by N. Gabriel Martin
“It was wrong to underestimate the ignorance of the ruling class.” —Graham Greene, The Confidential Agent
The old libel that the masses are too ignorant and irrational for democracy is having a moment. Elections of populist demagogues in the US, Brazil, India, and other countries, together with the failures of many democratically elected governments to respond adequately to crises such as climate change and COVID-19, seem to have vindicated the case against self-rule.
Democracy is in crisis, but not because of the fundamental stupidity of the masses, as the libel would have it. It is in crisis because of the evisceration, over the past 40 years, of any real democratic alternative to the status quo. Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative!” has turned out to be all too true. But if there is no alternative, then nobody can make good choices (or any meaningful choice at all). Democracy is not doomed because of some inherent flaw, or because of some inherent vice of the masses, it is undermined by contingent historical conditions that can be reversed, and must be if democracy (and anti-authoritarian politics of any kind) is going to survive.
There has always been a strong current of anti-democratic thinking in western culture. From Plato on, political thinkers have often offered their own contempt for the people as an objection to majoritarian rule. The position is essentially authoritarian; it is based on the notion that the majority—that we—cannot make our own decisions, and are better off if someone else chooses for us. And yet, terrible democratic decisions—the election of Trump, for example—in recent years have led many commentators across the political spectrum, and even some on the Left, to dredge up the stale idea that “democracy simply doesn’t work.” The idea can even be made to seem edgy today, because decades of abusing democratic ideals as a causus belli, and degrading it in domestic politics, has taught us to be cynical about it.
Indeed, all the disasters that conservative philosopher Edmund Burke warned that democracy would bring about apparently came to pass in the form of the Trump presidency: disastrous choices made by an ill-informed populace; the empowerment of populist demagogues who enflame the passions of the masses; and the exercise of majoritarian tyranny over minorities. Trump’s defeat in 2020 may offer some comfort, and yet the slim margins by which Biden won aren’t as much of a repudiation of Trumpism as one would hope for.
Anti-democratic sentiments have been gaining traction among the Right in the US over the past two decades due to the Republican party’s need to compensate for their steady decline in popularity since the Reagan era. They have compensated for that decline by relying on voter suppression and other undemocratic practices to retain power. More incongruously, some on the Left have also resorted to maligning the decision-making ability of the people in order to explain their defeats.
However, the theory that the people are incapable of governing themselves is incompatible with both social-democratic and liberal politics. It’s also unfounded—there’s no valid reason to think that the majority are any less capable of self-rule than any other, more select, group, whether that be the wealthy or the highly educated. Still, if anti-democratic thinking is to be rejected, we need a better way to explain democratic disasters. If self-rule is not only an important principle but also practically feasible, how can we explain the election of people like Trump, with his terrible policies, corruption, and ineptness.
One explanation is that elections in the US are undemocratic in significant ways. The Supreme Court’s evisceration of the voting rights act in 2013 exacerbated already rampant voter suppression in the US. On top of that, the powerful tool of disenfranchisement that is the electoral college has handed Republicans the presidency three times in the past twenty years, even though they only won the popular vote once. These undemocratic aspects of the US electoral system have cumulative effects that consistently subvert the will of the majority.
Even more important, however, is that the ability of the people to make informed political decisions has been undermined by the elimination of any opposition to right-wing policies, such as the destruction of the social safety net, mass incarceration, anti-immigration policies, and military interventionism, in public debate over the past 50 years.
The theory that the masses are naturally incapable of governing well is an authoritarian smear that offers no alternative except abandoning self-government. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that no individual’s decision-making ability is invulnerable to the broader cultural context that they inhabit. That’s because none of us, no matter how many hours we can devote to pondering competing theories and the evidence in front of our own eyes, can figure it out all on our own. We are all ultimately dependent upon other people in order to understand the world, no matter how perceptive or intelligent we are.
No individual virologist is able to ascertain the mortality or infection rates of COVID-19—that knowledge would be impossible without a broad, international community of scientists sharing worldviews and assumptions, and trusting one another to present their claims in good faith.
The epistemological needs of a democratic citizen are different—the voter can’t rely on sharing common ground with the members of their community, since the community is going to be divided on any politically significant issue. What the citizen needs is for the division itself to be represented in the public conversation.
