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December 15, 2016+Lee Jussim
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Academics Discuss American Democracy and the Election: Part 2

This is the second installment of a conversation among a diverse group of academics, each focused on a single question about the election and its aftermath. See part 1.

  • Robert Mather is a professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research is on social cognition, and he blogs as The Conservative Social Psychologist at Psychology Today.
  • Lee Jussim is professor of psychology at Rutgers. He is one of the founding members of Heterodox Academy, and former chair of his department. Much of his current research focuses on scientific integrity and science reform, and he blogs as Rabble Rouser at Psychology Today.
  • George Yancey is professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He has studied race bias, but, more recently, has focused on anti-Christian bias and discrimination.
  • April Kelly-Woessner is professor and chair of political science at Elizabethtown college. Her research focuses on the intersection of politics and education.
  • Jarret Crawford is associate professor of psychology at The College of New Jersey.
  • Jussim is a founding member of Heterodox Academy. Mather, Yancey, and Kelly-Woessner are all also members of Heterodox Academy.

By “a diverse group of academics,” we mean in diverse ways. We range in age from just over 30 to over 60. Two of us are racial/ethnic minorities. Three of us voted for third party candidates. We therefore urge you to be cautious about presuming that our views critical of one side or the other reflect biases stemming from (what you may erroneously assume) are our support or identification with one party or candidate or the other.

Instead, we urge you to consider the possibility that our analysis here stems from our principled understanding of both the ideals of how democratic republics are supposed to work, and of how our particular democratic republic should work. Consider the possibility that the views expressed here also stem from our understanding of the history of democracies, and the history how they have, sometimes, been supplanted by brutal, murderous, sometimes mass murdering, regimes and systems. In the last 100 years, twice, Russia has been a democracy, and twice it has failed. Germany was a democracy before the Nazis ascended. The Greek democracies and Roman republic ended in anarchy or tyranny.

This does not mean you cannot disagree with us; however, we urge you to do so respectfully, and without presumption of hidden agendas and motives.

Furthermore, the first two questions in this series have been “biased.” The questions were essentially one-sided, even “leading,” questions seemingly designed to evoke responses hostile to Trump and/or Republicans. “Why,” you might ask, “haven’t you framed more balanced questions or, at least, questions more trenchantly designed to get at liberal or Democratic dysfunctions?” There are three answers to this fair question:

  1. These questions were framed this way to speak to the concerns of what we see all around on us on our college campuses.
  2. The contributors cannot easily be led (which you should be able to see pretty easily from the critique of liberals and Democrats that have appeared in this and the prior conversation).
  3. We did (as in, “we did frame questions to be critical of liberals and Democrats”). This is only the second in a five-part series.

One note. Prior comments seemed to be confused about whether America is a democracy or a republic (it is both). They are not mutually exclusive.(see also the discussion thread to the first conversation).

Q2: Has American Democracy evolved from a system that gives voice to the people while also checking their worst impulses, to a system that is tilting toward the great fear of the founders—tyranny of majorities? Or even worse, the tyranny of minorities (given the Electoral College).

Mather: American Democracy has evolved from a system where some people owned slaves, Blacks and women could not vote, and poor people could not achieve higher education. The fact that slavery was abolished, citizens over 18 can vote, and Federal Loan programs ensure that anyone can go to school who can get in supports the fact that more people have a voice in our society than ever before. As for the tyranny of majorities, yes, a diverse population means that now everyone has a voice. As for tyranny of minorities and the Electoral College, consider that the free press, Hollywood, and higher education are predominantly liberal entities, so an argument can be made that tyranny of minorities already occurs. If not for the Electoral College, New York (NYC) and California (LA) would control all elections. That would be tyranny of the minority. Again, since “tyranny of the minority” can be seen in different instances on different sides, it shows that the American citizens are still firmly at the controls.

Jussim: One of the original purposes of the Electoral College was to ensure that men (exclusively men in those days) of sober mind and good judgment would not select a demagogue as President. Indeed Hamilton, in Federalist Paper 68, justified the Electoral College, in part, as a way to prevent those with, what he called, “Talent for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” from ascending to the Presidency. However, that purpose disappeared long ago; now, the Electoral College is a rubber stamp of the winner within each state (or within state districts in Nebraska and Maine). This means a president can be elected who did not receive the most popular votes nationwide, an outcome which violates the fundamental democratic principle of selecting representatives on the basis of the majority (or plurality) votes.

A second great fear of the Founders was the tyranny of majorities. Given that the Electoral College permits a President to be elected on the basis of a minority, the risk is even worse – of a tyranny of the minority. Madison, Federalist Paper 51: “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” This led to: 1. Checks and balances at the federal level (power divided between legislature, executive, and judiciary); 2. Allocation of all power not explicitly granted to the federal gov’t to the states, thereby diluting power; and 3. The Bill of Rights, which ensure protections of fundamental rights (free speech, free press, freedom of religion and association, and others) from infringement even by tyrannical majorities.

We do not have tyranny. How would we know a move toward “tyranny” if it actually occurred?

