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Hyper-Democracy and the Rise of Trump

March 17, 2016 Primary elections lend weight to political extremes.

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By George Friedman

The charm of democracy is the graciousness with which the loser accepts defeat. It is a pretty rare charm. It is particularly interesting to watch when some people, who support democracy absolutely, condemn the electorate for choosing someone who they believe would undermine democracy, or at least their understanding of it. They think: in a democratic society, all reasonable people will think like me. And if someone they detest is elected, then the election must have been corrupted in some way and the winner must be some kind of monster.

The taste in monsters varies. In the 1950s, whoever was disliked by Joseph McCarthy and his followers was a communist. General George W. Marshall, who commanded the U.S. Army during World War II and later served as secretary of state did things McCarthy disapproved of. Therefore, he was a communist. Today, the monster of choice is the fascists. Whomever liberals dislike is a fascist and his election would be a catastrophe. If such an individual was elected, it would prove that democracy is already lost beyond hope.

Donald Trump has won some primaries. He has not yet won the Republican nomination and is far from winning the presidency, but his behavior and values have so offended some people that he has already been declared a fascist. Please bear in mind that if given the chance I will not vote for him. But for me, a fascist is Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. To call Trump a fascist reduces the meaning of fascism’s horror to the level of farce. Fascism is a systematic theory of government. It is not clear that Trump has a theory of government, or that, his operatic style not withstanding, his understanding of government is all that peculiar. But it is clear that by any historical standard with meaning, whatever he is, he is not a fascist.

Trump offered himself as a candidate in the primary system that governs the election of most presidential candidates. He won a large number of delegates to this point. If he had lost, there is no evidence he would have attempted a putsch. John Boehner suggested today that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan should offer himself as a candidate for president and – without running in most, if any, of the primaries – go to the convention and try to cobble together enough deals to block Trump. Now, there is nothing at all illegal in this, but it runs counter to the hyper-democratic political culture that has dominated the United States since the progressives introduced the concept of primary elections early in the 20th century, which became the norm after the Watergate scandal.

Watergate drove the final nail into the coffin of the national convention as the arena where the party bosses – mostly elected governors and senators – selected the candidate. Dwight Eisenhower, FDR, Abraham Lincoln and the rest were all selected by this method. But there emerged a growing movement that held this to be anti-democratic. Although the political parties are never conceived of or mentioned in the Constitution (and a political party is really a private organization that can put forward whatever candidate it chooses by whatever means it likes), the reforms turned the Republican and Democratic parties into public institutions expected to choose their candidates by certain prescribed means. In most states this means an election, the primary, in which selected delegates to the convention pledge to vote for the winning candidate, at least on the first ballot, if multiple rounds of voting occur. In some states it means a caucus method, which is too odd to describe here, but serves the same purpose.

Since these reforms, the convention has been a coronation, not opaque decision-making in smoke-filled rooms. This is what the reformers wanted. They did not want the political bosses to decide who the candidate would be. That decision would be in the hands of the voters, and in most cases since the reforms, the nominee was decided before the convention.

One of the things that the reformers failed to take into account is that, in general, most voters are not that interested in elections, and in most cases a relatively small minority go to the polls. These are people who care deeply about politics, and such people frequently hold strong views. Many are ideologues in a country with far more nuanced views than are heard in primaries. A strong case can be made that those who don’t vote deserve what they get. Nevertheless, the primaries do not represent the views of the full spectrum of American opinion, but the views of those who care enough to vote. In this election cycle, that has meant that Trump, a businessman who has never held office, and Bernie Sanders, a socialist who regards Scandinavia as a serious social alternative for the United States, are not just serious contenders, but in Trump’s case, the likely victor for the Republican nomination.

The primaries have not served the purpose for which they were designed, but given that the greatest enthusiasts for hyper-democratic elections are also the most likely to vote in them, the success of Trump and Sanders should not surprise anyone. Nor should it surprise anyone that, having not voted, the rest of the country is now thinking about alternatives – disliking Hillary Clinton as much as some are enthused by the other two. Hence, Boehner’s decision to put Ryan into play. What Boehner and many of the other members of the Republican Party want is a brokered convention, where they can put a candidate they are comfortable with, and who they think has a better chance of winning than Trump, into the ring.

Boehner is hoping that Trump won’t have enough votes going into the convention to win on the first ballot, and that the delegates will coalesce around a new candidate like Ryan on the second ballot. The problem with this theory is that the delegates who are selected are even more fused to the principles of their candidates than the voters who voted for them. This isn’t a convention in the 1920s. There are no bosses. Where professional politicians moderate the process because they are cynical and want to win, the delegates are not cynical and would rather lose than compromise. These days, a deadlocked convention might stay deadlocked.

Democracy has its place, but should not be overdone. The American founders were republicans, meaning they believed the people selected their representatives but didn’t rule themselves. Senators were selected by state legislatures and presidents by the Electoral College. The purpose was to calm passions, and use cynicism and avarice toward that end. The founders did not trust government because they did not trust people. And they felt that if the people were given untrammeled power, many would be indifferent and a few would bring forth strange and intemperate men. Trump and Sanders wouldn’t have had a chance before the institution of the primaries, before the urge for hyper-democracy willfully ignored the reality that those who would vote in primaries would be a fraction of those qualified to vote. Those who created the primary process ignored who might come out of it.

This is because all lovers of democracy imagine that in a fair election, their candidates and views will win, and all the fascists and communists will be crushed. Well, there aren’t many fascists or communists in American politics, but there are certainly some outliers. The founders wanted them culled. The primary elevates them into close proximity of power.

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