Let’s begin by positing two premises. First, America is number one on the global stage. America is only super power militarily and economically, and remains solidly the petri dish of innovation. America also remains the aspiration of freedom-seeking people and model for other nations desiring to build their own free states.
Second, by design America never was a pure democracy, which James Madison called “spectacles of turbulence and contention” that invariably suffer violent deaths. From the outset, America has been a representative democracy, a republic governed by elites arisen from the populace much like how elite actors, professional sports stars, and corporate CEO’s move up through their ranks.
A corollary to that is America is a class-based society. While our ideal is equal protection before the law, the reality is that social equality is a myth. Classes arose from wealth, heritage, lineage, culture, and profession. From them come untitled royalty, people of status.
As a people then, we are conflicted and insecure. On the one hand, we hold to the maxim we all pull our trousers on one leg at a time. One person, one vote. Paradoxically, we worship privilege and want it for ourselves and feel inferior when we don’t achieve it. We worship superstars, besieging them for autographs and the privilege of shaking their hands. We want to drive the hottest vehicles, from BMW’s to Priuses, to make a statement, live in classy areas, and wear trendy fashions. All to demote privilege.
Therein lie the seeds of our discontent.
In “Democracies end when they become too democratic,” Andrew Sullivan draws on Plato who saw democracy as the fairest system but, nonetheless, has the potential of becoming unstable as it nears its late stage. In that late-stage democracy, elites, especially the rich as wealth disparity increases, come under attack. As Sullivan says there’s “no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
“And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.”
Sullivan details the progression into a tyranny as delineated by Plato. (I truncated the following passage.)
The tyrant “is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time. He makes his move by ‘taking over a particularly obedient mob’ and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. He rides a backlash to excess and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.”
Sound like someone we’ve come to know? Is his rise the indicator we’re in the late-stage era of our democracy?
There are those who argue that our democratic system has been collapsing over the past quarter century. Over the years, I have decried the rising threat of a plutocracy or oligarchy as people become more distracted and immersed into their entertainment and survival. But the election of Barack Obama stymied that energy to a degree. This electoral season affirms that.
In the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, despite her big donors compared to Bernie Sanders’ “common people” funders, has had to work hard to stave off Sanders’ challenge. In the Republican Party, every large-donor supported candidate has bit the dust in the face of Donald Trump’s self-funded campaign.
Further, the rise of the Internet, social media, and 24-hour cable “news” has completely flipped the old ways. If anything, we are more democratic than ever.
Tangential to that is, as Sullivan points out, the surfacing of “what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.”
We have lost the Walter Cronkite authority deciphering for us what is true and what isn’t to be replaced with the Rush Limbaugh showboat. It’s the reason the Sarah Palin and Trump types gain credibility despite their glaring deficiencies.
“Without such common empirical ground,” says Sullivan, “the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.”
Next week: The collapse of the center and the threat of an “ism” to replace the republic.