Getting it wrong on the future of US democracy ?

As I indicated in my previous post about self-driving vehicles, I’m trying to think more about where I’ve gone wrong in my analysis of current issues and trends, hoping to improve. I got some useful comments on that issue, though nothing directly applicable to my bigger predictive failures

The most important such failure has concerned the future of democracy, where my views were characterized by clearly unjustifiable optimism (see here and here). I’ve now shifted to extreme pessimism, but I would love to be convinced I’ve overcorrected, as I have done in the past.

Starting with the optimism, it was a mixture of wishful thinking and excessive faith in rationality. Democracy seemed to be advancing nearly everywhere, and this could be explained by the fact that democratic governments generally did a better job than military juntas, one-party states and charismatic dictators or demagogues.

Looking to the future, I’d still have some optimism if it weren’t for the situation in the US. Far-right parties have mostly stayed marginal in Europe, and those that have managed to gain power in Hungary and Poland are looking shaky. Putin and Xi look secure in power, but both have made big mistakes. Elsewhere, the demagogues and would-be dictators (Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Modi) have generally shown themselves to be incompetents.

But all of this relatively good news is cancelled out by what’s happening in the US. As President, Trump handled the pandemic worse than any leader except perhaps Bolsonaro, but still came close to re-election. And he has paid no political price for attempting to overturn the result.

The Republican Party is now openly committed to overturning US democracy, and retains the support of close to half of voters. With a rickety and politicised electoral system and a partisan Supreme Court that’s sufficient to ensure control of the outcomes.

As far as I can see, Trump is virtually certain to be the next President, (whether by winning under the current Electoral College rules or by overturning the results in key states) and, once he is in, certain to establish some kind of dynastic rule. Even if Trump is somehow removed from the picture, the Republican party he has created has already committed itself to seizing and holding power by whatever means necessary. That includes violent insurrection, as we have seen, but it seems unlikely that anything so drastic will be necessary.

Republican state governments can entrench themselves forever, and guarantee that their electoral votes and the overwhelming majority of their congressional delegations will be Republican, whatever the voters (and disenfranchised non-voters) might think about it. That’s more than enough to entrench national Republican rule for the indefinite future.

In view of my past errors, I recognise that I sometimes over-correct and then argue too strongly for my new position. I’d love to be wrong in the analysis above, so if anyone can point out where I’ve gone wrong, I’d be most grateful.

21 thoughts on “Getting it wrong on the future of US democracy ?

  1. I don’t think it’s entirely hopeless. While theRepublicans will now almost certainly take the house, the senate map is quite unfavourable to them and in any case there is no prospect of them taking a 2./3 majority in the senate. The Republican house will be far crazier than it was under Paul Ryan or his predecessors. They will probably make Trump speaker (you don’t need to be a representative to be speaker) and they will certainly impeach Biden and Harris.

    Two more years of Trump craziness may just swing the electorate back. Or the pandemic could end. Biden’s declining popularity dates to the arrival of Delta.

  2. Unfortunately even incompetent autocrats usually enjoy the support of the capitalist class ,competent ones are a real worry .Having never really been champions of democracy ,social breakdown because of inequality can force capitalists to choose between authoritarian rule and some kind of socialism .Watch how Chilies new leader gets treated ,the domestic and international capitalist class will punish him out of existence. The US is looking like a lost cause .

  3. Predictive thinking gets skewed when its coloured by optimism or pessimism – or to put it another way, by hope or anxiety. But it’s almost impossible to anticipate the flow of events without hope or anxiety. The stoics specialised in mental disciplines to even out the bipolar tendencies of human perspective.
    As for the specifics, like the return of Trump…sometimes it’s better to admit we don’t know and can’t know. Biden is getting a lot of stick right now (predictably) but he’s so much more effective than I predicted. Sometimes it’s really good to be proved wrong.

  4. John, I’m choosing not to be offended by your statement that we didn’t offer anything directly applicable to your predictive failures (I’m joking here, just to be clear), but I will quote from my own comment: “I think your mistake might have been the failure to clearly map out a pathway”. This is probably even more true about the path of democracy than it is about the future of self-driving cars. The central question is how a democratic system can improve itself, because without the ability to get better they can only decay (due to a downward ratchet effect).

    The suffering and destruction of revolution (and its aftermath) is generally second only to war as a calamity to be avoided. Liberal democracy’s great promise has been the possibility of positive change without revolution, but the evidence is growing that at the highest (or deepest) level it lacks this capacity. The United States’ two hundred year old democracy is very tired and has lost the capacity to match even ten steps backward with one step forward. Australia’s hundred year old democracy is holding up better, but the most significant reform to how the system runs was the senate voting changes of a few years ago. That was undoubtedly a positive, but is hardly a fundamental reform.

