A mistake to which all of us are prone is to imagine that the future will be just like the present, just with more. If you are Gloomy Gus, the future will be more surveillance, more control and less liberty. If you are Suzy Sunshine, the future will be flying cars and hot looking women in Lycra jumpsuits. These are not conclusions drawn from evidence, but the starting point for accumulating evidence.
This is why humans have a fondness for rewriting history. Progressives go so far as to cut themselves off from the past as it tends to contradict much of what they believe. Normal people are content to just pluck the lessons of the past that confirm their beliefs. Gloomy Gus will compare today to the days before a great calamity. Suzy Sunshine will use the same event to point out how much better things are now.
The point here is that the future is probably not going to be better or worse. It will simply be different. The things that are different will feel better to the people of that age, because they will be living in that age. Their customs and solutions will have evolved for the challenges of their age. That’s the thing to keep in mind when thinking about human societies. The social and political arrangements exist as solutions to prior problems. They did not spring from nothing.
Our mass democracy, for example, is no more a permanent feature of life than slavery was a permanent feature in the 19th century. Slavery stopped being useful to human society so it was eliminated. If democracy stops being a benefit, then it will be junked in favor of something thought to be a better fit for the time. Popular elections and self-government are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The attempt to democratize Iraq is a rather obvious example.
The reason we have popular government is rich people needed an alternative to inherited rule and autocracy, which were ill-suited to commercial societies and dangerous in industrial societies. Allowing the people to pick among acceptable options put forth by the upper classes brought social stability, a thing the rich always want above all else. You cannot maintain your position in a world of turmoil. Allowing the masses to participate, brought stability so it evolved as the preferred option.
The West is now post-industrial. In fact, we are arguably in a post-scarcity, technological society. The growing custodial state is a response to technology and abundance. The old saying about idle hands doing the Devil’s work is true. In the modern West, most hands are idle for long periods of time. One could argue that the explosion of rules on speech, conduct and privacy is a response to this.
The question is whether mass democracy can still work in a mass media culture with a custodial state. In 1992, which is roughly the dawn of this current era, 35 million Americans voted in the party primaries. Both parties had exciting races, but turnout was in line with prior elections. In 2016, more than 70 million people will vote in these primaries. The reason for this is it everyone has a stake in who is in control of the custodial state.
Low turnout used to be a topic of conversation in America. Europeans voted in huge numbers while Americans tended to blow off elections. That’s no longer the case as government in America has become almost as pervasive as in Europe. When everything is political, which is the case in a custodial state, everyone has to be political. In a prison, the inmates know every tick and habit of the guards.
This sounds like a winning formula. The rich people in charge offer up acceptable options and the people come out in huge numbers to confirm one or the other. But what if some nut job manages to win and gain control of the all-powerful custodial state? Barak Obama was able to use the IRS to harass opponents. What is some truly deranged guy gets into the White House? What sort of damage could he do to the country?
In a mass media age where the people interface with everything through TV and the Internet, the guy who wins the election is the best actor on screen. Donald Trump is winning the GOP primary because he is a master of mass media. He’s been doing it his whole life. He’s running a modern, 21st century celebrity campaign and on the verge of toppling one of the political parties.
How many professional Republicans are big fans of democracy now?
Now, I don’t think Donald Trump is a power-mad super-villain, who will seize power once he wins the election. In all probability, he will usher in a few reforms and otherwise be more of the same. That’s not what’s important to the people in charge. They will quietly push their own reforms in order to prevent the next Donald Trump, who may be the charismatic super-villain they fear.
The Democrats have already changed their nominating rules so the party can put their thumb on the scale and block an insurgent candidate. The super delegate system means Bernie Sanders could win every primary from here on out and still not win the nomination. Party officials now control so many delegates, they can pick the winner in spite of the voters. The GOP will surely do something similar after this election to make sure they never suffer another Trump.
Beyond these changes to the party system, we are seeing the adoption of the European habit of removing whole topics from popular consideration. These are transferred to supra-national organizations that operate beyond the will of national governments. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, is about removing trade and immigration discussions from politics. There’s a push to circumvent the US Constitution by signing off on arms control deals that strip citizens of their gun rights.
As an aside, this steady transfer of power from the national government to other entities may be a part of what’s driving voter participation and anger, despite relatively good economic times. People sense that control is slipping beyond their grasp so they are “getting involved” in an attempt to arrest this development. That’s purely speculative, but a byproduct of mass media is a loss of identity. We’re all plankton floating in an ocean of information.
I’ve gone on longer than I like so let me just finish by pointing out that liberty is an anomaly. For almost all of human existence humans have lived in authoritarian systems of one sort or another. The way to bet is that what comes next is closer to the norm than the constitutional liberty we think is the ideal. A generation from now, voting may still exist, but be entirely meaningless, like the result of a football game and no one will think it odd.