Maybe Democracy Just Doesn’t Work…

Democratic theory is based upon the premise that voters will respond to evidence of performance–that they will fail to return politicians to office when the policies pursued by those politicians demonstrably fail to work.

Democratic theory also assumes a significant level of voter self-interest; that when the policies of Party A have created an environment inimical to an individual voter’s interests, he/she will vote instead for Party B ( or in some places, party C or D).

And of course, democratic theory assumes that accurate information–aka “facts”– will be available to the general public from media sources that most voters consider trustworthy.

Maybe democratic theory is wrong about all of that.

David Atkins has written a provocative post over at Political Animal.

Something has happened over the last 15 years in the American conservative psyche that most journalists and centrist political observers don’t want to admit. Conservatives are locked in an increasingly hostile defensive crouch against reality and demographic trends. Supply-side economics, once unquestioned in its Reagan ascendancy, has been shown to be a failure on multiple levels. President George W. Bush’s signature war in Iraq turned out to be a bungled disaster. Secularism is on the rise, gays can legally get married, and America is fast becoming a minority-majority nation. Climate change and wealth inequality are the two most obvious public policy problems, neither of which has even the pretense of a credible conservative solution. This, combined with the election of the first African-American president, has had a debilitating effect on the conservative psyche, which now sees itself under assault from all directions.

Conservatives have responded by creating their own alternative reality in which rejection of basic facts and decency in the service of ideology is a badge of merit and tribal loyalty. That has created an environment in which the most popular voices tend to be the most aggressive and outlandish.

Add to that Chris Cillizza’s trenchant observation about the public’s growing distrust of media–the insistence (from right and left alike) that all media is biased– in a recent Washington Post column:

Here’s the thing: If there is no agreed-upon neutral arbiter, there are no facts. And, as I have written before, what is happening in the Republican race is that most of the candidates — save Trump and, at times, Ben Carson — are playing by an established set of rules around what you can say and do. Trump is not only not playing by those rules but there are also no referees to enforce his blatant flouting of them.

And that, children, is why–as Atkins notes–the GOP is Donald Trump’s party now.


  1. Donald Trump may be the face of the GOP these days, but he doesn’t own it. That honor belongs to the christian right. As of this week the polling shows that christian right candidates (Carson, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum) have something close to 45% of the republican support. If you add Rubio to that list you are at nearly 60% of the republican vote. When this block of voters do settle on a candidate they will hold a majority. Even with all of the other candidates combined behind Trump he will not have enough strenght to win the nomination. That is how I am seeing the Republican Party at this time.

  2. It all gets down to FOLLOW THE MONEY; Democracy and Democrats have become the poor relation in this country. Before anyone blows a gasket – yes, there are some wealthy Democrats but they are outnumbered even if part of the 1%.


  3. But, but but…the gerrymandering of the districts is making it harder and harder for independent voices to be heard. If you are in one of those districts and vote for a minority (for that district), your vote basically doesn’t count because of the electoral college method of winner takes all. And let’s not forget about purging voter rolls and making it mandatory to get ID to vote even for the elderly. Some districts won’t allow students to vote in the district they go to school in. Not to mention, we expatriates only get a vote absentee which means our votes won’t be counted until the race is contested. The GOP is all about making it harder and harder for citizens to vote and the spineless Democrats haven’t fought for automatic registration of voters at 18 until recently or expanding voting beyond one day in November. Let’s not forget about having to declare your party at primaries for most states. As citizens we need to figure out a way to make voting easier, not more difficult and outlaw gerrymandering and voter purges and Citizen’s United. #FeelTheBern

  4. The republicans have created a great and successful propaganda machine that serves to keep fearful conservatives tuned in and hopeful. I see a sign on my way to work that says “When you die, you will meet God”. If they can just hold on long enough, the republicans can see god and the country will be returned to its glory. Sadly for them the trend line says that’s not going to happen.

  5. Theresa,

    “Donald Trump might be the face of the GOP these days but he doesn’t own it.”

