Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mythology of American Democracy (Why So Butthurt About Trump!)

carrollquigley |  I am going to give you an historical view of the American democratic tradition with analytical overtones showing how democracy has changed over the course of our history. The United States is a democracy. I think there is no doubt of that — but the American democratic tradition is largely a myth.

   First, a few definitions. I define democracy as majority rule and minority rights. Of these the second is more important than the first. There are many despotisms which have majority rule. Hitler held plebiscites in which he obtained over 92 percent of the vote, and most of the people who were qualified to vote did vote. I think that in China today a majority of the people support the government, but China is certainly not a democracy.

   The essential half of this definition then, is the second half, minority rights. What that means is that a minority has those rights which enable it to work within the system and to build itself up to be a majority and replace the governing majority. Moderate deviations from majority rule do not usually undermine democracy. In fact, absolute democracy does not really exist at the nation-state level. For example, a modest poll tax as a qualification for voting would be an infringement on the principle of majority rule but restrictions on the suffrage would have to go pretty far before they really abrogated democracy. On the other hand relatively slight restrictions on minority rights — the freedoms of speech, assembly, and other rights — would rapidly erode democracy.

   Another basic point. Democracy is not the highest political value. Speeches about democracy and the democratic tradition might lead you to think this is the most perfect political system ever devised. That just isn't true. There are other political values which are more important and urgent—security, for example. And I would suggest that political stability and political responsibility are also more important.

   In fact, I would define a good government as a responsible government. In every society there is a structure of power. A government is responsible when its political processes reflect that power structure, thus ensuring that the power structure will never be able to overthrow the government. If a society in fact could be ruled by a minority because that elite had power to rule and the political system reflected that situation by giving governing power to that elite, then, it seems to me, we would have a responsible government even though it was not democratic.

   Some of you are looking puzzled. Why do we have democracy in this country? I'll give you a blunt and simple answer, which means, of course, that it's not the whole truth. We have democracy because around 1880 the distribution of weapons in this society was such that no minority could make a majority obey. If you have a society in which weapons are cheap, so that almost anyone can obtain them, and are easy to use — what I call amateur weapons — then you have democracy. But if the opposite is true, weapons extremely expensive and very difficult to use — the medieval knight, for example, with his castle, the supreme weapons of the year 1100 — in such a system, with expensive and difficult-to-use weapons, you could not possibly have majority rule. But in 1880 for $100 you could get the two best weapons in the world, a Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver; so almost anyone could buy them. With weapons like these in the hands of ordinary people, no minority could make the majority obey a despotic government.

   Now there are some features of democracy that many people really do not understand. It is said, for example, that our officials are elected by the voters, and the one that gets the most votes is elected. I suggest that this is misleading. The outcome of an election is not determined by those who vote, but by those who don't vote. Since 1945 or so, we have had pretty close elections, with not much more than half of the people voting. In the 1968 election about 80 million voted, and about 50 million qualified to vote did not. The outcome was determined by the 50 million who didn't vote. If you could have got 2 percent of the nonvoters to the polls to vote for your candidate, you could have elected him. And that has been true of most of our recent elections. It's the ones who don't vote who determine the outcome.

   Something else we tend to overlook is that the nomination process is much more important than the election process. I startle a lot of my colleagues who think they know England pretty well by asking them how candidates for election are nominated in England. They don't have conventions or primary elections. So the important thing is who names the candidates. In any democratic country, if you could name the candidates of all parties, you wouldn't care who voted or how, because your man would be elected. So the nominations are more important than the elections.

   A third point is one I often make in talking with students who are discouraged about their inability to influence the political process. I say this is nonsense. There never was a time when it was easier for ordinary people to influence political affairs than today. One reason, of course, is that big mass of nonvoters. If you can simply get 2 or 3 percent of them to the polls — and that shouldn't be too difficult — then you can elect your candidate, whoever he is.