to Trump, Another Dangerous Movement Appears
Fears of demagoguery are provoking a frightening
swing in the other direction
By Matt Taibbi
July 03, 2016
The "too much democracy" train rolls on.
Last week's Brexit vote prompted pundits and
social media mavens
to wonder aloud if allowing dumb people to vote
is a good thing.
Now, the cover story in The Atlantic
magazine features the most aggressive offering
yet in an alarming series of intellectual-class
jeremiads against the dangers of democracy.
American Politics Went Insane," Brookings
Institute Fellow Jonathan Rauch spends many
thousands of words arguing for the reinvigoration of
political machines, as a means of keeping the
ape-citizen further from power.
He portrays the public as a gang of nihilistic
loonies determined to play mailbox baseball with the
gears of state.
"Neurotic hatred of the political class is the
country's last universally acceptable form of
bigotry," he writes, before concluding:
"Our most pressing political problem today is
that the country abandoned the establishment, not
the other way around."
Rauch's audacious piece, much like Andrew
Sullivan's clarion call for a less-democratic future
in New York magazine ("Democracies
end when they are too democratic"), is not
merely a warning about the threat posed to
civilization by demagogues like Donald Trump.
It's a sweeping argument against a whole host of
democratic initiatives, from increased transparency
to reducing money in politics to the phasing out of
bagmen and ward-heelers at the local level. These
things have all destabilized America, Rauch insists.
It's a piece that praises Boss Tweed's Tammany
Hall (it was good for the Irish!), the smoke-filled
room (good for "brokering complex compromises"), and
pork (it helps "glue Congress together" by giving
members "a kind of currency to trade").
Rauch even chokes multiple times on the word
"corruption," seeming reluctant to even mention the
concept without shrouding it in flurries of caveats.
When he talks about the "ever-present potential for
corruption" that political middlemen pose, he's
quick to note the converse also applies (emphasis
"Overreacting to the threat of corruption… is
just as harmful. Political contributions, for
example, look unseemly, but they play a vital role
as political bonding agents."
The basic thrust is that shadowy back-room
mechanisms, which Rauch absurdly describes as being
relics of a lost era, have a positive role and must
be brought back.
He argues back-room relationships and payoffs at
least committed the actors involved to action.
Meanwhile, all the transparency and sunshine and
access the public is always begging for leads mainly
to gridlock and frustration.
In one passage, Rauch blames gridlock on the
gerrymandering that renders most congressional
elections meaningless. In a scandal that should get
more media play, Democrats and Republicans have
divvied up territory to make most House districts
"safe" for one party or another. Only about 10 to 20
percent of races are really contested in any given
estimate in 2014 described an incredible 408 of
the 435 races as "noncompetitive").
As Rauch notes, meaningless general elections
make primaries the main battlegrounds. This puts
pressure on party candidates to drift to extremes:
"Walled safely inside their gerrymandered
districts, incumbents are insulated from
general-election challenges that might pull them
toward the political center, but they are
perpetually vulnerable to primary challenges from
extremists who pull them toward the fringes.
"Everyone worries about being the next Eric
Cantor, the Republican House majority leader who, in
a shocking upset, lost to an unknown Tea Partier in
his 2014 primary."
Most people would look at a problem like this and
conclude that the solution, if one is needed (is the
defeat of a supercilious reptile like Eric Cantor
really a bad thing?), would be to end crooked
Not Rauch. He leans more toward blaming the
decision to allow direct-voting primary processes in
the first place. His piece longs for a time when
party insiders were free to pick candidates without
He gushes, for instance, over a passage in a
biography of George H.W. Bush that describes how his
daddy, Prescott Bush, got into politics:
"Samuel F. Pryor, a top Pan Am executive and a
mover in Connecticut politics, called Prescott to
ask whether Bush might like to run for Congress. 'If
you would,' Pryor said, 'I think we can assure you
that you'll be the nominee.'"