    The challenge is twofold. The obvious one is that those in power have little incentive to change a system that gave them power. What Liberal or Labor prime minister would champion proportional representation in the lower house? The other is that most people don’t find it interesting to talk about process. People will gladly engage in a discussion about climate change or parking or access to schools, but they’re almost indignant if you try to engage on the merits of federation or voting reform. “What do we want? A system of citizen juries to oversee all government advertising spending and senior appointments! When do we want it? Now!” is not a chant I expect to hear in my lifetime. As with many things, it’s best summed up by Monty Python, in this case with their constitutional peasant scene: .

    So my point is that it’s necessary to map out some intervening steps to ensure that what should happen according to first principles actually can happen. In a mechanical system, like neoclassical economics, this is quite straightforward. Generally, intermediate points are just trivially between the origin and destination. But in complex systems, intermediate points may not exist. I’m aware this is not particularly ground breaking, but it’s as necessary to think about with hand waving arguments as it is in game theory with multiple equilibria.

    If anyone has any academic leads on how democracies (or any organisations – the IOC, FIFA and the Catholic church are all fascinating in this regard) reform themselves, I’d love to read them.

  5. There’s a lot to unpack there, J.Q. On the issue of optimism-pessimism, there’s quite a bit to say. I think you are being a bit hard on yourself. Optimism-pessimism is a spectrum like any other psychological [1] spectrum. Where we are on that spectrum is a compound of nature and nurture. Nature is actually more important than nurture in the following sense. Nature (genetics and epigentics) determines potential. Nurture and life and social chances in general determine accession or lack of accession to the potential. Nurture (or lack thereof) becomes mainly determinative in the harm and deprivation directions.

    I am an extreme pessimist to the point that it is borderline something. Some of the research shows that a moderate optimism bias (in risk and reward estimating and in estimating ability to overcome obstacles) is the best setting for an agent, be that a human or an AI agent. It seems to me your natural setting (by me assessing information from afar and without professional qualifications, which is not a very good procedure) is very likely healthy and beneficial for yourself and those around you. If I were you, I wouldn’t seek to do more than consciously tweak your settings a little in the small range where we appear to have volitional access to this sort of stuff anyway.

    But at the societal level, we need some extreme pessimists, I believe. There are junctures where the pessimism bias is needed to alert the more blithe to real dangers. No need to cart undue pessimism yourself when others are available for the negative input which you then just reality check for valid content. Pessimists also have a lot of predictive failures, It’s just that one day they will be right about the “big one” because… entropy. The pessimist never shuts up about “in the long run we are all dead”. The pessimist is bad company. I’d get my friends to corroborate this, if I had any. 😉

    On the score of US democracy, yeah it’s pretty scary. The US has deep-seated pathologies in its national psyche (it’s not the only one) and these roots go back to its inception in the age of imperialism and proto-capitalism. We could sum it up, in one way, by calling it a propensity to cruelty and callous indifference in the pursuit of (vast) rewards. Yet, in another way, we could call it arrested revolutionary development. The US is a very revolutionary society. The War of Independence and the Civil War were (violent) revolutions. The first established and then consolidated Aristocratic (Whig) power over the Monarchy (by ejecting it) and also Aristocratic power over “the mob” and over the slaves of course. The American Constitution is not democratic despite its flourish of rhetorical claims. It is oligarchic and plutocratic. But the rhetorical claims do provide a focus fore hope and activism.

    The Civil War, the second revolutionary war of the USA, shifted power from the aristocratic landed Whigs to the barons of industrial capitalism. The callous disregard of the poor and minorities was transformed but continued in a new way. From a revolutionary perspective, the USA has not completed its revolutionary sequence. The rise of Trumpism is a neo-fascist reaction to the clearly nascent possibilities of a third revolution in the USA. This is not to be historicist. There is no guarantee that another revolution will occur. There is no guarantee that Trump will not succeed in regaining power and destroy the extant variant of oligarchism which governs the USA. This “representative oligarchism” is not democracy. In this sense, Trump can implement a new fascism but not end US democracy, since it has not even arisen yet.

    “Military juntas, one-party states and charismatic dictators or demagogues” do tend to do a bad job. Long-term, they should tend to self-limit. I’m ignoring existential threats here from nuclear war, to climate change and rolling zoonotic disease pandemics. I think we would judge the US, of all nations, of being in the most danger of “going either way” or even of taking a path through neo-fascism to a democratic socialist revolution. I can imagine an enormous impetus for change after 4 years of Trump as dictator. I cannot imagine a revolutionary and ever-evolving US remaining in a stasis like North Korea. The relations of production and the relations of demography in the US are in a state of far too ferment and rapid change to imagine such a stasis. The US is too open in many senses for that to happen I think.

