It’s a different view of democracy. The difference between the Swedish democratic system and that of the U.S. is enormous. Here we choose a parliament that is supposed to represent the wishes of the people. There, the election only allows people to decide who is going to lead the country. No wonder then that candidates don’t discuss policy with one another, but instead make personal attacks, Torbjörn Tännsjö writes.

Many Swedish commentators have been surprised by the personal attacks in the American presidential election. Why are they just trash-talking each other? Why are they not discussing policy? These questions are based on a misunderstanding. The candidates are not supposed to discuss policy. The American political system is radically different from the Swedish political system. In Sweden, we expect candidates in general elections to have a clear position on important topics. In the U.S., policies are, to say the least, less important. That is how their political system is built.

Famous speeches highlighting the importance of democracy hide the important differences between different political systems, referring especially to those often lumped together as democracies. There is an enormous difference between the system used in Sweden, and the one practiced in the United States. This difference is created and maintained by different political institutions supported by radically different philosophies. I will, in this article, focus on these philosophies.

Democracy in Sweden, just like in large parts of continental Europe, is built on what you might call a populistic idea of the democratic political system. It is shaped in such a way as to enable the people, through a parliament and a government, to rule themselves. You could say that the representative democracy we use is an attempt to copy a radical direct democracy. If there are too many of us in a country, you cannot, like the philosopher Rousseau had in mind, meet under the oaks, discuss, and put proposals to a vote. However, by voting for political parties representing certain political ideologies, the people can choose a parliament to represent them.

The parties will make their views clear during an election campaign, and discuss these positions with each other. A parliament is then elected which is relatively representative in terms of the views of people in general on key policy topics. The proportional electoral system is key in shaping such an outcome. The parliament will then appoint a government accountable to the parliament for their policies which in turn represent the wishes of the people. It is therefore reasonable to say that all political power stems from the people.

Of course, gaps between representatives and the people they represent can occur. Sometimes this is completely innocent. Those we choose to represent us get the opportunity to examine issues further and get a deeper insight into problems put in front of them. This can make their considered views different from our unconsidered ones. Presumably, perhaps, we would take the same view if we had the time or inclination to give the problems as much thought as they do.

The gap between the people and their representatives can also be of a more sinister nature. This might be because representatives become too far removed from the reality of common people; they receive privileges and develop views associated with special interests. However, when this happens, we the people, can in theory get engaged in party politics and replace these representatives with others. North American democracy has different ideological roots. One philosopher has articulated this ideology particularly well, and that is the Austrian economist and political academic Joseph Schumpeter. This topic was covered by his book “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy,” published in 1943. Many political scientists in the U.S. have since followed in his footsteps.

Schumpeter insisted that the idea of democracy as one where the people rule is confused. It is not desirable, or possible, for the people to rule themselves through political institutions. The people’s job is only to choose who will lead them. Between elections, there should not be any “backseat driving,” as he puts it.

Schumpeter’s criticism of the idea of a government of the people is complex. The whole idea of a government of the people is meta-philosophical nonsense in his view. Even if people can grasp the idea of a people’s government, the fundamental problem is that people in general don’t have any political views. In general, apathy and political ignorance rule. This is not an issue if we don’t convince ourselves that normal people should be involved in policy making. We are good at taking care of our own private concerns, but ill equipped to tackle key policy decisions. A good political system should therefore spare us such things.

With that in mind, is democracy even possible? In a devalued “North American” sense, all that is required for a democracy to be present is that people in a system in a somewhat open election choose their own leader.

This is precisely what is happening in the U.S. in front of our eyes right now. At the core of this process is the fact that the leader isn’t elected based on political merit. It would also be odd if complex policy decisions could be reduced to a binary choice between two candidates. As explained above, this was also never the intention. It is the person who is and who should be at the center of an American presidential election.

Schumpeter cynically states that it is reasonable to expect that candidates will emerge from a narrow socioeconomic segment. Many have seen it as problematic that the presidential candidates are part of the same privileged elite. Schumpeter instead sees it as a strength within the system. He appears to be of the opinion that within this narrow segment there are competent leaders. When after a period a leader is forced to meet the people once more, she is forced to stay sharp and to lead competently. If she doesn’t, she will be replaced by somebody else within the same narrow segment of society.

I believe that there is a paradox in Schumpeter’s theory. If people are not trusted to rule themselves, why should they be able to choose their leader? This is the real danger of a system such as the American one, I feel. Many are not motivated to even go to the ballot box when the task is limited to a choice between two people.

We should be pleased that we do not have the American form of democracy in our country. In the meantime, we all dread the result of the American election. Regardless of our feelings around the potential outcome, we should stop wondering why the candidates don’t discuss policy with each other. If this is what they had done rather than attacking the character of the opposition, they would have completely misunderstood their role in the process.