Lamentation of democracy

In this wave of far-right populist nationalism and living under the reign of “alternative facts” I’m starting to question what’s right and what’s wrong. Over the course of my education and life experiences, I’d come to hold a set of ideals and facts close to heart and mind. But, these thoughts do not satisfactorily explain for me, what’s happening in many parts of the world today. I earnestly believe(d) that reason and kindness are two fundamental forces that characterize the modern civilization that our kind has progressively developed over millennia, and that modernity and it’s associated net peace and stability are here to stay. I was convinced that democracy is indeed the answer. Of course, it’s no perfect system, but I really thought that among the choices, it is the system that works the best in bringing forth the kind of society that we want to live in and we would want our kids live in. It’s democracy, but not just that, it’s crucially about having strong democratic institutions that are supposed to last the test of time, working to foster the persistence of righteous policies and norms, while putting a brake on overzealous tyrants or well-meaning people who make bad policies that sometimes slip through the cracks and get elected into high office. We are told that in a democracy with strong institutions, one individual–even the one at the helm of the nation–has very limited power and cannot exact that much impact, whether good or bad.

My confidence in such a system has faltered under the state of current affairs. The first hit for me was on June 27, 2016 when ‘Brexit’ happened as angry, old Britons expressed their displease with the influx of migrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  People chose emotional release over rationality and restraint.  Britons denounced the learned elite and instead of paying any attention to the academic reports on the drastic consequences of a ‘Brexit’ vote, these reports were instead spun as a sort of intellectual conspiracy against the common and hard-working Britons. Facts were no longer facts, people believed whatever affirmed their emotions.

The second hit occurred on November 8, 2016 when Donald Trump was elected as the President of the United States. No one could have predicted this. Since, I was out of the country for the better part of the campaign cycle and the elections, I was able to afford an extended period of denial. However, since I have been here to witness the inauguration and events that have transpired to date, I can longer afford to be in denial. But, all I can ask is why? and how?

Have we (I) gotten it all wrong?  It appears that democracies actually produce winners and losers not so different from the way of monarchies or oligarchies in the past (and present).  Historically, there has generally been a ruling elite, a middle class, and an underclass. The shares of which vary across systems and times. The ruling elite is the one that has created the system and has vested interests in it. The middle class is the one that is able to achieve some level of prosperity under the status quo and thus also has vested interests. This group is most dangerous to the ruling elite as they can become prosperous enough to be able to want more. The underclass consists of the losers of the system. These are the people who have real grievances and most likely hold a lot of pent-up anger unless there is a strong moral philosophy, such as Christianity during Christendom, that consoles them that being poor is a virtue. When revolutions occur, it is usually led by the middle class, while using the grievances of the underclass as moral justification and to garner the support of the underclass.

Of course, the rise of Trump is a bit different, as no one would say that he is from the middle class. Perhaps, one may argue that he was not originally from the ruling elite and thus is an example of a member of the middle-class who became strong enough to want more. The Trumpist ‘revolution’ was fueled by his exploitation of the anger and grievances of the white underclass in America. But, then democracy doesn’t seem to produce very different outcomes then say, Qing China.  Yes, one would argue that in a democratic system we can redistribute the gains and appease the losers of the system. But, in reality it is seldom practiced perfectly.

Ricardian economics tells us that we are better off with trade than no trade as over time workers who lose jobs in less competitive industries will retrain into the industries in which our country has comparative advantage. But, in practice it is not so smooth. The transition can take decades and in the meantime, these are real human lives and their families who are affected. Yes, because of our democratic institutions we created the Trade Adjustment Assistance fund to help cushion the loss of the workers who lost their jobs and help to retrain them. But, the fact is many Americans who were displaced from jobs in uncompetitive industries, such as the auto industry remain jobless today. Yes, even if imperfect, one can argue that in a democracy, compensation of losers is at least attempted and considered. But, when the compensatory measures are imperfect, while we simultaneously tout democratic idealism, the underclass of a democracy may not be more satisfied than an underclass of a monarchy, regardless of real situations.

Ultimately, people are satisfied or unsatisfied when they compare expectation vs. reality. In a democracy, such as the United States, the reality may not be very bad in an absolute sense, but people also have higher expectations. In contrast, under a monarchy, historically people are not given any expectations for human rights, etc. therefore even if their reality is poor in an absolute sense, it doesn’t mean that they are less satisfied than under a democracy. Holding all else equal, the threat of revolution as indicated by the level satisfaction of the underclass may be similar for democracies and non-democracies.


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