Please relax. I am not about to launch into a tirade about the current election, the current crisis or crises, or anything of the kind. Obviously I have no idea who you are, but I strongly suspect that you are as sick of hearing about this stuff as I am.
What I would like to do is put our current situation in a longer-term perspective. Why do we have the system of government that we do? And what does it have to do with what's going on in the nation today?
If you asked many people today what form of government they live under in the U.S., they would automatically say, "Democracy." Some who remember a bit more of their civics courses will say, "Representative democracy." Others who are more sophisticated may say, "Well, it's supposed to be a democracy, but it's been taken over by special interests."
In fact the U.S. is not a democracy, and it was never intended to be. It is a republic, and the difference between a republic and a democracy is a very interesting subject that is, unfortunately, not too well understood. What is even less known is why we have a republic and not a democracy.
As happens so often, the story goes back to Plato and Aristotle. They were among the first to frame anything like a coherent theory of political philosophy. It would be absurd to try to give a full account of their thought in an article like this one, but one thing they concluded was that there are basically three forms of government: government by one, by the few, and the many. Government by one person, if it is good, is called monarchy. If it is bad, it is called tyranny. (These are their terms, not mine.) Government by the few, if it is good, is called aristocracy (which literally means, "the rule of the best"). If it is bad, it is called oligarchy. Government by the many, if it is good, is called democracy. If it is bad, it is called mob rule. Democracy, in this sense, is not what we think of as democracy. Instead it is a system in which the people vote directly on the laws and, indeed, on everything. The classic town meeting of the smaller communities in New England is an example of direct democracy. So, to some extent, is the California system of approving some of the laws through referendums taken directly to the voters.
All of these forms of government, according to Plato and Aristotle, have their strengths and their weaknesses. If one man is running things and he is a good man, he can accomplish a great deal of good remarkably smoothly. If he is bad, he can be a monster and it will be very difficult to stop him. Hence, they said, rule by one is the best form of government when it is good and the worst when it is bad.
Democracy, by contrast, is extremely inefficient, since it requires getting a large mass of people to agree on something. This limits the good it can do, but it also limits the evil. So, said Plato and Aristotle, direct democracy is the least good form of government when it is good and the least bad when it is bad.
Unfortunately, forms of government are not stable, and, said the ancient philosophers, even a good specimen of government tends to degenerate into its bad form. Democracy deteriorates into mob rule; monarchy deteriorates into tyranny, and so on. Then there is a revolution, and a new form of government takes over, which is subject to the same process of decay.
Plato and Aristotle had no great optimism about fixing this sorry state of affairs (the Greeks in general had no concept of progress as we now understand it). But a couple of hundred years later, a Greek historian named Polybius thought he had found an exception.
In Polybius's day, the Roman Republic was gobbling up most of the known world. It was an astonishingly effective and sophisticated form of government. What accounted for its success? Polybius said that the Roman Republic was so brilliant because it represented a "mixed constitution." It combined all the best features of the three forms of government, so it was remarkably efficient and (he thought) immune to decay.
The Roman Republic of Polybius's time (his dates are roughly 203-122 B.C.) did have elements of all three forms of government. It had a kind of elected president, called the consul, except that the Romans were very frightened of the possibility of a tyrant taking over, so they had two consuls. Moreover, they were elected for one-year terms in order to further limit the amount of power they could grab. The Roman state had a legislative body called the Senate, which was elected directly by the people.
The Roman Republic was no more immune to decay than any other system of government. By the first century B.C., it had broken down to the point where an intermittent and decades-long civil war erupted. The first victor was Julius Caesar, who in 44 B.C. bullied the Senate into naming him dictator for life. Since this looked like tyranny, he was promptly assassinated by his foes. The civil war recommenced, and the winner of the second round was Caesar's great-nephew Octavian (later Augustus), who was much shrewder than his kinsman. He did not have himself named dictator. Instead he took over several legitimate offices (permanently) and proclaimed the "restoration of the Republic" in 27 B.C. Nevertheless, historians generally date the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire to this date.
This all may look like ancient history, and so it is. It would be a matter of merely academic interest if not for one little detail: the U.S. Constitution was set up in imitation of the Roman Republic, as interpreted by Polybius by way of the French philosopher the Baron de Montesquieu. Instead of the consuls, there is a president; there is a legislative body (one part of which is even called the Senate); and these leaders are elected by popular vote.
The Founding Fathers set up this form of government because they believed that direct democracy would lead to mob rule. On the other hand, they reasoned, if the ruling class (of which the Founding Fathers were definitely a part) ran things without any accountability, they would soon turn everything toward their own self-interest. And while it was necessary to have one man at the top running things, it was thought to be just as well if this man were replaced every four or eight years.
For all of the (entirely justifiable) complaints we have about our government, it has worked remarkably well. It has enabled the U.S. to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world.
Where, then, is our current malaise coming from? If you look back on the history of any country that has had a reasonably free system of government — republic or democracy – you will soon see that power polarizes between two main groups. One is the popular party, which represents the interest of the many. The other is the aristocratic or oligarchic party, which represents the power of the few — generally the rich.
Those of you who are interested in history and political philosophy can look back and see how these interest groups have fought and struggled over the centuries. In Greece, in the fifth century B.C., Athens, which was a real democracy, promoted the popular parties in other Greek states, just as the U.S. congratulates itself today on spreading democracy around the world. Its chief rival, Sparta, which was essentially an early and very ruthless version of the totalitarian state, supported the few. Their struggle came to blows, and it is known in the history books as the Peloponnesian War. It lasted from 431 to 404 B.C. (Sparta won.)
