By Dr David Laing Dawson
Some very smart people have been pessimistic about the staying power of democracy.
“When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.” – attributed to several American Statesmen and Politicians.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill
“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” – John Adams
“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.” – George Bernard Shaw
Yet those of us born into, growing up and spending our adult lives within a democracy, assume that with every passing year it will grow stronger, more resilient, and less easy to corrupt. And that would be, I think, the consensus of academics, philosophers, political scientists: that with many safeguards in place, a separation of governance and religion, civilian control of the military, an independent judiciary, a functioning economy, literacy and education, voting rights for all, transparency and openness, a decent and wise constitution – that with these in place democracy can but flourish.
A friend of mine, a fellow medical student at the time, was the son of the first minister of the crown in the British Commonwealth to be convicted of fraud. It was purported to be a $5,000 bribe he accepted from a major corporation. I remember being puzzled by the smallness of the bribe. It seemed a paltry amount upon which to risk one’s career, family, reputation, livelihood. Some have whispered in that time-honoured conspiratorial manner that the $5000 was only the tip of the iceberg and what they could “get him on”. But I have come to understand that our individual sense of entitlement is so strong, so close to the surface, that it can be easily manipulated by the unscrupulous, or simply by our own grandiosity and narcissism. How else can one explain our vaunted Canadian senators hedging their expense accounts? Let’s face it. All it takes is a $50 gift and a letter extolling your brilliance and goodness. Just sign here.
So democracies are fragile. And not just those nascent democracies of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey. The old, established ones as well.
The foreboding elements are now in place: seriously unequal wealth distribution, increasing tribalism triggered by migration, mass media mechanisms for the dissemination of fake news, and, in the USA, a floundering public education system, competing religious extremes, the inevitable failure of the American Dream for the majority of Americans, a festering and historic racial divide, a warrior culture, a culture that celebrates celebrity above all else, a culture that is skeptical of experts, where many think the facts derived from science are simply opinions, a culture with rather simple notions of “good guys” and “bad guys”, a manipulated information system, and the election of Donald Trump.
Americans are at risk of losing their democracy. We are all at risk of war and economic collapse. I have no idea exactly how these events might unfold but I am sure they have moved from the impossible column to the quite possible column.
As well, it seems, surveys of the populations in several democracies find a growing percentage of people who think an alternative to democracy would be okay. Close to 50 percent say they could live without it. This laissez-faire attitude is especially prevalent among the generations who have only known democracy.
There have been a few moments since the election when it seemed that maybe this will be all right, we will somehow muddle through, when Donald is reported to have said something sensible, conciliatory, inclusive. But, for the most part he remains Donald Trump, and my fears are growing.
I won’t go over all that he has said and tweeted, the inordinate amount of time he has spent focused on petty grievances, watching SNL, celebrating his victory – or on his sketchy appointments, his lack of attendance at briefing sessions, his poking a stick at China and at the findings of his own CIA. But I would like to point out a few things he has said, and the way he has said them. For they are more telling. They are more telling about his level of narcissism, his tone-deafness, his lack of knowledge, and his grandiosity.
At a rally after congratulating himself on being named person of the year by Time Magazine, he commented to the crowd that maybe the title should be returned to “Man of the Year”. Eh? Eh? Apparently the crowd cheered.
When asked why he didn’t attend intelligence briefings, he answered, “I am, like, a very smart person.”
When being asked about answering the call from Taiwan, and then questioning why we have a one China policy, he said, “I won’t let China push me around.”
His ignorance is palpable even when he remembers a few catch phrases from a briefing by his people. But in theory he could learn. What is more frightening is the level of his narcissism and grandiosity revealed in those three quotations. This is a Shakespearean level of grandiosity and narcissism, the kind that leads a man to listen only to sycophants, to govern according to his own pleasure, according to his own ego gratification, and to bring the temple crashing down, to lay waste to his nation before accepting any slight, any blow to his over-inflated but fragile sense of self.
I’m afraid I only see three possibilities. The electoral college votes against Trump, precipitates a constitutional crisis, and stokes the American divide, or he is inaugurated, and then impeached, precipitating a constitutional crisis and stoking the American divide, or we all spend the next four years on the brink of nuclear war while watching regressive policies being put in place.