The Future of American Democracy

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.

27 thoughts on “The Future of American Democracy

  1. Split the country. Partition, somehow, the libs have one part and constitutional conservatives the other. We cannot live together. The powers that be simply pit us against each other, look on in amusement, and go on plundering.

    • Unfortunately this cannot happen, because they know they can’t survive without us out here growing the food, mining the minerals, and building the buildings for them.

  2. Three historical comments:

    1. We’ve been here before. The direct democracy of the Ancient Greeks went away, and then after over a thousand years in the Middle Ages representative democracy was invented. That system is mortal too.

    2. There is a strong historical correlation to the degree to which the elites need ordinary people with spears or rifles to man their armies, and the amount of democracy they were willing to allow. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries happened to be periods where the most effective way to have a strong army was to conscript all young men and give them rifles and some training. Hence mass democracy. That has no longer been the case since the Korean War and will be even less the case as robotics develop.

    3. Democracy in the ancient world ended pretty much in a whimper. For example, the Romans never formally annexed Athens, which continued for some time as an independent city state with its assembly and offices chosen by lot. This ended at some point, but historians don’t know when, by the time the end came people cared so little they didn’t record it. Octavian (Augustus) was proud of getting the old republican constitution to function again, and had the part of Rome where citizens voted in elections gussied up at great expense. His successor, Tiberius, did away with the elections to no protest at all. People realized that it was Octavian and Tiberius making the decisions and didn’t see the point of going through the charade.

  3. They will quietly push their own reforms in order to prevent the next Donald Trump, who may be the charismatic super-villain they fear.

    A wise man once said, “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable”. You’re completely off base about why we have democracy. It’s not supposed to be to give a gloss of legitimacy to the decisions of a (frequently deeply stupid and corrupt) ruling elite. The West adapted democracy as a peaceful alternative to the old way of making decisions – one which involved a lot of people dying. We mutually agree that instead of settling our differences on the battlefield we’d settle them in the voting booth.

    If the voting booth is to made a sham exercise then we’ll resume making our important decisions the old fashioned way. if the GOP tries pulling the crap your suggest it won’t give the “custodians” the security they crave, it’ll result in them hanging from lampposts. It’s not actually the custodians country and we’re not actually their serfs. They can learn this gently, or they can learn it the hard way..

  4. Z, I like to say representative government government lowers the successor premium, the risk you would otherwise face as an investor during a change in regime. It also further lowers the rule of law premium, the risk to an investor from the way laws are enforced from one regime to another (though that one seems to be on the rise lately).

    So far constitutional republics seem to have succeeded because their vastly lower risk premiums have given them a great advantage over authoritarian regimes which are notoriously bad at allowing investors to accumulate capital due to the simple fact that the authoritarians are so prone to seize capital arbitrarily. You can’t invest so you hoard, spend, or offshore.

    Given that the assumption among a lot of economists in the 90s was that the benefits of rule of law and constitutional succession were so manifest that the rest of the world would soon adopt them, it is hard to believe that our ruling class would give them up now. But then history has never been their strong suite. Or maybe they just figure they’ve won the quest for world dominance and don’t need to share the spoils with the plebs anymore.

  5. Our German friend talks to us about 1775 and American freedom, and he talks about it well, but I’m afraid there is a problem with his call for a new American crusade,”… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”.
    That problem is while our Founding Fathers and their generation were able to incubate a new understanding of personal freedom, they did so while isolated by the oceans and time required for the British Crown to exert control from afar. They developed on the edge of a empty Continent and everywhere they looked they only saw what they or their fathers had built.
    We are not free, we are not alone. We are watched, measured, taxed, fined. We pay for our own regulation and buy our own chains. Have you talked to the young lately (and I mean anyone younger than forty), they don’t know what freedom is. They certainly are not going to learn at school and that is getting worse every day. That is why I begrudge every dollar that goes to the government, I hate every parking meter on a street that never had one, I hate that It isn’t enough that yearly I have to report every dollar but now I must report that I meekly comply with buying what is demanded of me for health care insurance and that includes birth control and pediatric coverage for a old widower.
    God send us some fools crazy enough to want to tear the whole thing down.

