If I were editing together a sizzle reel for the highlights of Western Democracy, I don’t think I’d be including much from the 21st century. Seeing the US elect a black President was a highlight — especially for the side benefit of seeing bigots in sputtering, baffled rage like the kids in the rich camp at the end of an 80s teen movie. But apart from that, there’s been enough crushing disappointment in my fellow citizens that I’ve often started to wonder whether democracy was a good idea in the first place.
For one example: there was that wave of Web 2.0 evangelists promising to democratize the internet. It was sold to us as a world without gatekeepers, in which everyone has a voice. What it became instead was a world where millionaires handed out super-powerful microphones to any asshole who’d increase “engagement” enough to bump up the artificial value of their publishing platform’s IPO.
Another: all the bans against marriage equality across the US and the rest of the world, in which a bunch of bigots spent decades arguing that it was fair and just to put the rights of a minority up for a popular vote. (Don’t forget: the aforementioned first black President, who’s now frequently championed as if he were some kind of hero of LGBT rights, asserted that he was opposed to marriage equality because of his religion, but believed it should be left to the states to decide. Even though as a constitutional scholar and the child of interracial parents, he should’ve known better).
Next: the citizens of the UK decided to make the Magna Carta seem like a bad idea, by taking the silly, lighthearted, and trivially irreverent idea of Boaty McBoatface and applying it to racist, global-economy-threatening, backwards isolationism.
And then it culminated in November 2016. All of us who’d been raised learning about both the importance of checks and balances in government and the necessity of being a good and honest person in society got to watch tens of millions of people vote for one of the worst people to be President of the United States. Not just worst people for the role of President. Worst people in the United States. And then instead of saying “oh my God what have I done?!” they proudly held up their lovingly selected pile of dogshit and said “Ha ha, suck it, liberals!”
In the time since the election, the initial shock has subsided, and the rest of us have gone from asking ourselves “How could this happen?” to “Where are we supposed to go from here?” Our government and all the other interconnected systems that make our society work are based on the fundamental assumption that functioning adults will show the barest minimum level of civic responsibility. If adults can be so consumed with selfishness and apathy that they’d take their one responsibility as citizens and say “well, screw it, why not vote for the corrupt, incompetent clown?” then what’s the point of any of it?
That’s the mindset I’ve been in for a couple of years now. But recently I’ve grown to appreciate the value of democracy again, and I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg to thank for that.
Last month, a “leaked” recording of an open meeting at Facebook revealed Zuckerberg speaking out against Elizabeth Warren’s pledge to break up anti-competitive tech giants. In it, he delivered his own pledge to “go to the mat” fighting against it. Zuckerberg has had at least a couple of private meetings with Trump since then.
It’s tough to describe the kind of despair I felt after hearing that. I was already feeling the kind of depressive anxiety that comes from being an American with an internet connection in 2019, but this added a new level of hopelessness. For the first time in my lifetime, we have the potential to have a genuinely progressive Democrat in the office of President. It could mean a rejection not just of Reagan-era policy, but of the pervasive white male superiority that’s desperately and cravenly clawing to maintain its hold over the country. And it could all be ruined by some weird asshole billionaire just for the sake of maintaining his own source of immense, unnecessary wealth.
Except for this: the same democracy that lets some racist vote for a sleazy grifter for President of the United States is what makes Mark Zuckerberg’s vote worth exactly the same as mine.
Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, and Peter Thiel combined all have the same voting power as the passengers of a fully-loaded Prius plug-in hybrid with a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Every single asshole in the Trump administration combined with every Republican senator hypocritically supporting them, is no more or less powerful in a popular vote than even the number of black supporters at a Pete Buttigieg rally.
Since November of 2016, we’ve been deluged with thinkpieces imploring us to get inside the mind of the Trump voter, to acknowledge and renounce our coastal elitist bubbles and connect with the heartland that forms Trump’s base, and even to upend our lives and move to “red states” to “turn them blue” again. There’s been so much of this talk, you might even be fooled into thinking that Trump won the election.
