Does Trump’s Election Represent a Failure of Democracy?

Rousseau, Machiavelli, And Civic Duty In America

By Professor S. A. Lloyd (University of Southern California)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Mike Segar/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

There is wide agreement among political analysts that both the British vote to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States manifest populist and nationalist reactions to the economic and social displacement of middle and lower income voters who fault globalization, international trade pacts, and immigrants for their diminished position. At first these electoral outcomes may appear to be democratic triumphs of regular people over the wealthy elite minority that has so greatly benefitted from globalization. I shall investigate whether such electoral outcomes, and specifically Trump’s election, instead represent a failure of democracy. Theoretical defenders of democracy have advanced several conditions that must be met if democratic governance is to be morally defensible and practically desirable. I shall argue that these conditions were not met in the case of the American election, and so that its outcome does in fact represent a failure to achieve a democratically justified outcome.

I begin with a brief survey of the factors generally acknowledged to explain why those who voted for Trump did so. I also note, but only to set aside, obvious features of the American system of governance that limit the degree to which it can be democratic. I then distinguish two conceptions of democracy, and describe the necessary conditions for the proper functioning of democracy on the superior conception as understood by its greatest theorists. I offer empirical evidence that those conditions were not met in the present election. I conclude with recommendations for improving the quality of democratic elements in the American political system.


Explaining Trump’s Popularity

It should not have been surprising that the Republican Party candidate would win the 2016 election. American politics generally sees a cyclical desire for change after one party has held the Presidency for two terms, as the Democrats had under Obama. Furthermore, the Democratic party candidate was a polarizing figure with a high negative approval rating who had undergone a bruising primary battle, and was a woman, so sexism, both explicit and implicit could have been expected to play the role it did in a country with such marked gender inequality. Nor should it have been surprising that a populist candidate would win. Economic gains following the collapse of 2008 had gone vastly disproportionately to the wealthiest Americans, with traditional industries closing and workers suffering wage stagnation or job loss altogether. Although much job loss may have been attributable to changes in technology, many blamed faulty trade agreements and cheap immigrant labor—particularly illegal immigrant labor—for their impoverishment. Fear of terrorism also contributed to anti-immigrant sentiment, which along with exhaustion with foreign wars contributed to an isolationist inclination. Trump explicitly appealed to these attitudes, promising to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., to deport 11 million illegal aliens, to build an impenetrable wall along the border with Mexico, to void international trade pacts and to punish U.S. companies that exported jobs, and indicated willingness to withdraw from NATO and encourage allies to defend themselves—by developing nuclear weapons if they wished.

Furthermore, Trump had a particular advantage that should have made his victory entirely unsurprising: he was a celebrity in a celebrity culture. Over twelve seasons of a “reality” television show in which he presented an image of himself as a strong, successful, decisive, billionaire Boss, he painted a picture of himself to millions of viewers as an independent leader and the exemplar of the American Dream of the self-made man. His decades of self-branding “luxury” merchandise had given him positive name recognition among those who knew him only from the image he had created, and once he declared his candidacy, his celebrity generated amounts of free media coverage that overwhelmed his political competitors.[1] He communicated directly with his large fan following through Twitter, and both because the mainstream media was slow to fact-check Trump’s assertions and because false news spread rapidly on social media, his became the loudest megaphone in the public square.

“Trump had a particular advantage: he was a celebrity in a celebrity culture.”

Considering all his advantages, Trump’s electoral victory should have been expected. Yet it was a stunning shock, because of his manifest personal unsuitability to hold an Office of such responsibility in a democratic polity. Below I shall explain this unsuitability in terms of several types of failure—ignorance and willful dissimulation, intolerance and the refusal to acknowledge fellow citizens as equals, and vices of political morality—inimical to the realization of democratic values. I shall suggest that the willingness of Trump voters to overlook such failures exhibited related departures from the ideal of democratic citizenship belonging to the most defensible conception of democracy.


What is the purpose of democracy?

