“We are going through a very strange time. You know you are living in it but you don't know what is going to happen at the end.”
Preface: The program I use to send these newsletters, Substack, has vacuumed up every e-mail address that’s ever come into contact with mine. It seems I’m sending this newsletter to every spammer who’s ever tried to give me a quote on a walk-in bathroom or sell me a handsome product like this:
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How my e-mail address got into the hands of someone who thought I’d be eager to buy that, I do not know. I assure you I’ve never searched for it on Amazon.
So, if you’re reading this, you may be a spammer. Welcome! Please sign up! It’s free!
Or you may be someone who never expected ever to hear from me again, and you may be puzzled or even disturbed that I’ve sent you an e-mail.
If so, don’t worry. It has absolutely no significance. If you and I had some huge falling out years ago over something idiotic and we’re not on speaking terms, don’t worry that I’m about to do something awkward like call you. Rest assured that I still hate you.
Let’s consider the idea that democracies are inherently doomed.
It is a view of long pedigree. Homer, Aristotle writes, “says that ‘it is not good to have a rule of many,’” although he qualifies this: “whether '[Homer] means by this corporate rule, or the rule of many individuals, is uncertain.”
I probably shouldn’t quibble with Aristotle about what Homer meant. I assume his study of Homer was more thorough than mine. But I just looked it up, out of curiosity, and I don’t see how you can read it in context and be uncertain:
we cannot all be kings; it is not well that there should be many masters; one man must be supreme- one king to whom the son of scheming Saturn has given the sceptre of sovereignty over you all."
That’s not my point. The point is that people have been suspicious of democracy since the first oral epics.
(If you haven’t read that in a while, try it again. I hadn’t really thought about it for about thirty years, to be honest. But it’s really good: classic for a reason.)
Pericles was an ardent democrat. His sensibilities sound remarkably modern:
Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
I first read Thucydides for class when I was about fourteen. Like all Americans raised on a diet of Schoolhouse Rock, I got to the funeral oration and concluded the Athenians were the good guys. Obviously, they were. Pericles sounded like an American. That’s exactly what I thought America was all about. The year was 1982.
I kept reading. It mostly bored me rigid. Thucydides has been boring adolescents rigid since the Fifth Century. Everyone’s forced to read Thucydides when they’re too young to really get into it. That’s okay, they should be forced to do it anyway.
I was dutifully ploughing through the campaigns, sieges, attacks, and counter-attacks, revolts, armistices, summers blurring into summers—just as the corn was getting ripe, the Peloponnesians and their allies invaded Attica under the command of Archidamus, son of Zeuxidamus, king of the Lacedaemonians, and sat down and ravaged the land; the Athenian horse as usual attacking the—when, maybe halfway through, some guy in my class let the cat out of the bag.
I told him he had no idea what he was talking about and haughtily suggested he actually read the book.
I was so certain. Of course Athens couldn’t lose. Athens was the democracy!
This was back before Google, so it took me a while firmly to establish the awful truth. I’m so glad my hangdog expression upon discovering it was not memorialized eternally on Facebook. I feel bad for kids these days.
Consider what this tells us. I was so well-indoctrinated as an American—the democracy is the good guy and the good guy always wins—that I knew, I was certain, that Athens would win the Peloponnesian War. It was unthinkable to me that this wasn’t so.
Thucydides was skeptical of Pericles. Democracy might be okay, he concedes, but only if Pericles is in charge.
Aristotle shared Plato’s dim view of democracy. I was too young for Aristotle when I read him for the first time, too. (I’ll explain why teenagers must nonetheless be forced to do it, but some other time.)
Aristotle thought democracy was a “defective and perverted form” of governance. Wow, that’s a weird thing to say, I thought. His seemed a very ancient and irrelevant concern. The more democracy you have, according to Aristotle, the worse things would be? I dismissed that. Wrong, Aristotle! You ancient Greek tinpot despot.
… The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, and refer all things to the popular assembly. And therefore they grow great, because the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their hands the votes of the people, who are too ready to listen to them.
The Founding Fathers shared these views, which is why we have a republic, not a democracy. So I’m not quite sure why “democracy” became the lustrous word it did for Americans of my age, the word with such a hold over my teenage mind. I suspect the answer to that question is important.
