I know I’m not the only one who had been wishing Andrew Sullivan would say something about this insane election. I will remember to be careful what I wish for.
I wanted to hear from Sullivan because I knew he would be devastating on the rise of Donald Trump. Personally, I suspected I would enjoy what he has to say about Bernie Sanders. And the real treat — the opportunity to actually learn something — would be to watch him square his historical distaste for the Clintons with his support for what she know stands for, which is essentially a third Obama term. That is why I was JON-SNOW-IS-ALIVE! excited when Sullivan re-emerged earlier this year in New York Magazine. And while some of my expectations were met, his real point was much deeper, and more terrifying: “Democracies end when they are too democratic.”
The title alone is bracing, given our fealty to full representation in our democra– er, republic. But like most things with Sullivan, the argument is more complicated than its clickbait headline. He talks about Plato and the Founders, changes in institutions from enfranchisement to the media, and how incredible progress like Obama opened the doors to incredible regress like Palin and Trump:
The emergence of the first black president — unimaginable before our more inclusive democracy — is miraculous, a strengthening, rather than weakening, of the system. The days when party machines just fixed things or rigged elections are mercifully done with. The way in which outsider candidates, from Obama to Trump and Sanders, have brought millions of new people into the electoral process is an unmitigated advance. The inclusion of previously excluded voices helps, rather than impedes, our public deliberation. But it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.
It’s not an easy read, but America, this is quite serious, so “Democracies end when they are too democratic” is well worth your time.
Read more from our election year series “America This is Quite Serious.”