What *DOES* Democracy Look Like?

The Goddess of Democracy was a 10-metre high statue meant to symbolize the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China. This statue would be crushed by the army within days. Scott Simmie/Toronto Star

Strongmen/bullies/baby emperors who see democratic institutions as simply barriers to expanding their business interests like our so-called president are a dime a dozen. They are absolutely the the norm in politics around the world (and, unfortunately, in Congress.)

What is different here is I can’t think of a single example in history where we have been able to watch the erosion of those institutions and elevation of those interests in more or less real time. Both because petty tyrants don’t normally emerge in democracies that are quite as “consolidated” as ours is, although ours is also very sick. But also because historically most petty tyrants haven’t had something like twitter, and so those outside their inner circle have not been privy to every passing ragey baby thought that pops into their heads. We haven’t literally heard them threaten to “destroy the career” of functionaries who stand in their way, or lash out at the uncooperative bourgeois who don’t toady to the family business, or inform us that if anything bad happens it’s the “political” judiciary’s fault for enforcing that pesky old first amendment.

The narrative in Babyfists Nation is that “the loser left” is on the run and can’t decide what to protest next because they’re overwhelmed by all this impressive governing. That this straight talking champion of law and order is giving us the spanking and early bedtime we deserve and we’re whiny because this is a country of spoiled brats who get trophies for participation.

I can’t find the cite just at the moment, but there was a provocative poli sci paper last year showing how you can predict political inclination (and ultimately comfort with authoritarianism) from attitude toward discipline in general, especially parental discipline. I don’t find that particularly surprising. Evolutionary psychology has also shown that people are more or less “wired” to land on particular dimensions of core (“the big five”) personality characteristics—agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, extraversion, and neuroticism—and you can plot social and political values accordingly. Parenting and environmental exposures can move the needle a little bit but fundamentally we are who we are. (The possibility of spiritual development/enlightenment unique to the human experience is missing from this model and subverts the whole paradigm but that’s definitely a discussion for a different day.)

None of that is new. We’ve always co-existed in a mix of personalities and values and the wheel of time grinds on and we generally, over time, collectively self-correct between periods of extremes.

What is new is the real-time-ness of it. The collective spike in cortisol every time we check our twitter feed. The existential dread of What He Might Do Next. Historically revolutions and uprisings (the successful ones anyway) have always, by necessity, revolved around Big Ideas, not a critical mass of accumulated grievances. But we don’t have that. The opposition to Babyfists has a problem with Babyfists—not the system that made him possible. How do you make a revolution to defend the status quo? Well, you don’t. Babyfists has history on his side. Big Charismatic Ideas always, um, trump more rational, moderate, wait-and-see tempers in times of uncertainty and distress. The more black and white, the more us against them, the more good vs. evil the Big Charismatic Idea, the more attractive it becomes to most people.

We’re missing the forest for the trees and aligning ourselves with the Mensheviks. Ever heard of the Mensheviks? They were the anti-Leninists (aka Bolsheviks) in pre-Soviet Russia. They wanted a social revolution too, but they were more moderate about it and weren’t into dismantling the entire state apparatus to get it. “Menshevik” means “minority” in Russian. Guess what means “majority.” Yeah, “Bolshevik.” Remind me, someone recently self-identified as a Leninist. Who was that again?

The Bolsheviks prevailed because they had what my old advisor calls “ideological certainty.” They hastened state collapse and there they were in the rubble, ready with a solid alternative. People hitch their wagon to the solid alternative because it gives them a sense of security. They can see how they fit into the scheme. They can see how they can continue to meet their fundamental human needs—from very basic to more complex and social.

This is why Bernie had the appeal he did. He’s no Bolshevik, but he did shine a light into the more rotten corners of what we are ostensibly fighting for. We won’t win by glossing over those rotten chunks and fixing them later. We need to fix them first, from the bottom up, and change the whole vision of what “democracy” looks like—to develop ideological certainty about *that* world and to communicate it with the same kind of quippy pith that our emperor has mastered. Without that, we’re on the wrong side of history, at least until the great wheel turns again.