These days we have gloomy political scientists like Shawn Rosenberg theorizing afresh that democracies are inherently doomed.
Rosenberg made a splash recently at a conference of political psychologists in Lisbon by claiming to have proven—scientifically—that the ancients had it dead to rights. We’ve become too democratic, he explains, and just as the ancients warned, this excess of democracy has us on a straight shot to tyranny.
From the abstract:
Drawing on a wide range of research in political science and psychology, I argue that citizens typically do not have the cognitive or emotional capacities required [for democratic governance]. Thus they are typically left to navigate in political reality that is ill-understood and frightening. Populism offers an alternative view of politics and society which is more readily understood and more emotionally satisfying. In this context, I suggest that as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, this structural weakness is more clearly exposed and consequential, and the vulnerability of democratic governance to populism becomes greater. The conclusion is that democracy is likely to devour itself. [I have corrected his punctuation and grammar throughout.]
I wasn’t there, but Rick Shenkman reported for Politico that his presentation gravely disturbed the assembled crowd. What bothered them wasn’t the that Rosenberg had “gone beyond pessimism into outright defeatism.” That merely “stirred” them. But they were riled, he reports, by his embrace of “a kind of reverence for elitism no longer fashionable in the academy.”
A very small, acid pleasure is to be found in the thought of that crowd being riled by the idea.
As Rosenberg continues,
a key weakness of democratic governance is it lacks the citizenry it requires. Consequently it is subject to a people it empowers that lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities to assimilate liberal democracy’s cultural definitions and norms, to function in its institutional organizations and to participate in its public sphere. The claim I make here about the nature of the citizens in modern democracies, particularly the American one, is not new—
—it’s not at all new, as I’ve just said. It is ancient. But as he notes, it is also modern. It was “clearly reflected,” he writes, in “Madison’s efforts to counter Jefferson’s optimism.”
Federalist 10 is in fact an extended meditation upon the problem. “Pure democracies,” Madison warns,
have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
J.S. Mill considered the same problem. He acknowledged its seriousness. He believed it could be solved through free speech and better education.
The 19th century must have been wonderful.
In the shadow of the collapse of democracy in Europe and the Second World War, Hannah Arendt—echoing Schopenhauer—concluded, in Rosenberg’s words, that
the vast majority of citizens do not have the cognitive capacity or emotional wherewithal to act as reflective, critical subjects or self-directing actors. Instead they are prone to thoughtlessness, insecurity and fear in a way that makes them dependent on external direction. Therefore the people are always susceptible to the influence of populist demagogues and approving of the authoritarian regimes they seek to create …
Rosenberg believes he has a fresh foundation for the idea that democracy will end in chaos, or worse, because people are just too stupid for it.
The last sixty years of social science research, he writes,
has [sic] been largely ignored by theorists of liberal democracy. Partly this may reflect the isolation of different lines of political science inquiry and the consequent relative inattention of theorists to empirical research. Additionally this may reflect the liberal commitments of much Anglo-American political theory.
In other words, he thinks the research has been ignored because we don’t want to face it. Because Athens has to win.
What does the research say? Nothing you don’t know already if you’ve ever read the comments on The Washington Post or watched Watters’ World.
Academic research, he writes, has confirmed that American citizens know absolutely nothing and are pretty much the last people we’d want making decisions about how we’re governed.
The research … indicates that despite the public schooling of several generations of Americans through the age of 18 and the widespread availability of mass mediated political information, they still seem to have very little information regarding democratic institutions or contemporary political problems. … not only are they not adequately informed, but they also do not seem to integrate the particular information they have into some broader understanding or perspective.
He cites a considerable academic literature on cognition and political opinions, all of which has converged on the same conclusion:
citizens do not think in the rational, reflective, integrative way suggested by democratic theory and associated conceptions of governance. Rather people’s thought is fragmentary, a matter of prejudices and prior bits of knowledge that are cued by present circumstances and then applied to them. …
In sum, people’s social and political responses are not a product of considered decision. Rather they are unself-conscious reactions that are conditioned by immediate contexts and enduring biological predispositions. That is not to suggest that reasoned justifications cannot be offered to others or even oneself. However, these will be nothing more than post facto and largely conventional rationalizations of what is in fact a non-rational, unreasoned process.
