Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Garden of History: What the Classic Theories Tell Us About Why Democracies Fail

        The 2016 election raises a question political philosophers have been asking since ancient Athens: whether it's possible for a democracy to sustain itself over the long run. We tend to think that 227 years of Constitutional government means we're a solid gold success in the democracy business and will never go bankrupt. As systems of government go, we've surely had a good run, but in human society as in other fields of human endeavor, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
            Nor can we run the clock from the beginning of The United States of America, because the Constitutional framers never intended us to be a democracy. The consensus of the framers, as is clear from the beliefs of James Madison and the others was, one, democracy was inherently unstable and would lead to 'mob role' that in turn would produce tyranny; and two, that political partisanship, or "parties" as we know them, is bad for self-government.
            Before Washington's first term was over, the Constitutional system of government had already given rise to parties -- Jefferson and friends on one side, Hamilton on the other. In fact, an interesting irony, Hamilton's (and John Adams's) gang, known as Federalists, began defaming Jefferson's followers as "Democrats," a slur word used to caricature opponents as believers in the outrageous idea that "everyone" should be able to vote. Giving the franchise to all -- all adult white males, that is -- would inevitably lead to pandering, demagoguery, vote-buying, uninformed voting, the election of unsuitable candidates, and (ultimately) mob rule. If you had no qualification for voting, how would you get informed, thoughtful, responsible decisions at the polls? No qualifications, no quality.
            Jefferson and friends did not seek universal male suffrage. They did not call themselves democrats; they called themselves "Republicans." The term meant a government chosen by an electorate who would put the "res publica" -- public matters, from the Latin -- ahead of personal gain or private interests. But history shows that your enemies get to name you (as in "Obamacare").
            Universal male suffrage, supported by people who came to adopt the term "democracy" for the belief that the right to vote should be extended to all adult males, and no longer reserved for property owners, did not arrive until the Jacksonian wing of Jefferson's party gained control of their movement. The power of newly enfranchised voters succeeded in electing Andrew Jackson President in 1828 over John Quincy Adams, the last gasp of the old Federalist party.
            It is fair to say that Jackson's "common man" supporters were not qualified to participate in political decision-making in the sense the Constitutional framers themselves were. They had not studied the Classical thinkers of Ancient Greece and Roman times and the Enlightenment political theorists of England and France. The US Constitution is an 18th century document, the product of an era when educated men studied Greek and Roman history and read the founders of western traditions of thought, Plato,Aristotle, Cicero, and the Roman Stoics.
            For Western civilization Plato wrote the book on political philosophy. It's called "The Republic." His spokesman, Socrates, analyzes all of the known systems of the Greek city states, plus examples from the rest of the world his time had knowledge of, and discovered flaws in them all. The one-man rule of kingship suffers from the weaknesses of any imperfect human being and the contingencies of succession. Rule by a monied class, called Oligarchy, breaks down as power corrupts and declines into decadence. Democracy, a natural stage in political development, falls into chaos as ordinary, unphilosophical passion-driven men place their own interests and desires over the good of the whole, fragmenting the state. The 'mob' of uneducated, uncultivated ordinary men is easily swayed by the demagogue's appeals to the lower passions of their undisciplined nature. They give power to the demagogue, turning him into a tyrant, and we are back to one-man rule.
            This fear is directly responsible for one of the arcane features of the US Constitution that plagues us still, namely the Electoral College. Since the framers feared a pure democratic expression of will for the chief executive would not lead to the best choices, the Constitution placed several filters for voters to pass through. The first is that we would not vote as a nation, but as states (we are still, anachronistically, the 'United States'). Even then we do not vote directly for our state's choice for President. We vote for 'electors.' These would be wise people who would meet with wise colleagues from other states and collectively choose a President. There was no 'George Washington' on your ballot when you voted for Prez in 1788.
            The practice of voting for a set of electors who favored a particular candidate for that office came after Washington's eight years in office. By then the groundwork for the party system had emerged, Adams heading one group that favored a strong central government, Jefferson leading those who favored restraining federal power. Strictly pledged support for a particular party's candidate came still later, tied to the 'Jacksonian democracy' movement that significantly broadened the voter base.
            The electorate was broadened further when former slaves, male adults, were granted the right to vote by the 15th Amendment and women by the 19th Amendment. The voting age was lowered to 18 in the sixties. But even then no one in America has ever gone to the polls to vote directly for President. We're still stuck with voting for "electors" in a system that gives disproportionate power to smaller states, as it was always intended to do. Hence, the system can give the victory to a candidate who receives fewer votes than a rival, but wins more electors by victors by small pluralities in more states.
            In terms familiar to students of political philosophy Americans last week elected a demagogue who manipulated their passions and resentments and appealed to their lower natures, just as Plato and the traditional school of political philosophy suggested would happen. Arguably it's happened before. Universal suffrage has put poor choices in the White House; voters did not know much about Warren G. Harding, but 1920 was a Republican year so he was elected. Voters were exposed to large doses of George W. Bush in mass-media 2000, but they voted for him anyway.
            But how is that the American system of government has survived so long without suffering the breakdown into tyranny foreseen by the classical theory. Philosopher Cornell West provided a theoretical answer in a timely essay published recently in the Boston Globe during the latter stages of the campaign. He cited American philosopher John Dewey, of the 'pragmatist school,' who replied to Plato's critique of democracy and developed arguments for how American democracy could avoid the pitfalls the ancients foresaw. Here's West's summary of Dewey's position:
            "For over a century, the best response to Plato’s critique of democracy has been John Dewey’s claim that precious and fragile democratic experiments must put a premium on democratic statecraft (public accountability, protection of rights and liberties, as well as personal responsibility, embedded in a fair rule of law) and especially on democratic soulcraft (integrity, empathy, and a mature sense of history)."
            And while Plato argued that the lower elements of human nature -- "hedonism and narcissism, mendacity and venality" -- would destroy democracy, Dewey proposed democracies could fight back by "robust democratic education" and "courageous exemplars." These exemplars would rise from a political environment fertilized by what West called "the spread of critical intelligence, moral compassion, and historical humility."
            Here's the link to West's op-ed:
            West links his thinking in other ways to the philosophical tradition. Since Plato's great work "The Republic" sought to establish the ideal state, what system of government did he ultimately favor? In brief, a small group of qualified counselors would train and choose rulers who could be trusted to govern from what Greek philosophers called the rational part of the human soul. This theory has been called rule by "the philosopher king."
            Interestingly, West's prescription for a better future for American democracy relies on superior individuals as well. While our current politics exposed our 'spiritual bankruptcy' in our leadership and values, he proposed a solution. Here's the quote:
            "Instead we need a democratic soulcraft of wisdom, justice, and peace — the dreams of courageous freedom fighters like Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Edward Said, and Dorothy Day."
            An interesting list, far from mainstream party politics. Only the first name is widely familiar. Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi, who left Europe in 1940 and found inspiration in the Hebrew prophets to advocate for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Said, a Palestinian and Columbia University professor, was an influential critic of Western colonialism and of Israel. Day, an American convert to Catholicism, helped found the Catholic Worker Movement that used nonviolent direct action to improve the lives of the poor. 
            And remember West's list of essential democratic virtues:  
Critical intelligence. Moral compassion. Historical humility.
            Do any of these terms make you think of the new President-elect? Or the likely leaders of both houses of Congress?
            Lacking such virtues, and such exemplars, in our elected leaders we may be headed into the destabilizing times predicted for us by classical political theory. We will find out soon. If he follows the classic pattern, American democracy's newly elected demagogue will seek to consolidate all government power in his own hands.
            Let's hope there something the philosophers missed.