Trump vs. Democracy
Thomas Klikauer teaches MBAs at the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Western Sydney University, Australia.
Nadine Campbell is the founder of Abydos Academy
Ever since it was invented and written about by Greek philosophers, the question, “what is democracy?” has concerned many with the possible exception of Donald Trump. Unlike US Democrats for whom democracy has value in-itself as German philosopher, Kant, would say. By contrast, Republicans –and perhaps even more so Donald Trump –see democracy purely as a means to power –one way among others! Nietzsche would have agreed. Democracy is also something the former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently discussed in a rather brilliant essay on power democracy versus principle democracy.
In any case, democracy has often been abused when, for example, the US claimed to bring democracy to the Middle East invading Iraq for no weapons of mass destruction. The ideological smokescreen for unwarranted aggression was to bring the will of the people to Iraq. Democracy is commonly seen as the will of the people (demos) to hold power (kratos). Yet, a growing number of people do not even bother to vote. In 2016, just 55.5% of US citizens voted and of those who voted just 46.1% voted for Donald Trump while 48.2% voted for Hillary Clinton.
Americans call this democracy. In other words, roughly half of all Americans did not even vote, and of those who did, less than half voted for Trump. In short, barely one-quarter of all who could vote voted for Trump. Put in another way, of the331 million Americans, just 63 million voted for Trump. Two hundred forty-seven million Americans did not vote for Trump, but he still became the Commander in Chief. This is how democracy works.
Despite the fact that many Americans just tick a box every four years, they are still made to believe that they live in a democracy. They are also made to believe that Donald Trump –who was millions of votes short –is a democratically elected president. In fact, not having enough votes has not prevented five US presidents from becoming presidents. Donald Trump is as dysfunctional as the system that got him into the office. Still, a rough definition of democracy might be something like “one person one vote with periodic free and fair elections”.
Measured by the British Economist that runs a Democracy Index, the magazine recently down graded he USA from “full” to “flawed democracy”. Such a flawed democracy can quickly become a plutocracy in which the rich rule. Today, eight men (!) –six of them Americans –hold the same amount of wealth as half the people on earth. Americans born in the 1940s had a 92% chance of out-earning their parents by age thirty. For those born in the 1980s, that likelihood fell to 50%. In some places in the Midwest USA, the odds were even worse. In other words, neoliberalism has killed upward mobility–perhaps particularly for Trump voters in the flyover states. For many Trump voters, democracy means a media spectacle and a shouting match sold as a TV debate. The first 2020 Biden vs Trump debate has been highly damaging to the international image of the USA. Still, Americans do not link democracy to equality even though “one person one vote” is the ultimate equaliser. Unfortunately, there is a Statue of Liberty but no Statue of Equality. In any case, democratic freedom requires political equality. Political equality requires social equality and economic egalitarianism. Freedom and equality fit together like hand in glove even though corporate media have successfully disassociated both. Still, we have an equality of voting –for many, not all give rise to voter suppression. Secondly, there is legal equality even though,
“the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Worse, democracy is equated with capitalism while a capitalist market is a domain of stark inequality: a domain of winners and losers. Winners and losers are presented as a “natural” outcome of the market and democracy. Some even further this by arguing that both operate in a Social Darwinist fashion in which the strong rule over the weak. Against many false ideas on democracy, French philosopher Rousseau rang the alarm bells by saying, “beware of listening to the imposter” –and Rousseau did not even know Trump. On a more serious note, philosophers see two types of democracy:
1.There is what one might call adversary democracy. It is based on the hypothesis that people have conflicting interests. In this version of democracy, there are the-winner-takes all elections while majority rules are unhindered. Donald Trump is a fine example of this.
2.The second version of democracy is called unitary democracy. Here, the hypothesis is that there is a common interest. This version is based on open deliberations during face-to-face meetings. New England town hall meetings are an example.
By nominating three Supreme Court judges, the rules are increasingly made for those who already rule. George Madison’s (1763-1816) idea that the goal of government is to protect the minority against the majority will increasingly be brushed aside so that those with the gold rule and can accumulate even more gold.
With problems like these, American democracy may not survive. It can no longer credibly exist when the top 1% of US households own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. The story gets worse when it comes to the US Senate where 2% of Americans who live in just nine small states possess the same political power as 51% who live in the nine largest states. This dramatically increases the power of white and rural voters.
The state of Wyoming, for example, with a population that hardly exceeds half a million has been given parity with California’s nearly forty million. Running a more democratic system, in the world’s top five most democratic countries –Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Finland –Donald Trump and the Republican Party would hardly stand a chance. But then again, if elections would change things, they would have been abolished long ago.