… the existing research suggests that, for the most part, people lack the requisite cognitive capacities for integration and abstraction needed for the kind of systemic understanding, considered judgment and critical reflection that liberal democracy requires of its citizenry. Consequently the understandings and evaluations they generate will be largely fragmentary, emotionally mediated, contextually conditioned, conventional and prejudicial.
The evidence that he’s right about that seems strong to me. First, it just sounds right. That’s pretty much the way I experience people. Very few of them seem at all rational.
He’s also got a lot of well-conducted studies on his side. Many are properly designed; they control, as best possible, for experimenter bias.
Clearly, our politicians believe we lack any meaningful cognitive capabilities much beyond the ability to point and grunt. They spend a fortune to run ads that have been laboriously scoured of any hint of “systemic understanding, considered judgment, and critical reflection.”
Remark: That’s an advertisement for a Congresswoman, not a car.
Not a word is relevant to the job she’s applying for.
Interviewer 1: So, I’m Charlie, and I’m Congress-dot-com’s Chief Human Resource Officer, and this is our VP of Operations, Gaéton—his, I mean their pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘their’—and they’ll be joining us today, and well, Gaéton?
Interviewer 2: Well! Nice to meet you, Valerie. Thanks for coming to see us today. We were impressed with your CV, looks like you’ve had some real adventures! That must have been neat! [awkward pause] … Well, let’s just open the kimono here. My question, given your—um—adventurous background, is whether you’d be a good long-term fit with our corporate culture. We’re really all about legislating for the public good. [long, awkward silence].
Interviewer 1: We’d really like to know about your background in writing legislation, studying the costs and benefits of a bill—oh, and negotiating, because that’s a big part of this job. Can you tell us about a time when you’ve done that before? [long, awkward silence].
Interviewer 1: So Valerie, where do you see yourself, professionally, in five years?
Candidate: [icy] Settling scores.
These candidates can’t be spending that amount of money to run ads like this because they’re idiots who’ve never given a moment’s thought to the question, “What makes people vote the way they do?”
I don’t believe it just hasn’t occurred to them that voters might prefer something less asinine—that maybe we’d like a commercial focused on the details, the plan, a commercial that allows us methodically to think through the candidate’s ideas, perhaps one without that distracting soundtrack, so we can really concentrate? In fact, could you just send us a detailed, written proposal, like you’d send an adult? Save the fortune you’re spending on these childish, idiotic commercials and donate it to pay down our national debt?
Nope. They’re making these things, clearly, because every bit of research at their disposal, and every natural experiment they’ve conducted, tells them Rosenberg is right. Our thoughts are “fragmentary, a matter of prejudices and prior bits of knowledge cued by present circumstances.”
As Plato said.
Rosenberg writes that social scientists have largely tried not to think too hard about the political implications of their findings:
[R]esearch that document[s] citizen limitations often include speculative claims that, despite the evidence, people have the requisite capacity to be competent and this would be realized if they were better informed, more motivated, less consumed by the rest of their lives or more communicatively engaged with others. In this vein, there is little consideration of the possibility that these factors are the outcomes of limited competence rather than its precondition. In sum, there is an acknowledgment of the problem, but one that diminishes its significance and does not pursue its broader implication.
The psychological research is less forgiving. For decades, the work on social cognition regarded the conception of the individual as a reflective, integrative, self-directing agent as a straw man, one that was contradicted by a large and ever growing body of evidence. The result is a view of people as inherently fast and sub-rational (as opposed to slow and considered) thinkers who are heuristic-, schema- and emotionally-driven processors of information. How they think and react is thus not circumstantial and readily remedied, but is instead indicative of who people really are. This is human nature and therefore something which is certainly not easily, and perhaps not even possibly, changed.
However, political theory is not the business of psychology, and psychologists have not considered the implications of these findings for the functioning of political institutions and the conduct of political practices.
Populism, he argues—the right-wing species in particular—is simply much easier for people to understand, and in this sense a more natural form of government.
