Turning Out the Base
In the olden days, the conservatives would scoff at democracy because the People in their wisdom would elect a wrestling star if they had their druthers. More recent conservatives have taken this idea to heart and are trying to act as much like wrestling stars as possible, strutting and preening and posing. Donald Trump even looks a bit like Gorgeous George. The Republicans are the party of privilege but the privilege they stand for is wealth, the most demotic of distinctions; and the remarkable crassness of the contestants in the Mussolini-of-the-Month competition currently underway is a way of identifying with the just plain folks. The time-tested stunts of late night used car commercials work, and the politicians know it.
Incidentally, I’m not complaining that the Republicans are hypocritical. They aren’t flying under false colors. They really are common. Plutocracy is the populist variety of elitism, and in their fashion its adherents really are small d democrats. The problem is that they reinforce precisely those aspects of democracy that are most problematic and not only problematic from the point of view of paleo-conservatives who have to hold their noses before they pull the lever on the voting machine.
What’s good about democracy is the project of engaging the energy and intelligence of the whole population. What’s bad about it is that the easiest way to mobilize the masses is to appeal to fear and prejudice. If the People are sovereign, they are also responsible and need to have their feet put to the fire from time to time; but it’s fatally easy for Demos to evade its obligations by blaming enemies even if it has to create them first as in the present pass where the immigrants, who had nothing to do with it, are made into the scapegoat for the economic troubles of the last decade. And then there is the susceptibility of the People to flattery—that’s what the endless drone about American exceptionalism comes down to, after all. Unfortunately, if we’re as special as all that, the ordinary norms of decent behavior don't apply to us as a nation and we can break treaties or invade countries with a clear conscience knowing that our intentions are pure. If America recognized itself as a proxy for the rest of mankind because almost every kind of human being is in fact a member of our national community that would be one thing. Republican herrenvolk democracy denies itself that out, however, since it defines the real America much more narrowly. For the right-wingers I grew up around, you weren’t an American if you lived in New York or San Francisco or had the wrong color skin or the wrong religious opinions. These days you can be read out of the nation if you don’t own a car or like the wrong kind of lettuce.Democracy works, when it works, when elites don’t simply use it for their own purposes. I remain a small d democrat if only because it seems to me that the country ought to belong to its inhabitants; but I have no illusions about how dangerous democracy is in the hands of the little people. Of course by little people I refer to the current collection of American political leaders, especially that conspiracy of the mediocre that constitutes the Republican Party.