I don’t agree with everything in this article, particularly that we have less democracy in society than 40 years ago. I think the answer to such a question is tremendously complicated but surely isn’t obviously this conclusion. But I do approve of the overall tenor of it. The last thing we should be doing in response to the Trump campaign and most especially the Sanders campaign is think that democracy is dangerous and should be clamped down upon in favor of elite rule.
The vileness of the Trump campaign has exposed something just as odious, and ultimately more insidious: the contempt some elites feel at the prospect of sharing power with regular people. This contempt is nothing new, of course—what’s striking is how acceptable it has suddenly become to express such antidemocratic views in polite company. Just as Trump has given a veneer of “respectability” to expressions of bigotry and xenophobia, he’s made calls for reining in popular democracy sound, to many people’s ears, like a reasonable response.
The elitists gave their game away, though, when they routinely cast Bernie Sanders and his supporters as virtual doppelgängers of the Trump crowd—another out-of-control and misguided mob, hopelessly immature and unrealistic about how the system works. Sanders, The New York Times sniffed, was irresponsibly promising his followers “the moon and a good part of the sun.” In an all-too-characteristic column called “2016: The Reckless Versus the Responsible,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called Sanders and Trump “peas in a pod.” Post reporter Callum Borchers unfavorably compared the Democratic insurgent’s impassioned followers with Trump’s: “If there is a trophy for bad behavior, Bernie Sanders’s supporters appear hell-bent on taking it from Donald Trump’s.”
The argument that Trump, Sanders, and their respective constituencies are two sides of the same benighted coin gained currency, in part, because it lets elites off the hook. It’s a way to rationalize clinging even more vehemently to a ruinous, oligarchic status quo—democracy be damned. But here again, it gets things backward. Protests and populist political movements, after all, are signs that people have been locked out of structures of governance, not that they have successfully “hijacked” the system. Elitists plead for more reason in political life—and who can disagree with that, in principle? But their position itself is not entirely rational.
In a widely circulated cover story in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch rallied to the defense of those in power. “Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around,” he complained. “Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last acceptable form of bigotry.” Mass discontent, he concluded, is a “virus” that must be quarantined.
But mass discontent has already been quarantined. That’s why voters on both the right and left are so pissed off. The real challenge facing America today is the near-absence in civic life of democratic channels that run deeper than a sporadic visit to the voting booth, or the fleeting euphoria of a street protest.
Simply put, while I don’t know exactly what “we need more democracy” means because in the real world, that’s really hard to define and implement, what we absolutely do not need is technocratic betters keeping everyday people out of policy and leadership positions. Because we know that is a dead end in the long run. Even in comments here, I’ve seen people defend the superdelegates in the Democratic Party as a defense against a Trump-like takeover of whackos. And that’s a terribly bad thing to argue.