Friday, September 16, 2016

Venting: Polls, Voters, & Demcracy

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” --Winston Churchill

I have to admit that that Churchill's witticism strikes me as especially pertinent as I read about Trump closing on Hillary Clinton's lead in the polls. The thought of it spirals me into a despondent mood. 

How could voters be so foolish and fickle? (And thus by this statement I signal my intention never to run for public office.) 

What has changed since Clinton held a wide lead over Trump? Trump has reduced the number of offensive statements that he makes, but his lies (e.g., about the support of the Iraq War), demonstrably poor judgment (Putin as a role model for an American president), and policy howlers keep pouring forth from his mouth and Twitter account. Clinton, on the other hand, did make a traditional gaffe in saying that half of Trump supporters were a "basket of deplorables," a statement that is certainly in some measure true, even if the mathematical qualifier may not be exact--if anything it may be too low. Politicians aren't supposed to utter such comments regardless of their veracity. Ask Mitt Romney. Trump, on the other hand, has issued so many insults that by dint of sheer volume many people, including the media, no longer consider them. 

Clinton also suffered the misfortune of becoming ill from an infectious disease at a time when right-wing rumor machines were touting speculations about her ill-health. That Secretary Clinton is a private person not eager to expose her entire life to public scrutiny is understandable, but it's terribly difficult in an age where voyeurism is confused (in some measure purposefully) with transparency. Trump, in terms that reflect his usual braggadocio, claims to be in excellent health. Of greatest concern about him, of course, is his brain function. His seeming inability to focus, to form complex sentences, and to read challenging material--all handy attributes for a president--should alarm us far more than a case of viral pneumonia. 

Clinton has also suffered from the peripheral or non-issues of her email account and the Clinton Foundation. An incredible amount of digging has turned up nothing of merit or disqualification. Meanwhile, Trump's business and "charitable" (really, the quotes are necessary) activities raise the gravest of questions about his character, not to mention their legality. And then there are his tax returns. What a fakir! 

So what does all of this amount to? In short, Donald Trump has become no more qualified to become president than he ever was--and he began at unqualified. And Hillary Clinton has become no less qualified. (President Obama is right: her resume of qualifications is second to none, including his and Bill's). So what is going on here? 

This is where I must reference the quote above, and I must venture my thoughts about the value of democracy. The demos, the vox populi, "the people," are once again demonstrating their inability to make complex, justified political decisions. The Founders of the American constitutional regime feared pure democracy and hoped to be able to create a viable republic (see Madison's Federalist No. 10 for details). Their fear of democracy arose from deep reflection on classical, Renaissance, and English history. Perhaps it's time to begin thinking about the drawbacks again. In fact, in choosing presidents, a mass vote of those Americans who bother to vote (consistently less than 65% of those eligible) treat the exercise as they would a beauty contest, with the appearance of congeniality and the ability to strike poses as the defining features upon which to base their choice. (Thank goodness we don't have to see Donald Trump in a swimsuit!) Policy is a preached, but of real concern to only a few. Given this state of affairs, it's no wonder that we have the most grossly unqualified candidate for president nominated by a major party in the 20th century. (Sorry, Warren G. Harding.) 

But I still retain the hope that a majority of American voters will emerge from this mix of adolescent tantrum and romantic infatuation to make a mature choice. And let me be clear: I'm not a Pollyanna claiming that everything is just fine; it's not. Voters have real reasons for concerns and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. But things could become much, much worse with such a loose cannon as Trump in the White House. And with wiser policies--many of which Clinton advocates--we can improve our nation. 

But my faith in mass electoral democracy is deeply shaken. This pattern of foolish radicalism is becoming apparent throughout the world. Poor electoral choices could trigger a massive system crisis that could plunge most of the world into a crisis, either acute or smoldering. Improving our democratic system, even if requires making it ostensibly less democratic, may be necessary to protect it. It's something that we all ought to be thinking about. 
A final thought from the master

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." --Winston Churchill in 1947, not too long after having been voted out of office near the conclusion of the Second World War. 

No comments: