This has been a grueling year. From America's lackluster economy to the destruction of Greek democracy to ISIS to the Paris attacks to the rise of a proto-fascist Donald Trump, it's been one horrible thing after another.
But 2015 is also a year that demonstrated the value of a real democracy — by showing what happens when one starts to fall apart. Indeed, the big lesson of 2015 is that there is still no superior alternative to high-quality democratic institutions.
At first glance, this might seem like an unusual time to make such an argument. Democracies across the world, including the U.S., have spent all year stumbling between dealing with major problems and committing egregious errors. Somewhat understandably, this has bred a rather fervent distrust of democracy. On the left, a small but vocal minority has long declaimed voting at all as legitimizing an utterly corrupt system. On the right, there are the so-called "neoreactionaries" arguing that democracy is an obvious failure and should be replaced by an ethno-nationalist monarchy.
Skepticism of American democracy spans a wide variety of ideologies. And it's not just dangerous fringe elements who have become skeptical of democracy. Research demonstrates that an increasing number of Americans, particularly younger and richer ones, have become distrustful of Congress and even open to military dictatorship. It's not close to a majority, but it shows no sign of plateauing yet either.
The obvious objection to anti-democratic argument is that military dictatorships (like monarchies) tend to be nightmarish hellscapes. Such a preference cannot survive close scrutiny of, say, Pinochet, Egypt, or the Thirty Years' War. More substantively, democracy provides an unmatched route to popular legitimacy, a system whereby power can be transferred without violence and political dissatisfaction channeled into elections instead of revolts.
Some leftists are not very impressed by this argument. They believe the capitalist class has the political system well in hand. The super-rich have bought both parties lock, stock, and barrel, and have armies of lobbyists to pressure Congress should any undesirable policy manage to make it to a vote. ("The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.")
There is some truth to this view. But it radically overestimates the competence of the extremely wealthy. After Citizens United, the political system has become evermore open to vast wealth — and the result is not the purchase of Congress and the presidency by a billionaire conspiracy but a chaotic destabilization of the political process, as detailed reporting from Timothy Murphy and Gabriel Sherman shows.
The American rich have more money, influence, and political power than at any time since the 1920s at least, and the result is a system that can barely manage to perpetuate itself. Extremist right-wing zillionaires, surrounded by idiot yes-men and ideological courtiers, now demand basically the entire welfare state be liquidated and handed over to themselves, heedless of the tremendous political and economic chaos — and threat to their own position — this would create.
Therefore, I submit that a mere facade of democracy — extrapolating out the logic of unlimited money in politics, extensive gerrymandering, and plummeting voter turnout — could be about as bad a dictatorship. And as evidenced by the rise of Trump and other right-wing parties across the globe, a failing democracy is more likely to lead to "dangerously regressive forces" as it is to a progressive revolution, as Yanis Varoufakis once argued.
Only a true democracy, with high participation, equal rights (necessarily implying an equitable distribution of economic power), and strong, decent norms holds the potential to permanently defeat the forces of white nationalism and hatred unleashed by Trump. The American system is very far from this standard, but it could be much, much worse — indeed it has been in recent history. Simply giving up in disgust promises little more than future elections in which Trump (or some future inheritor of his vile legacy) is the only choice on the ballot.