As is well known, the United States was designed as a Republic with some democratic inputs rather than as a Democracy, and so it may seem peculiar to be inquiring into whether this Presidential election represents a failure of democracy. The system of Congressional representation was designed to favor rural over city populations, and small states over heavily populated states, as was the Electoral College, which today makes the vote of the resident of a small state worth almost four times as much as that of a resident of the largest state. The electoral College was also designed to enhance the influence of white voters in Southern states. In addition, voter suppression has been a persistent feature of American democracy, with manipulation of voting districts, burdensome voter identification requirements, and intimidation of minority voters. Because Presidential elections are decided by votes of the Electors, they need not reflect the popular vote, and indeed in this election, Clinton in fact won the popular vote by almost three million votes, more than 2% of total votes cast. So if we think of democracy simply as rule by those chosen by the majority of the governed, or even by the majority of those eligible to vote, this would be a failure of democracy. But our question is rather whether according to the best understanding of the value of democracy, the democratic elements of the American system failed to deliver.

We should distinguish two conceptions of what can give democratic procedures moral legitimacy. On the first, they are merely meant to resolve conflicts of interest without recourse to war. Each individual votes his personal interest as he understands it, each vote is given equal weight, and the preponderance of votes determines whose personal interest wins in this play of the game. It is as if each voter were a combatant of equal strength, skill, and armament doing battle for his preferred outcome, with equal numbers of opposed combatants cancelling out each other’s efforts, and the excess prevailing.

On this view, majorities can expect to see their personal interests realized, and minorities cannot, but minorities will go along with the system if all are playing by the rules because it is an iterated game that gives them some hope of success in the future, and they are too few in number to hope to prevail now by alternate means.[2] All accept as a modus vivendi a chance to gain their preference electorally, with politics quite explicitly understood as warfare by other means. But should a cost-benefit analysis show that warfare can be expected to be more advantageous overall, allegiance to democracy would evaporate. This conception is associated with Niccolo Machiavelli, (and mistakenly by some with Thomas Hobbes, who in fact conceived democratic systems as grounded in a natural moral duty of equity).[3] Although Machiavelli advocated republicanism rather than democracy, his explanation of why separation of powers is beneficial—namely that because the members of each branch will pursue their self-interests, branches will limit each other’s corruption—suggests that he would also have expected individual citizens to exercise democratic powers in pursuit of their self-interest. For this reason I shall refer to this conception of democracy as a modus vivendi in pursuit of self-interest as Machiavellian.

On the second conception of what confers moral legitimacy on democratic procedures, such procedures settle disputes by appeal to shared values. Each voter is committed to advancing personal interests only in ways that are compatible with the values all members of the community share, and so when they are outvoted on the question of how those common values are best served, they see the democratic outcome as an honest disagreement over means, but not ends. This supports a principled willingness to continue cooperating with their political opponents, and not just because, as in the first conception, they lack power to overwhelm them. Citizens regard their fellows as equals and express their respect for them as equals by voting conscientiously on their judgment of how the common good is best realized. Even when they end up voting with the minority, they see the result of a democratic vote as not a pure loss, but rather as expressing values they care about. This conception is associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

There are good reasons to think that the way the second conception connects democracy with the values of autonomy, equality, and community renders it morally preferable to the first conception. Advocates of the first conception may cite intractable human nature as an insuperable barrier to the practicality of any scheme that relies on people to curtail their pursuit of naked personal interest. And a scheme that is incompatible with human nature cannot be sustained, so no matter how morally preferable that ideal scheme may seem, it must, following the dictum that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” be rejected as morally inferior. If it were true that human nature is fixed, not malleable under social and educational influences, the first conception would carry the day on the grounds of practicality just offered. But that claim is sufficiently implausible that for purposes of this discussion I shall simply assume (without positively establishing) the superiority of Rousseau’s conception of democracy.

Still, it is important to recognize how idealized Rousseau’s proposed system is: In it each individual votes up or down on every proposed law; no political parties or PACs or interest groups are permitted to lobby; voters must not communicate with each other, and when they vote, they set aside all their personal and corporate or associational interests, and vote only their opinion of whether the law advances the ends citizens share. That means that when, for example, they vote on the issue whether parents should receive tax-funded vouchers to subsidized their children at private school rather than using those tax dollars to fund public schools, they must disregard their personal profit and the benefit to associations like Church schools they care about, and vote their opinion on whether it advances the public good to do so at the expense of funding public schools. This exacts a heavy psychological toll on, for instance, middle-income Catholic families who would send their children to parochial schools even without a voucher but benefit personally from the voucher and profit their church if the voucher measure were to pass, yet who see that it would eviscerate the public education system that is a common good. The requirement that citizens subordinate their private and associational interests may seem overly demanding.