Individuals are not abandoned to the impossible task of understanding things and making judgments on their own, but are offered the necessary authoritative guidance and direction. Codes of good behavior provide concrete direction of what one is to do, when. Individuals are also not left alone. Group-conferred identities and conventional values, such as loyalty, bind individuals to the people. Right-wing populism also provides a simpler, more readily comprehensible understanding of political life. The largely incomprehensible complexities of democratic power sharing, fair regulation, and proper representation are replaced with readily-understood hierarchical structures of administrative control. Power emanates from the top, a top which embodies and promotes the national interest, an interest that individual citizens, left to their own devices, cannot be expected to understand or know how to pursue. Right-wing populism also offers the concrete definition of we, the people and nation (and who they, others, are not) in terms of shared characteristics and behaviors, the kind of definition that resonates with how people think and is readily comprehended.
He doesn’t say whether he believes left-wing authoritarianism to be similarly easy to grasp, or whether he thinks democracies are vulnerable to it for the same reason.
But I’ll speculate, based on his ideas. On the left, there remains a widespread belief that there has never truly been a left-wing revolution. The neo-Trotskyite opinion, held in sincerity by many on the hard left, is that left-wing revolutions around the world have been “hijacked”—usually, in this theory, by forces of the right. This was how Trotsky understood the fate of the Russian Revolution: Stalin’s triumph represented the “Soviet Thermidor.”
Most hardcore leftist revolutionaries believe, sincerely, either that every left-wing revolution to date wasn’t truly a left-wing revolution, or that the revolution began in the proper spirit, but got hijacked by forces of the right. They believe “hijacking by the right,” not “properly-applied left-wing ideology,” accounts for the murder and the misery.
If they were correct in their analysis—and they are not, but that’s another story—this might suggest to them that the very last thing they should wish for is a left-wing revolution, because all evidence suggests that that is the express train to a far-right dictatorship.
Let’s take seriously the claim that in some sense, there’s never been a truly communist government. This is true, if trivial; the communist ideal is unattainable, both as far as we know and probably in principle, so inevitably left-wing revolutions fail to achieve the revolution’s promises. They never become global revolutions; they never significantly improve a country’s material standards; they always immiserate.
If you reduce it to that, you could say the natural trajectory of a left-wing revolution is toward “right-wing dictatorship.” It requires overlooking many important points about what people say they believe, and the aims they prioritize in power, but Rosenberg’s argument can be made to work that way.
By the time Stalin and Bukharin wrote “Socialism in One Country,” it was clear something was wrong, very wrong, with the theoretical apparatus. Between 1917 and 1923, no fewer than 30 communist revolutions (that I can remember) had broken out around the globe. The world’s revolutionary zest must have looked quite promising to them. But these Comintern-inspired revolutions failed, the world around. That wasn’t what the theory predicted.
“Socialism in one country” was devised as a madcap theoretical improvisation. At that point, you could say, Bolshevik communism became communist-in-name-only. It became, of necessity, Soviet communism—or Russian imperial communism. So, it became similar in some of the most important ways to right-wing authoritarianism. This had the advantage of being something much easier for Russian citizens to understand.
The Bolsheviks who seized power in 1917 were anti-nationalists, they said (but they said it in Russian); in non-Russian territories, Bolshevik power was widely understood to be, “‘Anti-nationalist’ my Polish ass. We know these fuckers, they’re the same g-d-damned Russian imperialists.”
Then came the Great Patriotic War—for the Motherland—and the pretense of internationalism was dropped for good. In 1944, the Soviet Union abandoned The Internationale and began singing its own national anthem. By this point, you could describe it, with some plausibility, as a right-wing authoritarian state.
If we define the terms in this simple way, Rosenberg’s theory can account for all of this. Left-wing revolutions succeed or endure only to the extent that they mimic right-wing authoritarianism, because people understand right-wing authoritarianism far more readily.
This suggests we’ve vastly overestimated the appeal of communism. And true: We failed to appreciate that nationalism (ours!), not communism (to each according to his needs) was the sentiment that made the Vietcong pop out of those spider-holes, no matter how much defoliant we dumped on the vegetation.
