The Nature of American Democracy in 2016


Arturo Samaniego

Democracy has long been hailed as the apex of systems of government, but is it as stable as people tend to believe, and is the public to blame for any faults in the system? If we were to go off the opinions of some of our founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, who labeled democracy as “nothing more than mob rule,” or John Adams, who stated that democracy “never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy,” then democracy would appear to be nothing more than a flawed system of government destined to end up in the ash heap of history.

I for one do not subscribe to this belief. Though democracy may not be as infallible as we make it out to be, it is the best system of government we have, giving all citizens an avenue by which to voice their beliefs.

With that being said it is important to acknowledge some of the shortcomings of democracy, and as the 2016 presidential race has displayed there are plenty to be found. In particular, Donald Trump has highlighted some of those problems, playing to people’s prejudices and emotions rather than reason and logic.

Alexander Hamilton warned of this kind of demagoguery, stating men who overturn the liberty of the people start by “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” Though it may be an exaggeration to believe that Trump, if elected, would overturn our democracy, which has endured for 240 years, it is important to heed his warning, and recognize the threat Trump does pose.

Trump threatens to turn our political discourse, and in turn our nature of democracy, from one based on civil discussion to a frantic shouting match. The Founding Fathers subscribed to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, believing that human reason was the best route by which to solve problems. For much of the history of our democracy we have proven this sentiment true, holding national elections where solutions to the problems plaguing us could be discussed and debated in a civil manner.

During this past election it seems much of that civil discussion has deteriorated as Trump has made personal attacks on his opponents, rather than their ideas, and has appealed to underlying xenophobic sentiments in the general public based more on fear than actual concerns.

This is the ultimate threat that demagogues like Trump pose, turning our attention from problems that actually should concern us, like global warming and income inequality, to issues that play off emotion, such as the fear of Syrian refugees and immigrants.

With this in mind, the question remains: what is the solution to the fundamental problems of democracy, such as demagoguery? Should we just leave all the power in the hands of the educated elite?

The problem is not with the people. It is with a lack of information. The Founding Fathers were right all along; with open discussion and a transferring of logic and ideas from people to people, many of society’s ills could be solved (though it seems today many people are less interested in gaining new ideals, and would rather reinforce their preconceived notions). This could be seen in people tailoring their Facebook feed, or favoring posts that align with their established beliefs, rather than try to be exposed to new ideas.  

An even greater problem is that the media seems more than happy to oblige this need. News outlets like Fox News seem to only desire to tell their audience what they want to hear, rather than sharing information that could help them make a more informed decision.

If we are only willing to be open to hear a plethora of new information, then we could more easily see through the manipulation that demagogues employ, basing our decisions more on logic than emotion. In fact other problems in our democracy, like partisanship, could be more easily dealt with as we learn to look through opposing points of views and use human reason as the guiding principle in our democracy.