Opinion

What the populists know

Trump has forced me to reckon with reality — specifically, the reality of what democracy is

This being the season for such things, I spent last week looking for reasons to be thankful that Donald Trump won the presidential election. It was a tough quest.

It's not that there are no elements of Trump's program that I think might be worth pursuing. I have long argued that we're overdue for a serious rethinking of American foreign policy, something that Barack Obama has partially begun and that Hillary Clinton looked likely to reverse. I've come to conclude something similar about our approach to free trade — which isn't really free at all, but managed to favor the interests of America's most profitable industries like finance, software, pharmaceuticals, entertainment, and agriculture — another area where it seemed less likely that Clinton would be readily open to new thinking.

But while these might perhaps be reasons to be hopeful, they aren't really reasons to be thankful yet. And with appointees like Michael Flynn advising President-elect Trump on foreign policy and advisers like Stephen Moore instructing him on economics, even hopefulness feels more than a bit optimistic.

I could perhaps be hopeful about other aspects of Trump's transition — his self-professed "open mind" on climate change, his willingness to reconsider his embrace of torture, or his lack of interest in pursuing prosecution of the Clintons. But even if I am ultimately thankful that Trump doesn't manifest the worst expectations based on his promises during the campaign — and it's far too soon to say whether that will be the case — that's still hardly a reason to be thankful for his election.

There is one thing I can be thankful for, already, even if President Trump lives down to my worst reasonable fears about corruption, incompetence, and disregard for democratic norms.

Trump has forced me to reckon with reality — specifically, the reality of what democracy is.

It is remarkably easy to remain deluded about that question, and to think that democracy is a system for choosing the best leaders for our country, or for expressing the will of the people. But plenty of organizations need to choose the best leaders, and rarely do they do so democratically. Certainly neither the military nor corporate America does so. As for the will of the people, how can it be determined other than tautologically, as read from the result of the election itself?

Populists may be the only ones who truly understand what democracy really is for, and that is, fundamentally, for expressing dissatisfaction. Elections force leaders to turn to the people and say: How am I doing? — and to accept the people's verdict if the answer is: Not so great.

For a large swath of the country, the answer has been "not so great" for quite some time. This year, they rendered their verdict.

And I am thankful that they did. In the absence of populism, democracy becomes a competition between groups of elites to divide the people up with maximum efficiency, such as to lower the economic cost of bidding for a majority that will deliver power. Populist revolts of the left- or right-wing variety are the primary mechanism by which the electorate can punish elites for that strategy, and force them to consider the alarming possibility of losing control of the political economy entirely.

That possibility is alarming for good reason. Populism is not really a theory of government or of political economy. It doesn't prescribe any stable solutions to specific problems, and its relationship to institutions is often hostile. Anybody who understands their stake in society's institutions rationally fears the uncontrolled effusions of populism, and anybody who looks at the record of actual populists in power has even more rational reason for fear.

But the populists are probably right that it is only fear of those effusions that forces the competing cadres of elites to listen to the people, and learn to speak to the people in the people's own voice. And for that fear to be effective, they probably have to lose, now and again, to people who will do a much worse job of governing than they would have.

To be clear: One may be thankful for something that one wishes hadn't happened. After a struggle with breast cancer, a survivor might be thankful for a new appreciation for how short life is, and resolve to live her remaining days in a spirit of abundance. No one but Doctor Pangloss would conclude from this that breast cancer was a good thing that we shouldn't strive to cure.

I look forward to both of our political parties' leadership finally and seriously striving to cure the civic disease that led us to a Trump presidency. I remain optimistic that the condition of the patient is not yet terminal. And if it took a Trump presidency for them to accept the diagnosis in the first place, then for that alone, I am sincerely thankful.

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