Clinton and Trump – indictment of democracy

08 November 2016
Nicholas Ross Smith
Dr Nicholas Ross Smith

The current Clinton vs Trump contest for the White House stands as a clear indictment of democracy in practice, as two of the most historically unpopular candidates vie to become the 45th United States’ president.

This lead-up to the 2016 presidential election also demonstrates a deeper problem with America’s political system, one which is also present across most of the Western world: the inherent deficiency of representative democracy.

Classical Athenians, aware of the oligarchic tendencies of elections, used a lottery system called sortition to randomly select citizens from the Ekklesia (an assembly open to all citizens) to the Boule – a council which prepared the agenda to be discussed by the Ekklesia - and to the Heliaea – a court which judged infringements of the law.

Elections were used only to select magistrates who presided over military, economic and societal affairs. These elections were strongly scrutinised by the Boule and Heliaea.

Athenian democracy as a model for reinvigorating modern representative democracy is not without its issues, particularly because it was only certain men (many of whom also owned slaves) that could be citizens in Athens.

Nevertheless, the Athenian democratic system was far more deliberative and direct than our modern representative systems, as citizens were given a primary role in the decision-making process.    

Any democratic system which has elections as the centrepiece of its popular participation suffers from inherent flaws. The lead-up to the United States’ presidential election demonstrates these flaws, with four clear criticisms emerging.

First, elections are problematic because they tend to reward candidates with power, status, money and connections.  In the current climate, given that the 2016 election could see more than $5 billion ($US) spent on campaigns, the idea that an average citizen could become the president of the United States is a fable.

Elections are often subject to corruption, as candidates can be prepositioned or influenced by interest groups. The American system is so infiltrated by interest groups that many of the largest organisations back both Democrat and Republican candidates.    

Furthermore, as elections tend to lead to the formation of political parties, which over time then leads to partisanship, there is a reduction in the opportunity for political compromise. The partisan divide in the United States is well documented and divisions are now emerging within the parties themselves, as large anti-Trump and anti-Clinton factions can be found in the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, further adding to an already divisive environment.

Finally, elections incentivise candidates to engage in populism for the purpose of vote-buying. Populism has been rife in the lead-up to the current US presidential election, with Trump, for example, flagrant in his use of anti-immigration rhetoric.

The bombardment of campaign slogans, character assassinations of rivals, and out-and-out propaganda that goes hand-in-hand with elections further adds to the populist rhetoric in the competition for votes, and reduces the opportunity for constructive debate on actual issues.

Sortition would remove pervasive demographic imbalances, especially gender and ethnic, while being less susceptible to lobbying by interest groups.

It would also replace loyalty to one’s party with loyalty to one’s conscience, while minimising the opportunity for populism to take centre stage – making democracy about the demos again.

Dr Nicholas Ross Smith is a visiting scholar in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.