The leaders we deserve

By Stephen Heiner for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

I’m heading back to the United States this month to spend some time with my family, and I’m headed back to an America whipped up into a political frenzy.

Europeans do not mistake an accent for an ideology, but when they hear my accent these days they do want to know what I think of the Trump juggernaut.

Before I focus on the electorate I should note that democracy, a form of government I’m not particularly fond of, necessarily requires a virtuous and informed electorate in order to thrive (it will survive and subsist on much less).  It’s also important to note that in the modern era we often use the term “democracy” to refer to the form of government of enormous nation-states.  We are very far afield from the demos (limited to tens of thousands in neighborhoods and towns in ancient Greece) or even from small Swiss cantons (which I’ve been lucky enough to live in) in which democracy, honestly speaking, was and is a smashing success.  The unitary mega-state of the current United States of America was never foreseen by its founders to be a sea-to-shining-sea project.  The individual states, the original creators of a federal union, were smaller and more human-scale entities in which democracy could (and did) thrive.  So engrained was this idea of smaller entities that Thomas Jefferson, even after the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the potential size of the new country, mused that there might be other nations that might evolve and grow alongside what was then the original United States.

But across the enormous geographic and populational mass that is the United States today, which utterly lacks the connective tissue of shared culture and common goals, we have such disparate and polarized populations that only threaten to fragment more.  It is from this confused witches’ brew that monsters like Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump can emerge.

Why is Trump popular?  Dozens of reasons have been put forth over the last weeks and months, but I can see three in particular:

A love of shocking things.  There’s really no better spectacle than someone saying out loud what no one else wants to say.  Whether it’s something that should be said, or whether’s it’s true, is really irrelevant.  Bring us the popcorn so we can watch the mainstream media have conniption fits live on air!

An anti-establishment pushback.  This is not solely an American phenomenon.  We saw this in the election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, and the election of the unlikeliest of leaders in post-Blair Labour: Jeremy Corbyn.  Bernie Sanders is benefitting from this “throw the bums out” attitude pulsing through the bloodstream of the American Left.  Indeed, Sanders only registered as a Democrat recently so that he could legitimately run in the primaries.  He, like Trump, is barely one of the members of his putative party.

A willingness to ignore details and take risk.  This is what makes politics in America so unpredictable, and why such a country can elect George W. Bush to two consecutive terms, and then turn around and do the same for Barack H. Obama.  What kept Scotland from voting “Yes” (and what will probably cause Great Britain to vote “Stay” in the June referendum) was risk-aversion, pure and simple.  People who don’t know history assume that what we have now is all that is possible.  They cannot comprehend what it means to take risks.  The willingness to “ignore the facts” is a virtue of sorts for entrepreneurs, who imagine possibilities where there is currently only blank space.

This same virtue, in the hands of the reality-television-addled American populace, must obviously be a vice, especially when applied to the examination of the risk proposition that is Mr. Trump.  He’s an egomaniac who has been on every side of every issue, ever, and yet he’s managed to convince men and women to abandon their brains and vote with their inner Howard Beale.  That’s always worked well, hasn’t it?

So, yes, this issue will come up during my visit stateside, and the simplest response I can offer while I’m there is that a democracy always has the leaders it deserves.  If, again, such a form of government is predicated on a virtuous and informed public, why would America think it deserves better than Trump or Clinton?  They are precisely the sort of politicians America, in her benighted state, deserves, as they are mirrors of the dysfunction that continues to sabotage and paralyze a nation that would be great.

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