Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Things Fall Apart: Donald Trump and the Entropy of Democracy

en·tro·py ˈentrəpē/noun

1. A thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system's thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.


2. lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.

synonyms: deterioration, degeneration, crumbling, decline, degradation, decomposition, breaking down, collapse; disorder, chaos; "life is a struggle against entropy."

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For better or worse, there is nothing guaranteed or inevitable about American democracy as we know it. That's my number one takeaway from the 2016 presidential election. 

Arguably, true democracy in America died long ago, when, for all practical purposes, it became commodified for sale to the highest bidder. Or maybe it's always been more of an aspiration than a reality. Nonetheless, the truth is the quality of life in the United States remains better than in more fragile democracies around the world. 

That's owing largely to a tacit agreement among participants in American democracy that they will adhere to basic civic principles: a free press should flourish in an intellectual climate devoid of threats; elections aren't "rigged" or alleged to be; political opponents are not targeted for imprisonment; voters are not intimidated by vigilante poll watchers; the constitution matters; the tripartite system of government matters; spin is inevitable, but facts still matter, etc.

You can have policy differences--even completely opposite policy goals and ideas--and still agree that the fundamental structure of the republic is important, and that everyone should adhere to certain norms.

Donald Trump has turned all of those assumptions upside-down.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, explores the factors that catalyzed various societal collapses throughout human history. Chief among them, Diamond concludes, are the failure to adapt to environmental changes and the compromised integrity of political institutions. 

Donald Trump is the first American politician of any party in living memory to lay waste to the playbook itselfSome people think that's a good thing, some think it's not, but either way its significance cannot be overstated. I'm in the latter camp, because while American democracy is a far cry from perfect, it works reasonably well as long as people continue to follow its basic precepts. 

None of us were alive when the Great American Experiment began, and hopefully none of us will live to see its end. As flawed as our government is, most people who were born and raised in the United States have no idea what it's like to live under a truly different political system--one in which the conduct of the Trump campaign over these past 18 months is normalized. 

It's the consummate manifestation of American privilege to fail to recognize that even a decent--much less a good--government is not a given. Not here, not anywhere. It is not some law of physics that the structure of American democracy should hold. Indeed, the opposite is true: entropy suggests it should not hold. And ironically, Donald Trump trades on populist fears of entropy despite being entropy's most obvious harbinger in a long time. 

The health of a democracy is entirely dependent on the character and conduct of its actors. Although all three branches of government are co-equal, the executive branch is a little "more equal," because the executive can act quickly and unilaterally in ways the legislative and judicial branches can't. In other words, the executive is capable of doing a lot of damage (or a lot of good) in ways that it takes the other two branches of government a long time to undo.

Maybe this election will be the Y2K of 2016, much ado about nothing. Maybe the fabric of American democracy is as strong as we've always assumed. Maybe all of Trump's supporters are right, and he really will give America the "best deal" it's ever had.

The question, though, is whether we really want to find out.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

---William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


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1 comment:

  1. "And what orange beast, it's hour come round at last
    Slouches toward Washington to be born."

    ReplyDelete