Thursday 14 January 2021

How Is It No One's Job To Defend Democracy?

Why did it take until now for a critical mass of key players to take a stand against Trump's assault on democracy? Why wasn't it already enough when he pointedly declined to promise to accept the results of the election if he lost, during the 2016 presidential debates?

Liberal democracy is like capitalism, a game designed to make its players compete against each other for points and prizes. Competition is the driving force behind the real benefits such systems achieve, but the logic of competition also imprisons its players to stay within their roles. It is no one's job to defend the system of rules governing that competition. As a result, democracies are surprisingly vulnerable to take over, as we have seen from the recent examples of Turkey, Hungary, and (ongoing) India.

One of the striking features of democratic collapse is the passivity or even complicity of powerful players who would seem to have good reason to value democracy and to be well placed to defend it. There may even be an inverse relationship between the apparent power of players and their capability to defend democracy. A similar situation pertains in other fields governed by antagonistic competition - consider for example the inability of the Davos crowd who run the world's biggest businesses to do anything much about climate change and the rising inequality that endanger the very capitalist order they love and depend on.

I. The Case of America

America's recent near miss with democratic collapse offers a case study of this weakness of democracy. How did these apparently powerful players respond to Trump's assault on democracy?

  • Mass media companies
  • Social media companies
  • Politicians
  • High level civil servants

The mass media news companies are a vital part of democracy: the fourth estate. They acknowledge this when they want special legal privileges and access. But when it comes to doing anything at all for democracy that might cost them money or market share, they demur. For example, Trump has an amazing ability to draw attention (the Economist memorably characterised him as a vaudevillean impressario), but this only translated into political competitive success because mainstream mass media plays along. As soon as he entered the presidential race, he was all over the news - radio, tv, newspapers - almost continuously, at the expense of coverage of other more serious, more democratic candidates. This coverage also became an excuse to drop journalistic standards by 'reporting the controversy': whenever Trump tweeted a crazy unsourced but sensational claim it became newsworthy because he had said it. This had the effect of amplifying and legitimising the rants of the anti-democratic fringe that would otherwise never have got beyond Trump's twitter feed (and also advertising Trump's twitter feed). But it got the ratings and that's what counts.

Liberal, establishment media giants like CNN and the New York Times did this as much as Fox News. Together they granted Trump hundreds of billions of dollars worth of free media attention, not because they approved of him but because they knew their consumers would click on anything with his name on it (gleefully or hatefully doesn't matter). Trump's presidency has been great for the finances of the mainstream mass media. But he would not have been able to storm the Republican party or keep the attention of Republican voters without them. 

Social media companies have also become a vital part of democracy, but have taken even less responsibility for their role than the mass media. Their business model is to have their cake and eat it too. The consumers supply the content which the platform then filters for excitement value and serves back to us; all in order to keep us on the site while our attention is being hacked off and sold to advertisers. The entire process is automated as far as possible - self-learning algorithms maximise engagement by showing us the stories most likely to engage our attention (enthusiasm or outrage doesn't matter to advertisers: only clicks). Of course, those stories are the ones most likely to have been written without the constraints of factual truth. The polarisation of political society and the propagation of conspiracies and cynicism is collateral damage, an unfortunate side-effect of these companies' core interest in building and maintaining their automated profit dispenser. It isn't personal (as Russia's assault on the 2016 election apparently was for Putin). Just business. 

Even when the toxic consequences of their business models became inescapably obvious in the wake of the populist revolutions of 2016, social media companies remained reluctant to make anything beyond cosmetic changes. It's not that producing toxic politics itself is especially directly profitable (as it is for the mass media companies). It is that preventing it would have required reintroducing expensive human attention to moderate the algorithms. It might even put their whole money making machine at risk by putting them into the crosshairs of the vicious politics they had helped create (hence, presumably, the fall in Twitter's share price when it finally banned Trump).

And so we come to the politicians. Their interest too is in winning democracy, not defending it. Hence their tunnel vision and short-termism. Hence the willingness of Republicans to go along with Trump's assaults on the US constitution, democracy, and the rule of law so long as he seemed to be a vote-winner (80% approval from Republican voters right up until the end). And, even after his electoral failure, to continue their allegiance for fear of his influence over primary voters. 

Nor is this limited to Republican politicians, though Republicans seem special in their declining ability to think as a political party anymore (with its own long term interest in electability that somewhat mitigates individual short-termism). The Democrats also play to win - and they still are. One can see the brilliant strategic logic behind Pelosi's moves after the Capitol siege: heroise the Capitol police to take the law and order high ground; impeach to keep control of the narrative and force Republicans to make a hard public choice that divides them. Is impeachment at this moment the best move for American democracy? I'm not sure. But, even if it was, that would not be Pelosi's first motive. 

