Revisiting the Central Challenge of Democratic Self-Governance

No academic institute with governance in its title can or should ignore the central issues of democratic self-governance.  So, it is that I have often pointed to the enduring tensions in American politics arising from our continuing collective cultural disposition to distrust political authority, our persistent debate concerning whether and how to draw boundaries between our devotion to the market and its inherent penchant to create inequality, and our desire nonetheless to ensure political equality (including an ongoing debate about just how that term might most appropriately be defined). Since we are a federal nation that also jealously seeks to protect the prerogative of its subnational governments, I have also highlighted the issues that arise from that innate political tension as well. Beyond these concerns, I have contended that our Republic will not long survive without capable leaders devoted to the preservation of citizen civil rights and freedom, nor can it endure if our population does not acknowledge its sovereign responsibility to the commonweal and to self-governance. More, the United States contains a diversity of people with differing religions, ethnicities, native languages and values and mores. That heterogeneity represents a continuing challenge to self-governance, as would-be leaders historically have employed difference as one mechanism by which to foment discord, fear and rage, and ultimately thereby to enervate or undo civil liberties and obtain power. Finally, our regime depends strongly on the capacities of that same citizenry to make informed and deliberative choices at the ballot box and to remain probatively engaged in governmental affairs so as to ensure that its agents remain transparently accountable for their actions and behavior. While this list is hardly exhaustive, it does include many of the central questions that have, and will ever, confront our citizenry as a self-governing people seeking to maximize and protect the freedom of all of its number. All of these concerns at various times and in diverse ways have both shaped policy design possibilities and their implementation realities. In short, they are practical as well as theoretical concerns for the devotee and student of freedom and democracy.

In his book, Arvo Pärt, Paul Hillier, conductor of the Tallis Scholars, addressed the work of that great modern Estonian composer and argued that,

All music emerges from silence, to which sooner or later it must return. At its simplest we may conceive of music as the relationship between sounds and the silence that surrounds them.  … When we create music, we express life. But the source of music is silence, which is the ground of our musical being, the fundamental note of life. How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence.[1]

I cite this passage as I have been reflecting since our national election that it might be said that music relates to silence as self-governance is linked to the virtues and capacity for deliberation of the people who must practice it. Silence anchors music for Hillier, as civic virtue stood as the foundation of democracy for our Founders and Abraham Lincoln. In this respect, in October 2016, I reflected on democracy as an ethical ideal and argued,

Individual beliefs and values drive collective democratic possibility, and for decades now, many of our leaders have invited Americans to devalue their role in self-governance and to regard their neighbor as a prospect, “other” or competitor, and not as a fellow citizen.[2]

Another way to make this point is to say that many, and perhaps an increasing number of Americans, are not charting the balance between democratic freedom and their role in the institutions related to it, in a way that assigns pride of place to the preservation of individual freedom in society. Our nation’s Framers did not assume our country’s citizens would be angels. Indeed, they assumed the reverse, and sought to design our political institutions to stymie those seeking to usurp individual rights and freedom, but they also recognized that citizens would, more or less consistently, have to make reasoned and deliberative choices if they were ultimately, collectively to preserve their freedom. As Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, it was:

            … reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined for their political constitutions on accident and force. ... Happy will it be if our choices should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.[3]

The issue for the Framers was not that this “happy” circumstance was automatic or inevitable. Rather, it was to be set as a lodestone, and a difficult to reach goal. For present purposes, it is important to recognize that the Founders expected that such deliberative action could result over time only through the considered and prudential action of the body politic. Given this reality, it seems important to ask what the response of so many voters to the demagoguery of Donald Trump says about the current capacity and willingness of a plurality of the American people to reason deliberatively and make choices in the name of the common good and of freedom. As Hamilton also remarked in The Federalist, “Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.” [4]

Here are some examples of Trump’s mendacious and often venal and anti-democratic claims to which many, if not most, of his devotees responded not only with support, but judging by television footage of his rallies, positive gusto:

