Is Democracy Doomed? Part II
Probably not yet, but let's not take it for granted
Welcome to new readers who are just tuning in. You’ll want to start with Part I, in which I examine the claim, made most recently by the political scientist Shawn Rosenberg, that democracies are inherently doomed.
But if Rosenberg is correct—and he does appeal to quite a considerable and convincing body of research—it’s unlikely you’ll actually go to Part I, read it carefully, weigh the arguments, check the sources, and really mull over each of his separate claims. You probably won’t ask yourself whether each claim is true, or whether the argument contains suppressed premises, and if so whether those suppressed premises are true, and finally, whether his conclusion is truly inevitable given his premises.
No, that’s not the way you think. If Rosenberg is right, all you really want to know is whether Rosenberg is:
A. An effete academic elite Jewish libtard who can’t deal with Trump; or
B. A racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic custodian of the Zionist patriarchy; or
C. Right—in which case, will New Zealand be okay? How much does a New Zealand passport cost?
Assuming Rosenberg—and Homer, Plato, Thucydides, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and pretty much everyone who’s thought about it—are correct about human nature, you’d all just be much happier if I just do your thinking for you.
I’m happy to do that. (I think your elites owe you at least that much, given how badly we’ve let you down.)
So. The correct answer is .4 A, .12 B, and .3 C.
And if we use the Antoine equation, wherein p=vapor pressure and T=temperature—
—then just do a few simple algebraic manipulations, we find, as you can see below, that we’re not necessarily doomed. But we’re not looking great, either, and you should vote for Amy Klobuchar to be on the safe side.
Glad to be of help.
Please don’t throw me into that gulag. You’re going to need me if this gets even more difficult. You can’t go in there without a political philosopher!
I’m puzzled that I can’t find a single Amy Klobuchar commercial online. That’s not a good sign for her campaign, is it? Think she’s running out of money already?
Anyway, the problem with Rosenberg’s argument is this. He claims we have new evidence that citizens do not “think in the rational, reflective, integrative way suggested by democratic theory.”
But whose democratic theory is this, precisely? Certainly not the American founders. Every aspect of their constitutional deliberations reflects their understanding that the public, left to its own democratic devices, will succumb to the fate of those “ancient and modern confederacies.” Demagogues and mobs will swiftly take over.
This is why Madison insisted the government be devised like a clever trap.
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections of human nature?
Thomas Jefferson certainly agreed.
In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution. [my emphasis]
John Adams didn’t ascribe to the view that citizens might think in a rational, reflective, integrative way. All men would be tyrants if they could, he wrote:
This is the great and important and melancholy Truth that is conveyd to us by the old Maxim, that I have chosen for the Motto of this Paper, that all Men would be Tyrants if they could.—The Meaning of that Maxim is not so uncharitable, as to suppose that all the sons of Adam, are so many abandond Knaves regardless of all Morality and Right, who would violate their Consciences, and oppress, mangle, burn, butcher and destroy their fellow Men, in direct opposition to their Judgments. It means, in my opinion no more than this plain simple observation upon human Nature which every Man, who has ever read a Treatise upon Morality, or conversd with the World or endeavord to estimate the comparative strength of the different springs of Action in his own Mind, must have often made, vist. that the selfish Passions, are stronger than the social, and that the former would always prevail over the latter in any Man, left to the natural Emotions of his own Mind, unrestrained and uncheckd by other Power extrinsic to himself.—i. e. that any Man, the best, the wisest, the brightest you can find, would after all external awe, and Influence should be taken away i.e. after he should be intrusted with sufficient Power, would soon be brought to think, by the strong Effervescence of his selfish Passions against the weaker Efforts of his social in opposition to them, that he was more important, more deserving, knowing and [necessary?] than he is, that he deserves more respect and Reverence Wealth and Power than he has, and that he was doing but his Duty in Punishing with great Cruelty those who should esteem him no higher and shew him no more Reverence and give him no more Money or Power than he deservd.
Adams’ view of human nature is much the same as Rosenberg’s, really:
Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never. …
Democracy is chargeable with all the blood that has been spilled for five and twenty years. Napoleon and all his Generals were but Creatures of Democracy as really as Rienzi Theodore, Mazzianello, Jack Cade or Wat Tyler. This democratical, Hurricane, Inundation, Earthquake, Pestilence call it which you will, at last arroused and alarmed all the World and produced a Combination unexampled, to prevent its further Progress.
