a place where electoral reform could increase participation but maintain the solidity of our Parliamentary structures. We needed to have a system of Directly electing the Prime Minister or one that protects the PM from coups.
HarryWho | 08 June 2016


" 'In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order,' Sullivan argues, 'Trump is an extinction-level event.'" Really? Trump may have clay feet but there's no need to put a clay helmet on him as well.
Roy Chen Yee | 08 June 2016


Western politics is and probably always has been about sectional interest groups. There are now more than ever before. In the USA Trump attracts support predominantly from a group of white working class men of a certain age, who are very angry about what has happened to the well-paying jobs for unskilled males which have gone overseas or to Mexico. Most other sectional interest groups such as (poor) blacks, Hispanics, the educated, the liberal middle class etc etc dislike him intensely. They are the majority. Many traditional Republicans also dislike Trump and will abstain, vote for Clinton or go for some 3rd candidate as a protest. There are Republicans of course that will vote for party, right or wrong, but they are unconvinced by Trump`s moral miss-spent life, especially the religious right. Ratioanlly Trump cannot win the genral election especially when Clinton goes after this loose cannon as she has started too. What the USA really needs, as does Australia, is a re-alignment in politics with development of a strong centre party , with coalitions most of the time with parties on right and left. Society is now two complex for two-horse races.
Eugene | 08 June 2016


As well as the hackneyed slurs “fascist” and “racist”, Jeff Sparrow calls Donald Trump “an aspiring tyrant”. Andrew Sullivan accuses Trump of trying to “establish dictatorial power” and suggests that “we need elites”. Yes those pesky ordinary people. If they’ve lost confidence in the government surely the answer is “dissolve the people”, to quote Brecht. But then Sparrow and Sullivan seem to have no problem with Obama acting like a dictatorial tyrant. Remember Obama’s use of the taxation office to target conservative non-profit groups because of their politics, and 26 Democrats joining Republicans wanting this investigated? Or Obama’s refusal to enforce laws with which he disagreed? Or perhaps Obama’s use of executive power to circumvent Congressional authority? Even Professor Jonathan Turley, who voted for Obama, spoke of “a massive gravitational shift of authority to the Executive Branch that threatens the stability and functionality of our tripartite system.” Mr Sparrow reminds us, “For socialists, democracy meant popular power”—but, it seems, only for the socialist Bernie Sanders, not for Trump. This logic is reminiscent of the dictatorial Hugo Chavez who bankrupted his oil-rich country, but died a billionaire: “The only way to overcome poverty is to give power to the poor.”
Ross Howard | 08 June 2016


Maybe Joe Pageant ("Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir") was right. America has an economically and educationally neglected class. Do these good people now think they have found a voice? Hopefully, for the sake of itself and the world, American society will gradually become a little less winner-takes-all.
David Moloney | 09 June 2016


Demagoguery thrives in a frightened populace; the "power of capital with the power of state", so to speak.The rise of Trumpism in the US reveals the true nature of American Republicanism. Remember how the rise of Fascism in the 20s was welcomed by the American establishment? Hence, more than mere parallels can be drawn between the current rise of Trump and the former.The so-called American democracy has nothing to do with its present state of affairs. In a country where voting is not compulsory, the likelihood of someone like Trump as the next US president is more than patently possible. It's true that we don't have a home-grown Trump, although Abbott was a mere shadow of the real thing; nevertheless, Trumpism, in the form of Islamophobiia or Sinophobia has become a growing trend in our national psyche. Alas, history has a habit of repeating itself ad nauseum. Deadlier than Ebola, Trumpism has also spawned on the European Continent. The scene is set for a prequel of WW2.
Alex Njoo | 09 June 2016


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