“Democracy,” H.L. Mencken wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Mencken’s assessment is philosophically dismissive of democracy as a theory of government.
It’s snobbishly contemptuous of Joe Six-Pack’s qualifications for self-government of the democratic type.
And it’s as accurate a summary as I’ve come across of how the political establishment — especially “major party” presidential candidates and their campaign minders — view the American electorate.
It’s fair to criticize politicians for pandering to the largest blocs and lowest common denominators of voter fear and self-interest. But it’s also worthwhile to consider just who those pandering politicians think they’re pandering to.
Based on the candidates the “major” parties put up and the campaigns they run, it’s easy to figure out what they think about you.
Trump vs. Biden means they think you’re stupid. It means they think you’re short-sighted. It means they think you’re venal. It means they think you’d look up if someone told you the word “gullible” was written on the ceiling.
This November, they expect you to treat Creepy, Handsy, Corrupt, Senile Septuagenarian #1 vs. Creepy, Handsy, Corrupt, Senile Septuagenarian #2 as if it was some kind of serious, weighty decision, a choice between wildly different ideas.
If you’re not insulted by that, they’re right about you.
Trump vs. Biden isn’t Axis vs. Allies. It’s not Ali vs. Frazier. It’s more like a dwarf-tossing tournament at your neighborhood tavern. Only the dwarf-tossing tournament probably has much cooler prizes and maybe a wet t-shirt contest at intermission.
The jury is still out on representative democracy in general and the American presidential system in particular. We’ve only been doing this for 232 years. By way of comparison, the Roman Empire proper lasted twice as long, and the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years after that. We’re young’uns, but already well into cultural decline and political disintegration.
Duverger’s Law says that the traditional American election system — plurality votes to win in single-representative districts — favors a two-party system.
American history says that a two-party system eventually devolves into a de facto one-party state in which the two supposedly competing parties become virtually indistinguishable from each other at the policy level and eventually can’t even be bothered to put up candidates who would be treated as anything but bad jokes in any other kind of job interview.
Changing our voting systems (for example, to Ranked Choice Voting) and/or adopting multi-representative districts with proportional representation might produce better results, but the Democratic-Republican Uni-Party can be counted on to fight tooth and nail against such reforms.
For American democracy to survive — or even credibly claim it DESERVES to survive — much longer depends on such a transition. If voters send the Republicans and Democrats packing this November, electing Libertarian Jo Jorgensen to the White House and putting substantial numbers of Libertarians and Greens in Congress, maybe we’ve got a ball game.
Alternatively, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about what comes after America. After all, nothing lasts forever.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.