We tend to think of democracy as an inevitability. Indeed, Violet Brown, the current oldest person alive, was born in 1900, 124 years after the establishment of democracy in the US. Even my host country, South Korea, has been democratic longer than my sister has been alive.
However, our current wave of democracy is only the second in human history and it’s the first wave to spread beyond the classical, Greco-Roman sphere of dominance. If we think about the structure of a democracy, this rarity and fragility starts to make more sense. For a representative society to function, the society must share enough values for members of each faction to see their rivals as legitimate foes rather than foreign evils or domestic traitors. The victors in democratic elections must value the system more than their own partisan goals because if they don’t, the obvious course of action is to destroy the opponent. To put this only slightly different, the American republic can persist only so long as the Republicans allow the Democrats to exist and vice versa. A democracy is, thus, an exercise in restraint against one’s opponents. To do so is – make no mistake – unnatural, difficult and precarious.
Indeed, a student of the history of democracy will find that the vast majority of new republics fell into chaos, civil war and despotism. In the French Revolution, the radical left Jacobins effectively destroyed the Republic (and kicked off the Terror) when they declared moderate and conservative political factions to be traitors. In the Haitian Revolution, emancipated slaves used their newly won freedom to establish a line of incompetent strongman dictators and institute a string of genocide attempts. Oliver Cromwell’s 17th century parliamentarian democracy ate itself alive rather than tolerate Anglicans. More recently, the tragically ironic “Arab Spring” of 2010 saw millions of people, voting for the first time, choose militant, sectarian leaders who rushed to slaughter their political enemies and re-impose despotism.
A student of history will further find that one of the most common characteristics of successful young democracies is that they have not just a few, but A TON of ways to thwart the will of the people. In both the classical Greco-Roman sphere and 18th and 19th revolutionary democracies, this took the form of restrictive voting rights. You were not allowed to vote in Rome unless you were a property holding man in good legal standing who had also served in the military. The early United States was similarly restrictive, limiting the franchise to property-owning Anglo Saxon protestants. In more modern democracies, the means of thwarting the will of the people take the forms of party nominations, judicial systems and unelected bureaucracies. Whether through voting restrictions or party nomination politics, the necessity to thwart the will of the people emerges from the same two, basic factors.
First, in all democracies there is a need to keep the factions close enough ideologically that they stand to gain more by cooperating and observing democratic norms than they do by fighting to the death. British Labor and Tory party members, for example, both value the same basic human rights, both believe in the desirability of private enterprise, the protection of free speech and the rule of law. Because they aren’t actually that different, there simply isn’t much incentive for one party to massacre the other. Romans and the Greeks achieved the same thing through voting restrictions. By limiting the franchise to veterans who owned property, they were effectively ensuring that everyone with the power to vote had a vested interest in the survival of the Roman Republic.
The farther apart the parties are, the more tenuous this becomes. The Spanish Slaves’ Party, if it had been allowed to exist, would have been perfectly happy to watch the Roman Republic burn to the ground. Likewise, English democracy would not last long if Maoists replaced Labour and Mussolini replaced the Tories. To sum this up, all democracies must protect themselves from ideologically extreme politicians, even when those politicians are popular.
The second reason is that the common people really don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time. The American voting public, for example, has believed for decades that it is possible to cut taxes, increase social program spending and reduce the deficit, all at the same time. A plurality of the British public believes that it is possible to withdraw from the EU, block immigration AND maintain a free access to the European market. The people of Myanmar genuinely believe destroying sinister Muslim invaders – the Rohingya – will bring order and prosperity to their country.
This is not because most people are stupid but rather because it is unreasonable to expect accountants, nurses or truck drivers to understand political and economic realities as well as a member of the political class would. A nurse, after all, spends all day focused on patients and has little time for abstract theorizing on foreign relations. Because of this inevitable ignorance on the part of the common people, they are almost always susceptible to “people’s champions.”
In the past, American elites and insiders have been able to curb the people’s affinity for extremists through the party nomination process. Until the 1970s, both major parties chose their candidates in smoke filled rooms, far from the prying eyes of the public. Because of this, Americans enjoyed centuries on end of mostly boring, establishment type presidents and a corresponding total lack of authoritarian people’s champions like Hugo Chavez or Adolf Hitler.
This is not because the American people were immune to the charms of demagogues, quite the opposite. In the 1920’s, Henry Ford ran for the Republican nomination on a platform of empowering the working class, eliminating the corrupt establishment and destroying a supposed global conspiracy of Jewish bankers. Ford comfortably led opinion polls but ended up withdrawing after the Republican Party elites informed him that they would never, in a million years, nominate him. Likewise, George Wallace, the longtime Dixiecrat governor of Alabama, ran for the Democratic nomination in 1964, 1968 and 1972. Wallace ran on a platform of revolutionary white resentment. He promised to “shut down every highway in the country” until segregation was reinstated and to lead a hunt against “pinko infiltrators.” He was hugely popular in all three primaries but the political elites in the Democratic Party feared his populist extremism and shut him out. These are just two in a very long list of popular, ideologically extreme, anti-establishment politicians the parties successfully disposed of.
However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s both parties opened up the nomination process. The Democrats reserved the so-called “super-delegates” in order to partially veto the will of the people, but the Republicans went for an entirely people-power process. As such, the number of outsider, extremist politicians to mount serious candidacies has skyrocketed.
In addition to the rise of the demagogues, the American Democracy is also facing the most extreme partisan polarization since the Civil War. Left wing people increasingly live, work, shop and socialize in self-segregated urban cores. Right wingers likewise have fled the cities and taken up residence in ideologically homogeneous rural areas. The internet has inflamed this problem. Where before a few giant corporations fashioned the media in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience – an inherently moderate stance – we have moved onto a society in which the production and dissemination of media is so cheap customers can conveniently segregate themselves into any of an unlimited number of information bubbles.
This has driven a hard increase in partisanship. Indeed, a quick browse of my friends’ Facebook profiles statuses makes it clear that “Trump is terrible, but I’ll vote for anyone if they promise to stop the Democrats” and that “I met my first Trump supporter today. Gross!” In such a fragmented, ideologically extreme environment, it is increasingly difficult to accept one’s political rivals as legitimate. After all, if your opponents truly are “gross” or so bad you’ll vote for anyone in order to stop them, why would you recognize such a person as legitimate when they win an election?
In the past, these problems led the Romans into the embrace of Caesar, the French into the grasp of Napoleon and the Venezuelans to Chavista domination. One wonders if we are on the same road.