    The US is strangely near-anarchic despite its also having a strong top-down government and oligarchic dual control structure (which admittedly are currently joined at the hip). The potential for a revolutionary change to a kind of socialist anarchism is in there somewhere I think. I am not a fan of anarchism per se but semi-anarchic socialist system might be okay.

    For holiday reading I recommend “The Course of Empire” by Bernard DeVoto. Some of themes to me are the immense resources of the continent, the immense cruelties of all parties in fighting for these riches and the immense though callous vigor employed in the competition (not capitalist competition but raw competition by appropriation and violence) for these resources. One of DeVoto’s own themes is the way in which misconceived, wholly imaginary concepts (especially about “Eldorados”) and impossible assumptions about geography, drove the exploration. The actual “Eldorados” discovered were quite different, not specie metals though they did figure as minor players, but real resources; game, timber, fish, water, soil, oil and minerals. The other resource really was the endless importation of Old World labor and technology and goods until America become inventive and productive in its own right. The entire process ran on a slew of demographic and growth “steroids” the world had never seen before. It is to this day a revolutionary society with high expectations, high demands and high senses of entitlement. It’s not going to go quiet. It may disintegrate but it has system with a high tolerance for semi-anarchic enterprise so it may not. Who could possibly predict what such a volatile mixture will do?

  6. eliotness123 DECEMBER 22, 2021 AT 8:48

    Alan Kohler?

    Spot on. Kohler and Hudson? Doubly so:

    Alan Kohler: The tragedy of Australian manufacturing, Dec 9, 2021

    …Manufacturing’s two big problems
    There are two big problems for Australian manufacturing (there used to be three when the Australian dollar was at parity with the US dollar and the car industry collapsed, but it has since fallen to the long-term average of about 70 US cents).

    The first problem is house prices.

    Housing affordability is as much a wages issue as a generational equity one – if anything more so.

    Housing is the most significant living cost and as New York economist Michael Hudson told me last week: “Australian house prices are pricing your labour out of world markets.”

    …The second problem for Australian manufacturers is the refusal of governments, state and federal, to support them with active procurement.
    The Greatest Rip-Off
    By Michael, December 8, 2021
    An interview with one of Australia’s most respected economists, Alan Kohler. Why are Australia’s house prices almost double the US’s? With detail on geo-political issues re Belt n Road.

  7. Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1950, 1967).
    Martyn Whitlock, “A Brief History of the Third Reich” (2011).
    This is more than adequate in understanding the nature and the great peril of Trumpism.

  8. Democracy related Links.
    Usual problems.

    Who do you trust?

    “Economic Freedom of the World (Fraser Institute):
    Collection of approxiamately 30 indicators from various data sources on the effective guarantee of property rights, freedom of trade and the regulation of the financial and labour market. The data is collected by the economically liberal Canadian think tank “Fraser Institute” and covers approximately 140 countries from 1970 onwards (since 2000 collected on a yearly basis).

    “Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage Foundation):
    “Economic freedom index developed by the liberal conservative American think tank “Heritage Foundation” based on 10 components (including the effective guarantee of property rights and freedom from corruption). The yearly collected and computed index covers approximately 180 countries and is available from 1995 onwards.”

    Above from;
    “The Democracy Barometer
    …is a new index of democracy. It aims to overcome the conceptual and methodological shortcomings of existing measures, in order to measure the subtle differences in the quality of established democracies.


    “In this section you will find a list of data sources thematically related to the Democracy Barometer and cover a large number of countries and years.

    “Additional democracy and governance measures
    Human rights and individual liberties
    Elections and directdemocracy
    Freedom of press and media systems
    Comparative data on constituions
    International surveys
    Cross-disciplinar comparative comparative datasets and databanks”

    Watching democracy  change over time won’t correct you thinking but may update your priors.

    by Max Roser

    “After World War II, the number of democracies began growing again. But it was the fall of the Iron Curtain circa 1989 that led to a more dramatic increase in the number of democracies.”

    “Using the RoW classification, the interactive map shows how each country is classified at the end of each year, going back in time as far as 1789. To explore changes over time, you can drag the time-slider below the map.”

  9. Lincoln clearly breached the constitution to hold the states together. There is no Lincoln in the current Democratic party – they are sitting quietly and allowing the Republicans to openly plan the theft of future elections. At the same time, the Rittenhouse verdict makes clear that any whites can do what they want to blacks or their supporters, and white juries will bless it. Game over; the majority of white people in America will never consent to being ruled by a multi-racial coalition.

