Every election under capitalism is of course conducted on a terrain of ideological distortion, but there are degrees. One the one hand, one could think of the kind of ideological distortion that narrows the range of acceptable debate artificially, but that presents the issues more or less fairly within those artificial parameters. An election conducted under those conditions would not be the most ideal or authentic democracy, but it would at least include some elements of democratic legitimacy — the people at large made an informed decision that the political authorities accept and abide by. On the other hand, an election where people made their decisions based on straightforward lies, crazy conspiracy theories, and magical thinking would strain the concept of democracy to the breaking point. People would think they were choosing between two options, but those would not in fact be the options they have been presented with. A simple coin-flip between the candidates would arguably be better than a vote under those circumstances.
Every election under capitalism is a sham to some extent — since the most important question is not and cannot be on the ballot — but the second option would be a complete sham. And that is exactly what happened in 2016. The level of ignorance and wishful thinking among Trump supporters and sympathizers is simply astounding, qualitatively worse than in any previous election. This doesn’t just extend to support for Trump, but to opposition to Hillary Clinton. There are a lot of legitimate reasons to dislike and distrust Hillary Clinton. She is a deeply flawed candidate and politician. But I have literally never heard a conservative express even a remotely legitimate complaint about Hillary. She is just a demon to them, about whom they are willing to believe anything (or at least share it on Facebook).
Both the “Donald Trump” and “Hillary Clinton” who appeared on the ballots of our Republican-leaning fellow citizens simply do not exist. They are sheer fantasies, created by media organizations that broadcast nothing but lies and propaganda. Indeed, this election was less a contest between two candidates than between two epistemic regimes — between the mostly sham of option #1 above and the complete sham of option #2. And the representative of option #2 — who, terrifyingly and yet appropriately, himself believes the lies and propaganda — has been installed because a critical mass of our fellow citizens who live in strategic places allowed themselves to be misled.
Who is to blame for this? One is of course morally obligated to seek the truth, but I am old fashioned in the sense that I believe you have more responsibility if you have more meaningful agency. If people aren’t thinking critically about their media consumption, that is partially their own fault — but isn’t it much more the fault of those who underfunded education? If people believe lies that fit with their prejudices and preconceptions, that is partially their own fault — but isn’t the bigger problem that a network broadcasting lies nationwide exists in the first place? If people let tribalism override their reason, that is partially their own fault — but don’t the leaders of the tribe bear responsibility for allowing crazy conspiracy theories to become their shibboleths?
I am angry at the family members I know who voted for Trump. The fact that they would vote for him makes me think less of them. I think they could and should have acted differently. But what is casting a vote for Trump compared to enabling the phenomenon in the first place? How much responsibility does your racist uncle have for believing the Birther conspiracy compared to the news media organizations who treated “billionaire believes racist conspiracy theory” as a legitimate news story? How much moral weight does that vote represent compared to the decision of the supposedly respectable and rational Mitt Romney to court Trump’s endorsement in 2012, legitimating him as a political player among Republicans? How much do we blame people for holding their nose to vote for Trump because they think the Republican is the lesser evil, compared to the Republican National Committee which could have, for example, not allowed Trump to even stand as a candidate without releasing his tax returns?
American democracy — a deeply questionable proposition on the very best day — failed in 2016. It did so partly because people are ignorant and gullible, but it did so primarily because our political and media elites have created a situation where people’s political choices are completely unmoored from anything even remotely resembling reality. The people responsible for this failure of democracy are not the voters who are ignorant and gullible, but the people who made it so difficult for them to be anything else.