Cautionary democracy lessons unfolding south of the border

As the day of decision draws ever closer for our friends and allies in the world’s most powerful democracy to the south, the world stands transfixed with a fascination usually deemed more appropriate to the slow-motion unfolding of a train wreck, while the most disturbing US presidential election in living memory, no make that in history, unfolds before our eyes.

Dire predictions abound on every front. “If Donald Trump does not win there will be revolution in the streets,” suggest knowledgeable pundits in the most recent outpourings of academic hysteria, “if Trump wins and gets control of the nuclear launch codes, the earth can kiss its (various portions) goodbye” lament the voices of the left and “a pox on both their houses” is coming from the bulk of the Bernie Sanders (and a growing number of Republicans) supporters whose concerns are expressed across the Internet and editorial pages worldwide.

There is a reason that the framers of the US constitution crafted their system of government with a series of checks and balances. Democracy can be a dangerous and deadly beast and never more so than when the governed lose faith in their government and the means by which their leaders are selected.

Not to pejoratively put down either of the candidates (although in full disclosure the temptation is difficult to resist) but the issue at hand goes far beyond the personalities currently seeking election to the most powerful office on earth. A recent editorial by Laurie Pennie for the New Statesman is titled “US election 2016: Donald Trump’s sleazy fumble for power is damaging democracy” (there: we let someone else do it) and likens Mr. Trump’s bid for the office to the comments sections to be found under online news publications’ stories (with some credence, we admit), but Mr. Trump is simply a symptom and merely represents the true danger democracy faces in the digital age.

In fact, what we are seeing unfold is anything but new in democracies. It just rises to uncomfortable levels when demagogues are fully unleashed as they are today, particularly in a nation as powerful as the US and with the immediacy of digital news delivery. Examples throughout history abound and it is in how those examples in history turned out that tell the real horror story.

Greece is the cradle of western democracy, yet innumerable examples can be found of city states falling under the sway of demagogues and dictators, usually when an outside threat led people to believe that only a tough hand could make Athens great again.

The Roman Republic fell on the steps of the Senate as a would-be military dictator was poised to seize power through the levers of democracy. But it is perhaps in the relatively recent fate of one of the world’s most powerful nations, when a German Weimar Republic was laid low by the economic burden foisted upon it by other democracies by way of the First World War punitive reparation measures. This relatively recent example speaks the most cautionary tale. This is not to credit Mr. Trump with the malevolence of the man who rose to power through the failure of that democracy, although his political rise is based on many of the same demagogic tools—he is but the symptom.

A revolution is currently underway in the US. It is a revolution aimed at overthrowing the political influence of the elite classes in that nation, both Democratic and Republican. It is a revolution being empowered by the disillusionment of the very large group of people who feel that the decisions being made in the halls of power are self-serving and that we, the people, are effectively disenfranchised by the social and economic elites whose resources buy the levers of power.

Accusations of lying by political opponents against each other carry no weight in this fight, because the popular consensus in society is that all politicians lie. In the words attributed to the late British leader Winston Churchill, “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.” Mr. Trump’s credibility is only viewed as a matter of degree.

When the governed lose faith in the legitimacy of its leaders, no matter how those leaders are chosen or who is available to be chosen, democracy is at its greatest peril.

Studies have shown that Trump’s supporters by and large do not believe most of what he is saying to them. But that doesn’t matter. By the very alarm he is generating among the elites of both sides of America’s bi-cameral system and the ruling elite, Mr. Trump is providing the disenfranchised with an opportunity to “stick it to the man.”

Whoever wins the next US election needs to win back the confidence of the American people and that is the lesson that needs to be drawn from the current contest. Hopefully, the crafty architects of the US system of governance will have bought enough time for whoever wins to find the way forward—otherwise we haven’t seen anything yet.