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Minority Rule in Trump’s America

by

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Donald Trump’s slogan “America First” is vile; it smacks of nativism and appeals to the insularity and anti-intellectualism of an appallingly large segment of the public.  It has always been clear too that Trump’s eagerness to get along with Russia stems from more than common sense; that it involves some sort of cover up of something.

Nevertheless, these were the only straws to grasp for people who desperately wanted to believe that a Trump presidency, awful as it was bound to be, not just for Muslims and Hispanics but for anyone — black, white, and brown –who is not filthy rich, would at least come with a few redeeming features.

By last November, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot along those lines to put the seemingly obvious truth, that the Democratic Party was the lesser evil of our two semi-established political parties, in doubt.  Despite some encouraging movement at state and local levels around the country, it would take even less now.  At the national level, the party remains a disgrace.

Democrats are social liberals whose support for the “identity” concerns of everyone who is not heterosexual and white is firm, perhaps even excessive.  For the most part, their positions on reproductive rights and gender equality issues are progressive too.  But, like Republicans, they are bought and paid for neoliberals who serve Wall Street and corporate America, while dutifully toadying up to a host of nefarious “special interests.”

For that alone, if there were a God in heaven, they would be looking forward now to an eternity in hell.   Even so, on the domestic front, their right to the lesser evil title was secure in 2016.  It still is; more than ever.

Not so, however, on matters of empire, and war and peace.  With Hillary Clinton and her minions leading the way, the party of Scoop Jackson was reverting back to form.  Under Obama and Clinton, it has been a refuge for “humanitarian” interveners and other liberal imperialists.  They are still very much there, but now, it seems, neoconservatives are setting the tone and calling the shots.

Even the later-day version of pre-World War II isolationism that Trump seemed to favor is better than that.

As the election season wore on, Democrats became even more odious.  Searching for ways to exonerate Clinton for her failings as a candidate and, in due course, for her loss to a buffoon, they and the media flacks who serve them took to reviving long dormant Cold War demons.

The Democratic Party establishment failed miserably at getting Hillary elected, but it has been doing a fine job setting America on a course that could lead to nuclear annihilation.

It had always been clear that Trump was emotionally unstable and intellectually and morally deficient.  Putting the nuclear codes in his hands was therefore blatantly unwise — even if, unlike Clinton, he seemed to favor good relations with Russia.

Putting them in Clinton’s hands was unwise too; perhaps even more so.   She would not be nearly as likely to act out erratically, but, as a warmongering Russophobe and unreconstructed Cold Warrior, she might well be the more dangerous of the two.

Or so it seemed six months ago.  By now, it is plain that no good at all can come from putting the empire’s affairs, much less control of America’s nuclear arsenal, in Trump’s hands.

This is becoming patently clear as the crisis brought on by North Korea’s advances in nuclear weapons design and missile technology unfolds.

It has long been clear that a showdown with North Korea would have catastrophic consequences.  However, until now, this was more of a theoretical possibility, at least in the short run, than a palpable concern.  There are, after all, so many other reasons to worry about Trump that Korea barely registered.

This is no longer the case.  From his over-the-top golfing redoubt in deepest New Jersey, President Tweety Bird has been churning out threats of a nuclear Holocaust with a degree of recklessness that is both alarming and historically unprecedented.

And there is no obvious way to stop him.  This lamentable state of affairs concentrates the mind, putting the feebleness of American democracy in focus.

Half a century ago, with opposition to the Vietnam War intensifying and black liberation struggles raging, it was not uncommon for demonstrators to chant: “the only solution, revolution.”

The sentiment behind the slogan was understandable, and the point well taken; but, even in those heady days, talk of revolution was an expression more of self-indulgent romanticism than hardheaded realism.  The times were not even remotely pre-revolutionary.  Nowadays, that old slogan seems not only inapt, but ridiculously quaint.

Nevertheless, with the White House in the hands of an out-of-control male adolescent, locked in the body of a hapless septuagenarian, the idea behind the slogan seems more pertinent than ever.  A radical democratic restructuring of basic societal and political institutions – a democratic, if not also a full-fledged social, revolution – is precisely what we urgently need.

And, in a political universe shaped by Democrats and Republicans, it just might be, as the slogan says, that this is the only solution there can be.

The Trump phenomenon has catalyzed this sensibility by making painfully apparent the extent to which, in theory if not in practice, our always feeble democracy has devolved into a minority rule regime, at odds with the fundamental philosophical and valuational commitments that underlie our form of civilization.

This is not by any means the only reason why the world has seemed out of joint since Trump became President, but it surely is part of the story.

***

Trump’s approval ratings are appallingly low for a President barely six months into his term, and they are in decline.  According to reliable “fake news” reports, roughly two-thirds of the electorate despises him intensely; and, with each passing day, it becomes increasingly clear how unfit he is for the office to which he was elected.

Even so, credible, though obviously fallible, commentators say that if a recall election were held today, he would probably still win.

