President Trump’s style of conducting politics raises fears among his critics that he is undermining American democracy. The underlying question is about how much importance we should attach to style in democratic politics.
For autocratic leaders and for authoritarian regimes, style matters a lot. They want to project strength, authority and to intimidate any latent opposition. However, there is also a long tradition among writers on politics that style also matters greatly for democratic societies.
Writers within a broadly democratic tradition differ in what they consider to be the most important feature of style for a democratic society. They also differ on why style is important. However, taken together, the common attention to style cannot be ignored.
At the same time, concerns about style in democracies point beyond Trump himself. The basic problem lies with the system that Trump exploits.
One early expression of the importance of style was expressed in terms of the virtues of moderation in politics – moderation in speech and action. The backdrop was memories of civil war. The fear of civil war is fortunately rather remote in most democratic countries today. However, moderation remains highly relevant to any deeply divided society of which there are many. Moderation can be seen as about the importance of encouraging accommodation between contending viewpoints and communities.
Another early expression of the importance of style was about tolerance. The historical backdrop was that of religious wars. In today’s world the background is provided by debates about ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘intercultural’ differences. It can be thought of in terms of avoiding imposed values, or, in terms of the virtues of a system of government that is ‘impartial’ as between different ultimate values. It can also be seen as about the importance of systems of government that allow for ‘search’ and the exploration of different interpretations of fundamental values.
Esteem, respect and recognition
The significance of style has also long been expressed in terms of esteem or respect. The contention here is that the norms of behaviour we observe in society have a socializing effect on others. We esteem, or respect, those whose behaviour we admire and we wish to be esteemed and respected ourselves.
In each case ‘mutuality’ of behaviour is important. There must be a willingness to provide mutual esteem and mutual recognition.
Yet another early expression of the importance of style was about ‘manners’. Here the reference is to the importance of shared values, traditions and history.
At one level, the contention is about valuing systems of government that change through evolution and interpretation.
At another level, it can be seen about practical politics and ‘losers consent’. We should recognise that in democratic systems of government, those in power will rotate. We should adopt standards of civility towards the opposition that recognise that those who are ‘out’ may soon be ‘in’ and those who are temporarily ‘in’ may soon be ‘out’.
The fact that democratic politics is adversarial should not blind us to our common membership in a shared society. The US Senate has had a long tradition of civility between its members.
Style can also be connected to ideas about ‘dignity’. Dignity is about recognizing those qualities that make humans human. It is more precise than general concerns about shared values, or mutual esteem, because it defines what should be esteemed, recognized and shared.
It would lead to a much more agreeable flavour to American politics if President Trump treated his opponents with civility, respect and good ‘manners’. It would go even further to reduce the tensions in American political debate if, for example, Trump were to state that illegal immigrants should still be treated with dignity as human beings.
A final way of thinking about style in democracies is in terms of fair treatment. It is unlikely that any of the virtues of moderation, tolerance, civility, the accordance of dignity and mutual respect will prevail in the absence of people feeling that they are themselves being treated fairly.
If electorates feel that their concerns are ignored by privileged power elites, their opportunities in the market denied by crony capitalists, and public policies manipulated for the few by insiders and experts in politics and the law, then, it is unlikely that a democratic style of politics will flourish.
The conditions for uncivil democracies
There is a common message coming from these different ways of thinking about style in democratic politics. Style is not just about the vanity of autocratic leaders. It is also of fundamental importance to the functioning of democratic systems of government.
We can differ over how to express style. We can also differ about why style is important. However, we cannot avoid the common message.
President Trump violates each of the yardsticks for style in democratic politics. He lacks moderation in the way he pushes his positions, shows no tolerance for those with whom he disagrees, reveals no respect for others, displays no manners or civility to those who oppose him, and treats no one with dignity. He claims to stand for fair treatment because he attacks the Washington ‘swamp’, the cronyism and the sense of entitlement among the political elite. But he himself belongs to the entitled, self-obsessed world of the rich and famous.
The implications of this message is that Trump’s style is indeed damaging for American democracy. However, we also need to look behind what is happening to ask about the conditions that have given rise to Trumpism.
Implications for democratic framework
In looking for reasons why a democratic style of government has gone missing in America it is easy to finger economics. For example, there is the anger arising from the loss of economic and social status as skilled jobs in manufacturing are replaced by low paid less skilled jobs in the service sectors. We can also think about the medium of politics. The short cut communication of the social media encourages the exchange of biased views among the like-minded rather than a willingness to take into account a wider spectrum of views and information. But we also need to think about the institutions of democratic politics and the system itself.
In the market place, on-line shopping means that we get personalized goods and services directly and quickly. In democratic politics we do not. We still rely on representatives to speak for our interests. One system belongs to the 21st century; the other to the 18th.
We have to redress this imbalance and to update our democratic frameworks. People need to be able to express their voice directly on matters of importance to them. Nowadays authority, expertise and information is widely dispersed. People therefore also need help in navigating their way through the maze. Two chamber systems of representation no longer provide for a balanced system of representation. In particular, representation to achieve intergenerational equity is missing.
The system itself has failed to update itself because we have relied on interpretation by courts for updating. The happenstance of individual cases cannot provide the overview needed for the system as a whole. We need a different type of updating arrangement.
If we avoid updating the institutions needed to support 21st century democracies we are all complicit in democracy’s demise.