  • Dramatic increase in use of Executive Orders to circumvent Congress and the courts
  • Use of Presidential power to violate basic human rights enshrined in the Constitution.
  • Use of the Presidential bully pulpit to encourage others to violate basic human rights.
  • Presidential appointments who, themselves, either violate or encourage others to violate basic human rights, with impunity.

Ironically, should this occur, it would be a tyranny of the minority. We know what to look for: Explicit or implied threats to shut down the press, dissidents, or viewpoints that an administration disagrees with. Incitement to hate crimes, discrimination, and violence, including subtle incitement with “semi-plausible deniability.” The Islamist Egyptian government of President Morsi incited a slow-moving mass murder of Coptic Christians (until he was deposed). The Nazis orchestrated Kristallnacht and claimed it was a spontaneous riot.

Are we witnessing an attempt at tyranny? The more a President lies, deceives, and aggrandizes his accomplishments and those of his administration, the more that President moves toward tyranny. The more a President shows blatant disregard for law, the Constitution and, especially, the Bill of Rights, the more the arrow moves toward tyranny. The less transparent the administration, the more potential for tyranny. The more a President attempts to set him or herself up as the ultimate, authoritative arbiter of our interests and our rights, the more the arrow moves towards tyranny.

Tyrants rarely ascend to power in a vacuum; they usually have many people supporting them. How many Americans can be seduced into supporting an assault on others’ rights (“First they came for the communists…”) to the appeal of a strong, charismatic leader? I do not know.

Crawford: I would simply add to Lee’s post that many of the signs of “an attempt at tyranny” are the moves that Trump seems quite open to. Who knows what he’ll do when he’s in power, but his behavior throughout the campaign is reason to be concerned about attempts at tyranny from his administration—and it’s insane that one should be concerned with such an outcome from an American administration, but here we are. I’d add, though, that the Obama administration bears some responsibility in the increase of presidential powers (though of course, one could argue that if Congressional Republicans hadn’t decided to oppose him on the basis of opposition to a Democrat rather than opposition to policy, such expansion of executive power wouldn’t have been necessary). And “attempts at tyranny” seem to be what the Republican governor and legislature of North Carolina are currently doing—now that they have lost the election, they have begun to curb executive power to hamstring the incoming Democratic governor. I find such illiberalism unlikely from Obama, but it’s what I’ve grown to expect from Republicans, and they sure aren’t trying to violate my expectations.

Yancey: As I look at this question and the responses to it three thoughts come to mind. In some ways these thought contradict each other but they seem to flow together in my thinking. But I understand if others believe that I am inconsistent in my assertions.

My first point is that I share the concern others have of Trump. As a political independent I considered candidates from both the Democrat and Republican parties during the nomination process. Of the 22 or 23 candidates available from both parties, Trump was my last choice. No need to go into all the reasons why, but his authoritarian approach ranked up there as to my desire that he never became president. That fight is over and I hope I am wrong about him. I hope that despite my misgivings that he turns out to be a great president. But Trump is a unique threat due to the sort of strong man appeal he has cultivated and we would be wise to be wary of what he attempts to implement.

My second point is that threats to our democracy do not just come from Republicans. I have seen enough from Democrats to trust power to them as well. My concerns about Trump is contextualized to the phenomenon of Trumpism. For that reason in the past presidential election, I saw him as more of a threat to our general Democracy than Clinton. But my general belief is that either major political party will use the tools they have to suppress opposition when the opportunity arises. Yes what the Republicans are doing in North Carolina is inexcusable but the Democrats do not come into this conversation with clean hands. When the Democrats had complete control in 2009 they passed the Affordable Healthcare Act without any real attempt to gain input from Republicans, and thus about half of the American population. They crafted policy so much to their liking that not even Susan Collins could vote for it. It was the Democrats who exercised the nuclear option and took away the rights of the minority party on appointments. So I do not buy into the narrative that it is only the Republicans who do not want to work with their political opponents.

My final point is that despite all of these problems, I do not have the level of pessimism of some of my colleagues. It is not my faith in either political party that stops this pessimism but I believe that our system, as imperfect as it is, still has enough checks and balances to forestall the worst possible excesses. Trump will soon find out that he was not elected as a king. Democrats still have the power to filibuster. Other Republicans are aware of the razor thin margin of victory Trump achieved in many of the rust belt states. For the sake of their own survival they too will have an incentive to fight against the worst excesses of Trump. Then we still have the courts. None of this does not mean that Trump cannot do great damage to our society. He can. But the ability of a single person, even the President, to forestall our rights is limited.

My relative optimism does not mean that we should not remain vigilant. There are changes that may indicate that these checks and balances may be less viable than I hope they will be. It is important to look for problems beyond the basic policy to threats to fundamental basic rights. Attempts to use fears of terrorism or foreign nations to strip Americans of those rights are also a potential problem area. Legislative attempts to rein in our free press, as Trump has suggested, is also a red flag. Holding Trump and the Republicans accountable for protecting basic human rights will be high on my to do list over the next four years.

