The French philosopher Jacques Rancière says there is a scandal at the heart of democracy. ‘Scandal’ certainly comes to mind when I consider the many abuses President Trump heaps on the republic. He delivers muddled, muddied press conferences on the storied White House lawn, packed with non-sequiturs and puerile boasts, where his comments are so poorly planned that he contradicts himself openly. Like when he called a National Emergency to secure funding for a border wall and, in the same breath, said he ‘did not need to do this.’ Never mind the fact that this is no emergency at all, and will in fact do nothing to address our immigration or drug problems; to the contrary, it will divert needed funds and attention from real emergencies, like climate change and the gun violence epidemic. Both of which the president denies.
Trump issues noxious, half-brewed tweets, laden with conspiracy theory, which undermine various institutions central to our democracy—Congress, the Federal Reserve, the Justice Department—along with the integrity of our very electoral system. In a gross insult to the Founders, Trump and his family have sought to capitalize on his post, and enrich themselves; lobbyists, foreign diplomats and influence seekers flock to his hotels and resorts, spending eagerly to ingratiate themselves with the president. And, Robert Mueller indicates, Trump and his team colluded (or tried to collude) with Russia, an autocratic regime and a historical adversary, in getting elected.
How will the republic recover from this debacle, some wonder? Don’t we flirt with a constitutional crisis nearly every week? Will it bring us to the brink of impeachment? Imagine the president’s behavior if it gets to that: he may incite his base to acts of violence and further harm our democracy. Short of impeachment—even if Trump lasts but one term—hasn’t he already done great damage to the US political system, by thoroughly trashing long respected norms? Has he so changed the office of the president that voters will grow accustomed to, if not expect, rude, reckless, or overtly autocratic behavior from the commander-in-chief?
When Rancière speaks of a ‘scandal of democracy,’ he takes his cue from Plato, who identified seven titles of authority—force, expertise, virtue, birth, among others. These are various qualifications for why some rule. Among Plato’s list, Rancière notes one that is curious indeed: chance. This, he argues, is in fact the key to legitimate authority, and is precisely at play in democracy, or it should be. We overrule chance at our own peril. Allow me to explain.
For Plato, expertise is or ought to be the premier qualification for ruling. After all, his ideal state, laid out in the Republic, will be headed by ‘philosopher kings.’ They will know how best to order the human soul, and ensure that people do what they are supposed to be doing in the state—as nature ordains it. This is justice, Plato tells us. Democracy is scandalous, in his view, because it throws the psychological and social order on its head. Those who should not rule, rule; the wise are ignored and cast aside in the popularity contest that emerges. Democratic citizens are driven by material desires, Plato believes, and will elect whoever promotes them, even imprudently or illicitly.
And yet, modern democracies still nominally prioritize expertise. Elected officials, we tend to believe, should have special experience, education or training that elevates them above the crowd and makes them specially qualified to be in charge. But, Rancière insists, expertise is a poor condition for authority. Simply put, it will fail to command respect; quite to the contrary, it will incite resentment. For instance, the resentment we see in the Trump phenomenon—the resentment evident in Trump voters, who defiantly elected a man whose chief virtue was that he had no political experience nor expertise.
The problem with expertise is twofold. For one thing, there is a natural human tendency to bridle against people who lecture, people who affirm their expertise, and say we must trust them with decision-making—and butt out. This does not sit well with us. What’s more—and this may sound obvious at first—there is something deeply undemocratic in rule by experts. It literally marginalizes voters, and not just Trump supporters, but everyone else. It diminishes our role in policy decisions and, in so doing, depletes democratic energy and interest. Reliance upon experts may be behind the pitifully low voter turnout we see in many democracies, especially the US. With experts in charge, people feel like their views and input—even their attention—don’t matter.
To remain vibrant, Rancière maintains, democracy must on occasion roll the dice. Chance must play a part in determining who will rule, independent of any purported or supposed expertise. Unqualified persons must ascend to the office—lecherous persons, too, perhaps, who harbor ill will for the republic, but convince supporters otherwise. There is no other way. The people—all the people—have to get what they want on occasion, consequences (for the most part) be damned.
At the very least, and this—we might hope—is a positive reaction to the Trump presidency, some will wake up, take notice, and respond to the reigning incompetence and lechery. More people may feel the need to pay attention and speak out—that is, act the part of democratic citizens. And more people may feel they have been heard, their frustration noted—on both sides of the political divide.
Like it or not, this is the cure for any broad sense of voter disenfranchisement, disrespect or marginalization. In that respect, Rancière might say, American democracy operated exactly as it should have in electing Trump. Those who recognize that they have been sidelined by experts got their way for once and threw a wrench in the machine of government, run by mainstream Democrats and Republicans. Trump has happily packed his administration with nonexperts, who have failed to enact few effective or useful policies of note, and have in fact set the nation back in many ways. But any hoped-for progress would have been stymied eventually, or sooner or later, by an angrier, more desperate plurality.
Many will wonder—or object: how can we hope to get much done in our democracy if it is liable to be hijacked from time to time by inexperienced opportunists, political novices who have no real agenda save self-promotion, and undermine the workings and sacred rules of government? Consider climate change, for example. There are few topics more resented for their stewardship by so-called experts. I might even say that precisely because the cause is championed by obtuse academics, this is why opponents dispute the facts of climate change and the recommended cure. And yet, we are told, climate change demands immediate, rapid action. How can democracy pull this off?
Democracy is not in fact a form of government, Rancière tells us; all governments are necessarily oligarchic, run by a few. In the case of our republic, these would be elected officials (or, cynics will say, the lobbyists and billionaires who pull the strings). Democracy, rather, is the source and foundation of political legitimacy. It is the system through which chance gets its say. Democracy ensures from time to time that our elected officials include people who have no business governing. It honors and includes those who feel ignored and disrespected by the political process—and who make their indignation known, even unproductively. This is the only way to ensure that government enjoys widespread, enduring –and grudging—respect.
In his concluding remarks to the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and ‘fixer’ who accused the president of a host of illicit if not illegal deeds, Congressman Elijah Cummings lamented what had become of our political landscape today. He complained how the president, embroiled in numerous scandals and prone to non-stop lying, had so preoccupied Washington with the drama, that Congress could hardly get anything else done. “Come on now!” Cummings yelped, “We can do more than one thing. And we have got to get back to normal!”
If by ‘normal’ Cummings meant that Congress would be efficient, effective and productive, issuing useful and helpful legislation for the American people, many will say it has been a long time coming. Voters have long complained about the gridlock in Congress—a prime reason it enjoys perennially abysmal approval ratings. Unfortunately for Mr. Cummings, the stark and heated partisanship today—which Trump gleefully fuels—will only make said gridlock worse and repeatedly stall government action in sometimes humiliating ways. But this may not be so abnormal, after all.
For, politics is not really about ‘getting things done,’ Rancière suggests. Efficiency is alien to politics, properly speaking. Something is amiss when government is efficient. It means that a select group gets its way, in which case others, perhaps many, are excluded. When everyone is able to speak—when the cacophony of voices descends upon Washington, shoring up the legitimacy of government—little will get done.
It is true that voters equally cite government inaction and infighting as a turnoff. For some, it is reason enough to stop caring about politics. But this, too, is unavoidable—if we are lucky. It is the price we pay for legitimate, respected and thus viable government, where more people feel they have a say and where opposing voices are heard and have a chance for a face off. Simply put, democracy is endangered on both sides: when it is efficient and when it grinds to a halt. The moral of the story is that democracy must flirt with its own destruction on occasion, just to remain relevant and alive.