One Month After: Notes on US Election Results

And so, after having lost the popular vote by more than 2.6 million votes, Donald Trump will become the next US president. Now that everyone has had the time to adjust to the news, I thought I should recount a couple of facts. Those might be as well taken to be a commentary on the US politics, since assuming that the president is meant to represent the will of the people, one could be forgiven for thinking that the reality which they reveal takes place in a bizarre opposite world.

They are as follows:

In all honesty, no one should be surprised at these picks – they match the presidential program in everything but the populist appeal. Equally, it’s unsurprising that the man picked as the secretary of defense proclaims that shooting people is quite fun, the national security adviser will be a man who believes that it’s rational to fear Muslims as Shariah law is spreading in the US, and leading the Department of Homeland Security will be a man who oversaw the US detention and torture facility in Guantanamo. And a man who is a neo-fascist favorite with the views one would expect from such a person will be the “chief strategist”.

Equally unsurprising is the amount of media and Democratic flip-flopping about the results: from New York Times which went from claiming that Trump was propelled by a “crisis of whiteness” before the election to claiming more humbly that they can’t really say what was the reason of his success and that he should be given a chance, to Bernie Sanders who, after claiming that Trump would be a disaster for the US, has now promised to work with him whenever it would benefit theĀ  working class.

In the previous post, I named the US political system a satirical and embarrassing spectacle. I stand by that statement.

Elections and Legitimacy

The United States presidential election spectacle is equally entertaining and embarrassing to observe from a distance. Meant to be an illustration of the democratic ideal, it rather resembles a satirical spectacle, in which the pretence of democratic ideals goes through the motions, with the participation of campaign machines and media commentators, with a common agreement that it’s all fake. It’s also interesting from the perspective of political legitimacy.

Political legitimacy, broadly speaking, is the attribute of a selected government which makes it genuinely one that embodies the selectors’ wishes. In simpler terms, it’s about whether it’s really right for some people to be laying down the law, as opposed to just dictating it as they see fit, with the help of the violence that they can enact on those who oppose them.

A major development in political philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries, that is, in the Enlightenment Age, was the formulation and elaboration of the idea that the common people – everyday labourers which sustain a country via their work – should be able to also decide how their country is governed. The beginnings of this thought was not at all as democratic: Hobbes wouldn’t advocate a representative constitutional republic (he was a monarchist), but he advocated that society is governed by a contract, in which humans agree to cooperate. Elaborating upon this idea, John Locke would advance a more radical notion: that whether a government is that of a king or of a representative body of elected officials, what gives it true power is the consent of the ruled, who transfer their power to those who govern. In other words, what is legitimate is what is agreed to. This thought certainly can be found at the basis of a widespread ideal of how modern politics should function.

This is where it gets interesting. One may ask oneself about the legitimacy of the future president of the United States. And here, a curious phenomenon arises: while there surely will be only one winner decided by a vote, the winner – presuming it’s either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – will be the most unpopular in the history of polling. So unpopular, in fact, that a definite majority of voters support neither candidate. Thus we arrive at what seems a paradox of the political construct within the country – that a government will be lead by an official, elected by a majority of voters, who (according to the data) doesn’t actually represent the wishes or leanings of the majority of voters. In other words, we have agreement and representation without actual consent. Many things could be blamed for this state – some of it is certainly the failed idea of “lesser evil voting”. Regardless of how many pundits and public intellectuals advocate for it, the undeniable consequence is that things can get arbitrarily bad, so long as a worse alternative is presented. But the fact is that neither of the options presented is agreeable to those meant to decide.

What I think should be the conclusion is that the seeming paradox is a yet another illustration of a – more and more obvious – reality. It is the reason for the common antipathy towards the political system, and the feeling that working within it is pointless that so many people feel. On one level or another, the masses who don’t care to vote, and the young people who don’t care whatsoever, all realize the same thing: that they don’t actually have any control. They are not represented, the system is broken, and they don’t have any influence on it. And this feeling is not just reflective of a subjective appraisal: it’s an actual conclusion of a study. People who aren’t rich really don’t have power.

It’s therefore important to ponder this question: if the formalities of power are just theatrics, if the real power lies outside of the reach of the ruled, to what extent is this power legitimate? It might be a scary thing to ponder. Whatever happens, whoever they choose, Americans will be confronted with a yet another spectacle, and the illusion will become more and more apparent.

The Allure of the Popular

Reflecting on the rise of populist parties around the world, it’s interesting how little influence the intellectual effort of various philosophers throughout the centuries has had on the world. Socrates saw the enemy in sophists, who (at least in his characterization) took gaining influence to be the only worthy goal, John Stuart Mill wrote a whole book about logical fallacies, calling for people to think in a more nuanced way, and of course Orwell and Eco wrote plenty about the fairly-modern tactics of language twisting and behaviour manipulation by people seeking political power – but it all seems to have passed people by. The same style of argumentation – simplistic and pandering – always seems to win people over.

Although a lot of the parties gaining support due to populism are classified as right wing, the truth is that populism has no political leanings. It doesn’t matter what a particular politician actually believes, since votes aren’t won by common appeal – and promises aren’t enforced, so abandoning them can be expected.

What’s clear is that power that has historically been triumphant over intellect is fear, and those who can create and soothe it most efficiently have the greatest chance of gaining popular support. If the main feature of populism is that it appeals the most to thinking lacking in reflection out of fear, then the fault for its rise should lie with those decision makers and officials who have made modern education what it is – or so the argument would go.

But if we blame public officials for the ills of society, then we should also ask who got them in power in the first place. It seems that democracy is working to defeat itself by promoting those who, in the end, care only about their own power. But this way of thinking brings us straight to the conclusion that democracy is to be blamed for the problems of society. The uneducated choose manipulators to lead them, and manipulators dumb them down even further. It’s easy to go from this to the conclusion that the masses should not be allowed to vote, that democracy itself should be revoked.

But the question remains of why would poorly-educated, people who don’t think critically support populists, even when they call for genocide and increase of economic inequality? Here we might think to go back to the idea of “human nature”. Hobbes’s idea was that people are naturally mean-spirited and vicious, and would rob and kill one another if allowed to. But the less presuming explanation is that people act based on the situation their in, and in desperate situations will accept anyone who offers them a way out. And with the disappearance of the middle class as an economic power in the US, and an unemployment rate steady in the double digits in many European countries, it’s only logical that appealing to everyone’s economic fear is a good strategy.

Neither people’s natural instincts, nor their education, nor their economic state are on their own enough as an explanation for their love of populism – it’s a problem of multiple causes and multiple effects. The only thing philosophy can offer the world is the ideas and the invitation to critical thinking – a defence of mind against populism.

Further reading:
Gorgias – Socrates’s views on rhetoric, as related by Plato
Ur-Fascism – Umberto Eco’s attempts at elucidating the nature of fascism