That worry partly explains John Rawls’s invention of a decision procedure for principles of justice that does not require the sort of moral discipline and self-control that would seem to be required for Rousseau’s conception of democracy to operate. In Rawls’s system, ignorance of certain sorts of information contributes to the selection of unbiased principles of justice which then constrain a constitution and subsequent lawmaking in ways that preclude citizens’ finding themselves forced to choose at the ballot box whether they will advance their private interests at the expense of important public interests. In Rawls’s system questions concerning citizens’ equal rights, liberties and opportunities are taken off the table, not subject to rescission, as are questions of whether to allow measures that would economically benefit richer citizens at the expense of poorer citizens.[4] Citizens therefore don’t need to exercise much willpower to refrain from pursuing their personal or associational interests in matters of basic justice and constitutional essentials. However, although citizens need not conduct all their deliberations with an eye to the public good, even Rawls’s revision of the Rousseauian conception requires some degree of civic virtue. Citizens must not seek to deprive others of their equal status, nor resist the redistributive taxation that operationalizes the Difference Principle; and further, they must be willing to offer public reasons appealing to commonly accessible facts and settled science in support of the political positions they advocate.


What must be true of voters for the proper exercise of democracy?

On the Rousseauian model of democracy we are considering, voters must have at least four crucial characteristics. They must acknowledge the equal status of all fellow citizens including those whom they disapprove; they must be committed to adhering to democratically decided procedures even when those procedures produce substantive outcomes they disapprove; they must be prepared to vote for laws and policies that privilege public, shared values over their private interests; and they must be both willing and sufficiently knowledgeable to deliberate about the matters put to a vote using publicly recognized facts and methods of reasoning.[5] These requirements are conceptually connected in various ways, and there is much room for philosophical disagreement about how precisely each is best understood and how exactly they are connected, but here we briefly characterize the core idea of each requirement.

Acknowledgment of others as enjoying equal status to ourselves provides the moral basis for democracy when it is conceptualized as more than a modus vivendi. Such acknowledgment involves refraining from efforts to dominate, marginalize, manipulate, or exclude them. Because it is assumed that we will often disagree with them on substance, we treat them as equals by committing to mutually abide by a fixed procedure that affords all equal input regardless of whether we expect our substantive view to prevail, or whether it prevails in fact. This commitment to procedural fairness operationalizes our recognition of equal status. And again, because we are expected to disagree in many of our personal and associational preferences, goals and values, treating others as equals on this morally thicker conception of democracy involves deciding questions that affect them in important ways on the basis of the public values they can be expected to share with us, rather than based on consideration of what most advances our idiosyncratic personal or associational interests.

Rousseau included among such shared values public safety, public health, economic prosperity, preservation of equality, an expansive sphere of personal liberty compatible with the same expanse for all, and the development of future citizens to carry on our society into the future. The willingness to privilege public interest over private interests requires a degree of moral virtue. Notably, Rousseau thought that such moral virtue could be secured by imposing on all a Civic Religion, that would inculcate from childhood the belief that there exists a God who punishes injustice, and that it is unjust to violate the Social Contract which requires the described privileging of public interests over private.[6] It is no wonder that critics should accuse Rousseau of an infantile morality that relies on the threat of divine punishment to make citizens behave in a civically virtuous fashion. Yet his emphasis on the need for moral virtue in the citizens of a democracy has an ancient pedigree. And many today still rely on religion to develop, guarantee or even serve as proxy for moral virtue. It may be useful then to understand the moral virtue required by democracy as comprised of three characteristics: overcoming self-partiality and pride to the degree requisite to treat fellow citizens as equals, recognizing or embracing the right sorts of ends, and having adequate motivation to privilege those ends over others of one’s ends when voting.

The factual knowledge desideratum is acknowledged by almost all advocates of democracy. If voters are to decide, they need to be informed about relevant facts and to be able to evaluate critically such information. They need to accept basic truths, to eschew magical thinking, and to have the capacity to reason critically in evaluating the plans of political aspirants to promote the common good. This is why democracy-advocates stress the importance of an educated electorate. Education is somewhat less important on the Machiavellian conception of democracy according to which individuals vote their private wills, because it seems that people don’t need education to know their own personal preferences. Even then, they might be better able to serve their private interests if they enjoy factual information and the ability to reason well. But on the second conception of democracy, which requires attention to the promotion of shared values or public goods, voter knowledge becomes very important. Unless voters have accurate knowledge of matters pertaining to the questions upon which they must make judgments, their good will and virtuous character will not suffice to advance the common good.