  6. I like your blog, but when output is as high as yours is there have to be some misfires, and this is one of them. The world, as we know it, ends on a pretty regular basis of about every 80 years. We aren’t imagining it, it’s that time again.

    • I’m trying to check out your timeline.
      1618. Thirty years war, That’s a biggie. Regime change everywhere.
      1790’s. French Revolution. Ended Ancient Regime and unleashed the prog dogs.
      1914. Ending with Pax Americana.
      2008. Pox on the Pax.

      Eighty years is important though. Around one lifetime, three generations. 1789, 1861, 1933. 2008. I’m counting 72, 72, and 75. World type change, maybe longer.

  7. ‘Liberty is an anomaly’ is a fair way of summing up our current world condition. Interestingly, today’s mass media likes to show people winning freedom and treasuring it above all else, or it interprets the past as people who only wanted liberty but were ruthlessly denied it by people who feared the consequence of the ordinary people being free and therefore happy. The truth was most people accepted that being alive was enough and thoughts of ending slavery or instituting a new voting system were so alien that it wasn’t worth bothering with. People didn’t have time to sit and ponder such variables.

    Today, populist but inaccurate television series like ‘Downton Abbey’ eagerly show concerned wealthy owners helping honest-but-poor workers to self-realisation and happiness, when in reality then the vast majority of rich people didn’t even bother learning the maid’s name. Irrespective of how the maid was named as a child, she would be called “Mary'” as they all were, once they entered service.

    The Spartacus tale is currently loved because he helped free slaves and was so appreciated in the remodelled ‘improved past’ that everyone with him would protect him by claiming they were the man. I am not sure in the current climate however many would say “I am Obama” and “No, I am Obama.”

    Most people in history were either not used to liberty or, if available, didn’t want it as it made them feel insecure. Being put outside the castle was worse than being bossed around inside it. Having someone to tell you what to do, however onerous, cut out the troublesome decision making and eliminated the fear of the wrong choices. If you farmed the land, for example, the seasons told you what to do and the threat of starvation made you do it. Now, farmers can elect to grow foodstuffs for industry rather than the feed people.

    You are right that change will not be as we predict, and while many of the institutions we have now will remain in some form, I too think the concept of liberty will dissolve into something else. After all, nations change and even land masses are subject to upheaval so what is good today may be disregarded in the future, though I doubt what we have to day will be remembered with as much affection as we might want.

  8. Off topic, could you please set comments to be auto expanded?

    It breaks the reading flow when one has to keep clicking… thanks!

  9. You Americans never cease to amaze me. You are a people who have everything, not because it was given to you, but because you worked hard for everything you have. You’re not a privileged people either, rather you’ve earned it all through your own accomplishments. As I recall, back around 1775 you were oppressed by exactly the same political and economic 1% you rant about today.

    Have you forgotten that no nation on earth has been blessed with the freedoms, religious and human rights you gave yourselves? I will remind you…because you obviously need to be reminded from time to time…that about 70-years ago, your fathers, sons and husbands left the safety of their homes and families to come here and go up against greatest threat to the world; (not the Germans) but the Nazis and the dogma and ideology they imposed upon others. Americans enlisted voluntarily by the tens of thousands to come here and fight against people they didn’t know, to bring freedom to even more people they didn’t know. I have visited some of these men who now rest at Omaha Beach cemetery. I have paid my respects to General Patton and those who lie with him in Bastogne.

    And now you cry like little girls because of a few political hacks and their bankers are “ruining your world”? Who the hell is Hillary Clinton to take so much away from you? What happened to you people? Where’s the courage your fathers had? Are you all so whipped by the PC left that you cringe in fear?

    I understand why Germans today don’t stand up for things they know are right and why they make the decisions they often do. Words like honor, loyalty and truth have been lost to us because the best and bravest of us were obliterated 70-years ago and their genes were unable to spread into another generation. Courage, self respect and manliness are not part of the German psyche anymore. Ask any German woman, I fear they will agree with me.

    But you Americans – you sing about your “…land of the free and home of the brave.” Have you really given up so easily?