What about all those senior civil servants who are key to converting the orders of tyrants into actions. Actions such as by creating a de facto new federal interior paramilitary police force to terrorise opposition protestors by combining the thuggiest pieces of multiple federal agencies, but without the oversight or legal accountability of formally creating a federal police. 

Like the politicians those civil servants also swore a solemn oath to protect the constitution, but what does that ever turn out to be worth? The most they ever seem to do about that obligation is to resign, and that happens rarely and achieves nothing. Political appointees in particular (and this is true of every administration, not just Trump's) seem to relish their closeness to power but also to become dependent on it, compromised by it. They are comically easy to suborn. 

What the hell did the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff think he was
joining Trump's infamous church photo op in military fatigues

All these players would agree on the importance of democracy. Almost none were prepared to act to defend democracy at any cost to themselves until it was almost too late. It's not my job to defend democracy they said, or It's not my business, or It would be more than my job is worth, or, If I wait just a little longer someone else will do it

II. Analysis
There seem to be several distinct but overlapping reasons why powerful players in particular respond so passively to threats against democracy.

1. A lack of vision
Those who are very successful at the play of a game, like democracy, will have particular specialised instincts, skills and perspectives. These make them competitive within the game, but may hinder their ability to see the bigger 'global' picture, or unable to see what they should do about it.

2. A conflict with local morality
Powerful people are not free to do whatever they please merely because their decisions can have more impact. They are constrained by moral obligations. Shifting up to a 'global' morality perspective of defending democracy would conflict with ('betray') their local morality of allegiances and promises as a member of a team and as an agent (trustee) for others. Politicians and CEOs, in particular, have been (wrongly) encouraged to see themselves merely as agents for their voters/shareholders and to always put their interests first. In this case decision makers may well agree that there is a threat to democracy, but at the same time deny that they have the right to do anything about it, especially if it might risk profits (CEOs) or involve collaborating with the enemy (politicians).

3. Not powerful enough
Although these players are powerful, they are not powerful enough to effect the defence of the whole system of democracy by themselves. They would have to act in concert with some of their competitors, which means success depends on trusting your enemies. This is a lot to ask from actors who got where they were by ruthless competition. In other words, defending democracy is a collective action problem.

4. A reluctance to jeopardise their own success
Whether or not powerful players are sincerely motivated by local morality, it can be used to legitimise self-serving behaviour. Powerful people did not get where they are by sacrificing their own interests for the greater good. If making more than a cursory commitment to defending the system of democracy would jeopardise their own chances of success within that system they will demur. Hence, even if they agree that something should be done or the whole game will be over - together with all their achievements and hopes for future advancement - they will still hold out for others to do the running. Of course, if the same logic is widely followed, no one will make any move and democracy will fall.

Fortunately, in the case of America enough of the players managed to act before it was too late. The capitol attack triggered strong initial responses which cascaded through the system as other players responded supportively (rather than competitively) and the costs of joining the coalition to defend democracy shrank with each new member. 

The trouble is that activating an effective response to an assault on democracy requires overcoming all four barriers of denial and evasion of responsibility. Would-be tyrants are often able to complete their take-over before that can happen. When almost the entire Republican foreign policy establishment signed a Never Trump letter they hoped to trigger the kind of cascade response that the Capitol attack eventually did, but they were 'too early' and instead found themselves isolated and shunned, a lesson to others. The Democrats' first effort at impeachment was joined only by Mitt Romney and so failed to cross the competitive barrier. 

Democracies will never be secure unless they can mobilise much faster against assaults on their integrity. Somehow this has to be institutionalised, and in a manner more effective than constitutional provisions, norms of behaviour, and personal oaths of office - which give a false sense of reassurance.

America was lucky in the incompetence of its would-be tyrant. But it is important to remember that Trump was also lucky in the polarised political circumstances that brought him to power in the first place. These guaranteed that everything he did would be viewed through the lens of political competition, and guaranteed him that Republicans (and their media) would bend over backwards to see his behaviour positively, while agreeing with him that all criticism of his assaults on democracy was just partisan propaganda by Democrats. A polarised democracy is ripe for takeover because so many of its key players are no longer able to maintain a distinction between what they disagree with their opponents about (who should win within the game) and what they need to agree about if they are to continue to play (the value of game itself). 

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Leiden University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.