The End of Democracy and the Last Trump

Donald Trump speaking in Maryland

The victory of liberal democracy over authoritarian communism constituted – if not the ‘End of History’ and global spread of democracy – a good reason to believe that no serious challenge to democracy in the West would ever arise again. Unfortunately, new perils loom on the horizon. This time, however, the threat is internal, and it comes from a loud-mouthed business tycoon who might give us reason to question how well our democracy actually functions.

First things first. What do we mean by ‘democracy’? We all know that it involves governance by citizens, but we might want to think that there is more to it. We are inclined to believe that democracy also provides better governance than authoritarian rule. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that a body of citizens is cleverer than any dictator, and will collectively get at the best solutions for the nation. Similarly, John Stuart Mill argued that only by allowing open discourse and criticism can we separate good ideas from bad ones, and only a democracy will be able to veto poor decisions from its rulers. Their views seem pretty intuitive to most of us, and we do want to believe that we’re collectively more apt to produce decent leaders than hereditary rule would be.  So does this collective-rationality conception of democracy match up to reality? Today there’s one reason to doubt it, and its name is Trump.

We do want to believe that we’re collectively more apt to produce decent leaders than hereditary rule would be.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Donald Trump will (necessarily) be a horrible president, and (most likely) he won’t go on a thermonuclear killing-spree when he’s in a bad mood. But this is not the point. The point is that his campaign has been unashamedly populist in a way that wouldn’t work well in the ideal world of democracy painted above. Trump has trumped every guideline in ‘Campaigning 101’. When asked how he’ll fix the economy he says he’ll ‘put some very smart people on it’; when questioned how he’ll handle Putin he claims he’ll ‘get along with him’. For any other politician this would be political self-immolation. But Trump’s ‘Donald’ll fix it’ attitude has not lead to ridicule – but popular praise.

If we accept the collective-rationality account of democracy, then democracy is supposed to provide politicians with an incentive to appease the (sufficiently) rational body of people by use of reasoned arguments. Engaged citizens will then decide whose proposal will provide the best solution, and hence we have collective intelligent governance. The problem is that ‘I’ll fix it’ is not a reasoned argument. We don’t even have much reason to think it to be true. A collective body of citizens in a functioning democracy is not supposed to take kindly to poorly argued propositions. Yet this attitude has steamrolled the comparatively intellectual ideology of Rand Paul, and the moderate pragmatism of John Kasich.

The problem is that ‘I’ll fix it’ is not a reasoned argument.

So here’s the thing: As good theorists we should allow the refutation of our ideas if we come over counterexamples. Donald Trump appears to constitute a counterexample to the idea that functioning democracy is a stable equilibrium for the developed West. Not only that, but the counterexample is found in a country that purports itself to be the pinnacle of liberal democracy. If democracy remains popular because we believe in the collective intelligence of citizens to respond to reasoned argumentation, then the rise of Trump might provoke justified questions of what’s so good about it after all; it doesn’t seem to function even under good circumstances.

Should we then conclude that this is the end of democracy’s brief existence in the brutal history of mankind, and that Donald Trump is its grim reaper? Well, maybe not. Firstly, though he usually likes to think himself special, there are arguably other threats to democracy which have existed before Trump. Disproportional campaigning budgets is the classical example. Most importantly, whatever the threat is, giving up democracy might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of abandoning the democratic project all together and opting for authoritarian alternatives, we might want to ask whether we’ve been all too ambitious in following the lead of Rousseau and Mill in our notion of democracy.

The fact that democracy might not provide optimal governance by rational citizens doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have other virtues. A more sober conception might be found with Schumpeter and Przeworski (a penny if you pronounce it right). They argue that though real-world democracy is deeply flawed compared to the ideal we often imagine, it does allow conflict-resolution in a peaceful manner, and it minimizes violence. People have less reason to quibble with guns when they can quibble with votes. Furthermore – as Amartya Sen has argued – votes allow for people to make their misfortune heard, and protect them from the negligence of a benevolent but inattentive dictator. This idea echoes Churchill’s brutally over-quoted saying calling democracy the best of a bad bunch, and we might want to subscribe to it.

though real-world democracy is deeply flawed compared to the ideal we often imagine, it does allow conflict-resolution in a peaceful manner, and it minimizes violence.

If we give up our more ambitious notion of democracy, then it seems we can fully account for Donald Trump. We no longer need to put any requirements on who the citizens vote for in order for democracy to live up to our expectations; we just need them to vote.

While we might be happy to continue our justified support of democracy in the absence of counterexamples with poor haircuts, we should also remember what we have given up. One of the attractions of democracy is intuitively the outcomes it produces. If we concede this point – acknowledging that democratic governance might not be more competent after all – then its evident advantage over its adversaries seems at least less clear.

Though Trump’s campaign might not be the murderer of liberal democracy in the West, his success does highlight its limitations, and though we shouldn’t feel beaten by these limitations, we might have reasons to be a bit humbled in our unyielding support of democratic governance. After all, Donald Trump’s greatest fan should be Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of China’s Communist Party, whose odds are improving in the ideological battle of the next generation.