Thus the expansion of education, and establishment of an adequate system of public education, have figured prominently among the recommendations of democratic writers. John Stuart Mill published an extensive argument for the conclusion that a virtuous citizenry requires education, although he favored a less democratic system of “plural voting” under which each woman and man gets one vote, and better-educated people more than one vote, how many more depending on how much knowledgeable they were.[7] Mill did not insist on formal degrees: he proposed a system of standardized knowledge tests that anyone could take to establish her or his knowledge bona fides. These tests asked only for the sorts of recognized facts and established conclusions of science recognized by advocates of the public reason requirement, along with a demonstration of skills in comprehension and reasoning. It may be that the U.S. system’s Electoral College was intended to meet the knowledge desideratum of Rousseauian democracy as an alternative to Mill’s sort of unequal voting system.


Meeting the necessary conditions for morally justifiable democracy

Let us now consider to what degree Trump’s voters exhibited these four characteristics requisite for producing a democratic outcome on the Rousseauian conception of democracy we are taking to enjoy greatest moral justification. In making this assessment, we will in some cases decline to attribute a characteristic to voters based on their willingness to vote for a candidate who clearly failed to exhibit or expressly criticized that characteristic, our assumption being that if that characteristic were of sufficient importance to the voter, she would have withheld her vote from any candidate who failed to display it. In other cases, we will note statistics about the composition of Trump’s voters along one of the characteristic dimensions. Clearly neither of these ways of proceeding will reliably ascertain any individual voter’s characteristics, let alone suggest that Trump’s voters were a monolithic group with respect to the four characteristics. We are engaged not in scientific analysis, but rather a sketch of a way of thinking about whether Trump’s victory represents a failure of democracy. And because that is our central question, and the 54% of voters who voted against Trump did not determine the election’s outcome, it is not necessary to attempt to determine the extent to which they did or did not exhibit the four characteristics. It is enough to show a failure of democracy in Trump’s election to show that the voters who succeeded in electing him aggregately lacked the characteristics required for morally justificatory democracy; if anti-Trump voters similarly lacked those characteristics, any outcome would have represented a failure of democracy.

With respect to the knowledge desideratum, Trump won voters without college degrees—with high-school education or less– by roughly 10 percentage points; he won white men without college degrees by 50 percentage points, and lost educated voters with college and advanced degrees by 9%. Trump publicly declared “I love the poorly educated!”[8] With respect to willingness to deliberate on the basis of generally acknowledged facts, 88% of Trump voters expressed skepticism that mainstream media sources could be trusted as sources of facts,[9] and a mere 56% reported believing that global warming is real. Trump publicly declared that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese: He tweeted “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”.[10] Again pertinent to the willingness to deliberate in terms of factual information, Trump supporters did not penalize him for his insistence over several years that Barak Obama was not born in the United States, nor for the hundreds of false claims, fact-checked and reported by multiple credible news organizations to be false, he made during his campaign.[11] He expressed contempt for both information and expertise, insisting for instance, “I know more about ISIS than the generals”.[12] The greater willingness among many Trump voters to credit unverified information discrediting his opponent alleged by U.S. intelligence agencies to be leaked from sources hacked by the Russian government may also indicate less critical engagement with alleged facts than the robust conception of democracy deems optimal. And the proliferation of “fake news” on social media and sites disproportionately accessed by Trump supporters also bears on the assessment of the degree to which Trump supporters met the knowledge desideratum. Further, Trump refused to release his tax returns, depriving voters of information that could reveal conflicts of interest between his businesses and U.S. interests, yet his voters accepted his imposition of ignorance of those matters upon all citizens.[13]

Assessing how far Trump supporters met the requirement of acknowledgment of their fellow citizens as equals is not more difficult. Trump himself advocated restrictions on Muslim immigration and a test of whether “they love us” which, along with his proposal to further monitor mosques in the U.S. and to create a Muslim registry, has the practical effect of treating American Muslims as sub-equals. Trump approved of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. His plans to deport “dreamers” brought as infants to the U.S. who have since educated themselves and worked and paid taxes also runs afoul of the acknowledgement of equality. So if we assume that Trump-voters shared Trump’s views on these matters, or thought them not sufficiently important to change their vote, it is fair to conclude that they did not acknowledge equality to the degree requisite for morally defensible democracy. This conclusion is reinforced by consideration that only under public pressure did Trump grudgingly and glibly disavow his support from White supremacist organizations, and he approvingly retweeted materials containing racist imagery; further inegalitarian behaviors accepted by his voters.