Perhaps the task of democracy under capitalism is indeed to legitimise a pyramid-shaped society that has less room at the top. However, many do not have an opportunity to climb it at all. If they do, numerically speaking, their chance of climbing up diminishes as they climb. Next to legitimising inequality, democracy also pacifies its people who are no longer a threat to the ruling elite –an elite that has learned its lessons from the French and Russian Revolutions.
As a consequence, capitalist states have created what the Godfather of propaganda –known as public relations today –Edward Barneys identified as “the manipulation of the American mind”. Chomsky calls it The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda while German philosopher Adorno speaks of a cultural industry that creates Mass Deception. At the same time, his counterpart Enzensberger identified it as the Consciousness Industry.
In various ways, it shows how the general population do not threaten the few in government. One of the key ideologies to divert attention away from the fallacies of democracy and its rising inequalities has been to blame the outsider. Even when speaking the inclusive language of human rights, many of today’s democracies practise exclusion in the extreme, militarising borders –Trump’s children in cages – vetting individual cases as though refugee status were a scarce privilege and not the universal legal entitlement that it actually is.
In one of the most democratic countries, New Zealand, a year of legal residence qualifies individuals to vote in both local and national elections. Perhaps, voting rights should be linked to those who pay taxes rather than geography or ethnicity even when this might exclude no-tax-paying Donald Trump. Today, we instead see the opposite. In today’s democracies, the powerful few look for ways to coerce the many. Meanwhile, they insist that those they subjugate either deserve or have chosen their fate. Historically, in the USA, using democracy as an ideology has had dire consequences.
In the year 1973 and just three years after Salvador Allende’s socialist government won a plurality of votes in Chile, the USA eliminated a democratically-elected administration in a military coup led by semi-fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. Allende, Henry Kissinger said, was elected, “due to the irresponsibility of the Chilean people.” Soon after, thousands were tortured and killed during Pinochet’s reign.
Recently, a Fox News reporter asked the former CIA director James Woolsey if the US had meddled in foreign elections, “oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system, to avoid Communists from taking over,” he said. Asked if this meddling still happens, he replied with a grin, “only for a very good cause. In the interests of democracy.” In an Orwellian twist, replacing a democratically elected president in favour of a fascist dictator is called democracy.
In Hungary, the autocratic president Viktor Orbán retooled the country’s electoral map to ensure he stays in power even as his party’s share of votes diminishes. Illiberal Orbán also runs a formidable modern-day voter suppression machine. In many of these countries, the old saying “if you see a circus, elect a clown” applies.
Even something as advisable as making election day –still a Tuesday in the USA –a national holiday or automatically registering all citizens to vote is too much for US lawmakers. Meanwhile, countries like Australia, Belgium, Argentina, and twenty or so other countries go far beyond mass voter registration. In these countries, voting is mandatory. This idea is supported by a recent study of ballot measures in Switzerland. It found that when voting became mandatory, progressive positions were boosted by up to 20%. Still, in Australia, for example, mandatory voting does not guarantee a democratic outcome as long as those who inform the electorate are concentrated in a media monopoly–run by Murdoch.
The manipulative power of corporate media is a feature of democracy under capitalism, not a bug. Yet, another feature of democracy is the fact that the ruling class has never been particularly keen on the prospect of ordinary people becoming educated and governing themselves. As a consequence, education is made unequal, out of reach for many due to stratospheric university fees, generally dumbed down, and turned into a functional additive for corporate capitalism.
For good students, there are always so-called enrichment programmes in which the key bit is “rich”. To camouflage all this, corporate media has made us believe that education is a great equaliser. Turbo-charged with influential media and cunning politicians, expediently we move into an Orwellian world where the Ministry of Love is the place where you are starved and tortured.
In an acute awareness that democracy depends on well-educated citizens, the ruling elite does everything possible in preventing this from happening. Given structural determinants like deliberate underfunding results in large classes, for example, teachers are forced to issue threats and punishments to keep attention up as students try to focus in over-crowded classrooms.
Once out of school, newly (un)educated citizens face a democratic choice between Pepsi and Coke with a slightly nuanced taste –an old truism until Donald Trump arrived. Meanwhile, the myth of an apolitical capitalism is generated and sold with two additional means to secure the survival of capitalism. Almost self-evidently, corporate media have made sure that the term “industrial democracy” has vanished from our vocabulary and our ideas. Instead, what Romans called “bread and circus” has mutated into rampant consumerism (bread) and the spectacle of democracy(circus) plays out frequently. How it all works is shown in Astra Taylor’s film and book inviting one to the somewhat subversive idea that “democracy may not exist”
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