By David Van Reybrouck, Brussels
It may very well be that Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination today. And it may very well be that he wins the US presidential election later this year. And it may very well be that this has far less to do with the peculiarities of his person or the oddities of the American political system than it has to do with a dangerous road all Western democracies are taking, i.e. reducing democracy to elections.
Donald Trump is not the first, nor the last. In fact, his tactics, language and performance are not different from the ones deployed by the likes of Silvio Berlusconi or Geert Wilders: monopolizing mass media attention around a handful of provocative statements, dividing public opinion in cohorts of likers and dislikers, making sure that the campaign is not about the campaign but about themselves, using wry humour as a form of profiling against the establishment to which they nonetheless belong.
Though I am deeply concerned about what might happen to American democracy should Trump take office, to a European eye his entire campaign looks frustratingly familiar.
Donald Trump is not an oddity, but the very logical outcome of a democratic system that combines the 18th century procedure of voting with the 19th century idea of universal suffrage, the 20th century invention of mass media and the 21st century culture of instant feedback made possible through social media.
In a world where democracy boils down to periodical voting after a campaign dictated by commercial mass media and corporate sponsoring, elections are not helping democracy, but might quite simply be killing the very essence of democracy.
Elections were once introduced to make democracies possible. Now, they are in the process of becoming the worst obstacles to democracy.
Where is the reasoned voice of the people? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where can citizens -democracy was about them, right?- where do they get a chance to shape the future of their communities?
Not in the voting booth only. Isn’t it strange that the most civic of our duties is performed in the solitary penumbra of the voting booth? Is this the place where we are at our best? Without even talking to each other? Without listening to experts? Without necessarily knowing what is at stake? Without being invited to move beyond our individual gut feeling?
It is not about Donald Trump, this Super Tuesday, it is about us. It is about the question whether we really believe that democracy is government ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’. Are we willing to rethink the way we organize our democracies? Or shall we just watch its terminal phase?