Ascertaining the degree to which Trump-voters embraced public goods, and gave those goods priority in their vote over private interest is more difficult, but two considerations strongly suggest that in aggregate Trump voters did not do so. The first is that they approved a candidate who insisted that he would run the U.S. government the same way he ran his private business. Trump insisted that the purpose of a business is to make money for its owner, and responded to criticisms of the way he had managed his own businesses through multiple bankruptcies, defaults, restructurings, firings, employment of foreign workers and production in foreign countries, and an allegedly fraudulent educational scheme, by saying that not only had it made him personally rich, but in avoiding paying income taxes by offsetting business losses and so depriving the U.S. treasury of revenue, it “makes me smart”.[14] This is the clearest possible statement of the priority of private interest over public interest. Trump acknowledged that as a businessman he had always given money to both political parties in an attempt to buy access, and that he had exploited the existing system of business tax loopholes and special grants for which he personally had lobbied. There is no evidence that he lobbied for any change in rules allowing his behavior contrary to the public interest, nor that he supported candidates because they ran on a reform agenda. He laid the moral fault for his behavior at the door of his political opponent because she “let me do it” by not illegalizing that publicly vicious behavior. Nor did he seek to offset the negative effects of his self-enriching business behavior on public welfare by charitable giving. The contrast with someone like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet, a much superior businessman who both lobbies for reform and has donated most of his fortune (and who pays income taxes) could not be more stark.

Trump voters either shared his view that privileging his private interest over the public interest is morally acceptable, even laudatory, or they did not care so much about public interest that his vicious stance made a difference to them. As we noted earlier, Trump refused to release his tax returns during his run for office, and once elected cited that very fact as evidence that American voters do not care whether he pursues his personal enrichment by means of his office as President.[15] As “unscientific” as it is, this is probably the best evidence that Trump’s election represents a failure of democracy. Those who could support him thinking that he realizes the American Dream because he gained riches by successfully using the democratic system exclusively to pursue his private interest reveal an adherence to the Machiavellian conception of democracy, if to any democratic conception at all.

Next, consider the question whether Trump-voters were committed to democratic procedures, which, as earlier noted require willing deference even to outcomes one may disapprove. Trump announced in the third debate that he would not commit to conceding the election if he lost; he reiterated in a subsequent rally before supporters that he would concede only if he won. He insisted without evidence that the system was “rigged”, and so that the electoral result should not be trusted, and urged that people should “rise up” against the rigged system, because they should not defer to the voting procedure. He invited gun owners—“you second amendment people”– to take justice into their own hands if his preferred result was not achieved. (Once he won the electoral college vote Trump publicly claimed that he had also won the popular vote because, as he asserted, again without evidence, “millions” had illegally voted for his opponent; but in that alleged instance of election “rigging” he did not suggest that his supporters should not defer to the procedure.[16]) Clearly, Trump had no commitment to democratic decision procedures; it is fair to question the commitment to them of those who voted for Trump knowing this about him.

Finally, we address the complicated question whether Trump voters acted virtuously by voting their conscientious best judgment of what advances all citizens’ shared interests over their own personal self-interest. The answer depends on facts about what was their own judgment about what is in the public interest, and how they weighted it when voting. There can be and is genuine disagreement over what is in our shared interest. Some citizens view it as in the public interest to prohibit the murder of unborn children, while others think securing marriage equality is required by our public values. In answer to this vexed question I offer two anecdotal bits of evidence.

The first relevant piece of information is that most women repudiated Trump. He lost all women by more than 12 points, and lost single women—those not living under the roof of men who could exact consequences should those women vote their authentic preferences against their menfolk— by a margin of two to one. Two to one among independent women is a significant statistic because women’s substantive politics are different than men’s. Historically and by all empirical studies, women disproportionately favor promoting the public values of education and healthcare. Although women do care for national defense, they care more for securing public goods other than national defense than do men. Women, who care more about public values, repudiated Trump, while men, who care less about non-defense public values, supported him.