  10. The fragile democracy that was the United States ended in December 2000, when five radical conservatives on the US Supreme Court took a case over which they had no jurisdiction (as later admitted by Sandra Day O’Connor) and overturned a presidential election–in their favor, of course. This set in motion the packing of the US judiciary by the far right and the continual erosion of limits on massive political contributions and many other checks on political swindling. Everything since is just nails in the coffin.

    In short, it’s a done deal. The time to stop it past decades ago. The greedy, hateful billionaires behind the overthrow were never all that cagey about their intentions, but the Democrats, the media, and people who should have known better were sleepwalking (and are every bit as culpable as the Republicans).

    The campaign against the US started in the late 1960s. I think the best overview is still by Lewis Lapham in the September 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine–“Tentacles of Rage: The Republican propaganda mill, a brief history.”

  11. At the very least other democracies may have a chance to bloom with the demise of the bau M.O. of what since day one was always a fully sick sham US democracy.

    Fake it till you make it? They didn’t, and never could have done so.

    Any regrets? Are wasted on the dead.

  12. The US is not a democracy. Sometimes it’s worth listening to the “other side” when they are being frank. You hear what they really think.

    “Contrary to catchy slogans, memes and other slick forms of electioneering, the government of the United States was never intended to be a pure democracy. In fact, most of the institutions today’s activists complain about were designed to thwart the pernicious effects of too much democracy. They’re anti-democratic by design. Rather than flaws that require remedy, these institutions were (and are) essential safeguards for individual liberty.” – Timothy Snowball, The Hill.

    Interesting name that, “Snowball”. Snowball snows people, snows snowflakes perhaps and then gets run off animal farm by Napoleon.

    It is clear the US constitution was written to protect the new landed Whig aristocrats of the nascent USA. They wrote the constitution for themselves, to protect their status and holdings including land and slave holdings.

    The US is not democratic. We need to give up on believing that nonsense. It won’t become democratic unless it has a third successful revolution. The first revolution was the War of Independence often called, you guessed it, the Revolutionary War. The self-appointed “Whigs” of America threw off the British monarchy. The second revolution was the Civil War. The industrial capitalists defeated the slave economy of the southern states. The third revolution, if it occurs, would have to throw off the power of the modern energy, tech and finance capitalists.

    When I see how easily people have been manipulated into accepting being infected by a dangerous new pandemic, actually facilitated and promoted by neoliberal capitalism, I doubt that any further kind of revolution is possible. All that is possible now is capture, catabolization and collapse. The people have been dumbed down to form a “lumpenkonsumentariat”. Those who;

    verbrauchen – consume, use up, expend, spend, exhaust;
    verschlingen – devour, gobble, engulf, swallow up, consume;
    vernichten – destroy, annihilate, crush, kill, exterminate, obliterate;
    zerfressen – corrode, gnaw, eat away, erode.

  13. Ikonoclast: – “…I doubt that any further kind of revolution is possible.

    Some people suggest some form of revolution in the US may be closer than you may think.

    Analysis by Barbara F Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego who sits on the Political Instability Task Force (a CIA advisory panel), warns that the US is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe”, in a new book out next year.

    Three retired generals, Paul Eaton, Antonio Taguba and Steven Anderson, wrote in The Washington Post that they were “increasingly concerned about the aftermath of the 2024 presidential election and the potential for lethal chaos inside our military”.

    Citing the presence at the Capitol riot of “a disturbing number of veterans and active-duty members of the military”, they pointed out that “more than one in 10 of those charged in the attacks had a service record”.

    Barbara F Walter tweeted on Nov 25:

    The CIA actually has a Task Force designed to try to predict where and when political instability and conflict is likely to break out around the world. It’s just not legally allowed to look at the U.S. That means we are blind to the risk factors that are rapidly emerging here.

    With stressors like the ongoing COVID pandemic, rising energy and food prices, and increasingly more hostile environment (i.e. increasing intensity of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods, storms, etc.) due to the climate crisis, the tipping point for revolution may come quickly. Usually, in these times of crisis, the authoritarians are more successful at gaining power.

  14. Via the long list at:

    CIA assassination plans met with deafening silence
    If only Assange had been Navalny
    The western media treat Julian Assange and Alexey Navalny very differently: they prefer their heroes to take on authoritarians, not targets close to home.

  15. Currently, the USA is much more likely to suffer a right-wing reactionary coup than have a left wing revolution. All the attitude for a fight is on the right. And the oligarchs, plutocrats, FBI, CIA, NSA, police and army will all line up with the reactionary right when the chips are down. The Left’s got nothin’ that I can see. Hope I am wrong but I doubt it.

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