There are a lot of sayings that amount to a kind of folk pragmatism: “Might makes right.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “The ends justify the means.” “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” These are all ways of saying if you’re getting the outcome you want, then don’t worry about how that outcome came about.
A good political figure will never get you all the results you want. But you should still worry about how that figure (or party) is arriving at those results.
Here’s why: Democracy is about the long term, it’s not merely a set of outcomes; it’s a process, a way of reasoning together. If you violate those ways of reasoning together, then you undermine democracy. And it doesn’t matter which party does that.
The most damaging of the folk sayings about process is: “The proof is in the pudding.” People don’t just decide not to worry about the process because the effect was good, they take the good outcome as proof that the process was also good. But with political figures, getting his (or her) way doesn’t necessarily indicate a positive process.
In the antebellum era, pro-slavery advocates found that by threatening secession they often got the outcome they wanted. It was a bad process that happened to work for a while, but when it stopped working it earned them a conclusion that was more damaging, more costly and involved more sacrifice than any of the abolition plans could possibly have forecast.
Franklin D. Roosevelt undermined democracy when he tried to pack the Supreme Court. Had he succeeded, he would have set a terrible precedent (that presidents could secure whatever judicial decisions they wanted, simply by appointing more friendly justices). That process would almost certainly have been used to turn the United States into a one-party state.
If you’re only opposed to a one-party state when it’s not your party, then you don’t really want a democracy, and the Founding Fathers would like a word with you.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have a book out called How Democracies Die, and they illustrate another blindness in folk pragmatism: authoritarianism. Autocratic leaders make the population happy by creating an economic boom (even if it’s through unsustainable methods) and then use their resulting public popularity to factionalize the judiciary, silence opponents, and create a one-party state.
I’m fascinated by con artists, partially because the con is so much about rhetoric, but mostly because the processes by which people fall for cons are often similar to those by which communities are victimized by deceitful public decision-making. People always persuade themselves, and the con (who doesn’t necessarily always think it’s a con) helps them do that.
One of the ways that a lot of con artists work is that they wine and dine the mark, generally making life seem a lot better. So the mark concludes that this guy is legit rich and “I can trust him.” As it turns out, the con is able to do that because he’s gotten access to the mark’s credit cards or bank accounts. And after he’s taken a lot for himself, the con slips out the back door before the bills come due.
One misconception about Hitler’s rise to power was that his popularity soared after he was made Führer (absolute dictator) in 1934, and the main reason was that he improved the economy—by running up the credit card debt.
I’m not suggesting that anyone who supported FDR’s court-packing or anyone who now supports Trump because the economy is better was or is a Nazi.
But I am saying that deciding a political figure is good because your economic situation is better (or you’re getting a short-term political gain you like) is a really bad way to reason—regardless of your political party. When it comes to politics, the outcomes fade; the means remain.
There are periods of economic prosperity that have nothing to do with anything other than the greater fool theory. Any unethical buffoon can obtain good conditions in the short term, so saying that you support a political leader because you like your current economic situation and don’t care how it came about just means “I happen to know a Nigerian prince who has an offer for you.”
If you are willing to throw principles of democracy under the bridge because it benefits your faction in the short-term or elects a president who is lining your pockets now, it doesn’t make you a pragmatist, it just makes you a mark. If you aren’t willing to hold your political faction to the same standards to which you hold your opposition, then you’re allowing democracy to die a slow death.
Seriously, there was this car accident, and someone who might be related to you…
Patricia Roberts-Miller’s most recent book is Demagoguery and Democracy (The Experiment, 2017).