    I would encourage all of you, to come here at some point in your life while you are able, and bring your children. Come and walk our town, cities and cathedrals, rebuilt from bombed out rubble. Walk the beaches where your fathers or grandfathers landed. Touch the white marble crosses that cover our fields here in Europe across France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. Maybe you need to be reminded of your great past, because life has become a bit too easy for you. Maybe you need to see how “the rest of the world lives” to fully appreciate what you have before you just give up on it.

    We Germans have a long and tired history. We can boast of ancient battles and of kings and empires. Along side our fellow Europeans we can take pride in the Renaissance, our great composers, scientists and tip our hats to the Brits for the Industrial Revolution all while walking on roads the Romans built. But you Americans, you have the one thing we have only recently known – freedom.

    • As Burke wrote, each generation forms a new nation. We are no longer the country you think you are familiar with, not by three generations.

      • I fear that is definitely the case here. And I say this with no malice towards the Americans, but the influence of American culture is not helping us either. Between horrible TV shows (which are evidently intended for people with the IQ of a package of ketchup), and the music with it’s embarrassing lyrics (can anyone under 20- years of age in your country complete a sentence without the f-word?) Now we’re seriously concerned our educational systems will follow yours, which I’m sorry to say, is the last example anyone should follow. At least there are still a few of us on both sides of the Atlantic who understand the situation. Whether or not we can change anything is another point entirely.

    • Thanks for the praise Karl, but the truth is that the pressures that have been applied to Germans have been applied to the people of every Western Nation. We are no different, and nothing is going to happen as long as people have so much to lose. People will just keep their heads down, and thank their lucky stars that they can keep feeding the kids. This means that our stability rests upon economics foundations, but the problem with that is the country is ran by Socialists and globalists, neither are particularly good at economic stability.

    • Karl,

      WELL SPOKEN! Perfectly said!!!

      I am a (female) Swiss ex-patriate, living in … you guessed it, Montana. Everything you say rings a bell with me. I keep trying to explain to people how ‘freedom’ and LIBERTY is lost on europeans. Having been under bondage for centuries…, Kings back then, oppressive taxes, social norms and huge governments now, such things as ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom of religion’ are always up for debate, because they are not anchored within various european constitutions: As there is only one true Constitution, and it was written for the USA.

      And do not get me started on the girly men of Europe… we briefly moved back to Switzerland, my husband and I, for two years. We thought we could … live there for a while and take up some roots and maybe raise our daughter in one of those fabled higher education swiss schools, which is how I had experienced Switzerland.

      But none of it. My daughter was harassed every day by multiculturally enriched boys, as were literally ALL girls unless they wore the hijab, and living expenses were simply not feasible anymore. 20 dollars for a McDonalds Happy Meal, drinks, and then pay extra for the ketchup ta boot.

      I knew I would NEVER submit to the multicultural enriched society, and we left again, going back into freedom. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when I could get back into my one ton diesel truck, run to the grocery store, let it idle, and then come back without a busy body having called the police for environmental infraction and waste of gas.

      The men in Switzerland have become small… girly, and weak. I was disgusted. My husband, a typical Southern Redneck Sam Elliot look alike, stuck out like a sore thumb. And while lots of people sought out his company, so they could practice their english and become friends with “The American”, there was little substance coming from them after they would find out that his politics indeed matches his looks. That he was NOT a Europeanized neutered male, but an American through and through. Not necessarily loud, but definitely proud. Not rich, but definitely remarkable. And not opinionated, but instinctively freedom/liberty oriented.

      Just my two cents.

      • @ Nash Montana – Switzerland is a difficult place to live for any number of reasons. As you quickly discovered it’s excessively expensive and as you discovred, the Swiss are a bit odd;. non-manly men, and very manly women. While I will admit the Germans are not nearly as friendly as the Americans, the Swiss are worse. The only people I know who live and work there do so for the high salaries. No one in their right mind will retire there, who could afford to?
        On the other side of the coin, the Swiss are very engaged in their politics. They vote on just about everything from fighter jets to whether or not the Muslims can have minarets. So I guess every country has it’s benefits and detractors. But I’m glad to know it’s not just the Germans that feel they way they to towards the Swiss! 🙂

        • Way back in my youth I worked at a warehouse that sold automobile parts. We had everything from repair parts to ugly accessories sold mostly to minorities. One day my boss had me work with a Swiss customer who came in two times a year to buy items to ship back to Switzerland. He was very Swiss. Being a kid, I was duly impressed. What I found odd was that he was buying cheap accessories like neon green windshield wipers, sheepskin carseat covers and lights for underneath a car. These are things minorities in America like to decorate their cars.

