The governing cancer of our time

We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society - politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.

Politics is an activity in which you recognise the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a Constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It is messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognise restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.

But that is sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point, and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it is better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.

As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, In Defence Of Politics, "politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence". Over the past generation, we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These folk - best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right - want to elect people who have no political experience. They want "outsiders".

They delegitimise compromise and deal-making. They are willing to trample on the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power. Ultimately, they do not recognise other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they do not accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They do not recognise restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This anti-politics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals: The anti-politics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The anti-politics people do not accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of anti-politics. The anti-politics people refuse compromise and, so, block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.

We are now at a point where the Senate says it won't even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We are now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We are now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.

And in walks presidential hopeful Donald Trump. People say he is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That is not true. Mr Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders, the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible, the decline of coherent political parties, the declining importance of policy, the tendency to fight cultural battles, and identity wars through political means.

Mr Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of "I'd like to punch him in the face".

I printed out a New York Times list of the insults Mr Trump has hurled on Twitter. The list took up 33 pages. Mr Trump's style is bashing and pummelling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through.

Mr Trump's supporters are not looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you are a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.

This is not just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Mr Trump is politics. It is acknowledging that other people exist. It is taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As political theorist Harold Laski put it: "We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'The governing cancer of our time'. Print Edition | Subscribe