If we describe “left-wing” and “right-wing” this capaciously, we lose important historic distinctions. But I’m just trying to work through Rosenberg’s ideas here. (He either didn’t think it necessary to account for this or didn’t think it relevant to contemporary politics. Or maybe he’s a leftist and doesn’t want to think about it. I don’t know.)
But yes, by this stage of the paper I’m becoming unpleasantly persuaded by his argument that nationalism and authoritarianism feel more natural to most people than liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy is a recent experiment. Why hasn’t it always been the norm? It’s proven more difficult to export than we thought. Human beings sure do seem to like organizing themselves in strict hierarchies, on a tribal or national basis, with a single leader, or a single party that dictates the rules in a simple way and just gets things done, without all the hassle and the bickering of a parliament.
The concepts involved in “liberal democracy” truly do seem to confuse people. If you followed the weird French-Ahmari feud, which would have been merely ridiculous were it not so disturbing, you can see that clearly. Now, I don’t think Ahmari is incapable of grasping the fundamentals of “liberal democracy.” He’s obviously perfectly capable. I think he’s considered the fundamentals and rejected them. He’s a theocrat. (Strange that he should be, since his previous experience of theocracy was not a positive one.)
I suspect, though, that many people who listened to that debate and found themselves rooting for Ahmari were rooting for him because they’re not able to grasp what French is saying. They just find Ahmari’s views more natural.
So if liberal democracy doesn’t work, how does Rosenberg account for the success of the United States? By any imaginable measure we’re the wealthiest and most powerful polity in history, and certainly we make the most compulsively watchable reality TV.
Well, he says, “something extra” is needed to compensate for the citizen deficit.
This is where it becomes interesting, because from this point on, he has no evidence; he’s just speculating.
“Ironically,” he writes, “in democracies like the US, the something [extra] is a dominant elite that supports democratic culture and institutions.”
They are motivated to do so partly because a substantial [number] of the elites have some understanding of the relative protection and functionality that democratic governance provides. This is not to understate the issues of self-interest. These elites, as evident in their status as elites, are evident beneficiaries of the system they are protecting. Elites support democratic governance by ensuring that the mass of people participate, speak, and act in ways that are at least appear consistent with the demands of democratic practice. This involves providing authoritative interpretations of democratic institutions and culture that translate these more complex entities and abstract orientations into simpler, more concrete terms.
How do the elites exercise what this oligarchic-democratic authority? In several ways.
In part, this is accomplished through control of the institutions which orchestrate how individuals interact with one another. These include political institutions like the Congress, the courts and the law, state and city administrations, and the police, and economic institutions like banks and corporations. Via these institutions and the rewards and punishments that are administered by them, elites can manage citizen action so that it approximates, even if inadequately, democratic practices. Elites also exercise ‘democratic control’ by managing the discourses that dominate the public sphere. They can thus affect the pool of socially-approved knowledges and preferences that are available to individuals draw upon as they seek to understand, evaluate and react to the circumstances of daily life. This cultural domination is secured through the control of the means by which these discourses are dispersed. This includes the mass media and the institutions of socialization, such as schools and universities. Through these vehicles, the elite can disseminate the orienting beliefs and values of democratic culture. Even if these are transformed into mere slogans rehearsed by citizenry that does not fully understand what they are saying, they are nonetheless reified and accepted as true and right.
I can attest to that: By the age of 14, I knew for sure that Athens won.
At the same time, this cultural control also allows elites to exclude and delegitimize contrary or system threatening discourses (as stupid or evil) and derogate those who advocate them (as fanatics, ignorant, unbalanced and generally ‘deplorable’).
Again, the citizenry may not understand why these alternative discourses are misguided or wrong, but they will nonetheless reject them. In these ways, democratic elites can manipulate the mass of citizens so that they mimic, even if inadequately, democratic understandings and practices. Thus even though democracy is burdened by an inadequate citizenry, the elite’s exercise of power can sustain the democratic system and hold potentially attractive alternatives, such as right wing populism, at bay.
I’m afraid I think that may be right.
I used to think otherwise, but I now see very clearly that as soon as the elite loses control, certain systems of thought immediately reappear.
