Opinionista Saul Musker 2 March 2016

Weimar volatility: subverting the democratic project

On Tuesday, millions of Americans went to the polls to vote in a series of primaries that could well decide the candidates for November’s presidential election. They did so in a climate of confusion, disbelief and dismay: it appears more and more certain that Donald Trump, hitherto disregarded as “the crazy man from that television show”, will be the Republican nominee. These are the signs of a democracy in crisis – which we South Africans know a little something about.

The newspaper columnists are tearing their hair out on the other side of the Atlantic. Ezra Klein writes that Trump is “the most dangerous major candidate for President in American history”, adding that he “lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realises he’s lying”. Roger Cohen laments “the Weimar volatility of this unanchored America”. Joe Klein is more to the point: “Donald Trump has a very, very highly developed lizard brain.”

It seems nobody can quite believe the course that this year’s election is taking. The meteoric rise of several unlikely outsiders, once viewed as a political sideshow by the media, has upset traditional notions of how democracy is supposed to work. The establishment is aghast. How could the public readily embrace such extreme positions? Why is it that every time a candidate like Trump makes an apparently fatal mistake, his support increases? (Trump put this frankly himself: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?)

This year, somehow, what is counterintuitive is right. We expect voters in a democracy to tend towards the centre, to avoid divisive or destabilising candidates and ideas, to endorse pragmatism and preparedness. We expect this because we know people to be afraid of rapid change, eager to ensure continuity and to preserve existing systems. Democracy favours moderation, the old assumption used to go, and will do so only more vigorously as a society matures and settles into routine. Popular support for radical insurgents like Trump and his diametric opposite in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, calls this into question. What the current trend shows instead is an unprecedented appetite for risk and volatility.

In fact, what these shifting sands suggest is an increasing tendency towards anti-politics, a rejection of the system itself. Millions of Americans are fed up with a government they perceive to be controlled by elite politicians who serve only their own, and their donors’, interests. And they are ready to consider any candidate who disavows the label of “politician”, who stands outside the corridors of Congress, shouting in.

This is a big deal. The grievances felt by voters are legitimate and urgent, and a critique of the status quo is entirely appropriate. But a response which seeks to discard rather than reform the system is troubling, because it threatens the very foundation of democratic governance – the process of negotiation, mediation and compromise through which conflicts are resolved and interests reconciled. David Brooks, in the New York Times, puts it this way:

Politics is an activity in which you recognise the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

This can be a slow, laborious process at times. The existence of strong checks and balances, a system of constraints and counterweights, ensures accountability but inhibits rapid change. People become fed up, unwilling to wait or to accept suboptimal (but more inclusive) outcomes. They turn to people like Trump for simple answers to complex questions. What they want is a candidate who will openly reject the system, who will seek to subvert, bypass or upend it rather than find ways to work within it.

Here, a parallel appears with our own predicament. Take this extract from Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump six weeks ago:

Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just the tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it.”

Perhaps not the most eloquent of statements. But in defending Trump’s platform, Palin invokes a frustration with the pace of change, using the same lexicon – “transformation” – as many in the student movement here. South Africans, once proud of the architecture of democracy established by the Constitution after 1994, are losing faith in the capacity of the current system to facilitate progress. Many in the student movement particularly are turning away from mainstream democratic politics – which they see as corrupt, dysfunctional and captured by elites – and towards radical, even revolutionary methods in their search for a way out of apparent stagnation. Their demands are absolute, and they reject compromise as capitulation. Their anger is directed at the system as a whole – a system that has failed them. There is an abiding sense that the regular channels of political recourse are not sufficient to achieve change.

Of course, drastic differences in substance and in style render any attempt to conflate the two contexts futile. For a start, Trump’s supporters are fuelled by open racism, while the student protesters are fighting its structural form. The latter has a legitimacy of cause which the former lacks entirely. And yet there is a common problem at stake: how can democracy be made to work for people, to produce meaningful outcomes, quickly and transparently enough to satisfy its constituents? How can the two opposite pressures be managed – on the one hand, a need for inclusiveness, compromise and due process, and on the other for rapid structural change – so that the system remains intact, but functions as we need it to? Can democratic processes and institutions be reinvigorated quickly enough to avert their collapse? In short, how can we save the democratic project from distortion or replacement by those who no longer see its value?

Answering this question is essential to escaping what seems, more and more each day, to be an existential crisis. DM

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