It is the erosion of division, especially over the past 50 years, that is directly responsible for the crisis in the necessary conditions for political knowledge, and the resulting decline of democracy. The good news is that this decline, because it is due to historical trends and not to the unavoidable viciousness of the people, is still reversible.
In order to further debunk the myth that the people are naturally too stupid to rule themselves, I will say a little about how the destruction of real democratic alternatives happened, and why it led to the rise of demagoguery in the form of the Trump presidency.
In the run-up to the 1968 presidential election, Nixon shunned explicitly racist policies and speech while talking about law-and-order and promising to cut social programs, and while leaning on the use of oblique “dog-whistles” to indicate to southern Dixiecrats just what kind of order he would be maintaining: the order that was disrupted by the protests of the civil rights and anti-war movements. As the architect of Nixon’s southern strategy, Lee Atwater, explained in 1981: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*, n*, n*.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘n*’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes. And all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” The strategy continues to work—the enormous racial wealth gap in America is almost exactly where it was 50 years ago.
Nixon’s economic policies were actually far less conservative than any that have been brought in since, either by Republican or Democratic administrations. Spending on welfare increased dramatically under Nixon and poverty declined.
However, his more pivotal legacy was the normalisation of a conservative way of thinking about government spending on social programs and the criminal justice system that he devised in order to appeal to anti-Black racism and resentment about the expansion of social programs to African-Americans. Welfare was portrayed not as an important safeguard against life-threatening poverty, but as a disincentive to earning a living that contributed to what is described as a “culture of poverty” and a “culture of dependency” in order to blame the poor, especially poor African-Americans, for their poverty. The “culture of poverty” myth made the argument that there is nothing that government aid can do to help those in need without making things worse.
After the defeats of McGovern, Carter, and Mondale, the Nixonian ideology and rhetoric came to dominate the policies of both parties, as well as the broader political discourse. Since Reagan, both parties have championed conservative policies and ideas about the social safety net, criminal justice, and immigration. They have also promoted the same racist dog-whistles in order to do so—from Reagan’s “welfare queen” to Hilary Clinton’s “super-predators” to Obama’s dismissal of Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore as “thugs.”
After the political opposition to the destruction of the welfare state and expansion of the police state collapsed, the media, in large part, also stopped offering any objection, let alone argument, against it. The upshot of all this is that far-right ideas have been allowed to dominate American culture with little opposition.
Meanwhile, preservation of the “Atwater rule” against engaging in explicitly racist rhetoric implanted a fundamental and not very subtle, hypocrisy into political discourse. The right-wing agenda of the elimination of social solutions like welfare on the one hand, and the reliance on punitive and violent solutions on the other, are completely dependent on prejudice against African-Americans, Latin American immigrants, and the targets of US military aggression in the Middle East.
The case against the welfare state, for example, makes no sense at all unless it is supported by the “culture of poverty” argument—the argument that wealth and crime disparities between Whites and African-Americans is due to problems in African-American culture, and not due to persisting economic oppression and other forms of racial oppression. But while the argument against welfare, and even the “culture of poverty” justification, has become a normal part of the political discourse, the racist assumptions at its foundations remain taboo. This hypocrisy is what created the space for the rise to power of Trump and the far-right.
Trump espouses the same ideas and policies that have been mainstream for decades—from his anti-immigration to his tax cuts. The only difference, and it matters, is that he has abandoned civility. He still avoids explicit racial slurs in public, but his dog-whistles are louder and more obvious. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a considerable (and, in 2016, electorally decisive) minority of people agree with him.
His supporters celebrate him as a truth-teller, despite his unrivalled propensity for lying, because the things he says are part and parcel of a racist, imperialist, and poor-hating worldview that has been pushed by mainstream political discourse for decades. By breaking the taboo against explicitly espousing that worldview, Trump was able to cast himself as plain-speaking. His references to “American carnage” and denigration of “inner cities” sound authentic to his followers because the policies and subtler racism pushed by the political establishment since Nixon also assume racist hypotheses. But because establishment conservatives have hypocritically refused to “connect the dots” between these policies and their racist justifications, Trump was able to carve out a niche for himself in claiming to “say what we were all thinking”.
