Over the course of 2016, I lost count of the number of times sage commentators inserted the prefix ‘dis’ before the ‘United States’. Anyone would think that the election of Trump signals the first shots of civil war. One study of US voters’ claimed the US is divided as never before. I wondered just how far back they looked. As divided the Civil War? Or the so-called American Revolution, an event that arguably was as much a civil war as a rebellion of plucky colonists against the Evil Empire (proportionately, more ‘Americans’ fled the new Republic than French fleeing the Robespierre and his gang).
All these claims flying around that American democracy is broken rest on a fundamental misunderstanding about democratic politics: democracies do not seek to create unity but to manage it. The default condition of humanity is not unity but disunity. What democratic politics manages to do, I argued in one of my first posts, is to manage this without recourse to violence or repression and still function to deliver collective goods. Given the schismatic nature of humanity, this on-going achievement, which we take for granted, is nothing short of marvelous and we are too little interested in what works well rather than what doesn’t.
Let’s think about this. During the Cold War, countries like East Germany – or the ‘The German Democratic Republic – regularly held votes where 99.9 per cent of the population approved some measure or another. We knew such results were ludicrous because we know that any complex society made up of people who are overwhelmingly strangers to one another can never attain that level of unity – not on a perennial basis, at any rate.
Yet our own politicians long to attain this happy of state of affairs. Theresa May, in a rather regal address to the nation at Christmas, appealed to Britons to unite around Brexit. Fat chance – one half of the country is at loggerheads with the other half and there is no escaping that. The real test of May’s leadership – which she shows no sign of understanding – is whether she can manage these divisions, not overcome them. Instead of lamenting division we should just accept it and find ways of living with one another, in spite of our differences. In fact, perhaps we should celebrate division. Democratic politics does not seek to manufacture a sham show of unity – unlike autocracies of various stripes. This can only be done under the auspices of a police state. Why would we want that? Therefore, the election of Trump, though I deplore it, does not signal the end of democratic politics in the sense I mean above, the peaceful managing of chronic division.
To my mind, too many pundits – and I am not just talking about the Alt-Right Breitbart news site here – are propagandists and entertainers and ignorant of history. So, turning our attention back to the United States. Just when I was letting my exasperation at the cliche of Disunited States, because of its disregard for historical perspective, get the better of me, I come across this study by Harvard political scientist David Moss, ‘Democracy: a case study’. The blurb states:
“To all who declare that American democracy is broken—riven by partisanship, undermined by extremism, and corrupted by wealth—history offers hope. In nearly every generation since the nation’s founding, critics have made similar declarations, and yet the nation is still standing. When should we believe the doomsayers? In Democracy: A Case Study, historian David Moss adapts the case study method made famous by Harvard Business School to revitalize our conversations about governance and democracy and show how the United States has often thrived on political conflict.”
Yes, spot on! Division is nothing new and the book’s chapter contents discuss 19 case studies of chronic division spanning just about the entire history of the US. Does that mean we have nothing to worry about in the figure of Trump? No, of course not. But this book – which I have not yet read – sounds like that it has latched onto a fundamental truth: democracy – and the world generally – has not ended because someone whose beliefs you deplore has been elected. That is the lesson I am taking away from 2016and I am looking forward to the publication of Professor Moss’ book in February. That alone gives me hope for the coming year.