          Finally, I had to ask. “I’m surprised you are buying these. In America, only blacks and Puerto Ricans buy this stuff.”

          His reply?

          “We sell them to Italians”

          We both started laughing at that.

          • The Swiss have a near obsession with American cars. You’ll find more there than anywhere else in Europe. If you see a 1968 Mustang in Europe, odds are good it has Swiss number plate.

          • Swedes have a thing for old American cars too. They love the land yachts from the 50’s and 60’s. Here in the States, we have a car cult for everything, but it seems like European countries have a much narrower car enthusiasm.

        • The points you state are the reason I left my home country in the first place. I am Sicilian born, but Swiss raised, my family is through and through Swiss.

          The political activism is a part of Swiss life, but it tends to be often on the wrong side anymore. I cannot bear to think what has become of meiner Schweiz. When I think of her, I think of how she used to be, obstinate, accountable and brave. Those days are over.

          Yes the obsession with American cars is quite something. I’ve brought over my antique shovel head Harley and my full ton Dodge Diesel to Switzerland. I could have charged for rides in the truck and on the bike and made some good pocket money.

          But there’s a problem among Swiss people, it’s called envy. They will hardly ever acknowledge or express appreciation or excitement about your toys, they will instead engage you in talking about other toys, so even when you take YOUR toy to a show and display it, hardly anyone will truly express honest excitement and appreciation.

          They just can’t because everything in Switzerland nowadays is so damn hard to come by these days, and people are really fed up with it, and miserable, and unhappy. They absolutely intend to punish you for having something nice by ignoring talking about it, lol.

          They’re the worst bunch of unhappy unfriendly people I’ve ever come across.

          When, at my family reunion, I brought this up with my brother, he sneered at me: “so what, are you saying you want that fake happy blah blah surface feeding that Americans do with their fake ‘how are you’ c**p?”

          I answered, “yes, as a matter of fact, yes I do. I do want people to greet me with a smile and a little diddy like ‘how are you’, and I don’t care if they care or not. Because when people smile, you smile back and smiling makes for a better day!”

          It took me years to appreciate the sunny nature of every day Americans. The smiles at strangers, the greetings on the highway, the honking at cows on the side of the road, the ‘how are you’ and ‘how’s it going’ and ‘have a great day’, they make a huge difference. I feel much better when I talk and smile friendly at strangers as I go about my daily errands at the post office, the grocery store, school…

          Swiss people, and Germans too, could learn a lot about this. Just saying…

    • God bless you Herr Horst.

      You seem to understand us better in some cases than we understand ourselves.

    • What a beautiful comment. I often say to a fellow American who is whining about how hopeless it all is “We’re not beaten until we give up: Americans don’t do that” or something along those lines.

      I’m going to steal yours to share with a few friends.

      Thanks.

  10. The History Major in me knows that democracies usually prosper for a while, then fail spectacularly. (In public school they always forget to teach the part about Athens destroying itself with breathtaking acts of majority-agreed upon acts of stupidity.)

    Not seeing much reason to doubt history repeats itself here.

    • Every form of government has a history of working for a while, then failing spectacularly. Elites are as prone to breathtaking acts of stupidity as any majority, just look at the speed with which the American elite have destroyed America.

  11. You’ve nailed why I support Trump. I’m definitely a Gloomy Gus — I read a lot of history — and while I think there’s slightly more than a snowball’s chance in hell of this happening, Trump’s clown show administration might prompt real, grass-roots reform. The alternatives are either more caesarism — two halves of the one real party rigging sham elections, just doing a better job — or an outright Fascist party. If Trump were smart, he’d start issuing armbands and setting up local “Make America Great Again” clubs (and all the social media apparatus that comes with them). With masculinity basically illegal under the current dispensation, he’s got a millions-strong goon squad… if he wants it.

  12. My own feeling is that the elite will simply circle the wagons and double down on the propaganda warfare and the American Empire.

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