Purification does little good for political history. For a long while, we in the West have awarded the sash proclaiming World’s First Democracy to ancient Athens. But as imperial power loosens its insistent white fist—in fits and starts—our understanding also opens. Maybe it’s time we acknowledge that democracy didn’t spring, fully formed, from the head of an oracle in the Athenian Cave of Schist. While we’re at it, we Americans might try to see our republic for what it actually is: a mongrel work in progress.
Ages before Cleisthenes seized power in Athens in 508 BCE, instituting popular reforms that picked representatives by lot rather than birthright, proto-republics existed for the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and in the ganas and sanghas of India. These city-centric societies established early systems of self-government. In Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, historiographer
Martin Bernal bestows the title of earliest probable republic on Arwad under the Phoenicians, during the second millennium BCE, in what is now Syria.
Asked if his ideas were anti-European, Bernal replied: “My enemy is not Europe, it’s purity—the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture.” Our American political system is a hybrid of its antecedents, and what greatness America offers isn’t a function of nationalist Puritan origins. The very hodgepodge nature of our American government is what makes it so damn resistant. Glorifying the homogeny of our forefathers and the originality of their words and ideas is the worst kind of revisionist history, and it doesn’t make ideological purity any more real.
Death by Indirection
In 2016, for the fifth time in U.S. history and the second time in sixteen years, a presidential candidate won the popular vote and lost the election. This should teach us one thing about American democracy: it’s no democracy. Our nation is, strictly speaking, a constitutional republic—what the Framers, leaning heavily on the modifier, referred to as a representative democracy. My semantic fundamentalism might carry with it some of the stale originalist air hanging about the empty seat on the Supreme Court, but if we’re ever going to understand what led us to President Trump, we should first confront the distinctions between a pure democracy and a republic.
Direct democracy, sometimes called pure democracy, was thought by the Founders to be every bit as oppressive as tyranny. James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:
Pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority of the whole, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that democracies have ever . . . been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
At present, not a single nation governs by direct democracy. Switzerland is often touted as the exception, but it isn’t. The Swiss Confederation, which ratified its constitution in 1848, is more accurately dubbed a half-direct or representative direct democracy. A group of Swiss citizens may, by amassing fifty thousand signatures in one hundred days, call a federal referendum to challenge a law passed by parliament. Also, if one hundred thousand voters sign for a proposed constitutional amendment within eighteen months, it is put to a national vote. Otherwise, the Swiss government leaves the great majority of its business to popularly elected politicians. These avenues of direct democracy at the federal level are available to the Swiss citizenry, in a way they’re not in the United States, because Switzerland is a nation with the population of New York City spread over an area smaller than West Virginia.
The Electoral College is an institutional carryover from the state-sanctioned system of slavery. God bless America?
It may be no coincidence that the Swiss were some of the first people of the twenty-first century to bend to national fear, indulging in a rights-curbing furor aimed at the country’s Muslims and foreigners. In a 2009 national referendum, Switzerland banned the new construction of minarets. A year later, the Swiss voted for the automatic expulsion of foreigners who commit crimes. President Trump and his supporters embrace such policies, but the Framers of the U.S. Constitution would not. They’re on record arguing that policies like these are examples of the downside of democracy—dangerous moments of crisis when an unchecked popular vote leads to knee-jerk legislating and the tyranny of the majority.
The hazard in any democratic system of government is that the will of the majority tends toward infringement upon the rights of ethnic, religious, and political minorities. As Madison notes in The Federalist, this problem is as old as government. Yet most republics allow for the periodic and ritualistic voicing of the people, with every new presidential or prime-ministerial administration sprung from an instant of direct democracy, the national election. One critical flaw in the framing of the U.S. Constitution is that it doesn’t allow for this originating moment. Our single most important election in any four-year cycle can’t accurately be called a reflection of representative—never mind direct—democracy. To determine our highest level of government, the office of the president, the Founders instituted the absurd redundancy of a representative republic.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison, who opposed direct democracy but favored direct popular election of the president, noted that there was a blockade to such “an immediate choice by the people.” The Southern delegates were worried. While the South had a hearty population, nearly half were African American slaves. The brazen men of the Constitutional Convention had no intention of letting slaves vote, but they also didn’t want the North’s political influence to significantly outweigh the South’s. The compromise? To hell with any Christian quandaries of conscience or moral duty; what if we the Founders chose to partition each slave into fifths, and then throw two-fifths away? This tortured census-taking, measuring the population of each state, would in turn decide the shares of presidential electors. Of course, slaves would still be barred from voting, but as Madison pointed out, the “substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.” This is the logic—patently undemocratic, spiritually bankrupt—that led us to the Electoral College, an institutional carryover from the state-sanctioned system of slavery. God bless America?
