American Culture

Democracy in America: a bad idea

It’s now clear that democracy, as practiced in an anti-intellectual society like ours, doesn’t work. Let’s give elitism (properly understood) a try.

Democracy+ElitismMany of you probably read Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine piece back in April. If not, you should do so as soon as possible – it’s among the most important and insightful political essays we have seen in a generation and will reward your time. I won’t even try to summarize his message, because no paraphrase I could provide would do it justice. Short version: the US is in trouble, and democracy is perhaps the reason.

Sullivan got me to thinking, in some depth, about where I am politically and how I got here. More importantly, where do I go now? If you have followed me this last nine years or so at S&R, you know that I have grave misgivings, not just about the current state of the political and economic landscape, but more essentially about the very nature of the system itself.

This is barely the beginning. Between Bonesparkle and myself there have been more than 600 posts dealing with politics (in some fashion or another) since we launched in spring of 2007. That’s better than one a week, on average. And I am, all these years and all these rants later, considerably more worried than I have ever been thanks to the fact that the difference between Hillary and Donald amounts to little more than grooming and the ability to behave in public. Both are taking us to hell in a handbasket, but one of them is doing do in a more presidential manner.

This, though, isn’t the disease. This is a symptom.

As Sullivan explains:

To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, [the founders] constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power. Voting rights were tightly circumscribed. The president and vice-president were not to be popularly elected but selected by an Electoral College, whose representatives were selected by the various states, often through state legislatures. The Senate’s structure (with two members from every state) was designed to temper the power of the more populous states, and its term of office (six years, compared with two for the House) was designed to cool and restrain temporary populist passions. The Supreme Court, picked by the president and confirmed by the Senate, was the final bulwark against any democratic furies that might percolate up from the House and threaten the Constitution. This separation of powers was designed precisely to create sturdy firewalls against democratic wildfires. [emphasis added]

In other words, America was never intended to be a democracy. The founders were terrified of democracy and our system, which we often think of as a democracy (because we love the word, but aren’t especially interested in understanding what it means), was designed to mitigate the will of the people.

All those “checks and balances” you heard talked about in grade school? They were sort of about watchdogging the three branches of government, but they were more about checking you and me and, more importantly, our nation’s legions of unwashed yahoos.

The best-laid plans of mice and men, however. Sullivan continues:

Over the centuries, however, many of these undemocratic rules have been weakened or abolished. The franchise has been extended far beyond propertied white men. The presidency is now effectively elected through popular vote, with the Electoral College almost always reflecting the national democratic will.* And these formal democratic advances were accompanied by informal ones, as the culture of democracy slowly took deeper root. For a very long time, only the elites of the political parties came to select their candidates at their quadrennial conventions, with the vote largely restricted to party officials from the various states (and often decided in, yes, smoke-filled rooms in large hotel suites). Beginning in the early 1900s, however, the parties began experimenting with primaries, and after the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention, today’s far more democratic system became the norm.

* [Ed. Note: We can argue about this issue another time. Suffice it to say, very few people in the US will cast a presidential ballot this November that really matters at all.]

“[T]he vote largely restricted to party officials from the various states…” Those would be the “superdelegates” you heard so much about throughout the spring and summer, the minions of Clinton and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the establishment firewall that kept Bernie Sanders from the Democratic nomination. We can deconstruct and parse the election data all we want, and maybe Clinton would have won without that anti-democratic superdelegate firewall. Maybe. But the system was designed to make sure.

The firewall failed the GOP, though, and as a result we’re seeing, in all its ugly glory, what raw democracy in an anti-intellectual state looks like up close and personal. I wouldn’t bet on it happening again in 2020 if I were you. The establishment is already hard at work reinforcing the dikes against the next wave of popular will. Bet the farm.

I owe Sullivan a debt of thanks for the useful challenge to my thinking. I have long argued that democracy was an idea with some distressing weaknesses, and that said weaknesses would be our undoing. On the other hand, the answer to unchecked democracy here in the US turns out to be oligarchy. This unhappy state of affairs happened because the founders made an assumption – a very logical one, given the context of the times:

economic elite = intellectual elite

Landed citizens (ie, the moneyed) in the agrarian 18th century were generally the educated class. Afforded the opportunity they were more likely to read, to discuss and debate, to inform themselves, which allowed them to make better decisions on governance issues than those who were working so hard to survive that they had no time for silliness like reading. (And by “better,” of course, I mean “better for the ruling elite.”)

These dynamics have shifted through the years, as Sullivan explains, leaving with us with an untenable set of alternatives: unhinged democracy of the illiterate rabble vs a Koch/Pope/Adelson/Bush axis neo-feudalism.