I used to think, for example, that anti-Semitism was simply alien to American sensibilities. I didn’t experience a whiff of it when I was growing up.
I believed that the reason it was so taboo was that the Holocaust had indelibly impressed itself on the American psyche. But I now suspect my peers had just been shamed out of saying anti-Semitic things by our elite. You can’t say those things about Jews. If you do, you’re evil.
I’m not sure that the deeper historical lesson, the reason one should not say those things, ever fully impressed itself on the majority of Americans—and why would it? They’re not Jews. The Holocaust took place in another country, to other people. And now, as far as young people are concerned, it’s something that happened centuries ago.
To declare oneself a Nazi remains highly taboo. Nazis are understood to be evil. But the taboo seems largely to be against a particular aesthetic, one that involves barking in German and wearing a Swastika.
I’d guess the images in the video below are pretty much the sum of what “Nazi” means to a majority of young Americans:
I assume that version of the video was made by a young Trump supporter. Perhaps a nice, hard-working kid in Michigan. Maybe someone who graduated from high school and thinks one day he’ll go to school part-time to learn how to code. I’m making all this up off the top of my head. But it’s perfectly plausible, and my point is that he doesn’t have time to learn much about Nazis, nor is it reasonable to expect him to. So why on earth would he have enough of a feel for Nazism to grasp that Trump more closely and more relevantly resembles Hitler than Trump’s political opponents do—or to grasp that his video would look highly (unintentionally) ironic to someone like me?
Why should he know that?
Why do I know more about Nazis than he does? First, different generation. It’s direct family history. Knowledge about the Nazis and how they came to power and what was written and said about them at the time and what Nazis believed and why they believed it and everything that might possibly warn me that a Nazi, or anything like a Nazi, is nearby—that’s practical folk learning in my family, like “How do I field dress a moose?”
Second, I’m an elite. Or there’s some overlap, anyway.
It makes much more sense that someone like me would read, study, and carefully consider every definition of the fascist minimum and the fascist maximum and the fascist matrix and the features of fascism and Ur-fascism, that I would find fascism fascinating. It makes sense that I can tell you—and I will have reasons for telling you, reasons grounded in a coherent and consistent system of thought—that Donald Trump’s palingenetic form of populist nationalism is a lot closer to Nazism than Robert Mueller’s dutiful legal textualism. (Trump isn’t a Nazi or a fascist. He’s a right-wing populist. But that’s closer to being a fascist than the person who made that video grasps.)
Whoever made the video doesn’t know much about the Nazis—or fascists, or right-populists, or authoritarians—except that he knows the Nazis looked like the actors in that video, and if you don’t look like that, relax, you’re not a Nazi. (But “Nazi” is a good insult to hurl at anyone you don’t like.)
There’s no reason for anyone but a member of the elite to bother learning any of that.
Still, someone in a democracy does need to know it, because otherwise people do seem to find that dangerous, nationalist, authoritarian dreck awfully attractive, and while we don’t quite know how dangerous that is, we probably don’t want to find out.
But since our elites have lost their authority, we’re in a bit of a pickle.
Back to Rosenberg. “Why,” he asks, “are democracies faltering now in the face of the challenge of a right wing populism alternative?” He rehearses the usual explanations:
… economic decline, growing economic inequality and changing demographics as trends that have, in the eyes of the people, undermined the legitimacy of elites and with them, the institutions they run and the vision of economic, social and political life they advocate.
Yes, I’m nodding, that sounds right. And losing one war after another didn’t help, either.
I think these factors are influential, but their effects must be understood as symptoms of the underlying structural condition I have described. Emerging in the context of a structurally strong system of governance, these destabilizing fluctuations in its ability to deliver specific outcomes would not produce threats to the system itself. A truly democratic citizenry would naturally regard the aforementioned developments as important problems to be addressed, but in a manner that is consistent with democratic understandings and practices.
That’s true, actually. Think about it. If people really just loved democracy, we’d all be holding spontaneous citizens’ councils right now to crunch our national budget numbers together and figure out how to economize this month. We’d be diligently studying and discussing the Department of Defense’s two-volume history of the war in Iraq so we could all figure out exactly where we went wrong and avoid doing it again. We’d be sharing our favorite ideas for legislative compromises on Twitter.
