Commentary: Trump's Triumph vs. the Case for Democracy

Detractors of democracy argue that not only had the system allowed Brexit to happen, it also made it possible for Donald Trump, a demagogue without public service experience, whose rhetoric relied on racism, and decorated with sexual assault allegations, to lead one of the most powerful countries in the world. (Reuters Photo/Carlo Allegri)

By : Andhyta Firselly Utami | on 6:37 PM November 15, 2016
Category : Opinion, Commentary

Last Wednesday morning (09/11), I woke up trying to reach for my phone while recalling that before I went to bed several hours earlier, Hillary Clinton still stood a chance to win. Within split-seconds, a notification that read "Donald Trump has been elected as the 45th president of the United States" flipped my mood. Still in shock, I scrolled through my Twitter feed and discovered, amidst somber disappointment and rage from the liberal accounts I followed, comments about how "democracy is good as dead."

Not only had democracy allowed Brexit to happen, they argued, but it had also made possible for Trump, a demagogue without public service experience, whose rhetoric relied on racism, and decorated with sexual assault allegations, to lead one of the most powerful countries in the world. Trump's victory is a phenomenon that transcends political ideologies such as conservatism versus liberalism; it is about enabling a man who has no regard for fundamental values such as respect and equality that we uphold as human beings.

As an Indonesian student living in the United States, I would argue however that his victory is plainly democracy in action and if anything, it only proves that we need democracy in place now – probably more than ever.

Democracy Is Inferior, They Said

Indeed, what happened in America this week may back the key argument against democracy's universal suffrage (one man, one vote) concept:

1)     Voters' ignorance is economically rational, because learning in-depth about policies can only be done at the opportunity cost of making less or no income, therefore

2)     As long as there are ignorant voters, democracy tends to produce incompetent decisions.

The same way we do not let 6-year-olds vote, certain members of society are not privileged with the time or resources to fully understand complex policy issues, and they should not vote. Furthermore, democracy can never fully consider minority interests and oftentimes lead to situations where the majority oppresses certain marginal groups, resulting in ethnic-based conflicts. In other words, democracy's default system has loopholes to cause bad decisions, and it just did – right in the country that claims to be its main proponent.

Critics of democracy such as Jason Brennan and Tongdong Bai propose several alternative systems, such as a certain form of epistocracy, where chosen and trained members of society either have more "votes," or become members of a merit-based government.

No, Democracy Is Strong as Ever

Democracy, at its core, is about protecting individual rights and making sure that there is due process where voices from different society groups get heard – including that of Trump's supporters. The president-elect's morally questionable actions and comments aside, valid reasons have been shared by his voters who believe the country needs a better health-care system, or stronger policies on illegal immigrants or terrorism. This election simply proved that there are more than 60 million people in the country who share them, and that something must be done.

Furthermore, democracy functions beyond voting for a president every few years: it is also about separation of powers through the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicative) which will make sure that a country's leader could not change any major policy without the necessary checks and balances from the two others.

While it is true that the Republican Party also won a simple majority in Congress, certain laws require supermajority support to pass or be amended.

The Way We Implement Democracy Just Needs Fixing

In reality, although the electoral college system gave Trump the win, the popular vote seems to actually be in favor of Hillary Clinton – which makes the "incompetent voters" argument less valid. Not to mention that Thomas Jefferson already contends – in a letter he sent in 1816 – that "citizens need to be educated as a requisite for our survival as a free people" or, in the paraphrased, more famous version, "well-informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy."

While political ignorance may be economically rational, it is imperative for us as a society to fight against such ignorance – and the media, along with our education system, plays a pivotal role in doing so.

In conclusion, I believe that President-elect Trump is a wakeup call for nations across the globe – Indonesia included – to evaluate how effective or ineffective democracy has been, and what kind of additional supporting mechanisms can we incorporate to further strengthen it. For example, have we implemented a curriculum that encourages critical thinking and tolerance at schools? Have the media been sharing information that provide insights into policy dilemmas instead of creating blinded distrust to the government system?

Last Wednesday, the school gathered as a community to watch Hillary Clinton's concession speech together in the main forum. She reminded us that public service becomes even more crucial, that maybe the next Madame President is already out there, and my most favorite part: that fighting for what is right is worth it. So is fighting for democracy.

Andhyta Firselly Utami is a researcher and a master of public policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She holds bachelor degree in international relations from the University of Indonesia.

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