The Peril and Promise of Democracy


It’s been a while since I’ve written for the blog, and in particular, about the election. Honestly, it has depressed me more than anything. Even if he wins California, Bernie Sander’s electoral chances are nil, making Hillary the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump has unfortunately become the presumptive Republican nominee. The sheer fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees for the major parties is truly an indictment of our system. In fact, polling suggests that they might be the most disliked major candidates in all the history of contemporary public polling. So, what does this say about Democracy?

It reminds me of a little book that I read in college by one of my favorite authors, polemicist H. L. Mencken. Notes on Democracy, originally published in 1926, presented his critique of democratic government and the means by which it gains and retains power. Mencken’s libertarian, often elitist outlook nonetheless shines light on some of the lesser angels of the democratic process. I find his words valuable in understanding this mess of a presidential election.

Here’s Mencken’s skepticism of the supposed “distinction” between “representative democracy” and “direct democracy”:

The truth is that the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is a great deal less marked than political sentimentalists assume. Under both forms the sovereign mob must employ agents to execute its will, and in either case the agents may have ideas of their own, based upon interests of their own, and the means at hand to do and get what they will. Moreover, their very position gives them a power of influencing the electors that is far above that of any ordinary citizen: they become politicians ex officio, and usually end by selling such influence as remains after they have used all they need for their own ends. Worse, both forms of democracy encounter the difficulty that the generality of citizens, no matter how assiduously they may be instructed, remain congenitally unable to comprehend many of the problems before them, or to consider all of those they do comprehend in an unbiased and intelligent manner.

The choice this year of Clinton or Trump is based on a false assumption that Mencken destroys in this passage: democracy somehow produces the best results. Now, it would be unwise to assume that authoritarianism or anarchy would be better (even though I haven’t ruled out a theoretical, market-based version of the latter), but democracy exists as a game of averages. When you go in casting a ballot for the “lesser of two evils,” not only do you still get evil, you get something much more depressing: mediocrity.

Hillary Clinton is a hawkish, neoliberal establishment policy wonk who has trouble acting like a real human being. Donald Trump is a “short-fingered vulgarian” whose manic and megalomaniacal persona only attempts to mask the dangers of his rascism, xenophobia, and economic ignorance. Both options suck, and Hillary definitely sucks less, but is this really the best we can do as a citizenry? While things look bleak, I think there are also fantastic new opportunities this election opens up.

First, what about Bernie? He has done very well, and seems poised to win the majority of the remaining primaries, but he will not be able to shore up the nomination. However, he has been able to select known progressives like Bill McKibben, Dr. Cornel West, and Representative Keith Ellison to the Democratic platform committee. This is a start, even though the majority of the electorate don’t know or care about the platform. It’s just a kind gesture to Sanders, nothing more.

Now, the thing I’d like to see happen, because it would help the Democrats and Clinton, would be the name Sanders as her VP. It would ensure many Bernie supporters (myself included) would vote for him and would mend the wounds of the primary. This is exactly what Obama did in 2008, when he named Clinton to be his Secretary of State. The centrist wing and the progressive wings of the party would have a top ticket that balances out their interests and it would signal that Clinton is serious about being a change-maker. Also, Sanders has consistently polled far better against Trump than Clinton has, so his name would add more points to her column. He has said he would be open to it, and I think the Democratic party would be tremendously helped.

How has this post become more optimistic, even though I used Mencken to slam democracy towards the top? The reason for my optimism is two-fold: the hope that Sanders could be a major player in the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party and the rise of the third-party candidates.

Not since 1992 and 1996 have we had a better moment for a third-party insurgency. Jill Stein, perennial favorite of the Green Party, has positioned herself as an alternative to Bernie voters put off by Trump and Clinton. And then there’s the Libertarian party, whose presumptive nominee, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, can attract disaffected fiscal conservatives and social liberals who are tired of the status quo. Of all the third-party candidates, Johnson is the one I like the most. His commitment to getting America’s fiscal house in order, ending the drug war, fighting crony capitalism, and encouraging entrepreneurship inspires economically-conscious liberals like myself.

While the major candidates thoroughly blow, the plethora of second-tier candidates like Sanders, Stein, and Johnson represent the best of American democracy. Their visions of America, while differing, give voters a chance to select candidates for ideas, rather than just personalities or recognized names. Democracy is often messy, counter-intuitive, and sometimes flat out terrible, but if we start choosing candidates for values over bluster and popularity, it might start to suck a whole lot less.

As H. L. Mencken wrote 90 years ago:

I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself—that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating.

With that in mind, let’s enjoy the spectacle and make the best choice for ourselves.