Does U.S. Suffer From Too Much Faith in the Common People?

My students in the United Arab Emirates ask what in the world is happening to the United States, a place they have found to be far more tolerant and accepting of religious diversity, and specifically of Muslims than Europe. Many have expressed admiration for the American way of life. The UAE Constitution says the country will transition toward democracy. I asked the students what that means. “Like America?” one answered. “Like Donald Trump??” asked another with a bit of humor. I try to teach them about democracy in the ideal, going back to the ancient Greeks, and they want to know about democracy in reality as currently exhibited by the US. They want no part of a democracy that tolerates the kind of hostility Trump expresses toward religious and ethnic minorities, or actually anyone who disagrees with him. They call it “hate speech.”

Indeed, democracy seems under threat in America. Ignorance and prejudices of the people seem to be taking center stage. South Carolina voters for Trump complained that political correctness no longer allows them to express their prejudices in public. “You can no longer call a spade a spade anymore…without being called a racist,” Trump voters complained in a focus group.

Cult of Ignorance in the US

Is American democracy in permanent decline, with an obsession on spectacle, shallowness and vulgarity, and a massive assault on reason? Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor, reflected in the New Yorker on what has changed in America to make it possible for Donald Trump to succeed in running for president. She also asks if online democracy and social media have sparked a new kind of shallow populism that

encourages snap and solitary judgment, the very opposite of what’s necessary for the exercise of good citizenship. Democracy takes time. It requires civic bonds, public institutions, and a free press…

Donald Trump attacks traditional civic bonds with incivility and boorishness, and threatens the free press with new restrictions. Public institutions seem to lack the confidence of the public.

Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers warned against too much direct democracy, giving too much power to average people who had neither the knowledge nor wisdom to make good decisions about the country’s direction. In the nation’s first presidential election in 1788, only about 1.3 percent of the population voted — a small proportion of wealthy white male property owners. This gradually expanded to 20 percent of the population in 1900. Until 1913, U.S. Senators were selected by state legislatures; they were not elected by “the people.” In the 20th century, voting rights were expanded to include women, African Americans, and young people (with the 18-year-old vote).

But the founding fathers distrusted the undiluted will of the people. An electoral college of wise men was established by the US Constitution in 1789 to if necessary defy the will of the majority in the event popular will made a mistake.

Cody Cain in Salon recalled the views of Federalists like Hamilton who were deeply skeptical that demagogues would manipulate the emotions of common people.

As Alexander Hamilton famously described in Federalist Paper No. 1, the most dangerous candidates are those who pay “an obsequious court to the people” (in other words, they pander to the commoners), because they begin as “demagogues” with “dangerous ambition,” and once they are elected, they become “tyrants.”

History teaches, Hamilton warned, that these are the types of candidates “who have overturned the liberties of republics.”

Our founding fathers concluded that this was just too risky. The ordinary masses simply could not be entrusted with democracy.

“The people,” proclaimed one founding father, “should have as little to do as may be about the Government” because they are “constantly liable to be misled.”

“The evils we experience,” noted another, “flow from the excess of democracy.”

“Our chief danger,” declared another founding father, “arises from the democratic parts of our” government that fail to provide “sufficient checks against democracy.”

I still have faith in the common sense of the American people over the long haul. I can think of only a few general elections in American history in which the people were clearly bamboozled into choosing the wrong person for the times, which led to far greater disasters than if they had selected “the other guy.”

I think of 1968, when voters chose the venal and crooked Richard Nixon over the brilliant healer, Hubert Humphrey. That choice led to Nixon’s assault on individual rights, a prolongation of the (losing) Vietnam War by five years, a Constitutional crisis, Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. If you ignore the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans, it turned out ok for Americans, with a reaffirmation of the supremacy of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, separation of powers, and that the U.S. has a government of laws, not simply of men. But it did lead to a permanent cynicism about American politics that one could argue has led to support for Donald Trump.

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