The Trouble With Democracy

By Jenny Keene

I recognise the Donald Trump trope is getting old. Finding him less and less funny and more and more embarrassing, I think the time has come to wallow in a well of inconsolability at the state of American politics.

As one of a few token Americans, I should fully admit my biases upfront. My first job out of undergrad was as a 2008 field organiser for the Virginia Democratic Party. Although I wasn’t fully enamoured with the ‘Hope and Change’ rhetoric, I definitely drank the Kool-Aid along with every other Senate intern and politics nerd: the frisson of democracy-at-work is addictive.

Yet the trouble with democracy, as an excellent human rights professor once said, is that someone is always going to lose. Democracy shines when a state’s foundations are firm. It flounders when the ‘voice of the people’ is fragmented and hostile.

The U.S. hasn’t faced such extreme rhetoric since perhaps Alabama Governor George Wallace, famed for his 1963 speech declaring ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ Trump’s bashing on minorities, ignorance of the Geneva Conventions, and delayed refusal of disavowing the support of the Ku Klux Klan—all the things most politicos thought would bring him down—have either been cheered or casually ignored by his supporters. And regardless of whether he loses the primary, the hateful things Trump has said now cannot be unsaid. They’ve found support in pockets of the disaffected, and now that the disaffected have a voice, those people are unlikely to go quietly into the night.

Giving a voice to the disaffected is crucially important. But the 2016 election cycle suggests that those disaffected voices are more anxious than they are empowered. Real Clear Politics dubbed 2016 the ‘Year of the Insecure Voter,’ and I’m inclined to agree. A January 2016 Rasmussen poll found that 50% of Americans believe race relations in the U.S. are getting worse. That’s up from 30% only two years ago. Likewise, a December 2015 poll by Anzalone Liszt Grove found that the electorate’s highest concern is ‘National Security/Terrorism’ at 29%—nearly two times higher than the ‘Jobs and the Economy,’ ranking at 15%. We are more distrusting of our ‘neighbour’ than ever in recent history; the campaigns of this election cycle on serve to encourage that.

No doubt contributing to this insecurity is congressional infighting, which has led to the second lowest ever Gallup Congressional approval rating of 11%. This is only two points higher than the lowest rating of 9% in 2013—shortly after the U.S. Government actually shutdown for intransigency over a spending bill. Moreover, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell flatly dismissed considering President Obama’s Supreme Court replacement for Justice Scalia, regardless of who wins the Presidency. And a January 2016 poll by CNN/ORC International found that 67% of Americans were in favour of President Obama’s 2016 Executive Orders on gun control—including 51% of Republicans—yet no further Congressional action has been taken. In short, the American voter has little to lose in supporting the outsiders and little to save if the results provide us with a-typical or ill-prepared leaders.

Unlike other liberals (read: U.S. political lefties), I hoped the evolution of the Tea Party would have prevented this sad state of affairs. Having been in the UK during their 2010 general election, I was wooed by the Monster Raving Looneys Parties, the Pirate Parties, and even the UKIPs that exist in a potentially-multi-partied-system. (Here, I’m so pleased to know of the Motoring Enthusiasts. Sign me up.) A space for recognition, and frankly a safety valve for the further-afields, smaller parties seemed to be a way to have our cake and eat it too. In 2014, my congressional district orchestrated the unexpected primary defeat of Republican Eric Cantor—then the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives—by an unknown college professor backed by the Tea Party. Although I doubt my Representative actually represents my views, I still felt a twinge of pride that democracy had spoken.

But the Tea Party never fully separated from the Republicans and further right views—views that found an outlet in the Tea Party—grew louder and louder. We remain a staunchly two-party system with few choices to assuage our idiosyncratic anxieties. And with a raft of insecurities and a deaf-ear from supposedly more moderate politicians, it shouldn’t be a wonder we’re in the position we are.

Democracy depends on moderation. It depends on free speech but also toleration. It depends on a proactive electorate, but an electorate who will accept the results win or lose. And it depends on responsive elected officials, but elected officials who will put the nation’s unity and fair operation above the fervour necessary to get them elected.

Regardless of who wins the White House in November, I’m not sure that’s what we’ll see.


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