Watching Donald Trump's awkward and disorganized veterans benefit event on Thursday night, it was easy to lose sight of how audacious it was for the man leading handily in most state and national polls to refuse to participate in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.
Audacious — and also ominous.
The richest theories of liberal democratic government have recognized that to thrive a democracy requires three levels of social life: individuals capable of governing themselves, a state that abides by the rule of law, and a vast network of intermediary institutions serving as a buffer between the individual and the state. The last of these are the institutions of civil society: churches, businesses, unions, non-profits, lobbying and activist groups, political parties, journalistic outlets, and so on.
Though we may not often think of them this way, these institutions serve a vital, perhaps essential and irreplaceable function of sorting, vetting, and ranking people, with varying levels of formality, as they climb diverse ladders of achievement toward leadership roles. Those who rise to the top of the biggest and most influential organizations become the nation's elite, its ruling class. Every political community larger than a tiny village has an elite, the people who rule, either in their own interest, or as representatives of the interests of various classes, or (in the best case) for the sake of the common good of the community as a whole.
The institutions of our civil society are the gatekeepers to this elite. When they do their work well, allowing a wide range of people from different classes, races, and genders to compete fairly for the chance to pass through these gates, they give us a class of leaders on the most reasonable possible basis. We know of no better way to organize a democratic political community several hundred million people strong.
To see how the system is supposed to function, think of an aspiring center-left opinion journalist in the late 1980s. The surest way to succeed in that line of work at the time was to try and get published in The New Republic, a relatively low-circulation magazine whose editors nonetheless served informally as the gatekeeper to that corner of civil society. If you wanted in, you needed to impress them. When they invited someone to publish in their pages, they were giving their stamp of approval to the author.
The Nation did something similar on the left, as did National Review on the right. If you wanted to become a prominent opinion writer in those worlds, you needed to pass through their gates. Once you did so, there were other possibilities down the road: broader circulation general-interest newspapers and magazines like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Tribune newspapers, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker. Those were the options.
The rise of the internet and social media has changed things dramatically. Instead of there being one gate for an aspiring center-left opinion journalist, there are now dozens. The same holds for the left, right, and center-right. And with every one of these outlets needing an enormous amount of daily content, it's now easier than ever to get past each gate. And that doesn't even include blogs, public Facebook posts, and those who spout off in torrents of tweets. For them there is no gatekeeper at all — just a vast, sprawling marketplace of opinion, where often the cleverest, most sarcastic, and harshest view gets noticed and rewarded with the greatest amount of attention. It's a radically egalitarian free-for-all.
I've used journalism as an example because I know that world best, from the inside — and because the decline of the gatekeepers is clearest there. But the same disruptive process is underway in the political world — and with much more dangerous implications.
Fox News takes a lot of heat for the way it's leveraged its sky-high ratings to exercise enormous control over who gets to rise to the top in Republican politics. But that merely means that the network functions as the single most powerful gatekeeper for the GOP, to some extent supplanting the Republican Party itself for power and influence. Those of us who aren't sympathetic to the Republican agenda may decry this power and influence, but someone has to exercise it.
Or do they?
As this week's events have demonstrated, the gatekeeping process only works if the candidates accept Fox's legitimacy to serve in that role. With his prodigious use of Twitter, remarkable capacity to generate publicity for himself in more traditional media outlets, and willingness to make strident demands and stick to them, Donald Trump is testing the power of this institution like no one before him. When the Republican candidate leading in every national and most state polls not only refuses to participate in a debate hosted by the most powerful media outlet on the right but actually organizes a competing event designed to undermine the legitimacy of the official debate, that's an act of outright insubordination against the prevailing political norms and institutions of civil society.
It's also an act that exposes how little formal power such norms and institutions ever really possess. They gain their force solely from our collective willingness to abide by them. As Rush Limbaugh pointed out in a surprisingly insightful rant on his radio show earlier this week, the system only works because when Fox says, “come take part in this debate,” the candidates respond, “Yes, please!” All it takes for the system to break down is for the frontrunner to walk away, ignore (or attack) the gatekeeper, and use other media outlets to go over its head to speak directly to the voters, circumventing (and badly undercutting) the institution in the process.
As Josh Marshall put it in a post chillingly (and aptly) titled "The Triumph of the Will," Trump's unprecedented actions "are less an attack on the 'establishment' than [an attack on the] deeper structure of the political system itself." It is the kind of attack that nearly every political theorist from Plato through Tocqueville warned about in their writings — usually in a passage devoted to the distinctive ways that democracies decay, devolving into other, darker forms of government.