They give two reasons: his supporters are ardent and therefore highly motivated to vote, and the Democrats have no one to run against him.

That a third or so of the electorate likes Trump a lot seems true enough; that the Democrats have no one to run against him is less clear.  They had Bernie Sanders last year; had the fix not been in, he would have stood a decent chance of beating Hillary Clinton for the nomination, and had he, not Hillary, run against Trump, he might have won.

Then, unless he governed in more or less the way that Clinton would have, he would have had an impossibly difficult time being President, but that is another story.

Unfortunately, we have no way to know what would happen if Sanders or someone with similar political views were to run now; thank the authors of our Constitution for that.  We can be sure, however, that the forces that kept Sanders out last time would do all they could to keep him out again, notwithstanding the fact that his socialism is pallid, and that the self-described socialist is just an old-school liberal Democrat at heart.

They also say that Trump would probably win again because Democrats haven’t gotten their “message” across.  Occasionally, someone will also point out that they have no message to get across because it isn’t clear to anyone, Democrats least of all, what their party stands for.

Therefore, why bother to vote for them?  The sheer odiousness of Republicans, and of their party’s standard-bearer, is a good enough reason for many, but for many others, it is hardly reason enough.

That Democrats are emphatically not a genuinely progressive opposition party also helps Republicans.

The other side of the story is that Trump’s support, though declining, may, for the time being, have bottomed out.  This is hard for people who loathe him, and who have good and compelling reasons for doing so, to understand.

But, as much or more than the Democrats’ shortcomings, this is why those who think that Trump, supported by only a third of the electorate, would win if the election were held again now do have a point.

Where does the pro-Trump ardor come from?  This is a good question inasmuch as there is reason to think that, even within his hardcore base, it is widely understood that the man is a bully and an ignoramus who, in his seventy plus years, never quite emotionally matured.

The fact is, though, that Trump’s personality defects have not so far put his most ardent supporters off.  Quite to the contrary, it almost seems as if what others despise about the man is precisely what they like. They like his vulgarity and political incorrectness, and even his cluelessness about how to govern.

More remarkable still, these “populists” seem to like the fact that he is obscenely rich – not by dint of hard and constructive effort, but thanks to the generosity of his father and other politically connected cronies, and by stiffing workers, contractors, and small investors.

Ever since Clinton introduced her “basket of deplorables” remark into the conversation, it has become unfashionable in repentant liberal circles even to suggest the possibility, but the explanation for Trump’s remaining popularity could just be that his supporters really are deplorably stupid.  Having followed the news these past few weeks, I could go along with that, but I would nevertheless venture, even so, that the fact that they despise what Trump disparages matters more.

Trump’s supporters hate mainstream media and Hillary Clinton and people who think that she is God’s gift to humankind.  The reasons for their animosities are way off, but their hatreds are well directed.    Where they go wrong is in seeing Trump as an ally of theirs.

For many of the people who voted for him last November, and for a significant part of his remaining base, that perception, being too preposterous to survive contact with reality for long, has always been precarious.

There is therefore still hope for people who continue to think that Trump’s presidency will somehow make their lives go better.  Once they catch on fully to the fact that all Trump cares about are his (and maybe also his family’s) bottom lines, and about the esteem in which Trump is held, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will finally realize that, like other rightwing “populists,” Trump sides with their class enemies, not with them.

There is less hope, though, for those of his supporters whose political passions are driven by misogyny, racism, or “Dominionist” or other retrograde theologies. Their beliefs are immunized against change by their sheer irrationality.

But even in the more rational parts of the Trump base, clarity comes slowly.  Anti-Trump forces may hope for a decisive and sudden change in the consciousness of the deplorable third, but, whether they like it or not, they are engaged in a war of attrition that could go on for quite a while.

Indeed, for many Trump supporters, Trump cannot upset right thinking people too much; he cannot go too far.  We can be sure of this because he has gone too far, many times, and his hardcore supporters are still with him.

What if he shot somebody in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue, as he once claimed he could without losing support?  They would probably stick with him even then.

This, I suspect, is because all but his most irrational supporters already have a sense of the measure of the man, but remain loyal because their enemy’s enemy is their friend.   Trump is a bastard, but he is their bastard – or so they believe.  They are very wrong about this, but it could take a long time for them to come to this out, and some of them never will.

***

Except for people genuinely foolish enough to take his “fake news” blather seriously, everybody knows that Trump lost the popular vote last November and that, while he might win again in the Electoral College if the election were held today, only a third of the electorate actually backs him.

Everybody knows, in other words, that minority rule made Trump president, and that the conditions that made this possible remain in force.

What is less well understood is why this is objectionable.  The problem is not just that, as in this case, minority rule can produce disastrous outcomes; majority rule can do that too.  The deeper problem is that minority rule voting offends some of the normative foundations of modern civilization.

Getting clear on this can help delegitimize Trump and also, should we be lucky enough to see the back of him soon, the miscreants and know-nothings he empowered who will carry on after he is gone.

