The Impossibility of Democracy, Part I: Democratic Delusions

This is a series of pieces, rescued from the oblivion of my computer and the malevolence of allies.  I'll be rewriting and rearranging as I go.

We live by our opinions.  While other people's opinions are called illusions, if they pose no threat to our interests, and prejudices if they do, we call our own opinions "truth" or fundamental principles, if we are fools; if we are more cautious we prefer to speak of theories and hypotheses.  In fact, most theories are--so far as we are concerned--mere opinions about which we know virtually nothing.  We think that a roughly spherical earth orbits around the sun, but how many of us would know how to go about testing such a theory?  I am told that sailors who navigate by the stars are still operating according to the Ptolemaic theory, which is more convenient.

We laugh at the superstitions of peasants who believe that copulating in the field ensures fertility, but peasants are less subject, than civilized men, to the illusions that render human beings unfit to carry out the duties of everyday life.  The peasant, like the sailor and the hunter, is forever rubbing up against the brutality of nature, whose ways he has to observe, if he is to survive.  His head may be filled with magical and religious nonsense,  but he is a hard-headed realist who can read the seasons in the constellations and the flights of birds.  He may, upon arising, smooth out the wrinkles from his bed to prevent a witch from working magic on the impression he has left, but he knows which herbs will cure a headache and which will poison his neighbor's goat.  He knows that neighbors may be needed in a pinch, but he also knows that his most immediate duties are not to neighbors, much less to aliens, but to family and kinfolks.  He also knows that he holds his property and possessions in trust from the ancestors, whom he venerates, for the benefit of the descendants in whom he puts his hopes.

We moderns, on the other hand, live in a world of fantasies, some of which have a scientific validity that makes technology possible, while others are more ludicrous and less satisfying than sympathetic magic.  The peasant teaches his children the facts and habits that will be necessary to their survival: how to speak their language and tell a story, how to make an arrow or a broom, what deeds won ancestors their glory and what brought them into disgrace.  We, on the other hand, send our children to school where they are taught theories of English grammar, theories of literary interpretation (New Criticism, Reader Response, feminist interpretation--it is all the same), and scientific theories they will never understand, much less apply.   If they are told anything about their ancestors, it will only be to vilify them as a set of racist brutes who have made this earth a hell for women, children, and every color in the ethnic rainbow.

Many theories are practically harmless: what difference does it make, if we are wrong about phlogiston or quantum mechanics?  But many of them have the effect of clouding our minds, of blocking reality, of damaging our capacity to live in the world effectively.  Grammatical theories, for example, as taught in school have excluded the teaching of English as a practical technique of expression; literary theories prevent us from enjoying fiction and poetry and from applying it to our own lives.  Psychological and sociological theories--rooted in nothing more solid than verbal playfulness--may even corrupt our morals and stunt our sense of responsibility.

Among the most dangerous of our theoretical illusions are the political fantasies that can be summed up in words like democracy, equality, and natural rights; the principle of one man, one vote and the American tradition of self-government.  No one who lives in the world with his eyes open can actually believe any of this, and I used to think that the American faith in democracy was one of those bits of mass hypocrisy that we all agree to accept as a matter of form, although we can barely keep from laughing, as Cicero says of the augurs taking the omens.   That is what I used to think in my days of youthful idealism, but I was wrong.  Americans have so little contact with reality that they are permitted to go through life like blind men who do not know they are blind, who think they can see but have no knowledge of what sight is.

Every once in a while, though, the country is rocked by some scandal or emergency.  We call these periods a "crisis".  Now a crisis is nothing more than an event that challenges our theoretical assumptions, an occasion of doubt, a chink in the dark prison of illusion through which a feeble ray of daylight streams.  When the priests of Baal could not persuade their god to start a fire, that was a crisis; when Louis XVI tried to raise taxes and was told he did not have the power to do so, that was a crisis; when murderers go free, because they have the money to hire all the lawyers in the world, that is not a crisis, because everyone knows that there has always been one law for the rich and another for the poor, but when the rich murderer is black, and the verdict--and therefore his crime--is justified by an overwhelming number of black Americans, then some Americans begin to doubt the political illusions on which the regime rests.

Our fundamental political illusion goes by the name of political equality.  "America is a country where every man can grow up to be President" and if not President, at least dogcatcher or juryman.  Free elections and trial by jury were the institutional expressions of our legal and political equality.   The predictable black response to this pious fraud is:  a black man can't get justice in this country; a black man has never had political equality with whites.  This is true, albeit in a trivial sense.  When conservatives try to respond that four decades of civil rights legislation and welfare programs have eliminated injustice, they are not only wrong, they are missing the point.  The poor and powerless will never have full access to the political institutions that are owned by the rich and powerful.  When the disabilities of race and culture are added to the condition of poverty, the result is an underclass whose members will only make their way to the top, if they are both talented and motivated.  Whatever trust we are to put in race and IQ correlations, the black experiences both in Africa and in North America give no indication of the kinds of abilities that are required for success in the modern world, and since the 1960's, the welfare state has constituted an additional disincentive to black achievement.

This is not to say that modern civilization is particularly admirable or that we should particularly esteem the virtues of an executive or technocrat.   In Joyce Cary's fine novel Mr. Johnson, it is made very plain that the African hero--lazy and dishonest as he is--is, in human terms, the superior of the English colonial officials.  It is equally clear that Johnson could never, by his own unaided efforts, succeed in that colonial bureaucracy.

