“Fixing Our Democracy” Will Not Fix Our Democracy

The anger over America’s broken political system isn’t misplaced, but blind faith in its solution is.

Many people are legitimately upset over the two-party system. They are upset over first-past-the-post victory conditions. They are upset about non-proportional representation. They are upset about corporate money in our politics. They are upset about voter rights restrictions and gerrymandering. They are upset about the Electoral College. And they are upset about Election Day not being a federal holiday so that everyone can go and vote.

But even if we fix all of the above issues, that will not fix our democracy. And it’s not because America’s democracy is in such a great state: it’s in 47th place around the world, so there’s plenty room for improvement.

The problem isn’t singular; these rules and regulations play a significant role, especially when ill-meaning people abuse or exploit them for personal or political gain. But even when the rules aren’t this broken, a democracy can still succumb to abusive leaders.

In The Netherlands, where I grew up and was involved in politics my entire childhood, we have proportional representation. We have many major political parties, none of whom (generally) win enough seats by themselves to rule alone, making a coalition between multiple parties a necessity. Making compromising a necessary part of governing even as the ruling party — or parties, rather.

We don’t have first past the post. We don’t have (unfair or unreasonable) voter restrictions. We don’t have gerrymandering and we don’t really have a problem of corporate money in politics. But we nevertheless have a problem with an extremist right fascist faction gaining power.

In Australia, voting is mandatory, and there, too, the extremist (albeit not fascist) right regained control of parliament.

I could go on about other countries and their systems, but hopefully the point is clear: fixing the cracks and flaws in democratic systems does not protect us from far right extremism. Those broken parts definitely make it easier for extremist groups to gain control and power, of course, so it is nonetheless imperative that we fix them. But don’t get your hopes up too much about what that will accomplish.

Because we’re still nations of people.

And the problem is us.

We, the people.

We are the real problem.

The reason that far right politicians are still able to win elections or secure increasingly many seats in nations where the democratic system is perfectly strong, is that propaganda still works. It works because humans are a beautiful and flawed species. We’re capable of so much greatness, so much creativity, so many wondrous emotions and delights.

We’re also still so easily scared.

Propaganda and lies work because too many people do not have the emotional strength and courage to see through comforting bullshit and face a much more intimidating reality. That is not a failing on their part; the world and all of the problems happening in it is a very scary reality to come to grips with! The more you learn and keep up with all that goes on, the more frightening reality will feel.

Except not to everyone. A vast majority of people understand that while there are scary realities to face in the world, on a day-to-day basis we cannot let that take control of us. We can only do the best we can, to try and have a good life wherein we respect others and make life better for other people.

And then there are the people who find comfort and confidence by shitting on someone else; by making the lives of others worse so that their lives seem comfortably better in comparison. This is ultimately futile and hollow, because it does absolutely nothing to address the very real problems you are experiencing. It may feel good in the moment, and that rush may feel addictive, but it leads only to sadness, anger and regret. Your problems won’t go away by erecting a wall or deporting immigrants; it’ll only create more problems for you and others to deal with.

The truth is an uncomfortable enemy to confront for most, perhaps all of us. “The Left is too condescending or elitist and accusatory; the Right is too racist and omni-phobic; the Center is too wishy-washy and uninformed.” We like to simplify the problem so that we can believe in a solution for them that we can imagine. Our capacity to imagine a solution for the much, much more complicated reality all at once is almost nil, and even trying for it feels too overwhelming. Much easier to just avoid; it’s too complex for the human brain. We can’t even comprehend the rudimentary scale of our galaxy or universe, how are we to comprehend the complexity of 7 billion people’s many problems, all intertwined? How are we even supposed to care about any of them, when we have so many problems of our own to contend with?

So we simplify. We “dumb it down” for ourselves to intellectually cope with it. And often times, when we simplify these enormous problems into comprehensible nuggets, we think the solutions we’ve come up with are obvious truths, and why aren’t we just doing X, or Y, or Z? The uncomfortable reality is that any “simple solution” to a problem that goes ignored was contingent upon simplifying the problem too much.

