The fragility of democracy

This article was published January 10, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following column was originally published in Monday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Despair is the enemy of democracy, because it is easy to become discouraged over the electoral outcomes that democracy sometimes produces.

Such despair has a long intellectual pedigree, extending back to classical times.

Plato and Aristotle felt that human beings were incapable of governing themselves, that whatever hopes on that count that history produces will ultimately be disappointed. There is no genuine long-term progress in human governance, Pericles, the Magna Carta, and 1776 to the contrary, because we are doomed to oscillate between anarchy and tyranny, with a flawed human nature incapable of sustaining republicanism for more than a short interlude.

The American accomplishment within this context -- more than two centuries of freedom under reasonably effective self-government -- is unprecedented but still simply postpones the inevitable. There is no meaningful history, at least when it comes to politics and governance; we move forever in circles rather than climbing onward and upward to higher levels of civilization and enlightenment.

It is easy to succumb to such pessimism because so much of what we see around us, including the results of a particular presidential election, can be taken as evidence of decline to come; it presumably has to start sometime and Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton might be as likely a place-marker as any.

The pessimists among us might also point to the way in which discussion of serious public-policy concerns seems to be increasingly displaced by politics as a form of entertainment. The almost complete absence of the most pressing issues of our time from the recent campaign -- a national debt that now equals our gross domestic product and the need for reform of entitlement programs that are its primary propellant -- could suggest that our decay is already so severe as to prevent us from even recognizing its symptoms, let alone addressing the cause.

Those skeptical of the long-term prospects of democracy often stress the manner in which self-government degenerates into mob rule, followed by the rise of the demagogue promising to satisfy all desires and solve all problems. Fiscal insolvency seems to be a particular malady, once voters discover that they can vote themselves benefits paid for by others and politicians capitalize on that awareness to win elections.

Belief in the idea of a cyclical history in which humanity makes the same mistakes over and over again and thereby returns us to despotism has the virtue of flattering the believer, if only because faith in progress smacks of a sentimental naiveté and lack of familiarity with the persistent afflictions of the human condition. Far safer to embrace cynicism and the aura of sophisticated world-weariness it provides.

But if it is even remotely true that human nature is an obstacle to the preservation of self-government, a powerful case can also be made that it is only self-government that ultimately satisfies certain aspects of human nature, including the desire to have a say over one's lot in life and to be treated with dignity and respect.

As we leave a depressing 2016 behind, it might be useful to consider that the most discouraging part wasn't so much the ugliness of the campaign or even the outcome of the election itself, but the way in which considerations of the lesser evil had to be taken into account by voters to a greater extent than ever before; that the failure occurred not in the constitutional order the founders created but in a party system they never envisioned.

Within this context, there was nothing inherently irrational in nearly 63 million of those voters deciding that Trump was the less bad choice. Given that the polls have shown for years now that most of the public thought the nation was "on the wrong track," often by margins of around three to one, a perhaps greater irrationality would have been found in their voting for the candidate (Clinton) who was promising more of the same.

Nor would irrationality have necessarily characterized the decision-making of the nearly 66 million who voted for Hillary -- although most of us might feel that the train has been headed down the wrong track, and would go down still further with her, such an outcome might still be considered preferable to it going off the rails altogether; that Trump was in the end simply too big a risk to take.

In all this the thought occurs that voters did the best they could under unusually difficult circumstances and that it is actually the ideologues among us, on both left and right, who are being irrational in claiming that only irrational people could have supported Hillary over Trump or Trump over Hillary.

If our democracy has a problem, it is probably less likely to be found among ordinary voters than among pundits who condemn them for not voting the "right way." In the end, the greatest threat to self-government, even more so than the ignorance of the masses or the ways in which demagogues seek to exploit it, are ideologues that disparage its practice and are willing to dispense with it when it fails to produce the desired outcomes.

Adam Smith once said that "there is a great deal of ruin in a nation."

Let us hope so.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 01/10/2017

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