The second piece of evidence concerning the character of Trump voters directly engages the question of moral virtue. Motivation to act on public rather than on private values does sometimes tap religion. As we noted with Rousseau, religion is often used to threaten folk with punishment should they fail to comply with what they are to take as morally required. What did religion say about voting for a candidate so clearly irreligious and both publicly and personally amoral as Trump?[17] Jews and Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly rejected him.[18] Yet 81% of white evangelical voters defended their vote for him by saying that they were “not voting for a pastor or preacher” or even a basically decent moral person. Their commitment to Christian moral standards did not preclude their voting for a candidate whom they realized did not share their moral values of charity, fidelity, trustworthiness, community service, or their commitment to Christ. What then accounts for the fact that white evangelicals abandoned their religious principles to vote for him? Our investigation being neither psychological nor sociological we are not equipped to answer that question, but instead simply note that whatever the explanation, many white evangelical Trump voters did not care enough about public values to vote on the basis of their commitment to those values. This is striking because even on a much weaker conception of the requirements of civil virtue in democratic voters than Rawls’s or Rousseau’s, namely the conception defended by Ronald Dworkin in his discussion of the Devlin/Hart debate, they exhibited a failure of civic virtue. Dworkin imposes only the very weak requirement that citizens consistently apply their own moral and religious standards to their political decisions in exactly the same way they do in all other areas of their lives. That did not happen with this group of voters.[19]

It is important to consider two important themes that ran through the reasoning of Trump voters which might at first be thought to undermine the kind of argument I have presented, which implicates voters in the ignorance, failure of democratic commitments, or moral vice of the candidate for whom they voted. Many Trump voters said that what they wanted most was change; some said they just wanted to shake up or to blow up the system that had not served them well. They agreed that Trump says things he knows are false, displays ignorance, has shifty morals and doesn’t respect democratic procedures, but they would vote for him anyway because they wanted change. Call this position change at any cost (CAAC). CAAC is a fundamentally anti-democratic position on the Rousseauian conception. It is willing to sacrifice democratic values of equality, procedure and public reason for the sake of a chance at an arrangement that better satisfies personal and perhaps associational interests. CAAC is a Machiavellian position that fails to exhibit the requisite commitments of Rousseauian democracy. The attitude of change at any cost is willingness to upend the settled commitments of Rawlsian democracy in pursuit of what Hobbes called an attempt to “reshuffle the deck” in hope of being dealt a better hand. This position treats democracy with its commitments to equality and fair procedure as a mere modus vivendi to be abandoned once we’ve concluded that things aren’t going our way.

A related objection considers the justification from some Trump voters that they wanted a business “shark” to advance the interests of the United States internationally. They wanted the U.S. to regain its post-Soviet Union status as economic and political hegemon. They hoped Trump would run the U.S. government as a business aimed at maximizing the profit of the American people, whatever that takes. He would revoke disadvantageous trade deals, extort concessions favorable to the U.S. from other nations, make others pay their own way and build up our military so that all nations would comply with our demands out of fear. Call this position hegemony at any cost (HAAC). It was supposed that Trump’s relentless pursuit of his narrow self-interest in business could be translated into pursuit of the national interest in hegemony. Again, HAAC voters seem not to have considered that a man who lies may lie to them about his plans for the nation, and that a man who relentlessly pursues his narrow self-interest may continue to do so at the expense of the nation. But the larger point is that to vote HAAC is fundamentally anti-democratic. Such thinking—that national gain or glory is worth any price and so that the sacrifice of procedure, public values, and informed democratic participation is of no account—is arguably the thinking of the Weimar Republic that successfully voted the end of its own republic.

HAAC shares with CAAC the deficiency of willingness to sacrifice Rousseauian democracy. One does it in service of change, the other in service of hegemony. Each could be couched in the language of public good as they respectively understand it, but both will chance the loss of a morally defensible democracy for gains to their ideas for “making America great again”. Arguably, change and hegemony are more efficiently achieved if no commitments to citizen equality, toleration, fair procedure and public reasoning in terms of shared values stand as impediments. If the dominance of the attitudes CAAC and HAAC in an electorate is not an indication of a failure of Rousseauian democracy, nothing is. These attitudes of pursuing an end “at any cost” do not evade or mitigate the criticisms we have mounted; they reinforce them.



The conclusion of our inquiry can only be that Trump’s election does indeed represent a failure of democracy. But whose failure is it? The Republican Party may deserve some blame for having a selection system so incompetent that it could permit Trump to be nominated. But the more interesting question is how much of this failure of democracy should be laid at the feet of Trump voters, and how much on institutions of political and civil society. Poor educational systems that allowed so many voters to fall through the cracks, and private media that allowed the proliferation of fake news, bear some responsibility.

