Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer insists he was misunderstood when he said more people came to Donald Trump’s inauguration than the press gave him credit for. Sure, the pictures show that more people attended Barack Obama’s first inaugural, but Spicer says he meant if you add those who went to the event and those who watched on TV around the globe it was the biggest ever.
It’s hardly surprising that his boss, the world’s foremost billionaire populist—and a bona fide TV-ratings machine—is consumed with how many people he can put in the streets. What does seem odd is that many of those who claim to fear which way his populism may lead are similarly consumed by head-counting.
Look at the lists on progressive websites breathlessly boasting how many attended the anti-Trump marches across the country: Los Angeles got 750,000; half a million in New York City; 10,000 in Hartford, Connecticut.; 60,000 in St. Paul, Minnesota., 700-800 in Murray, Kentucky; 100,000 in Denver; 35 in Zebulon, Georgia. The grand total is something like 3.5 million people, with the march in Washington itself estimated to be three times larger than Trump’s inauguration. So why are numbers as important to Trump’s most energized critics as they are to the Nielsen-mad populist himself? Because as one of the organizers of Saturday’s march, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, explained, this is what democracy looks like. And many marchers seem to agree.
But the statement is false. American democracy is not about the size of crowds. Mass gatherings are not supposed to guide our democracy or protect our freedoms. Yes, the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly as well as freedom of speech, as it also guarantees, for instance, the right to bear arms. However, only a fool believes that democracy looks like collecting Nazi-era Lugers, or looks like a closet full of pornographic magazines. The actual mechanism of democracy is not people going to the street, but to the ballot box and voting for their chosen candidate.
The Founding Fathers did not need the example of the French Revolution birthed in blood and gore the same year the U.S. Constitution came into force in order to understand the dangers of people going to the streets to fight for their political ideas. The violence that frequently results—whether ignited by the most radical protesters, or by the most radical protectors of order—when political power is counted in large numbers massed in public squares is a constant throughout human history. And that’s exactly what the framers sought to save us from.
It’s a different matter when procedural politics fail to uphold the rule of law. For instance, the famous civil-rights marches, including the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, were directed at a clear and ongoing violation of the law, the Bill of Rights, that was being upheld by racist feelings and beliefs, often solidified by electoral politics, especially in the South.
American democracy is not about the size of crowds. Mass gatherings are not supposed to guide our democracy or protect our freedoms.
Nothing of the sort happened to prompt the anti-Trump protests. Trump was fairly elected with a plurality of the electoral college, and the outgoing president transferred authority to the incoming commander-in-chief peacefully. In other words, the mechanisms of democracy functioned properly. So why do so many Americans mistake what typically signals a failure of democracy for democracy itself?
In part, the talk about crowds is a sign of how American perceptions and expectations have been subtly and pervasively altered by our engagement with the undemocratic, and traditionally autocratic, Arab societies of the Middle East, especially since the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings a little more than six years ago. Certainly, those bloody events should have reminded us that the politics of the ballot box are preferable to the politics of the street. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the massive protest movements of the Arab Spring were regarded across the American political spectrum, left and right, as genuine outpourings of democratic feeling.