He didn’t, of course. He lost the popular vote. By a lot. Even with the proven Republican gerrymandering and proven Republican attempts at voter suppression and proven Russian interference in the election. He lost by almost 3 million votes, which means that Trump lost the popular vote by almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was instituted.
I mention the electoral college because the Republicans only “won” because they manipulated an inherently un-democratic system to appoint their candidate President. Ironically, it was a system included as a concession to states panicked about a too-strong federal government that would ignore the representative branches, ignore states rights, and govern by fiat. In other words: Trump is in office because the GOP manipulated a system that was intended specifically to keep people like Trump from ever being in office.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of chuckleheads insisting that focusing on the popular vote, or complaining about the electoral college, are all just the bitter grousing of impotent liberals. But that’s one of the biggest lies of all. It suggests that the political theater that the media focuses on is the most important part, and that it’s all a game of strategic machinations and counter-machinations where the end goal is to “win,” not to govern fairly and justly.
And more simply: it suggests that Trump has the mandate of the people, which is just objectively false. Even if you ignore the popular vote. Even if you accept the ludicrous idea that the 85% of the US population living in urban areas is somehow less American than those in rural areas. Even if you accept Trump’s hilariously bullshit and deliberately misleading “Impeach this” map. Even if you accept the more accurate “Land doesn’t vote, people do.” visualization that still shows areas as uniformly either red or blue.
But it’s important to remember that Clinton didn’t “win,” either. As embarrassing as it is for Trump that he still lost the popular vote even with so many people keeping their thumb on the scales for his benefit, it should be embarrassing to Clinton that she didn’t win by the largest landslide in American history. Trump was repeatedly caught on video and audio saying racist and misogynist things, and was recorded at a rally openly mocking a disabled person. If over 60 million people can see and hear all of that and still not want to vote for you, you don’t have the mandate, either.
The real winner of November 2016 was apathy. The idea that either the system was working as intended and was just inherently unfair, or that the system was irreparably broken and not worth even trying to fix. For eight years, there were a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that having a left-of-center black President was radical. For the past three years, there’ve been a lot of people heavily invested in telling us that the nation is irreparably divided in ways that it hasn’t been since the Civil War.
Although I’m backing Elizabeth Warren for as long as possible, it was Pete Buttigieg who knocked me out of my sense of despair and convinced me that there was a way out of the current mess. His most insightful observation is that this is the end of the Reagan era of politics, and good riddance. It’s been in effect for most of my lifetime, so I’d started to think that it was just the way America worked, instead of a deliberately constructed system of media manipulated and reinforced complacency that indicts Obama and the Clintons almost as much as it does the Bushes and Reagan.
Buttigieg’s other most valuable insight is that people knew full well who they were voting for. A lot of people — including me — who were trying to make sense of the 2016 election spent at least a year afterward getting flustered at news stories and showing them angrily to suspected Trump supporters, asking “Do you see what you’re responsible for? Can you understand what you did?!” As if they’d somehow just missed the news. It’s a lot like trying to punish a dog by rubbing its nose in its mess, as if a dog, of all creatures, wasn’t already aware of what shit smells like.
The reality, I believe, is that individual people are as “purple” as voting districts are. Maybe I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky, but I’ve encountered very few people who were actually gung-ho pro-Trump. They were well aware of the thousands of things that make him unfit for the Presidency, but they believed — incorrectly — that either it didn’t matter or that there were other issues that were more important.
I can’t stress enough how wrong that was. No matter how much people might want to insist that we don’t know what’s in their hearts, that people contain multitudes, that politics requires compromise, etc. ad nauseam, the fact remains that there was an objectively wrong choice in November 2016, and they made it. They want to suggest that there’s a moral equivalent between my voting for Clinton despite having issues with some of her opinions on foreign policy, and their voting for Trump despite his bragging about sexual assault and holding rallies promising to build a wall to keep out brown people. Nice try, but no.