    I completely agree with your assessment. Trump is just doing all the “dirty work” for the Christian Right. They’ll make the final decision. They want a theocracy. Trump won’t be able to do that for them.

    It’s possible, but very unlikely, that a new candidate might arise from the Christian Right who might appear (emphasis added) to be more in touch with reality. You never know.

  6. Democracy works when the voters are educated, informed and willing to participate. Does anyone think that this is a description of today’s electorate?

  7. The problem is that without democracy we will be facing the only alternative which will be some form of authoritarianism such as theocracy.

    The Presidential Election of 2016 will most likely determine our ultimate direction for some time. It’s going to be very difficult to maintain political equilibrium no matter who wins.

  8. Kudos to David Atkins for summing up what has happened to conservatives in this country so succinctly. Too bad he hasn’t indicated what the magic elixir for these folks and their affliction is so that there’s a cure for them at some point. They truly need one and we should all root for their speedy recovery.

  9. I’ve been leading discussions in my U.S. Government class on the (constitutional) Founding Father’s distrust of democracy, while in my U.S. History class, we’re discussing late 19th century populism. My government students are surprised to learn the length to which those delegates who presided over the ‘miracle at Philadelphia’ went to shield our government FROM very much democracy.

    Likewise, my history students are coming to grips with the double-edged sword of populism. They approve of the reforms brought on by agitation begun during the agrarian’s revolt, but equally reject the rhetoric of Donald Trump, (as well as the hypocrisy of having a billionaire widely accepted as spokesman for the little guy).

    One student innocently posed what might be the most penitrating question of this whole topic when she asked if our constitution is still relevant when addressing the issues facing 21st century America?

  10. I’ve been terrified by the complete bowdlerization of the press. My so-called newspaper has human interest stories in the headlines, a few national news items (that I read a day or two earlier on Facebook) in the middle, and the least-persuasive columnists–on both sides of the spectrum, but mostly the right. There is never any coverage of the rest of the world, except for dramatic events like the Paris bombing or news about our assorted wars. We have voters who don’t know the difference between news and infotainment, and who think a Trump presidency would be something like the political version of Celebrity Apprentice, and wouldn’t that be fun to watch?

  11. Folks are playing with words here, which is part of the problem. “Conservatives” aren’t really conservative, or they wouldn’t be advocating the positions they do. I guess they are more reactionary ideologues which have hijacked the conservative label. And the “Christians” aren’t really so much Christian as they are authoritarian ideologues who have hijacked the Christian label. This is confusing to most people, but they don’t seem to be curious enough or to care enough about participating in our democratic republic to make a difference–a failure of democratic theory. Frankly, it’s unsettling to see the words “Christian right” paired as if they really mean what they say.

    As for democratic theory, remember that a theory is not necessarily right, but useful. A theory should generate hypotheses to test, not principles in stone. Apparently, the theory does not really work perfectly because some of its component parts need to be tweaked and adjusted so that the “grand experiment” will not completely fail.

    In the end, democratic theory seems to be based on some assumptions about people that are not correct: that people, in fact, do vote in their self-interest, that the media will fulfill their responsibility to reporting facts and will make life difficulty for those who don’t care about them, and that people are willing to adjust their opinions when they have facts.

    There is no guarantee that this “grand experiment” will work, but I certainly hope that this failure is documented carefully so that a future group of smart folks will not make the same mistakes.

    The early framers of the Constitution seemed to have envision such a mess when they created the electoral college, which has the power to elect a sensible president when the people don’t. There were a number of other issues that the framers overlooked, but contrary to democratic theory (which failed to predict our current mess), we have a problem which the public is unwilling or unable to address.

  12. De Toqueville said, “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” He was right. Many have abandoned any sense of a duty to vote. We all tend to want to listen to those whose views match our own. The debates, especially on the Republican side, have been rife with childishness from the moderators as well as the candidates. When journalists ask questions like, “Mr Trump, Dr. Carson says you are a big stupid. How do you respond?” (Not actually a question asked, but the tenor is spot on.) I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get good information from that forum.