There is a kind of cosmic balance to everything. The universe loves balance— it’s ridiculous how much the laws of the universe favor balance, in fact. Death creates life and life begets death. Our planet orbits our sun in a perfectly balanced manner, after billions of years of turmoil preceding it. Ages come and go, leaving fertile ground behind for ages yet to come. When humans populate the planet in an imbalanced manner, the planet itself gets unbalanced and its environment goes haywire.

On the current elections stage we have a politician the world overwhelmingly sees as a dangerously unhinged fascist demagogue, pit against a politician the world sees as one of the most accomplished humanitarian politicians in history. It’s no major surprise that in the battleground that is the United States itself, the people — too close to the battle to be able to take a step back — only see the fight, and from the front line it looks evenly split.

Taking that step back, however, is crucial. Rembrandt van Rijn did it while painting, to make sure he wasn’t losing sight of the big picture when detailing up close. And when we take that step back, a perhaps troubling picture reveals itself:

Donald Trump isn’t succeeding because of the electoral college. He isn’t succeeding because of corporate money, or non-proportional representation. He isn’t succeeding because of gerrymandering or voting restrictions (although he may win the election in the end because of voter suppression, absolutely). Trump isn’t succeeding because of compelling policies — he barely has any, and they’re embarrassingly shortsighted—or a fantastic track record and reputation—his is a trail of failures, bankruptcies, (alleged) fraud and rapes, racism, misogyny, violence, petulance, cowardice, and endless demagoguery.

Trump is succeeding because propaganda still works. Because comforting lies still work on millions of psychologically eager minds. They are not weak minds, but they are certainly frayed. Frayed by fear, their confidence and trust has been heavily diminished. And they have good reasons to be angry, to be frustrated, to be afraid; they’re not always the reasons they provide, but justifiable reasons nonetheless exist.

The people most eager to vote for Trump are the ones most afraid of confronting intimidating or uncomfortable truths. They rebel against “political correctness” to avoid the scary confrontation with their complicity in the system, and to avoid acknowledging the privileges they have consequently benefited from.

To them, I can only say: I hear you. I understand you; I’ve been in your exact position, made your exact arguments, felt your same emotions. But one day I stood up against the fear and decided to confront it, and I want to let you in on a secret I’ve learned since then: it’s only terrifying for the first 24 hours. Afterwards you will feel better, stronger, more courageous and less afraid. And you’ll be better equipped to take that step again, and again, and again, until you’ve squared your entire life with yourself.

You won’t feel crippling guilt or shame over your past actions or your complicity in a system that disenfranchises people for having a different race or gender. You’ll feel embarrassed by them, but emboldened by how far you’ve come since then. (Besides, a bit of guilt, shame or embarrassment here and there builds character. The good kind of character.)

It’s okay to stand against the flow, to not take the path of least resistance. It’s okay to diverge from your past politics and tread in a new direction. That’s what being human is all about! To explore the things that scare us, and see what’s on the other side. See what’s on the other side of that ocean.

We must absolutely fix our democracy’s broken system, flawed rules and regulations, and shady influence of money. But until and unless we fix the problem of easily misled minds, and give everyone the strength of character and confidence that they deserve, we will fix a system without fixing the problem. And the problem will persist, even if it manifests itself much less visibly and much less destructively. Because eventually, one day, someone with nefarious goals and a willingness to shamelessly break all the rules of decency and civility will figure out how to exploit the problem for their personal gain, and this song and dance will start from scratch.

There isn’t an easy solution to this problem, and “propaganda still works” is, of course, a remarkably ironic simplification of it. But the implications of it are utterly complex, as there is no legislation that can be passed to solve it, and no government regulation or oversight could really address it. We can’t legislate or mandate people’s fears away, or wish them to be emotionally and intellectually stronger. It’s offensive to even think along those lines, not to mention eerily authoritarian.

The solution must come from us all because the problem is we, the people. We’re in this together, whether we like it or not. We either suffer or benefit from the problem, and while we can bicker over who’s more responsible (and we should absolutely do that as well, accountability is important), the root of the problem remains unaddressed when we try to change minds without changing the context that created the mind in the first place. The problem persists when the environment from which it was borne is allowed to continue wielding its fraying influence on the next person.

If we’re not simultaneously lifting people up when we confront them with unhappy truths, we’re failing to address the real problem.