But even that general conclusion is too fast. We will not actually know whether Trump’s election exhibits a failure of democracy until we see whether the institutions of court and congress function to prevent him from carrying out his anti-democratic impulses. We see a failure in our electorate, but institutions may yet save democracy. For example, if the Court rules against Trump’s proposed religious test for immigrants, and his proposal for a religious registry, and does not overturn (as he has proposed) the constitutional protection for flag-burning, or implement his proposal to punish women for having legal abortions, and resists his attempted removal of due process protections for immigrants, and resists the privatization of education as a violation of equal protection, then the damage Trump could do to democracy would be limited to some degree.

If Congress overrides vetoes of public goods legislation, refuses to approve vicious cabinet nominations, and investigates and prosecutes his conflicts of interest, the damage Trump could do to democracy would be limited. If governmental agencies such as the Justice department and the EPA pursue their missions even against executive directives not to enforce the laws, the damage Trump can do is limited. And the same is true of the various institutions of civil society: Universities, churches and citizens’ groups may all exert force on public opinion that, even if it cannot restrain Trump’s bad actions, may limit their duration by influencing voters to make a different choice, and by motivating more voters to cast ballots in the next cycle. Thus how great a failure of democracy there will be as a consequence of this failure of democratic voters will depend on the extent to which democratic institutions mitigate that failure. However, and crucially, the individuals who operate those institutions are subject to the same weaknesses as democratic voters generally—liability to ignorance, intolerance and self-partiality– so it would be a mistake to count on our institutions to entirely remedy voter failure.

Our analysis suggests that reviving the American system of democracy will require making citizens better informed, more desirous to know, and more discerning; citizens will need to value fair procedure more as a matter of principle, and to come to see their fellow citizens as true equals; they must be brought to value public goods and to be willing to cast their votes according to those values. To improve the American electorate is clearly a bootstrapping operation, because we would have to now motivate ourselves to inculcate in ourselves an inclination to pursue values we do not presently hold.

As futile as such bootstrapping operations promise to be, there is a glimmer of hope in the recognition that on occasion the sense of crisis can be so vivid that people will lift themselves out of their accustomed ways of thinking, and even reassess their values. Hobbes thought that only in the wake of a devastating civil war will men deign to reconsider their former modus operandi, and then only because they see what their prior sort of thinking has cost them.[20] Rawls argued that only in the wake of the devastation of the Christian wars of religion did former combatants begin to consider adopting a principled toleration of others.[21] The U.S. has not suffered a civil war with this election, but the moment may still prove ripe for a radical reconsideration of our commitment to Rousseauian democratic values. The one proven method for advancing civilizations is to empower women. Educated women with sufficient financial independence that they can vote their authentic judgment do tend to uphold democratic Rousseauian democratic values. If we aspire to that sort of democracy, redoubling our efforts on behalf of women’s empowerment is one place to begin.

Footnotes & References 

[1] CNN recognized its complacency in the early stages of the election in providing free airtime to Trump (see:

[2] Although in theory a majority of citizens would see their personal interests (as they understand them) realized on this model, in reality advantages of wealth and influence enable minorities to secure electoral outcomes favorable to themselves.

[3] Hobbes held that the political obligations of citizens under all systems of government depend on this same natural duty. For an account of the moral basis of political obligation in Hobbes’s system, see S.A. Lloyd, Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge 2009) chapter 5.

[4] For a presentation of the essential ideas of Rawls’s system that is more accessible than his major works A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, see John Rawls Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001).

[5] There is an enormous philosophical literature discussing this last “public reason” requirement, which originated with Rawls; Paul Weithman and also Gerald Gaus develop exceptionally fine alternatives to Rawls’s conception of the requirement.

[6] Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book IV, chapter VIII.

[7] Mill, Considerations on Representative Government

[8] February 23, 2016

[9] Rasmussen Report, September 30, 2016

[10] Twitter 6 November 2012

[11] See for example the Toronto Star report of November 4, 2016 entitled “Donald Trump said 560 false things, total”, or for an analysis that takes Trump’s falsehoods to be not just mistakes or lies but rather totalitarian propaganda, see Jason Stanley, New York Times, November 4, 2016.

[12] Rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, November 12, 1915. His indifference to information continued when as President-elect he refused daily national security briefings, delegating the chore of listening to that information to the Vice-president.