  • Persistent completely unfounded claims that Hillary Clinton was guilty of breaking many (never articulated) laws and should be locked up;
  • Similar arguments that he (Trump) would jail his opponent if elected;
  • Specious contentions that all of those of the Islamic faith constitute a threat to the security of the United States;
  • Constant repetition of false claims concerning the “hordes” of immigrants entering the United States and attacking Americans and taking jobs so as to scapegoat those groups as the architects of some voters’ social and economic anxieties;
  • Persistent outright lies concerning living conditions in U.S. cities and the nation’s unemployment rate;
  • Attacks on various groups, including those who had been prisoners-of-war, Gold Star family members of the “wrong” ethnic heritage, immigrants, journalists and others, including a sitting Federal judge, so as to “other” and demonize those actors in the eyes of his supporters;
  • An invitation to Russia’s authoritarian leader to interfere in the U.S. election (which that nation apparently did do successfully).

This list suffices to suggest the demagogic character of much of Trump’s campaign.

His behavior has since been rationalized by many, in keeping with the typical inclination in democracies in which the operative legitimating assumption is always that the “people” must have chosen rightly. Some apologists, for example, have argued that Trump used this consistently dishonest and hate-laden rhetoric only to “signal” to his supporters that he was serious about their concerns, a widely cited contention that begs the question it purports to address. Other observers have argued his appointments to government offices would moderate his otherwise frequently recklessly pressed course, a claim his proposed nominations for various national posts has already undermined. Still others have argued flatly that most citizens who voted for Trump were not, evidence to the contrary, animated by his demagoguery. But this contention too neatly sets aside the question of why they chose to support a candidate so obviously willing to sully democratic values and to descend to naked bullying and viciousness. Meanwhile, Trump’s staff has employed variants of Orwellian double-speak to “explain” his rhetoric.

None of these post-facto attempts at justification change the reality that the President-elect of the United States persistently lied to the American public in often openly egregious ways and “othered” his opponents and manifold groups to gain office, employing age-old tried and true demagoguery to do so. That fact, in turn, highlights the question of why a plurality of voters were willing to accept his ugly diatribe and/or set aside his demonizing rhetoric and vote for him anyway, a still more unsettling contention. Their support was obviously imprudent and corrosive of civil liberties for all Americans, whatever the merits of his opponent. Indeed, this issue is not about Hillary Clinton, but about the characteristics and the character of her opponent’s appeals.

In light of Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College, most impartial analysts considering the nation’s recent presidential campaign and election are left grasping for explanations for a continuing decline in the character and quality of U.S. political discourse symbolized by the President-elect’s mix of invective and lies, a pattern of behavior he has shown no sign of changing since the election. Humans’ penchant for fear and loathing of those different from themselves has ever provided fertile ground for anti-democratic claims. As a result, demagogues will always present a challenge to self-governance and democracy. Our Founders counted on American civil society as well as institutional safeguards to prevent the usurpation of individual rights, but this election has raised the question of whether sufficient numbers of the U.S. citizenry are equipped or willing any longer to address political questions in anything like a prudential fashion, or whether their fears can be used by those canny enough to sense them to gain power, while undermining the freedoms of all. On the evidence of Trump’s appeal, one must ask the hard question of whether he is a bellwether of worse to come in our politics, or instead represents an aberration. Time and his actions as the nation’s chief executive will tell, as will American voters in coming state and local elections. This will be so, as one may expect that having once seen such tactics succeed, many would-be political leaders at all levels of governance will likely seek to emulate Trump’s demagoguery.

One key role the Institute can play in light of these political trends is to continue to highlight these concerns and to evaluate their implications for self-governance and freedom and to do so as clearly and cogently as we can. We will continue to chart these changes in American politics in our daily work and in our reflections on those efforts as effectively as we can, as partisans, first and foremost, of civil and human rights and the freedom they both protect and represent.


[1] Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.1. [2] Max Stephenson Jr., “The Ethical Ideal of Democratic Governance,” Tidings, October 1, 2016, [3] Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison. The Federalist Papers, New York: New American Library, 1961, p.33. [4] Hamilton, Jay, Madison, The Federalist Papers, New York: New American Library, 1961, p.34.