Through history, governments mainly promoted the power of a ruling family and aristocracy. The theory on which our country was founded, that government should represent the people and their interests, really was pretty radical, although derived from prior English thinking.
Actually the theory was too radical for the 18th century: our Founders set up a system in which basically only white men who owned property could vote and govern. Our national history since then has been a long effort to bring others to full participation.
Historians point out that when economic and political power are misaligned, unrest and even revolution can follow. Thus, the rising influence of the commercial class in 17th-century England and 18th-century France caused conflicts that brought about the unthinkable: the deposition and execution of two reigning monarchs. And exactly 100 years ago Russia, unable to realign power to write the end to the legacy of serfdom and appease its own rising classes, likewise overthrew a long-ruling dynasty.
The current decade shows the opposite pattern: not a rising middle class but a declining middle class. Those Americans and Europeans who felt left behind by change, the scantily employed, those marginalized by inadequate education and global trade lashed out against social change, immigrants, the financial industry, declining standards of living, and the political in-group they held responsible for unwelcome changes. Angry voters have been looking back to the good old days, however they may imagine those to be.
Democrats often lament: why do people vote against their own interests? Why would voters threatened by change cast their lot in with an unscrupulous New York billionaire?
Insecure people confused by events choose desperate solutions. When they feel government caters to others than themselves, they revolt, as in the states, including Pennsylvania, that made the difference in the 2016 electoral college.
Americans expect to be taken seriously. When we have an issue on the municipal level, we complain to our friends, we write a letter or go to a meeting, we try to sort it out with people pretty much like ourselves, basically our own neighbors who have stepped forward to help our town run its services, and we usually feel that democracy is working, locally at least.
But our political life has widening circles of distance from ourselves: municipality, county, state House and Senate, US House and Senate, state and national court systems, the presidency. The bigger the district, the more remote the office-holder seems, the less like ourselves and people we know. The most successful politicians have the ability to narrow that perception of distance.
A lot of Americans felt George Bush would be a good person to walk their dog or share a beer. Obama made many Americans feel their turn had come. And in 2016, desperate people preferred the disruptive candidate who seemed to “feel their pain” and, ironically, not the spouse of the president who practically trademarked that expression. Many Trump voters thought of themselves as revolutionaries trying to take down a hostile regime; and it is no coincidence that Steve Bannon, the man often termed Trump’s Rasputin, has described himself as a disrupter and a Leninist.
Those voters betting all on change will be disappointed once again, of course, but they don’t know it yet. Our system has managed to align economic and political power pretty well, because increasingly, the wealthy who control economic life control political life as well. The final test will be whether the current rules will be able to align perception and reality, not of course by changing reality but by altering people’s feelings about it. through marketing, propagandizing, and tweeting.
The exceptionalism of our democracy lies in inducing people to vote against their own interests and even their own beliefs. Who would have thought the party of “family values” would support Trump?
Today’s “resistance” movement reflects a truly radical idea: that government should represent the actual people who live in our country, in all our diversity of race, religion, socio-economic level, or any other trait. The Resisters believe that our representatives should meet with us in our own communities and listen to us, or else that people more attuned to ourselves, all across the country, should take their places. Thus, everyone should participate, vote, organize, let their views be known, promote candidates, and run for office.
Our country could do a lot worse than trying out that concept, which broadens the Founders’ concept of citizen-farmers doubling as part-time legislators to represent real, un-gerrymandered human communities. If democracy is to carry on, it needs faith that a majority of people can lead the way, making good decisions for the whole social organism.
When Americans feel that people like ourselves are representing us at all levels of government, our system will reach the balance that it has long sought between the individual and the communal, the local and the national.
E pluribus unum, as it were.