What, then, is minority rule, and why is it objectionable?

These questions can be complicated because the term has several, fairly distinct senses.

The clearest of these is procedural; the idea would be that, when votes are taken and candidates or measures are compared pairwise, the winner is the option with the fewest votes.  Nobody favors a decision procedure like that.

But almost everybody favors something very like it when, for example, they subscribe to rules that require super-majorities to pass enactments, or when they otherwise bias decision making in ways that favor the status quo.  Procedures that accord veto power to fewer than fifty percent plus one of the voting public are forms of minority rule.  The U.S. Constitution countenances and even prescribes collective choice rules that do precisely that.

The word “conservative” is used in American politics to denote a wide range of unseemly and downright idiotic policies – on gun control, reproductive rights, environmental policies, and countless other issues – that have scant connection to any of the main themes of the great conservative political philosophies of the past.  The word is also used to denote the right wing of our rightward skewed political spectrum.

These uses of “conservative” are, to say the least, problematic.  However, voting procedures that bias outcomes in favor of the status quo are conservative in an unproblematic way.  They work to conserve what is already in place by institutionalizing caution, a cardinal virtue for genuine conservatives, by impeding, without entirely blocking, change.

Thus a kind of minority rule can indeed be justified for conservative reasons.

But apart from the fact that people who call themselves “conservatives” – but who are actually later-day nineteenth century liberals and/or theocrats, and/or proponents of any of a variety of retrograde causes — played an important role in getting Trump elected, and play an important role still in keeping him in power, there is nothing inherently conservative about the kind of minority rule they sustain.

They are not favoring the status quo over change; they want to change the status quo, radically if need be, to accord with the ideologies they support.  To that end, thanks to the inherently undemocratic institutions that our Constitution prescribes, and the debility of Democratic Party liberals, they have brought about a dictatorship of the few over the many.

Before the dawn of the modern era, dictatorship was the norm throughout human history everywhere in the world.  This only began to change, four centuries ago, with the rise of bourgeois society in Britain and Western Europe.

The class struggles that unfolded in those regions at that time ushered in a form of civilization in which the demos, the people as opposed to social, religious and economic elites, were political actors in their own right – not just a populace for elites to placate, pacify or plunder.

It was within bourgeois society that notions of popular sovereignty and democratic governance arose.  Not long thereafter, all distinctively modern normative political theories took those understandings on board.  They underlie the core intuitions that Trump-era minority rule offend.

Democratic norms can be defended in ways that appeal to fairness, and in ways that appeal to truth.

Both derive from theological traditions that maintain that persons are, in some pertinent sense, equal with respect to what matters fundamentally – equal “in the mind of God” – regardless of their non-essential properties or their stations in life.

The theology is ancient but, before the modern era, no one took it to imply that persons ought to be treated equally by basic political or societal institutions.  That is a distinctively modern idea.

With modernity came secularism, which, in turn, detached the core notion the theology expressed from its theological articulations, leaving behind the idea that, from a moral point of view, persons matter equally and in the same ways.  From that point on, the idea has had far-reaching social and political implications.

It follows, accordingly, insofar as democracy requires that collective choices be functions of individuals’ choices for alternatives in contention, that the votes through which these choices are expressed must be counted equally; one person, one – and only one – vote.

Majority rule voting could therefore be justified on the grounds that the outcomes it produces reflect the distribution of choices within the voting population  more fairly than any other collective decision rule.

Minority-rule voting – voting that empowers minorities to make, not just block, collective decisions – would accord an unfair advantage to those who want to keep things the way they are.

Arguments for majority rule voting that appeal to truth are less intuitive because we are generally unaccustomed to the idea that there are right and wrong outcomes in electoral contests.  Choosing Trump over one or another opponent might be objectionable for any number of reasons, but the idea that it is a mistake about a matter of fact in the way that, for example, “two plus two equals five” is, seems wrong-headed.

But is it?  As long ago as the late eighteenth century, there were defenders of the jury system who argued that, under specifiable conditions, majorities, the larger the better, are more likely to discover right answers than individuals are on their own.  This was even shown to be a demonstrable consequence of the way probabilities work.  Juries, of course, vote to decide matters of fact; in principle, they deal with questions that have right and wrong answers that are independent of what anybody wants those answers to be.

Some of our greatest political thinkers – Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), for example — produced profound and subtle political philosophies that effectively apply rationales for jury voting to collective decision making in democratic polities.

These ways of thinking have entered into the political common sense of the age.  This is why we feel intuitively that, in light of how his supporters and detractors regard him, that there is something profoundly wrong with elections that Trump could win and perhaps even win again, after providing six months worth of incontrovertible evidence of monumental incompetence and unsuitability.

For anyone who holds even pallid democratic convictions, the Trump presidency and the system that made it possible stand indicted.

The task, therefore, before more irreversible harm is done, is to bring the former to justice and to transform the latter in ways that make it truer to the values that underlie it, and that (small-d) democrats everywhere have long upheld.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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