But that’s not quite what we’re doing.
Alternatively, even where the citizenry is inadequately democratic, an authoritative and powerful democratic elite would be able to control people’s perceptions of those problems and the range of possible ways of dealing with them so that particular politicians or policies are rejected, rather than system of democratic governance. Indeed in strong, well established democracies like the US, this has historically been the case. So earlier, even more severe economic declines, equivalent levels of economic inequality and periods of large scale immigration, such as those of the first part of the 20th century, did not threaten the viability of democracy itself.
I’d say, “He’s being a bit dramatic. I still expect Trump to leave—on his feet—when citizens vote him out.” I do. But we also have shocking statistics like this:
These are not the responses you’d see in a flourishing democracy:
Seriously, everyone? You’d trust the military and a sinister, massive transnational corporation that surveils you everywhere you go above every other entity—while the political parties and the Congress for which you voted are your least trusted?
I guess I can’t dismiss his argument as overwrought.
He attributes the breakdown to the elites’ loss of control over the media, specifically:
In the last several decades, something more basic or fundamental seems to be transpiring. In the advanced industrialized societies of the west and particularly in the US, the structural forces of modernity described earlier, such as those of the economy, science, technology and globalization along with that of democratic governance itself, have been increasingly successful in supplanting more traditional forms of organizing everyday social life. This has entailed an ever greater dismantling of hierarchical structures and a de-legitimation of conventional or traditional authority. One crucial aspect of this ongoing process is the increasingly loss of elite control over the public sphere.
Partly, the diminution of elite cultural power is a practical matter of dismantling of the centralized technologies of mass communication that facilitated the elite control of the messages that circulated in the public sphere. Structured by capitalist and democratic forces, the internet, the computer and the smartphone have been developed in ways that give individuals both an increasing range of choices and a greater ability to express preferences in a very public way. Now an alienated, uneducated, working class ranch hand living in east Texas has access not only to the information disseminated by the major television channels or the national newspapers controlled by elites, but also to a myriad of smaller, more varied and less culturally sanctioned sources. Consequently, he or she [sic] is now able to choose which messages he or she wants to receive. ... With this democratization of the public sphere, elites have become less able to control the messages that are disseminated and therefore they are less able to assert the dominance of democratic views and to exclude of anti-democratic alternatives. …
The institutionally conferred authority of political leaders, experts, employers and even parents has been undermined. In the process, expression has become increasingly free and all voices have been increasingly equalized. Thus not only is our east Texan able to broadcast his beliefs as widely as those of senior journalists and professors, his views have an equal claim to validity as his more ‘institutionally advantaged’ counterparts.
He’s proven it scientifically. Democracy is doomed.
In sum, the ever-more democratic conditions of everyday life and the ever-more democratic structuring of the public sphere have undermined the essentially undemocratic power and authority of ‘democratic’ elites to manage that critical structural weakness of democratic governance, a citizenry that lacks the cognitive and emotional capacities to think, feel, and act in ways required. Instead, in the increasingly open, free and equal sphere of public life characteristic of the contemporary western democracies like the United States, democratic elites are forced to compete with opponents, most significantly right wing populists, who offer a message that is intrinsically more comprehensible and satisfying to a recipient public hungry for meaning, security, and direction.
Considering the current conditions and trajectory of democratic politics, the conclusion is clear. Even, or perhaps particularly, in well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail. The alternative that will supersede democracy, right wing populism, is also clear. It offers the understandings the people can readily comprehend, the values they can readily appreciate, and the direction of speech and action they can readily follow. This triumph of right wing populism over democracy was averted in early 20th century because of a felicitous combination of a circumstantial distribution of power between nations and, ironically, the insufficiently democratized way of life of any one of them. However such a happy result is unlikely now.
Ah. Substack is telling me I have to wrap it up: This is all too long for a newsletter, apparently. (I didn’t realize there was a limit.)
So I’ll finish this tomorrow. I’ll explain what I think of all of this over the weekend.
Stay tuned and subscribe if you want to know whether I think he’s right. Can democracy be saved? Find out this weekend, with your host, Claire Berlinski. Signing off for now. Sleep well.