    We must vote. We must demand accountability. We must educate ourselves. In the immortal words of Albert the Alligator, “We has met the enemy, and he is us.”

  13. The Trumpter >> “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” You could spend hours, days and weeks trying to disprove the Trumpter’s remarks. The Republican base believes it, moreover they must believe it because it fits the Right Wing Extremists Narrative. So it is a waste of time trying to convince the Republican Base Trump is wrong.

    Roxanne, infotainment, is good description of the Indianapolis Star.

    I am a Bernie Sanders supporter and I am surprised at the number of people I encounter who like Sanders, but who also say Bernie has no chance to implement his platform when he is elected President. I often think of these people as managing, by sitting on the sidelines, to allow defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory. Sanders is asking not only for you to vote for him. He also has made it clear one person cannot change America’s trajectory by himself. We need a political revolution.

  14. Stuart,

    I agree with your problem with the Christian Right. But, it’s not monolithic. Walter Cronkite , the famed journalist and newscaster, used the words: “White supremacy masked in Christianity.”

    If you’re looking for a better “brand” that’s a good one, but it doesn’t pertain to all those in the Christian Right. So you’re not going to see it used by the media and probably rightfully so.

  15. It’s a bad-news, good news time.

    A friend recently said that the confounding and scary popularity of Trump did help him understand how people like Hitler come to power. Thankfully he (Trump) also has the highest negatives of any candidate.

    When a well-educated relative recently confided his support of Trump, my teenage granddaughter started ticking off Trump’s objectionable statements.

    As Trump declines in the polls, he gets more bellicose and fantasy-filled. As Ben Carson declines in the polls, Cruz ascends. It’s difficult to determine who’s more dangerous. But there’s no doubt in my mind that there are so many angry people in both major parties because of growing wealth disparity, making voters susceptible to candidates who also express hostility to the status quo and who find someone to blame – whether it’s the right group or not.

    As many have noted, Germany’s defeat in WWI and its subsequent economic hardships created the climate that Hitler exploited with extreme nationalism. As the Chinese proverb says, crisis is a dangerous opportunity. It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m SO thankful for Sheila Kennedy.

  16. First a recommendation. A poster named Jerry Stinson left a late thought on yesterday’s blog that is definitely worth going back to.

    We have evidence that democracy can be overcome with propaganda from the between wars era. I accept that now as simple fact. Perhaps that was suspected by our founding fathers and is why they put in place some obstacles to democracy like our Senate and the Electoral College. The power hungry will exploit them.

    We like to think of ourselves as rational animals but we are more cultural animals. That’s the challenge that enemies of democracy must overcome. They must get over a critical mass of propaganda that creates an irrational culture before they can threaten democracy. They reached that critical mass in pre war Europe and have here now.

    Is there any hope for freedom?

    This place suggests that there is beginning a counter culture that sees beyond and through the propaganda. Now we have an arms race going.

    The propagandists have the pulpit on Sunday mornings in some churches and are disguised as Christians. They also have several entertainment media channels. They are disguised as news and financial information outlets. They also have Exxonmobil and the Koch bros as additional financial resources.

    We have the Internet as a media and our belief that what we want we want for everyone as our guide.

    Nobody knows if freedom through democracy will win. Nobody.

    I will never give though. Avalanches begin with a single pebble.

  17. Marv,

    over the years, it has had many names. Two of the latest being Nazi and KKK. I would imagine one of the first was Knights Templar.

  18. How to respond to your provocative thesis that democracy simply may not work? Perhaps we can simply throw in the towel and agree with nihilists that government is not now and never was necessary, or with libertarians with their view that government is only necessary to protect assets and that individual freedoms trump collective agreement in any case. Several other ideas could be advanced in this connection to explain contraction or expansion of what government provides or refuses to provide to the polity, depending upon what undergirding views a majority of the electorate decides (or is told to decide by competing propaganda mills, all with their own fish to fry, like, for instance, softening up the hoi polloi for the coming privatization of social security, education etc.).