Needless to say, I’m a fan of neither.

Walter Lippmann had it right back in the ’20s when he argued, essentially, for a more bureaucratic system that entrusted complex decision-making to the experts in that particular field. It was meritocracy of the first order, and while I have no doubt that in practice such a system would be open to all sorts of abuses – there will always be corrupt people looking to undermine the system for their own gain – I also feel like the core principles are more in line with the realities of the world we live in. Reality fucks up any and all theories, so the trick is to find the theory that’s a little more resistant to corruption. Capitalism isn’t it. Marxism isn’t it. “Democracy” isn’t it. Etc.

In recent years, I have grown more and more progressive. Once upon a time I was a young Reagan Republican. I realized eventually that the GOP and I had developed irreconcilable differences and spent a number of years as a centrist moderate type. Then, in the last decade, my thinking led me in a far more liberal direction, and today I sit here as a registered Green whose core beliefs are well to the left of the Democratic Party.

Still, while I care passionately about social justice and fair opportunities for everyone, I no longer believe pursuit of these goals is consistent with democracy. Not in the US, anyway. On the contrary. By now it ought to be clear that democracy in America is easily manipulated and produces instead oligarchy, a state that actively opposes the sort of just, egalitarian society that I and my progressive fellow-travelers believe in.

I feel myself arriving at a personal watershed, but the truth is I’ve been banging on this drum for nearly a decade, maybe longer.

What do a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a drooling hillbilly who doesn’t know what “dihydrogen monoxide” is have in common? Their votes count the same. A lifelong international policy analyst with two PhDs and a woman who can’t name a country that begins with “U”? Ditto. When racially charged issues creep into campaigns, as they inevitably do, your vote counts no more than that of the moron in upstate New York who’s never been to the South, never met a Southerner, couldn’t name the 13 states represented by the stars on the Confederate battle jack, but nonetheless has one nailed to the side of his house.

In fact, when it comes time to vote, America does not require any knowledge of the issues (real or imagined) at all. If you think Canada is a state, that doesn’t mean you can’t vote for a candidate who’s against Canadian-style socialized medicine. Your inability to distinguish between “lesbian” and “thespian” doesn’t mean you can’t vote against the rights of people in states you can’t locate on a map to marry.

Not even the most rudimentary acquaintance with the government, its laws, traditions or history is mandated. No study of the Constitution is necessary, and in fact someone who thinks that document contains the line “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is in no way prevented from pulling the curtain and participating in your glorious democracy.

In America, as elsewhere, 50% of all citizens are intellectually below average, statistically speaking, but they are nonetheless encouraged to vote about things they can’t possibly understand.

The results are predictable, and if your leaders seem stupid to you, if you can’t fathom how they can do the things they do, if you wonder at how control of your government is entrusted to people who are hardly among your brightest and best, well, you have your answer.

I concluded that rant, from 2007, with this decidedly undemocratic thought on how to fix the problem.

…if fixing your problems and creating solutions and alternatives were my job, I’d work very hard to disenfranchise the stupid. I’d start by requiring at least a passing knowledge of the issues – actual factual knowledge, not me-too dogma – before I let somebody near a ballot box. And of course, I’d make sure that my schools prepared people for this challenge. Not only would students learn the details of their nation’s government, they’d learn to think critically about it.

Today I’m doubling down. The solution to America’s problems isn’t more democracy, it’s less. Fewer people need to be voting. The franchise should be earned by demonstration of merit, not simply avoiding self-Darwinization for 18 years.

Yes, I’m an elitist. Not of the financial/oligarchic sort. Not of the social/aristocratic sort. I’m what I once called a performance elitist. Here’s what I mean by this term.

…our intellectual/performance elites are generally defined by a few extremely desirable qualities. They are smart; they have worked hard to acquire knowledge; and they believe that the wisdom arising from knowledge holds the key to a better world for all of us. They may not be “of the people” in the sense that their lives are fully integrated into working class culture, but the ones I know uniformly care a great deal about “the people” and wish for them greater opportunity, prosperity and happiness.

Let’s also be clear about the place of those with “useful” knowledge. There may be a popular tendency to herd them into different chutes than the eggheads, but engineer types are performance elites, too. Literally understood, they are people who put their minds into the service of building our present and our future.

Some intellectual elites were born rich, but most probably weren’t. Most had to work very hard for what they’ve gotten. Countless thousands mortgaged their futures with student loans. And if they take a minute to think about it, a lot of them would probably react strongly to being lumped into the same group as trust fund elitists who were born rich and never accomplished anything of lasting value in their lives.

