Despair about Democracy – Is America Useless?

by Chris Burn

It is very easy to write despairing articles about American politics these days, usually starting with a suitable Shakespeare quote such as: ‘O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.’ (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2).

So that’s that bit done. Time to focus on reality.

Do you remember when American politics were dead boring – who cared if the Republicans or the Democrats were in power, they did pretty much the same things in safe and predictable ways?

Of course, British politics were even more boring than that – people came and went in government but it didn’t really seem to matter, the rich just got richer and the poor – well who ever cares about them? And who cares about British politics anyway, except the British?

American politics though, everyone cares about, because we are all in some way dependent and involved – dependent on their having a good economy, dependent on their military might for protection and dependent even on their tourism. That’s why I have the temerity to comment at all. And now we’re also frightened to death in case someone over there does something silly that starts world War three or simply nukes some of us by mistake. Or all of us, for that matter.

So what went wrong so suddenly?

Actually, it’s democracy’s fault – because people in the democratic West keep electing the idiots that take such appallingly misguided decisions that have made the world such a terrifying place. How could Abe Lincoln’s wonderfully reassuring ‘..government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’ have led to this?

The tragi-comedy in America has seen a demagogue slide into power by manipulating the masses. He is rich, but he pretends to act like a commoner. He emerges out of the whirl of anti-establishment hysteria that he has encouraged, promoting himself as a strongman promising to stick it to the elites. Only he can restore the country to greatness, he says. The people, in America cast their votes. And since he gets the timing right, they respond. They desperately want to believe this ‘make them great again’ mantra.

The man at the top is not the real problem however, he is just the most obvious symptom of it. The real problem is the masses who perceive their own position in life as hopeless and the bullying strongman as their only possible saviour. Trump is a reflection of the people to whom he appeals. What distinguishes him from his followers is wealth and celebrity. He is the role model for their aspirations.

Trump is not going to change – why on earth would he? What will change, or rather re-assert itself, is the democratic maturity of the masses. Democracy is not a constant force, it waxes and wanes and at times it is strong and at other times horribly weak. But provided that belief in democracy survives, then it will prevail. Give it time.

Are we dismayed? Well, up to a point Lord Copper, as Evelyn Waugh might have said. We are in for a rocky ride for a while. But democracy is continually reinventing itself. One of democracy’s drawbacks is that it tends to foster corruption and cronyism and it allows people often to ‘get away with things’ that a more draconian regime would never allow. Change has certainly been needed and perhaps the worm needed to turn – a kind of revolution was necessary

Revolutions are good for one thing – crushing the excesses of the old regime. And there were many gross excesses in America (and on the other side of the pond as well).

So we are seeing a kind of revolution in America that came from inside democracy and that has produced a kind of (hopefully) temporary tyranny, yet it’s the very freedom of democracy that opened the way to such government. And Americans have a very special regard for democratic freedom.

Trump’s election to the Presidency came nearly two hundred and fifty years after the birth of the greatest nation that the world has ever seen. In those two and a half centuries they have coped with their own struggle for independence, their own horrific civil war, two world wars and countless other traumatic events.

Surely they will be able to sort out this temporary indisposition. At present it may feel like ‘…government of the people by somebody pretending that it is by the people and pretending that it is for the people..’ but normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


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