The Impossibility of Democracy, Part II: The Fourth Estate

I should point out that these arguments were put forward before the election of Barack Obama.

Most Americans are convinced that they live in a democracy.  Who can blame them?  They have been told nothing else throughout their lives.  Until not too long ago, there had been a remnant of conservatives who insisted that the Founding Fathers had established a republic, but the constant jeers from the Leftist Mainstream have apparently forced them to drop this affectation.  We're all democrats now, especially the Republicans.  What, precisely, this means, few of us are prepared to say, although there are as many theories of democracy as there are professors of political science, but none of them has gained much currency outside the little clique of dissertation students who conspire to pretend that Prof. Unwirklicheit is another Hegel.

Neither terms, republic nor democracy, are used in any fixed sense, and I am not going to waste time and paper on another useless experiment in redefinition.  "Republic" commonly has been used to signify a legitimate government under the rule of law, not subject to the whim of an arbitrary ruler.  In this broadest sense even a constitutional monarchy or empire might be regarded as a republic (or, to use the richer Greek expression, a politeia); however, since it is conventional to equate republicanism with opposition to monarchy in any form, the term republic is generally applied to regimes in which positions of authority are open to some portion of the people.

Carrying this line of reasoning farther, a democracy is usually taken to be a government of law in which there are few, if any restrictions on who can exercise power.  All of this is more or less conventional and more or less true, but scarcely relevant to any known human experience.  By now most serious students of politics are familiar with the principles of the great Italians--Machiavelli, Mosca, and Roberto Michels (admittedly an adoptive Italian)--who have taught us to look at regimes not bathed in the warm affective glow of propaganda and myth but in the cold daylight of power.  According to Michels' famous Iron Law of Oligarchy, all regimes--whatever official form they may take--are oligarchic; the king must rely on the loyalty of barons and administrators to carry out his wishes, and a democracy inevitably must trust a leadership class to form policy, direct military operations, and engross the national wealth for its own purposes--the last of these being the chief purpose of government.

Michel's Iron Law applies to the true democracy of Athens, where strongmen like Pericles and Cleon used the army and the assembly as power-bases, and to fictive democracies--both the so-called representative democracies of the modern west and the so-called people's democracies that persist in China and Cuba.  But if, in fact, the people never rule, then what is the good, even in theory, of thinking about democracy, except in Machiavellian terms?

That is a question often put to me by friends whose otherwise good minds have been affected by political theory, because, along side of the institutions of fictive democracy--elections, parties, rights legislation--there is the reality of American life or, at least, of some American life.  In the days of Andrew Jackson, the word democracy did not always refer to a theory or system of government; it sometimes was used to designate the common people, the classes who had no particular wealth or privilege.  These were no mere serfs or peasants; they were independent and substantial members of the community.  They owned land and shops; they provided for their own families; they contributed to the support of their churches and to the relief of the poor; they expected nothing from the rich, or from the state whose representatives were almost always wealthy, and in return they were not expected to tip their hat to the squire.

A man with a good-sized farm could considere himself a gentleman and stand for parish elections, but he generally had better things to do than to meddle in state politics or national elections.  For the Jeffersonian, the deeper meaning of democracy had little connection with the nice formalities of majority rule or constitutional federalism, and everything to do with minding his own business and getting on in the world on his own terms.  He might believe in the principle of majority rule, but only in appropriate circumstances: A father did not poll wife and children for their opinions on what crops to plant or ask family members or government officials what price to charge for the shoes he made, and he never dreamed that the entire population of the United States could be polled to decide whether a county might teach religion in its schools or restrict the franchise to free white males.  For Jeffersonians, democracy did not mean the right of a general majority to oppress particular minorities--on this point Calhoun is the truest of the Jeffersonians--but it referred to the right of the little communities of family and parish and county to govern their own affairs without the intrusion of well-intentioned (at least they always claim to be well-intentioned) outsiders.

The tragedy of American history is that the theory and the practice of democracy were at odds with each other, almost from the very first.  The theory leads to the Jacobinism of Tom Paine and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were quite willing to meddle in other people's business in the name of democracy, while the practice of everday democracy is exemplified in community schools, town meetings, quilting bees, and committees of vigilance--all of which would be outlawed by theoretically democratic legislation.  Just as linguistic and literary theories undermine real language and real literature, so democratic theory has subverted the practical democracy of everyday life.

In the old democracy of America, O.J. Simpson might have been executed for marrying a white woman, but--setting the question of race aside--had he not been divorced, he probably would have been acquitted (if he had ever been brought to trial in the first place) for killing an adulteress.  Everyday democracies do not intrude into the household, even in a case of murder, where it is an affair of family honor.  Today, on the other hand, men are put on trial for sexually assaulting their wives, even if the couple are Christians who must acknowledge and pay what St. Paul called the conjugal debt, and on the theory of equality, no one has the right to mind his own business, so long as a majority in Congress, elected by a tiny fraction of the population in gerrymandered districts in elections whose rules are rigged by the two parties and whose outcomes are determined by bribery, is induced (bullied or bribed) to pass a bill.  In many cases, Congress is not even consulted by the federal judges and bureaucrats who have taken law and public administration into their own hands.

