For the first time in American history, capitalism defeated democracy in our choice of a president. I don’t mean that president-elect Donald Trump wasn’t elected by a democratic process (although our electoral college scheme is oddly undemocratic), but that he is not for democracy. His personal worldview and lifestyle do not demonstrate the principles of individual liberty, inclusive community, and human rights. He doesn’t believe in dialogue and compromise. He doesn’t listen carefully or reason well. He lacks compassion for the working poor, the refugee, the differently oriented and otherwise aligned. Trump is a capitalist. We might even say that he’s a celebrity capitalist.
In The Great American Divide I tried to tease apart the two traditions of democracy and capitalism in US history. Our national experiment in democracy has been strained and challenged from the beginning. I’m not treating democracy as merely one form of government among others, but as also a social vision, a deep set of political aspirations that connect – at least in our imaginations if not yet in fact – toward “a more perfect union,” where the individual is understood through the lens of community, as sharing responsibility for the common good. Democracy is fundamentally about ‘the people’, their freedoms individually as well as their obligations to one another.
To throw capitalism into a contest with democracy sounds at first as if I’m committing a serious category error. Democracy is about politics and government, whereas capitalism is about economic opportunity and commerce. You can’t compare apples and oranges, as we say. But actually both democracy and capitalism are what I called seedbed traditions, each holding a set of values and investments for a preferred reality that it hopes to actualize. It doesn’t matter that one is about political process and the other is about economic pursuits.
Whereas democracy looks at the individual through the lens of community, capitalism sees community – or strictly speaking, the collective – through the lens of the individual, of what I desire and deserve, what’s in it for me. This is not to say that democracy disregards the individual, only that it understands the individual as belonging to a social organism, the body politic. It’s really about us – all of us, together. Depending on where you begin, with the individual or with the community, your lens on reality is very different. Your understanding of yourself, of your neighbor, of the larger world around you, and of ‘the good life’ will move you toward one pole or the other.
Frankly, even our founding fathers probably valued capitalism over democracy. Many of them wanted as little government as possible, so as not to interfere with every individual’s ‘pursuit of happiness’, which in their minds was contingent upon our rights to privacy, property, and financial profit. Stay out of my space, keep your hands off my stuff, and get out of my way: this isn’t really about us, all of us, together. But it has been ‘the American way’ from the beginning. It’s how the other nations see us.
Screw ’em. Why should we care what they think?
Peel back the political veneer of Western culture and you’ll see it more clearly as a juggernaut of capitalist ambitions. As our science opens up new frontiers of knowledge, advances in technology enable us to accelerate our pursuit of more – drilling deeper, pushing farther, growing faster (and getting fatter), casting our junk onto the pile so we can have the latest and best. We need to stay ahead of the competition. A rampant capitalism looks only to the prize of its envisioned success, unconcerned for the most part over the collateral damage, systemic side-effects, and long-term consequences of the pursuit.
Happiness is out there and ahead of us, right?
Whether you were for Hillary Clinton or not, the election of Donald Trump was decidedly not a vote for democracy. We can probably all agree that government has gotten too large in some areas, that it’s been sticking its nose in places it doesn’t belong. The framers of the Constitution were wise and well-intended to limit its interference on our life and liberty. In some ways, too, our government has become a big part of the problem. Maybe this represents a course correction for the American Experiment. Both Republicans and Democrats – as parties historically committed to government by the people and for the people – have agreed to democracy’s rights and responsibilities, to its privileges and obligations, to its vision of a people united.
Unfortunately the Republican party didn’t have a candidate survive to the end who could represent them, so they settled for Donald Trump. For the next four years and beyond, our nation will be a capitalist enterprise before it is a beacon of democracy. We will spend and tax, exclude and evict, bullying our way through the global china shop.
Trump has been declared, and now we have to play the hand we were dealt.