Of course white "racism" contributes to black failure, but virtually everyone in this world is either a racist or a hypocrite. Indeed most of us are racists and victims of racism.  It is normal and healthy to prefer your own group to strangers, and the liberal theory that tells us that xenophobia is wrong only poisons us with self-hatred.  But even in a color blind modern society, many blacks would not do as well as, say, Sicilians or Jews, and the inevitable result would be a political and legal system that appeared to privilege members of the Mafia and B'nai Brith, when it was really only the age-old story of wealth and power.  Even in the most purely republican societies, there is no way of preventing a rich celebrity from buying either a public office or a verdict.  If we wish to protest, we shall be told--and quite correctly--that we are naive.  "Be angry at the sun for setting," as Robinson Jeffers observes.

The acquittal of a wealthy entertainer like O.J. Simpson, in a culture that reveres actors and athletes, is hardly an occasion of surprise, though it must be said that in a better time, even George Washington would have been lynched out of the White House, if the evidence against him were as solid as it was against Mr. Simpson.  What is hard for so many middle-class Americans to stomach is the realization that they, despite the burdensome taxes they pay (a majority of our income goes, one way or another, to government) constitute a legal and political underclass.

We have all known, for some time, that the children of European Americans would be discriminated against in hiring, college placement and scholarships, that our culture and our identity were not protected by a regime that had criminalized insensitivity to race and perversity.  With cases like that of  Simpson or the hundreds, thousands of looters and rioters set free by the criminal justice system,  we have to realize that the jury system itself--along with other Anglo-American ethnic artifacts, like the prohibition on double jeapordy--was corrupted by ethnic politics.

For many years, I have been arguing that republican equality was only a temporary phase between systems based on status.  In earlier times, the condition of nobility conferred both privileges and obligations, and if a nobleman was killed,  the price for his life was higher than it was for a yeoman or a serf.  Today, again, human lives are not equal: a child in the womb may be murdered with impunity, and a large majority of the black population apparently believes that the robbery, beating, and murder of white people is justified on the grounds of the general racism of American society.

The political establishment--including President of the United States, Congressional leaders of both parties, and federal judges--concurs. It would, however,  be a vulgar mistake to conclude that blacks had become a privileged class within the United States.  They do, of course, absorb a disproportionately high amount of welfare disbursements; they do commit over half the violent crimes in the country, and while in most of these cases other blacks are the victims, it is also true that 90% of the victims of interracial crime are white.  But no one who visits a black neighborhood can possibly imagine that these people constitute an elite class.   They are serfs, just like the rest of us, whose lives are only valuable insofar as they serve the needs and interests of their rulers.

The use of foreigners and ethnic minorities as instruments of terror and oppression is hardly a new strategy.  The Turks used Albanians against Serbs and Kurds against Armenians; the English sent Hessian soldiers against the American colonists, partly because they could rely on the Germans not to feel kinship with the rebels.  Aristotle and Herodotus both testify that it was the practice of ancient tyrants to champion the rights of the weak against the strong, because the strong--male property-owners capable of bearing arms--posed a threat to their authority.  The inability of the regime to suppress ethnic gangs--black, chicano, Asian--would be surprising, if we did not already know that gang violence serves the interest of a ruling class that would like to establish a national police force.

There is a simple rule in politics: There are no exceptions to the general principles of human nature.  If it is a general principle that members of rich and powerful families will always work to serve their own interest and that of their friends, then it is impossible that Franklin Roosevelt would have betrayed the rich in order to build social democracy.  Read John T. Flynn on  FDR's NRA.  It is their addiction to theories that have blinded modern Americans to the realities that are around them.  Stalin and his favorite scientist Lysenko thought you could produce cold-resistant strains of wheat by exposing them to cold.  Neo-Darwinist scientists who knew better were simply eliminated.  The experiment could be tried, over and over, only because a few people were in charge of organizing the agricultural production of an enormous empire.  If a simple peasant put his trust in a false theory, he would either wise up quickly or starve to death.

In simpler times, the peasants may have loved or hated their king, but they did not pretend to themselves that they had equal rights with kings and barons.  If a liberal aristocrat had tried to convince a peasant of the ancien regime that he enjoyed political equality with the rich, the poor man would have been outraged at the imposture and assumed, probably correctly, that the nobleman was after his land or his daughter.

Today, however, the peasant's descendants in republican France or democratic America, willingly hand over their daughters and their land to the aristocrats who have bewildered them with political fantasies.  An exaggeration?  How many working-class Americans actually own, unmortgaged, any property that can give them economic security?  How many of them are able to protect the chastity of their daughters either from the erotic propaganda of the public schools or from the young male predators who seduce and assault them?

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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

3 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    “…after his land or his daughter.” I laughed at loud at that one not sure why. I suppose it reminded me of my father when he would catch my sister watching MTV while “doing my homework, Dad!”
    …shame on both them.
    Shame on me for having just disgraced my family.
    But, sometimes a laugh leads a cry. We’ve been crying a lot recently here at TFF. Knowledge brings sadness i suppose, and the remembrance of sin. I’m told the word sin actually means “to miss the mark.” o How we’ve missed the mark. But how can you blame us when such a small degree of difference here and now at a ship’s wheel directly leads to waaaaay off way down the road. ..? Somewhere out there, right now, good men are doing nothing. What are we supposed to do? Move to Palermo?(not that everyone there is good, but it’s an option,yes?). Why did God make us this way ie lazy shaky marksmen?

  2. Ben says:


  3. Mark Atkins says:

    I am looking forward to reading part II and as many parts as may follow. I hope you will also write on the remedy or how it is that we should order our lives.