In just the same way, the crackdowns on immigrants, from Clinton’s 1996 immigration bill to Obama’s involvement of state and local governments in deportations, assume that Latin American immigrants are bad for society, even if the architects of those policies refuse to express that kind of xenophobic position, and scorn anyone who does. This allowed Trump, from his campaign announcement on, to cast himself as honest by spouting libel that other politicians would only allow themselves to imply. If you believe something that is taboo to say, it must feel liberating to hear someone come out and say it.
The political establishment’s commitment to chauvinistic policies has left it incapable of offering a principled opposition to the kind of chauvinistic beliefs that Trump feeds off. In the absence of a rebuttal of those beliefs, the only way to maintain the rule against explicit bigotry has been to call it offensive.
Insisting on civility misses the point. The problem with racism, xenophobia, and blaming the poor is that they’re wrong (morally and factually), not that they hurt someone’s feelings. But continuing to defend oppressive policies while making their rationale taboo just makes the Left appear weak.
That’s why it has been so easy for the Right to frame their defence of hate speech as a free speech issue since the early 1990s. Even though they are wrong, the Right has successfully cast the opponents of hate speech as oversensitive, censorious and intellectually unserious, while portraying themselves as caring about “facts, not feelings.” What’s needed is principled, rational opposition to racism and racist policies, not an insistence on civility.
I say that the empowerment of a racist demagogue was inevitable (and yes, hindsight is 20/16) because people, rightly, value truth more than civility. It is exactly because of the rationality of the populace that the unstable and hypocritical bargain that Nixon struck with his bigoted supporters was eventually bound to crumble—it required people to suspend reason. It is a tragedy that so much has been invested in ensuring that when the Nixonian bargain finally collapsed it would not be by revealing its lies for what they are, but by doubling down on the right to speak those lies out loud.
It might go some way towards improving public understanding if political leaders and prominent journalists made arguments that present the missing alternatives to right-wing policies, but what the public really needs is evidence in the form of social programs and non-violent responses to social problems that work. Effective solutions provide powerful counterarguments to right-wing attacks. That’s why efforts to dismantle social security during Reagan’s first term were successfully resisted—a broad demographic experienced and understood the benefits of these programs. As Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis wrote in an influential 1983 paper for the Cato Institute, after the failure to push through a plan to gut social security: “there is a firm coalition behind the present Social Security system… Before Social Security can be reformed, we must begin to divide this coalition and cast doubt on the picture of reality it presents to the general public.” Once something beneficial exists, it does indeed present a powerful “picture of reality.” Or, to strip away their postmodern reactionary jargon—it provides powerful evidence of the benefit of real responses to society’s needs.
This is also why senate Republicans, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, adopted a strategy of general and unprincipled opposition to whatever Obama would attempt. As Ohio senator George Voinovich said: “If he was for it, we had to be against it.” McConnell understood that in the short term any success at implementing policy, even a Republican policy such as the health care policy (authored by Stuart Butler) which eventually became Obamacare, would provide evidence of Democratic competence, and that had to be avoided at all costs.
There’s nothing particularly hard to understand about the benefit of a system that works. Α well-informed electorate doesn’t require ‘galaxy-brained’ wonks, because the kind of social goods that matter are not the kind of finely-tuned technocratic policies requiring advanced degrees in economics to appreciate. Their inner operations may be nuanced, but what people need to know about them is simple—that they work. A well-informed electorate just requires opportunities to see what devoting resources to programs that help the majority, rather than hurt them, can accomplish. That’s one of the reasons people like McConnell have worked so hard to deprive us of that kind of object lesson.
The increase in anti-democratic rhetoric and sentiment in response to the election of Trump is an insult to anti-authoritarian politics. It ignores the historical context of the current crisis: the systematic destruction of any real alternative to the status quo over the past half century. It then blames the people for failing to consistently choose the lesser of two varieties of the very same genus of evil.
It is tempting to be pessimistic about the possibility of change, given the hegemony of the neoliberal regime. However, there is hope for the revitalisation of real political alternatives. They are unlikely to come from the policy platform of any party without pressure from popular political action such as strikes, protests and other demonstrations.
The election of Joe Biden, and a narrowly democratic senate, offers some hope in the possibility that this administration might be able to be pushed in the right direction by popular movements. Demonstrating the ability of popular movements to effect important policy changes would itself be an object lesson in popular power that we urgently need.