Democracy is an unnatural means of social organization. I mean that quite literally.
Other social animals, especially primates, organize by forming dominance hierarchies with one dominant ruler atop a pyramidal power structure. Throughout most of history, humans formed the same type of social structures, with kings or dictators at the top and slaves or peasants at the bottom. I remind you of this because democracy is very fragile and difficult to maintain.
Our founding fathers seem to recognize this evolutionary imperative when they formed an elaborate structure of checks and balances designed to maintain a democracy far into the future. Over the decades, we’ve added amendments to our Constitution and laws that extend and strengthen democracy. For instance, we extended voting rights to former slaves and, much later, women, eliminated poll taxes and passed many pieces of civil rights legislation. But we’ve also struggled to overcome many threats to democracy, starting with a Civil War. In my lifetime, we have beaten back threats from McCarthyism, the socially divisive Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency.
In more recent decades we have witnessed an insidious and mounting crisis in which democracy appears more threatened than ever in my lifetime. We seem to have reached an inflection point with Trump. In Trump, we have elected an autocrat who does not value an inclusive democracy or constitutional constraints. We have seen this before in other countries. We should recall that Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and then precipitated a reign of terror the like of which the modern world had never seen before. In the current world, people have elected tyrants such as Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey, who are destroying democracy in the countries they rule.
Trump is following this “natural” path. Will we survive? We don’t know, but it will be difficult to stop him. Unless we the people rise to defend the principles of democracy with a free press, fair elections and a spirit of cooperation among competing interests, he will succeed right now. Trump, with the support of a right-wing Republican Party, seems to be winning and destroying the institutions necessary for a democracy.
There are some hopeful signs. Trump may be just the example we need to show us that we must protect democracy against our own selfish interests. The upcoming elections will be the first test of whether democracy can survive in our country. Trump is uniquely unpopular with the majority of us. If we can come together to support candidates who truly value democracy, we may yet stave off nature and maintain the political structure we all profess to love – at least for another day.
by Robert Gallon
Robert Gallon is a clinical psychologist and author of Nine Dimensions of Madness: Rethinking Mental Health. He has taught courses at Acadia Senior College and at College of the Atlantic.