That, good citizens, is why we Americans don’t vote for presidents. We vote for electors who represent geographic blocks of voters. It’s a handicapping system that privileges the parts (states) over the whole (nation). Our winner-take-all, first-past-the-post voting system, used by every state save Maine and Nebraska, distorts our individual choices. The result is voter float: you tend to support the top candidates with the best chance of winning, even if you favor neither, because voting for a less-popular candidate amounts to a scuttled vote.
The rigging power of the Electoral College is rivaled only by gerrymandering in its contemporary incarnation, as best detailed by David Daley in Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. We currently have eight states—Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Ohio—in which poor showings for the Republican presidential ticket didn’t stop Republicans from monopolizing the other races and attaining full control of the state legislatures and governorships. And despite the Republican presidential candidate losing the popular vote by nearly three million ballots—a number greater than the populations of fifteen different states and the District of Columbia—Republicans succeeded in dominating not only the White House, but also the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Behold the wonders of gerrymandering.
The Founders may have said they wanted to keep factionalism from infringing on the rights of the people, even the weakest among us, but instead they set us on the opposite path. Our current voting system—built on a foundation that is equal parts freedom and disenfranchisement—enables not tyrannies of the majority, but tyrannies of the minority. Minority rule is on the wane in most of the so-called advanced world, but there are a few remaining anti-democratic strongholds: Alawites in Syria, Muhajirs in Pakistan, Sunni Muslims in Bahrain, and Republicans in the United States. Allowed to continue unchecked and unbalanced, the arrangement will amount to American political apartheid.
This flies in the face of our unadulterated understanding of what the Founders intended. So where are the originalists when we the people need them most?
In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936, John Maynard Keynes sought to make sense of the Great Depression. He thought investing in stock markets was like old-timey newspaper contests, where
competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view.
This has come to be known as the Keynesian beauty contest. (I’ve argued elsewhere that this same phenomenon hurts the editorial acquisitions process in publishing.) To win, you’re forced to select the outcome most selected by others, despite your personal preference. Keynes wrote,
It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.
In 2016, the least popular of the major-party nominees won the contest between two of the most loathed candidates in U.S. history during the ugliest election of recent memory. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we Americans attended, and abetted, the inaugural Trumpian beauty contest.
Compounding the difficulty, and adding another degree of separation, is our dependence on increasingly Balkanized sources of information. We’re lucky if we can keep track our own opinions, glutted as we are on mass social media. And as countless postmortems of the 2016 campaign demonstrate, a significant segment of the Trump-backing electorate gorged on an artificial diet of fake news. Sad! Yes, the Electoral College and gerrymandering have allowed for the encroachment of minority rule, but those are not the only factors destabilizing our republic. Perhaps the most direct threat is our growing separation from the ability to distinguish freedom of choice from the false freedom offered by mis- and disinformation.
Future technologies may allow an entire nation-state to function as a true direct democracy, permitting a large number of citizens to assemble and administer the government virtually. Ideally, such breakthroughs would simplify the logistics of mass participation while preventing majority whim from devolving into acts of legislative aggression. A democratic advance of this kind would likely require a post-capitalist society, in which the full-time job of every citizen would be keeping abreast of national politics. The great inconvenient truth here is that democracy takes a damnable amount of time and attention—time few of us can, or care to, afford.
The great inconvenient truth here is that democracy takes a damnable amount of time and attention—time few of us can, or care to, afford.
Until then, we, as a republic—still far removed from a truly representative government of the people, by the people, for the people—defer to proxies: fellow Americans who pledge to follow closely the minutiae of policy and make votes in our stead. The best among our policymakers tend to be wonks and nerds, even though a large portion of us, though not a majority, are drawn, via our popular culture, to the more charismatic hams and hacks, straight-talking average Joes and Janes we’d deign to drink a beer with.
