Not all that long ago, everybody seemed to be cheering the rowdy resurgence of democracy. Social media was hailed for making our politics more inclusive and participatory. Opinion makers were praising “the wisdom of crowds” and the creativity of the “hive mind.” Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party uprising had unleashed a flowering of political protest, from left and right, that America hadn’t seen in decades. We were entering a fascinating, albeit messy, new age of political contestation—of protesters, hackers, whistle-blowers, rioters, and radical challenges to both Republican and Democratic politics as usual.
But over the past few months, this revival of democratic spirit appears to have worn out its welcome. The crowd is quickly being reconfigured back into its historical double, the mob. And the hive is increasingly viewed, by liberals and conservatives alike, as a hornet’s nest, a threat to democracy itself.
The wave of anxiety began with the unbearable prospect of a President Trump. The notion of a racist, demented reality-TV star occupying the nation’s highest office has caused an increasing number of people—left, right, and center—to question the decision-making capacities of the masses. In May, in a widely circulated cover story in New York, Andrew Sullivan expressed misgivings that America is suffering from too much democracy. The rise of Trump, he warned, demonstrates that America is “ripe for tyranny.” Leaning heavily on Plato, who remains one of democracy’s most scathing critics, Sullivan argued that “hyperdemocratic” society was eroding vital “barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.”
Then came Brexit. With a single referendum, British voters seemed to tear down those vital barriers, casting the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The economic confusion and xenophobia on display seemed to mirror the rising ethno—nationalism here at home. Trump even had an orange-faced, yellow-haired double in former London mayor (and now foreign minister) Boris Johnson. Impetuous, Sullivan-style panic ensued.
I confess I was not immune—as embarrassing as that is to admit when you’re someone who chanted “this is what democracy looks like” with Occupy Wall Street and helped organize a populist revolt of student debtors. I shared an article from The Washington Post—“The British are Frantically Googling What the E.U. is, Hours After Voting to Leave It”—that validated my sense that the electorate had behaved rashly, ignorantly. (What were they thinking?)
The next day, I noticed a correction circulating on Twitter. The number of British folks suddenly boning up on the EU had indeed spiked—to about 1,000 people, or a mere .0015 percent of the population. The story, in other words, was bollocks. (Who, exactly, was rushing to judgment?)
That snapped me back to my senses. But soon after, a histrionic essay by James Traub in Foreign Policy was making the social media rounds: “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses.” Beating a similar drum at Fusion, Felix Salmon lamented the “hijacking of the technocrats by the people” in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Contrary to Alexander Hamilton’s aristocratic vision for the republic, which aimed to insulate lawmakers from the masses, Salmon wrote, “The people are calling the shots more and more, in a way that never used to happen.”
It’s a stretch, mind you, to blame Brexit on the “ignorant masses.” The people didn’t demand the referendum: Elites made it happen, in a wildly miscalculated power play by Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies, who mistakenly believed a vote to stay in the EU was a lock and would fortify his position as Conservative leader. But as wrongheaded as the Brexit vote may have been, and as terrifying as Trump’s popularity remains, extrapolating from recent events to dismiss millions of people as idiots or to call democracy into question is not just overwrought but dangerous. Because it gets things exactly wrong. The real problem facing democracy today is not an excess of popular power but a lack of it.
The vileness of the Trump campaign has exposed something just as odious, and ultimately more insidious: the contempt some elites feel at the prospect of sharing power with regular people. This contempt is nothing new, of course—what’s striking is how acceptable it has suddenly become to express such antidemocratic views in polite company. Just as Trump has given a veneer of “respectability” to expressions of bigotry and xenophobia, he’s made calls for reining in popular democracy sound, to many people’s ears, like a reasonable response.
The elitists gave their game away, though, when they routinely cast Bernie Sanders and his supporters as virtual doppelgängers of the Trump crowd—another out-of-control and misguided mob, hopelessly immature and unrealistic about how the system works. Sanders, The New York Times sniffed, was irresponsibly promising his followers “the moon and a good part of the sun.” In an all-too-characteristic column called “2016: The Reckless Versus the Responsible,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called Sanders and Trump “peas in a pod.” Post reporter Callum Borchers unfavorably compared the Democratic insurgent’s impassioned followers with Trump’s: “If there is a trophy for bad behavior, Bernie Sanders’s supporters appear hell-bent on taking it from Donald Trump’s.”
The argument that Trump, Sanders, and their respective constituencies are two sides of the same benighted coin gained currency, in part, because it lets elites off the hook. It’s a way to rationalize clinging even more vehemently to a ruinous, oligarchic status quo—democracy be damned. But here again, it gets things backward. Protests and populist political movements, after all, are signs that people have been locked out of structures of governance, not that they have successfully “hijacked” the system. Elitists plead for more reason in political life—and who can disagree with that, in principle? But their position itself is not entirely rational.
In a widely circulated cover story in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch rallied to the defense of those in power. “Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around,” he complained. “Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last acceptable form of bigotry.” Mass discontent, he concluded, is a “virus” that must be quarantined.
But mass discontent has already been quarantined. That’s why voters on both the right and left are so pissed off. The real challenge facing America today is the near-absence in civic life of democratic channels that run deeper than a sporadic visit to the voting booth, or the fleeting euphoria of a street protest.
In reality, our political system is far less democratic than it was a generation ago. Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen unions crushed, welfare gutted, higher education defunded, prisons packed to overflowing, voting rights curbed, and the rich made steadily richer while wages stagnated. It’s not the frustration of the people that should terrify us, but rather the legitimate sources of their frustration, which have so long gone unaddressed. Regular citizens struggling to make ends meet have almost nowhere to turn, nothing to join. We shouldn’t wonder that so many voters have seized on this election to make a statement, even a nihilistic one. To insist that the only solution is for the people to get back in line is to refuse to acknowledge that the “establishment” bears any responsibility for the conditions that created the public’s outrage in the first place.
There’s no quick fix for this mess. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, it will be tempting to view the ballot-box refutation of Trumpism as a restoration of political sanity. But a Clinton presidency won’t fundamentally change the conditions that led millions of Americans to turn to Trump or Sanders. The only way out is the hard way—building democratic outlets for change patiently, on the ground. We have to build durable movements that support and advance the twin causes of racial and economic justice in a lasting and meaningful manner. And we have to acknowledge that protests are a necessary but insufficient ingredient for social change: They can be galvanizing and clarifying, but, just like political campaigns, they tend to be short-lived and don’t always translate into the sustained, strategic organizing efforts we need.
Above all, in spite of the reports of political chaos—and yes, even stupidity—that daily flood our inboxes and Twitter feeds, we must resist the call of the elites and the tug of the anti-democratic urge. Knee-jerk contempt for democracy—insulting those we disagree with as idiotic, as incapable or unworthy of civic trust and responsibility—has a long and ugly history in this country, where the Founding Fathers were nearly as democracy-averse as Plato, and certainly more hostile to the prospect of redistributing wealth. The non-propertied, non-male, and nonwhite have all had to battle for basic political inclusion—and then real political power—pushing against reactionary conservatives and anxious liberals alike. Our job now is to advance this democratic march, rather than retreat from it in fear. Before we write democracy off, we should at least truly try it.