Athens, by the way, had its own political party that represented the few (it just wasn't in power very often in that period). The Athenians had nothing if not an ear for a high-sounding phrase, so this party called itself the kaloi k'agathoi: "the beautiful and good." The popular party was known more prosaically as simply the demos: the "people." The struggles between these two parties was a large factor in Athens's defeat in the war against Sparta.
Similarly, the Roman Republic fell apart largely because of the struggle between these two parties. The popular party was known as the populares (hence our own word); the party of the few were called the optimati (the best). Despite his enormous wealth, Julius Caesar was one of the populares. One of the sources of his power was the fact that he backed the people against the entrenched oligarchic interests that had taken over the Senate more or less permanently. Hence he was murdered by wealthy and aristocratic senators who weren't exactly happy with his stance.
Well, then, what does this mean for us today? These two eternal parties have manifested and are manifesting in American political life, and for all the talk about third parties and whatnot, they aren't going away anytime soon. The Republicans represent the interests of the few; the Democrats represent the interests of the many. You can see this in the current presidential election, where the Republican candidate has absolutely no interest in increasing taxes on the rich. He can't and he won't: they are his base. The Democratic candidate is, on the other hand, quite comfortable proposing a tax increase on the richest 5% of the population. They are not his base. Similarly, in the 1990s a Democratic president was able to balance the budget partly by imposing a hefty tax increase on the rich. Many of the rich did not like this and took certain steps (honest and not-so-honest) so that someone who favored them would be elected afterward.
I grant you that this all sounds simplistic. There seem to be so many exceptions that the model seems to fall apart. How do you explain the fact that the comfortable professional classes have been moving more and more toward the Democratic party, whereas many blue-collar people have been voting Republican for the last couple of decades? The only way you can explain this is by supposing that people often vote against their own interests.
And that is just what they do (usually unknowingly, of course). In an interview conducted shortly before his retirement, the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan remarked about how many of his constituents regularly voted against their own interests, particularly in impoverished upstate New York.
One reason for this lies in the fundamental weakness of pure democracy: the masses are easily manipulated. Comedian Lewis Black lampooned this fact in his "Voters Against Voters" routine on "The Daily Show" a week or two ago. If the people are so wonderful and wise, Black was saying, why are they so easily seduced by the most vicious and deceitful forms of political advertising? I lived in California for eighteen years, and I was continually astonished how the referendum measures (which often had to do with intricate and confusing matters such as insurance regulation) were decided by absurdly simplistic commercials, which often portrayed a given measure as doing the exact opposite of what it was really going to do.
In the contemporary U.S., there is, I think, another factor at work. Many voters identify with a social class considerably higher than the one they belong to. Many white- and blue-collar workers subconsciously think it is somehow classier to vote Republican. That the Democrats have been stigmatized in recent decades as the party of minorities and the poor has just made this process easier. Some historians contend that this process is no accident, that it was the result of a careful, decades-long program on the part of the powers-that-be to convince the average American that the very people who were striving to advance his lot were somehow closet Bolsheviks.
Whether or not it is classier to vote Republican is not an issue that I care to address. But it does seem to be the case that a large number of Americans imagine (or wish) that they are part of the few and subconsciously identify with them rather than with their own class. Why else would so many middle- and working-class people find it easier to get worked up about the "niggers on welfare" than about the much higher sums of money regularly and blithely handed over to the wealthy?
There are, I realize, many subtle and complex issues of class rivalry, compounded by ethnic prejudice, that it would take a weighty volume to address. It is a delicate issue. Often even bringing up the notion of class struggle tags one as a Marxist. Marx was mistaken, I believe, in saying that all history is the history of class struggle and that the direction of history would march irresistibly toward a dictatorship of the proletariat. But he was right in saying that class struggle is a crucial part of political reality. But then practically every political theorist since antiquity would agree to that.
Is it possible that most "values" issues are ways of blurring and obscuring these far more substantial issues? In any case, the typical "values" perspective — which usually implies some form of cultural conservatism — has to clear up its inconsistencies if it is to deserve to be taken seriously. What does it mean to be "pro-life" when you are scouring the map for the next country to invade? What does it mean to preen yourself on your Christianity when you show nothing but contempt for Christ's commands to help the poor? What does it mean to sacralize the American flag when you are trampling on the freedoms it stands for?
Some may contend that I am urging people to put their own interests and their own pocketbooks ahead of the common good. And it is true that there are times when one must do this. But it is one thing to genuinely see the common good and quite another to be bamboozled into confusing the interests of wealth and power with the common good. It is reasonable to ask Americans to sacrifice to make their nation great. It is not reasonable to ask them to put up with decrepit roads and wretched schools so that the rich can keep on accumulating vacation houses.
It may seem that I am subtly arguing in favor of one class interest — what I have been calling the many — and demonizing the other. This is not the case. These polarities are organic to any state. The natural order is some kind of equilibrium between the two. On the one hand, the interests of money and property are integral to the stability and prosperity of a nation (as we have been reminded rather often for the past couple of weeks). On the other hand, the powers-that-be, if left unchecked, will eventually succumb to the temptations of greed and arrogance. If everything is working well, the imbalance will correct itself. But the greater and more extreme the imbalance, the greater the correction.
It seems to me at this point in American history that the interests of the few have vastly outstripped not only those of the many, but those of the common good. There is an imbalance, and it is going to be corrected. The question that faces us is this: will it take place now, when the correction will (all in all) still be comparatively mild, or will it have to wait for another five or ten years, when it will shake the nation irreparably? After all, the American republic is no more guaranteed immortality than was its ancestor in Rome.
Photo by filippo minelli, courtesy of Creative Commons license.