The work of these proxies exempts us from having to read position papers, articles in obscure law reviews, reports of research studies in science journals, or tedious think pieces published in little magazines. Our proxies should also pore over, on our behalf, leaked emails and diplomatic cables—not just the headlines and roundups—as well as transcripts of committee and subcommittee reports. Let’s not omit a solid grasp of history, or forget literature, philosophy, and religion. Oh, and there’s also the continuous maintenance of fluency in the forty-one volumes (and counting, though not including supplements) of the U.S. Code, totaling some sixty thousand pages, otherwise known as the Law of the Land. They should likewise be reasonably versed in the 2,600 pages of the tax code. Then there’s sitting attentively through endless staff and follow-up meetings with experts on all of these issues, and on and on.
This is why we have politicians. They are our professional citizens, servants of the public. These people do the white-collar work we don’t want to, or can’t, do ourselves. And we Americans are, for about three-and-a-half out of every four years, content with this arrangement. Our political proxies become expert, we hope, in certain parts of government. And once Election Day has passed, we as lay citizens then keep a distracted eye on their doings, deferring to yet more experts—journalists, lawyers, judges, activists—whose job it is to pay attention to the choices of our choices. As the U.S. republic ages, it grows ever more complex, requiring even more time and attention—and people—to keep it in good working order.
The Experts Squeak
Before becoming an award-winning novelist in middle age, Walker Percy wrote essays that tended toward the philosophical. They were position papers of a kind, but they had lasting practical applications, like education reform. In one, “The Loss of the Creature,” published in 1958, Percy examines our tendency toward the giving over of agency, referring to the
general situation in which sovereignty is surrendered to a class of privileged knowers, whether these be theorists or artists. A reader may surrender sovereignty over that which has been written about, just as a consumer may surrender sovereignty over a thing which has been theorized about.
Percy warns that when we surrender sovereignty—the way we must, more and more, as our systems grow ever more complicated—we go from creator, master of our own domain, to consumer, servant of market forces outside our control. The Founding Fathers created our republic, not without help, and we are ever in danger of being devoured by this awesome creation, because we, the current consumers of government, are content to receive legislation as it has been presented to us by politicians, our civic theorists and planners.
Or so the story goes. In the quotation above, Percy takes care to implicate writers, too, and thereby himself. Even as he essentially says, “Don’t take my word for it,” he acts like a tricky policymaker, who is in fact eager for us to take him at his word. Percy goes on to add that readers “may also be content to judge life by whether it has or has not been formulated by those who know and write about life.” As you sit there reading these formulations, do you feel content? If you do, be wary. Your contentment comes from your surrender of sovereignty, your willingness to consume the judgments herein instead of creating judgments of your own, a tough task while someone else’s voice is in your ear. That’s how you lose the creature, according to Percy, or gain a degree of remove, according to Keynes.
And you’re not alone. In our overloaded Informational Age of Specialization, the Era of Big Data, one wherein consumer culture reigns supreme, is it any wonder some of us give up sovereignty to a gut-driven überconsumer like Trump, a political layman disdainful of policy experts and planners, specialists and data? The rest of us surrender wittingly to pollsters and media pundits.
Quality higher education offered free to every American—we the citizen-consumers—could go a long way toward awakening us to the terms of our surrender. But populism cares little for credentials. Public education means entry into a social compact, which smacks to some of indoctrination. The tragic paradox here is that a lack of education is precisely what prevents us from discovering that the best defense against indoctrination is good education.
Those who voted Trump tended overwhelmingly toward the un- and undereducated. This group leans more religious, and they can be resistant to science and statistics. They’re suspicious of authorities. They have a distrust of the abstract—a skepticism Percy would consider healthy. Keynes, for his part, would call it reckless—a function of our impatience, of what he called our “animal spirits.”
Allowed to continue unchecked and unbalanced, our current arrangement will amount to American political apartheid.
Forget, for a moment, the sensationalist queries into email servers and ties to Russian oligarchs. I come from a blue-collar background. I used a Pell Grant to a community college to escape the breakneck work I saw wreak havoc on the families around me, including my own. I can’t help but ask: Do we really want a return to those manufacturing jobs providing countless soul-snuffing hours of repetitive stress? You want to bring home the less-regulated work that would once again pour selenium into our rivers and smog into our skies? What would happen if—instead of looking wistfully back to some fetishized notion of the working class—we dared venture ahead to a more securely middle-class future? If only in recompense for the educational outrage that was Trump University, the new president should champion one of his predecessor’s proposals, America’s College Promise, and provide two years of community college free for responsible students. This might even blunt our desire for conspiracy theories.
