As anyone who’s ever had to serve on a board or committee knows, democracy means the idiots win – often. It means that, outmaneuvered and outvoted, you and your most cherished beliefs go down in bloody defeat. Which sucks, as the children say. Sometimes, real damage is done. It’s hard to believe people could be so stubborn, selfish, cruel, deluded or just plain stupid as to disagree with you.
Simply put, the problem with democracy is other people.
Here’s an example that I like because, while utterly true, it stacks the deck in my favor.
Every Thursday lately, while my wife takes a night class at a local college, I’ve been talking to a security guard named Peter. Peter’s a nice guy: white, 75, in poor health, retired from the Navy. We talk without saying much, which American men are good at. We talk sports. We gripe about the weather and work. He’s been trying to talk me into smoking a pipe ever since I told him I liked the smell of his tobacco.
Peter believes there are a lot of things wrong with America - “It’s so crazy I don’t even know what” – something I agree with. Peter’s also excited about Donald Trump. Why? Because Trump “knows how to fire people.” What Washington needs, he says, “is somebody who’s not going to take any nonsense.”
“Take all those people in the Arab countries – the people making all the trouble.”
“You mean like ISIS?” I said.
“Cutting people’s heads off and all that – it’s crazy.”
“It’s pretty bad,” I agreed.
“You know what would fix that, don’t you?”
“Drop the A-bomb on ‘em.”
“Absolutely. Listen to me - it’s about respect. Next time they’d think twice before messing with us.”
I had to think about that a while.
“So which countries would you drop the A-bomb on?” I asked.
“All of ‘em out there,” he said. “I’m tellin’ you - no more foolin’ around.”
Peter has the power of the vote, which is both depressing and terrifying. But given the power, would I deprive him of it? No. Though the temptation would be great (and there are moments - like right after talking to Peter - when I feel that we should have to earn the privilege of voting by proving we can find Europe on a map), I know enough history to know that while education is always preferable to the lack of it, it’s no guarantee of morality or even intelligence. Outrages have been perpetrated by the educated and ignorant alike. Peter, despite his particular take on the Middle East, may hold other views that align with mine or yours. And the dream of being able to exclude dangerously misguided people like Peter from the conversation means that someone out there would exclude you for the same reason. Or, worse, me.
None of which is to say that Peter’s not a fool (I don’t care how good his tobacco smells), just that I’m stuck with him. As he is with me. One way or another, we have to deal with each other.
This is the real art of the deal. This is the maddening, compromising genius of democracy, and it’s the thing that people like Donald Trump (and the Peters who support him) don’t get. America – all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding – is not yet a corporation, and the President is not the C.E.O. He can’t just fire the people he disagrees with, however much he might want to. He has to deal, for example, with a hopelessly gridlocked, self-serving, generally incompetent body called The Congress of the United States of America. If he tried to fire them, they’ll fire him. It’s called impeachment.
Let’s be generous and assume that the 39% of Republicans currently dreaming of a russet-haired strongman who will sweep into Washington and clean house (“You’re fired!”) are indulging in a Hollywood fantasy of some kind. That in their minds it’s a little bit like that scene in the movie, Dave, in which the accidental President, played by Kevin Kline, invites his accountant friend, Charles Grodin, to help him balance the federal budget over sandwiches. “I gotta tell you, Dave,” he says, “this stuff just doesn’t add up.” In a couple of hours, working with a calculator, he’s got it worked out.
Donald Trump is a movie – a bad one – born of frustration. In their hearts, his supporters must know this. Right?
I guess it makes sense that America’s business-infatuated culture would dream of a businessman in shining armor riding in to save the day, but I wonder how many people have considered how profoundly un-American that dream actually is. Because a corporation – like the Catholic Church, as Pope Paul once helpfully pointed out – is not a democracy. Because a corporation is a top-down, essentially totalitarian structure, the precise opposite of what a democracy - in theory, anyway - aspires to be. Because the C.E.O. is an autocrat who can fire more-or-less at will while the President, in principle – and it’s a principle worth fighting for – cannot.
We’ve come a long way toward compromising that distinction; it’s been a while since the White House was called “The People’s House.” Still, before hiring a ‘boss’ to fire those we disagree with, we might consider that the day may come when ‘they’ are you and me, and, instead, choose to deal with the idiots who are us. Embrace the mess.
And in that spirit, I’m off to watch the Republican Debate.
Next time, Hillary and Bernie, the heart and the head of the Democratic Party.