Kelly-Woessner: I share many of the concerns and observations my colleagues outline above about Donald Trump and the 2016 election. I am particularly concerned about foreign interference in our election, Trump’s threats to limit freedom of the press, and the rise in violence against members of minority groups. I have grave concerns that the election has triggered a cycle of political hostility, vitriol, and divisiveness that leads people to retreat further into ideological enclaves, where their assumptions and prejudices go unchallenged.

At the same time, I think that we have to avoid the temptation to declare that the political process is broken, merely because we don’t like the outcome. To be clear, I am not claiming that democracy is functioning as the framers intended but rather that the process was broken long before the 2016 election. For many Americans, Trump’s victory marks a form of correction.

Long before Trump announced his candidacy for president, Americans decided that government was no longer working for the people. Congressional job approval ratings have been historically low. According to recent Gallup polls, those who are most critical of Congress believe that lobbyists and special interests subvert the democratic process.

In the early primaries, Trump’s support was predicted by low efficacy; people who felt they had little voice in government were more likely to back Trump than the other Republican candidates. Trump also polled well among working class men, whose incomes have declined in the past decade. These old “union Democrats” have seen their political influence wane with the weakening of labor unions. In recent years, the Democratic Party has done little to retain these voters, choosing instead to build a coalition of minority groups and educated liberal elites.

In this context, Trump’s rise to power is understandable. Trump gave voice to people whose issues and concerns had been neglected by the Washington establishment. He pledged to focus on manufacturing and blue collar jobs. He told a group of disaffected Americans, “I hear you.” Most importantly, he offered them the opportunity to register their complete and utter frustration with Washington politics by rejecting establishment candidates and career politicians. The ability to register such dissatisfaction and hold politicians accountable is essential to the democratic progress.

Trump supporters voted for change and for acknowledgment. It worked. Academics, politicians, and pundits are now talking about the plight of the white working class in ways they hadn’t before. The political system doesn’t become undemocratic merely because we disagree with the voices who have mobilized for change.

Trump’s presidency is a correction to elitism, special interests, and Washington politics. It is, I would argue, an overcorrection. For this reason, I believe the Trump era will be short-lived. The backlash against Trump’s policies will swing the pendulum of politics back to the left, as liberals become the angry, disaffected mob, mobilizing for change. The pendulum may also swing back toward seasoned, establishment candidates, as Trump’s inexperience becomes more apparent. But those seasoned politicians will now be more sensitive to the struggles of the white working class and that is a partial restoration of democracy.

My colleagues are correct in arguing that the framers warned against populism and the excesses of democracy. However, the context here is important. Federalist No. 57 argues, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

In other words, populism is a problem in that it interferes with the “wisdom to discern” and to act for the public good. Populism is only a threat, then, to a system that is working for the public good. When a large number of Americans believe, quite justifiably, that their elected officials are not representing their interests, nor the collective will of the people, because they are being bought and sold by wealthy interests, or because party politics replace reason and compromise, than the threat of populism loses meaning. One cannot undermine a public trust that no longer exists.

Jussim (responding to prior commenters’ points): Mather’s point about the evolution of our system is right on target. Nonetheless, I also think Mather went too far in declaring that, without the Electoral College, NY and California would control all the elections, or that this would be a tyranny of the minority. Without the Electoral College, if the popular vote would determine the election, one would still need a majority of the voters. Clinton received just under 66 million votes. Less than 9million came from California, and about 4.5m came from NY.

Two states could not “win” a popular vote election. However, if we ever reached the extreme point where, say, most of the country lived in one state, then I see nothing undemocratic or tyrannical about the vote hinging most on that one state. If 90% of American voters end up living in Maine, then Maine should count 90%. All other elections based on popular votes work exactly this way. The extensive comment section to our first conversation included many advocates for the Electoral College. Few provided reasons, and, when they did, I found none to justify violating the principles of majority election of representatives (including President), and of one person/one vote.

On the other hand, I also think Yancey and Kelly-Woessner make some very trenchant arguments about the ways in which Democrats also threaten democracy, to which I will add one more here. Democracy requires the rule of law. Liberals and Democrats seem to have adopted the implied position that America’s immigration laws should be flouted and ignored, and, instead, replaced by a very simple rule: Any foreigner who sets foot here and is not a known criminal or terrorist, and decides to stay here, should be able to do so. Democracies that cannot sustain the rule of law risk descending into anarchy, to which tyranny often seems like an attractive solution.


Before commenting, we suggest you review Heterodox’s Guidelinesfor Bloggers – which apply to commenters as well. The key guidelines are:

  1. Make your case with evidence, and link to that evidence, or describe it.
  2. Avoid sarcasm, contempt, hostility, and “snark.” The tone should be academic, not polemical.
  3. Feel free to criticize anyone and anything (including Heterodox Academy), but try to acknowledge what that person/group/idea may be right about as well.
  4. Be constructive. Help readers to see new possibilities, not just new threats and problems.
  5. Be interesting, quickly. Blog posts are not like academic papers where you can develop your thesis gradually.

Guideline 5, adapted to comments, means keep your comments short.


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