But at least it’s a start. To think that around half of the people in the country who cared enough to vote saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and said “yes, that’s what we’re all about,” suggests that the US is irreparably doomed. To think that people saw a campaign based on lies, bullying, fear, and bigotry, and gave an exasperated shrug, at least suggests we can get better.
Whatever the plan is, it doesn’t work unless it works for everyone. That means rejecting any idea that doesn’t make the process as democratic as possible. Obviously, that means a flat rejection of any President who brazenly admits he doesn’t work for people who didn’t vote for him (spoiler: he doesn’t work for the people who voted for him, either), and tries to act as if Californians and Puerto Ricans aren’t US citizens. It means a flat rejection of legislators who are more preoccupied with stuffing judicial appointments with as many people of their party as possible instead of actually legislating. It means rejecting anyone who tries to suppress or manipulate the vote. It means eliminating the electoral college. These are all the basics, and anyone who suggests it’s “partisan” to support democracy is selling you a bold-faced lie.
The more complicated part that people like me have to realize is that it means including everyone, including the irretrievably broken assholes. The bigots screaming racist shit at a Trump rally need to be part of it, so we can assert that they are in the minority. Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it’s depressing how often we still fall for it. Not just from the obvious sources like the Republicans who rely on it to stay in power, but anyone who profits from your “engagement.” But if we continue to believe the bullshit narrative that we’re a nation divided, with elites in the big cities having no idea how good honest folk in Trump Country live, then we’re essentially ceding half of the country over to self-interested grifters.
One of the insidious ideas that’s been floating in the American consciousness ever since Reagan and his followers farted it out is that being patriotic or pro-America is a “conservative” idea. I mean, I’m sure that people have been calling each other “un-American” for as long as the country’s existed, but at least in my lifetime, it was during the 80s that liberals stopped arguing against it. So all the grossest representatives of white America would wrap themselves in the US flag and wave sparklers around and insist that only they represented true American values, while liberals couldn’t figure out how exactly to promote globalism, diversity, peace, and equality as being somehow not mutually exclusive with patriotism.
It seems like we were so eager to show how chauvinistic and militaristic we weren’t, that we stopped defending the trademark, and we just let astoundingly hypocritical politicians and redneck assholes (and sometimes, both) take it over. “America, Fuck Yeah!” became a joke, along with schmaltzy displays of patriotism. It’s only by insisting that patriotism is somehow partisan that you end up with the disgusting spectacle of the President of the United States telling US Representatives to “go back where they came from.”
Instead of pointing and laughing at the hypocrites and rednecks, we should’ve been showing the right way to do it. Insisting on a version of America that works for everybody, and to listen to people when they tell us over and over that it isn’t working for them. Demanding that we all share what we’re entitled to, instead of being treated like special interests. If there is anything good to come out of this nightmare, it’s that maybe more people will be knocked out of their sense of complacency and finally be forced to admit that the system hasn’t been working for people who aren’t straight, white, and upper middle class.
On a more practical level: the podcast Majority 54 with Jason Kander is entirely devoted to the idea of restoring our democracy and rejecting the lazy idea that we’re a nation hopelessly divided. It’s a good slap back to reality for those of us who’ve spent too much time being influenced by Vox headlines and Twitter threads.
There’s also Represent.us, which is drawing attention to the problem and asserting that democracy is not a partisan concern, no matter how much the GOP would like to insist that it is. And via Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams is campaigning for free and fair elections.
It’s appropriate that the shithead currently acting as President has a history with the WWE, because this is in a lot of ways the kayfabe administration. Everyone spreading a lot of bullshit that they know is a lie, the only truth being that there’s a lot of money in getting people wrapped up in the spectacle and eager to scream at the heel. I still say voting us into this nonsense was inexcusable, but I have to believe that there’s a viable way out for all of us. It sure as hell doesn’t mean that we have to like or respect or even empathize with each other, but we do just have to share and do the barest minimum to act like responsible adults.