Donald Trump’s election victory has not only terrified liberals, minorities, and much of the planet, but has shaken some people’s faith in democracy itself. That this bigoted, lying, self-contradicting, autocratic, anti-science, tantrum-throwing man-child could become the world’s most powerful leader surely shows the very system for choosing leaders is fatally flawed. That far-right parties, emboldened, may now win several upcoming European elections surely shows voters cannot be trusted. Perhaps democracy has become too democratic. Perhaps we need epistocracy, where only the most knowledgeable can vote.
This is all wrong.
Yes, America’s democracy has many flaws. Yes, the parties and media that once acted as bulwarks against demagogues like Trump have been weakened. Yes, congressional districts are gerrymandered and the electoral college is a kooky anachronism. But overall, democracy did exactly what it’s meant to do. A lot of Americans, for a lot of reasons, were disgusted with politics-as-usual, and they showed it—by voting for Trump, or not voting at all.
In doing so they definitively marked the death of what Hungary’s Viktor Orban called “liberal non-democracy”—a long period in which a pro-globalization consensus ruled the political mainstream, oblivious to growing opposition on the fringes. Populists like Trump and the Brexiteers tapped into that opposition. Now pro- vs. anti-globalization has replaced left vs. right as the dividing line of a new political era.
This isn’t to say we should welcome Trump or others of his ilk. He is likely to dangerously weaken America’s civil rights and democratic institutions, not to say wreck the climate and threaten the US and world economy. But the blame lies not with democracy. It lies in the failure of the establishment to realize just how far it had fallen out of touch with people’s anger and just how easy it had become for a highly skilled rabble-rouser, relying on the internet and appeals to emotion rather than on traditional media and fact-based reasoning, to harness that anger.
There is now much soul-searching to be done for those (Quartz among them) who believe in keeping up the case for liberal values and open borders. But the answer is not to alter the nature of democracy. When democracy has picked an autocrat, it’s already too late.