[13] Specific knowledge deficits in voters may also have played a role. For example, many white working-class Trump voters said they believed that the U.S. economy had lost jobs during Obama’s tenure and that Trump’s promise to impose protective tariffs would improve their economic position. In fact, there are in December 2016 nearly nine million more jobs in the U.S. than there were at the previous peak in November 2007, and most experts expect substantial protective tariffs would increase the cost of consumer goods, harming lower and middle income people (as well as increase production costs of American goods relying on foreign components, diminishing their competitiveness and perhaps necessitating layoffs of American workers). Because these added jobs are concentrated in metropolitan areas, and whites outside those areas have largely declined to follow the jobs, rural and small-town residents may have mistakenly believed that unemployment had risen (it was at a healthy 4.6% in November 2016, the month of Trump’s election) and national jobs had been lost. Certainly in many of their local communities, jobs had been lost and local unemployment risen. (See Eduardo Porter, The New York Times December 14, 2016 for an elaborate analysis.) Yet to vote based on extrapolation from one’s personal experience without recourse to factual information risks both substituting private interests for public values when voting, and pursuing private interest in ways that prove counterproductive.

[14] First presidential debate, September 26, 2016

[15] His subsequent cabinet nomination of, for example, the CEO of Exxon-Mobil—who held at least $200 million worth of stock in a company that has extensive business interests in foreign states– for the position of Secretary of State suggests that Trump sees no problem with private interests informing decisions affecting the national interest. Nor did Trump make arrangements to ensure that his Presidential decisions would be made without awareness of their impact on his own businesses, which he put under the temporary control of his sons.

[16] Nor was Trump interested in pursuing U.S. intelligence agencies’ determination during the campaign that Russian hacking and leaking was intended to influence voters to reject Clinton and throw the election to Trump. One might suppose that foreign efforts to manipulate democratic deliberation should be of concern to anyone committed to democratic procedures, yet even after the election, Trump criticized a bi-partisan Congressional call for an inquiry into Russia’s role in the election. U.S. intelligence now suggests that Russian hacking also uncovered information on Trump that could be used to influence his decision-making as President. Trump voters might reasonably have been expected to care about Russian attempts to influence the election for that reason as well.

In addition, Trump repeatedly called for the jailing of his political opponent Clinton despite the fact that she had been neither charged with nor convicted of any crime, alleged that here election would be void because “she should never have been allowed to run for office”, and vowed, should he win, to use the Justice Department to make stick some charge against her so as to “lock her up”. Such attempts to criminalize the political opposition seek to undermine the equal status of fellow citizens through intimidation, while undermining confidence in democratic procedures.

[17] We have already mentioned some of Trump’s public vices. Indications of his personal amorality include documented and confessed marital infidelity, personal statement of his practice of “just kiss” women without asking and “grab ‘em by the pussy”, and allegations by 11 women that Trump sexually assaulted them. These personal vices may also indicate an attitude that women are sub-equal citizens. When asked by Howard Stern in a 1993 interview whether he treats women with respect, Trump laughingly shrugged “Uh, I can’t say that either”.

[18] 24% of Jews and 26% of Hispanic Catholics voted for Trump.

[19] Some rationalized their vote for Trump saying they had “forgiven” him for his actions contrary to their values. But considering that Trump rejected any suggestion that he had done anything for which he needed forgiveness (e.g. “I didn’t even apologize to my wife”) and so had not shown the sort of contrition or repentance ordinarily demanded , and considering the unwillingness of those same evangelical voters equally to “forgive” Clinton and citizens’ whose lifestyles they disapproved, it cannot be said that they applied their moral standard of forgiveness consistently enough to meet even Dworkin’s weak requirement for civic virtue. I thank Donald Wilson for reminding me of Dworkin’s view, and for challenging me to address the arguments I pursue in the following three paragraphs.

[20] See for example Leviathan chapter xviii.16.

[21] Rawls, Political Liberalism pp. xxvii.

S.A. Lloyd
S.A. Lloyd
S.A. Lloyd is Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Political Science at the University of Southern California. A political philosopher specializing in the history of modern political philosophy and in contemporary liberal feminist political philosophy, Lloyd is author of Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan, and is editor of Hobbes Today, and The Bloomsbury Companion to Hobbes. Lloyd co-founded USC’s Center for Law and Philosophy and served on the editorial boards of Philosophy & Public Affairs and The Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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