In other words, they weren’t born wealthy or connected (generally, although some may have been). Their elitism follows not from their financial status, but instead from their their commitment to knowledge, education, earned achievement and a devotion to the best interest of the people.

This group doesn’t wield major influence in modern America, though. On the contrary, in many respects they’re regarded as the enemy by the power elite, which uses its control of the poison the public against the very people who want to help them.

In the end, the worst enemy the modern US has is democracy. It’s the tool by which our society keeps itself ignorant. It’s how we empower our exploiters. And despite the cynical sloganeering of braying corporatist jackasses, it’s the surest guarantee that we will never be great again, if we ever were in the first place.

This is our history. This is our present condition. This is our future.

So help me out. I believe in less democracy. I think fewer people should be allowed to participate in government, which means I don’t meet any definition of progressive or liberal.

I believe we need to create an intellectual elite meritocracy to mitigate the power of the wealthy and corporations and to act in the best interests of the majority of the citizenry, so I’m certainly not a conservative.

I don’t believe for a second in command economies. Instead it seems clear enough that public/private partnerships that cede to each sector autonomy over the things at which it is best suited results in optimal outcomes overall. So I’m not a Marxist, although I may have a streak of Social Democrat in me.

I believe strongly that individualism is key to a society’s creative energies and its innovative spirit, but I also have seen up close and personal what runaway me-firstism does to a nation. Rampant individualism breeds economic sociopathy, and no culture built on I-got-mine can stand indefinitely. So a healthy, enlightened populism seems essential in striking a productive individualist/collectivist balance. As de Tocqueville put it, “self-interest rightly understood.”

My S&R colleague, Cat White, has a theory. As she put it in an email yesterday:

You, my Good Man, are a Constitutionalist.

A real one – not a GOP-made-up one.

But the framers intended the Constitution to change as time goes on – that’s why they put those mechanisms in there. Heck, they added 10 changes as soon as they got out of the gate. The problem is we let it ossify and haven’t kept changing it.

Cat’s is an interesting take. Your willingness to accept it probably depends on your tolerance for change, though. As noted at the top, I produced that ambitious New Constitution manifesto three years ago, and while it retains a number of the principles embedded in our original document, it also makes significant modifications in others, tosses a few more completely and makes up new planks out of think air. If I am a Constitutionalist, I’m not of the strict constructionist type by any stretch of the imagination.

In the end, I’m comfortable living without labels, although I know I’m rare in this respect. What I do need is as full an understanding of my own mind as possible, and especially of its ongoing trajectory. I know where I have been. I’m grappling with where I am. I need to know, at least a little, where I’m going. Where we’re going.

I wish more of my fellow Americans were as rigorous in thinking critically about these issues.

4 replies »

  1. Great article, Sam. Much to think about. You’re clearly meritocratic, but much of what you’re saying seems to almost fall under the related approach of technocracy (at least as it was originally understood, as applying to those who govern using scientific principles).

    Given my writings about Trump this cycle, I’m sure it surprises you not at all that I disagree with you on Trump vs. Clinton being essentially equal in badness, but this post is not the place for that discussion.

    • I’m not sure I’d say that Trump and Clinton are exactly evil in badness. A better way to frame it is that while I think he’s every kind of horrible imaginable, and some that aren’t even imaginable, both fall well below the threshold for acceptable badness. Kinda like getting shot is unacceptably bad. Getting shot 10 times is unacceptably bad x 10.

  2. I have finally learned to define who I am after eighteen months of arguing with morons about Trump while simultaneously trying to explain that I’m not arguing in fair of Hilary Clinton. Granted, being an overseas expat that lives in a moderate Muslim nation helps me appreciate everything you say but I’ve never really even able to define it so clearly. I’ve often argued that the best democracies are actually the Nordic nations in terms of pure fairness for all and despite how I’d never want t abide by the strange Finnish education system, the facts remain that they come out in top of all statistical categories in quality of life every year.

    Anyway, reading this clarified my thinking a bit and despite the fact that virtually nobody I grew up with or befriended over the years would agree with the notion that democracy is bad for America I know it’s true and I’m not a bad person. Like th either she you mentioned, I worked hard to get myself retired at age fifty without being wealthy we have just enough to get by on a middle class income for the next forty or forty five years thanks to diligent budeting, smart investing Andy taking advantage of the very systems I speak out against that reward people like me while hurting the morons who thought a billionaire lunatic actually cares about their needs. If I can plug my blog, I write about what it’s like to experiment with early retirement overseas while not being rich or even confident that it will work. Please give it a read at