Jedediah Purdy in Dissent:
Donald Trump’s nomination for the presidency was inconceivable until primary after primary made it all but inevitable—and a mild Indiana spring evening confirmed it. It suggests to many baffled people, chiefly pundits, that they do not really understand their own country. David Brooks, for one, has announced his intent to reconnect with everyday Americans in service of “a new national narrative” to replace whatever fever-dream story has brought us here. But most of all, Trump’s elevation seems to ratify misgivings about democracy itself. If majorities rally to a blustering, bullying, conspiracy-minded, bigotry-stoking joke of a candidate and turn him into no joke at all, is majority rule really any way to run a country?
Andrew Sullivan’s long and engaging essay in New York magazine captures the major themes that we can expect to see shared in the weeks and months ahead from the right through the center-left. Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic and a libertarian kind of British liberal, gives a systematic statement of a position he seems to share, more or less, with Brooks, the Times’ Ross Douthat, and others. Because it offers readers a way to orient themselves in this strange new political landscape, while also indulging certain widespread political prejudices and flattering the vanity of the educated, economically secure, and civic-minded, Sullivan’s account is likely to become one of the contenders for the “national narrative” of at least some commentators and many confused and rightly anxious voters.
It is also a deeply conservative, even reactionary rendering of our situation and of democracy itself. The revival of this argument, and its appeal to a certain kind of thoughtful voter, is a bid to shut down the gains the Sanders campaign has made for the left and to discredit the very idea of popular rule in favor of various kinds of elite management of politics.
Here, in short, is Sullivan’s argument.
- We live in a “hyperdemocracy.” This means:
- There is almost no barrier to “the will of the people” directly entering politics and commanding, or at least seizing hold of and shaking, the state.
- We live in a culture of radical equality, where all kinds of identity, lifestyle, and attitude demand, and tend to get, equal respect. Even animals may be considered equal.
- We also live with a kind of egalitarianism of impulse and opinion: my feeling about politics is as relevant as your data or reason, and I may just decide to act on it—say, in voting for Trump, or for “the demagogue of the left,” Bernie Sanders.
- In a hyperdemocracy, demagogues are likely to arise. They have a gift for sensing and manipulating the emotional responses of the masses, and especially for tapping into experiences of resentment, disrespect, and disappointment. They offer themselves as channels for these emotions, creating a kind of emotional politics that combines the three features of hyperdemocracy into a toxic cocktail: the thwarted wish for perfect equality and complete respect feeds angry feelings that find a vehicle in the demagogue, the destructive circuit that links the state to the ugly, angry, self-indulgent will of the people—a will driven more by feeling than by reason.
- It is the responsibility of elites—and all citizens who still respect expertise, rationality, and self-restraint—to resist the demagogue categorically. This means lining up behind Hillary Clinton and realizing that she is all that stands between us and an “extinction-level event” for American democracy. Those who still identify with the Sanders campaign are undermining the thin reed of elite legitimacy. Moreover, as Brooks also insisted last week, elites have some self-scrutiny to do, having lost touch with the reality of much of the country, particularly the economic and cultural displacement of the white working class.
Trump’s startling, even epochal rise has led Sullivan, Brooks, Douthat, and others to revisit long-standing arguments in political thought. The concern for democracy that they express is explicitly anti-democratic in many of its premises. It supports a reading of the present moment that would shut down the radical promise of the Sanders movement, stanch the flow of fresh democratic energy and critical thought from the left, and celebrate a defensive crouch by established elites as political heroism. Whether we have come to that desperate pass depends very much on your theory of democracy.