Donald Trump’s vanquishing of a football team’s worth of Republican Party presidential candidates has prompted intense reflection on how it happened, much of which lands on the same question: can democracy be trusted to produce competent political candidates?
One perspective gaining traction in the shout-o-sphere is that the collapse of mediating forces – backroom dealmakers; caucuses rather than primaries; a conscripted, instead of volunteer, military; media channeling viewers to three stations and the one that doesn’t come in clearly – directly exposed politics to a populace unburdened with the wisdom fostered by a more curated procedure. That, in turn, produced a major party nominee who is best known for his scowl, inflated hair and ego, and saying things that sound like what might emerge from a conversation between Archie Bunker and a 1990s-era Howard Stern.
Whether Trump would be a worse president than Herbert Hoover or George W. Bush is hopefully an empirical question that won’t be tested. In that respect, it may never be clear whether this election cycle’s process produced an inferior outcome than one that’s more managed, though a Hillary Clinton victory may provide some indication. Regardless, there’s mixed evidence about Americans’ capability of making great decisions about anything.
On the not-so-capable-of-making good choices side of the ledger, more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight; in excess of one-third are obese. As an adult American, I can attest to the pleasures of being plump, or at least the attractions of the inputs, which include salty, fatty, snacks and binging on Scandal. And for many Americans carrying excess pounds isn’t so much chosen as genetic destiny. Still, being heavy causes all kinds of negatives, including cutting life spans by upwards of three years.
It could be that Americans are making a solid decision to be big. More likely, we’re not engaging in a thoughtful choice at all, just slipping into the seductions of sofa surfing. Intriguingly, the portion of Americans who are x or xx-large neatly matches the more than two-thirds of Americans who chose not to participate in this year’s presidential primaries. Nonvoters and the overweight aren’t necessarily the same group of people, but they may be acting in like fashion, and from similar motivations, when it comes to the body/politic.
As with being overweight, the consequences of voter apathy and inaction can be unpleasant, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about democracy, other than things would likely be different if more people engaged in it.
It’s difficult to identify a single indicator of smart decisions Americans have made. Tobacco use is down, a healthy choice, but that may largely be the result of concerted efforts to increase the costs of its consumption. We elected Barack Obama, and Jerry Brown; that turned out pretty well. And, matching our apathy and appetites, two-thirds of households give to charity, which could be considered a wise, or at least compassionate, thing to do.
Perhaps, though, the wrong question is being asked. The answer to whether democracy can be trusted to produce competent political candidates is “sometimes,” which prompts the follow-up query of what can be done to improve the chances that it’ll do so. The list is long: better public education; more economic opportunities, particularly on the lower rungs of the income ladder; a less money-saturated election process.
Democracy also requires some level of trust to work well. Trump has exposed Americans distaste for one another, as well as an even more disconcerting self-loathing. “If I were running “The View,” I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look her right in that fat, ugly, face of hers, I’d say “Rosie, you’re fired,” he said. If Rosie O’Donnell is “fat” and “ugly,” so too are most Americans; it’s not hard to imagine Trumpists wildly cheering this “honest” statement, and then looking around with furtive eyes and shoving their hands in their pockets. It might be time to forgive our fellow would-be voters, and ourselves, for who we are, and move on to who we want to be.