    I am not at this time in favor of the system I will be proposing here, but offer it as an alternative to the current gridlock we are experiencing (with Wall Street wolves feeding such intramural political battles to poison the idea of government with their privatization of public assets and ultimate corporate takeover awaiting its downfall).

    Perhaps it is not democracy but rather its presentation that is the problem. After all, there are many successful democracies around the world these days who do not have a two-party system in which the many disparate views are herded into either one or two points of view on the issues. They have a parliamentary system with multi-party representation so that voters have a choice based on the real issues of the day, and typically govern by coalition of parties sufficient for the governing majority. Thus not all Republicans are Republicans and not all Democrats are Democrats. A parliamentary system allows voters a far greater choice and makes their representatives more sensitive to the voters’ real concerns than that of the rich and party hacks. I think a more responsive system would lend itself to a new respect for government and also offer a means of marginalizing those on the fringe where, for instance, a whole political party is currently held hostage to some 40 House members to whom “compromise” is a four- letter word.

    I am, as earlier suggested, opposed to adoption of such a major structural change in how we are to live up to our democratic idealism, but if the present juvenile brawls continue and the process of governing remains hogtied, then I am open to suggestion. Democracy is our most important asset, far more important than the methodology of its presentation, so if the present trek to Third World status continues, then let’s call a Constitutional Convention and do the necessary.

    Meanwhile, I hang on to the fleeting hope that we can have a democracy within a more enlightened two-party system in charge of adults who have not sold their political souls to the vested interests, but like as in the old slave song, “I grows weary,” (and I am not alone). When do we jumpstart real democracy by starting to govern in the public interest and not that of the narrow interests of the few with deep pockets? Ever (speaking of weariness)? Parliamentary democracy? Given our present political mayhem, it’s a thought.

  19. Wow Jerry. Great presentation of effective thinking.

    Unfortunately for democracy it’s not typically possible to fix it after it’s broken. The time to fix it is before. That’s why we are indebted to our more than adequate founding fathers.

    But, I have to agree that a parliamentary system would hold up better against the current assault on democracy than our two party system can.

    We are, as I said, more cultural than rational and having the choice of many cultures to align with would dilute the impact of the most dysfunctional ones.

  20. Marv,

    Thanks for the comment and insight. People tend to look at the identity of the flag that someone wears–American, Christian or whatever–but we always need to lift the flag and see what’s under it. Sometimes it’s a good surprise, sometimes it’s not, but mostly it’s probably a mixture and more complicated than we thought.

  21. Pete,

    It’s fun to imagine how some of our lower functioning demagogues would function in the British Parliament. I’d love to see Mssrs. Pence, Bush, Huckabee, Carson and the others for just 15 minutes in that “institutionalized rudeness”. That would be the end of them. And people think that the U.S. Is democratic, but only insofar as it allows those guys to survive politically.

  22. Stuart, our esteemed Republican wannabes couldn’t even hold up to the marshmallows tossed at them by their debate media.

  23. An evil part of me would just love to see the Brits eat them up. Ah, yes. The kings without clothes.

  24. Like they say, though, “Better the demon you know”. If Trump, Carson and Cruz suddenly disappear, and hear the call to take their rightful place as South American dictators, consider who is waiting in the wings.

  25. There is an interesting piece of Britain’s Parliament called Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ). The British P.M. is praised and petted by his own party, and poked and prodded by the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn has made it quite interesting. PMQ was on cable for years but it has been dropped in seems it is available on U-Tube.

    It would interesting if a similar format was used here in the USA in the debates or in our City-County Council.

  26. Stuart,

    “People tend to look at the identity of the flag that someone wears-American, Christian, whatever-but always need to lift the flag and see what’s under it.”

    I don’t need any market research after your statement. Many thanks. Last Friday and Saturday I attended a conference in Jacksonville organized by “The Veterans Writing Project. ”

    It was a great experience, everyone was a veteran and It was all about “Writing War.” In some respects, what we’re now dealing with in the U.S. is somewhat analogous to the “Viet Cong.” I’m serious.