A decent education probably won’t teach you the word apophenia, but it will allow you to appreciate it nonetheless; it’s the experience of seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless data. Apophenia is the result of large quantities of information circulating among large numbers of people, and a byproduct of the gap between information and understanding. We know so much and fathom so very little. The harder you look for any underlying pattern, the worse America seems. This informational anxiety only makes our decision-makers—those making mistakes that are in turn mistaken for grand plots—seem a lot smarter, and more Machiavellian, than they are.
Given the traumas of Campaign 2016, we might be excused for detecting, in the workings of apophenia, the exhaust fumes of a failing republic. But we should recognize that Trump is neither a throwback to an older time of simple patriarchal leadership nor a pop-culture demagogue from out of the disruptive future. During the election, Trump and his supporters said the system was rigged, and it was—the rigging is called our republic, and it led us to President Trump. When we rid ourselves of this Trump, another one, by a different brand and under an alternate hairdo, will rear his human head, to be sure. Unfortunately, the Trumps and Le Pens of the republican West, the Brexit votes and the banning of burkinis on the beaches of the French Riviera, are not merely the populist, nationalist movements of the moment. They are the outcome of a system that is messy and impure, bent but not broken—one that continues to revise the most just, and enduring, form of government our moral universe, however limited, has ever known. The real unanswerable question is: How long can it last?
On November 20, 2004, weeks after incumbent president George W. Bush defeated John Kerry, partly thanks to organized swiftboating, Congress took a decisive bipartisan stand. With a House vote of 344 to 51 and a Senate vote of 65 to 30, followed in December by the presidential signing of the historic bill, the United States of America officially named its first national tree—the oak.
What led to the passage of this legislation was a months-long open vote—a popularity contest, really—sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation, where the oak garnered more than 101,000 votes. Ignoring that it is already the national tree of a dozen other European countries, oak lobbyists mounted a spirited campaign. They hailed both the tree’s diversity—more than sixty species grow in the United States, making oaks the nation’s most plural hardwood—and the legacy of “Old Ironsides,” the live-oak hull of the USS Constitution known for its ability to deflect British cannonballs as if they were spitwads. But by my reckoning, oak voters got it wrong.
Since the start of the U.S. two-party system in 1828, with the first Democrats supporting the candidacy of Andrew Jackson, the office of the president has tended to alternate every couple of terms. In eight of the last ten elections, voters chose—more or less—to switch the party occupying the White House after a candidate (or his successor) had claimed both previous elections. That third consecutive term of single-party control has become a political bugbear. We Americans get sick of more of the same.
Out my window on the Midwest, I see our garden gone to seed in a former horse pasture. There’s the neighbor’s deer blind on stilts, looking like a penitentiary guardtower. Across the road (which is in bad need of repaving), the field gets rotations of corn and alfalfa, with an odd year or two to lie fallow. Down the road, someone’s got a dozen dairy cows in a tumbledown barn. This is Trump country. Our 1850s farmhouse has floors that list and creak like the deck of Old Ironsides taking cannon fire; its bones, too, are old-growth oak. Oak frames the windows holding the original panes that torque the view I keep coming back to, the stand of trees. Among the easily split oaks and black walnuts, the hickory and ash, there grows the kind that gets my vote for national tree, the American sycamore.
Most trees don’t simply grow up. They twist as they grow, revolving in one direction, spun slowly by wind, sun, and predisposition. American sycamore, though, often alternates its revolutions in successive years, turning left, then right, then left, back and forth and back. As it grows in this way, its cells interlock. It’s the favored lumber for butcher blocks, and most folks round here won’t burn it for firewood because it’s hell to split. This is how it grows so big and survives so long, some six centuries or more. The U.S. record-holder is in California, called Sister Witness Tree. She was probably a sapling when Columbus landed in the Bahamas, and she’s endured the entirety of our nation. She likely won’t live to see its end. Maybe it’s just my need to find a meaningful pattern in the meaningless, but I can’t help but see a lesson in Sister Witness Tree: the defining feature of our republican two-party system is its tendency toward alternating growth—left, right, left. This makes American democracy, such that it is, resistant to splitting. It forces us—often against our individual will—to grow together, as an imperfect union, rather than fall apart.