When political science professors, whether Marxist theoreticians or Neoconservative law professors in the Federalist Society,  speak of democracy, they do not mean either everyday democracy or even majority rule; what they have in mind is the vast coercive apparatus of a state that regulates every moment of our private and public lives according to a theory that no one understands.  When, in a classic work of obfuscation (Political Man), Prof. Lipsett faces the light of day, he concedes that high voter turnout is not necessarily a good thing for democracy.  Similarly, when the Trilateral Commission, in a report on The Crisis in Democracy, spoke of the postwar American regime, their version of democracy was a conspiracy of elite classes that might have been dreamed up by Robert Welch:

For twenty years after World War II presidents oeprated with the coopareation of a series of informal governing coaltions.  Truman made a point of bringing a sustnatial number of nonpartisan soldiers, Republican bankers, and Wall Street lawyers into his adminstration....Eisenhower in part inehrited this coalition and was in part almost its creaton.  He also mobilized a substantial number of midwestern businessmen into his administration and established close and effective working relationships with the Democratic leadership of Congress....

Both Johnson and his successor were viewed with a certain degree of suspicion by many of the more liberal and intellectual elements which might normally contribute their support to the administration.  The Vietnam war and, to a lesser degree, racial issues divided elite groups as well as the mass public.  In addition, the number and variety of groups whose support might be necessary had increased tremendously by the 1960's.  Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.  By the mid-1960's, the soures of pwoer in society had diversified tremendously, and this was no longer possible.

This report, authored in 1975 by Michael Crozier, Samuel Huntingdon, and Joji Watanuki (like Herodotus I include the names to preserve the memory of infamous men), suggests that by the 1970's the main political problem, at least as politics is conceived of by the Trilateral Commission, was how to reconstitute the stable governing coalition of the Truman and Eisenhower years.  The Vietnam war, among other things, had split the elite class, opening up American politicals to the kind of dissidence and protest that had characterized labor struggles and populist movements in the transitional period between the Civil War and the New Deal.  The task ahead was to make the country (and the world) safe for "a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers."

How they did it would be a long story, but the political economist Mancur Olson has done a superb job of analyzing much of the phenomenon of interest group politics, which is at the heart of modern democratic systems.  However, the fact that they did it cannot be doubted by anyone who compares the public reaction to Vietnam to the public responses first to war against Iraq and the war against the Bosnian Serbs.

There was no substantial opposition to these lawless and brutal wars, neither from the political class that runs the government nor from the information class that controls the media and the universities.  And there is not a drop of irony, when Presidents Bush and Clinton--and Obama's Secretary of State--described their dirty little campaigns in the language of global democracy.  If the fictive support of 250,000,000 Americans can justify forced busing, affirmative action, the ban on school prayer, and the rights of AIDS-infected homosexual doctors to practice medicine in public hospitals, just imagine what our ruling class will be able to do, when it speaks in the name of a global population of  billions.  Indeed, to insert more recent instances, the global response to COVID has made it clear that they can virtually shut down moral responsibilities of everyday life.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Tom,
    This is rich in many ways but let me point out just two quotes I liked plus an example.
    no one has the right to mind his own business, so long as a majority in Congress, elected by a tiny fraction of the population in gerrymandered districts in elections whose rules are rigged by the two parties and whose outcomes are determined by bribery, is induced (bullied or bribed) to pass a bill. In many cases, Congress is not even consulted by the federal judges and bureaucrats who have taken law and public administration into their own hands.“
    When political science professors, whether Marxist theoreticians or Neoconservative law professors in the Federalist Society, speak of democracy, they do not mean either everyday democracy or even majority rule; what they have in mind is the vast coercive apparatus of a state that regulates every moment of our private and public lives according to a theory that no one understands. “
    The example I relate is a retired marine who wanted to coach high school football. He was a grateful type, so win or lose after every game he would lead his team in a brief prayer of thanks. Someone complained so school instructed he could pray but must pray alone and leave the school and young team out of his old private superstitions. He willingly complies. But some one saw him praying, however briefly and by himself after a game, and was also evidently offended. School says ok now you can still pray after the game but you must insure nobody ever sees you praying. He calls calf rope, and is let go. He and his service to an ungrateful country is soon forgotten. And the jig was up in our mostly “Supreme” Court before the poor fool was ever born let alone before his voluntary enlistment. “Bent on ordering every moment of public and private life.”

  2. Avatar Dot says:

    Trump has been stripped of everything related to communication. He is denied access to all social media access including u-tube. We can thank Biden and his totalitarian regime for that. They are out to punish not only Trump but his 72,000,000 followers.

  3. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    A few folks who have read Milton will
    often quote “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven,” as authority for making things up as they go along or as a theory for human freedom. The Left is especially convicted of this falsehood ignoring the truth that Milton had put those words in the devil’s mouth.

  4. Avatar theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming, this is a much needed article, thank you for your awesome delivery of our current state in politics, culture, and imperialism furthered by support of mercenary culture.

  5. Avatar Gregory Fogg says:

    Haven’t heard the term ” calf rope ” since my father died.