    With the all the help I received last weekend, I’m now preparing a new website for an essay I’ve been working on for a long time. The domain name is:

  27. Perhaps I’m way too optimistic but I like the idea that Trump and Carson and Cruz are detracting from Rubio. I simply can’t believe that America is stupid enough to elect anybody with no qualifications, but I can picture us falling for Rubio’s cunning.

    If the bozo’s flush Rubio they will have served a purpose and still will get beat by Hillary or Bernie. The only long term impact on America is that Republicans will continue to be the laughing stock of the world.

  28. Since I am obviously a cock-eyed optimist (I still vote) I am delighted with the unionization of the press at places like Huffington Post. We may get our free press back yet. But for most of my adult life (I’m almost 60), the news has become more and more controlled by the oligarchy which tells us what we are to think and prevents any of us from being able to put it all together into a cohesive picture. Instead we keep feeding trolls by fighting the culture wars.

  29. Roxane: You sure have described the Indianapolis Star. I dropped my subscription about 15 years ago and I did so with a feeling of personal satisfaction that in a small, pebbly way I was withholding support for a noise helping to dumb down hoosierworld.

  30. Recently, while reading about the between-the-wars era of the 20th century in Germany, England, France and the U.S., I was struck by the similarities to the present in the machinations the Nazis used in their assent to power in Germany. WWI and its aftermath certainly made things very difficult for Germans economically. The Market crash in 1929 just added more pressure to a bad situation. The Nazis not only attacked the press relentlessly, but appealed to those at the bottom of the wage scale because those people, voting in their own self-interests, had so little to risk. The scapegoating of the Jews, Communists and Romani with the tacit approval of those who were not in those groups allowed the kind of hysterical actions of a few pathological hoodlums to rise to power and destroy a whole continent.
    Today we watch the press being bought up by oligarchs and turned into platforms for the owners’ propaganda. We hear the rantings of the Hard Right against the current scapegoats, Hispanics, Blacks, refugees, almost anyone of color who is poor. We are served by politicians who are completely beholden to the plutocrats and oligarchs for their positions of power. We see our democratic system compromised, sold to the highest bidder, through suppression of those with minority views. Underlying all of this is the idea of white racial superiority and theocracy.
    The Nazis didn’t play by the rules. Trump has thrown the rules to the wind as he figuratively enters the fray, not with reason and controlled rhetoric, but wildly false and incendiary exaggerations and fabrications. The rest of the crowd, in desperation, pretend to play fair only to double down on the rantings of the poll leader.
    There are too many parallels to ignore.
    The possibilities of authoritarian rule subverting our two party system become more clearly evident every election cycle. It has happened in the recent past in other democracies. It could very well happen in the U.S., if not now, in the near future.

  31. JD,

    “….I was struck by the similarities to the present in the machinations the Nazis used in their assent to power in Germany.”

    The Far Right aka The Tea Party is now in control of the Republican Party. They have been continually expanding their power, with the aid of their Nazi Playbook, two steps forward and one backward, ever since 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon as President.

    Based on Professor George Lakoff’s earlier figures their think tanks have expended somewhere between five and ten billion dollars since 1970.

    It’s a slow motion coup. All coups eventually have to come out in the open. That’s what you are observing now.

    Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, Political Research Associates, Move-on and the rest of the so-called progressive defense organizations have been looking the other way for many, many years in order that their financial contributors would not object to their activities.

    Donald Trump has taken advantage of the situation and has prematurely forced the issue earlier than the Republican establishment had anticipated. How they respond to his move, only time will tell. Don’t wait for any effective response from the above listed organizations, it will never come.

    Remember Move-on’s boycott of Macy’s because of Trump’s unacceptable remarks. He swatted them away like they were flies.

    We all better start looking at the bitter truth: There’s no effective organizational response possible at this time. Save your money!

  32. You’re right, except the studies are not systematic enough, sustained and examined enough, to even be democratically shared. Indiana has a republican form of constitutional government, not a democratic one. The constitutional oath puts State law in balance with federal law, as the toll road rights sale a better deal than Manhattans got in beads…only it’s a segment of the Interstate 90 cargo carriage between Seattle and Massachusetts destinations. Like the Europeans of Texas who bought there to be as far from Germans in case they won, then as far from Asians in case they own, then sold out to be ready to move on after we started bombing Nevada!