George Washington’s “democratic theory” involved a dim view of human nature, too. (And I note that the media’s coverage of Europe hasn’t improved since, either.)
For the several articles of intelligence with which you have been so good as to furnish me, and for your sentimts. on European politics, I feel myself very much obliged; on these I can depend. Newspaper accounts are too sterile, vague and contradictory, on which to form any opinion, or to claim even the smallest attention.
The account of and observations which you have made of the policy and practice of Great Britain at the other Courts of Europe, respecting these States, I was but too well informed and convinced of before. Unhappily for us, though their accounts are greatly exaggerated, yet our conduct has laid the foundation for them. It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act right; but then evil of this nature seldom fail to work their own cure. It is to be lamented, nevertheless, that the remedies are so slow, and that those, who may wish to apply them seasonably are not attended to before they suffer in person, in interest and in reputation. I am not without hopes, that matters will take a more favorable turn in the foederal Constitution. The discerning part of the community have long since seen the necessity of giving adequate powers to Congress for national purposes; and the ignorant and designing must yield to it ere long.
“If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy,” wrote Hamilton.
I can find many more examples. The written record documenting the American founders’ distrust of democracy is extensive. It’s fashionable now to dismiss these concerns as apologetics for slavery or the retention of personal privilege, but the category of people now most apt to be cynical about the motivations of the Founders are also those most likely to agree with them.
In my view, the question that should concern us is not whether recent research in human cognition has given us a new understanding of human nature. It hasn’t. Everyone who’s considered human beings carefully has concluded that human nature is not suitable for higher-order cognitive or emotional function. Many parliamentarians have considered their citizen’ demands, I am sure, and come to feel a weary sympathy with this sentiment:
Of course human nature is ill-suited to democracy. So much so that a single adventure in direct democracy can overnight transform a flourishing and powerful modern nation into hapless backwood of feuding and ungovernable half-wits who aren’t even sure how they’ll feed themselves.
Fortunately, American institutions have been built to survive our enthusiasm for “democracy.” The United States is not at all entirely democratic. That is a good and reassuring thing. We probably have a good deal of ruin left in us.
Fortunately, too, the complaint that the European Union is undemocratic has at least some truth to it.
So how long it will take any given democracy to “waste and murder itself” remains an open question.
Should we be particularly more concerned about the end of democracy now than we were fifty years ago? Rosenberg hasn’t quite persuaded me that we ought to be. Our institutions were designed to be truly democracy-proof.
If we make it through this, though, it will be thanks to the Founders.
The democratization of the media that Rosenberg finds particularly dangerous is probably self-correcting, given time. This article, written by a researcher at DARPA, again confirms Rosenberg’s point. People really will believe any absurd thing they read or see on the Internet, so long as it reinforces their prejudices.
But I think her subsidiary point is important, too. People—young ones, especially—are rapidly figuring out that everything you see on the Internet isn’t necessarily so:
I asked my teenage son why he thought people fell for these awful fakes while I was working so hard on the effort to detect better ones, his answer was straightforward: “You can’t trust anything on the internet. Of course I wouldn’t think it’s real, because nothing is.”
I was surprised by his response, and suppressed a motherly comment about cynicism when I realized he has grown up digesting imagery at a pace unmatched in human history. Skepticism is not only healthy for that level of inundation, but likely key to surviving and navigating modern media.
For my generation and generations before, particularly those of us who saw the transition from film to digital photography, the trust in the image is there to be broken. For my son and subsequent generations raised on media, the trust, it seems, was never there in the first place.
The species of credulity that persuades people that Mueller found no evidence of obstruction and Elvis is still alive seems to be more common among older people.
This is probably because when they were growing up, the media was a reliable source of information—and the President a much more reliable one, too. But that generation will be gone, soon, replaced by one less credulous. When the younger generation acquires more purchasing power, it will probably be curious about what is and isn’t true, and it will probably hire a new elite to tell them. These people, too, will be busy professionals who won’t have the time to read the Mueller Report, or the new object of the controversy du jour. They’ll just want someone to tell them what it really said
So once again, the alienated ranch hand in Texas to whom Rosenberg appeals will be consigned to the social margins. He will be understood by the majority of society to be a deplorable who can’t afford to buy the truth.
This epistemic chaos can’t last forever. It’s human nature to be easily fooled, but it’s also human nature to want to know the truth. People will soon be paying, I suspect, for news sources that prove themselves reliable.
So yes, I see a number of ways we might make it through.
But I also see a number of ways we might not.
I’ll tell you all about them this tomorrow.
And good night!