Why Donald Trump’s Election Could be Good for Democracy—And Why It Probably Won’t Be

November 06, 2016

What a day for my new blog to go live. Like much of the country, I have experienced a potent mix of anger, confusion, and anxiety over the past eighteen hours. In my case, there is also betrayal, as my home county in rural Illinois went overwhelmingly for Trump. The county seat is Lincoln—the only city named for Abraham Lincoln before he was elected president—and this part of downstate Illinois has historically been represented by such paragons of moderate Republicanism as Ed Madigan, Bob Michel, and Ray LaHood. And yet 66% of the voters in Logan County gave their vote to 2016’s version of George Wallace.

It is hard to be optimistic today, and yet I find a measure of support in democratic theory. Adam Przeworski famously argued that, for democracy to survive, all of the players must feel that they have a stake in the system—they must be willing to lose today, knowing that they have a chance to win tomorrow. Ironically, Trump’s victory has demonstrated to his supporters that the system is not rigged, or at least not so rigged that they can’t win. This could increase the stock of democratic capital, thus encouraging the continuation of American’s 240-year experiment with democracy.

This glass-half-full perspective rests on a couple of key assumptions. First, Donald Trump must govern differently than he has campaigned: no more dividing American along racial and religious lines, no more inciting violence, no more intimidation of the press. And no judicial attacks against Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump needs to be so presidential that we’ll be bored. If he doesn’t, democratic norms will further erode.

Second, Donald Trump has to actually deliver on some of his promises to voters in places like Logan County. If and when Trump’s voters feel betrayed by Trump, they may turn to even more radical alternatives, or give up on democracy altogether.

Thus the dilemma: It is very hard to satisfy both of these conditions simultaneously. Can Trump keep his promises without further undermining democratic norms? I can imagine a talented politician threading the needle, giving just enough to his supporters that they feel justified in having voted for him. Clearly Trump has more talent than most of us could have imagined eighteen months ago. Yet the campaign that he ran has left the eye of the needle exceedingly small—and it’s not even clear that Trump wants to thread it.