  33. Phyllis,

    “You’re right, except the studies are not systematic enough, sustained and examined enough, to even be democratically shared.”

    sys-tem-at’ic adj. l. Constituting or based on a system 2. according to a system; orderly

    A good example of the problem you have pointed out is: the Southern Poverty Law Center. No doubt they’ve done some very valuable work. However, in my estimation it has been offset by what they haven’t done.

    About twenty-five years ago I was viewing a syndicated program on TV. I was living in Dallas at the time. The program was “The Tony Brown Show.” Tony Brown was an African-American living at the time in Chicago. His guest was Morris Dees the Founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    It was a lively discussion centered on race. Eventually, Tony Brown asked the big question as I saw and still see it: “I know what you’re talking about, but what about the (racial) system Morris?” Morris Dees answer was very clear: “I don’t get into all of that (system).”

    In other words, if Morris Dees was also our defender against the AIDS epidemic, he wouldn’t attack the systemic causes but would give us a $150,000,000 Epidemic Location Report.

    And everyone wonders: “Why are we up shit’s creek without a paddle?”

    Happy Thanksgiving

  34. To the question, I’m moving to the view that it does not. At least not directly and not always. Not that I prefer it that way or that I have more than tweaks like parlimentary systems mentioned above. We have always been weighted toward elitism, periodically re-adjusted, and now once again as widely disparate as ever.

    The reasons are many but the ones sticking out most prominently are the vast differences between the culturally educated and not, the monied, resource rich, and not and the destructive means at out disposal compared to our civilizations history. It’s within our own lifetimes we’ve developed weaponry of such destructive capability, chemical, biological and nuclear, now perhaps cyber, with the means to deploy them that we have the capacity to fully end human civilization at any recognizable level. Our interdependence has never been more obvious and our breachable enclaves been less secure. Equitable trade vs terrorism. Modernity vs savagery.

    We can look to the success of the US as a simple example. We believe most of the time we’ve been a force for good and that argument is long and well made. Yet we use, recklessly, vastly more resources than the world can or should tolerate based of the divine right of capitalism while billions starve.

    We believe ourselves culturally superior and yet remain, for the most part culturally blind, refusing to admit the worlds gifts available yet ignored. Obviously I could go on, develop this pitiful scenario but you get the point.

    We’ve now set in place information silos of digitally based consumerist preference that limits our data, based on our value as purchasers of goods and services and which also reaches deeply into politics and religion, culture and views that are determined by algorithym, shutting out the unpleasant or non-productive marketing and we barely notice, let alone complain.

    At the same time we are quite cavalier about environmental degradation even while paying lip service, know next to nothing about our chemical processes that have rapidly increasing effects on our biology, our genetics. Nuclear proliferation appears unstoppable although it’s comparative destructive capacities may be matched by other threats and so on and so forth.

    I do not see how we manage to give away so much, intentionally take out our eyes and ears, make ourselves so vulnerable to our own technological tinkering and cleverness while at the same time becoming so interdependent and clearly capable of communicating the difference between the haves and have nots, at whatever level the reader chooses and not be continual targets. Either from without or from within.

    I suspect we will do as we’ve done, rely on the dispersal of knowledge and the elites of technology and biology as well as the accumulators of valuables, be they cash or goods or land or arms, silo our views for to do otherwise reflects a need for compassion beyond our current capabilities to make manifest even if known and freely chosen, no small feat in itself. Our ethical development lags our phsyical development with increasingly small margins for error

    What I cannot really get my head around is this. Am I correct in thinking we’ve arrived at another critical evolutionary turning point, since we now possess the means for self destruction, and if so, what then shall we do?
    Have we continued rational optimism or are we hope bound for it, against the odds? I fear my speculations are rational yet have no interest in denying potential, succumbing to despair, or surrendering.

    I’d love to outline a vision reachable and very concrete steps to make it so. I put the request here for your consideration.

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