Commenting on this, Rauch writes, with
"Today, party insiders can still jawbone a little
bit, but, as the 2016 presidential race has made all
too clear, there is startlingly little they can do
to influence the nominating process."
You see, we would never have to risk these
Trump/Bernie Sanders episodes at all, if only there
was no voting and we turned over the process to
insiders sipping highballs in a Pan Am executive's
Rauch views Sanders as the flip side of the
Trumpian coin. Both men, he says, "have demonstrated
that the major political parties no longer have
intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms."
So what does Rauch propose to do about these
usurpers who come out of nowhere, and, without so
much as the permission of a Pan Am executive, run
for public office?
One of Rauch's solutions is to force candidates
to get permission slips to go on the electoral field
"There are all kinds of ways the parties could
move insiders back to the center of the nomination
process. If they wanted to, they could require
would-be candidates to get petition signatures from
elected officials and county party chairs…"
Rauch compares "outsiders" and "amateurs" to
viruses that get into the body, and describes the
institutions that failed to prevent the likes of
Trump from being nominated as being like the
national immune system. Revolt against party
insiders is therefore comparable to "abusing and
attacking your own immune system."
This lurid metaphor is going to be compelling to
a lot of people when Donald Trump is still moving in
the direction of the nuclear football. But these
"too much democracy" critics all leave out a key
part of the story: It's all bull.
Voters in America not only aren't over-empowered,
they've for decades now been almost totally
disenfranchised, subjects of one of the more
brilliant change-suppressing systems ever invented.
We have periodic elections, which leave citizens
with the feeling of self-rule. But in reality people
are only allowed to choose between candidates
carefully screened by wealthy donors. Nobody without
a billion dollars and the approval of a half-dozen
giant media companies has any chance at high office.
People have no other source of influence. Unions
have been crushed. Nobody has any job security. Main
Street institutions that once allowed people to walk
down the road to sort things out with other human
beings have been phased out. In their place now rest
distant, unfeeling global bureaucracies.
Has a health insurance company wrongly denied
your sick child coverage? Good luck even getting
someone on the phone to talk it over, much less get
it sorted out. Your neighborhood bank, once a
relatively autonomous mechanism for stimulating the
local economy, is now a glorified ATM machine with
limited ability to respond to a community's most
basic financial concerns.
One of the underpublicized revelations of the
financial crisis, for instance, was that millions of
Americans found themselves unable to get answers to
a simple questions like, "Who
holds the note to my house?"
People want more power over their own lives. They
want to feel some connection to society. Most
particularly, they don't want to be dictated to by
distant bureaucrats who don't seem to care what
they're going through, and think they know what's
best for everyone.
These are legitimate concerns. Unfortunately,
they came out in this past year in the campaign of
Donald Trump, who'd exposed a tiny flaw in the
People are still free to vote, and some
peculiarities in the structure of the commercial
media, combined with mountains of public anger,
conspired to put one of the two parties in the hands
of a coverage-devouring billionaire running on a
"Purge the Scum" platform.
But choosing a dangerous race-baiting lunatic as
the vehicle for the first successful revolt in ages
against one of the two major parties will have many
profound negative consequences for voters. The most
serious will surely be this burgeoning movement to
describe voting and democracy as inherently
Donald Trump is dangerous because as president,
he'd likely have little respect for law. But a gang
of people whose metaphor for society is "We are the
white cells, voters are the disease" is comparably
scary in its own banal, less click-generating way.
These self-congratulating cognoscenti
could have looked at the events of the last year and
wondered why people were so angry with them, and
what they could do to make government work better
for the population.
Instead, their first instinct is to dismiss voter
concerns as baseless, neurotic bigotry and to assume
that the solution is to give Washington bureaucrats
even more leeway to blow off the public. In the
absurdist comedy that is American political life,
this is the ultimate anti-solution to the unrest of
the last year, the mathematically perfect wrong
Trump is going to lose this election, then live
on as the reason for an emboldened, even
less-responsive oligarchy. And you thought this
election season couldn't get any worse.
media is finally calling out Trump's toxic