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Davis, California

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The corrupting power of too much democracy

GENESIA TING / AGGIE
GENESIA TING / AGGIE

headshot_SBExploring link between excess democracy and Trump

Talking heads have speculated since the election about the million dollar question: Why did Donald Trump’s authoritarian and nostalgic message of “Make America Great Again” resonate so deeply in a country experiencing its third-longest economic expansion?

The answer might not be so complicated. His victory isn’t such a surprise when you take a long view of American history.

Since the mid-1970s, with the exception of second-term bids, every presidential election between an “establishment” and an “outsider” candidate has seen an outsider victory. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama all won by campaigning on some variation of a middle-finger to establishment politics. In the same time, Congress, the core of the political process, has been mired by poor public approval ratings.

It wasn’t always this way. For most of American history, political experience was a celebrated quality, and Congress was the pride of the republic. But now “insider” has become a dirty word.

Why has Congress, the most democratic branch of government, also become the least popular? Ironically, a shift towards more democracy is the root of this mass discontent.

It all started with Watergate. Richard Nixon’s criminal cover-up rattled American trust in government. To bandage the broken nation, Congress passed a series of democratic reforms, including the Government in the Sunshine Act. This made the policy-making process public for the first time in history. Crucially, it put an end to closed committees, private meetings etched in pop-culture as smoke-filled bastions of privilege where lawmakers struck unscrupulous deals. Congressional leaders figured that exposing the reality of the legislative process to the American people would restore faith in government.

Closed meetings allowed lawmakers to debate, amend and make deals out of the public eye. Assured of opacity, politicians could ignore opinion polls and special interests and make unpopular decisions that were in the national interest.

Legislators drafted the sweeping New Deal and Great Society programs behind these closed doors. Wasteful subsidies were cut and existing programs were tweaked to keep the government financially solvent. Ideological differences existed, but they rarely obstructed the duty of public service. Governance was, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an act of “bold, persistent experimentation.”

The Sunshine laws have torn apart Congress’s republican safeguards. Lobbyists and hyper-partisans now use a lawmaker’s every move as ammunition. Lawmakers constantly shoulder the burden of appeasing their donors and ideological constituency. A conscientious Republican who votes for firearms background checks, or a Democrat against excess agricultural subsidies, can bid farewell to a cushy primary victory.

Congressmen have hollowed out to become at best, to paraphrase President John F.  Kennedy, “seismograph[s] to record shifts in popular opinion,” and at worst, in the words of Mark Twain, “a distinctly native American criminal class.” Corporate welfare, pork-barrel spending and congressional gridlock are rampant. The federal government has become an inflexible behemoth.

So despite long periods of economic growth, Americans are frustrated — they regard their weakened institutions with mistrust. Watergate’s legacy has become permanent.

Enter Donald Trump. The ultimate outsider, a man who did not mince words as he bashed the status quo and labelled his opponents “lying,” “crooked” and “weak” — crude articulations of what Americans have told pollsters for years. He proved himself a man who never backs down from outrageous statements, unlike other politicians who cower behind talking points and engage in perpetual sycophancy. A man wealthy enough to self-fund his campaign and remain above the special-interest fray. A pragmatist not beholden to traditional partisan alliances. A behind-the-scenes dealmaker.

Donald Trump is the very antithesis of the post-Sunshine politician.

And so Americans held their noses, ignored his very rough edges and voted to “Make America Great Again.”

Congress is the only branch that can restore the luster of American politics by repealing the Sunshine laws. But this is politically impossible. Every industry benefits from the information made available by transparency laws, so every single special-interest group and lobbyist on K Street would collude to stop a repeal. Congressmen would be barraged with advertising maligning their opposition to democracy.

Democracy is not an inherently virtuous institution. Individual liberty and effectual governance are the true cornerstones of the American Republic. We ought to teach the public the true source of its malaise: too much democracy.

Written by: Sid Bagga — sabagga@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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