How Trump Is Good for Democracy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the operations of the government are worth caring about.
By Daniel Malloy
Ray Santiago knows how engaged liberals are in what’s going on in Washington. He saw for himself when protesters swarmed during the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That, for him, was the final straw. He typically only picks up a ballot once every four years, but this time he plans to vote in the U.S. midterms.
“I can’t let a crowd like that control the country,” Santiago, 63, said outside a polling place in Hope Mills, North Carolina, home to one of the closest congressional contests in the country this year. Santiago’s also pushing his friends and family to vote in support of Republicans who will back Donald Trump. “I think he’s doing a good job.”
Trump’s mastery of the spotlight clearly has made people care about their government again.
From Trump’s first days in office, it was clear that the man formerly known as “The Donald” was inspiring passion and engagement, both for him and against him. First was the big inaugural crowd (though smaller than Barack Obama’s), and then came the huge crowd of protesters when more than 3 million participated in the women’s marches nationwide. News outlets, meanwhile, have also enjoyed a “Trump Bump” and are awash in readers, viewers and listeners, all eager to dive into the weeds of health care policy and special counsel investigations. Congressional representatives are flooded with mail, and with a highly engaged citizenry juicing a big midterm turnout, Trump’s mastery of the spotlight clearly has made people care about their government again.
Consider the numbers: A poll conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation early this year found that one in five Americans had joined a political rally or protest since January 2016. Of those, 19 percent said they had never done so before.
They’ve been deluging members of Congress. Bradford Fitch, who heads the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to improving how Congress interacts with constituents, has been studying these interactions closely since 2002. He says moments of activism come in waves — and those waves have become more frequent in the past couple of years, whether it’s the nomination of Betsy DeVos to secretary of education (which produced 1.3 million calls in a single day to one congressional leadership office) or Kavanaugh.
One congressional office in the suburban D.C. area, Fitch says, got 9,300 letters and emails in 2001. By 2011, it had grown to 43,000. Last year, 127,000 missives came in. This shows an extraordinary number of people petitioning their leaders, which is how it’s supposed to work.
But there is a downside. “I would argue we’re seeing a decrease in genuine communications if you believe communicating is defined by someone having a robust dialog on something,” Fitch says. “Our members are having difficulty separating signal from the noise.” He points to the decline of in-person town hall meetings, which have become mere stages for angry constituents to yell at their representatives.
Increased media consumption can similarly be a double-edged sword. The bump has prompted huge cable news ratings and an increase in paid digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times, among other outlets. In the millions, Americans are diving into political podcasts like Pod Save America on the left and The Ben Shapiro Show on the right. But 68 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center that they were “worn out” by the sheer amount of news flooding in these days.
And while there are signs that the president is becoming oversaturated — even Trump-friendly Fox News isn’t carrying all his political rallies live anymore — there’s no question he is compelling television. Simmering White House personnel tensions, the international intrigue and the improvisational nature of it all keep us tuning in. As does Trump’s love of telegraphing his own announcements, and offering frequent rhetorical cliffhangers like “we’ll see.”
He’s also incredibly accessible. His Twitter account offers an unprecedented real-time look at his thinking. An ABC News analysis found that in one recent 11-day stretch (notably including sweeps week–level guest star Kanye West in the Oval Office) Trump took 300 questions from reporters — a gobsmacking sum for which the network could find no historical precedent.
It’s all pushing more Americans to the polls. Across House, Senate and gubernatorial elections, turnout for primary season was far ahead of past midterms. Early voting for the general election has been brisk — and some Texans were fired up enough to camp out overnight before the first day to cast their ballots. Though it’s hard to extrapolate too much from early voting, which has been trending higher for a while at the expense of Election Day, all signs point toward a big year for the “I Voted” sticker industry.
Perhaps it took a president with a penchant for showmanship and an intimate knowledge of our reality-TV culture to get people interested in government — and to accomplish what our beleaguered civics educators could not.