Sigmund Freud was an atheist, but noted that religion, while being what he called an “illusion”, was nevertheless an essential building block of civilization. In The Future of an Illusion he pointed out:
The doctrines of religion are not a subject one can quibble about like any other. Our civilization is built up on them, and the maintenance of society is based on the majority of men believing in the truth of those doctrines. If men are taught that there is no almighty and all-just God, no divine world order and no future life, they will feel exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization. Everyone will without inhibition or fear, follow his asocial, egoistic instincts and seek to exercise his power; Chaos, which we have banished through many thousands of years of the work of civilization, will come again.
This danger came not from the elite, which Freud believed would be able to easily replace religion with other motives such as enlightened self-interest, but via a form of populist revolt.
Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brainworkers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization. But it is another matter with the great mass of uneducated and oppressed, who have every reason for being enemies of civilization. So long as they do not discover that people no longer believe in God, all is well. But they will discover it, infallibly, even if this piece of writing of mine is not published. And they are ready to accept the result of scientific thinking, but without the change having taken place in them which scientific thinking brings about in people.
In short, the illusion of religion on which society was built was destined to crumble under the weight of modernity, hence the need to build replacement structures to ensure compliance with the dictates of civilization.
Our political system is also built on a set of illusions. These illusions are likewise crumbling under the weight of modernity in the form of technology and social media, etc.
For example, the philanderings of various politicians like JFK were well known to many, but went unreported. But when the news media decided not to report about Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, a then-obscure web site called the Drudge Report broke the news. Today, it’s virtually impossible to keep such news hidden.
We also created an illusion that our political system is a form of pure democracy.
Since the disasters of Athens, political theorists have seldom been fans of direct democracy. In the early stages of the American republic, people went into great detail about the dangers of direct democracy, about how our constitution was not direct democracy, and about how they designed a representative republic, with separation of powers and checks and balances and such, to create a functional system.
Since then, we’ve dramatically grown the democratic element of our system, through expanding the franchise, direct election of senators, citizen initiated referendums, and the expansion of the primary election system. The rhetoric changed changed to match.
We thus created, perhaps without thinking about it, the illusion that our voting systems are purely democratic. In theory we have primaries and conventions in which people vote for delegates, and the person who gets the most votes wins, right?
Not exactly, as we discovered this election season.
On the Republican side, we discovered that even if you win the primary, the actual convention delegates representing that state might actually be supporters of your opponent, selected through a separate shadow process. Other than on the first ballot, they’d then be free to vote their own personal preferences.
On the Democratic side, there are a large number of so-called “superdelegates”, party insiders not selected by the voters.
There’s also the illusion that political party organizations are neutral venues in which every candidate has an equal shot. But the recent Wikileaks dump of emails from the Democratic National Committee showed that it was controlled by partisans of Hillary Clinton, who were looking for ways to undermine Bernie Sanders – including by considering a smear of his Jewish heritage and/or purported atheism.
Donald Trump’s response to this was to trumpet loudly, “The system is rigged!”
Insiders of course disagree. They say that this is always how it as worked and only a political dummy wouldn’t know that.
It’s true that there’s never been this direct democracy fairy tale, parties have always tended to be controlled by particular factions, etc. But it’s also true that the people have been fed illusions instead of this truth.
So when those illusions about the system crumble, when the curtain is pulled back and people see the reality of how the sausage is made, our institutions themselves become even further discredited.
And candidly, they deserve that discredit. Our political leaders, unlike the authors of the Federalist Papers, never articulated and defended the actual system we have, relying on tacit illusions instead. So no surprise it is falling into disrepute as those system crumble.
As it happens, while the process may not be fully democratic in its forms, it is still animated by a democratic spirit. The candidates who got the most votes, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, became the nominees. Only die hard #NeverTrump’ers suggested that the will of the voters should be overturned. Similarly in the UK, the members of parliament, while constitutionally not obligated to honor the Brexit vote, have thus far said they will respect the people’s choice.
The bottom line is that our system cannot be sustained on illusions about how it works any longer. There has to be replacement basis, one that likely involves creating a defensible and defended approach that is predicated on transparency (voluntary or not).